Through-Lines, Journeys, Poetry, Reflection

surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever I begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
and…            why
is there under that poem always
an other poem?
–Lucille Clifton

I have so many things that I want to say in this post. For those of you who do read, I thank you. I understand that there are a ton of these going up in this moment, which creates an interesting dynamic for a blog.

I want to take this opportunity to reflect on this semester through the course epigraph by Lucille Clifton. I see many different things in this poem that bring the course into view for me; almost like a reflecting pool where I can see myself at various stages of the semester. I’ll move through the poem as I move through the semester, traveling week by week and line by line simultaneously, unpacking my time in this course as I do so. Additionally, I’ll attempt to discuss the prevalence of a through line (which I believe is present in this poem) and, in closing, discuss GLOBE, or Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education,  and their discussion about the reflective process as it pertains to this assignment in particular.

Ready? Set? Go!

In the beginning of the semester, I was in a very different place than I currently am. I thought I was a pretty decent English major, earning decent grades and being intellectually challenged. I find myself reading the first words of the poem and seeing a reflection of myself in it: surely i am able. This describes beginning-of-semester-me very well indeed! I thought I was going to show up and learn a few things along the way, but I was aware that this course is a survey course at the 300 level, so I wasn’t terribly worried about what my grade would be at the end of the semester (to add context, this has been my only English course this semester, as I also had a substantial education block to complete for adolescent education this semester).

The course content began in a place that I also thought that I recognized from semesters past. We were reading some essays, a few narratives, and discussing them in context. I was a little bit thrown off when Dr. McCoy began her discussion on consent in class. I thought that surely I understood what consent was; a very Jeffersonian assumption. I read the next lines of the poem in this vein as they represent my opening weeks and the opening concepts we covered in class: “celebrating grass and how the blue / in the sky can flow green or red / and the waters lean against the / chesapeake shore like a familiar”. These lines read very quickly for me upon a first read, much like my thoughts on consent at the beginning of the semester. This isn’t to say that I hadn’t thought much about consent, as being an employee of Student Life for two years has taught me a lot in that respect, but I hadn’t thought of consent much more than within interpersonal relationships. Expanding the dialogue to include institutions of any size, the people within those institutions, and the different levels of severity is increasingly complex as the poem indicates. To describe my experience metaphorically, I was thinking essentially in black and white, while the epigraph mentions grass, blue skies, green and red, water, etc. All of these colors and characteristics are present in all that we do as humans.

This conversation was first initiated after the class had read “Bloodchild”, by Octavia Butler. Things really began to heat up when we discussed the afterword in light of an academic conference that Dr. McCoy told us about where a white man demanded to know if the story was about slavery, to which Butler responded “Bloodchild is not about slavery”. While I can’t capture all of the intricacies of how dialogue was delivered, the text discusses consent in a light I had not thought of before. The discussion on consent in situations of extreme power imbalances, as seen between T’Gatoi and Gan, Lien and the others. The text and corresponding class forced me to explore new thoughts to attempt to rectify this complex situation, yet I was left only with a few scribbled notes about myself and how I don’t necessarily need to be too scared walking home alone in the dark as a 6’3” male, while others potentially have to consider much more than I do. I don’t know how to rectify these things, but I know that they exist and I’m thinkING about consent differently now. Much like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I feel as if I have been turned to the “real light” on this concept (however much this is a plug-into-the-electrical-outlet moment is up to you to decide, but I remember a feeling of revelation in this class). Returning to the epigraph, Clifton appears to be teasing out the intricacies of poetry in these lines in a similar fashion to my unfinished (perhaps never-to-be-finished) thoughts about consent. I see myself expanding on consent and adding in course concepts to my discussion. As a through line, the poetry reveals the intricacies of the concepts that have been introduced throughout the course.

This ever-expanding aspect of the poem was a bit revolutionary in my mind, as it introduces many of our course concepts, like Eglash’s fractals, Parks’ repetition and revision, Brown’s African Quilting, Reagon’s straddling, etc. in a beautiful way. Not only does it take a few reads to understand these concepts in harmony, but that very process is represented in my relationship with the poem. I thought I understood the poem for the most part, but then I spent time and energy thinking about it. I realized that the colors and concepts have purpose together as well as aparts—that it takes disciplined re-reading to reach a level of understanding that is deep enough to reasonably begin to take it apart and look at each part in light of the whole.

I move forward in the poem while thinking about where my head is at. I am looking back at my notes and remembering where I was at this point. It’s interesting how we tend to think that we are always “in the know” until we realize that middle school was a terrible time, iterating again to realize that it was a terrible time for almost everyone, which is unifying in a sense. I digress. I was deep in the questioning stage at this point in the semester. I believed that I could challenge the concepts put forth and understand them in absolution rather than in flux, in the both/and. I remember one pivotal situation where I was intellectually put in my place, and I’m glad it happened here at an institution where it is safe and encouraged to put ideas out into existence to see what happens, rather than a situation that could have placed me in danger of some sort. The pivotal question I asked and had answered was along the lines of a debate about race in this intellectual sphere. I wondered if the African American presumption of racism in whites is racist in itself, therefore are African American scholars racist? McCoy responded with an interview where Toni Morrison responded to a similar question by reminding us that African Americans always have to find out who the safe ones are. Wow. This floored me. I don’t know how I hadn’t thought the question through to that degree before, but this opened my mind. The world turned into guerrilla warfare for people who are not white. I can’t deny that there are genuine racists out there even though I would not consider myself one. Am I to blame for this? Not necessarily. Consent is now in another new light. I’m not sure I can belabor Plato’s cave any more than I already have, but a similar feeling hit me during this interaction as well as the Bloodchild discussion.

I wanted to get to the bottom of consent and I wrote my thoughts in my notebook to prove this. Butler’s line from Bloodchild exemplifies my findings pretty well: “If these are adult things, accept the risk”. I find myself attempting to put an absolute answer down in a space that can only be made betternever perfect. Consent will never be entirely figured out, but it will surely be understood in greater detail through more iterations of discussion on the topic. As we approach infinity in time spent, we must approach an upper limit of our collective understanding on consent in all levels. I see this exemplified in Clifton’s poem as well in closing, “ “the trees wave their knotted branches / and…”      why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” These lines represent my own progression through the intricacies of consent as we discussed them in class. I particularly resonate strongly with the enjambment between “why / is there”it brings up an important question: is there even an other poem? Is there more to get out of the English language than we have already gotten? Assuming this is answered affirmatively, repeat and reiterate by adding the why: why do people always have to write poetry? Why must we always discuss the same things? These questions carry more meaning when they are first accessed through a recursive process that deems them worthy of being asked.

I wish things could be relatively simple. As a rule of thumb, that would certainly be nice. However, life is incredibly complex and each human being on the Earth is worthy of complex study and even then we will likely never fully understand ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if English or science reach the deepest understandings of the human condition…English as an academic discipline is charged with the task of interpreting and understanding the increasingly complex world. We English students and academics practice making sense out of things through work that others have done by creating our own quilts of knowledge, attributing the threads to their rightful owners. What does this have to do with self-reflection, Lucille Clifton, and GLOBE? It justifies our purpose. Realizing that the world is complex takes academic humility, which I have written about in this blog post based on an article forwarded to me from Dr. McCoy by Vox a bit. For myself, I have had the joy of reflecting on myself throughout the semester through this assignment and epigraph. I wish I could have simple answers to complex issues, a formulaic approach to the world, an understanding the innate complexity of the human existence on a number of new levels. I do believe there is merit in being as precise as possible in my responses to problems or prompts, but that is a different philosophy than I held at the start of the semester. I sought to simplify the problems that we were discussing rather than precisely respond to them. Throughout the course I have been exposed to a fair amount of content, even though it feels like I hardly know a thing about African-American Literature. In reading and discussing this content, I have grown as a thinker to understand the complexities of life, exemplified very well through my application of Lucille Clifton’s poem as used as a course epigraph by Dr. McCoy.

GLOBE brings about an interesting topic of discussion. On one hand, I am growing quite fond of reflective writing and I hope it is here to stay. That said, I hope that an institution does not push reflective writing into students lives so hard that it becomes mindless and meaningless. I think this may have happened at some point to research papers, namely to the Document Based Question from social studies classes in adolescent education. While these are important to consider, if institutions push for prescribed answers then they will have to grapple with students figuring out how to select their words carefully so that they check all the boxes for the topic. I hope that self-reflective writing isn’t headed down a laundry-list type path like the DBQ did, but I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually a basic formula (more so than found in Reflective Writing by Kate Williams, Mary Woolliams, and Jane Spiro) bubbled to the surface to get students to engage with hopes of a decent grade. That said, I don’t think that GLOBE is attempting to push solely reflective writing. I noticed that Dr. McCoy was on the “2015 Editing Group for final review”, which suggests that she is very well versed in the whole document. After looking through it, the document seems to be fairly comprehensive in its stated goals for students to engage broadly in general education, dive deep into a major, and be surrounded by a campus environment that promotes education and inclusion at all points. The quoted passage on our self-reflective essay prompt sheet appears as such: “Does this matter given GLOBE’s insistence that Geneseo students should gain practice in the ability to “reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time”?” In GLOBE itself, this statement is contained in the last sentence in the entire document as posted in .pdf format on the SUNY Geneseo website. While a document of this magnitude is drafted with precision to contain pertinent information and nothing more, noting that this statement is the closing of the document is interesting. No other section of the document prompts an understanding of the reflective process.

Perhaps it is poetic to discuss reflection at the end of a document written by so many people collaboratively, but maybe I’m just being a bit facetious, as this document is meant to encompass all academic endeavors at the baccalaureate level at Geneseo. To answer the written question, though: yes. The self-reflective process does matter in light of GLOBE. It helps to know that the institution believes in what my specific professor is having her students work on, even if Dr. McCoy was involved in the creation of the document. Having a stated mission as a college is important, but it means nothing if we don’t do the work in class. This could turn into a chicken and egg discussion quickly, but I know that having it written in GLOBE will increase awareness of the self-reflective process and its importance as well as keep it involved in the college longer than if it were just one professor’s favorite closing assignment. I know that having a self-reflective assignment for this course in particular was very eye-opening and enlightening for myself, and I’m glad to have this assignment backed by the college I attend.

Overall, I just want good writing all around, which I think is possible through all mediums. I think the continual push for self-reflection needs to come from those at the institutional-front-lines, namely the professors themselves. If it comes from any higher power without due process of releasing the assignments in a reasonable manner, then the opportunity for professors to simplify the assignment arises. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I do, as Ricky Rice does in Big Machine on page 365, believe that “I don’t have much faith in institutions, but I still believe in people”.

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