teachers/teaching


I am on staff at Not Back to School Camp for my 13th year, this year, from mid-August to early October. These are the roles I’m filling:

Advisor: Each session I meet daily with a group of about 10 campers each morning for an emotional and physical well-being check-in. We practice listening to each other and get to know each other quite well during the session, so that by the end we feel close, like a little family unit at camp.

Project leader: At the second Oregon session this year I led two projects. In the Music Project, we had camper musicians of all skill levels, playing violin, banjo, melodica, harp, ukulele, electric and several acoustic guitars. In six hours over the course of three days, we learned to play together as a band, wrote a song, and then performed it for the camp. In a project called On Becoming a Man, I led a group of six young men in a two-day discussion of the difference between being a boy and being a man, how each of us related to those roles, and what we thought would be the ideal elements of a ritual induction into manhood for each of us.

Workshop leader: I am leading five workshops at each session of camp. They are hour-long presentations open to anyone who is interested. In “On Trauma and Healing” I present the modern understanding of psychological trauma and what it takes to heal. In “A Theory of Everything,” I present an overview of Ken Wilber’s integral philosophy. In “Family Maps” I teach campers how to make what family therapists call a genogram, showing their entire family and the relationships between each member. In “Partner Dancing,” I teach the basics of how to dance with another person, regardless of the music being played. In “The Human Bowel Movement,” I teach the physiology of bowel movements, complete with a tour of the digestive tract, using a full-length, stretched-out drawing of one, and diagrams of each stage of the bowel movement.

Staff therapist: I am available as a therapist to any of the campers who are looking for that kind of support. I use a humanistic, strengths-based, systemic approach, emphasizing relationships, self-care, and the power of honest communication.

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A guy who works in my social cognition lab, Adam Kramer, worked at Google recently and had access to their database and developed this way of sorting the words people use in blogs–a huge sample, as you might imagine. He found that blogging exists in a five dimensional space: melancholy, social, ranty, metaphysical, and work. These are apparently real and parsimonious dimensions. Since his presentation, I’ve often wondered where my blog fit in that space. I asked him about writing a blog widget that measured individual blogs–or posts, even. Posts might be better. I’d like to have a little bar graph at the top of each post indicating the level of rantiness, etc. He seemed to think it was a good idea but didn’t seem to be in a big hurry to write it. He’s working on his dissertation, about delayed decision making.

Anyway, that was just to set up my little rant. Ahem.

It pisses me off when my fellow students are on the internet during lectures. I can’t stand it. I have to move to the front row or something so I can’t see. Many of them are also using their computers to take some notes on what the professor is saying but that’s about 15% of what I see, and I’ve never seen a student with a laptop in a lecture who completely abstained from the net. The lure of Facebook is too strong. I’m not sure why it gets my goat so much, but it does. It may be that I relate to the professors more than I do to the students in most cases, especially these cases. If I was teaching a college class, I don’t think I would allow laptops. Check them at the door. I’ll buy you some ice for your poor, aching, handwriting hand. Oh, and your phones, too, thanks. Texting is just as bad.

I write commas after every item in a list of three or more. I start sentences with conjunctions. I like writing that way, but when I do, I imagine all of my old English teachers shaking their heads in disappointment. And not just them, but everyone out there who paid attention in their high school English classes. I’ve been thinking for several days about a short entry here, early on in my blog, to justify my choices. As I highly doubt any of my high school teachers will happen across this blog, I’m probably writing more for the latter group, but thinking about my old teachers has inspired me to address them, as part of this post. The letter is the stronger part, so I’m going to start with my justifications. If you are not interested in grammar or punctuation, I suggest you skip the next two paragraphs, to “Dear Mr. James….”

I’m studying psychology, so everything I turn in has to be “in APA style,” and the American Psychological Association has strong opinions about commas in lists. When I make a list separated by commas, I must put a comma after the second-to-last item, before the “and.” For example, here is a list of some colors I can see from where I’m writing: white, cream, brown, turquoise, and blue. I feel a little embarrassment every time I do it, but I’ve grown to like it. It seemed unnatural at first, but I think that’s because it was unfamiliar; as I say that list out loud, I do pause before “and blue,” as if there was a comma there, whether I’ve written one or not. The convention clarifies word pairings, too. “Turquoise and blue” in a list indicates a pairing of those colors, where “…turquoise, and blue” means that those two colors are the last in a list of three or more.

Starting sentences with conjunctions is not APA style. In fact, I would never turn in a formal paper with a sentence that started with a conjunction. I was delighted to read, however, several years ago, in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (and later in some other fairly respectable books), that there is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction. I like starting some sentences with “and,” and sometimes “but.” It feels like talking. The only thing I don’t like about it is imagining someone reading what I’ve written and judging me ignorant. As Tom Sawyer said, I know all what I’m talking about.

That said, I’m also interested in improving my writing. If you think I’ve posted bad writing accidentally, please let me know. I’ve been known, for example, to write sentences like, “I want to know whether or not you think my writing is bad or not.” That is not a stylistic choice. It’s just plain embarrassing.

This letter came to me in a moment of retrospective embarrassment, while doing some peer editing in a class last term.

Dear Mr. James, Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Hoagland, Mrs. Cheraz, Mr. Schag, and Mr. Tilson:

I am so sorry about all the boring, boring, boring crap of mine you had to read. Wow. That must have been a heroic effort, grading those terrible papers, pointing out all of those indefinite references and two sentence paragraphs, but most of all just reading that weak, uninspired junk. It is ironic that you, who probably appreciated good writing more than any of the adults in my life at the time, read my writing for a living. I hope the other kids in my class made your life easier than I did, but based on the grades you gave me, I doubt it.

In my defense, the writing assignments you gave me were mostly awful (with the exception of my sixth grade paper on Millard Fillmore, when Mr. James encouraged me to write about how he was our most boring president, and the story I wrote for Mrs. Taylor about the dog who had terrorized me when I was eight), and I never got the sense that you wanted me to write about my real experiences or what I was actually interested in. Huckleberry Finn, for example, was one of my favorite books. I loved it. I listened to dramatizations of it for fun. I had read it several times before I was assigned to read it in school. I just never cared about the symbolism in it. I could have written a moderately engaging paper about how hilarious it was, or how I related to Huck, but I was never going to write you anything interesting about the symbolism of the Mississippi River. Sure, there is symbolism in that book, but you have to admit that symbolism is not what makes it great, especially not to a fifteen year old.

On the other hand, I sure didn’t try very hard. I wrote just about everything I gave you the night before it was due, revising only slightly as I typed the final drafts. I could tell just how much effort it took to get a B+ on a paper, so that my test and homework scores could keep me floating in A territory. And I wasn’t embarrassed. It was almost a point of pride to me, how little I worked on that writing. Let’s just call all of it a joint effort—a collaboration between you and my teenaged self, all of that weak, last-minute, uninspired writing.

You did inspire me, too, just not about writing. The books that you had me read really were great—a heck of a lot better, in retrospect, than the fantasy novels I was into at the time. I also appreciate the ways that you (especially Mr. James, Mr. Schag, and Mr. Tilson) modeled open-minded, deep, critical, and flexible thinking. Thanks, too, for the way you seemed to like me. I think if I was to meet most of you today, I would want to be friends with you.

Sincerely,

Nathen Lester