Tomorrow’s class: The chance of a lifetime

ichi go ichi eIn The Art of Gathering Priya Parker shares a phrase she learned from a Japanese tea master: Ichi-go ichie-e, roughly meaning “one meeting, one moment in your life that will never happen again” (19). Her book offers guidance on creating and hosting purposeful and potentially transformative get-togethers ranging from cocktail parties to multinational summits. But she really caught my attention with this:

A chemistry teacher might tell herself that her purpose is to teach chemistry. While teaching is a noble undertaking, this definition does not give her much guidance on how to actually design her classroom experience. If, instead, she decides that her purpose is to give the young a life-long relationship to the organic world, new possibilities emerge. The first step to a more scintillating classroom begins with that zooming out. (21)

A classroom is a type of gathering, yes of course. But teacher as host? At first I wasn’t so sure how I felt about that. Mentor, guide, coach, . . . maitre d’? Martha Stewart? Oprah?

Actually, it’s a liberating idea for those of us who are already trying to tune into the lifeworlds of our students–the fact that, for example, the people who come to my class at 8 on Monday morning are often up working in their studios or negotiating with roommates til 2AM, then commuting to campus before dawn, skipping breakfast, forgetting their notebook or phone, missing friends and family, ruminating about dozens of things more compelling than Academic Writing. I bring hot tea to class–a cold, bright room with echoey walls–to help us get warm and awake.

But the kind of hosting Parker’s advocating isn’t just about bringing tea or cookies; it’s zooming out to clarify the specific, unique, and disputable purposes for our gathering and then using those to thoughtfully compose and facilitate the experience.

Bringing tea suddenly seems so easy.

Lest this scenario get too daunting, I think the class-as-Gathering can be refined iteratively. The beauty of the semester-length class is that we really can exhale and give ourselves the grace of a clean slate. Or at least we must if we want to avoid beating ourselves up for being lackluster. Truth be told, tomorrow is Day 2 of my spring class and I feel like I already blew it on Day 1 by spending too much time talking and not setting the stage properly.

But it’s not too late to clarify my Purpose. Notice Parker advises that our purpose be specific, unique, and disputable (26). Disputable. That’s the clincher, isn’t it? Rhetorically, it makes sense. Just as a good thesis statement or opening argument should have something at stake, something arguable, so must our purpose for our composed experience, our “hosting,” of the course. And even if we’re teaching a General Education course with a predetermined set of learning outcomes shared with a dozen other sections, the fact that each teacher is a unique individual sharing space with a uniquely diverse group of students, all with our own strengths, weaknesses, perspectives, and experiences to share, means that our purpose can and should reflect our particular situation as well as our own well-considered, albeit arguable, emphasis or approach.

My 8AM class is Writing 2-EL – Seeing Stories, an intermediate-level academic writing class ostensibly for English Language learners but open to all students and sharing the same learning objectives as non-EL sections. My students’ facility with spoken and written Standardized Edited American English (SEAE, by way of Asao Inoue) varies broadly and is something I consider just one relevant dimension of the diversity they bring to our class (a perspective some may dispute).

So if helping students with academic writing is just a generic purpose, what might some disputable ones be?

  • to build friendships and sustainable creative collaborations across conventional boundaries (such as academic major, geographic origin, first language)
  • to cultivate intellectual curiosity in unexpected places
  • to train artists as academic story-workers gifted at making learning story-worthy in and beyond the classroom
  • to mentor and mobilize artist-citizens for social justice through storytelling

The last one sounds best, doesn’t it? The most disputable, perhaps. And as such it challenges me every day to ask myself what I’ve done to support it. It makes me more brave and clear. Not a blowhard about a specific issue (that’s not mentoring) but a host creating a safe space for social justice to be done, for questions to arise, for perspectives to be voiced and heard, for responses to be formed.

Let’s see what happens with that.

But how do you start?

I think you start inside your own head. Ichi-go ichie-e. Tomorrow will be a gathering. One chance in your lifetime to gift one small thing to this precious group of students. What will you give them? Some warm tea, an inclusive space, an opportunity to begin sharing their stories.