Opening the field

The 1923 edition, left; and the 1970 edition, right, courtesy of Silliman's Blog
The 1923 edition, left; and the 1970 edition, right, courtesy of Silliman's Blog.

I take this commentary post title from Robert Duncan, but I write this as I reread William Carlos Williams’s 1923 long poem Spring and All for class tomorrow. Since I am teaching Williams within a teacher training program this summer, we tend to pay special attention to what Williams has to say about education and the academy. Spring and All’s attack on the “age of copying” is of interest this week. Near the end of the poem, the rules of standard punctuation and capitalization break down as Williams considers how knowledge is transmitted to the student in what he calls a “dead state”:

The whole field of education is affected — There is no end of detail that is without significance.
     Education would begin by placing in the mind of the student the nature of knowledge — in the dead state and the nature of the force which may energize it.
     This would clarify his field at once — He would then see the use of data
     But at present knowledge is placed before a man as if it were a stair at the top of which a DEGREE is obtained which is superlative.
     nothing could be more ridiculous. To data there is no end. There is proficiency in dissection and a knowledge of parts but in the use of knowledge — 
     It is the imagination that — 

That lower-case “nothing” coming at the beginning of the paragraph, followed by that trailing off “It is the imagination that —,” opens the field of the page but also what Williams calls the “field” of education. Without formal innovation, without opening the page, there is no reimagining the academy.

I also have a PDF open on my computer titled “Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities,” a piece by Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle from Review of Research in Education. The piece discusses the different kinds of knowledge teachers bring to and cultivate in the classroom and suggests how we might rethink our assumptions about the relationship between knowledge and good teaching practice. The article doesn’t take the radical stance of the Williams poem, but there’s a similar point here about upending dead ideas about knowledge. From the opening pages:

It has been more or less assumed that teachers who know more teach better. This “simple” idea has governed multiple efforts to improve education in the arenas of policy, research, and practice by focusing on what teachers know or need to know. […] [T]eachers learn when they generate local knowledge of practice by working within the contexts of inquiry communities to theorize and construct their work and to connect it to larger social, cultural, and political issues.

Cochran-Smith and Lytle suggest different kinds of knowledge are produced not only before but when we teach: knowledge as not just research but practice, knowledge as something that gets constantly renewed and cultivated in context. In this way the data Williams refers to is always moving. As Williams writes: “And what is the fourth dimension? It is the endlessness of knowledge — It is the imagination on which reality rides —”