Making Charoset: Teaching by Hand in the Shadow of MOOCs

Higher Education, Technology, Tutorial Talk and Methods, UW-Madison Writing Center Alumni Voices, Writing Center Theory, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, April 1st, 2013
Wendy Osterweil and Eli Goldblatt
Wendy Osterweil and Eli Goldblatt

By Eli Goldlbatt, Temple University.

Eli Goldblatt graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1990 and taught at Villanova University from that year until he moved to Temple University in 1996.  He is currently professor of English and Director of First Year Writing at Temple.  He was faculty co-director of the Writing Center at Temple from 1999 until 2005. Through New City Writing, the outreach arm of the writing program, he has helped to support Tree House Books, Temple Writing Academy, and other projects in collaboration with community partners in North Philadelphia. Among other scholarly publications, he is the author of Because We Live Here: Sponsoring Literacy Beyond the College Curriculum (Hampton P 2007), and Writing Home: A Literacy Autobiography (S. Illinois UP, 2012).  His books of poetry include Journeyman’s Song (Coffee House, 1990), Sessions 1-62 (Chax Press, 1991), Speech Acts (Chax Press, 1999), and Without a Trace (Singing Horse Press, 2001). In addition, Goldblatt published two children’s books, Leo Loves Round and Lissa and the Moon’s Sheep, both from Harbinger House in 1990.

My wife, Wendy Osterweil, is a printmaker, often screen printing on fabric in multiple layers and then quilting back into the shapes and colors.  She also teaches art education in a fine arts college, where she prepares young artists for a variety of urban and suburban K-12 classrooms.  In our many, many talks about teaching and the arts over the years, she links the art she most admires with the teaching she seeks to foster: work that shows the human hand. Together, we have come to think about teaching as an art done “by hand,” and I’d like to share with you some thoughts about this conception for writing instruction.

I learned much of what I know about teaching writing from my years at the Writing Center in Madison.  Brad Hughes started directing the Center the same year I became a tutor there, and I will always be grateful to him for his careful guidance and unrelenting commitment to humane administration.  Every shift I worked with a different set of students, one at a time bringing in their tentative or bombastic drafts, their hopeful or hostile questions, their defensive or unsustainable attitudes toward the project of writing for a course.  I learned, most of all, to listen before I spoke, and then to listen again once I had responded.  Anyone who knows me knows I can talk, so this was not a simple lesson to learn. It would have been easier to get through my shifts if I’d just loaded my advice onto a player piano and let the music rip, but I doubt anybody but me would have been satisfied with the result.  Listening in the writing center provides the proper perspective for teaching in the classroom because you get to glimpse what students are thinking and doing rather than what they choose to perform for the theater of school.

Wendy Osterweil. “Lift Me Up” (silkscreen on fabric) 2013.
Wendy Osterweil. “Lift Me Up” (silkscreen on fabric) 2013.

What does this have to do with the hand of the teacher?  In one way, the expression might mean that the teacher intervenes wherever possible, and students come out marked by the teacher’s peculiar style.  This could lead to some very bad teaching indeed.  But what Wendy and I have in mind is that the teacher cannot predetermine the particular interaction with students, cannot manufacture in advance an outcome that must instead emerge from an environment fostered with care in a moment of time.  Not to say a teacher shouldn’t plan; really just the reverse. You need to plan if students are going to feel safe taking charge of their own learning, to hazard novel responses that aren’t simply reflections of the teacher’s position. Planning must involve a compelling invitation to students to participate.  Students themselves should feel they made something happen in the classroom rather than waiting for the teacher to initiate and approve at every moment.  The irony of teaching by hand is that listening and responding to students, shaping and managing the learning environment—behaviors that shifts the emphasis away from the teacher as Leader and Fountain of Knowledge—are exactly the indicators of the teacher’s profound investment in students’ learning.  You must be there, with those particular students on those particular days, for the hand in teaching to show.

If you are an academic reading this blog, perhaps you might expect at this point that I should turn to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  With his eye on the dynamic between the “original presence” of an artwork that makes for an aura of authenticity and the mass appeal of photography and cinema that leads to a profoundly political mass experience, Benjamin could be a valuable commentator to the contemporary question of whether or not writing can be taught in Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs), as is being tried at the moment at Duke and Georgia Tech universities. Sadly, I don’t have the time or space now to track those lines of argument, so instead I’ll tell you about making charoset.

Charoset is the mix of fruit, nuts, wine, and spices that Jews put on the Passover seder plate to represent the mortar enslaved Hebrews used to build temples for the pharaoh in ancient Egypt. I always make my mother’s traditional and simple recipe, combining apples and crushed walnuts in a marinade of Manischewitz grape wine and cinnamon. Wendy outdoes me with her Middle Eastern version: figs, apricots, raisins, almonds, cardamom, and ginger as well as sweet wine and cinnamon.  She uses a food processor to make her more sophisticated recipe in about 5 minutes, once the ingredients are collected.  It takes me nearly an hour to peel the apples, crush the walnuts in a paper bag, and add the Manischewitz and cinnamon to taste.  This year my preparatory shopping trip for the materials we needed to bring to our family seder took me the better part of an afternoon. I thought about this essay while I was driving and shopping, assembling and chopping, but I also thought about work and the people coming to dinner that night and what my adult son is going to do in the next years and how the Phillies can win if two of their ace pitchers are too old. Everything goes into the charoset, which tastes sweet but represents hard labor and captivity.  I worry in recent years how we commemorate hostility with Egypt in one of our most sacred holidays, and that goes into the charoset, too.

Charoset (from, 2013, Creative Commons License).
Charoset (from, 2013, Creative Commons License).

Making charoset for me is an act of love, but love always meets turmoil.  Cutting the apples and pouring the wine allows me to slow down even when I’ve got way too much else to do.  We sit in the kitchen and talk, in preparation for an evening of stories and questions fueled by wine and good food.  Some years the dinners are more tense than usual because one or another of us is going through a hard time or the family isn’t getting along.  Other years we have exhilarating conversations about history and social forces, about the patriarchy or civil rights. One year my grandfather made it clear to the whole table that he was disappointed in all his grandchildren, particularly the boys, because he thought us unredeemable hippies and ne’er-do-wells.  Another year we were gathering right after my mother died, and we all felt acutely that Passover was her favorite holiday. One of our closest friends was already getting sick that year, and soon afterward he started a terminal hospitalization that ended just before the next seder.  This year we cut the haggadah reading short because there was a new grandchild at the table luxuriating in the hard boiled eggs and multiple handfuls of my charoset, much of the time exclaiming “dayanu!” from the Passover song: “it would have been enough.” A writing classroom can seldom be quite as boisterous or multilayered as a family gathering, but it should partake in some of its human commitments.  You are here because you belong now, even if your journeys will soon take you far away.

At the end of Benjamin’s essay, he focuses on war, fascism, and communism.  That was appropriate in 1936, and his recognition of the shift in frame for the arts from religious ritual to politics resonates today. I’m thinking of teaching in a similar vein. The on-line environment offers both democratic promise and demagogic possibilities.  OLL opens access to information and instruction to people living in circumstances that might prevent them from taking college classes or learning subjects they want or need to know about.  Media and internet sources can also spread convincing versions of the world that bind people to powerful leaders or lull groups into ignorant inaction.  The mortar mix on the table can be sweet, but its message is complex and sensitive to time and place.  MOOCs frighten me not only because they could put all but the highest status teachers into even more subordinated positions.  Massive online enrollments in college courses centered on a single speaker or highly produced videos promulgate a dangerous pedagogical doctrine.  MOOCs project the image of learning as profoundly passive, banking at a level even Paolo Freire never imagined.  And yet, an earnest student can legitimately learn something valuable about modern poetry or global economics through this medium.  Moreover, to learn from a MOOC successfully probably requires far more activity on the part of the learner than advertized, even though few will recognize the cognitive demand without assistance.  My friend Joe Harris has warned writing teachers: “If we take ourselves out of that dialogue, out of the give and take of draft and response and revision, then we are no longer teachers but content providers.”  His article in the Chronicle of Higher Education quoted me about teaching by hand, though I never actually did more than burble to friends on the subject.  I’m writing here as a response to him and an attempt to make sense of the palpable politicizing of teachers and teaching within the contemporary American confusion about what education means and how we pay for it.

Why am I writing this in a blog for a Writing Center?  Like my conversations with Wendy about teaching and art, my tutoring experiences at Madison continue to challenge me, to call me back to the dialogue Harris identifies.  I remember a student who came in one afternoon to the Center almost thirty years ago.  I had stayed up late the night before, finishing a twenty-page paper on Keats’ poem “To Autumn,” and I was exhausted.  She pulled her literary anthology out of her bag and dragged out her assignment sheet.  “I have to write about this poem for class, and I just can’t find anything to say about it,” she lamented.  The poem was “To Autumn.”  I proceeded to discourse to her about how much she could say, about what a great poem it was, and what a superior poet Keats had been.  She walked away angry, frightened, and considerably less prepared to write her five pages on a dead Romantic.  I let us both down because I not only didn’t listen to her, but I didn’t even listen to myself.  I didn’t give her a hand; I slapped her across the face.  An on-line tutorial session with her present day avatar might have fostered a far richer dialogue than I did that day, but another inoculation of video wisdom on Keats would have done her no good.  However we meet our students, we need to keep in mind what we value in the encounters we call teaching and learning.

Six fish
By Eli Goldblatt

Six fish play out the wind in her fabric. She
sews the layers together or separates them
into unnumbered latitudes. Hands wander over
rough sand, indelible marks on skin, a maze
for contemplating incidental shadow, rose
scent & ambulance scream. High speed trains
slip thru dark mountains, but my friend & I

drove, stopping to inspect trinkets in a town
off New Mexico 85. Wherever we turned, doors
served a double purpose, selling & buying back.
This is regular, natural. When do you live
in a place for how long? Restless at sunset
in an opera built for sunset, I couldn’t control

my habit of seeing disaster. Mountains
don’t move, don’t even flicker in thin
air among violet scrub, juniper, & pine.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter.  “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations.  New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1968. Print.

Harris, Joseph. “Teaching by Hand in the Digital Age.” Web. March 11, 2013.

10 Replies to “Making Charoset: Teaching by Hand in the Shadow of MOOCs”

  1. I’m very moved, Eli, that you frame this lovely and intelligent essay as a response to my writing. We will have to keep listening to each other!

    The more I think about it, and with your help, what most troubles me about MOOCs is how they devalue the real work of teaching—of listening, responding, listening again. In the place of interaction we get performance. In the place of a university, we get a series of TED talks.

    Thanks for pointing us toward an alternative,


  2. It was interesting to learn how you honed your listening skills. Your insights about how writing teachers must listen to their students is a powerful reminder of the need for close human interaction in small classrooms and could be a strong argument against the MOOCification of writing courses.

  3. Thanks, Eli, for this reminder about the importance of making space for students’ thoughts, however messy or flat those thoughts might sound. In the coming years, creating thinking space may turn out to be one of the largest pedagogical challenges at both the individual and institutional level.

  4. Engaging, inspiring essay Eli. From your final beautiful poem to the creative interweaving of Benjamin, MCOOs, and charoseth — a genuine tzimmes of commentary that will leave me thinking anew about hands and listening inside and out of the classroom.

    One immediate question it prompts: in an electronic age of quick input/output that our students have grown up in, how has this affected the art of listening? Do students understand how to respond to a pedagogy grounded not in easy answers, performance-based teaching, or profit-based learning? How do we as teachers contend with their discomfort and our own when our own performances are grounded in tests based on short responses? How do we negotiate taking pedagogical risks in the classroom?

  5. Thanks, Eli. You’ve reminded me of the importance of humanizing composition.

    I assign daily writing journals to my first-year composition students with only two conditions: (1) write every day for at least 5 minutes; (2) write each entry by hand on paper.

    Not sure there’s a parallel between teaching and writing by hand . . . maybe something about helping students experience a different kind of embodied learning experience.

  6. Thanks so much, Eli. This is something I’ll come back to. I am feeling so lucky to have learned about teaching writing (and cont with Brad and to be part of this thoughtful community of writing teachers.

  7. It sent too soon! I was adding in that I have continued to learn because he still is the go-to person when I’m facing a new teaching challenge. This post is terrific. Thanks.

  8. Wonderful essay, Eli. I find myself struggling all the time to express to my students that their goal should not be to simply say/write what I want to hear/read. As you said, the only way to foster their own passions and “voices” is to be there and respond in the moment; to do it by hand. Thanks for this inspiring post.

  9. Excellent piece Eli. After a “not-so-good” day in my class (nobody handing in papers), reading this has fueled my fire. I don’t think it can be repeated enough, at least w/ respect to folk of my obstreperous ilk, the value of careful, not cursory, listening.

    Moreover, great use of Benjamin. I can’t really get over is his simultaneous ability to lament and champion the loss of aura. While we lose something via technology, he also celebrates, too much for my liking, the possibilities of certain technologies in terms of the avant-garde and as more mainstream medium. While he would surely be highly skeptical of the MOOCs, I believe, and am somewhat afraid, that he might place more emphasis on those democratic, rather than demagogic, possibilities.

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