“Very Heaven”

Collaborative Learning, Higher Education, Peer Tutoring, Technology, Tutorial Talk and Methods, UW-Madison History, UW-Madison Writing Center Alumni Voices, Writing Center Theory, Writing Centers / Monday, April 9th, 2012

By Dennis Paoli, Coordinator of the Reading/Writing Center and Co-coordinator of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at Hunter College, City University of New York. He also writes plays and films and is Donor/Adviser of The Heidi Paoli Fund for cancer patients. He met Heidi in Madison.

The author today
The author today
The author in 1967, outside Union Theater
The author in 1967, outside Union Theater

Hi. Dennis Paoli, University of Wisconsin Class of ’69. You know, the golden age. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!”  Wordsworth was writing about the French Revolution, but he must have gone to Madison in the 60’s. In my four years, the football team won one game (that was a party). The band could barely make a W (we didn’t jump around so much as hop from foot to foot to keep warm). And the defining moment of my college experience was walking out of class into a cloud of tear gas. Good times.

You don’t read much about our class in the alumni magazines; they just don’t run a lot of stories about long-haired pot-smoking protestors, much less free-loving acid-dropping hippies. And truth be told we didn’t leave much of a mark on the campus or the city. The house I lived in senior year on West Washington has long since fallen down and disappeared, and they built the Kohl Center on the lot where we used to spend Spring Sundays playing ball. A few of the protestors went on to change the practice of law so it’s less likely we kill the innocent, and a few of the dealers helped create the conglomerates that feed the media and sell us worthless real estate, but except for them and Soglin, we don’t seem to have accomplished all that much. Sure, a few of us—maybe a few more—are on the radio, in the papers (how quaint), in imdb and Wikipedia, but who isn’t? And maybe we made the Vietnam War harder to prosecute and ultimately shorter than it might have been, and made the wars that followed, like the ones we’re in, more subject to citizen scrutiny and stricture. Maybe.

But damn, we had fun. And damn, we got a good education. And damn it if those weren’t the same thing. Two of the great lessons I learned at the University of Wisconsin were that learning stuff could be fun and that having fun could teach you something (and yes, protesting was serious fun). Oh, I learned lots from sitting in a lecture hall listening to Madeleine Doran read Shakespeare or Lee Dreyfus (yeah, the red-vested Governor guy) read Peanuts. And hanging from the rafters listening to Harvey Goldberg rhapsodize on Danton. “Bliss it was.” But I learned half of what I learned in Madison from explaining Hamlet’s hang-ups to, borrowing the latest R. Crumb comic from, and arguing the ideals and realities of revolution with other students. Who didn’t?

I have taken that certainty with me, that the best education is communal, challenged and shouted and shared, to my life’s work at Hunter College in New York. It’s why I run a Writing Center. For urban public college students, whose days are a blur of commuting and working and watching the buffer circle spin waiting for the wi-fi to kick in, with classes thrown in there somewhere, a Writing Center might be the only place they spend time, maybe the only time they spend all day, talking about what they read, what they wrote, what they learned with—well, with anybody. And if they can talk through that piece of writing (theirs or some other author’s) with another student, who understands first hand their struggles, who is an authority in the challenges they share, they—the student writer and the tutor—can learn those great lessons I learned in the Rat, on the Terrace, marching up State Street to the Capitol.

“Don’t worry, Dennis. The social media’ll take care of that.” Amen, and maybe, and here I am blogging, right? But excuse me if I reserve my uncritical embracing for friends and Chinese food (and even then it’s not so uncritical). Yes, the internet is the knowledge technology of the age, of the ages, collecting all the facts in the world (www.factual.com, which “curates” and “canonicalizes” data), organizing our discoveries (goo•gle, vb: to Google), writing our papers (that’ll cost you money). I have followed many a link to many a lecture (there’s usually an entertaining one at http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/videos/). The word has never been more powerful—the keyword, the password, the pleasure of the text. Facebook—it’s a book, man!

Helen C. White Hall was not built yet. In 1968, Stuart Gordon's Screw Theater Company performed Titus Andronicus (in itals) as a post-apocalyptic dumb show on the rubble of the previous building on the spot. Later that summer, Screw Theater did the famous "naked" _Peter Pan_; is it still famous?  (photo from University Communications)
Helen C. White Hall was not built yet. In 1968, Stuart Gordon's Screw Theater Company performed Titus Andronicus as a post-apocalyptic dumb show on the rubble of the previous building on the spot. Later that summer, Screw Theater did the famous "naked" Peter Pan; is it still famous? (photo from University Communications)

And in those halls where Prof. Doran’s voice intoned genius, Shakespeare’s and hers, teachers now powerpoint, i.e. bullet point, their lectures and student participation is clicking in class. Sure, there are viable, wonderful ways to use these platforms for learning, but it takes best practices, and who has the patience to practice? Quick—grab some ConcepTests and start with the Peer Instruction, “an entirely new approach” (Amazon) to STEM discipline teaching “created by” Eric Mazur of Harvard (brand name). Anybody know if Prof. Mazur ever worked at or went to a Writing Center, where “to teach by questioning rather than telling” has been the mission and the method for more than half-a-century? (Perhaps he visited Helen C. White Hall from 1996-1998 when he was on the National Visiting Committee of UW’s New Traditions Project, charged with “Revitalizing the Undergraduate Chemistry Curriculum.” Do you know if he stopped by, Brad?) And now that higher education, at last, like K-12, is student-centered—and we know this because the phrase “student-centered” has been shoe-horned into every college mission statement and university strategic plan within an administrator’s reach, appearing somewhere between “research institution” and “world-class faculty,” not far from “flagship” and “digital literacy” (remember “diversity”?)—shouldn’t the Writing Center community get some of the credit—I would argue most of the credit—for this “large scale educational change” (Turn to Your Neighbor: The Official Peer Instruction Blog)? The Mazur Group techniques are indeed, as they tell us on their Web site, “innovative teaching methods,” but they’re old hat at Writing Centers.

There is no educational platform so interactive, so user friendly, so just-in-time as a peer tutor. They only help, whether it’s through coaching, instructing, advising, contextualizing, commiserating, questioning (never “canonicalizing”). “Student-centered” is redundant when used in reference to a Writing Center. And truth be told, if we could only know it, education has always been student-centered, for every student is at the center of her learning experience, in the middle of confusion searching for understanding, and he takes that center with him, up the hill and down into the subway, to the bar and to the movies, online and in dreams. Students learn everywhere; we certainly did.

The Dow Chemical Protest (photo from University Archives)
The Dow Chemical Protest (photo from University Archives)

That is Jeff Lustig’s point in “The University Besieged”, his rallying cry to faculty to resist the corporatization of the academy. He quotes the same lines from Wordsworth, too, recalling his student days at Berkeley. His education was “special,” he claims, because it was “the product of two realms: the classroom and the plaza.” I am not as concerned with the marketplace model of education prevailing as Prof. Lustig is, primarily because I am more cynical and recognize that it won the field long ago. That cloud of tear gas I walked into in the Fall of 1967 was set off to disperse students protesting the Dow Chemical Company recruiting on campus. But I am concerned that the plaza has shrunk (not the tavern, I’m happy to learn—extra sauce on the side, please). Course management software lets faculty “lecture” students 24/7, wherever; my friend Joan Mullin at Illinois State has likened the capacity CMS gives colleges to monitor students to Bentham’s panopticon. And economic pressures have forced students into decisions and behaviors that tend to narrow the focus of their learning to what gets them a grade, a credential, a job. (One of my course objectives in all my classes is to teach my students something they will never use on the job.)

Two friends from college and I were trying to write a screenplay about our time in Madison. Who hasn’t? We called ours “Very Heaven.”  We couldn’t finish it because we couldn’t fit all the bliss in, and because we’re still, some better part of us, trudging up the hill to class. But writing together was fun. “Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!” That’s the first line of Wordsworth’s poem, and it’s what I think, and feel, when I stand in the open door of our Center and watch students working together to express their best thoughts, searching, not for information, but for their best selves. We need to give them the room.

The author in 1969, on Livingston Street
The author in 1969, on Livingston Street
The author today
The author today

20 Replies to ““Very Heaven””

  1. Thank you, Dennis, for this [RADICAL!] perspective on learning–and on the 1960s in Madison.

    My first exposure to campus during this period was through David Fleming’s [AWARD-WINNING!] book _From Form to Meaning: Freshman Composition and the Long Sixties, 1957-1974_. It’s an account of what led to the abolition of Freshman English in the UW-Madison English department in 1969, and it gives voice and perspective to some of the [RADICAL!] TAs in the English department who were involved in the campus protests. Contrary to popular belief, [RADICAL!] TAs weren’t responsible for politicizing and then killing the course. Blame lies elsewhere. Instead, archives and interviews suggest that TAs were thoughtful, innovative, experimental teachers who “paid unflagging attention to the course, innovated in it, and worked energetically to inject life into it” (162). One of their primary innovations: “trying to create in first-year composition a site for each student’s own self-education and self-discovery,” in contrast to a course and pedagogy “that had been boring both students and instructors to death” (128).

    The take-away: [RADICAL!] student-centered learning works . . . perhaps too well.

  2. What a fun post to read! I loved hearing first-hand about what it was like to be a UW student in the 60s. And about how what we do in one place carries over to the next place we go. I wonder what other alum have taken with them?

  3. Hamlet had hang-ups?

    Damn. Nobody tells me anything.

    Or maybe they did, and it disappeared due to the short-, medium- and long-term memory loss suffered due to hanging out with the likes of Professor Paoli.

    One vivid memory remains: how damn funny Professor Paoli was in that (possibly famous, possibly forgotten) nudity-inflected production of “Peter Pan,” in which he played the squabbling Twins as one schizophrenic arguing with himself.

  4. Thanks, Dennis, for the memories and for connecting learning then with learning now. Hope that your students will also look back and feel that some part of what they are going through was at least a little bit of heaven. Great pix, too!

  5. Powerful, truthful story Dennis..funny though, even with a really good writer, pictures ( then and now ) are worth a few thousand words.

  6. When I arrived at the UW as a freshman in 1960 there were no hippies. There were Beatniks – people sitting on the Union Terrace in berets playing bongo drums and spouting what they believed to be poetry.

    I thought I knew how to write. I was mistaken. Freshman English with one Claude Hunsberger showed me I had much to learn. He was a prototypical English TA of the period – tweedy jacket and tightly rolled umbrella – but a good guy and fun to sit with many an evening blathering about the state of the universe and drinking beer at the 602 Club and other popular “learning environments”.

    (I also had the privilege of studying the Metaphysical poets with Helen White before she was a building.)

    The key thing is that college was about learning everything everywhere – and it was fun. I can only wish today’s undergrads some semblance of the pleasures that I experienced.

  7. Oh, and I’ve been watching some of Mike Wallace’s clunky 60’s Parliament cigarette commercials the last few days, gives you an uneasy feeling that those days maybe weren’t quite as magical as we’d like to remember. ( Mike Wallace went to the U of Michigan, boo!!! )

  8. Dennis, thanks for allowing me the vicarious thrill of seeing Madison in the late 60s through your eyes (though it’s a little frightening inside of your head–let me out of here!). And learning is fun, eh? You risk exposing the writing center secret to the rest of the academic community. Heretic!

  9. Den

    We created a small college within the UW back then. Our admission requirements were pretty simple. You had to smoke pot; you had to have opinions; and you had to express those opinions. It was a “Thinking Center.” The writing for many of us was optional, but the thoughts flowed freely and the interactions were face to face. There were no lectures, only discussion groups. Come to think of it, anyone under 30 now would be shocked and disbelieved(is that a word, Dennis?) at how little we used the telephone to communicate. Some of us didn’t have one at times to save money. We have so much communication now that sometimes we don’t have any at all! Anyway, thanks Dennis for stirring the memories, and for your work.
    And thanks Michael G. I didn’t know Helen C. White was a person. Looking at the building doesn’t give a clue.

  10. I send greetings and gratitude from the other side of the pond, Hunter College, where Dennis is BMOC, the cynical idealist who provides hope and joy as well as a reality check each day. In some sense, that’s exactly what his Writing Center does and the spirit of it comes from him. I wonder if he has an awareness of how many tutors, students, and teachers feel that they owe part of their success to him. For many of us, Dennis is the Mark Hopkins on one end of the bench and we on the other. It’s kind of funny to think that his may be the name that students remember when they leave Hunter and write their own blogs in the future. Blogs…or who knows what the future will hold..mind melds or…?

  11. The interaction of students, TA’s and professors … the-face-to face pleasures of discussions at the Rat, in the pubs and on the streets was truly the learning experience. Prof. Dennis is concerned with the ‘words and writings’ that brought us together, but let us not forget the ‘barks.’ I remember an abundance of four-legged creatures that added to our socialized learning experiences. Siberian Huskies, Afghans, and wonderful mutts that we all shared over our undergraduate years that taught us the meaning of the words we learned. Who could forget Sam & Murray and the infamous she/he dog Ernie Banks! Thanks, Dennis, your words brought about a thousand pictures.

  12. It sounds like the day students don’t have the luxury of those late into the night rap sessions about philosophy, religion, politics and rebellion. Those conversations that provoked your mind and your passions. You certainly couldn’t have with your family, and maybe not with your teachers either. The writing center sounds like the closest thing to it.

  13. As much as social media may offer some array of connections, there is still no substitute for a real, face-to-face, personal exchange of ideas and passions. Some of my most memorable lessons weren’t in any of my courses, they were in conversations in the back booth of my cafeteria at school. In engineering, my major at the time, I wasn’t going to encounter the likes of Wittenstein, the Blues, David Hume, or Fellini, but that back booth made my head turn around a couple of times. So having a place for students to land and to exchange ideas and learning like the Writing Center gives them a chance to expand their world.

  14. This was lovely, Dennis.

    It made me miss the writing center, and all the good you’re all doing there.

    And my mom went to Madison. In the 60s or early 70s. I need to find out what year.

  15. Dennis,
    Your writing does what it says: offers us a glimpse of you and your learning experiences, which were not (and are still not) compartmentalized by subject, place, or time. In this way, you show how a Writing Center can operate in just this way.

  16. Sir Dennis:

    You are a griot of the first order. It is because of praise-singing such as yours that one might dare to know how we arrived HERE!


    André De Shields

  17. Dennis was my mentor when I was a novice tutor at Hunter’s Writing Center in 1995. (I was there the day you wore the red clown nose!) He taught me the joys and the craft of teaching, but more importantly, opened the door to so much learning! I learned so much from my students and co-workers at The Writing Center! Dennis, reading your description above about learning from one another and about learning while having fun took me right back to those round tables filled with learners in the Writing Center! I’m so lucky to have been a part of that! Thanks for sharing your story here.

  18. Alas, the Wordsworth is inspirational, the essay is timely, timeless and (for thems that wuz there in Madison)righteous, riotous, and hilarious. BUT…it’s those last two photographs that truly tell two thousand words! Dennis then and Dennis now…can YOU tell which is which?? As with all the best communal communicators, maintaining the spirit of the wacky, the wild, the crazy, the absurd, the cosmically giggly is a fundamental (secret?) ingredient to best education…peer to peer, seer to seer, here there and everywhere. Keep on badgering…!

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