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‘Powerpoint was not his thing’: a poem on teaching and technology

The Parana River in moonlight. Gisela Giardino, CC BY-SA

‘Powerpoint was not his thing’: a poem on teaching and technology

I am a scholar and teacher of Spanish and Portuguese. I am also a poet.

The several books of poetry I have published in English, Spanish and Guarani (an indigenous South American language and one of the official languages of Paraguay), plus numerous readings of my work, both in Paraguay and at home in New York, have taught me the artistic joys of the poetic word and its efficacy in public discourse.

The poem, obviously, is a work of imagination, but it is my contention that such a work can be an alternative way of understanding and therefore an alternative form of editorial journalism.

The most fundamental source of the educational vision portrayed in the poem I have written for The Conversation is the many thousands of hours I have spent with students over a long teaching career.

Having said that, I hasten to add that no resemblance is intended, even remotely, between the narrative situation presented and any of the educational institutions with which I have been associated, including my long-time much-beloved employer, SUNY-Oswego.

The forces to which the poem alludes are much broader.

The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the inroads technology can make in the basic human relationship between teacher and learner – these and similar developments are at work in our society as a whole, and the debate surrounding them is global in scope.

Using the elevated tone and deliberately archaic language of epic verse, the poem’s intent is to write those forces larger in the imagination than they are in present reality, to exaggerate their current profile in order to dramatize what they could become.

As to its style and tone, the poem’s roots are in various epic traditions but readers will also find echoes of the tech writer Nicholas Carr; of movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting; of Paraguayan literary masters like Augusto Roa Bastos and Juan Manuel Marcos (novel and poetry) and, in its playful parts, even a hint of Dr Seuss. (A full list of my literary “credits” follows the poem.)

(Note on pronunciation: In observance of the poem’s rhythm, the protagonist’s middle names “Ignatius Gene” may be pronounced as normal in English, ig-NAY-shus jeen, but the Paraguayan name from which this derives, Ignacio Genes, should be said as in Spanish, eeg-NAHS-yo HAY-nays.)

            Channeling Homer, Among Others…

                        I

            Not the song of siren-seekers 
            washed in gore upon a reef, 
            or Hector on the Trojan plain, 
            or Cid who risking body 
            in the horse-loud crowd 
            of battle-drum and scimitar 
            made victory out of blood, 
            no epic song is this  
            of these, but rather epic 
            of the mind, no less dangerous 
            than all their battlefields, 
            but fought upon the blood-
            drenched plains and trenches 
            of book and classroom, 
            where courage of the intellect 
            meets scimitar of budget 
            cut and mindless fiat 
            of endless plutocrats intoning 
            measurement of that which 
            has no measure.  

                        II

                              His name,  
            Juan Emmanuel Ignatius Gene 
            O'Higgins, PhD in code of résumé 
            and memo, expert in forgotten holocausts 
            and vast interstices unseen 
            between the lines upon the map, 
            Paraguay, in other words, 
            Paraguay his theme, his passion, 
            mission, demise, redemption.  
            Son he was of Irish guy 
            from Southie and mom from 
            shantytown hard by the Paraná 
            who met and loved in the father’s 
            Fulbright-funded bed beneath 
            the fullness of a fattening 
            moon. Jasy henyhe she said 
            in Guarani and coitus wrote 
            the words in English on his 
            brain, the moon is full, 
            and Juan Emmanuel began in semen 
            spilled upon her river, hard 
            upon the Paraná. Thus was made 
            and grew the boy, precursor 
            of the man, in summers 
            by the Paraná and winters 
            in the gritty Boston snow 
            piled against the chain-link 
            playground fence, his fists 
            hard as curbstones fending tires 
            from the ragged Southie sidewalks 
            and the green-beer-sucking 
            drunks in foreplay of St Patty’s Day, 
            grew he here, and there, 
            and came to know man’s state 
            is not the metropole, the evanescing 
            center swelled in fad soon gone 
            and power soon dispersed, 
            but one of Paraguays, of Southies, 
            of margins where persists 
            the warmth of human flesh, 
            fencerows where persist the weeds 
            of truths the tractor long 
            despised, each of us a Paraguay, 
            a body among bodies, a voice 
            not of device disembodied 
            but of palpitations of the living 
            throat, came he to know 
            this, swore he to make it 
            known and chose the teacher’s 
            way.  

                        III 

                   Jasy henyhe she’d said, 
            and his moon waxed full 
            in love of students, each 
            a Paraguay hard by the Paraná 
            descending to whatever 
            sea, each a voice he sang 
            in chorus with, farm kids 
            avid for the world beyond 
            manure pond and feedlot, 
            grocer’s children wanting 
            other than a daily ledger  
            of hams and lettuces, would-be 
            gangbangers saved by book and dream 
            of something more from stink 
            of prison john and sameness 
            of the pavements.  Told he them 
            in class about his namesake 
            of the Paraguayan War Ignacio 
            Genes, hero who in combat 
            lost an eye and used his other 
            one to shield his brothers, 
            his single Cyclops eye a waxing 
            moon for them and us; told 
            he also them of Barrett, Roa Bastos, 
            Emiliano, Chaco thirst, Cerro Korá, 
            Ramona Martínez, residentas, 
            Ortiz Guerrero, de la Mora, Jesuit 
            and Guarani, and thousand million 
            un-named feet of un-named walkers 
            stumbling in dark of exile, greed, depravity 
            and grief to greet again the dawn 
            upon a shoeless blister.  You, 
            he said, are these if you 
            but knew.  Rise he said 
            to stoop to drink the water 
            that I lead you to.  The 
            stinking mud is yours no matter 
            what, be hero in it, let your 
            single eye be waxing moon for northern 
            farm and pavement, grocer’s shelf 
            and banker’s vault.  That distant 
            Paraguay be metaphor for here, 
            for now, for you.  

                        IV 

                                Powerpoint 
            was not his thing, nor leaned he 
            overly on Wiki-factoids gleaned 
            from Google’s vast and churning 
            cloud upon a screen for user-
            friendly access antiquating 
            memory; no enemy was he of such, 
            but rather foe of opiated overuse 
            in detriment of man.  Thus read he 
            them from books and spun 
            his magic out of alchemy 
            of word and print and mind, and bid 
            he them put on persona of the Other 
            and leave their desks and move 
            as actors in the theater of learning, 
            and laughter and movement 
            were their language.  And made 
            he them traverse the dog-piss 
            snow of January in the parking 
            lots to fetch the printed word 
            of libraries, bodily traverse 
            the campus air that they might 
            know that body and mind are 
            lovers, nor holds the mind 
            to anything not sifted through 
            the efforts of the flesh; it was 
            his body’s eye that Genes gave 
            to spur the waxing moon of freedom 
            in the mind of many.  Nor resented 
            they his call to book and library, 
            but loved him for it more, nor called they 
            more for apps and Wiki-screens 
            and disembodied ease, but reveled 
            rather in respect he gave 
            to wholeness of their thinking 
            body-minded selves, they who 
            sported on the green and flaunted 
            skin in spring to drink 
            the frisbee-joyous air en route 
            to class, loved they him for this, 
            and loved he them.  

                        V 

                                But came one day 
            a lie that slunk in frowsy crannies 
            of curricula and syllabi, and hung 
            upon the winter-weary campus breeze, 
            and bided time in e-mails 
            and the minutes of perfunctory 
            ennui-laden polyester meetings, a multi-
            visaged lie with roots enough 
            in truth of need to sway 
            the well-intentioned gullible 
            and stroke the greed of cynics, 
            a glib shape-shifting hydra- 
            headed lie part fiat of the bottom 
            line, part flim-flam sales 
            pitch of purveyors, demagogic 
            populism, or wish indeed sincere 
            for good, yet nonetheless, 
            a lie.  It said, efficiency 
            is all.  It said, make straight 
            the way to drone-dom 
            in diminishment of cost.  It 
            said the ancient bargain 
            trading effort of the body-mind 
            for betterment of life, our 
            ancient soaring chant of sacrifice 
            and sweat, is moot, 
            is mothballed in the new 
            millennium of ever-easier machines 
            un-making man.  No need, 
            it said, to stir from seat or bed 
            in quest of knowing, nor even 
            need to know, it is known 
            for you.  No need to drive 
            a car, it is driven, nor need 
            to flush the toilet, it is flushed, 
            nor need to walk the woods, 
            nor need to read a map, 
            nor need to pit the body-mind 
            against the wanton wind in lofty 
            affirmation of the self.  No need, 
            it said, for Paraguay as metaphor 
            for man.  No need for man, indeed.  
            Irrelevant, it said, and set the moon 
            to waning on the Paraná. 

                        VI 

                                      Came 
            minions of the lie, came memos, 
            e-mails, texts, reports ad hoc, 
            inquiring why the love of books 
            when all is stocked within 
            the cyber-cloud, inquiring 
            why the gathering of bodies 
            in a class when synchronicity 
            of keyboards and facsimile 
            of voice and face upon a screen 
            will do the job, and the moon 
            waned more while waxed a logic 
            that portrayed itself inevitable.  Ad  
            hoc became ad hominem, came 
            minions to his class in guise 
            of friendly observation.  And taught he
            as he always taught, and the class 
            they saw was light, was art, 
            was theater, was Socrates, 
            was dream of every learner 
            keening for the graceful 
            stretch of mind and body 
            into space unknown, was reason 
            why we gather sons and daughters 
            into schools and spur them 
            into plenitude of man and not 
            to lassitude of larva, metal, 
            stone.  No drone, said he, was Genes 
            in the groaning eyeball-costing 
            fight, but man, as man aspires 
            to become.  Rose the students 
            to ovate, embraced they him, 
            loved they him as loved he 
            them.  Rose the minions too 
            in momentary lapse infused 
            by distant memory of dream 
            to teach, reached out also 
            to embrace…, then dropped 
            their arms in tendering 
            instead a squalid shake 
            of hands, their logic of the lie 
            resurgent from its wistful 
            lapse.  Your future is assured, 
            they said, tenure and respect 
            are yours they said, if you but… 
            and placed they in contingent 
            clauses all a world of strings 
            attached:  if you but… forsake 
            the luddite past of book 
            and pen, your sentimental 
            fondness for the family 
            of class, your notion of the learner 
            as a greater whole than all 
            the petty bell-curve of his 
            résumé and GPA and bank 
            accounts.  Access, cost, utility, 
            and ease, be these your shibboleths 
            in this new singularity where man’s 
            machines suck share of his humanity 
            and his blood is but the driver 
            of the bloodless goosestep 
            of electrons, and Paraguay 
            and all the Paraguays and all 
            the Southies and all your 
            farmer’s sons and grocer’s 
            daughters are merely asterisks 
            within the Internet now 
            upper-cased as if a God.  They 
            spoke the lie, and waited 
            for his yes, and all he said 
            was no.  

                        VII 

                     And with that no 
            the eye he lost in battle was 
            his job, his mortgage, colleagues,  
            place within the circle of his 
            students’ arms.  Yet also was 
            that no a moon sudden waxing 
            like a fist upon the face 
            of facelessness, his fist 
            as once he used it in the Southie 
            schoolyard slush upon the quisling 
            jaws of thugs.  

                        VIII 

                            Read I of him 
            one red-eye sweltering night 
            upon my Fulbright-funded bed 
            beneath a moon so white 
            upon the Paraná it spoke 
            to me of snow, and cooled
            me as I read.  And saw I then 
            the moon is more than mere 
            reflector of another’s light 
            as science holds, but marks 
            of its own right, the tides 
            of human blood and tribulations 
            of the human soul.  A blurb 
            is all I read, filler in the local 
            rag, page forty-three between 
            an ad for condoms and someone’s 
            invocation of the Virgin, a line or two 
            about a Paraguayan-Yankee 
            hybrid guy who erstwhile 
            taught in university up north 
            and now was eighth-grade teacher 
            here in Paraguay.  Odd, said I, 
            and made the obligatory Google 
            search, and found the case 
            of Juan Emmanuel Ignatius 
            Gene O’Higgins, Ph.D., stripped 
            of job for saying no.  And 
            the moon that made me 
            think of snow upon the Paraná 
            also gave my mind to know 
            that North and South are two 
            but Man is one, and Juan 
            Emmanuel is Man.  And went I 
            when the sun arose, to find, 
            perchance to interview, the man.  
            And as I rode my bike 
            upon the red dirt road beside 
            the crones preparing tereré 
            and lorries painting smoke 
            across an asthma-colored sky, 
            my eyes embraced the toddlers 
            squalid in the clawing dust, 
            the children manning carts 
            en route to chicken-peck the dumps 
            for scraps of bread or metal, 
            the prematurely nubile 
            waiting for a pimp or john, 
            and wondered I what was 
            the measure of our teaching 
            if not for these, and what 
            the way of schooling man 
            if not as man engaging man 
            within that self-same dust, 
            as Genes risking eye 
            against the poison mist 
            of war.  No shortcut of machine 
            or screen exists for school, 
            nor found I shortcut 
            on the red dirt road to reach 
            the schoolyard where he was, 
            but came I by my bike 
            upon the gnarled clay and saw 
            his class at recess play 
            and him among them, and watched 
            them at a distance, and saw 
            his easy hand upon their backs 
            was challenge to their better selves, 
            his easy Guarani upon their ears 
            was balm upon their body-mind 
            to be their best in spite of dust, 
            to walk as Man upon the wizened 
            crust of earth, and knew 
            that he was right.  And turned 
            I from their schoolyard 
            play, and upward looked, and saw 
            upon the blazoned sky, though 
            it was day, the waxing moon 
                                   of Paraguay.   

This poem draws inspiration from a number of sources including Paraguayan literary masters like Augusto Roa Bastos (fiction and poetry), Juan Manuel Marcos (novel and poetry), Renée Ferrer (poetry) and Susy Delgado(poetry); the Chilean poetic genius Pablo Neruda; the Argentine poet and journalist José Hernández; former professors of mine like John Rassias and Robert Russell; my emeritus Oswego colleague Ivan Brady; and, in the playful tone of parts of the poem, even a hint of Dr Seuss.

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