“I was working on the wrong map to begin with.”

Some people I interviewed wanted me to say I was sorry–I am and I did. Some people wanted me to say that I remembered –I did and I did not. And some people wanted me to say it was all a mistake–it was and it was not. It felt less like journalism than archaeology, a job that required shovels and axes, hacking my way into dark, little-used passages and feeling my way around, finding other pieces that did not fit, and figuring out that I was working on the wrong map to begin with. It would prove to be an enlightening and sickening enterprise, a new frontier in the annals of self-involvement. I would show up at the doorsteps of people I had not seen in two decades and ask them to explain myself to me. This is what they told me.

From The Night of the Gun by David Carr.

Here is the definition of boring: unchanging, inert, here this is and here it always has been. The following is what I know: this is what I know.

I’m so sick of reading boring writing about teaching. This is an inherently popular position to take, but I think I can be specific about the criticism. What made Carr’s memoir so much fun to read was his framing the work as “archaeology,” as his attempt to find the map of his own drug-addled life.

There’s a distinction to be made here. I’m not saying that what made Carr’s book interesting was that he exposed his journalistic practice. If his project took shovels and axes, those shovels and axes were mostly in operation off-screen. This book is not a “how-to” for journalistic investigations.

Instead, what made this so much fun was the real sense at every stage that we might learn something new. His priority in the first few pages of the book are not to establish his privileged authority — precisely the opposite! He makes quick work of his authorial knowledge, establishing the unreliability of his memory in the first chapter. Once he does that, anything can happen. We can be surprised!

Even in my favorite books about teaching math, surprise is dead from page 1. They’re all the same, more or less: here’s what some people do, here’s why it’s wrong, here’s what we know, here’s how to do it. Bor-ing.

(Some books have this cliche thing they do in the first pages: “When I started teaching, I used to do Mad Minutes while I blasted Megadeth from a stereo. Then I learned about progressive-based discovquery learning.” This is entirely different than what I’m talking about.)

I don’t know why the literature has to be this way. I don’t know why teachers aren’t demanding better reading. The only explanation for all this boring writing I can come up with is a depressing one — that people don’t really read these things anyway, or at least they don’t buy them to read them. Maybe we buy books for those little activity ideas, or to look nice on a shelf, or maybe someone else buys our books for us.

It didn’t have to be this way. I’ve been flipping through Benchara Branford lately. I never know what to expect when he’s talking about his classroom. Magdalene Lampert is not a prose superstar, but her writing is alive in the way most professional writing I see is not. (Are blogs better? Some are, definitely.)

Fewer books that sound like powerpoint; more archaeology, please!


4 thoughts on ““I was working on the wrong map to begin with.”

  1. That ‘o’ seems r-controlled to me. I’m originally from CT for what it’s worth, but I come down on the side of “bor-ring.”

    Love the quote – reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre. I will have to pick that book up.
    Blogs are great, and I really enjoy the connections on Twitter, but you’re right – we need a book that makes some discoveries…


  2. This was the same experience I had when I read Jacob Kounin’s original ‘Discipline and group management in classrooms’. Basically: Hey I had an idea (ripple effect) and thought let’s try it out with a large video study. Didn’t really pan out. But hey I got lucky with funding so tried out another idea and this was really interesting. A nice exploratory adventure to read.


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