by Marie D. Jones
Posted on Curledup.com.
Derrick Jensen doesn’t think twice about asking his writing students to walk on water. Writing about the power of words to move, to inspire and to create revolution, both emotionally and physically, Jensen understands that miracles are possible. As a writing teacher, he gives and takes from his students, wanting to teach them, yet not wanting to constrict them with formal education. As the author of such great books as A Language Other Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe, he is the Wild Man – instructing them, and in turn, the reader, on a deeper level.
Part writing guide, part call to action on behalf of a dying planet, part creative manifesto, this book inspires at so many levels as it celebrates the true freedom of creative thought. That writing, self-expression and politics are so intertwined is presented to the reader as a necessity for creative truth, and the author’s progressive views only serve to underscore the importance of truly being free in an industrialized world that only wants to enslave, especially when it comes to education.
As the author struggles with his own writing demons, his personal awakening as a gay man in a straight world, and his relationships to others which often become fodder for creative material, he continues to teach what he has learned and experienced to his eager and anxious students, while always keeping them at arm’s length enough to encourage their own independence. I was fascinated by both the back-and-forth experiences between teacher and students, where the line often got blurred as to whom was teaching whom. I was moved by the author’s call to action against the industrial forces that are destroying the planet, the environment, and, most of all, the free expression of our children, upon whom our future most depends. I was deeply inspired by the author’s understanding of why school often steals the spirit from children, serving only to instruct rather than to inspire.
Walking on Water is filled with transformational wisdom and insight that begs us as humans to stop seeking our happiness and fulfillment outside of ourselves. The title refers to a brilliant lesson that teacher imparts to students near the end of their class; a lesson that makes the impossible not only possible, but worth the risk and discomfort. The beauty and clarity of the writing is enough reason to buy this book, especially if you are a writer or someone who longs to find expression in a world that would rather you just shut up and act normal. But the main reason to buy this book is to get an understanding of the ability of words to create revolution – political, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and how even those who don’t consider themselves talented can find their own way of freeing the spirit and listening to the call of the heart.
After all, that’s what revolution is. Listening to the call of the heart.
by Marg Cloy, University of Oklahoma
Posted on Education Review
December 1, 2004
The only teaching goal any educator should set, particularly a writing instructor, is to help students come to understand who they are, to educe (“lead forth”) the students, rather than to seduce (“lead astray”), according to Derrick Jensen (p.15). He writes, “I cannot control what my students want or are able to learn, and I have no desire…to control any of these would be to reproduce in my own classroom the bureaucratic model that is killing the world, a model that values standardization over individuality…” (p. 109). His philosophy is the accumulation of decades of teaching experience, which began with college freshmen when Jensen was himself no more than a young graduate assistant. It is the atmosphere he creates which distinguishes his classroom from the teacher-centered authoritarian model, a format Jensen abandoned when he “entered the classroom for real” (p. 20).
Walking on Water is a free-flowing narrative in which Jensen explicates what he wants from his students (an understanding of themselves) and how he achieves this goal. He recounts early classroom failures with candor and humor, telling of disastrous lectures on never ending sentences with prepositions. The path from there to more rewarding days can be followed through his student- teacher discourse. Example: “Since it’s my experience that, as Carl Rogers wrote, the only real learning is self-discovered, self- appropriated learning, I won’t try to teach you anything. It’s my job instead to create an atmosphere where you can teach yourself” (p. 20). As one reads through the chapters, it becomes evident that he does achieve this end.
This book is not presented as a “how to” in three easy steps. It is an honest reflection of what one teacher learned about teaching, teaching he sincerely believes is best for students. He shares with the reader his disdain for grades, methods of satisfying the department’s requirements, his views on our culture’s insistence that anything can be universal, his experience at allowing alternate forms of expression in his curriculum, his five rules of good writing. Sometimes he presents the reader with problematic situations that he has encountered in the classroom, discusses cause-and-effect explanations, but stops short of delivering solutions. During one particular classroom discussion, students were candid in admitting that they did not like to think. Jensen then questioned them about what they do in the shower, in the car, during television watching. He assumed that a student who was a football fan actually thought about the sport while watching it. Not so. Jensen writes, “I have to be honest with you and tell you I don’t know what to make of all this. This discussion took place a decade ago . . . I still cannot quite wrap my mind around their answers or, especially, the implications” (p. 176). As a teacher, he never lies to his students; as a writer, he never fakes it for the audience.
A quick tour of chapter titles reveals his flair for brevity and his seemingly random topic list (“A Nation of Slaves,” “How to Not Teach,” “Love,” “Significance”). I sometimes wondered if he had lost something, derailed perhaps; however, just as quickly, he brought the ideas back into focus. In the end, it all made sense---even the title of his book, which turned out to be a lesson his students “taught” themselves.
For those who want to know more about teaching writing in a college setting, or for those who want new ways of looking at old ideas, Jensen’s book provides an interesting look at one teacher’s journey. Whether instructing at a university or at a prison he writes, “The foundation of my work in the classroom remains the same for both college and prison, which is to respect and love my students into becoming who they are” (p. 33). For anyone who appreciates an uncensored, opinionated, direct account of another’s experiences with teaching, this is a book worth reading.
"In the course of their schooling, most students meet at least one Wild Man-a teacher who asks Zen-like questions, gives outrageous assignments, and challenges all their beliefs. If they’re lucky, their Wild Man’s antics not only prod them into critical thinking, but bring out their best and truest selves. In this book, the author exemplifies and illustrates this approach to education.
"Jensen has a wide following in deep-ecology circles; he writes for the New York Times Magazine, Audubon, and The Sun Magazine, among many others. His previous books, including The Culture of Make Believe and the USA Today Critics’ Choice book Listening to the Land, have taken on modern technological and “power-over” culture with wicked impact. He has also taught writing classes on the college level and to prisoners. In his latest book, he draws on this background to intersperse personal philosophy with tales and tips on the teaching of writing.
"The book may be most interesting and helpful not to the educator or to the cultural critic, but to the working writer. Jensen has some genuinely new ways of looking at authorly dilemmas, such as the way one’s words never really match the numinous visions in one’s mind. On the basic-but often neglected-matter of clarity, he offers a hilarious anecdote: “I don’t like ranch dressing.” His concept of “tracking a character’s or narrative’s movement” gives authors another creative tool-albeit one often mishandled by novice writers. Both instructors and editors, Jensen insists, should aim to help each writer perfect the piece they want to write, rather than imposing their own ideas.
"Perhaps, Jensen suggests at one point, rather than our bodies being ourselves, they are a sort of TV or radio receiver for “life itself. It’s dancing and exploding all around us, and when the right wavelength meets the right vessel, boom, there you go, instant animation.” He goes on to toss out alternate constructs of self-concept-self as an invisible weightless thing called a soul, as a web of experiences and relationships, as an ego in a sack of skin. Such mental play must have made Jensen’s courses memorable.
"He holds “industrial civilization” to be wholly destructive, claiming that insofar as society treats education as a way to prepare children to fit into the machine like their forebears, it becomes a soul killer. The author’s views on this point are not new; other radical educational theorists have said much the same. However, Jensen’s passion illuminates the whole book. Anyone reading it can expect to see some things in a new light."
by Adam Fletcher, Director of the Freechild Project
One of the most important components of both education and activism is contextualization. As Paulo Freire argued, learning must be rooted in the context in which education takes place. For a sixth-grader in the US, that would be their local community; for a elderly person, that might be their family. For Derrick Jensen, that place was in classrooms at a university and a maximum security prison, where he was taught creative writing to Washington state college students and prisoners convicted of robbery, rape, and murder. In this book Jensen shares stories from those places as a guise and guide for the larger lessons, both hinted at and carefully detailed throughout this book.
The lessons here are truly revolutionary. "As is true for most people I know, I've always loved learning. As is also true for most people I know, I always hated school. Why is that?" With this opening line, Jensen begins a more-than-casual assault on traditional schooling, railing on everything from classroom seating arrangements to grading; from teaching methods to attendance. The lessons here a resonant of the teachings of both John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, the latter of whom Jensen credits greatly, and they give anecdotal meaning to some of the wisdom of by Grace Llewellyn and William Upski Wimsatt.
Through his lessons, Jensen gives substance and validity to many peoples' feelings of alienation and disconnectedness in school, and offers a brilliant guide to creative writing along the way. Jensen writes, "Throughout our adult lives, most of us are expected to get to work on time, to do our boss's bidding...and not to leave till the final bell has rung. It is expected that we will watch the clock, counting seconds till five o'clock, till Friday, till payday, till retirement, when at last our time will again be our own, as it was before we began kindergarten, or preschool, or daycare. Where do we learn to do all of this waiting?" The answer, of course, is school. School is the "day-prison" where we learn to be "a nation of slaves."
He then follows this daring declaration with another story from his prison experience, where he created "an atmosphere in which students wish to learn...", which included asking both prisoners and college students to be uncomfortable in their search for meaning through writing. Throughout this book Jensen includes several useful writing tips that offer a unique twist to this book: while a significant diatribe against historical approaches to education, it provides useful methods for self-education and learning through life.
Ultimately Jensen achieves Freire's challenge of sharing with students the goal of "reading the word through the world," and in that is Jensen's greatest success. This book is vitally important to any person seeking inspiration for learning outside the lines, both for its practical advice, and for the fact that it is coming from a seasoned educator. I believe that it can also be important to young people particularly, because through his intelligent, accessible thinking, Jensen acknowledges what many youth believe: school isn't relevant to young people today because teachers can't be relevant to learning today. They just don't know how. However, more importantly, Jensen himself disproves that, and may actually inspire young readers to look into places of higher education for the vital allyship and mentorship that adult educators can potentially offer.
As Jensen ponders the weight of the world throughout the book, including wrestling with conservatism, hopelessness and apathy, war, and many other feelings, he leaves readers with a challenging thought that easily summarizes the motivation of this book, and lends this book its essentialness in the activist library: "There is much work to be done. What are you waiting for? It's time to begin."
It is time to begin. Thank you, Derrick Jensen, for giving us a roadway to get started.