Archives for June 2016

Bloom’s Taxonomy

This post is another response to an assignment in Critical Instructional Design. This week’s prompt:

This week your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to dismantle and re-mantle one common assumption about instructional design. We encourage you to tackle one of those assumptions that you hold most closely—because discomfort can often be terrifically productive.

I’m tackling Bloom’s taxonomy.

Why? I find I refer to it often, but I realize I’m frequently using it as shorthand for something else.

Bloom’s taxonomy emerged from a series of educational conferences in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but ended up being named after Benjamin Bloom, who served as chair of the committee of educators that formulated the taxonomy. Those of you who are teachers or professors very likely will have seen this diagram or one like it:

This is actually one of three taxonomies and represents what the committee termed “the cognitive domain.” It’s the part of the taxonomy that remains most popular in higher education. The way I’ve seen Bloom’s taxonomy described—and honestly, how I usually explain it—is that these cognitive skills build on one another as they grow increasingly complex. The common implication, then, is that these skills need to be scaffolded—though I confess in my classes I’m not particularly good about careful scaffolding. In my courses I try to get students into application, analysis, and synthesis almost immediately.

In the 1990s, some of Bloom’s students revised the taxonomy so that it looks more like this:

Lorin Anderson, one of the authors of the revised taxonomy, described the process and previewed the changes in a 1999 paper; Anderson explained that the next taxonomy emphasized the contexts in which cognitive processes take place and acknowledged more than the academic context—the authors added two additional knowledge categories or dimensions: the “strategic/motivational” and “social/cultural.” Anderson writes,

The first, strategic/motivational, recognizes the importance of knowing as a legitimate educational goal. This category contains what has been termed metacognition and includes the learning strategies students employ, the links they make between their efforts and their accomplishments, and their perceptions of themselves as people and as learners. The addition of the second category, social/cultural, reflects our appreciation of the cultural-specificity of knowledge. It also recognizes the role of social learning theory in explaining how students learn.

The revision, therefore, infused the original taxonomy with additional complexity and nuance. Whereas the original taxonomy suggested students should be climbing ever upward on the chart, another of the creators of the revised taxonomy, David Krathwohl, made clear that students may more freely move up and down the chart:

Like the original taxonomy, the revision is a hierarchy in the sense that the six major categories of the Cognitive Process dimension are believed to differ in their complexity, with remember being less complex than understand, which is less complex than apply, and so on. However, because the revision gives much greater weight to teacher usage, the requirement of a strict hierarchy has been relaxed to allow the categories to overlap one another.

Krathwohl implies, then, that the skills don’t necessarily need to be scaffolded. This freedom from moving systematically up the taxonomy frees up faculty to take risks as they pose greater challenges to their students, asking them to take cognitive leaps rather than plodding steps.

Krathwohl added an additional layer to the revised taxonomy by suggesting the cognitive skills be used as column heads across the top of a table, with different varieties of knowledge—factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive—forming the row headers. Instructors could place their individual learning objectives in the table’s cells, mapping in one visual what kinds of cognitive skills and knowledge a course aimed to develop in students. While filling out this taxonomic table may feel a bit mechanical to some instructors (myself included), the completed table makes transparent what kinds of knowledge and skills will be cultivated in a course. Should all of these skills and knowledge be grouped into a single area of the table—say, the upper-left quadrant, which focuses on remembering, understanding, and applying factual and conceptual knowledge—the instructor may want to reconsider the course objectives. Some instructors may be comfortable conducting a 100-level course in this quadrant of the table, but uncomfortable if their upper-division courses also fell there.


Bloom’s taxonomy in both its forms has been both popular and influential, but it has not been free of criticism. As Robert Marzano and John Kendall note in The New Taxonomy of Educational ObjectivesBloom’s original taxonomy has proven especially useful in evaluation, though less influential in curriculum design. In particular, Marzano and Kendall write, developers of the standardized state tests that arose in the 1970s leaned on Bloom’s, sometimes heavily, to define skill levels. In the past few decades, such tests have come increasingly under attack from parents and teachers alike. Anderson acknowledges Bloom’s utility in and application to such evaluation, but defends the new taxonomy from critics who might say the original taxonomy lends itself to oversimplified assessments: “We believe that the diversity of cognitive processes represented in the taxonomy requires a comparable diversity of assessment strategies and techniques.”

That’s an important acknowledgement and correction, as one of the biggest criticisms of the original Bloom’s taxonomy is that it’s unscientific and out of step with current theories of learning. In particular, the levels, which Bloom et. al. claimed were hierarchical, are actually quite muzzy. Drawing on others’ criticisms of Bloom’s, Marzano and Kendall point out that higher-order skills can be prerequisite to allegedly lower-level ones. For example, they write, analysis of a subject can be central to comprehending it.

Syntheses of Bloom’s

Those who criticize the original taxonomy’s embrace of hierarchical levels of cognitive skills can indeed hold the original taxonomy responsible, but the synthesis of Bloom’s with other learning theories strengthened this hierarchy. Take, for example, the three theorists perhaps best known for their uses of various kinds of scaffolding: Vygotsky, Bruner, and Rogoff. Each scaffolding theory holds that learners need assistance, usually from other people, in moving to higher orders of thinking and understanding.

These theories emphasized the social aspects of learning: people learn in community, whether it be in a formal classroom or in an informal setting. And once we introduce the social component, the multitudinous learning scenarios become impossible to track. As our networked, digital age has increasingly made clear, knowledge lives and thrives in networks, and it’s situated in bodies (h/t Donna Haraway). Depending on which nodes (people, learning artifacts, contexts) are connected and activated at any given time, different kinds of learning take place and different knowledges are created. As John Spencer suggests in a blog post, the original taxonomy’s clean modernism does not stand up in a postmodern age. That said, the modernist tendencies of Bloom’s are written right into the model’s name: it is a taxonomy; it names, classifies, and orders.

Even in the midst of this analytical chaos, however, Bloom’s remains useful as a shorthand in introducing learning theory to faculty who have never considered the subject. I frequently refer to “pushing students up the pyramid.” On the one hand, the metaphor is a bit coercive. On the other hand, it suggests we have students’ backs and are trying to support them in their journey. I’ve used the expression with students as well as faculty, and it seems to help students understand what’s going on in my (to them) unconventional online course. I even used Bloom’s to explain my course’s activities in a recent wrap-up post in the online course I taught in the spring.

Bloom’s, scaffolding, and employability

I want to take a look at that same closing post from my online course, as it captures a moment when I was trying to make sense of the first course I’d taught fully online, and it references Bloom’s, then immediately swoops into a discussion of career outcomes.

That course, HIST 100: Themes in World History — Engineering the Past, is meant to serve primarily as a general education course for non-majors and secondarily as a place where we might recruit majors. It was my first time teaching online and my first time teaching world history (which I last took in eighth grade), and I complicated the semester by using WordPress as an institutionally unsupported LMS and by trying to use as much free course material as possible. It was messy and not too far beyond what Silicon Valley types might call a Minimum Viable Product. When I teach it again, it will look very, very different.

I’m fortunate to be at an institution where we aren’t mandated to use the supported LMS, Blackboard, though I did use Blackboard’s gradebook because students like to have a place to track their grades, and I didn’t trust any gradebook I could set up in WordPress would be compliant with FERPA.

There are many benefits to working outside the institution’s LMS—benefits I’ll try to remember to elaborate in another post—but one disadvantage in teaching a 100-level online course on a platform that’s new to students is that it requires a good deal of technological scaffolding and hand-holding. I’ve used WordPress in my face-to-face courses, where students can easily help one another with technical questions before, during, or after each class meeting. In an entirely online general education course, however, there doesn’t tend to be the same sense of community because, at least at my institution, many of the students sign up for online courses hoping they’re a smaller time commitment than face-to-face courses. Students enter the semester, then, already reticent to invest time, let alone emotional energy, into such a course.

Accordingly, I found I needed to show students how to do simple technological tasks, such as logging into WordPress, writing and publishing a post, adding visual or audio media to a post, collaborating via Google docs, or finding a journal article in the library’s databases. As the semester progressed, I expected students to remember what I had already showed them how to do, then apply those patterns to other technological challenges in the course—e.g., finding other library resources or collaborating digitally on a much less structured group project.

It was clear to me some students felt more than a little lost during the course, and for every student who gave polite voice to their frustrations or confusion, I suspect two or three remained silent. At the end of the course, then, I felt the need to tie everything up with a neat bow, explaining that what may have seemed like a scattershot approach to world history was actually (somewhat) carefully planned to provide students with a lower-division course experience that expected more of them than a typical 100-level course.

Furthermore, although I had not done so intentionally, I realized many of the course activities and outcomes aligned with an entirely different but relevant taxonomy: my university’s “Make College Count” initiative, which encourages students to find opportunities to practice the skills employers most seek:

  • analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting information;
  • thinking critically;
  • solving problems;
  • taking initiative;
  • contributing to a team;
  • managing time and priorities;
  • performing with integrity;
  • effectively communicating orally;
  • building and sustaining working professional relationships.

I don’t like to think of higher education as vocational training, but when I view many of my courses from my students’ perspective, I understand students see college as key to developing the knowledge and skills that will let them earn a better living in a state that ranks first in the nation for minimum-wage jobs per capita. Student can develop these skills in any number of disciplines, but as an advocate for the humanities, I try to ensure students practice such skills while coming to appreciate the value and utility of the humanities in everyday life.

And so, yes, I practice scaffolding in some of my courses, and I found it to be especially valuable in my online course. I scaffold skills—from collaborating with others in a digital environment to analyzing material culture to better understand the habits, beliefs, and values of artifacts’ users—more than I do content. Content is just a way for students to get to the skills. And so I tend to skip very quickly over remembering and understanding in favor of emphasizing application and analysis through the act of creating a digital project that synthesizes text and multimedia elements.

Looking forward

So. . . What will I change in my courses and my instructional design practice now that I’ve taken a closer look at Bloom’s taxonomy and its critics?

Honestly, not much. Bloom’s remains a useful tool for me in my current context. Were I teaching at a selective small liberal arts college or an R1 university, both of which often have more middle-class and wealthy students than my institution does, I might not have to think as explicitly about how the skills we use in class affect students’ immediate career prospects. Like the educators who reformulated Bloom’s Taxonomy in the 1990s, I’m compelled to take the learning context into account.

Still, I appreciate the opportunity to reconsider, and then defend, one of my core ways of thinking about skills and outcomes in my courses.

Is instructional design activism?

I wrote a long post for a discussion forum for the online course I’m taking in Critical Instructional Design, and I thought I’d share/archive it here as well. The prompt asked:

  • Is instructional design a form of activism?
  • How does what we think about what we do can influence how learning happens across our institutions?
  • What do Audre Lorde’s words (master’s tools, master’s house) mean for you—personally, professionally, pedagogically? How do you think they might influence your use of digital tools? Do they spur you to consider a different dialogue with tools and toolmakers than the one you participate in now (and what does that dialogue look like now? what might it look like)?
  • Why or why not is a discussion about Audre Lorde’s statement relevant to our contemplation of critical instructional design?

I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts, of course, in the comments or elsewhere.


I hadn’t thought of instructional design as a form of activism in itself, even though it’s an integral part of teaching, which definitely can be (and often should be) a form of activism. I had been thinking of instructional design as planning for the real activism; thank you for tweaking my thinking.

As for Lorde’s comments on the master’s tools and the master’s house, we may need to pull back a bit to consider context. In the essay, she is asking why white women were sequestering black women into a single panel, and uses that event to question why heterosexuality is privileged over homosexuality, why middle-class is privileged over poor, why the developed world is privileged over the developing world, and more. When white, straight, middle-class women protest they are unaware of the dialogues taking place in spaces they themselves don’t occupy, Lorde tells them it’s their job to listen for those voices.

Today, fortunately, it’s not difficult to eavesdrop on conversations from communities to which we don’t belong. Just last night I finally joined Periscope, zoomed in on my parents’ neighborhood in Long Beach, California, and watched a gay black man talk about how he’s struggling to write his book because it brings up past trauma, and it drives him to drink (he was broadcasting while holding a large glass of white wine), and his partner thinks he’s drinking too much. On the surface, he and I share nothing in common, except that I once lived in the same zip code, but I quickly empathized with his plight as a blocked writer. I can listen in on Black Twitter and its hashtags. I can watch and learn from friends of all ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, religions, socioeconomic classes, political commitments, etc. on Facebook. And then of course there are a ton of books I could (and have) read that allow me to better understand inequality and inequity at various cultural, political, and economic intersections.

Just because it’s easy for instructional designers to glean some tiny understanding from social media and publications, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to translate this learning into course design—particularly if the instructional designer isn’t the instructor for the course. If you don’t have security of employment, it can be awkward and a bit intimidating to point out to a senior professor (or, say, a vice provost who happens to be teaching a course) that there isn’t a single author of color on his syllabus and that’s problematic. It’s a brave instructional designer indeed who would point out to a senior prof the importance of Lorde’s exhortation in “The Master’s Tools”:

Advocating the mere tolerance of difference. . .is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. For difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways to actively ‘be’ in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.

At the same time, gently pointing out the narrowness of perspective represented in course readings can be a productive starting point. Finding the language to express that narrowness without introducing a good deal of discomfort into the interaction is, however, difficult. (And yes, I know discomfort is a useful tool in teaching and learning. In this case, the power structure–tenured faculty over staff–could escalate to the point where the instructional designer’s employment is at risk.)

At our next staff meeting, I’m going to have a conversation with my instructional designers about how they navigate such minefields. I confess to strategically (and explicitly) deploying an instructional designer to a straight white male professor’s course when I saw its syllabus would benefit from her perspective as a woman of color and immigrant from the developing world.

As for tools: I’m fortunate to direct a unit that’s charged with looking at and supporting emerging technologies, though sometimes things are handed to us (e.g., a clunky e-portfolio platform chosen by the people running our core courses program) that we have to support for a while. I tend to lean toward open source tools because we can tinker with them more, but I’m certainly not against someone making a profit when they develop a really great, useful tool that advances learning. I recently saw a post decrying Lumen making a modest profit by helping to bring OER to universities, for example; if Lumen can bring high-quality, free or exceptionally low-cost materials to students and help faculty construct active learning around that content, I’m fine with that. (I’ve been in a Lumen workshop and thought it was based on sound pedagogical principles.)

I also realize that while I’m not a super early adopter, I’m a bit farther ahead of the curve than most faculty, and I’m willing to take more technological risks in front of and with students than are many of my colleagues. Some of my colleagues believe they need to be masters of a technology before using it with students, whereas I tend to shrug and tell the students they need to puzzle their way through the challenges the technology poses—and embrace that process as a core piece of the learning in the course. I’m wondering if more faculty would be willing to experiment with unsupported (at least by the university) tools if we framed them as part of an insurgent, progressive agenda.

Critical, Instructional, Design?

I’m taking a brief online course, Critical Instructional Design, through Digital Pedagogy Lab. This blog post constitutes my response to the first assignment. Here’s the prompt:

For this assignment, consider the problem of the definition of critical instructional design. What do you think critical means? What does instructional mean to you? What is design? What do these words in combination with each other mean? And, more than definitional meaning, what does critical instructional design look like in practice?

Answering these questions is going to require more than a little divagation into autobiography—particularly the first one: “What do you think critical means?”


When I was an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, the English and American Studies departments where I undertook a good deal of my coursework were, while politically progressive and eager to incorporate diverse artifacts, texts, and perspectives, relatively free of explicit theoretical practice. (There was a junior seminar on literary theory, but I didn’t take it.) Instead, students participated in relatively free-wheeling discussions of texts and other cultural phenomena. (Helen Vendler’s latest book, The Ocean, The Bird and the Scholar is a fine, albeit higher order approximation of how we explicated and interpreted poems.) Never did I have to think, “But what would Derrida—or Marx, Foucault, Saussure, Althusser, or Deleuze and Guattari— say about this text?” At age 20, I didn’t experience the anxiety of applying someone else’s lens to, say, literature or architecture that was, at least for me, already sufficiently complex.

This doesn’t mean we were solipsistic in our readings. We considered the cultural moments in which these works came into being. We applied existing theories and combinations of theories, certainly, but we didn’t necessarily know they emerged from named schools of thought.

When I went to grad school to get an M.A. in writing poetry, my program required us to take a certain number of literature seminars—something to which I initially looked forward. However, soon I realized many of the literature Ph.D. students believed their task for our weekly seminars was to force whatever work we were reading—Thomas More‘s Utopia, for example, or Sutton Griggs‘s Imperium in Imperiothrough the disfiguring filters of their favorite critical theory, then attempt to glean brilliant observations from the pulverized parts, as if reading entrails.

At the time, I found the whole process distasteful. I had planned to move from the creative writing M.A. to a Ph.D. in literature, but my forays into graduate literature seminars turned me off that path.

Instead, I started a Ph.D. in a relatively old-school American studies program that embraced the roots of that interdiscipline—history and literature—while broadly defining what counts as “literature.” I enjoyed it, but for nonacademic reasons, I felt the pull of my home state of California, and I opted instead to enroll in a brand-new cultural studies Ph.D. program, naïvely thinking that “cultural studies” merely meant “American studies methods and interests, broadened to a global scale.”

Long story short: I struggled. There were a few theories I found super useful, particularly those of Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, Patricia Hill Collins, and some cultural theorists working within museum studies and material culture. Many others—I’m looking at you, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Haraway, and Gayatri Spivak—I understood and found interesting, but I was put off by how the density of their language took their work in a direction opposite from the democratizing, liberatory projects they wanted to construct. It was just too difficult for most people to read and understand, let alone translate into their own lives and work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in my own work I took a vow of comprehensibility. I wrote a dissertation that would not be out of place in a graduate history program. I drew on the work of a couple of theorists and curtsied in the direction of others, but for the most part, I tried to be more pragmatic in the everyday sense of that term: I wanted my work to be useful to other people. For that to happen, it had to be accessible.

I suppose the tl;dr for this section is: Because of my academic experiences with cultural studies and critical theory, I struggle with the meaning of the word “critical” in an educational or academic context. So much of this particular kind of thinking ends up being intellectual for the sake of being intellectual—for getting tenure, maybe?—rather than lending itself to practical application in the lives of the people where it could effect the greatest change.


In my thinking and, I like to imagine, my own work, “instructional” slides very quickly from its traditional definition in higher ed—the one-to-many models of the lecture or instructor-moderated class discussion—to questions of how I can make a course meaningful to students in their own context while also revealing the narrowness of that context and challenging its constructs. To instruct, for me, means to create a space for learning. That space will vary widely, depending on discipline, students’ preparation (or lack thereof) for collegiate work, and the instructor’s philosophy of teaching and learning.


Last fall I had the opportunity to consider the process of design thinking as practiced by IDEO. Of all the steps in the process, I most appreciated the first: empathize. While I was uneasy with some of the ways the IDEO team recommended practicing empathy, particularly regarding understanding the needs of people with disabilities (e.g., smearing petroleum jelly on one’s glasses to simulate poor vision or binding one’s joints to better understand a user with arthritis), I appreciate that empathy is the very first step.

Empathy has emerged as a driving force in my course design. When I’m crafting learning outcomes, for example, I don’t begin with the knowledge or skills I want students to develop. Rather, I try to get a very specific sense of which students will be in the course. Sometimes this is easy—students have already registered for the course and I can ask them questions. Other times, a course’s future enrollment is less transparent and I have to design the course based on a set of common characteristics among my university’s students. I try to find ways to triangulate among these students’ likely knowledge and skills, the discipline’s expectations of course content, and what might benefit students in their lives beyond and after the course.

So, for example, if I’m teaching a graduate seminar that serves as an introduction to public history, I consider where my students have studied previously and what their expectations of such a course might be. At many universities, this course comprises an introduction to designing museum exhibits, organizing archival or museum collections, interpreting historical sites, and preserving architecture and artifacts. However, in talking with people who work in the field, I’ve learned that while there are industry standards for each of these practices, individual sites of public historical practice are sufficiently idiosyncratic in their approach, methods, and digital tools that many students will have to unlearn their textbook understandings of public history to do their jobs well. There’s also a big push to incorporate more diverse perspectives at historical sites, in collections, and in exhibitions. At the same time, laws regarding collections and preservation have grown increasingly complex.

Accordingly, I’ve shifted my public history courses to emphasize digital savvy, user experience (broadly defined), the realities of federal and municipal bureaucracies, entrepreneurial thinking (even in nonprofits, though also in the conventional definition), and the perspectives of marginalized peoples. Students are often surprised by, and frankly often a bit cranky about, the course’s focus, but once they’re on the job market and in their first career positions, they admit they’re fairly well-prepared.

In this sense, I’m not designing based on the content students say they want (because, honestly, their understanding about what they need to know is often naïve), but rather on deeper needs I’ve identified.

For me, the process of design is inextricably tangled with empathy. I can’t imagine good design that doesn’t take into account users’ everyday experiences and bigger desires.

Critical instructional design

Honestly, I’m not yet sure how the “critical” fits with instructional design. Some first thoughts and hypotheses on what it means in practice:

  • reading against the grain of canonical instructional design theory and practice
  • taking a social justice approach to crafting learning experiences
  • creating learning experiences that make a difference in students’ lives and in the world, in part by making the familiar strange*

I’m looking forward to learning more.


* Here I’m alluding in particular to Elizabeth Walker Mechling and Jay Mechling’s essay “American Cultural Criticism in the Pragmatic Attitude” in the book At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies. Among their seven “working assumptions” about pragmatic criticism, Mechling and Mechling emphasize that “the pragmatic critic wants to make a difference in the world,” in large part by “making the familiar strange,” “a profoundly radical political act” that can, in the words of C. Wright Mills, “connect private troubles with public issues.” (p. 148) Pragmatism, in this sense, does not mean taking the conventionally sensible path, but rather understanding that radical approaches and marginalized perspectives, while often difficult politically, may offer the best lenses on a subject.

Founding fathers poem, draft 2

Let’s begin today with Robert Penn Warren‘s poem “Founding Fathers, Early-Nineteenth-Century Style, Southeast U.S.A.” It begins,

They were human, they suffered, wore long black coat and gold watch chain.
They stare from daguerreotype with severe reprehension,
Or from genuine oil, and you’d never guess any pain
In those merciless eyes that now remark our own time’s sad declension.

Warren then shares a sampling of their characters and struggles. His is not a complimentary retrospective. Of one of his own ancestors, the speaker writes, allegedly quoting a book, “‘Little learning but shrewd, not well trusted.’ Rides thus out of history, neck fat and napeless.”

Still, the poem’s speaker suggests, we can glean some of their wisdom by acknowledging both their faults and their small victories. (Of course, Warren being a Southerner of a particular age who was age partial to both New Criticism and Jefferson’s agrarian middle landscape, he and I likely would learn different lessons from these ancestors.)

So let us bend ear to them in this hour of lateness,
And what they are trying to say, try to understand,
And try to forgive them their defects, even their greatness,
For we are their children in the light of humanness, and under the shadow of God’s closing hand.

But on to yesterday’s sonnet.

Founders, early 21st-century-style, U.S.A.

Penn Warren lent them black coats, shining chains,
the Lord. He reminded us they suffered.
An alabaster Washington was framed
by Williams: “Too powerful for comfort”

of women or his slaves. Yet some had gleaned
equality was not impossible.
Emancipated thinking led to dreams
of coalitions grown unstoppable.

Miranda’s crafted more than pop lyrics—
gave immigrants their due. He made us woke.
We question narratives, why stories stick,
why textbooks pacify more than provoke.

His music’s paradoxical and sage:
Brown founders sing their new selves on the stage.

I like sonnets because they’re constrained, but the writer can subvert the relentless iambs for subtle (or not so subtle) effect. So, for example, that last couplet can scan as iambs, but the last line opens itself to alternative stresses. It should be “Brown FOUNDers SING their NEW selves ON the STAGE,” but if you read it aloud, you more likely placed the stresses something like this: “BROWN FOUNDers sing their NEW SELVES on the STAGE.”

I also like sonnets because their brevity requires me to focus on a single idea, which has never been a strength of mine in conversation, poetry, or prose. I also like the “turn” at the end of the English sonnet; many of my favorite poems, sonnets or not, end with such a turn.

However, I’m dissatisfied with the unfocused nature of the ideas in yesterday’s sonnet. The lines seem blunted.

What if I took an opposite approach today, letting the lines grow as Warren’s do—or stretch with abandon (at least relative to the sonnet), in the style of, say, Jorie Graham? (For example, from “Covenant”: “. . .Who could have known a glance could be / so plastic. Rubbery and pushing-down on all the tiny hissing overbright greens.”)


They were human, they suffered, they scratched
at mosquito bites until they bled. They bore small scars,
some visible, some not. These crowded rooms,
inspired declarations, thickened manifestos’ ink.

Their insecurity soaked linen collars and wool frocks.
Men of many words marinated privately in fear.
(Hamilton’s nib audible in the wee hours of July 4:
“Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.”)

Women, too, felt it. They wrestled, one wrote,
with “a mortifying consciousness of inferiority,”
The self-taught essayist cajoled,
threatened: “the same breath of God animates us.”

Late at night, which foundered founders more?
The king, slaves, God, the suppressed
collective intelligence of women? Perhaps John Adams
heard whispers, woke to night terrors: “Remember the ladies.”

Abigail pretended to sleep.

Welcome to my brain gym. Today’s exercise: a sonnet.

Background: I’m finding poetry—reading and writing it, mulling it over—helps with the brain fuzz. I’m going to keep myself accountable for this particular variety of brain exercise by posting here about what I’m reading and writing.

What follows is a very rough first draft of a poem inspired by my recent obsessive listening to the soundtrack of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton. Hip hop isn’t my genre, but I like Hamilton’s driving beats and brilliant rhymes (e.g., “a bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? / Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is”). I’m also impressed how much history the lyrics fit into a small space.

Today, therefore, I started with a simple beat and a small space: the iamb and the constraints of the English sonnet. It’s unlikely this poem’s final form will be a sonnet, but it’s as good a place as any to begin.


Founders, early 21st-century-style, U.S.A.

Penn Warren lent them black coats, shining chains,
the Lord. He reminded us they suffered.
An alabaster Washington was framed
by Williams: “Too powerful for comfort”

of women or his slaves. Yet some had gleaned
equality was not impossible.
Emancipated thinking led to dreams
of coalitions grown unstoppable.

Miranda’s crafted more than pop lyrics—
gave immigrants their due. He made us woke.
We question narratives, why stories stick,
why textbooks pacify more than provoke.

His music’s paradoxical and sage:
Brown founders sing their new selves on the stage.

Lyrical delight in an elegiac moment



I recently happened again upon W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” It’s been a favorite of mine since high school, but somehow it had fallen off my radar. No matter what one thinks of Yeats—I happen to be a fan of his poetry, but not his later politics—Auden’s poem is a tremendous elegy for a poet (any poet). It begins

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

In its third section, “In Memory” lapses into the distinctive meter Yeats uses in “Under Ben Bulben” (“Irish poets learn your trade/sing whatever well is made”), a poem in which Yeats imagines his own grave. Here are the final three trochaic stanzas of Auden’s work:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


Auden’s poem delights me for so many reasons, from the monosyllabic “The day of his death was a dark cold day,” which hearkens back to ancient Anglo Saxon verse with its stressed alliteration, to the smooth, almost conversational rhythms of “the wolves ran on through the evergreen forests.” We move from the chilly, industrial gray concrete of the airport to the wildness of the mossy forest. And then suddenly we’re in Yeats’s own meter and imperative verse, at once dark and uplifting. Plus, we get the thrill of two neologisms, or at the very least unfamiliar words, each of them in the third line of a stanza: unconstraining, unsuccess. We expect the same in the third line of the final stanza, but instead the unconventional un is implied: we’re stuck in the prison of our days, but then—then!—the release in the turn: Teach the free man how to praise.

If the man is free, whom or what is he praising? A god? Or human unsuccess?

I am reminded, in my own reading of this poem, that we are allowed to celebrate failure. Failure means a new beginning.


It’s these little turns—of meter, of phrase, of meaning—that drew me to poetry, my first academic love.

(I apologize in advance for being so canonical in my allusions here, but my brain is fuzzy, and I’m drawing here on what I know well, hoping it will launch me into a new and much-needed period of intellectual playfulness.)

I’ve long looked for these little turns in life as well, moments of unexpected delight of a species that appears so often in poetry:

Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful, battle-scarred fish, or her moose “on the moonlit macadam.”

The “red wine, / artichokes, and California / politics” Amy Clampitt had for dinner in “Portola Valley.”

Eugenio Montale’s gray city and the peeking beyond “a half-shut gate / among the leafage of a court”—through which “the yellows of the lemon blaze,” opening the heart with “golden trumpets of solarity.”

Garrett Hongo’s Mendocino rose that comes “erupting out of pastureland” and how “the roses seemed everywhere around me then” on a California highway.

These are phenomena that happen all the time, but for each of us perhaps only once. And then there are the sweeping pronouncements that come couched in the specificity of place:

Also within sight of Highway 1 lies Robinson Jeffers’s Carmel Point, where the suburbs run up against “the pristine beauty” that “lives in the very grain of the granite.” Jeffers reminds us to “uncenter our minds from ourselves” and “unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / as the rock and ocean that we were made from.”

Adrienne Rich’s adrenaline-inducing cautions as she goes “picking mushrooms on the edge of dread” at the “ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise” in  “What Kind of Times Are These.”

Robert Penn Warren’s reminder that a drive across the Great Plains is “one way to write the history of America.”

Larkin’s “London spread out in the sun/ Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.”

Sometimes the lyrical crosses into another realm entirely.

Take, for example, Seamus Heaney meeting the ghost of James Joyce after passing through the stations of the cross. Here’s Joyce’s advice to the poet:

‘You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’


I’m trying to read more old-school literary criticism and analysis of poetry. The genre scratches a particular intellectual and artistic itch that cultural studies never could because there’s too much at stake in that interdiscipline’s social justice imperatives. Poetry is important, but the reading of it is rarely urgent. The writing of it? Yes, definitely urgent. But I can read poetry and the literary deconstruction of it and pretend I am an old-school intellectual with plenty of leisure. (Instead of me sitting in a clean but messy kitchen, imagine me sitting in a comfortable chair on the garden patio, my view of the roses half-obscured by vines.)

Meanwhile, each weekday morning I check in with a friend before sitting down to two hours of writing. This past month I’ve been reworking an article that returns from journals with excellent suggestions and even praise from reviewers, but which remains without a home. It falls in the cracks between disciplines. If it had a narrative, it would be charming. Instead, it’s analytical, and it’s trying to balance a big picture of women in science with the minutiae of a tapir’s sticky snout against a woman’s face. It’s history and American studies and feminist theory and science studies, and yes—poetry.

Sitting next to me on the kitchen table—we’ve lived in this house for ten months, but my home office remains largely unassembled, aside from my bookshelves, so I write in the kitchen—is Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets & Poetry.

Vendler opens chapter 2, an essay on the poetry of Yeats and Jorie Graham, with this insight:

Fin-de-siècle writing suggests seriousness and flamboyance, hyperbole and arbitrariness. The notion of fin de siècle presents itself to reflection as unsuitable for lyric, since it derives from the time span of epic narration, and lyric generally prefers the brief moment to the narrative span. The primary formal problem for the writer of lyric who wishes to invoke the notion of history is how to tuck such a panoramic concept into a short-breathed poem.

Vendler captures my current quandary.


Meanwhile, the brain fog persists. I test my blood pressure several times a day. (153/108.) I’ve been through two medications. Neither worked. I allow myself to be optimistic when the numbers decline after hours of work in the garden. But in such cases the decline in pressure persists for less than an hour.

And so I meet many technicians.

Today, for example, I saw my heart on a screen. I was hoping for some mad, au début du siècle visualization, my heart scanned and spinning on a screen, but instead the ultrasound looked very much like it did when I last saw my heart on a screen, in 1994, when I was nineteen years old.

It was disappointing. There were no answers, revelations, or delightful turns. I had already seen, decades ago, the grainy clapping frog legs of the mitral valve.

Next week I go in for another scan. And then I get a new -ologist.

I’m confident it’s a genetic issue, the longue durée of maternal ancestry running up against cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine. The clash of history with a lyrical moment, expressed in a particular pattern of DNA, the iambs of a heartbeat.


I lost an IT coworker yesterday, on my birthday. He had a heart attack upon receiving some bad news about a loved one, and then he lingered in the ICU for a week before dying. He and I weren’t close, but we crossed paths several times a week, and he always had a smile for me. He attended the same Long Beach high schools as my Dad and I did (though years before me and years after my dad) and we reminisced and joked about that. His family—kids and grandkids in a big, blended family—know he loved them, and he knew they loved him.

I have, of course, my own stubborn cardiac issues on my mind. I intend to stick around for a long time, but I want to say I value every one of you in my life. Thanks for being here. You’re a fabulous bunch.

Meanwhile, hold your loved ones tight. Let them feel the patter of your heartbeat.