Wednesday, July 31, 2013

an unreliable narrator

Trust the tale, not the teller.     
                   - D. H. Lawrence

There's something you should know about me: I am miserable at bullshit. Both giving and receiving. Mine is no kind of poker face. And I'll believe anything.

One day when I was in college, my mother gave me a ride to campus. We were listening to a CD of the Impressions' greatest hits, and I spontaneously exclaimed, "Their music is so uplifting! It always makes me feel inspired." Mom looked serious and said soberly, "In reality, some very depressed people. Alcoholics."

My face fell. "Really?"

"No," she said with a smirk, as she glanced at me sideways.

Because that is how this little song-and-dance goes. Deceiving me is easy and also, apparently, funny as hell. Just ask my friends and family. At one point during a trip to D.C., my mother told me that our country's first president was buried under the Washington Monument, and when I cried afterwards in embarrassment, she felt bad because she never meant to be cruel. The fibs are always pointless, harmless things she doesn't really think I'll believe, anyway, and she doesn't let me sit in ignorance for more than a couple of seconds before revealing the trick. I think part of the fun is hearing me bellow, "Damn it!" as I do most of the time when I find out I've been had.

D tends to jerk my chain, too, though again, it's not much of a challenge. For instance, one evening recently when I was out of town, he called me and floated this: "You may not recognize me when you see me again. When I went to the barber today, I decided that I was sick of my hair, so I had her shave my head." When I made a skeptical noise, he chided, "You doubt me? I can't believe you think I would joke about this." Then I relented: "Well, I'm sure it looks great and I'll love it." And then I heard the muffled snicker on his end of the line.

I think I get this gullibility honest from an ancestor I've mentioned before: my great-grandfather Eli, the same one who bequeathed to me a jumpiness about things that go bump in the night. (After all, a receptive mind would naturally also exhibit a certain credulity about the existence of ghosts). To illustrate, let me share a story my Pawpaw was fond of telling on his father. One day, probably in the late 1940s, the two men were sitting in the living room of the house where he was born. Pawpaw looked up from the newspaper spread out in his lap and said, "Papa, can you believe? It says here Sam Jones's mule escaped from his pen." 

"Aw," said his father sympathetically. 

"Not only that," Pawpaw went on, "but he got out in the field and started eating up all the corn shucks. Ate through half the field."


Pawpaw looked down again as if he were reading. "Evidently, by the time they caught the mule, he was so full of corn that when they led him back into the barn, he blew up. Just exploded all over his stall."

"Aww!" my great-grandfather exclaimed, still on the hook to the end.

What I'm telling you is this: I come from a long and paradoxical line of both tall tale tellers and too-trusting listeners.

Last summer Valerie got me without even meaning to. At the beach with our girlfriends, I was unpacking my suitcase in our rented condo when I noticed a very realistic black-and-white framed photograph on the wall. What it actually depicted was a dog playing in the surf, but from where I was standing, I couldn't decipher the photo's subject at all. Here is the exchange that followed:

Well, she said it was a photo of a monster, and even though I was a little skeptical, part of me was still ready to take her word for it. She was kind enough to make it into a compliment, saying she loves that I am open to anything (something akin to what happened the time my grad school cohort were taking our qualifying exam in a computer lab: during one break, she suggested we have a pep rally, so I immediately stood up and started clapping and waving my arms around like a cheerleader. She and I were the only ones standing.) I realize that it's a dubious gift, this boundless faith in others' veracity, but it's just how I am. Like Eli before me, I'm game.

Even more troubling, perhaps, is the fact that I can gull myself. As a consequence of my interrelated tendencies towards tardiness and OCD checking, over a decade ago I began setting all my clocks so that they were several minutes fast, in order to make me hurry and get me out of the house faster. In my bathroom, the analog wall clock says it's three minutes later than it really is. In the bedroom, the digital clock reads six minutes fast. In my car, it's two minutes.

I know this. After all, I set those clocks myself so that they read the wrong time. Yet every time I'm lollygagging in the morning and glance at one of them, I jump in alarm. Omigod, I'm late! 

See? You would have to search pretty far to find someone who's more credulous than I am. At the same time, if you were shrewd, you could just as accurately point out that this example also shows how effectively I lie to myself. Which means you should probably beware, dear reader.

Source: here (from Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends)

“The poem is always about the speaker,” my poetry professor Art Smith declared one day in our workshop class, in the middle of my final semester as an undergraduate. He argued that the poem's real subject is always the person who's telling the story. Even when the poem is about something else. 

This assertion rocked my world. Quite naturally, I think, I had always assumed that the poem was about what it was about. A nightingale. Or a red wheelbarrow. Or a scholar-gypsy. Or hiking some abbey ruins with your sister. Or your parents fucking you up. Or an ugly old fish. Or a sheep-child born of a passionate moment between a ewe and a young man. For my professor, however, these ostensible subjects weren't half as important as what they revealed about the "I" in the poem, whether that revelation emerged through the speaker's attitude towards the topic, or through the accompanying image, or through the choice of metaphor. He had a point: even if a poem never uses the words "I," "me," or "my," there still has to be a narrator of some kind, delivering the lines. In that case, we might ask why, exactly, this person doesn't want to be seen, but desires instead to draw our attention away, over there to something else. A bit of misdirection? A little sleight of hand, maybe?

The poem is always about the speaker. 

I’ve thought about that assertion for sixteen years now. It’s a somewhat backwards way of looking at poems, but in any case, it stuck with me enough that I’ve ended up quoting it in every literature course I’ve taught since. It ends up being a useful approach to a text. 

Moreover, because the speaker is human, he or she often proves untrustworthy in any number of ways, whether deliberate or inadvertent. A couple of months ago, I explained it this way to my students: “It's like that one friend you probably have. Every time she tells you a story, you think to yourself, Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you tend to be too jealous / too accommodating / too paranoid / too gullible / too cynical / too idealistic, so I’m gonna take whatever you tell me with a healthy pinch of salt and know that there's probably way more to the story than you're sharing.” 

The week after we read Robert Olin Butler's deliciously problematic "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," I gushed to my classes, "Unreliable narrators are the best kind!" Still, my statement was probably a little misleading. Unreliable narrators may indeed be the best kind, but that's largely because they are the only kind of narrator.

Look at it this way. The narrator is the curator of events, the sculptor of the plot. But when you think about it, the plot can never tell the whole story. The whole story would include all of the events taking place before, in, and around the plot. The history of the world. This happened, and then this happened, and then this and this and this. And at the same time, this other thing was happening, and that and that and that. It would take more paper than exists in the world to tell the whole story. So, what we get instead is a careful selection of detail. Narrators decide what we need to know, and what we don't. They say some things and withhold other information, sometimes forever. They embellish. They elide. They camouflage. Hence, you can't fully trust a one of them.

For instance, we find an unreliable tale-teller in Robert Hass’s poem “Faint Music." Near the end, the speaker describes a friend of his whose lover has left him and who then decides to commit suicide. As the friend sits on the girder of the Golden Gate Bridge, readying himself to jump, he wavers in his decision, then falls asleep. When he wakes, he changes his mind, goes home, and later, indulges just once in imagining his false beloved in bed with her new lover. The speaker then observes:
It's not the story though, not the friend leaning toward you, saying "And then I realized—," which is the part of stories one never quite believes.
He’s right. No, of course that's never the moment when we have our grand epiphany. The nugget of "wisdom" comes later, when we've had time to reflect and understand the situation in which we find ourselves and then compose the narrative we'll tell other people about that part of our life. Not coincidentally, it's usually a narrative that will represent our decisions in the best possible light: we were brave. We were noble. We chose something difficult, and we are totally going to humble brag about it.

Speaking of which: consider Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” People consistently misquote its title, calling it “The Road Less Traveled.” That is not its title. If you read carefully, you begin to realize that this poem is not at all about the road less traveled. No, it's about the road not taken. It's not about congratulating ourselves that we were nonconformists, that we made our own decisions, that we refused to follow the crowd and instead chose a path that few have the courage to elect. What the poem really addresses is our tendency to obsess over the road we didn't take, the option we didn’t select, the thing we didn’t do—and how we rationalize to ourselves that we didn't choose it. 

How do we know not to take the poem in the cloying, Hallmark way it gets portrayed in graduation speeches? The biggest clue is the narrator and his dissembling. He tells us at the beginning that, when he confronts his choice, it lies between two paths that "equally lay / in leaves no steps had trodden black." The paths equally lay. In other words, both paths look identical. They are each covered by leaves. No one has traveled through this spot, and thus, there is nothing to indicate that one path is more or less popular than the other. Yet, in the final stanza, the speaker confesses that, years later when he tells the story of this crucial moment of decision, he will make a distinction between the two paths:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That moment when he repeats "I," that's where it happens: the lie. You can hear the seasoned raconteur in his voice, almost picture him laying his hand on his heart and his eyes getting that faraway look, as he imagines how he'll spin his story to future listeners.

Another bit of advice from Dr. Smith's class, where we studied this poem? Don't ever trust a narrator who sighs that dramatically. Don't trust the music when it swells. And certainly, don't trust a storyteller who informs you explicitly that in the future he's going to rewrite the facts to suit the narrative he's selling.

But for heaven's sake, do pull up a chair and listen to his story. Chances are it's a good yarn.

And the truth is, I gravitate towards these kinds of narrators. Last semester, I taught Ursula K. Le Guin's short fiction piece, "The Wife's Story" because I was captivated by how completely it hoodwinked me on first reading (just as it was meant to). In the story, the narrator sets up certain narrative expectations from the start. The story opens with these lines:
He was a good husband, a good father. I don’t understand it. I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe that it happened. I saw it happen but it isn’t true. It can’t be. He was always gentle. If you’d have seen him playing with the children, anybody who saw him with the children would have known that there wasn’t any bad in him, not one mean bone.
She gives us some details about the husband, leaving certain ones unfinished and thereby subtly implying that he did at some point commit an unthinkable act—we imagine, towards their children. Later, we find out that neither the narrator (the "wife" of the title) nor her husband are who we thought they were. By the time we finish the story, we have been swindled into siding with a werewolf and her ilk.

But what if you can't tell whether someone is lying or not? I always liked this a scene from the 1963 movie Charade, starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, in which her character Regina takes his to task for initially lying about his identity. (As it turns out, he will have four aliases total over the course of the movie.)

She asks him, "Alex, how can you tell if anyone's lying or not?" 

He responds, "You can't." 

But she persists: "There must be some way." 

He answers by way of a fable: "There's an old riddle about two tribes of Indians. The Whitefeet always tell the truth and the Blackfeet always lie. One day you meet an Indian, you say, 'Hey, Indian, what are you, a truthful Whitefoot or a lying Blackfoot?' He says, 'I'm a truthful Whitefoot.' But which is he?" 

She asks, quite reasonably, "Why couldn't you just look at his feet?"

"Because he's wearing moccasins." 

She seems resigned. "Well, then, he's a truthful Whitefoot, of course." 

I'm taken by how fully she shows her cards here. She is an optimist. She trusts. Defiantly.


A month ago I attended the AP English Literature Exam reading in Louisville and got to spend some time with two women I really like and admire: Sarah and Leigh, who are both new assistant professors. On the final evening, after the reading had ended, over a bottle (okay, two) of champagne at the hotel rooftop bar, the three of us got very honest, and very tipsy. "You two are real teachers; you're tenure track people," I told them. "I'm just a hack. I'm a generalist. I bluff my way through teaching."

Sarah shook her head. "But I feel the same way. And my dissertation advisor even had a name for that: Impostor Syndrome. She said we all suffer from the same fear, that someone will find out we're fakers and we don't know as much as we act like we do."

It was a revelation to learn that other teachers have the same anxieties about pretending that I do. All three of us hold Ph.D.s, the terminal degree in our field. We all completed several semesters of coursework, followed by a series of grueling comprehensive exams, and then years of researching and writing our dissertations (each of which was, as it was meant to be, essentially a book). But when someone raises a hand to pose a question in class, I always feel a moment of panic: I'm petrified of admitting my ignorance or giving the wrong answer and thus exposing myself as a charlatan.

And students ask me questions to which I don't know the answers all the time, particularly in a survey course. We are, after all, covering an astounding breadth of material, usually several hundred to a thousand years' worth of literature in a single semester, much of it not within my realm of specialty, and things naturally come up. "Dr. Akers, you say that in Beowulf's time, wergild was the "man-price" or the ransom that a murderer was required to pay to the dead man's family. Did women ever have a wergild? What were they worth?" Hmm. I'd never even considered that one. (By the way, here's one answer.) In such a situation, I sometimes attempt to bullshit like a politician would: I circumlocute my way around to a noncommittal answer. That's risky, though, because my eyes give me away when I'm lying, so many times I resort to the old standard of evasion tactics: smiling Socratically and saying, "That's an excellent research question. Why don't you go look for the answer and report back to us next class?" It has been only very recently that I've become okay with simply admitting, "You know, I don't know the answer to that, but I'll tell you what: I will see what I can find out."

As in the shattering childhood discovery that I couldn't actually walk on clouds, my realization that teachers don't know all the right answers (but often pretend we do) was a necessary disillusionment. Later that aforementioned evening in Louisville, as Sarah and Leigh and I parted in preparation for the next morning's flights home, there was much hugging and commiserating and encouraging. I left feeling, at least momentarily, a little less like a poseur. Or at least, if I feared I was a phony, I seemed to be in good company.

Source: WhatShouldWeCallEducators

Let me tell you another story. In 2007, D and I moved to Manhattan so that he could complete a year-long fellowship at a hospital there. I left my graduate teaching assistantship at the University of Georgia to move up there with him, which meant that I needed to find another job. I was naive enough to think that it would be reasonably easy to find a teaching position in New York City. I got one interview at LaGuardia Community College, at which I attempted to sell myself as someone who had experience with "diverse student populations" (I mean, come on. I had taught at the Universities of Tennessee and Georgia. Neither had what you might call a lot of diversity.) I didn't get that job. So I applied for everything else related to academics that I could find on Monster, the MLA job list, and HigherEdJobs: project manager, library assistant. Nada. Then I applied for a job at the Barnes & Noble on East 54th. When I hadn't heard anything, I resorted to Craigslist. I had done summer clerical work in the office where my dad worked, so I figured that that, plus my computer skills, might be good for something.

Finally, I got one callback from a recruiter, who invited me in for an interview the next day at an impressive midtown address at the top of a Park Avenue high-rise. When I arrived, I checked in with the receptionist, who strangely didn't even ask why I was there. I sat in a waiting room for an hour with some other people who seemed as clueless as I was about how we were to proceed. When I was called in, I walked into a large, elegant office. Seated behind the glass-topped desk was the owner of the recruiting company that had posted the job listing. When I told her my name and which position I was there to interview for, she waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, that job's already been filled," she said in her broad Bronx accent. After a couple minutes of chit-chat, during which I realized just how ridiculously inappropriate my specialized educational background was for a corporate job, she said, "Actually, maybe we do have a position for you. You say you have some background in HR. Maybe we could train you as an assistant recruiter." She wrote down an address on Broadway and told me to show up there the following Monday morning.

I plugged the address into Google Maps when I got home and learned that I would be working in Harlem (technically, Manhattanville), far away from where I had interviewed. My education and my accent (which even now, unless I've had a few drinks, I can suppress enough that it doesn't always betray my Tennessee background) were what had recommended me. If I had to guess, I think I probably seemed respectable, nice, and well-spoken enough to put at a front desk. And so I became the office receptionist. There was never any talk of the original plan of making me a junior recruiter, until I gave my notice, at which point it was dangled like a carrot in front of my eyes that at some mysterious point in the future, they would have promoted me. My job consisted of answering the phone and making copies and spreadsheets and cold calls all day. Which was all right, though not what I'd been promised. I worked in that office for six weeks, during which time we posted numerous ads for jobs that didn't exist, and then told the individuals who sent their resumes and came in for interviews that the position had "already been filled" but we might be able to find some other work for them. What the owner wanted, essentially, was a pool of desperate job-seekers, people she could call last-minute if she received word that there was some temporary work available. Because that's what we were: a temp agency. But if anyone asked, we were to call ourselves "an executive recruiting service."

I quickly learned that the woman who owned the company paid to use the swanky Park Avenue office in which she had interviewed me for one morning a week, in order to conduct her meetings with higher-profile applicants. It made a good impression. Then she would send them to the Harlem office (though we were never to use the word "Harlem"; we were only to say the office was "near the campus of Columbia University") to take typing and software tests and fill out I-9 forms.

My boss never trusted anyone. She set up my desk in front of hers, both of us pointed toward the front office door, so that she could always see what was on my computer screen. She constantly complained that all of our applicants were just con artists who were trying to pretend that they had more job skills or a better work history than they had let on in their resumes or interviews. She had a terrible habit of lecturing them over the phone about their shortcomings, punctuating her criticisms with the question, "Do ya undahstyand what I'm saying ta yew?"

Yet, a couple of weeks after I began work there, the two other office workers were out for the day. During a quiet moment, I heard my boss ask me from over my right shoulder, "So, didja hear about the sex tape?"

I turned around in my chair, looking confused, I'm sure. "...Sex tape?"

She leaned forward confidentially. "So, Heidi and Spencer are saying that L.C. made a sex tape with her boyfriend. I think it's a lie. That Heidi, she's trash."

My eyes got as big as dinner plates, but then I tried to pull my face into an expression resembling concern. "Wow. That's terrible," I said disapprovingly.

My boss, who suspected literally everyone she met of lying to her, believed The Hills was real. Who would have guessed? This woman was one of my people, after all.

I tell you that I'm a terrible liar, yet the fact remains: whenever D asks me, "What's wrong?" and something's wrong, I always say, "Nothing." Always: nothing. "I'm fine," I lie every time. Later, I let him have it suddenly, whatever it is I've been stewing on, and then he's pissed, too. "You lied! I can never trust you when you say nothing's wrong."

I don't know how to explain my stubborn refusal to divulge, except to say it is just one of my ways of being dishonest—which, I guess, means I lied to you earlier when I said I was a bad liar.

In U2's song "The Fly," Bono sings these lines:
Every artist is a cannibal
Every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration
And sing about their grief

When I first listened to Achtung Baby as a sixteen-year-old, I never thought much about what those lines actually meant. All I wanted to do was crank up that song in my car and growl the words at the top of my lungs. But a few years later, I had cause to revisit them. Here's a poem I wrote just after Rhea died:

This is an innocent enough poem. What I was trying to say here should be clear: I had a distinct sense of foreboding from the time I was young, but at the same time, I almost eagerly anticipated whatever tragic thing would eventually give me my impetus to write. I always knew it was coming. I just didn't know what it would look or feel like yet.

But the plot thickens, because a year or so before Rhea died, I wrote a short story—the only short story that I've ever written.

That spring, I had gone to New Orleans with Rhea, the guy I was dating, and one of his guy friends. Rhea was the beautiful, socially adept sister (I was the brainy, awkward but "interesting" one), and as always she turned out to be the star of the weekend. I was jealous of the attention she got. When I returned to college after the trip, an idea came to me for a short story about a group of four young people traveling by car through Mississippi. I made the older sister the narrator. At Ellisville, the kids stop for gas. Some fictional things happen in the middle of the plot, but at the end of the story, the younger sister gets hit by a truck in the parking lot of the gas station. In the last line, the narrator walks off into the woods, almost like it's a Flannery O'Connor story—I think because I didn't know how to end it.

After typing up the story, I felt gratified by what I had produced. And a little guilty. I was exhausted, so I took a nap in my dorm room. An hour later I was awakened, by my own yelling, from a dream so horrific that it's on the short list of three nightmares I've had in my life that changed me forever.

In the dream, there was a woman (her name was Morbida, appropriately enough) who lived in an old white house out in the country. She was a serial killer who murdered for fun. She killed indiscriminately: old and young, innocent and guilty, male and female. She wore a white nightgown with a high, old-fashioned lace collar and long sleeves, and after she killed people, she would decapitate them and put their heads on top of the posts of her clothesline in the backyard, like trophies (or like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness). At some point, she had entered into an agreement with two newspaper men from a big city. The journalists had experienced a drought in their supply of good stories to write about, so they had approached Morbida for help. In return for exclusive leads on her murders (and the ensuing juicy stories), the men would deliver victims to her and then provide bribes and protection from the cops' attention. It was a perfect arrangement. She got to keep on killing, and their newspaper always got the best scoop on the crime. In the dream, I was a third newspaper man who had initially been involved in the arrangement but was having a crisis of conscience about this seedy setup, and I had expressed my reservations. At the end of the dream, I was hiding on a riverbank, knowing the men and Morbida would soon be coming to kill me.

As soon as I woke up, it was obvious to me what my brain had done. The dream had cast me as an ultimately ethical character, the newspaper man who had decided he didn't have the stomach to continue profiting from others' deaths. But the fact remained: in the short story I had written earlier that afternoon, I was a writer, the "reporter" of events. As the author, I was also the "murderer" who had killed my sister. So the dream was a condemnation. I was Morbida, the killer. And I was the journalists, who wrote about it to gain success. The allegory was so simple that it was almost laughable. Still, as transparent as the dream's symbolism was, it has haunted me for years, to the point where I recently made this very childish-looking watercolor of Morbida and her severed head collection:

She's hideous. She may be me.

Rhea died only a year and change after I wrote my sole attempt at fiction, a story in which I destroyed her character. I know what you're going to say: I didn't actually kill my sister. But you can't convince me I didn't. On some irrational level, I honestly still believe I did.

According to some biographers, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a writer who spent much of his life addicted to laudanum and periodically needed to publicly expiate his sins. Like Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner, whose penance for his crime of killing the albatross is a frequent, agonizing urge to tell his story, I too find myself wanting to confess my crimes to you. But hearing the truth won't make you like or trust me any more than you do right now, I promise you that.

In the end, whenever I type Rhea's name into a post, I always remember that I am still making art out of her death, even now. I mourn her. I miss her. But sometimes I'm not sure I didn't wish her away in a jealous fit of adolescent sibling rivalry. And thus, I know that I am not only the conscience-stricken, horrified narrator from my dream, though that is what my waking self apparently wants us all to believe. In many ways, I may also be a bloodthirsty murderess. And an amoral, exploitative journalist, profiting from her crimes.

All that's to say: please, don't trust me. But do stick around, if you would. I may have a few more tales in me yet.

Okay, now make this. It's delicious—trust me.

roasted teriyaki chicken thighs
your best friend

1/2 a bottle of Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki sauce, plus 1/3 cup
4 or 5 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
1 tbsp. canola oil

Marinate chicken thighs in teriyaki sauce in the refrigerator for at least a few hours in a tightly-covered container. Upend the container every so often to redistribute the marinade.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking pan with parchment and rub the canola oil around on it. Roast chicken thighs, skin side up, for 20 to 25 minutes, and then flip and roast for an additional 10 minutes. Turn oven to broil, flip the chicken thighs to skin side up again, brush skin with reserved marinade, and then broil for 5 minutes.

fruit-and-nut jasmine rice

1 cup jasmine rice, rinsed thoroughly in cold water until it runs clear, and then drained
generous 1 1/2 cups unsalted chicken stock
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/3 cup chopped roasted cashews
1/3 cup golden raisins

Bring chicken stock, salt, and butter to a boil. Add rice and stir once. When it comes to a boil again, cover tightly and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, and then remove from heat without opening the lid. Let rice sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove lid, fluff rice, and stir in cashews and raisins. If it's too dry, you can add some more chicken stock, as well.

I served the chicken over the rice (drizzled with pan drippings, if you want) with red cabbage salad.

1 comment:

calgal03 said...

You know, I always have dozens of things I want to tell you as I read your blogs, and I find myself with dozens of tabs open, looking up stories, poems, and more, but by the time I get to the end it all seems so much I don't know where to begin. I need you in hard copy so I can annotate.

In addition to the Imposter Syndrome diagnosis (which at the time, by the way, made me feel even worse about myself), I picked up a useful perspective during training for an interdisciplinary writing program. Teaching in the IWP meant having to lead writing courses linked to large, intro-level lectures in subjects most of us had never taken as undergrads, let alone in graduate school. Hence I found myself leading a writing course on art history. Others had it worse: psychology, anthropology, political science... The thing that most helped me overcome my major anxiety about designing paper prompts and leading discussion was the idea of being a "master learner." It was not my job to be an expert, or even to have a depth of knowledge. It was my job to model learning. And that is something I could do. I find myself returning to this idea over and over as I prep courses far outside my "expertise." And I suspect your teaching as a "generalist" (a term whose implications I resent) you are modeling learning in so many important ways for your students. (Side note: I think pointing out interesting research questions is very useful practice, both the formation of research-worthy questions, and formulating answers to such questions, so I think turning it back on your students in this way is in no way a cop out. My most frequent failure in that area is forgetting to follow up with students -- "What did you find when you looked up X?")

See what I mean? Digression city.

Beautiful post, as usual. Not that I take any of your writings for granted. I really do think you have the makings of a memoir-ish book here.

Now I'm off to read the LeGuin and the Butler.