Teaching · Writing

Crystals and Flames: The teaching edition

Italo Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” exhorts tight, vivid writing and the continual quest for the mot juste. In each of his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he presents a pair of contrasting qualities literature can have, and then he comes down on one side as being closer to his own practice and of most use to readers in the 21st century. So in the essay on Lightness, he also considers weight or gravitas, and says he simply “has more to say about lightness”(Six Memos 3).

This pattern holds for the remaining four essays—Quickness, not lingering; Exactitude, not vagueness; Visibility, not abstraction; Multiplicity, not singularity. He died before writing the sixth: Consistency.

Today a student expressed frustration with his even-handedness. If he’s going to argue for one side being better, why not stick to that? The short answer is because it’s complicated (as everything important is). The longer answer is because he sees the value of both traits in different contexts and in the interest of living a rich reading life. The deeper answer, I think in retrospect, is that while he chooses the side he most naturally leans toward, he admires and even envies those who occupy the other side. Today it came up in terms of teaching styles and professors.

The crystal: “the self-organizing system” (71)

When Calvino argues for the Party of the Crystal and the Party of the Flame, he conceives of placing authors in camps who favor structure over stream of consciousness—intrinsic order over associative, digressive, descriptive texts.

As I was explaining this dichotomy, I put it in terms of pedagogy. When I was in college, I had two professors who taught entirely differently. One came in every day and put a list of topics on the board, and no matter how esoteric the subject (I took themed courses entitled “Philosophy of Love” and “Philosophy of War” from her), we marched through those topics, in order and in detail. When I left, I knew what I had learned. I felt like there was significant content added to my brain every day.

The flame: “order out of noise” (71)

Another professor in the same department delivered content completely differently. I thought of him as a juggler of ideas. He came in and brought up one subject, which led to a discussion of a related subject, which led to another, like a juggler adding balls without your noticing. All those balls seemed to float in the air above us, one idea connecting to another, with students questioning and adding and variously contributing to the aerial show until it was time to wrap up. And when he did wrap up, all those topics seemed to fold back in on each other like Chinese puzzle boxes, and I sat in awe of how many disparate subjects and ideas seemed seamlessly connected in his lectures.

The juggler was a flame. The list-maker was a crystal.

When I realized that, I recognized the pull in Calvino’s essays toward the opposite side of each binary. He is a crystal, but he admires those who embody the flame in part because he could never pull it off. Every impulse he has directs him toward structure that builds meaning and reveals order. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t marvel at the apparent magic and mystery of the flame and those who embody it.

I know because as I was talking about my professors, I found myself envious of the list-maker. I can start with a list, but when I’m done, if we’ve hit 40% of those items in a class, I’m doing pretty well. I more often follow the interests and experiences of my students, so every class goes where they are more than where I guide. I would never compare my classes to the virtuosity of my idea-juggling magician, but I’m no crystal when it comes to teaching, and I stand in awe of those who are. Students respond well when they can leave with that feeling of having completed a list of tasks and mastered a body of knowledge, and I wish sometimes that I could give that to them. I can’t. I do something else which I think also has value, but I totally get where Calvino feels compelled to do justice to both sides, even though he favors one himself.

If I’m honest, it’s probably why I love him. I am a happy flame, but I remain fascinated by the crystal and its particular beauty.

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