Bromley Senior Lecturer Review 2012

Bruce Bromley
Senior Lecturer Review 2012
Teaching Statement
One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and
over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we
look at it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations (1958), 48e.
You know, we never talked about responsibility at the university, not in my
time. We never discussed ethics. We were never taught value-thinking. . . .
We were taught in our closed rooms that we were doing pure science, in the
pursuit of pure truth—the noble pursuit of pure truth.
Mindwalk (1990): Sonia Hoffman, as performed by Liv Ullmann.
Presence is not for sale.
If that’s true, it’s the only thing on this earth which isn’t.
A presence has to be given, not bought. . . .
A presence is always unexpected. However familiar. You don’t see it coming;
it moves in sideways.
John Berger: The Shape of a Pocket (2001), 248.
Unless you can get beyond yourself, you were never there.
Clive James: Poetry Magazine (2012), 335.
In honor of the resonances among these epigraphs, I lead up to an imaging presence: it is
early 1996. After coming to NYU from Columbia, I am in my last semester of being a graduate
student who does not teach. I live in university housing, just around the corner from Bellevue. A
week earlier, a Korean young man, studying at Stern, leapt from the 17th floor, while I sat at my
desk before the east-facing window, struggling to round off an essay on Woolf’s approach to
landscape and its connections with the painted hills of John Constable, loomed over by sea-like
skies. Looking to my left, I saw his body momentarily suspended by an invisible shelf of air,
only to vanish into the sound he made as the ground met him. I have never forgotten either this
sight or that sound, and both are with me as I attempt to sleep, much later. In my dream, I am
visited by the presence of Susan Barker, a biologist, writer, the mother of my long ago lover, and
now dead for some time. The dream’s vantage point is as though a camera were angled from my
bedroom ceiling, Susan sitting among the covers at the edge of the bed as I lie on my back, eyes
shut. She begins to gesture with both hands, plaiting something that I cannot see, murmuring:
they are all there, the words; you must simply pull them out, through your body, and weave a
work of them. When I wake, too early, I return to my essay, finishing it with a grace and
limpidity new to me.
Now, to some presences vital to my current teaching: I think of Chi Man, a biology major, a
senior who has taken and withdrawn from Writing the Essay twice before in her career at NYU,
a woman from Taiwan, whose prose often gleams with lingering focus on what the words of
Annie Dillard and Mark Doty perform on the page, along with all that their performances imply
regarding larger ideas. When she responds to my commentary on the values of slow attention,
Chi Man tells me that no one has ever offered her these observations, so that she cannot yet
verify their merit. She stands before me after class, head down, the hair heavy, covering her eyes,
though I find one tear slipping out of them. I have learned of her overbearing mother, how Chi
Man hears her mother’s scolding voice in her head as she writes, straining to craft a whole essay,
greater than the mere addition of its parts. And I think of Alex in another class, who vanished for
a week, reappearing once I pressed the urgency of reappearance upon him, via email, and after I
contacted Willie Long to say: this student needs our conjoined attentive skills. I see Alex sitting
in front of me in the library, in a public space in which many other students glance at their books
and seem to lean towards us, responding to the concentration of our talk. Alex explains: I have
not been able to get out of bed because my boyfriend, since I was 13, has left me, and I don’t
know how to experience this; also, I can’t talk about it with my mother, who won’t accept my
being gay, or with my father, who doesn’t live with us, and who shut the door in my face when I
told him about my sexuality. He asks: how do you survive such losses?
For both students, I remind them of our preceding class as a means of reflecting on what, in
our work, can help them to envision where they have come from and how they might imagine
moving forward. I tell the story of that class: how, before turning to the final half of our film,
Artemisia, I draw Wittgenstein’s Duck-Rabbit figure on the board, requesting that students tell
me what they see. Some say a duck; some a rabbit; and all assert—in response to my asking, as I
point to the chalk-marked board: what is this?—well, it’s a drawing. When I advise them that
there is a more precise answer to this question, one whose priority exceeds their reply, they
recognize that they have been in contact with chalk lines on a board, shapes that the optics and
the neuroscience of sight permit them to acknowledge doubly. And, if doubleness, richness,
multiplicity, holds for a simply sketched body, we ought to carry that fruitfulness to the essays
we read and write, the film we are about to complete watching, the beings among whom we live.
But we can only commit ourselves to that holding to the extent that we waken to how we see, to
the ways in which this how and what we attempt to identify may be in conflict—and to the
(rightfully) inescapable claim that such conflict is our labor, prodding our efforts to
conceptualize, to think through again. Shortly thereafter, we watch as Artemisia Gentileschi
learns the art of seeing-in-depth by gazing through a perspectival frame, join her as she applies
more than one frame to envisioning embattled bodies, choreographed in space. Later, Alex and
Chi Man tell me, in different words, that they can rearrange the experience of their predicaments
by knowing more closely the frames through which they order that experience, since any frame
suggests the world beyond it, a domain large enough to include multiple approaches to what we
conjure by means of sight.
Everything I have written about these two students is made room for by the essay-form we
teach daily in our classrooms, by the ethics ordering that form, founded on the energy to connect
word, idea, pattern, and the story of the thought that deploys all at the service of what Berger
calls, in Bento’s Sketchbook (2011), “bestowing attention” on what requires our thinking-time
(72). And, if the essay we have written or read impresses us with a bestowed intensity,
“something of these habits,” Berger tells us, “something of its way of giving attention, will
become our own,” so that we might “then apply” that gift “to the chaos of ongoing life, in which
multitudes of stories are hidden” (72).
Because of the reciprocity between teaching and learning, because of Chi Man, Alex, and
their future colleagues, I salute the ability to teach in a program that reaffirms how, by
endeavoring to “get beyond” ourselves, we confirm the “there” we start from—and expand on.
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