I teach Writing and Rhetoric II to seventeen art school kids. Pretty much all I do is use extensive metaphors to explain somewhat simple points. The metaphors make things far more complicated, albeit far more memorable.
I use a lot of PowerPoints to keep me from embarking on stream-of-consciousness lectures, a la Virginia Woolf. The students know what kind of class it is going to be based on the level of powerpointing that occurs.
At the beginning of each session, I ask, “Who can summarize what we did last class?” My favorite response: “We learned that humanity is just a bunch of boats with crab legs.” In that class, I was attempting to portray the concept of “passing as normal”, which involved a cartoon music video and a ship with legs. In the video, there was a moment when a boat grows crab legs and traverses the land—but, towards the end of the clip, the boat goes back into the water, sucking his legs back in, and the audience just looks at him, a normal boat, conforming to normal boat social norms.
The end-goal of this class is for the students to craft a 10-12 page research paper that synthesizes primary and secondary research in the style of an ethnography. To do this, we talk a lot about biases and social norms. Most of the students have chosen a line of inquiry that revolves around a certain community. I ask them about the social norms that this community has created. We talk about the social norms of gender performance. We talk about the social norms in passing as normal. We talk about hegemony, and policing, and identity, and reflexivity. We talk about the social norms for boats: they don’t have legs. They stay in the water. I tell my students that humanity is a harbor jammed with boats, and all of us have legs, but we are holding them close under our hulls, hiding them. We are pretending to sail on, as if everything is fine, just fine. This, I say, is passing as normal. This, I say, is why there is that weird space in the line at the CVS, where everyone speaks in low voices to the pharmacist about the prescriptions they are picking up, so we can all pretend to be normal and disease-free and anonymous. It is easier, I say, to pass as normal with a mental illness, because there are less physical indicators than with a highly visible physical ailment, like the chicken pox.
My students are submitting fieldnotes. Some of them give me hope for society. Some of them are trying to pick up on the hidden crab legs. Some of them are trying to figure out what the boat is, or what being a boat means.
They hate annotated bibliographies. I kind of don’t blame them.
We have talked about how humanity thinks in metaphors, especially how humans use metaphors to translate difficult concepts. I got really dramatic with this one. “Let’s take a second to think about this,” I said, because time is one of those difficult things that is often metaphor-ized. “Am I LITERALLY TAKING A SECOND from my BASKET FILLED WITH SECONDS and throwing them at the room like a bunch of Mardi Gras beads?!?!?!?!?!?!” We talked about George Lakoff, and Otto Santa Anna, and dead metaphors, and living metaphors, and metaphors that are inherently racist.
Their research projects are due in precisely 36 days. I am looking forward to what my students have found to be “normal”. I want them to write about what they discover to be important, or interesting, or true. My sister said, “I guess your main job as their teacher is to instill in them a love for writing,” which seemed daunting and overwhelming. I have just been trying get them to see writing as communication, and expression, and essential in how to view the world. The world is massive and diverse and rich and everything, you know? It’s okay to discover truths through reading and writing. It’s okay to be a boat with crab legs. And it’s okay for others to be boats with crab legs, too.