I hate teaching on Zoom. I miss the crackle of the classroom and the ways that ideas take shape as students talk. And while I realize that for professors who teach studio and lab courses, Zoom is even more difficult than it is for us in the humanities, teaching literature and writing courses in the grid is still a pale imitation of the real thing.
In the past, I’ve depended on my teaching to carry me through times of difficulty: it’s remarkable how helping students to find their voice, find their centers of gravity, can keep a person afloat. But now, in this dark and seemingly endless time, as yet another Zoom-ester has begun, it feels as if everyone in the world is anxious, their worries constellated around vaccines, disease, loved ones, money, politics, climate, the very real possibility that the entire human species is just going to go pouf. Where do we find the light? How do we keep ourselves going? My students aren’t asking that question, or at least not explicitly, but I’ve always felt like part of my job is helping them find ways to navigate the world around them—and at the moment, I don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job.
We’re moving into the second year of this pandemic thing. The magic of sourdough starter has worn off; I myself am pretty close to having finished all of Netflix; handicrafts elude me, plus I live in the United Arab Emirates, a really hot country, so the idea of learning to knit seems kind of silly. What can I offer my students—and myself—that might create a small thread of a path forward?
The answer came from a book, as answers so often do. I’m teaching a course on essay writing this semester and someone suggested that I include Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights (2019) on the reading list. The book is a collection of what Gay calls “essayettes”: tiny vignettes focused on everyday delights. He explains that the book came about almost as a lark, when he decided that every day for a year he would write one “delight,” drafted quickly and written by hand. Delights, he discovers, are everywhere—in an essay by Zadie Smith, in carrying a tomato seedling onto an airplane, in his garden. In the preface to the book he notes that “It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
A delight practice. That’s what I decided to set for my students and for myself. I adapted Gay’s rules for the realities of being a Covid undergraduate: the students could set their own parameters for their notebooks, as long as they wrote a minimum of two entries (about 300 words) per week. I told them that they didn’t have to write “delights” per se but that whatever they chose to write about needed to be observable and not feel like drudgery. I suggested that they think about something that would get them out of their houses or dorm rooms (all Covid precautions in place, of course)—get them, quite literally, into the light.
My emphasis on “observable” comes from what I’ve noticed in the students’ writing and in my own, which is a tendency to hover in the abstract or to render things in what Matt Bell calls “habitual” time rather than as specific moments. I didn’t want students to have the relative luxury of writing memories or dreams (neither of which would necessitate leaving the cocoons of their screen-lit spaces). “Observable” meant shaking off the isolation caused by the pandemic and engaging with the world.
My version of this assignment has been to keep a city notebook. I’ve just moved to a new neighborhood in Abu Dhabi, after living in the city for nine years, and this assignment gives me impetus to explore. Mask in place, I drift, notebook at the ready: the guy on the dusty bicycle with a pile of flattened cardboard on the back that rises as high as his shoulders and extends out like wings; two fishermen hanging out under a bridge, intent on baiting their hooks while trucks rumble overhead; three women chatting at a bus stop, their deep yellow saris matching the bougainvillea spilling over the wall behind them; someone rowing a single scull that slips like a silvery ghost through the morning mist that gathers on the bay.
I’m not sure what my students are writing about; they will talk about their notebooks at our midterm conferences. To be honest I care less about what they write and only that they do write. The delight notebook helps us let go of all that is fraught about writing, all our fears about doing it wrong; we can silence all those people—teachers, agents, editors, colleagues—whom we imagine to be sitting in judgement of our work. A book of delights, or whatever it is that will fill your notebook, offers you the simple pleasure of writing only to stretch your writing muscles.
Teaching on Zoom still feels like I’m a character in a badly designed computer game; I am still full of anxiety about the world. My book of urban delight cannot fix those things. The book reminds me only that writing can be a way to stay afloat, to feel as if you’re paddling—however slowly—towards calmer waters.