Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pulling a David Shields

David Shields, for those of you who may be reading and who don't know, is a modern writer who is particularly interested in resisting genre-identification. This is only tertiarily related to my discussion and here's how. Once, at a conference where Shields had been asked to speak - I don't know what he was supposed to talk about - I think it was about genre bending or why it's not useful to categorize writing. Either way, that's not what Shields did. Instead of asking us to reconsider what it meant to write when the contract with the reader is torn to pieces or telling us the invention of the wheel is not the point at all, here's what he did.

Shields stood up, pulled out a small notebook, and in a small voice said, "These are the books you should read." He then proceeded to list off the names of hundred book titles and their authors. There was no banter in between, no discussion of why. No context whatsover. When he was done, he walked away from the podium and off the stage.

In a word, it was brilliant.

I think about that experience with Shields quite a lot and yesterday, I got to see someone pull a David Shields again.

The situation was as follows: I was honored by one of my students with an invitation to a luncheon acknowledging my impact on his life. These events are always somewhat nerve-inducing things, though they are most definitely an honor and a privilege. I really dig the student who invited me; he's easily one of the five smartest students I've ever been lucky enough to have in a classroom and he and I still communicate via e-mail or during the occasional campus run-in. So this is all to say, I was looking forward to the lunch.

Here's how it unfolded: 1) my student did not show up, and 2) the keynote pulled a David Shields. I was highly entertained on both counts. First, you should know that this student will probably show up next Monday certain that he has the right time and date. Second, you should know that I would listen to someone pulling a David Shields any day of the week.

The keynote was one Dr. Heffernan of the English Department here at UT. This is noteworthy as this was not an English Department event. The group putting on the lunch asked Dr. Heffernan to speak about the history of the university or about leadership. Did Dr. Heffernan do this? No, no, he did not.

Instead, Dr. Heffernan spoke for a little over a half hour about how the human body produces sound. He discussed plosives, and phonemes, and passive vocabularies (mine is over 70,000), and the epiglottis, and neanderthals, and collective speech, and on and on and on and on.

It was beyond fabulous. I was deeply enraptured with him after the first 30 seconds of his speech. I didn't want to look around to see how the chemistry, business, and mathematics students and faculty were taking in the talk. Dr. Heffernan didn't care and neither did I.

When his rambling, disorganized, yet engrossing talk was done, or rather, when it fell off the precipice of time and courtesy, he walked away from the podium and sat down in his seat. There was a silence in the room that I wanted to fill with wild applause. I wanted to applaud his lack of preparation for this specific audience, his certain belief that his subject had universal appeal, and his general moxie. So I did, and those around me joined in in a sort of shellshocked way.

But really, isn't this precisely what a speaker should do? Shouldn't they leave us in a state of shock and awe? Wouldn't it be awesome if every speech ended with jaws collectively dropped and with that uncomfortable confusion that is the precursor to a new way of thinking?

Bravo, Dr. Heffernan. You've inspired me to reconsider several lesson plans/lectures for my upcoming summer class. I too will pull a David Shields, leaving my listeners disoriented, bewildered, and hopefully, in the case of at least one or two of them, altered.

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