Learning autobiography project


I chose to make a video for this open-ended assignment about how I learn and what I think about what I’ve learned. I chose the video format because I like making videos but had never tried adding a voice-over.  I figured out how to do this in iMovie, and then was able to interweave pictures, video, and music with my narration.

The focus of this project came from the epigraph to E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, “only connect.” My favorite teacher in high school, Mrs. Galloway, repeated the epigraph to us throughout the time we read the book but never explained it. She didn’t even explain to us why she kept repeating it, and – as far as I recall – we never discussed it in class. Her approach inspired me to think about it, how the epigraph related to the novel, and how the concept of connecting might resonate with life. Although I can’t remember anything about the novel, I’ve never forgotten the epigraph and how two simple words can be such a big motor.

For me, the importance of “connecting” can’t be overstated because it’s something I feel I’ve always had a hard time doing despite knowing how critical it is for all sorts of things. Happiness, intimacy, learning, safety, stability… What connections I have made have taken a lot of effort, and those I’ve missed occupy memory space in the realm of regret.

But to “connect” can mean so many different things, too, and my video project tries to show something about this, about how randomly things can connect, and how the element which connects random things is the person. I’m not a fan of insisting on causal relationships between everything. That’s what I meant in the video when I said there are no such things as “smooth transitions.”

I love that people are unique, and in many ways are kind of a sum of the connections they have made, whether those connections were intentional or accidental. Learning can come through intention or accident, but stays with a person only by connection. Teachers can facilitate connections for their students by exposing them to things they might not otherwise encounter (or re-framing things they’re intimately familiar with; one of my mantras for my students is “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar”), and helping them recognize the act of connecting and encouraging them to keep looking for connections.


This project was provocative in many ways. Initially I thought I wanted to focus on either bird hunting or bagpiping – my two main obsessions for the past 5 years or so – and then I thought I should try to find a connection between them and focus on that. When I realized the connection between them was myself, I thought I’d focus instead on where I came from and what some of my inspirations for learning were.

This was more difficult than I imagined, largely because it meant leaving far too many important things out. Also, the mechanical aspects of assembling a 10-minute multi-media presentation that would (I hoped) make sense to strangers proved challenging; I had my poor mother scavenging through hundreds and hundreds of slides of summer vacations we took 40 years ago for a few that she could scan and email to me. Some I’d never seen.

Listening to and reading about Beethoven

Listening to and reading about Beethoven

The key photo, for me, comes at the very beginning. I’m sitting, nine years old, in a chair looking at a big book with a kitten. Although the viewer can’t know this, I’m listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, Opus 132, and reading about it in the big book. The soundtrack for the first several minutes is the adagio third movement, which  – I was learning when my mother took this photo – Beethoven had composed after recovering from a serious illness; on the music, he had inscribed “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity.” I can remember being so captivated by the serene intensity of this piece of music that I wept; and when I read about Beethoven’s inspiration for it I wept harder. I’d made a connection in a way that, although it involved tears, was, I suppose, to become addictive. That’s sort of what I meant in the video when I said I prefer to learn things by myself. It is private, brought about by opportunities provided by friends, family, teachers. But it is personal. Still, the personal pleasure and intensity of such learning experiences, for me, are magnified when I can share them somehow. If I had to explain why I want to be a teacher, that’s probably as good an explanation as any. It’s also background to why I’m interested in questions about beauty and how to implement this in curricula. More later, presumably, on that.

I started the voice-over narrative by speaking extemporaneously as I watched the pictures I’d assembled and listened to the music. Only the first section, ending with “I’ve thought about it, ever since,” is extemporaneous. And it’s my favorite part (as it is with others I’ve shown this to). I decided to write the narrative and read it, though, so I could have more control over what I wanted to “say” with the video. I’m not sure I said what I wanted to say. I wrote it in snippets but tried to make it cohere somehow. Whether I succeeded in that is up to the viewer.

One insight I think I gained, or had reinforced quite starkly, doing this project is that any narrative is only a story and therefore not the whole truth or even wholly truthful. This hit home for me hard when I was writing an email to my mom to send her the link to the video. Suddenly it occurred to me, embarrassingly, that I’d entirely omitted my stepfather from the video even though he was there and influential from the time I was nine. Not wanting to spend hours more on the video and re-edit him into it (which would involve the agony of deciding what to cut), I had to acknowledge my oversight in that email, which I copied to my step-dad. I fretted for a couple days after sending it until I heard back from my mother. She said she enjoyed watching it, nothing more. I still haven’t heard from my step-dad and worry I’ve hurt his feelings. I don’t like feeling callous, but this is how I feel about this part of the process.

Voice-over text

When I was in high school my favorite teacher, Mrs. Galloway, had us read E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. She kept repeating the whole time the epigraph, “Only connect.” “Only connect.” She never told us what she thought that meant. She wanted us to think about it. I’ve thought about it ever since.

When I think about what I’ve learned and how I’ve learned it, I get lightheaded. It’s an overwhelming topic. My parents, both teachers, never sat me down to teach me anything. But they put me where I could learn and let the rest happen if it would. Luckily, a lot did.

I prefer to learn things by myself. I’m a control freak. I spent recess in the elementary school library until there was no more to learn there about invertebrates. In college I rarely talked. In graduate school they told me if I didn’t start talking in class I’d not be invited back for a second year, and oh, by the way, teachers are supposed to talk sometimes. I started talking.

A refuge from language, music has been my most profound teacher. It started with the Beatles. Someone, probably not my parents, gave me a drum set when I was four and I pounded on it in the garage making up lyrics to Beatle melodies. Babysitters were told I would refuse to go to sleep without hearing at least one side of “Hard Day’s Night” or “Help.”

When I was nine, my dad, an English professor and poet, sat me down one night near the stereo, put some headphones on me, and dropped a bomb: Camille Saint-Saens’ 3rd Symphony, the “Organ Symphony.” Holy shit.  Soon it was Beethoven’s late string quartets and piano sonatas. I joined the school band, starting on the trumpet, then switched to the flute on my orthodontist’s recommendation, and added the saxophone after I discovered Charlie “Bird” Parker and John Coltrane. I wanted private lessons because all the good kids in band took private lessons. My mom took away my allowance and paid me to practice. I paid for my lessons that way, and got to keep what was left over. I practiced a lot because I liked candy. Mingus, Cannonball, Monk, and Miles arrived and took over my ears. Jazz carried me through high school, college, graduate school, and, somewhat ambivalently, into a university teaching career. Then I gave it up and moved to Idaho because of a fish I caught.

One notable exception to my parents’ not providing direct instruction was my dad teaching my brother and me to fly fish when we were little. He’d built a cabin near Henry’s Fork, and – for whatever reasons – wanted us to know how to fly fish. My younger brother took to it like a, well, like a fish in water, but I found it frustrating. But I loved being in the water and connected to the natural world in a profound new way. This connection stuck, taught me something about patience, and now I’m trying to teach my wife how to do it. So far, we’re still married.

I don’t know if I’m a good teacher. I think I’m an okay learner, sometimes. One thing I think I’ve learned about teaching is that teachers can’t make connections for students and have them stick. Students have to do that themselves. And the connections students make can’t be cultivated by “smooth transitions.” They really don’t exist.

Why do connections matter? Why did E. M. Forster choose “only connect” as his epigraph to Howard’s End? Why did Mrs. Galloway repeat this like a mantra to my English class in 1979? I can’t even remember the plot of Howard’s End but I’ve never forgotten the epigraph. This linguistic paradox haunts and taunts me. It’s an imperative, a superlative, a limiter, an opener, a complicator, a simplifier.

One bitter November day I hiked in the Sawtooths for 5 hours in knee-deep snow trying to shoot my first elk. I worked really hard to learn what I needed to know to do this, and nearly succeeded. I missed the only shot I got. The whole time I hiked, a song I’d never thought much of ran through my head (Bill Frisell’s “Throughout”). For months afterward I tried to think and write about how these two disparate things – elk hunting and a wordless jazz tune that appointed itself the soundtrack to that experience – might be connected. I still haven’t figured it out.

The things I’ve been most passionate about learning generally have no obvious connection to one another. Except me. I’m the connection between them. A person is his or her connection between the things they find captivating. And those captivating things become part of that person. They’re mysterious, ineffable, sometimes paradoxical. E. M. Forster might say a person is only his or her connections.

Here’s a paradox: I hate spiders and won’t kill them, but I love birds, and I spend most of my free time in the fall trying to kill them. What’s that about?

My parents divorced when I was five. My mom, a high school art teacher, kept us busy by dragging us along with her. She took us camping, backpacking, to art museums, to the ghetto as a CORE volunteer, to the Southwest looking for Navajo and Hopi pottery makers to learn from. Closer to home, she took us birding. She wanted to learn about birds. I don’t know why. But we had binoculars, field guides, and lots of birds to look at. The game of identifying them appealed to us, and we all learned together from our separate motivations. I can still see Wilson’s phalarope.

I’m obsessed with my dog Angus. He is my bird hunting partner and best friend. I love watching him do what he’s expert at: finding, pointing, and retrieving birds. I’ve learned a lot from his demonstrated expertise in the bird area, and hiking the hills looking for chukar with him is my favorite thing in the world. I blog about it, and my wife and I make videos of our bird hunting outings to share on youtube. These experiences are so intense for me that the blog and videos are a sort of safety valve, and – coincidentally – connect me with people all over the world. This is partly because of the music I put in the videos, which is often Turkish (the birds I hunt are transplanted from the middle east). Angus and I now have fans in Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan.

I’m also obsessed with studying the bagpipes, particularly a kind of very old bagpipe music called, in Gaelic, “piobaireachd,” which means “bagpipe playing.” It’s also called, in Gaelic, “ceol mor,” which means “the big music.” It’s a spiritual, solo form of music that dates back to the early 16th century. Most of the tunes are laments and last between ten and twenty minutes. Piobaireachd is not technically difficult to play. Musically, though, it is by far the most challenging form I’ve studied. After playing the pipes for four years I thought I was ready to learn piobaireachd. I tried doing it myself, but couldn’t figure it out so I began lessons on Skype with a master. It might seem strange to put so much effort into a craft that is ultimately personal. I can’t explain my interest except to say it is fulfilling emotionally and intellectually. It might connect me to my Gaelic ancestors, but that is not why I do it.

I’ve thought a lot about these latest passions of mine – bird hunting and bagpiping – and have tried to connect them intellectually. I can’t find a connection, except through me and my pleasure in them. I’m the connection. We are all the connections between our own disparate interests. What we learn about things – language, art, economics, internal combustion, science, snow, cooking – depends on an infinite number of knowable and un-knowable things. Whether we like it or not, the connections between the elements of our learning are entirely and only personal. Teaching requires allowing each person in your charge the freedom to connect what they find interesting. You can help them find things that might be interesting to them by paying attention to who each student is. In my limited experience, that is not easy, but it’s huge. Then, if you let them, they might connect things that matter to them and, maybe, pass them on.

Thank you, Mrs. Galloway, wherever you are.


Nancy GallowayWhen I’d completed the video, I wondered if Mrs. Galloway was still alive. So I googled her, hoping to find her and send her a link to the video. She passed away in March 2012, the same month I completed my teaching credential.


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