Shifting Questions

Since November of 2015, I’ve been working on a story project about my teaching life. By this October, I had finished two-thirds of it: 1. I am a Teacher!, about my past life as a formal professor, and 2. I was a Teacher., about recovering from my loss of passion for teaching and my exploration of new ways to be. I planned to write the third part, Am I still a teacher?, about imagining new ways to be a teacher, before the end of 2016. Then the election happened and I found myself struggling to write. Doubts about my project and whether or not it makes sense or has any value intensified as I was forced to confront what I already knew but was, before November 8th, able to ignore, or at least push aside: the system is fucked (and fucked up). I could say more about what I mean here and hopefully will soon, but if I try right now, I won’t ever get to the actual point of this post. 

This struggle has got me stuck and compelled me to wrestle with some new haunting questions. How do I respond to the fucked-up-ness of it all? What can I, as someone who has studied oppression, feminist movement and resistance for 20 years and has a Ph.D in troublemaking, offer to others? These questions are very difficult and without easy answers, but they are urgent and necessary and might help me to respond to and move beyond the question that prompted me to begin this project in the first place but that now seems too self-centered and unimportant.

Not, Am I still a Teacher? but How can I (best/most effectively) be a Teacher?

Today, in mid December, just days before the electoral college officially votes, I want to shift away from the question, am I a teacher?, to, how can I be a teacher in ways that enable me to use my skills to help others (and myself) to resist, refuse, reimagine and reclaim? One tentative answer: by crafting a resource guide (in syllabus form) for how to stay in trouble. I’ve already started collecting resources in Staying in Trouble: Post Election.

On not needing permission

A few weeks ago, I encountered the following quotation from Trinh T. Minh-ha on my Facebook feed:

S/he who writes, writes. In uncertainty, in necessity. And does not ask whether s/he is given the permission to do so or not.

Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman Native Other (8)

I love this quotation and the book it comes from. I’ve used and taught Woman Native Other many times. Her belief in the writer who doesn’t ask for permission is a nice contrast to Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea that women need permission and that she, as a hall monitor, can give it to them (she’s said this in many different interviews. Here’s one source).

I meet people who want to be doing interesting and creative things and they’re stuck,” she says. “Women especially seem to feel they need a permission slip from the principal’s office before they’re allowed to do anything, and I’m so happy to just be constantly writing those permission slips for everybody.

I’m the hall monitor: You have a pass and you have a pass and you have a pass,” she says, handing out imaginary passes. I’m very happy to have that be my job, or one of my jobs.


Yuck. As a teacher/guide/mentor, I’m not interested in granting permission. Why reinforce the power structure of an Authority figure who must say it’s okay? Why have a hall monitor?


I love this description of bewilderment by Fanny Howe:

There is a muslim prayer that says, “Lord, increase my bewilderment,” and this prayer is also mine and the strange Whoever who goes under the name of “I” in my poems–and under multiple names in my fiction–where error, errancy and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story.

A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden. This contradiction can drive the “I” in the lyrical poem into a series of techniques that are the reverse of the usual narrative movements around courage, discipline, conquest, and fame.

Weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude find their usual place in the dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe enough to lie down in mystery. These qualities are not the stuff of stories of initiation and success.

Fanny Howe

Stories that aren’t about courage, discipline, conquest, fame or success. Yes!

A List and an account

Even though I haven’t been posting much on this blog lately, I have been working and writing a lot. In honor of my love of lists, here’s one describing what I’ve been doing this fall:

List! Fall 2016: Some Activities

  • Completed a draft of two of the three sections of A Troubling Teaching Portfolio
  • Planned to send those sections out to some people to get their feedback but somehow got stuck in messy, unfinished bits, lost steam and still haven’t even contacted anyone about reading it
  • Posted all of it, along with an edited version of my unofficial student transcripts, on its own site
  • Tried to prepare for the most difficult running race I’ve ever done, the “loony challenge” which entails running a 10k and 5k back to back on Saturday and then 10 miles on Sunday, and completed it even though I wasn’t really “trained up.” Ignored the reality that I am 42 years old and need to take longer recovering from loony races and ran a fast 4 miles only 2 days after the race was over. Developed some sort of hamstring injury and now, over a month later, still only running 5 or 6 miles a week. But, that’s okay, well almost, because I got to run in the same 10 mile race as Gwen Jorgensen!
  • Attempted to endure the increasingly terrifying and horrific nightmare that is the 2016 Presidential election by limiting my social media consumption, working on writing projects, binge-watching The Great British Bake-off and (not quite) obsessively following Gwen Jorgensen on Instagram and Twitter as she trained for the New York City Marathon
  • Learned that, contrary to my original assessment that best disease is the best disease having quirky vision problems is not that awesome and while finally knowing what has been wrong with me for so long is a relief it also becomes an excuse for closing myself off from the world even more
  • Tried unsuccessfully to read several books from the library. One was too long, one was too sad and one I just didn’t like.

Guess who picked up some books at the library today? #undisciplinedreading

A photo posted by Sara Puotinen (@undisciplined) on

  • Even as I struggled with doubt over what I’m doing and who, at age 42, I’ve become, experienced moments of joy and felt proud of myself and my willingness to confront the questions that haunt me

An Additional Account for my Student Transcripts

As I work on my teaching portfolio, I’m planning to combine it with my student transcripts to create an unDisciplined Dossier. Here’s the first draft of an account about my student life in high school, that I plan to add to the edited version of my transcripts:


In this account, I reflect on my love of practicing the clarinet, which I did frequently between the ages of 11 and 22. I was that weird band nerd who loved practicing scales: majors and minors up to five sharps and flats, three octaves, and very, very fast. I found comfort in the repetition of the notes. And I was energized by the challenge of it: I could memorize and perform the scales quickly, but even after years of practice, just barely. 

I didn’t include this account in the first edition of my transcripts because it seemed to contradict my claim to be unDisciplined. Isn’t devoting hours to practice every week for more than twelve years and being deeply involved in band, orchestra, woodwind ensembles, clarinet lessons and more, evidence that I was very disciplined? 

I started playing clarinet in 5th grade. Why the clarinet? I can’t quite remember. I think it was because we already owned one, a plastic Bundy, that one of my older sisters had played for a few years in high school. Did I love it right away? I can’t remember that either. But I must have; I kept playing it all through elementary school, junior high, high school and college. I even played in a few ensembles in graduate school.

It’s hard to overstate how important the clarinet was for me. It shaped my junior high, high school and college years. Countless recitals, private lessons, band, orchestra and youth symphony rehearsals, honor band auditions, orchestra concerts and daily practices. On the first day of band rehearsal of my first year at Gustavus Adolphus College I (Sara, age 18) met my husband, Scott. He played the clarinet too and sat one chair behind me.

Why did I play the clarinet for so long? While many reasons come to mind, one that makes the most sense to me now involves my love of practice, repetition and the rituals of sitting alone in a room with a clarinet, a stand, a metronome and sheets of paper filled with notes, preferably sixteenth or thirty-second ones.

When I practiced, I focused more on technique than artistry. I was a skilled technician not an artist. And that was satisfying and comforting to me. I liked practicing and memorizing Baermann scales and finger exercises from my Klosé book. Repeating difficult passages from my band music or etudes in Selected Studies over and over again until I got them right.

I always enjoyed practice more than any performance. Some players feel that the right performance can be religious. A deep and meaningful, almost transcendent, experience of connecting with the music and the audience. Not me. I always liked the private moments, when an intimate, almost sacred, connection with the notes, the music, and my instrument was created through repeated and habitual practice. Who finds transcendence through scales, played to the steady rhythm of a metronome? I did.

Why Best Disease is the best disease, one reason

Recently I was diagnosed with Best Disease, or vitelliform macular degeneration. Named after the doctor who first presented on it, Dr. Friedrich Best, it’s a very rare eye disease that affects your central vision. Very little is known about it and there’s no cure. It’s hereditary and dominant but its effects vary so widely, from hardly any impact on your vision to becoming legally blind, that most families are unaware that they are carrying it or that they have a 50% chance of passing it on to their kids.

For me, so far at age 42, the effects are manageable and minimal, but very inconsistent. Overall, I can still see fairly well. Before my diagnosis, I didn’t even wear glasses, except for when I’m driving. I will now. Bifocals, in fact. But, everything is always a little blurry. Sometimes I can see things very clearly. Other times, I can’t see things if they first appear in my central field of vision. I don’t mean that they’re too fuzzy or too hard to see. I mean, they just aren’t there. To me, they don’t exist. I have difficulty focusing on images or seeing things when there is too little contrast or not enough light. I fail colorblind tests. I can’t track the cursor on the computer screen. I have trouble making out the details in people’s faces. And I can still read, but it’s much harder to read out loud without hesitating over words.

Having Best disease kind of sucks, but not really. I’ve already been adjusting to limited vision for at least 20 years now, so it’s a big relief to finally know why bikers who I hadn’t seen even though I was very carefully looking would suddenly appear in my peripheral vision or why I would become so overwhelmed in the grocery store trying to find that one item on the shelf or why I freaked out when I had to try and read the menu board at a fast food place or why I would hate driving to new houses because I could never see the house numbers or street signs as quickly as I needed to or why images on a billboard just didn’t make sense as images or why I never seemed to be able to recognize the faces of people that I had encountered regularly, but might not talk to that often. I wasn’t losing my mind. I didn’t have some serious neurological problem. I just had a freaky eye thing, where the cones and rods in my central vision resemble scrambled eggs and everything looks just a little fuzzy.

Yes, Best disease is a big deal. Yes, there is no cure. Yes, it will most likely mean that one day I won’t be able to read without a magnifying glass or that I might not be able to see people’s faces because my central vision is reduced to a gray, blank, fuzziness or that I could trip and fall on the stairs because I can’t see the step. And it has already meant that I didn’t swim in my first ever open water swim race, the one that I signed up for way back in January and was very excited about doing but had to gut-wrenchingly drop out of at the last minute because there was too much fog and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to see the buoys to stay on course, which were green and I probably wouldn’t have seen them even if was a perfectly clear day because Best in some ways mimics red-green deficiency so I have a lot of trouble seeing green.

But, Best disease isn’t that bad and it has it’s benefits. At least for me. So, I’m starting a list, one that I hope to add onto as I encounter new reasons, for why Best disease is the best disease.

Here’s a reason that I discovered last Friday when my daughter came home form school and told me that she couldn’t eat the sandwich I had made her because it had mold on it:

I don’t have to make my daughter’s lunch for school anymore!

Because of my quirky vision, I couldn’t see the mold on the bread. And I might not see it again. While she was impressively relaxed about it, moldy sandwiches will not work for my daughter, who is a self-proclaimed “germaphobe”. Since she knows that I can’t guarantee that I will see that mold, I’m off the hook! Free from the toil of making sandwiches day after day after day. Free from having to figure out if I’ve put the proper amount of peanut butter on it or correctly guessed the jelly du jour or if I should use the ham that we just bought because she had to have it or the turkey that she likes all the time, except for when she doesn’t. I can live with that.