Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Postscript: About Felix

In which a teacher explains how a chronicle began

The origin of "The Felix Chronicles" dates back to the fall of 2007, when, my work on my book Essaying the Past substantially complete, I began thinking in earnest about what would come next. I knew I wanted to continue in the (new) vein in which I had been working—writing about teaching—but I wasn’t sure how. As I groped my way through false starts, I began to understand that I would like to do something I have not often found in the discourse of education: capture the everyday life aspects of schooling, particularly the the life of the classroom. Most education writing I was familiar with tended to be prescriptive or theoretical; very little depicted the sense of a class in motion—the unfolding curriculum, the multi-directional conversations, and the constant stream of choices that go into the work of teaching a course.

My desire to record this aspect of the school experience was all the more ardent because I believed it was absent in the broader public understanding of education. In the spring of 2001 I had offered course in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard called the “The Culture of Schools,” which explored the way schooling is depicted and discussed in popular culture, and the sobering lesson of that experience was how little a role academic life had in that culture. I wanted to bring this overlooked facet to light on a page, and to connect it to other aspects of everyday experience.

That’s why, by the spring of 2008, I had begun drafting pieces in the shape of classroom episodes. The first was published as “Artificial Light” in Common-Place, the online history magazine for which I write a regular column. By the end of the summer vacation, I had generated dozens of such essays in the hope of turning them into a book.

Early attempts to get a book contract were not successful. In and of itself, that was not especially surprising or even troubling: Despite my veteran status, I’ve never found the publishing industry particularly easy to crack. But this time nevertheless felt a little different, in large measure because all media industries were in such upheaval. I never thought I’d live to see the day when books ceased to be commonplace; now, suddenly, their disappearance seemed conceivable. With a combination of fear, sorrow, and a hope that I could reinvent myself, I joined the great democratic throng and launched the blog you’re now reading as a vehicle for publishing what I had begun calling “The Felix Chronicles.” The title is both an acronym drawing on the name of my school— “Fieldston in Everyday Life Intellectual Exchange” —as well as a nod to the school’s founder, Felix Adler (1851-1933).

“The Felix Chronicles” ran in my blog for what was essentially the second semester of the 2008-09 school year, a year that included a presidential campaign and a meltdown of the global financial system, two events that loom in the background of these pieces. Their locus, however, was the school itself and the people in it, zeroing in on a single section of the standard 10th grade U.S. history survey up to World War II, though I sought to protect the privacy of my colleagues and students by concealing their identities. (This could sometimes get me in trouble; I heard indirectly of cases where fictionalized people and situations were mistakenly believed or considered to be real.) I declared the experiment complete with the publication of the 36th and final piece in June of 2009.

In reproducing them here as a complete set, I am mindful of the (non-linear) medium in which they appear. Taken together, the essays are about as long as a short book, though I don’t imagine many people would be inclined to read them straight through. While they are arranged in loosely chronological order (corresponding to the events they describe, not the dates they were first written or published), my guess is that readers will take them singly or in batches. And that’s just fine with me.

I appreciate any interest you may have in my work. Thanks for getting this far. And please feel welcome to leave any comments along the way.

—Jim Cullen

The Ethical Culture Fieldston School

New York, NY