JF: You’ve taught all sorts of humans- high-schoolers, college folk, men and women in prison, what is the most rewarding aspect of teaching?
DD: For better or worse, I love trying to talk people out of their own boredom. And even apart from landing the job as a paying gig, I’m still always trying to see what people are reading, watching, and listening to and wishing they’d talk to me about it. “You should check this out,” is my love language. I want to know what strangers are loving. I think I could look over people’s shoulders at libraries all day long. I suppose teaching is one way of maneuvering this obsessive compulsion into something more social, a ritual that might be of help to someone, the work of helping people find themselves and other more interesting. There’s a wonderful line on that 1st Wilco album: “I can’t find the time to write my mind the way I want it to read.” When I teach (or try to teach), I’m inviting people to take on the task (the joy, the essential and sanity-restoring discipline) of accessing and articulating their inner life (their own thoughts) into something that satisfies them. I hope to help them lift their own voices—their own thinking—one sentence at a time. It usually involves essays, science fiction, the Bible, and lots and lots of poems. The most rewarding moment is when I see someone coming to believe that their own voice is worth lifting up.
JF: What have your students taught you?
DD: That learning is always a group activity. That all eloquence is borrowed. That peer pressure is forever. My personality is such that I’m sorely tempted to try to fill up silences with my own monologue, but a class in which my speech passes the 50% mark when compared to the sum of everyone else’s is a class that probably went very, very badly. I have to wait students out sometimes, and not waiting is perhaps my biggest fail. They’ve taught me that real insight, real learning is relentlessly communal. I find that my writing suffers, has nowhere to go really, if I’m not involved in open-ended conversation. My best material comes from the back-and-forth whereby my peer-mentors (sometimes called students) let me know I have yet to express myself clearly and succinctly.
JF: Our mutual grandmother-in-law once told me the three things you’re not supposed to talk about in casual conversation were sex, politics, and religion. And yet you put the word “religion” in bold print on the cover. Why do you think people are afraid of talking about religion?
DD: People are often afraid to get into it with each other, and nothing gets into it like religion. Nothing so effectively threatens the perceived calm. With words like “politics” and “religion” and “the media” we desperately hope we might cordon the chaos for at least a little while during family reunions or thanksgiving meals, but then there’s the messy fact of our online footprints, what we do with our money, and how we talk about people, the lives we’re all each living. Your religion—mine too, for better and worse—is just the story your one life tells. It’s your witness, the shape your loves and hates take. We are, each of us, our own media network, sharing (or not sharing) what we’re thinking and finding. There’s nobody else to blame. We get to be the politics we want to see in the world. I don’t think real love begins till we hold out the messy fact of what we’re really up to and into with open hands. Eventually, we get to stop fronting. We have to. As MC Breed once noted, there’s no future in your fronting.