Volume I - 1993

Imagination Really Means Freedom
An Interview with Dominic Pietrosimone

      Dominic Pietrosimone teaches at New Jersey City University, and at City college and Hostos Community College, both of which are parts of the City University of New York. A doctoral candidate at New York University, he has taught in Saudi Arabia, Greece, and Japan, and is particularly interested in teacher training.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning (JILL).

JILL: I understand that you've been up to something that involves students turning out a massive amount of writing. Let's start there.

Pietrosimone: You're talking about my entry level class at City College where the students write 10,000 words in a semester.

JILL: Is this entirely autobiographical, in response to readings or what?

Pietrosimone: Both and other types of writing as well. First of all, the sessions are conducted as a workshop as opposed to a class. Students are on two tracks: first, their own projects, which are largely but not solely autobiographical. For example, one of the students is writing this serial about a man who left illegally from the Dominican Republic, went to Puerto Rico and then came into the mainland U.S. Each chapter is about his travails, his problems of leaving for a better life to support his family. It's a cliff-hanger. I asked the student to tell me about the character. She said, "Well, I heard a story about him--just one story--and I built up the whole scenario." She's written twelve chapters from her imagination, totally from her imagination.

JILL: So it's not autobiographical.

Pietrosimone: No, absolutely not. It's not autobiographical, it's not even reporting--it's fiction. Along similar lines, another student wrote about a neighbor of his in Siberia who left Moscow because her husband was imprisoned as a "refusenik," a political dissident She went to live in this god-forsaken town to be near him. The student literally transports us through all of the problems that she encountered. Now, that wasn't totally imagination, but he did have to get inside of her to present her point of view, and that represents a wonderful, imaginative leap. I generally leave that sort of thing up to the students--when they are ready to leave the egocentric point of view and really leap, they have the carte blanche to do it. I encourage it, but I don't require it because it really should be natural, something they're comfortable with. And eventually, they do leave themselves and go into all sorts of areas, many of which are quite imaginative. Once they feel free--like a child who always starts from within himself--they can start to take on the role of the "other." That is what my dissertation is on--writing from multiple perspectives.

JILL: When the young man wrote in the persona of the woman, did he use the first person, "I"?

Pietrosimone: Yes. He became the woman. Now in my class here at Jersey City State College, the students have been writing basically from their own point of view. But once they have a sense of fluency, they can go beyond themselves--once they've got the notion that their writing is comfortable enough for them to make the leap.

JILL: Maybe you can comment on this situation I encountered. The student could express herself fairly well in spoken English, but when it came to writing, she hit a stone wall, translating directly from Chinese and making a mess.

Pietrosimone: That's very interesting. Usually, Asian students tend to defer to others in whole-class discussions. What may be happening when she wrote was she focused on form or correctness and not on communicating, which she was doing when she spoke. Speaking of Asian students, I did a study of metaphors used by students at the beginning level and at the advanced level. We think metaphors indicate degrees of fluency. At the entry level, I have found that Chinese students come up with all sorts of metaphors, possibly because theirs is a pictorial language and it's natural for them to use lovely images in their writing.

JILL: But will the images work in their writing?

Pietrosimone: Sometimes. Sometimes they're just too direct a translation.

JILL: Does your technique help shy students assume a voice?

Pietrosimone: In terms of writing, yes. At the beginning, I used to try to suggest topics as we read texts, such as The Diary of Anne Frank. I would ask questions like "Did anything like this happen to any of you?" But I let go of this because I found that I was setting the agenda. I no longer do that; instead, I bring in past portfolios of students' work, pass them around the first couple of days, and I say, "Go ahead and 'steal' any topic you like." After that, I just stay away and don't suggest any more topics. They come to me and I say, "I'm sorry but it's your autobiography and not mine." What students write about has to be felt, to come from inside themselves. "I write perfect paragraphs. My sentences are correct. But I say nothing." I forget who said that but it's true. That's why I ask them to find stories that they would like to share. They don't have to be true. If they are, the students can still embellish. "You're not writing just for me," I point out. "You're writing for yourself. You have something there to say, something that is important to you. Your fellow students will read it first and then I'll read it. I'm secondary. Your fellow students are primary." Sometimes, I have the students write as characters from one text to characters in another text. That's pure imagination. And that's toward the end of the semester because by then they have a sense of themselves.

JILL: The move out of themselves--is that initiated by you, by themselves or what?

Pietrosimone: Ultimately, by themselves, when they're ready.

JILL: In your graduate course work, how often have you heard a mention of the faculty of the imagination or anything along those lines?

Pietrosimone: With the exception of one or two courses, it really wasn't dealt with that much. Basically, graduate study is responding to scholarly, education texts, where there really isn't much opportunity to respond to the imagination. In a course I'm taking now, "Literature of the Arts," we examine a work of art and look at it from a particular critic's point of view--that requires a certain amount of imagination because you have to make a leap.

JILL: What about courses in pedagogy?

Pietrosimone: Very little. The only course in which it was suggested was one by Prof. Perkinson who teaches courses in the history of education. The course I took was "Major 20th Century Educational Thinkers" and what we would do is read books by Dewey, Montessori, and the like. Perkinson said that we might be interested in carrying on a dialogue between the author and ourselves, which I think is an imaginative approach. But I don't think that anyone did do that. We wrote from a third point, not in the dialogic form.

JILL: You did take courses in methodology--how to teach ESL?

Pietrosimone: I don't remember anything particularly related to the imagination. I can guess why.

JILL: Well, why? I recognize it as a quite valuable stimulus resulting in some sort of brain state that enhances language acquisition. So do you, judging from the things you said about writing. Lots of people endorse that notion, yet why isn't it brought up more in the academy? I have an idea about why, but let's hear your observations.

Pietrosimone: We don't hear about it so much because we're still in that trap of writing academically, which means writing "seriously" and not giving credit to the imagination. It's acknowledged in the literature, but it wasn't focused on that much in the classes that I've taken.

JILL: As a result of that, it doesn't go on in a lot of classes taught by the students who have graduated.

Pietrosimone: You teach more the way you were taught than by the way you were taught to teach. Does that make sense? Unless you take the initiative yourself, it's very difficult to go out and do this.

JILL: You have taken the initiative.

Pietrosimone: Yes, because I'm a rebel at heart and I usually try to look at things in a different way and make my classes interesting. And the only way I can do that is to make them unpredictable. I don't want to know beforehand what's going to happen because then it's dull. I like to go in with a sense of "Surprise me; let's take risks; let's see what you're going to create; let's come out differently than when we went in; I want to learn from you; let's try things." But I'm a risk taker. It's a little dangerous--you have to be willing to fall on your face.

JILL: Otherwise, you go in with a list of two-word idioms and say "Repeat after me."

Pietrosimone: Totally controlled. And that's not real teaching, in my opinion.

JILL: You're well on your way to a doctorate. If you had to teach a course in methodology, what would you talk about?

Pietrosimone: I would talk about this idea of letting students explore themselves and grow and not set an agenda in which it would be teacher controlled. Students always have a story to tell--let them tell it the way they want--in fiction, biography, and what have you. Let them--not you--set the agenda, because language learning itself is basically learning with one's peers. The teacher is there only when he or she is called on. The imagination can be central to this process.

JILL: Have you encountered anything related to this in research that might be called neurolinguistic or psycholinguistic? For example, what constitutes the imagination?

Pietrosimone: Gardiner in his book Frames of Mind writes about a biological basis for specialized intelligences, but he doesn't mention imagination, as far as I remember.

JILL: Parapsychology is looked at dubiously by many scholars. Yet there seems to have been more research in the paranormal than in the relationship between the imagination and language acquisition.

Pietrosimone: Maybe it's not considered scholarly. And I think that's a trap. I just finished reading Dianne Larsen and Michael Long's Introduction to Second Language Acquisition--a wonderful text--and the upshot of this discussion is that there are more questions now than ever before. Before, we had all of the solutions, all of the various fads. These authors say no, there are too many factors that really cannot be controlled. Language learning is still something mysterious. We've come a long way in the 20-25 years since second language acquisition started receiving a lot of attention. There're no more set answers but a lot of questions. Which is good for us because we can explore, we can use our imaginations.

JILL: How about paintings--do you use them in your classes?

Pietrosimone: I don't now. I've used the book called The Mind's Eye in some of my classes to stimulate writing. But the use of paintings in going from one form to another is good, as is music to explore writing.

JILL: At what point in your career did you become aware that activities related to the imagination are fruitful?

Pietrosimone: I've been part of the federally funded [FIPSE] program at City College. There're two people there--Elizabeth Rorschach and Adele McGowan--who were responsible for this fine grant. We have had a lot of sessions exploring topics such as "Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development" in which we talked about helping the student extend himself or herself. We've done a lot of exploring, much with ourselves as learners and not just as teachers, and keeping journals and logs on how the students are learning and how we are teaching and observing. That's been an important part of my growth, and they're the ones who introduced me to this autobiographical project. We follow the "Fluency, Clarity and Correctness" approach. John Mayher in Uncommon Sense refers to that sequence. The individual teachers themselves have different emphases. For example, one brought in Hamlet and showed different versions of the film and commented on the ways it could be explored. There's a good example of the use of the imagination. Another lesson with an imagination component was one concerned with micro-ethnographic studies that I described with my co-presenter, Gail Verdi, at a recent conference. Students had to choose a small population, gain entry by interviewing them, do some research and put a short paper together. Now there was imagination here. For example, one student wanted to look at subway riders and see if he could determine the day of the week by the kind of readings they did. He would go into the same car every Monday and Friday for three weeks and look at the kind of reading the passengers were engaged in--newspapers versus novel versus magazine. That's imaginative. He thought of the project himself. A Hispanic student was very much interested in why two of his high school teachers chose to teach at high school levels because they had their doctorates and could have taught in college. So he interviewed them. The answer was that these teachers felt they needed to be models for the Hispanic young men and women in their classes. Another student wanted to know about gay life because this is taboo in his country. So he interviewed people in the gay student union at City College, did some research in the library and came out with an insightful paper. A Russian student was interested in this Chinese take-out restaurant where he and his wife would stop in for a quick dinner. So he interviewed them: here was a Russian student interviewing a Chinese in English. These are marvelous examples of students doing things in their own areas of interest with us just staying out of the way.

JILL: Where does critical thinking fit in such an activity?

Pietrosimone: Critical thinking is there because they have to go to the library and see what the literature says on the subject, and then compare the literature with their own analysis and come up with their own conclusions.

JILL: Some of these projects seem to be just a little more along the lines of analysis than imagination.

Pietrosimone: Yes and no. It depends on how much we restrict our definition of the imagination.

JILL: As we move more and more toward analysis, towards critical thinking--and the value of that is rock solid in my opinion--do you think we are getting into an area that we need to complement consciously by introducing things like creative writing and the arts in general? By looking for relationships that are not not discovered by analytical modes but rather by intuitive, holistic modes? For example, having the students study photographs of people and imagine what went on in the scene before and after the photo was snapped?

Pietrosimone: I have done exactly that.

JILL: How do such activities promote language?

Pietrosimone: It frees them from being totally reader bound and shows them that language is really inside of you. Given the opportunity to free yourself, it will come out. You have a world inside of you that if called forth, can emerge in artistic forms like poetry.

JILL: It certainly has been pointed out before that writing is an essential part of thinking. Personally, I think that that is very much true. I come out with a sentence and study it as an objective entity and see what is implied in some of the relationships within that sentence. Often, this process suggests a direction that I would not have seen without the articulation in the first sentence.

Pietrosimone: Writing is a means of exploration. You do not know when you start out where you will wind up. Sometimes, I tell my students not to worry about where they are going but to let the story lead them. And they should feel free to add incidents and other embellishments. If such and such had happened, where would they be? This principle of exploration has applications at all levels. For instance, one Nobel prize winning physicist commented that as he was lecturing, he came up with a new angle on a problem he had been working on. Any class worth its salt should be an exploration on everyone's part, including the instructor. It is sometimes possible to get a class cooking in a way that generates an incredible amount of energy, so that everyone is exhausted when its over. You can't do that every time, but you can try...and hope.

JILL: That's a good point you made about very good ideas coming out of this kind of encounter.

Pietrosimone: Because you're exploring. If I had known beforehand what kind of questions you were going to ask, I would have gone through my mind and rehearsed, and it would have been deadly.

JILL: I seem to associate many of the techniques you've been mentioning with young children.

Pietrosimone: That's no accident. Some of our work at the university has grown out of activities started at the elementary school level. Unfortunately, the imagination is pretty much squelched, as early as the second grade. That, to me, is a crime, because when you squelch the imagination, you make students become automatons, walking through their classes. I think that's very sad. And it continues right on into the university of course. If we could have the sense of wonder that a child has, it would be wonderful--no pun intended. But too many people who don't feel very sure of themselves would feel endangered. When they cannot control everything, when there is a chance that they will not know the answer, they are deathly afraid of losing face. This is a problem in Japan, where I taught. It's unfortunate, because students work lockstep, with no sense of imagination or discovery. But it also happens here. We have to feel pretty sure of ourselves as instructors. We have to let go and not hold on. The class is what is important and not me. As teacher, I'm in charge, but I'm not the focus. The students are the focus. Let them go in the directions they need to go to learn.

JILL: Well put. Again, why isn't that a main emphasis in TESL graduate programs?

Pietrosimone: As I said, we teach the way we're taught, and most of us are taught in this very linear, controlled, supposedly academic fashion. Carl Rogers talks about it in his book Freedom to Learn. I'm saying what he said in his book. There's literature on the subject. But most people are not really ready for this. Rogers mentions a number of most interesting experiments that were conducted in various schools and then they were closed by administrations that wanted very much to be in control--top-down power. People in power want to keep their power. And do they really have the learners' good at heart? No. Imagination can go a whole multitude of ways. If you want to control, then you don't dare use imagination.

JILL: That's ironic because if you do use the imagination, you will never be expected to control. It ceases to be an issue.

Pietrosimone: Yeah, imagination really means freedom.

JILL: That really is a fine note to end on.

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