On journals and joy

roundtable2This year my students at Columbia Secondary School put together a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE. Filled with essays, stories, dialogues, letters, poems, and other pieces on philosophical topics, it received a lovely review and drew enthusiastic responses from readers.

In May we celebrated the release of the first issue. The event featured readings, empirical Shakespearean experiments, philosophical improv, philosophical questions, a cake, a song, and five humorous awards. The readings ranged from Khadijah McCarthy’s reflection on Locke’s views of marriage to Ron Gunczler’s time-leaping “Two Dialogues: One Ancient, One Modern.”

In a Chalkbeat article, I relate the event to Richard Hofstadter’s idea of “piety and play” in intellectual life. Here I will talk briefly about something related: the nature of joy.

Joy is often misunderstood. People equate it with overt displays of cheer: kids jumping up and down, adults laughing as they work together at a table. A “joyous classroom,” according to some, is a place of bubbling conversation, rapid activity, colorful displays, and so on.  Joy can include these things, but there is more to joy than that. It doesn’t always take blatant form, and it has room for solemnity. One kind of joy comes from seeing things take shape, and that means bearing with uncertainty for a while.

For a good part of the five months of production, the editors and contributors—37 students in all—didn’t know whether the journal would truly come together, but they trusted that it would. I will not tell the story of the journal here; some of it appears in the review mentioned above, and some will appear in an interview of the students. Other stories can be saved for future occasions.

But I don’t mind telling about the morning the boxes arrived. It was a quiet Friday morning in February, with sun coming through the windows at the end of the hall. As though nothing unusual were afoot, the custodians wheeled all but one of the boxes into the office where they would be stored.

Not long afterward, the editors-in-chief opened that first box, removed the packing paper, and looked inside.

They took books in their hands. They took them to the principal and others. Word spread that the journals were here. People started coming by to purchase copies. The day began to fill with exclamation.

The books were beautiful at first glance, and second, and third, and onward. But that was only part of it. All the months of planning and uncertainty, of editing and deliberating, of ideas and laughter; all the lunchtime and after-school meetings (with or without huge pizza pies), all the last-minute inspiration–all this was there in the books. (Fortunately the pizza was devoured and left no trace.)

But the reverse is true as well: before the journal existed, it kept hinting at what it might be. The students went after the hints, and I understand why. There’s something thrilling about working on something you can’t yet see. You see it even when you don’t. When you begin a language, you assemble the sounds and sense a puzzle coming together. Or when working on a physics problem that’s eluding you, you might “get it” in a flash–and then you know that you will figure it out.

There is a kind of joy that has to do with things forming. But formation is not easy or quick. Nor is the joy all reserved for the end result. There is joy in being able to hold the invisible. Maybe joy has to do with perceiving layers of things: seeing what’s there, and also sensing something else.

(Photo, links, and names included here with permission.)


  1. greeneyeshade says:

    Shines like a good deed in a naughty world.