From Classroom to Conference to Published Paper:
Octavio Paz, Salamandra, the I Ching.
and the Links between Research and Teaching.

(This paper appeared in Teaching Perspectives, Spring, 2005. It will be the basis for my research over the next twelve months. In it, I continue to stress the important links between research, however humble, and teaching.)

The saga begins in a St. Thomas classroom on a snowy day. The saga begins with a raised arm and a question:

“Please, sir, I know it’s a stupid question, but ...”

The student gets no further. The professor stops her, mid-sentence and says:

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question. Every time you ask a question, there are ten other students in the room who wished they had been brave enough to ask just what you did. Remember: the most stupid thing you can do is to leave university after four years with unanswered questions, questions left unanswered because you never plucked up the courage to raise your hand in class. Now: what’s the question?”

“What’s the I Ching?”

“Good question!” says the professor. “How many of you know what the I Ching is?”
Everybody in the class looks blank.

“How many of you don’t know what the I Ching is?”

Have you ever noticed how ashamed students are of admitting their ignorance? One by one the students in the class raise slowly and hesitatingly their hands until every student has a hand in the air. Some look around sheepishly; others are embarrassed; seem keep their heads down; others will not look the professor in the eye.

“The I Ching is the Chinese Book of Changes. Does that help?”

Some nod and begin writing. The professor can see the words appearing upside down on the page: “The I Ching is the Chinese Book of Changes.” Students stop writing and look up for guidance.

“Does that help?” The professor asks.

“Yes!” say the students. And they nod their heads.

“Why does it help?”

“Because now we know what the I Ching is.”

“Do you? If so, please tell me what the I Ching really is and how it operates.”

The silence is complete. The professor knows cruelty.

“All right. Let me ask another question: how many of you have three coins of the same denomination in your pocket?” The students actively search for money. Hands are raised.

“Take the coins out. And complete the following exercise ...”

Each member of the class casts the coins on the desks, once, twice ... six times. Points are counted for heads and tails. The hexagrams are formed: uneven numbers / long line, even numbers / two short lines. The students are told what they have just done. They want to find out the meaning of their own individual castings, but it is all too much for one day.

“Tomorrow!” says the professor. “And for tomorrow’s class please read Octavio Paz’s poem Duración, bearing in mind that the poem is written as an interpretation of Paz’s reading of one hexagram from the I Ching. And remember: bring your questions to class tomorrow.”

In preparation for the next class, the professor reads Duración again and again. Then the article Duración by Marsena Walkowiak is found [Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, 16, 3 (1992), pp. 485-98] and (re)read. Then Walkowiak’s interpretation of the I Ching (hexagram 32) is applied first to the poem and then to the I Ching itself. At this stage, the professor makes an interesting discovery: 31 and 32 are almost the same hexagrams, but reversed. Not only that, they are inter-related and sometimes change position in one’s reading of the I Ching. More, when the lines from the I Ching are set against Paz’s poem, lines 5 and 6 of 31 clearly reflect Paz’s fifth and sixth stanzas in Duración, while lines 5 and 6 of 32 do not.

More, in Duración, Paz has numbered his stanzas in Roman numerals from I to VI. Duración is sometimes used as a title for hexagram 32 in the I Ching. However, it is not the only title. In addition, form 31 has the idea of give and take or ebb and flow. Guess what? There is another poem in this same book, Salamandra, that is divided into six stanzas; but this time the stanzas are marked from 1-6 with Arabic numerals. This poem is called Vaivén / ebb and flow. Are Vaivén and Duración related in some way? The professor begins an exhaustive word by word comparison of the two poems. He then compares them with the I Ching. New ideas emerge, new ideas that relate to Paz’s poetic creativity; how he revised his poems; how he created them in the first place. Now: how does the professor use this information to teach the next class?

Students are divided into groups. The groups discuss the links between the two I Ching hexagrams and Duración; then they discuss the potential links between the I Ching and Vaivén. Next they compare the two Spanish poems, counting similarities, plotting threads that link the poems to each other and to the I Ching. The next task is to show how the final form of the poems (Duración and Vaivén) may be linked to the moment of inspiration, the reading of the I Ching. The professor sets a new project: cast your own I Ching hexagram; then, write out, in Spanish, six stanzas, one for each line of the I Ching. Submit this poem to the group members, along with your own reading, and see what you come up with in the discussions.

Is class preparation research? Can the professor’s preparation of these poems for this class be considered research, or at least the first steps along the road to research? How do we define research? Can we link research and teaching, creativity and research in a classroom situation?

The answers to the above questions will vary with each reader. However, at the more formal level of research, it will be possible for the professor to now move several steps further forward. The research idea has been conceived: there are clear links between the I Ching and not one, but two of Paz’s poems. More in depth research is needed. At the critical level, a comprehensive bibliography is essential and critical reading must be continued; at the textual level, there may be textual variants, so (a) the search must begin for manuscript variants and (b) the 1961 edition of Salamandra must be compared with the 1969 edition, to see what revisions, if any, took place.

Interestingly enough, Paz married in 1962 and ideograms 31 and 32 deal precisely with the relationship in a permanent partnership between man and wife. There must be a lasting relationship (Duración) and a certain give and take (Vaivén)! But will there be any trace of these ideas in the actual revisions to the two editions of Salamandra?

So: this summer the professor will probably head to Toronto for a couple of weeks and take up residence as close as possible to the research library there and see what there is to see. And maybe there’ll be a published peer reviewed article at the end of it; and maybe there won’t be; and maybe there’ll be some funding for the research, but there probably won’t be much money available, as internal research funding is, as always, kept to a bare minimum.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the professor is faced by more mundane questions: can we link research to teaching and vice versa, teaching to research? Is our university a teaching institution or a research institution?

The professor is astonished that one is forced to take up a pen and try to explain, let alone to defend, the links between teaching and research. That said, let us revise our ideas and start again, with a different scenario.

“Please, sir, what’s the I Ching?”

“What a dumb question. Everyone knows what the I Ching is. Don’t waste precious class time. If you don’t know what the I Ching is and you want to find out, search for it on Google or Wikipedia when you get home. Now let’s get on with some real work: repeat after me ...”

Return to the Scholarship of Teaching