2020 DTA Medal
Medal design by Zhenru Yan
“The Mobius loop symbolizes the continuous vitality of Pratt Institute.”
Distinguished Teacher 2020–21
Claire Donato has taught at Pratt Institute since 2014 and is currently an adjunct associate professor of creative writing. She is the author of Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013) and The Second Body (Poor Claudia, 2016; Tarpaulin Sky Press, reissue forthcoming). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including The Believer, BOMB, Territory, Poetry Society of America, DIAGRAM, Bennington Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Fanzine, and The Elephants.
Address to Graduates
View Prof. Donato’s video address, part of the Celebration of the Class of 2020.
[A choir sings Cat Power’s “Sea of Love”]
I sit on the ground in my Brooklyn apartment and breathe. Drafting this sentence, I almost type grieve, as if the verbs to breathe and to grieve are interchangeable. When a siren sounds out my window—and a siren sounds every minute, it seems—I hold my breath. This connection of everyone with lungs, poet Juliana Spahr says. I am a poet; I am a teacher. For 11 years, I’ve lived in New York City, where many of my neighbors are sick. Over 12,000 New Yorkers are dead. Each person is or was someone’s parent, child, sibling, partner.
When classes were cancelled on March 12th, I was in the midst of teaching a course called The Oceanic Feeling. Coined in 1927 by French writer and mystic Romain Rolland in a letter to Sigmund Freud, the oceanic feeling refers to “a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling of something limitless, unbounded, […] of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.” My poetics laboratory was concerned with ego dissolution, ecstatic joy, mystical experiences, and the possibility of connection during mass extinction—how our bodies, per French collective Le Love Gang, “are never isolated, are always enmeshed in shifting patterns of relations. Scattered across space, our selves form patterns, trace connections ethical but unseen.”
Love is space, Zen priest angel Kyodo williams says, and I think of how the quarantine entrusts space between our bodies—bodies that manage to be both different and the same.
In The Oceanic Feeling, my students and I sang each week as an experiment in becoming a c(h)oral reef ensemble, and swam through schools of psychoanalytic, mystic, and critical oceanic studies texts. We recorded our singing, a clip of which you just heard. Self-quarantined, I listen to our songs, and lovingly recall sharing physical space.
Now, we electronically gather. Our nonhuman animal companions circumnavigate space, rewilding our ecosystem. We’re together, but our virtual presences on-screen indicate absence. We check in; we ask one another what we need; we language our fears, our dreams. To dream while facing the unknown reminds us we’re still here.
On Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, two ambulances with sirens blaring run parallel to one another. I write down a couplet:
How awake were you before the world shut down
And how awake are you to the fact that the world is not shut down
In Manhattan, tents amalgamate into field hospitals; deceased bodies with no known next of kin are buried in mass graves at Hart Island. “What can we do,” asks Yuki Kobiyama in a dharma talk. “Do we just quietly sit and feel our pain, sadness, lack of motivation and lack of our loved ones—whichever arises in the moment?”
I listen as Tre Kwon, an ICU nurse and member of the COVID-19 Frontline Workers Task Force at Mount Sinai Hospital, stands in front of her workplace, demanding adequate PPE. This is what I am, she says. I am a nurse. It’s my duty to take care of patients.
You are a teacher, people tell me. In mid-April, Pratt sent me an email indicating I am a distinguished teacher. Of this, I am skeptical. Is there such a thing as teaching?
My student Lucky Ruiz, a junior BFA Writing major, frequently invokes the term pedagogy of healing in relation to learning communities we’ve shared. This description feels apt. Every student is a teacher. In many traditions, teaching is considered healing. In co-investigatory classrooms, we teach each other, and we teach each other how to teach. This feedback loop undoes teaching, and turns it into the practice of one’s life. Which is to say, awakening is the root of our collaboration, our co-investigatory pedagogy. This process is not always easy. But as Sara Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness: “Political movements imagine what is possible when possibility seems to have been negated or lost before it can be recognized. […] When things go astray, other things can happen. We have a future, perhaps.”
It is an honor to receive this award in recognition of my work and the dedicated students whom I teach. If there is such a place as utopia, I’m confident we’ve collaborated on and within it. Thank you, and much love to the graduating class of 2020.