Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Kevin DiPirro
Our colleague Kevin DiPirro brings the humor and wisdom of his dedicated twenty-four years in PWR to this interview. In our talk he shared strategies and hopes for family blooms in his backyard Eden, how he helps students “see more fully” in the classroom, the way past relationships echo in and out of the present, the beauty of dissonance and the songs he’s singing.
You've been teaching now at Stanford for how many years… what do you realize about teaching that you didn't realize when you first started? What is one invaluable revelation you've come to as a teacher?
I’m completing my 24th year this spring. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s less about how much I know or about how well I explain something. It’s more about how well I can hear what the student is asking—where they’re coming from, how they need to hear the concept at hand, reconfigured, or re-storied. It’s so much more about the communications over the quarter, the returns and the re-takes, the grappling with the threshold concepts and the breakthroughs in the final weeks of the quarter.
What are you inordinately immersed in these days?
My interior spaces. Letting time reveal what immersions are to come. Not “hunting” them. And my immediate exterior spaces. Lots of time in my garden, lots of reading, lots of cooking and enjoying meals—some from the garden. Immersing myself in various readings on ecologies, human/more than human relational ecologies, sound ecologies; lots of singing, lots of exploring 9ths and 11ths in vocal melodies—and pairing them off unusual guitar chords. Lots of Radiohead, Nirvana, Coldplay and some of my own compositions. Adjusting to empty nesting—the shock and freedom of my two kids becoming young adults—as if overnight. Similarly, my twenty-four years of gardening—of learning from my plants what they need from me—suddenly being so grown up and full and healthy after Covid and these atmospheric rivers.
Can you tell us about a brilliant piece of writing/performance you've experienced recently? What made it so?
Yeah, I was pointed back to a Bojack Horseman episode, “Free Churro,” by my daughter, Simone. It’s this harsh, vitriolic funeral rant by a grown-up, former star actor son, about his abusive mother, who’s lying there in the casket. Just when you’re like, I can’t take this anymore, about 20 minutes in, he recollects her last words to him: “I see you.” Which he’s been wanting his whole life from her. But maybe she means it as a negative. Or maybe she’s just messing with him on her last breath. Or maybe she’s just saying, oh, you’re present. In the ICU. … Oh! Maybe that’s all she was saying: I’m in the ICU. It’s a remarkable moment that allows for all the complexity of this human relationship, of their entire fraught past, and the recent conflicted present of her passing—to be captured, in all its open complexities, in this one heightened moment—with just this sudden depth drop breaking up of the surface reality--with ten minutes left in the episode.
What are you trying to create in your classroom, what's most important to you in that space? And how do you effect that?
A space where we can see and hear each other as best we can. To move past the initial quick identifications and perceptions, and, gradually, repeatedly, recursively, through inquiry mainly, see more fully where we’re coming from, what we’re interested in sharing, and what questions we might have. The whole PWR 2 course, The Stories We Tell, is designed to engage stories on multiple levels (cultural narratives, false narratives, changing narratives, abiding or recurring source narratives). And from week three the work is really about their own research projects in that framework. So they draft and rehearse with each other, create 4-5 person panels in which they give their final talks, then finally, map out their project in a genre modes reflection in relation to their panel and to the materials of the class. So, it’s designed to be a quick framing and exposure to the theme of the course with the readings and materials—then really a turn into: What have I learned about myself and my project in this story and storytelling framework? How have I learned it relationally in collaboration? And how do I share it out with my classmates—so that I might best invite them in—across various differences, orientations, and positionalities?
What are you trying to figure out these days--what questions keep you up at night?
Will the Warriors beat the Lakers? Is my 24-year-old arrested development avocado tree from a relative in Santa Barbara ever fated to make it in my Linda Mar NorCal microclimate? When will my neighbor’s twin 9 month old black cats, George and Jerry, come visit me again this weekend? How are the waves breaking north of Taco Bell at Linda Mar Beach?
There's a rumor circulating in the Program that the bearded iris in your garden has an interesting genealogy. Can you tell us about it?
Granny 0’Mara (Altadena) > Mardythe DiPirro (Westhampton Beach) > Granny O’ Mara (Altadena) > Kevin DiPirro (Inner Sunset) > Kevin DiPirro (Pacifica)
Can you tell us something that made you laugh recently?
In class I was helping a student raise the dais for their 3-minute Research Proposal talk. And I grabbed their furry bear keychain and offered to stand alongside them and make interested bear responses to her talk. We’ve been reading about animism and human/non-human relations. And she said: “Oh like dance your PHD!” Which is one of the TED talks we’ve analyzed in class together (where a dance team comes out and embodies the speaker’s lecture on lasers, lights, photons, and cooling molecular interactions). That light-hearted moment made me laugh out loud. She had accepted and acted on that “yes, and” moment that we’re always talking about in class.
Story two: We’ve been singing karaoke in class during our five minute breaks, but I got fed up with the artificiality, so I brought in my guitar one day. I offered to sing Coldplay’s Daddy—but realized I had forgotten my capo. So I sort of jokingly asked if anyone had a capo I could borrow. One student offered to make one with a pencil if anyone had a rubber band—or something stronger than a hair tie. In the end, I sang the song one-step down from where I should be. But apparently one student—who came back late from break—was tipped off by another that I had been asking for a capo. And this student spoke up and said, she DID in fact, have a capo in their backpack! They were just carrying it around. So I took it and re-did the song in the right key.