Showing posts from 2008

Big Beautiful Awful Terrible Wonderful World

The semester ends today. I promised that I would blog each day this fall, and I have. It hasn't always been easy to squeeze something in, and often I've cannibalized older pieces of writing when it seemed pertinent or just to keep my promise. Still, this has proven an interesting exercise. So I will conclude this semester with the little spiel I give at the end of every senior capstone. I wrote it a few years back, memorized it, and have uttered it to hundreds of students over the years.

"Well, you finished another course, notched off another step in your journey toward a college diploma. The question now arises: what did you get out of the last few weeks? It's a fair question, one that every educated person should probably ask at a course's conclusion. As I have told you many times, my job here has not been to prescribe your answers or force you to master by rote reams of content. Rather, my job has been to raise compelling questions for you to consider and to pr…

Final Exam

The other day the students were grousing about finals. So I unwisely offered to take any final exam they designed for my course. They opted to give me a take-home essay exam. There were eight questions that covered the course's major readings. The darned thing took me nearly six hours to write and edit. Phew! I haven't taken an exam in a while. Anyway, here's a question and my response. The class grades the exam tomorrow (using my own grading criteria).


In the Satyricon, a dinner guest named Ganymede complains about public officials and the lack of public piety over dinner. Summarize his complaints and compare his concerns to contemporary society. To what extent is Ganymede's view of ancient Rome particularly ancient?

And here's my response (hope I get an A):

In section 44 of the Satyricon, Ganymede, a dinner guest of the wealthy freed-slave Trimalchio, has a long speech in which he offers his views on the economic and moral climate of first-century Roman…

Three Poems About Snow

It's snowing. So how about some snow poetry? Here are three of my favorites: Louis MacNiece'sSnow, DerekMahon'sThe Snow Party, and Thomas Hardy's Snow in the Suburbs.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

A few things I admire about this poem: it really catches what I think is the central essence of poetic inspiration. Poets are in love with the perception of the world and all its manifold and wondrous juxtapositions. A vase of pink roses sits in the emb…

Impolitic Worms

In Book II of Paradise Lost the fallen angels, now horribly transformed, hold a debate over the course of action they should take now that they are damned. The first to speak is Moloch, a fierce and bloodthirsty advocate for eternal war. In effect, Moloch says that they have nothing to lose, for annihilation is surely preferable to an eternity in Hell. As he puts it, “At worst, we stand on this side nothingness.” In response Belial, a wily and silver-tongued devil, says that nothingness is not preferable to him. At least in Hell one has one’s thoughts. He says something like this:

To be no more; sad cure; For who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night
Devoid of sense and motion?

These lines have always affected me. Is it life we treasure? The mere act of breath and metabolation? Or is it the intimacy of our own thoughts and memories, the onrush of momen…

Pagan Ping-Pong

Some things you can only discover by teaching in a certain format. For years I taught four separate preps every semester, but it was only when I began to teach multiple sections of the same prep that I realized what a wild card a given set of students could be. An approach that worked well in a 10 a.m. section might fall flat in the following section. More interesting, however, is what happens when you cram several different courses back-to-back.

Last spring, for instance, I taught three different courses in a row: Humanities II, Senior Capstone, and a freshmen honors seminar on human nature. I would begin the day at 8:00 teaching Luther, Montaigne or Bacon, but switch at 9:30 to Plato or Frederick Douglass. Then I would round out the day from at 11:30 to 1:00 with King Lear or Mary Shelley. In many cases, ideas discussed in one section would reappear in another in weirdly applicable ways. I recall at one point in the semester thinking that Aristotle and Dostoevsky were playing ping-po…

What's a Genius?

What is a good theory of genius? Are they born? Are they made? Are they products of their time and environment? To what can we attribute the appearance of people who affect thinking breakthroughs? Now the Greeks attributed genius to the muses. People were inspired in intellectual fields by forces external to them. Thus, Urania inspired astronomers, Terpsichore dancers, etc. This is in keeping with the Greek view that genius was not wholly a product of rational human control.

Lest we dismiss these Greeks, it's important to acknowledge that their ideas bear a strong resemblance to Freud's notions of unconscious drives. Freud put the driving forces inside us, but they operate just as irrationally and capriciously as the muses did. We are, so to speak, in their power when they grip us. In this view, genius is happenstance. Either the muses kiss you or they don't. Either your internal drives are sublimated into some obsession or they aren't.

In the Middle Ages innovation was…

Found Poetry

Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll scan the first line index of poetry anthologies to see if a few of the adjacent lines in the index actually rhyme or make a kind of bent sense. The following, then, are "found poems" from the first line index of the Oxford Anthology of English Literature:

A bloody and a sudden end,
A dead man,
A little black thing among the snow,
A man that had six mortal wounds,
a man,
A mighty change it is and ominous

Come down O’ maid, from yonder
mountain hieght,
Come to me in the silence of the night

Creation and Creator’s crowning good,
Creep into thy narrow bed,
Dark angel with thine aching lust

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale,
Do not go gently into that good night,
Does the eagle know what is in the pit?
Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Down wanton, down! Have you no shame?

I sought a theme and sought for it
in vain,
I strove with none, for none was worth
my strife,
I think continually of those who were
truly great

It is holy thing to see,
It is a beauteous evening cal…

The Cliff Notes Version of the The Complete Idiot's Manual to Bluffer's Guides

My use of the phrase "bluffer's guide" yesterday got me to thinking about all of those wonderful books that promise to make learning a breeze. Here it all is they say: ten thousand years of history, the central concepts of economics, the major theories of sociological analysis. Anyway, this phrase—a bluffer’s guide—has stuck in my head for the last twenty-four hours. Just what is a bluffer’s guide? Academics usually take a dim view of them and suggest that such books are little more than handy cheat sheets, tools useful for creating the false appearance that you have mastered a vast and complex body of knowledge when all you have done is gleaned a few relevant but superficial insights.

I will confess to resorting to Cliff Notes once (I too have sinned). We were assigned to read The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy for a Victorian literature course. I am no fan of Hardy's novels, all those characters relentlessly ground underfoot by indifferent, deterministic forc…

Beautiful Babble

There are some subjects that continue to baffle me despite years of trying to understand them. Economics is one. On the basement book shelf at home there must be half-a-dozen well-thumbed bluffer's guides to economics, yet I still have only a slight grasp on the concept of a mortgage backed security. Nevertheless, I thought I would have another go at economics. My retirement accounts have been hemorrhaging cash and I haven't a clue why this is happening. So in the past week I've been reading about economics from the likes of Robert Heilbroner, Lester Thurow and Alan Blinder, but I'm still baffled.

So I gave up last night and returned to John Kenneth Galbraith's wonderful The Great Crash of 1929. I haven't a clue what Galbraith is talking about, but I sure love to read him. The man was such a wonderful prose stylist. Here are a few dollops:

Economics is a subject profoundly conducive to cliche, resonant with boredom. On few topics is an American audience so practi…

Oh Hell

In my far-seeing wisdom, I decided to introduce my Humanities students to medieval culture by taking them through hell. I can't say they are enjoying the experience. The Inferno, which once was standard-issue high school stuff, has become a tough slog for many students. They are defeated by its many references to classical and medieval figures, to its strange ordering of sin (suicide is worse than murder), and even by its status as a Christian poem. Dante's Christianity just doesn't look like their Christianity.

It's hard for them to wrap their minds around the idea of a single dominant, all or nothing view of faith. Christianity for them is more a vision of love, tolerance and a personal connection to God that helps them to negotiate life's difficulties. Ask them why they believe and they will use words like spiritual fulfillment or a deep feeling of being held in God's love. You certainly won't hear much talk about the fires of hell, but the very real poss…

Just a Suggestion

Several years ago there was competing institution here in town that had a stupefyingly bad marketing slogan: "Earn your degree without changing your life." Of course I know what they meant. They had an evening/weekend accelerated program and wanted to reassure their target audience that returning to school was not going to disrupt their lifestyle. Nevertheless, I still recall looking at that slogan on billboards and thinking are they nuts? Who would ever go through the ritualized annoyance of earning a degree if their life was not changed by the experience?

We expect education to change people. The big question is what that change should be. For Stanley Fish, students should be changed by learning to think well in the evidence-based disciplines that comprise a traditional general education, and that's all that should happen(see I Can't Save the World...). Any talk of engineering shifts in values or attitudes, of making them more tolerant, civically virtuous--what have…

Poetic Sticky Notes

One of the more interesting courses I took in grad school (if interesting is measured by the number of times I still think about the issues it raised) was a seminar on poetics. One evening, by way of introducing the difficulty of the subject, the professor asked us to come up with a definition that distinguished poetry from prose. We were given several minutes to reflect on an answer, and then we tested them in debate to see whether they held.

My definition was very reductive, yet I still think it got at something crucial. I argued that poetry was a structuring of language to make it memorable. I quickly had to add that this wasn’t a moral or aesthetic valuation (as in Matthew Arnold’s idea of the “best that has been thought and said”). I just meant that something was being done to the language to make it stick in the head: repetition, rhyme, meter, assonance, a striking turn of phrase, an evocation of an image, etc.

It seemed to me then—and seems to me still—that in poetry’s crudest f…

Finding the Words

Sometimes teaching is simply a matter of finding the right analogies. I recall years ago teaching a course on free expression and finding it difficult to get students to understand why the government could regulate the broadcast networks but not print publications. One night while explaining the Supreme Court's rationale (known as the "scarcity doctrine"), it suddenly occurred to me that the limited amount of usable waveband was not unlike the National Parks System.

"There's only so much room in Yellowstone," I explained, "and no one will benefit if we let anyone who wants to ride a dirt bike there." Okay, it wasn't a perfect analogy, but I never had trouble making that idea clear again.

So yesterday we were discussing the value of a historical perspective. We've been reading John Lewis Gaddis' The Landscape of History, in which he makes a compelling case for the value of a historical perspective. The students, however, don't like…

Playing to the Whistle

In basketball there is wonderful phrase that describes the end of a game whose outcome has already been determined. One team will have an insurmountable lead given the time left, but the players will remain on the floor making shots and chasing rebounds. This, in the parlance of basketball, is known as garbage time, a concept with an academic equivalent. There comes a moment in every semester when the outcome of the course is clear. The students are still handing things in, I'm still grading, but let's face it: it's garbage time. And, like the onset of the Christmas shopping season, garbage time seems to start earlier and earlier each year.

Resisting this inevitable slide into garbage time is my job description for the next few weeks. My increasingly beleaguered students have started to turn in work they know is substandard. I get response papers to readings that scarcely mention the reading and, indeed, could have been dashed off without once cracking the book's spine.…

I Can't Save the World (so why ask me to?)

One of the new duties I've taken on this fall has been chairing a committee to revise the college's core requirements. This is in one sense a highly philosophical task. We have to ask ourselves what is it that college graduates should know and be able to do when they leave this place. And we can't answer this question without making some value-laden choices about what's worthwhile to know. On another level, however, revising the core has little to do with high-falutin' ideas about the nature of knowledge or what's worth knowing. It has to do with the practical realities of budgets, classroom availability, and--more to the point--the jumbled skein of vested departmental interests (How dare you reduce the foreign language requirement? That's my livelihood you're messing with, bub!).

And then there is the faculty's ideological and political commitments. Some faculty members believe we need to change the way our students feel as well as the way they thin…

Clicks and Whirs

A number of years ago I had a very strange dream in which my language gradually changed from English to porpoise. I knew what I was saying. It made perfect sense to me, but all my listeners heard were a baffling series of glottal clicks and whirs. This dream has become a personal metaphor for teaching. Indeed, I often stare out at the blank, wide-eyed faces of my students and think 'Oh dear, I'm doing it again. I'm speaking porpoise.'

I certainly felt that way yesterday in my Humanities course. We were just starting Dante's Inferno (Cantos I-IV), and I was asking them about the placement of certain figures in hell like the opportunists and virtuous pagans. I would ask a question and there would be an awkward silence that stretched for what seemed like 30-40 seconds. I know there are professors who will wait the students out, but I'm not one of them.

So I back up and come at the question again from a new angle. More silence. Now when I do this a few times and get …

Sound Stranger

The last time I was in New York, I attended a poetry reading in a tiny theatrical salon/living room. The first poet was a very effeminate gay man who wrote mostly about his coming out, the tensions with his parents and having sex with Jesus. The second poet was a self-proclaimed “feminist/black Irish/native New York/angry/ twice divorced mother of two” (she pronounced the slash between each adjective).

For the most part her poems concerned how she learned to stop hating men, the oppression of the Irish, and a verse letter to Jesus about her sex life. The last poet was also a gay man, but I don’t recall any of his poems. He read in a fast, clipped tone as if he were struggling to get as many of his poems read before a bell went off. And I don’t think he mentioned Jesus in any way. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Much of what these poets had accomplished was notable. They could stud their works with striking images, and at least in case of the woman there were interesting or…

What Do We Owe?

In a compelling passage of Plato's Crito, Socrates engages in a hypothetical debate with the personified laws of Athens. This takes place as he is considering whether it is the right thing to escape from prison and flee his home city, which has now sentenced him to death. He imagines that the laws of Athens could speak, and they ask him a whether any organized society can exist if its citizens are free to pick without consequence which laws are to be obeyed?

Socrates answers that no organized society could operate on this basis and he agrees that the state must require its citizens to obey its laws, for the laws, if rightly enacted, exist to preserve all of the benefits that society provides. The laws next ask Socrates if he has ever turned down the benefits of his Athenian citizenship? After all, they point out that he was free to do so. Socrates, of course, admits that he has never turned down any benefits derived from his citizenship. But, he mockingly protests, the state has no…

The Tragedy of Hope

I have read some Freud, but lately I've gained a new appreciation of him. The following is from an essay by Mark Edmundson and appeared in the New York Times a while back:

Freud's implicit morality is counterintuitive. Though Freud acknowledged the uses of mild intoxicants like love and art, he was nonetheless extremely suspicious of any doctrine or activity that promised to unify the psyche — or to unify the nation, the people — without remainder and to do so forever. Freud believed that the inner tensions that we experience are by and large necessary tensions, not because they are so enjoyable in themselves — they are not — but because the alternatives to them are so much worse. For Freud, a healthy psyche is not always a psyche that feels good.
What I like about his view is the way it resonates with an older, classical view of human nature, one that takes a healthy, tragic view of life. The Greeks, who gave us tragic drama in the first place, got it. They knew that by arous…

The End of Childhood?

The idea that kids are becoming adults more quickly today is an interesting one. The first time I encountered it was in an essay by the late Neil Postman, who argued that childhood was a result of the move to a print-oriented culture in the 18th Century. His argument went something like this: childhood is a social construct, not a biological one. Indeed, there was no notion of a prolonged childhood (say between birth and 17) until widespread printing made literacy a necessary social skill. Children were technically considered grown as soon as they acquired language skills. So the idea of childhood--of a special time in a person's life in which he or she is to be sheltered and nourished--is only about 200 years old.

The task of making children fully literate takes time, of course. One can speak effectively years before one can read well and write well. So when reading and writing became co-terminus with being a fully-formed person, childhood necessarily expanded, or, I should say, t…

Uncommon Thinking

In 1947 George Orwell asked himself why he thought the Earth was round and found that he could not advance any reliable evidence to prove it. After all, that a ship's masts appear on an ocean horizon before its hull only demonstrates that the Earth is curved, not round. After considering other arguments for a round Earth, Orwell ruefully concluded, "It would seem that my reasons for thinking that the earth is round are rather precarious ones. [They] do not rest on reasoning or on experiment, but on authority."

Of course most of us today have seen photographs of the Earth from space, but a photograph is not necessarily proof (as anyone with a computer and Photo Shop software can attest). So, like Orwell, most of us might also be forced to admit that we believe in a round Earth because people have told us so. But if this is the case, then our belief in a spherical Earth possesses no more validity than the existence of the Tooth Fairy.

Enter the discipline of science, the val…