Showing posts from December, 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…