Monday, December 7, 2009

The Finish Line

I don't mind telling anyone that his has been a difficult semester. In addition to teaching a lot more than I should have, I was wrestling with the new core curriculum, teaching an accelerated night course until 10:30 pm two nights a week, and trying to stay a week ahead in the sophomore honors section (a new prep). I would not call this my finest semester, and yet it had its moments. Here are a few good things that happened:
  • There was a young woman in my Introduction to Humanities course who showed up every day and sat listening to the class discussions as if they were the most fascinating subject she had ever encountered. I don't think I ever once saw her distracted or tuned out. A lot of days the interest evident in her eyes kept me going.

  • I growled at a kid in my sophomore honors section that he wasn't working up to his potential and he responded with a serious paper comparing Freud and John Stuart Mill on the uses and abuses of social restraint. I knew he really wanted to impress me and he just needed a push. I was glad to give it to him. He really does have ability.

  • I received a note last week that was tagged on to a final reflection paper in my senior capstone. It told me how much the student really appreciated the course and how she hoped it wouldn't be dropped from the curriculum (the new core makes that a certainty, however). She wrote, "I know not everyone gets what I got out of the class, but I thought I should let you know that you did get through to someone... I appreciate your passion for teaching. I honestly think it is one of the things that made me love this class." To which I reply, "No, thank you. You don't know how much these kinds of comments mean to professors. Really, we are that insecure and needy. You have no idea!)

  • I also had the most affirming tenure review committee anyone could possibly imagine. Thank you, Ken and Greta. You made me feel about ten feet tall (at least for 24 hours ).
But even with these wonderful blessings, I wouldn't care to re-live this semester. So so long, fall 2009. I'm not sorry to see you go. I really hope I haven't left anything important in you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Memo to Big Brother

I inadvertently unleashed the dark side in my sophomore honors section this week. The course is a seminar focused on society, order and freedom. In it we read and discuss the usual suspects: Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx, but also other authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Edith Wharton, George Orwell and Frederick Douglass.

I wrote a standard ho-hum essay prompt that the students could write on if they wished, but I also came up up with some creative alternatives. Option B was to develop syllabi for three courses at Socrates University, an institution whose mission is to forever unfit people for intellectual slavery. If students wrote on this prompt, they had to select authors we read this semester and dream up the kind of learning experience that, say, a Professor Wollstonecraft or a Professor Thoreau might propose for the Soc U. curriculum. Then there was option C. That's where the trouble started:

Memo to Big Brother

(Final Paper Option C)

You are a loyal member of the Ingsoc inner party in Oceania. It is your job to police the spread of dangerous ideas and develop new methods to combat thought crime. This means you have access to many heretical texts (in other words, all of the books we have read in this seminar). Your task is to compose a memo to Big Brother that provides a detailed summary (carefully cited of course) of the three most dangerous authors and their ideas. You will need to explain why these ideas are a danger to the Party’s monopoly on power. In addition, you must describe what methods the Party will need to use to counter these ideas? (Indoctrination of the young, intimidation, enforced ignorance, destruction of history, etc.). Why will these modes effectively suppress any desire for freedom and individuality?

Your memo should accurately state the ideas, their dangers, and how the Party should respond. It should be five pages in length. Remember, Big Brother is watching, and he does not tolerate failure.

So last Tuesday we discussed some strategies for writing on this prompt. What struck me was the fiendish glee the students began to take in designing Room 101s for the various authors. At one point our discussion grew so dark that one of the students gave a shiver and confessed, "This is really starting to creep me out." Another brought up Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (we'd watched a bit of it in class while reading Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents). And I couldn't help thinking of that, too. I had written an essay prompt that asked students to think like torturers, and--just as Freud or Zimbardo might have predicted--they started to get into it. Indeed, O'Brien, the torturer in 1984, says the future of mankind can be thought of as a boot endlessly smashing into a human face. What I hadn't reckoned on was just much fun it can be to slip on that boot.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Four Arguments for the Elimination of the Liberal Arts

Next Tuesday I get to do my favorite lesson plan of the semester. In the senior capstone I will put liberal arts education on trial for its life. I should explain that the senior capstone is a course in which students review the meaning, use and significance of their education. We begin each semester with the trial of Socrates and then spend the following weeks reflecting on the value of the various disciplines that comprise the liberal arts (science, history, literature, philosophy...). Then, just as we are about to wrap everything up, I tell them that I have been lying to them these past two and a half months. So we hold a trial. The students become the jury and I act the part of the the prosecutor. For nearly 40 minutes I lead them through the case against liberal arts education. My peroration goes something like this:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, amen. Amen, amen, amen. You will forgive me, ladies and gentleman, but in my tradition we always say "amen" at the end of a prayer, and that's what you have been listening to these last few weeks, a prayer. The professor of this seminar has stood before you day-after-day making the case for the meaning, value, and significance of your liberal arts education. At times he’s been eloquent, passionate even, but that does not matter now. Now it's time to get real. I want you to remember Socrates’ admonition to his jury: “Never mind the manner, which may or may not be good; but think only of the justice of my cause.” So let's forget about your professor's passion and rhetorical flourishes, for I am about to prove to you with clear and logical arguments that he has been wrong about the liberal arts in every single instance.

Indeed, I intend to show that there are fundamental and serious flaws in liberal arts education—flaws that have cost you precious money and time in earning your diploma (You’d be done by now if you weren’t forced to take Mickey-Mouse, navel-gazing courses like this, right?). I am going to make four arguments that will do away with all the fine-sounding twaddle that institutions like this one mouth about the liberal arts. I will prove to you that they are misguided in their basic assumptions, a potential harm to a democratic society, hopelessly outdated and almost entirely ineffective in accomplishing their stated aims. I ask that you listen with an open mind, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, and if my case is sound, I urge you to vote for the summary execution of this misbegotten form of education.
The arguments against the liberal arts follow, and in a highly abbreviated form they go something like this:

1. The assumption that a person educated in the traditional liberal arts and sciences will be a more effective citizen who contributes to the betterment of society is simply incorrect. Power determines justice, not reason: A society’s sense of right and wrong is not determined by rational argument and ethical discernment; it is the result of a power structure so deeply embedded into our conception of reality that we can’t even begin to question it. Moreover, even if it’s true that you can educate some people away from ethical egoism, that doesn’t mean that social groups will change. Society as a whole is a series of highly-selfish vested interests that will only change in response to perceived self-interest or the use of coercive force.

2. Far from being valuable to a Democratic Society, the Liberal Arts are inherently elitist and anti-democratic. The so called "Examined Life” is snobbishly elitist. To say “the examined life is not worth living for a human being” implies that those who don’t do it are less than human, which can lead to intellectual elitism (as in Plato’s Republic). Intellectuals and academics have always been the greatest enemies of popular democracy. And democracy--if it is about anything-- is about freedom. But students are not free to opt out of liberal arts education. Indeed, few students come to college for such a curriculum. They come here for career preparation that increases their value to potential employers. The idea that they need familiarity with literature, history, and science is merely an elitist bias perpetuated by academics whose paychecks are derived from forcing students to take courses in subjects they wouldn’t otherwise pay for.

3. The liberal arts are outdated, irrelevant, and potentially harmful to a modern society. There is scant evidence to suggest that those educated in the traditional liberal arts are more effective employees, managers, or societal leaders than those with a more career-focused curriculum. (See AT&T’s experiments with liberal education). Besides, the liberal arts are out of date. It was one thing to educate people broadly in the 16th Century when the extent of knowledge was relatively small. The explosion of the information age makes the Liberal Arts project ridiculous. There is no way to broadly educate students in a world so overrun by information, knowledge and rapid change. Beyond their ineffectiveness, the liberal arts are dangerous to social cohesion. Dissension in fact is a far greater danger than groupthink. It is dangerous to question collected wisdom in a way that polarizes and alienates us from each other. We need a common script.

4. Whether the Liberal Arts are valuable is irrelevant because the evidence suggests that higher education today is doing a lousy job of teaching them. Higher Education has almost no empirical data to show that students are actually accomplishing the goals of a liberal arts education, and the evidence that does exist suggests woeful inadequacies in mathematical reasoning, scientific understanding, critical thinking, and historical awareness. The truth is that universities gave up on the liberal arts project decades ago to became the de facto certification arm of the private sector. It is now time to do that job in earnest and give up the flowery pretence that education today is about anything more than training people to become productive workers, innovators and leaders.  But even if the liberal arts approach worked (which it does not), it is in such an attenuated state that it has become little more than a fossilized relic serving no useful function. In this sense, the liberal arts are like the appendix in a human body. It can be removed with no harm to the body’s overall health and functioning.

All of the arguments above are accompanied by evidence (exhibit A, exhibit B...). After presenting the case I retire to the hallway. The students then walk back through the arguments. What's amazing to me is how seriously they take this goofy exercise. I always hear a rich discussion through the door, but I can never quite make out what they are saying. It is probably the most intense discussion of the semester, and it happens when I am not in the room! I have done this exercise seven or eight times and have yet to get a conviction. Maybe the students are just telling me what they think I want to hear, but I don't think so. When I debrief the jury, they defend the liberal arts a lot more than I do. In fact, there are some days when even I consider voting for summary execution.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The smell of rotting cabbage

I first read George Orwell's 1984 in the 8th grade. Mrs. James, my middle school English teacher, silently handed me a copy after I had finished my basic skills test early and was looking forward to goofing off in the remaining 10 minutes of the testing period. Mrs. James hated seeing students simply sitting there, so she would sometimes furnish them with a book to read. I don't know why she chose 1984 for me. Perhaps she had spotted me reading some classic science fiction (Heinlein, Ellison, Bradbury), which was a phase I went through in my reading life at about this time.

Then again, maybe it was for no particular reason at all. Maybe she just had a copy of the novel handy. In any case, I read it over the next few days and was really affected by it. For one thing, 1984 has some surprisingly frank depictions of sexuality--at least it did for this 8th grader. Indeed, the sexually liberated and joyfully hedonistic Julia may have been my first literary crush.

But 1984 isn't about procreation so much as elimination: the elimination of language, history, privacy and even human nature. To what degree, Orwell seems to ask, is it possible to redirect human nature, to control our desires, not only for love, but for freedom and individuality? Can our essential natures be reworked so that we want something else? Of course the default setting in much of the social sciences and humanities today is social constructionism. To one degree or another, there is a foundational assumption underlying the various sociopolitical "isms" that identity is malleable, negotiable, and socially constructed. When it comes to who we are, there's really no there there, or so say the reigning theorists du jour.

This means, of course, that our natures are pliable and we are free to reconstruct our societies to engineer away past injustices. We simply have to topple the prevailing power structure and replace it with a better one. But that's not exactly the view Orwell holds. It's not so simple to revise human nature in the world of 1984 (else why would the Party have to employ such extraordinary means to redirect desires?). Orwell implies that there really is some basic human orientation toward freedom and individuality, and it is only with the greatest ruthlessness and effort that it can be ferreted out and destroyed. What's darkly terrifying about 1984 is not that we lack an essential orientation to freedom and individuality. It's that we do. There is a there there, and it can be erased.

I have not read 1984 since that time long ago in middle school, but we've started it this week for sophomore honors section. What strikes me at this reading is not its sexuality or the constant olfactory references to rotting cabbage (and not even those horrific rats at the end). No, what troubles me is Orwell's pessimism about the durability of human longing for freedom and individuality. I really didn't register that before.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The dull, the dead, the gruesome...

I have been on radio silence for a spell. The combination of teaching a new five-credit prep and the accelerated night course has just about done me in. I am working until 10:30 pm two nights a week and have to be back here at 8:00 am the next morning. I don't know why I did this to myself, and I'm thankful this semester will last only a few more weeks. Then, oh sweet oblivion, I can rest. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

I am teaching far too much this fall and not teaching well. Everything is read, graded, or planned at the last possible minute. How I long to be that put-together professor whose assignments seamlessly dovetail into carefully crafted outcomes, who is up-to-date with the latest pedegogi-gadgets that bewitch the students into deep learning and cognitive development, who has the time to reflect and tinker, to read a poem or even see a film.

What I am is an exhausted drudge who is struggling to remain two chapters ahead of the students in the texts. I taught Plato last night, I will teach the Inferno this morning, Shakespeare this afternoon, and a lesson on morality and science tomorrow morning. Ye gods, I swear never to do this to myself again.

Years ago, when I was struggling to write, I penned a little poem lamenting the need to write a lot of bad poems just to keep writing. Somehow that old poem seems apt this morning. You just have to keep going, even when you are stinking it up. You have to swear to yourself it will get better.

"Swear Words"

For eight years
I have let bad language be,
Lived with the dull,
The dead, the gruesome.
At best, honest only to the point
Of honest delusion.
Another eight years, then,
Without hope, subtlety,
Or flair?
A lifetime of letting
Bad language be?
As the ghost says to

Monday, November 2, 2009

Plagiarizing Myself

I like assigning dialogs to students. Sometimes I will have them write personal letters to characters in novels, or invent fictional correspondence between authors. Last week my sophomore honors section had to write a movie review of Confessions of a Shopaholic using the ideas and voice of Mary Wollstonecraft. It seems to have worked, too. Today before class they were saying that they couldn't get Wollstonecraft out of their head when they were watching TV over the weekend. These kinds of assignments are fun, but they can really tank if you don't carefully present your expectations.

I learned this the first time I tried a dialog. I was teaching the spring semester of Humanities. In that class we read Hamlet and Machiavelli's The Prince, so one of the prompts I assigned asked students to create a dialog between Machiavelli and Hamlet: how would Machiavelli have advised young prince Hamlet on his Claudius problem?

Done right, the assignment should have gotten students to bring one text to bear on another. The pitfall I should have anticipated was the creative nature of the task. It allowed the more adventuresome students to do something fresh and fun, which lead them astray. They started having so much fun inventing humorous dialog that they forgot to put any intellectual substance in their work. They also had never written anything like this before and lacked a model for how it should look on the page. The whole exercised bombed.

So I decided to write a fake dialog to use as a model the second time I tried it. I included spelling and punctuation errors and gave it a grade of B-. I even added fake margin comments (semicolon error here... You really should cite this...). When I presented the sample dialog to the class, I said something like, "Now here's a paper that was written for this class," which wasn't actually a lie. It was written for the class. I just conveniently omitted the fact that I had written it myself and tailored it to highlight the very problems I wanted them to avoid.

And so began my practice of creating fake student papers. Whenever I was trying something new and lacked an older student copy to use as a model, I just made one up (complete with errors and my own phony grade and comments). I felt guilty about this for a long time. While I wasn't outright lying, I was being a little deceptive. Then, five or six years ago at a teaching conference, I confessed the dark, shameful secret that I sometimes wrote fake student responses to new assignments. I even admitted I felt guilty about it and ruminated aloud whether it was possible to plagiarize yourself. But the woman running the conference just threw back her head and laughed, "Faking a B- student paper!" she roared. "Oh God, I LOVE that!"

I don't know. Maybe it's wrong, but it works.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Get the knives..."

Many years ago a good friend and I shared an apartment. It was the typical bachelor's dump: ratty furniture, upturned barrels for end tables and perpetual piles of unlaundered clothes. One day (we both worked nights) a guy calls up and offers to sell us a new vacuum cleaner. I can hear my friend, Jason, explaining to him that neither one of us was likely to buy anything.

But the salesman persists and says that he will give us a new set of high quality steak knives just for listening to his presentation. Jason says, "Let me get this straight. I am telling you right now that there is no chance--no chance at all--that we are going to buy your vacuum cleaner, and you still want to come out here and show it to me?" The salesman says that's right. We get the steak knives even if we don't purchase a thing. "Okay," says Jason. "Come on out."

About an hour later a guy pulls up in our drive in a Cadillac Coup DeVille. He's a big man in a loose cut suit. He's wearing knock-off Italian loafers and an over sized gold ring. There's a skinny kid with him, too, who looks to be all Adam's apple and larceny. The two of them come to the door and knock (the kid carrying the vacuum cleaner). I answer and half-expect them to turn around and leave as soon as they see the inside of the dump we were renting, but the big man seems undeterred. He thrusts out his meaty hand and introduces himself and his associate.

For the next forty minutes the guy displays his vacuum cleaner to us, and I have to confess it was an amazing machine. It sucked a large throw pillow into the size of a softball, it washed tile floors, and it came with a lifetime replacement guarantee: no questions asked. But it was also about $1,200 and neither my buddy nor I had anything close to that to our names, which I should have thought was obvious to anyone looking around the room. Even so, the big man was really giving it his best effort, while the kid, who was apparently in training, just watched.

Finally, the big man starts his close. "Well, gentleman, you'll have to agree that this is the last vacuum cleaner you'll ever own or ever need." He even starts to talk about a payment schedule. But Jason just snorts and says, "I told you before you ever drove out here we weren't going to buy anything." The big man isn't fazed by this at all. He asks Jason and I to stand up. He switches on the machine and vacuums the couch cushions where we were just sitting. Then he pulls a white silk handkerchief from his pocket, reverses the flow of the vacuum cleaner, and blows a fine powder of black crud onto the handkerchief. "You see," the big man says holding forward the dirt for our inspection. "That is what you were just sitting on." But Jason takes the handkerchief, dumps the dirt back on the couch, and sits down. The big man doesn't even blink. He just glances to the kid and says, "Get the steak knives."

In the next few weeks I have to sell to my colleagues a proposal to rework the university's general education core requirements. I've been working on the proposal all morning, and I find myself suddenly thinking that the big man probably had a better shot at making a sale that day.

(For the record, too, they were really lousy steak knives.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Winging It

If you ask seasoned college professors whether they have ever walked into classroom unprepared and had it work, you will see a smile and a look of guilty recognition. For whatever reason, we all find ourselves teaching without a net sometimes. And sometimes, amazingly, it works. Even so, it's a really bad technique to rely upon.

It happened to me this morning. Last Friday I had a brain lapse and began teaching Monday's lesson. The students just sat there blankly through forty minutes of discussion before one of them had the perspicacity to ask, "Why are we talking about Paul's Letter to the Romans? That's next Monday's reading."


Then I spent all day Saturday working on my tenure review portfolio and most of Sunday catching up on grading and rereading Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women for sophomore honors seminar. This morning I had a two-hour meeting. The upshot was that Intro to Humanities was placed on the back burner. Now it was 9:00 a.m. and I needed a creative idea for class and needed it fast.

So in the hour between the meeting and class, I typed up a blank test template. There was a section for true/false, another for matching and one for fill in the blank. I even left some empty spaces for essay prompts. I put the students in four teams when class started and had them write questions onto the empty test copies. They had to design the exam to include the material we've covered so far. They went back through their notes and the readings and were really engaged in what needed to be on the quiz and how to word each question. They even wrote some meaty comparison-contrast essay prompts. The teams spent around 25 minutes designing their quizzes. Then they switched quizzes and took each one another's exams.

The best part was the interactive discussion and review of the course's major concepts. As students worked, I flitted from table to table listening to them re-debate heroism in the Iliad, Socrates' examined life, and the nature of the tragic hero in Oedipus. They didn't have time to respond to the essay prompts they wrote, so I offered extra credit to anyone who wanted to tackle one. It worked really well and was a fun, engaged but substance-filled 50 minutes.

I wouldn't want to teach without a net every day, but sometimes it does focus the teaching mind with that odd, brace-for the crash, adrenaline rush clarity.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cathartic Venting

Every once in a while I read a student paper and feel the need to do some cathartic venting. In the senior capstone, for example, students review the meaning, value and significance of their liberal arts education. We talk about the value of scientific inquiry, the importance of a historical perspective, the meaning of aesthetic awareness...

Most students dutifully jump through the assignment hoops. By the time they become seniors, a certain amount of institutionalization inevitably sets in. Even so, many tell me they like the chance to draw their college experience into a broader focus. Sometimes, however, in lieu of actually doing an assignment, a student will go off on a rant about higher education. I have a high tolerance for this. I realize that much of education is a form of ritualized annoyance. But sometimes I lose patience and find myself venting right back. Here is a recent example (I've changed the student's name):


So your point is that a liberal arts education a waste of time? As you say, you came to college to get a better job, not to read poetry or talk about the War of 1812. Well, you are not alone in the belief that a person should just focus on a career in college and muddle through the rest. The nurses in my class sometimes call what I teach the BS part of their BSN. I mean, what is college really for? It's to help you get a job and make money, right? There's a lot to be said for your view. But let me tell you a story--my story actually--and then you can let me know what you think.

Before I started college I had a good job. I made about $15 an hour as a union construction worker, pretty good jack back in in the day. I was 23 years old, drove a red Italian sports car, drank only single malt scotch, and smoked a box of premium cigars a month. I always had $100 in my pocket, too, just in case I wanted to buy something. But all I knew about the world was payday, quitting time, and having a good weekend. I thought that's what life was supposed to be about.

But I was ignorant. My entire life existed between a bar, a job site and TV set. In many ways, I was not unlike a cow or a dog that is only motivated by eating, sleeping and feeling good. To a certain degree, I was living the life of an animal. What drove me was just a desire for pleasure or the wish to avoid pain. Now Socrates says "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." Note: he doesn't say that an unexamined life is unpleasant. It might be pleasant as hell to be loaded for a month, but that's not really a human life. A human life has got to be about something more than pouring liquor down your pie-hole. Indeed, Socrates says that examining your life, questioning it, figuring out who you are and what you believe is the point of being alive. If you don't do it, you're squandering your potential as a human being.

Those courses in your liberal arts core were not a waste of time, in my opinion. They were opportunities to formulate what you think about very big issues: Why are things the way they are? (History); Why do people see things differently? (Psychology); How do other people live and is it better? (Literature, Diversity); How should I behave toward others? (Ethics, Philosophy). See?

Any jackass can be trained to sell tires or plug a memory board into a computer, but it takes a human being functioning at his best to formulate good answers to these questions. Now maybe your courses weren't well taught. Maybe the instructors didn't stimulate you to really wrestle with the meat of life. I went to college. I know these kinds of courses and professors exist, but that doesn't mean liberal arts education is a waste.

It's useful to remember that the word "liberal" has nothing to do with politics in this instance. It comes from liberalis, which means "to free". And liberal arts education—if it's any good at all—should free you from narrowness of mind, which is the worst prison you can be in because you don't even know you're in it.

Education made me more myself. It helped me to answer some big questions and know where I stand. My ideas now are based hard thinking, not the half-baked prejudices of my youth. Anyway, that's my story, and if I had my way students would take four solid years of courses that free the mind. Then they could finish up with a semester learning a career. How long does it take to learn to sell tires? Please. But that's just me.

On your response, don't worry about trying to agree with me. I don't grade down when you disagree with my views. Actually I admire it if it's a well-considered view. I do, however, grade down when it’s clear you didn’t do the reading and so decided to go into a rant about the liberal arts that had nothing to do with the assignment. Just do the reading and write a thoughtful, sincere response. It won't kill you, I promise. Who knows? It might even make you think.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


You can walk across any college campus today and find student after student staring into the screen of a cell phone with blank fascination. I just went to make a photocopy and happened upon two such students, each draped across a sofa, each gazing into their message screens. Whenever I see these students I am reminded of a common image in Western art. For centuries painters have depicted young, beautiful women staring into mirrors.

Ostensibly such paintings were meant to be moral warnings against vanity. In actuality the warning was only an excusatory fig leaf that allowed respectable men to ogle beautiful women while "tut-tutting" about the caprices of the weaker sex. Even so, it's striking how similar the expressions of student cell phone users are to those old paintings. The tiny electronic screens are luminescent mirrors into which both male and female students endlessly peer in rapt self-absorption.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More Blogging about Buildings and Food

In addition to enjoying fresh trout this past weekend, I was able to indulge one of my other passions: architecture. Nearby to where we stayed, there was a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home. I realize that Wright has recently become something like the impressionist painters. Even people who know nothing about art recognize Monet, Degas and Renoir (they're on Kleenex boxes of all things). There's even a kind of neo-prairie style cropping up in a lot of suburban subdivisions. You can find low pitched roofs, extended eaves, and strips of casement windows on banks, high schools and fire stations all over town.

Even so, I find Wright's total concept of organic architecture appealingly Emersonian, and consequently recognizably American. The Walter House (pictured above) is a kind of summation of the Wright program. It was built relatively late in his career and is situated on a long narrow ridge that extends out over the Wapsipinnicon River. Like all mature Wright structures, it stands in relationship to the land. Indeed, Wright opposed the idea of a house dominating the landscape. Rather, he wanted the house and the land to work together. So the Walter house doesn't sit on the crest of the ridge, but just below it so that its long roof line seems to be another naturally descending plane below the crown of the hill. It works with the slope rather than presiding over it.

Wright also felt the roof was the essence of shelter. Most roofs cap a house; they squat on their walls like lids on a pot. He wanted his roofs to flow. In the case of his Prairie style homes that fluidity echoes the flow of open grassland (he also hid his front doors. There's no front door to a prairie). But perhaps the most identifiable feature of any Wright home is an eave that extends well beyond the walls. Long strips of casement windows--often made possible by the use of cantilevers-- are another feature. They create an openness to the environment and make it possible to do away with support columns on the corners. At Falling Water the corners can actually be opened outward to allow nature to simply flow into the house.

Contrast that with the closed nature of the traditional 19th century Victorian home or the classic American Four Square. Wright detested the traditional American house. He called it a box with tiny rat-like holes cut into it. Its interiors were carved up little rats nests. The living room pictured above is a great example of his desire to open up the space and get away from boxes within boxes. He created "rifts" in his interior spaces, openings that provide a sense of relationship not only to the land, but to the sky above and the earth below.

His ceiling is penetrated with skylights and it floats atop a small line of narrow casement windows (note how the corner of that strip of casement windows actually cuts back into the space and undermines any sense of stopping at a right angle). And the planter (seen at bottom left) opens to the ground beneath the house. The plants actually grow out of the soil and into the home. Note, too, the low slung height of the furniture. Nothing must block the relationship to the landscape or sense of openness. The low height of this furniture is a direct descendant of the low interior walls of the Robie House in Chicago.

The Walter house is long and narrow (like the ridge) and only 1800 square feet, yet Wright was able to create a sense of openness and space even in a relatively small vacation home. It was a joy to see. He may be in the process of becoming a T-shirt or a Kleenex box , but all the PBS coffee mug popularity can't dull the excitement of experiencing a Wright building in person.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sunday Morning

I wrote last May about taking up fly fishing (Basho and Brown Trout). After some comical attempts, I did catch my first trout this past summer in a little mountain lake in Colorado. Caught him on a Copper John 14. I held him in my hand for a moment or two and then watched him swim away. It was the highlight of my year. That is until yesterday. I have this ancient bamboo fly rod that belonged to my late uncle. He was more a bait fisherman, but for some reason he had this rod. I don't think he ever used it. My aunt gave it to my brother who eventually gave it to me. I cleaned it up and bought a new reel and some fly-line for it.

I brought it along this past weekend because the family and I were in trout country. My Sunday morning was spent lumbering about, spooking fish, untying wind knots and having no luck whatsoever. I was about to give up but decided to try one last cast to a dark pool lying just beside a run of fast water. They say trout like to lurk beside fast water and dart into the current when something tasty sweeps past. They also say it's harder for them to spot you through a quick-moving current. I hadn't had any luck creeping up on them, so I cast out to that pool. It was about a 20 foot cast and the line rolled out perfectly (that doesn't always happen for me). Two strips of the fly line and wham: I was fighting a spunky little foot-long rainbow. I got him to the bank, netted him and snapped his photo.

It was a perfect moment: cool, sunlit, the trees silently roaring in rust and gold. I held the fish back in the current long enough for him to revive with fresh oxygen rushing past his gills. Then I opened my hand and he swam away with an almost haughty indifference (as if these minor kerfuffles happened to him all the time). I knew there were other trout in the pool, but I was not about to throw another cast yesterday. That fish had preached a sermon: Grace is accepted, not earned.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Six Degrees of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

One of the new strategies I adopted this semester was allowing the students to take charge of one class period a week. I divided the sophomore honors section into three groups and assigned each some days on which students would lead class discussion over the material. They could use any method they wanted, but they would be evaluated on the basis of engagement with the material, creativity and presentation.

For the most part, they’ve been dependent on me for coming up with teaching approaches, and I’ve been generous with suggestions and evaluations. I gave them the text messaging gimmick (If you can’t beat ‘em), and I have had them do variations on the pair/share exercise. Yesterday, however, one of the students proposed an interesting idea. We’re currently reading Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, but this particular cohort of honors students has been together since freshmen year reading a long list of authors: Plato, Milton, Freud, Woolf, Descartes, Marx, Swift, Whitman, Buber, Shakespeare, Darwin, Aristotle, Mary Shelley…

So they designed a game called “Six Degrees of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” On a checkerboard they labeled every other square with the name an author they’ve read in the past year and a half. The object of the game is to start with any author and make a connection or distinction to one of the four adjacent authors (this link or distinction is to be written in the intervening empty square). Then you continue the process six times until you arrive at an idea in Rousseau’s essay. Here’s an example:

Ralph Ellison’s invisible man sees himself at war with the “Power Company,” a social force that shapes his identity. (1) This connects to Freud who argued that the superego originates externally and powerfully shapes our identity. Freud also argued that the id contained irrational, destructive urges that needed to be contained. (2) This connects to Sophocles whose character Creon argues society needs to be on guard against chaos and destruction. (3) Creon’s leadership philosophy connects to Hobbes, who also argued that a powerful authority needs to contain human brutishness in the state of nature. (4) This in turn contrasts with Locke, who disagreed with Hobbes that the state of nature was entirely savage because in it one at least possessed natural rights to freedom, just retribution for injury and private property. (5) This connects to Margaret Atwood, whose eco-feminist novel Surfacing recognized the value of the pre-civilized state of nature, which, in turn, (6) echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea that modern civilization is the source of inequality and prejudice.


I love this idea. Not only is it a good intellectual workout, but it actually promotes the kind of fluid, schematic thinking the honors program seeks to promote. I’ve never swiped an idea from students before, but I will now. Educators are quite shameless when it comes to this kind of thievery.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

the fading outboard's drone...

No time for long, discursive explorations of an idea or some teaching tidbit. The weather has turned and there's no Indian summer likely now. This semester has me firmly in its maw. I can barely breathe I have so much to do. So how about some poems? A few years ago I committed myself to writing a poem a day for one month. Most were dreadful-- little more than limericks or snarky doggerel. Still I retain an affection for a few of them despite their flaws. Besides, four years is long enough to keep them in storage. It's time to let them out.

the motorboat wake
widening as its apex hurries
across the lake:
young voices at a distance, the fading outboard’s drone,
and two lines
sauntering on the surface for seconds
as the water resumes
its line-less own.

Let’s go raffle the poetry bin
For Frank O’Hara
Or Anais Nin.
Let’s find something
That’s almost forgotten:
By Roethke, or Lowell, or late Wystan Auden.
Then let’s take them home
And drink gin in bed.
Let’s have at their worst.
We’ll toast to the dead.

Your really first class verse
Will mention Vermeer,
Possibly Brueghel, Magritte
Or Cezanne.
It will conjure the clear
Daybreak at Delft,
Savor an orange or an exquisite prawn.
There will be luscious anxiety,
Bereft light and smoke,
Oblique allusions to remorse and the
Passage of time. It may evoke
An uncertain summer,
A hillside in Spain,
Bitterness at lovers,
Some inescapable shame.
And then it will end
with a line quite odd,
Like crabgrass with wingnuts
In the bitter folds of the lawn.

Monday, October 12, 2009


I’m beat.

At work projects, responsibilities, worries pile on top of each other, and no one thing receives the attention or care it deserves. I hate teaching when it gets this way. It's like murdering the thing you love. As of now I am chairing a committee to redesign the general education core, teaching in a Learning Community with an interdisciplinary curriculum, mentoring a new faculty member, providing the admissions office with support, working as an evening program advisor, overseeing the scheduling and curriculum of a senior capstone program, teaching a senior capstone, and overseeing the data collection for the assessment of a program. I still haven't completed my tenure review portfolio, and who knows when I'll get to it. Oh, and I start an accelerated night class a week from tonight (syllabus as yet incomplete). There's a stack of papers at my elbow too.

The one thing I'm not doing is teaching very well. I rushed through all of last week. Everything gets read, written, or graded the moment before I walk through the door. If I get the flu, I'm in deep, deep trouble.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Least Amount of Misery

The courses are talking to one another now. This happens a couple of times each semester. Indeed, I've blogged on this odd phenomenon before (Pagan Ping-Pong). Some author I am teaching in one class weirdly starts talking to another author I'm teaching in a different class. In the sophomore honors section, for example, we just started in on Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, and in Humanities we are beginning Seneca's essay On Anger. Freud is explaining that organized society is merely a massively elaborate containment mechanism for foiling our infantile desire to have everything we want: our hot wishes, our violent demands, and even our irrational yearning to be the darling of the universe as we once were when our mothers gazed adoringly down upon us.

Seneca, of course, recognizes how nettlesome our desires can be. He too has a "reality principle" that foils our irrational longings. His solution is to always expect the worst. Then we won't lose our temper when the worst occurs. I admire the Stoics but find it hard to follow their advice. They argue you should ask yourself only one question about anything that’s vexing you: is this something within my power to change? If it is, then change it. If it’s not, stop worrying.

For the past year I have been chairing a committee to revise the core, and I am continually vexed by my own inability to anticipate snafus, by the sheer work it takes to cause something this big to happen. I try to take a stoical approach, try to tell myself that what can go wrong usually will, but I am still filled with exasperation when it does. I don’t know if I am the kind of person who can ever be satisfied doing this kind of curricular work. I also know I lack what it takes to be a stoic.

I'm much more likely to view frustration in Freudian terms. Suffering is just part of life (or as Schopenhauer put it "happiness is simply the least amount of misery"). There simply is no arrangement of life that brings permanent contentment. I know much (if not all) of contemporary psychology has jettisoned Freud’s specific concepts (Oedipus complex, penis envy, even to a great degree the notion of repression). But his conceptual framework still resonates even if he got many of the details wrong. In a sense, Freud is a singer of the self like Whitman. If we think of a poet as someone who generates new language to represent reality, then Freud was a great poet. He reshaped the way we talk about the self. If many of his ideas have lost currency, the poetry remains.

In the broadest sense, Freud suggests the “self” houses conflicting desires that are not wholly conscious. Such a view is to some extent a blow to our ego-centrism. We like to think we are in conscious charge of ourselves. But people do yearn for love and closeness, not altogether rational desires given that the love we do find is never as satisfying as we imagine it will be. Human beings also take perverse pleasure in destruction. The keen willingness of generation after generation of young men to march off to war and murder complete strangers cannot be entirely chalked up to civic pride or patriotism. At some base level we long to destroy, and society both contains and valorizes this impulse.

Freud was so pessimistic about humanity’s ability to overcome the eternal war between the deep-seated instincts of Eros and Thanatos. But he did believe that it’s better to know this about ourselves. It was his working premise that making our unconscious drives more conscious was a way of dealing with them when they weren’t appropriate. Is this a bleak view or realistic? I think the latter.

Freud wrote off philosophies like Stoicism as just a variant form of ascetic quietism, the attempt to master our desires by denying them. He called art a distracting sublimation, but I find that it makes a much more effective tonic for my nerves than Senecan stoicism. Frank Zappa once said that "music is the only religion that delivers" and I believe him. Great music has the power to dispel gloom without denying gloom exists.

While driving in to work today, I was moderating that debate between Freud and Seneca in my head. And then Louis Armstrong's 1929 recording of Mahogany Hall Stomp shuffled to the top of my I-pod. I just sat spellbound and listened. About two minutes into the piece, he blows a single note so filled with purity and joy that it never fails to make me--if only for a few seconds-- immensely glad to be alive and living in a universe that includes something as sublime as Louis playing his cornet.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Three Student Quirks

Teach for long enough and you'll start to notice odd things that remain true year after year. Here's one that I've always found interesting. The student who finishes a final exam first will often receive either an A or an F but seldom a C or B. And the weird things is that's also true for the last student to complete the exam, the one who holds you there for the entire exam period. Out on the margins of the bell curve, people can be fast and accurate or fast and inaccurate, or they can be slow and accurate or slow and inaccurate. The rest of us live somewhere in the middle.

Here's another quirk: whenever an assignment is due, students will walk into class and immediately try to hand it in to you. I suppose this is just anxiety about making sure it's officially received, but they show such a peculiar obsession with not holding on to the assignment any longer than necessary. It's almost as if it had some loathsome disease.

I have always marveled, too, at the way students will try to jump start the end of class with a seemingly choreographed rustling of notebooks and adjustments of posture. One starts straightening or checking to see if her pack is still by her chair. Another sits up and inhales deeply, and soon--like the contagion of yawning--they're all doing it. Sometimes you call them on this and say, "Hang on, We've still got five minutes."

When you do, they slump back into their seats like old bike tires slowly going flat.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…

Every now and then I blindly lurch onto a good idea. Yesterday my sophomore honors students were complaining about the dryness of the reading, and to be honest the fare has been a tad arid (Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Mill. We're weeks away from a novel). Then after class one of the students sought me out to say he was having trouble understanding the readings. “I read,” he said, “but nothing sticks. I just can’t keep my mind on it.” So I asked him if he annotated his texts. Seeing a look of incomprehension on his face, I quickly brandished my well-festooned copy of On Liberty.

“Look, I’m a pretty good reader,” I told him, “but even I don’t try to digest this stuff without making little notes in the margin about the key ideas and arguments. That's annotation.”

“Oh," he said. "I highlight.”

“Highlighting! Bah! A total waste of time. I’d like to throttle whoever started that practice. A highlighter doesn’t squeeze the argument through your brain. You must wrestle what you have read into your own words. All you have is a hazy set of impressions until you do that.”

“But what if you don’t get the main idea?”

“You have to start constructing an understanding somewhere. It's better to start with something—even if it’s wrong—than with nothing at all.”

So here’s my pip of an idea for class on Friday. I know my students don’t annotate, but it occurred to me that they do shorten ideas into bite-sized nuggets all the time. So on Friday they are to have read a chapter of Mill. I’m going to have them translate the chapter into six text messages of 160 characters each. They can use text-ese (2b or not 2b), but they have to capture the key points. We will compare our messages and decide who best captured Mill’s central argument. This could be fun (r nt). wl c.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Flattening Mainz and Other Memories

The last time I was in Germany I found myself looking at a map and remembering my junior high school years, which was about the time another kid and I got seriously into war gaming. This was before the onslaught of video games. Well, there were video games, but they could not be played at home. You had to go to pinball arcades to play Donkey Kong, Dig-Dug, or Pac-Man.

If you wanted to get into serious war-gaming, you had to buy board games, and they were really expensive ($12 seemed steep to me then). At that time, too, there were a lot of small companies making war games, but my local hobby store only carried two companies: Avalon-Hill and another outfit called SDI (or something like that). The SDI games were overly technical: lots of charts, morale gauges, economic units, and complicated scenarios. The Avalon-Hill games were much more playable and better packaged.

One particular favorite was Luftwaffe. It came in a solid, pleasingly heavy box, with an inner sleeve and was roughly the size of a cereal carton. The cover showed a Messerschmitt 109, wing-mounted cannons ablaze, diving on a formation of B-17s. Inside was a game board that displayed a map of war-time Germany. It also showed small bits of Poland, the Netherlands, and a little part of Italy. Superimposed over the map was a hexagonal grid not unlike the tiled pattern on old bathroom floors. One player controlled the allied air force (the US and the RAF); the other commanded the Luftwaffe. Each maneuvered over the skies of Germany by counting off hexagons.

The aim for the allied player was to bomb all of the oil refineries, aircraft factories, and rail centers in Germany. The Luftwaffe commander had to shoot down as many B-17s, P-51s, P-47s, and B-24s as possible. My friend Van and I used to play this game for hours, exploring all kinds of scenarios: what if Hitler had developed jets faster? What if Britain had to fight alone?

Many was the junior high Friday night I spent flattening Schweinfurt, Koblenz, Mainz, Berlin. And when I wasn’t carpet bombing civilian population centers, I was slicing into tall stacks of bomber formations with Focke-Wulf 190s. Roll a five or a six and 75 Flying Fortresses would belch black smoke and plunge earthward. In many ways, the game was historically instructive. The allied player grew stronger and stronger as the game wore on, benefiting from an unhampered and seemingly endless supply of bombers and fighters that arrived with each new turn.

The German player, on the other hand, saw fighter production drop every time he lost another aircraft factory. For him, it wasn’t a matter of preventing cities from being annihilated as much as minimizing the inevitable devastation. If only half of Germany was in ashes by the game’s end, the Germans were considered to have won.

I don’t remember when I began to feel a bit uneasy about war-gaming, but I do recall one time staring down at a dime-sized cardboard counter that had just been eliminated and thinking that it represented 150 planes, with each B-17 containing a dozen guys whose fate had just been determined by the roll of a die. Over a thousand men were supposedly in that little cardboard chit. There was just something creepy about the whole thing. By high school I hadn’t thrown my games away, but I seldom played them. I think I gave them to somebody after that, but I can’t recall who.

War-gamers were a strange lot. They tended to be nerdy kids, history buffs or older guys who didn’t get a lot of dates. A few years after my war-gaming phase, a lot of people got into Dungeons and Dragons, and I always suspected this was a way of making the killing a bit more palatable. Slaying dwarfs or swamp hags is perhaps less objectionable than flattening Mainz. And make no mistake: Mainz was flattened, along with most Europe in World War II. Driving around Germany the last time I was there, I knew the names of all the major cities and even had a crude orientation to the country (thanks to those hexagons). Riding along the autobahn, I’d see a sign showing the distance to, say, Chemnitz, and I’d think, ‘Oh, man, I know that town got hammered.”

Strange then that I arrived home from that trip on Memorial Day, which made me realize how little remembering actually takes place. The local news is always fairly predictable. You could run last year’s news package or the one from the year before, and nobody would really see much of a difference. A few old guys march holding the colors, someone plays taps at the cemetery, and a lot of people say things about our fallen heroes and how we must never forget them. But each one of those dead soldiers was an individual; each had virtues and faults. Some were really nice guys, some were jerks, some loved their kids and a few beat their wives. Most were probably scared a lot of the time. In short, all of those dead “heroes” aren’t remembered at all. They are rather shamelessly lumped into an abstraction.

They were in fact just like us, except they had the rotten luck to die in a thousand haphazard and mind-blowingly stupid ways. Maybe they were just torn apart by high explosives without ever really knowing what happened to them. Maybe they caught an infection is some un-sterile aid station. Maybe they turned right instead of left and so ran over an IED. The die rolled a four instead of a three. The little cardboard chit survived, or maybe it didn’t. Who wants to remember it that way?

No, it’s far better to play taps, fold the flag into a tri-cornered patriot’s hat, and say a few words about never forgetting the fallen heroes. In the end, I couldn’t keep playing war games after I began to think that the pieces represented real people, each with a complicated and peculiar history of desires, shortcomings and fears. In that sense, I suppose, playing the games was more like the real thing than I ever realized at the time. You can’t really do either very well without a whole lot of forgetting.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Semester Cycle

For whatever reason I have to put myself through a dark night of the soul before every accomplishment. I first noticed this in grad school whenever I had to write a paper. I would start off confidently with an idea about how to analyze a piece of literature, but at some point in the composition process I would begin to think that my ideas were breathtakingly commonplace. I even had a phrase for this. I’d call it “laboring mightily and bringing forth a pea.”

This feeling, in turn, caused me to question my own intellectual capacity. Maybe, I would speculate, I am just too lame, too dull-minded, too second rate to actually do the kind of bright, original thinking required in real scholarship. But at this point, with the deadline nearing, there was no alternative but forging ahead and cobbling together whatever dreary insights I had.

Resignation would take hold by the time I handed in the essay. Now the stakes were clear. The grade to come would not only be a measure of my performance; it would become the indices of my life-long inadequacy. Worse, the grade would stand as a humiliating exposure of what Whitman called the “dark suspicious pools of accomplishment.” In the end, of course, the grade was an A, the paper praised, and for a brief time I would think to myself ‘maybe I’m not as second rate as I thought.’

But without fail the same sequence of confidence, doubt and resignation would take place again the next time I faced a challenge. I never seemed to recognize the pattern while I was in it. Or if I did, the recognition didn’t matter because I always felt certain that this time was different. This time the true nature of my intellectual vacuity was sure to be exposed. Sooner or later, I would think, there had to be a challenge or test that I couldn’t bluff my way through: Admittedly, old boy, you’ve had had an amazing run of luck, but this time, surely…

What's curious is that I repeat something of this same pattern every semester. According to my wife I am regular as clockwork. The first few weeks of every semester I am confident, optimistic, and filled with ideas on I how to make my courses better. I come home anxious to tell her what exciting new thing I am trying to do in my classes.

Then, seven to eight weeks in, she says there is a change. I begin to doubt everything. I complain that the students aren't getting it and I have no faith in the way I designed the class. (What was I thinking?) Moreover, I begin to see the student texting away in the corner and the one unengaged out on the Siberian rim of the classroom as hectoring reminders of my inadequacy and failure to be more engaging, fresh, interesting. Then comes resignation. "It's all a joke," I moan. "I mean, come on. I'm pretending to teach, they're pretending to learn, and we're both pretending not to notice that little of either is happening."

By the end of the semester--so I'm told--there's a final stage when I begin to realize that maybe it wasn't what I wanted it to be, but there was still value in what we did accomplish. Somehow I always come through the sturm und drang of mid-semester intact and even with some feeble, attenuated faith in the process. But right now, as I sit here contemplating two really bad classes in succession, I know that the final graceful, hopeful phase is a long way off. Right now it feels as if the sun is setting on the early days of this semester and the long night is about to begin.

Monday, September 28, 2009

As the Vox Humana Swells

Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England's statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady's cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate'er shall be,
Don't let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots' and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.
Although dear Lord I am a sinner,

I have done no major crime;
Now I'll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.
I will labour for Thy Kingdom,

Help our lads to win the war,
Send white feathers to the cowards
Join the Women's Army Corps,
Then wash the steps around Thy Throne
In the Eternal Safety Zone.

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr'd.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

I've always had a liking for the popular British poet John Betjeman. He's a guilty pleasure. There are better poets and more serious poets. Still I like him. Indeed, his oft-anthologized In Westminster Abbey (quoted above in full) is the embodiment of his comedic style: ironic and tartly particularized, yet somehow thrown into the mix is a broader humanity. The narrator’s prayer to God to kill the empire's enemies is squeezed in before the her luncheon date. This tea time imperialist, who prays for God to protect "Gallant blacks from far Jamaica" a little less than Britain's Caucasian soldier's, seems more laughably hypocritical than dangerous. We can't just dismiss her as a mean little jingoist because her concerns are not really with the fate of the empire as much as her own petty vanities and personal finances.

Consequently, the poem transcends simple satire of chauvinist dogmas by relishing such things as gloves, luncheon dates, and fashionable addresses, all the mundane trivialities of self-regard. These innocuous details preserve some larger tone of humanity that is characteristic of Betjeman's work. It's all there in the officious unsnapping of a glove during a particularly throbbing organ stop.

Like Browning's characters, Betjeman's narrators can reveal more about themselves than they know they are revealing, but unlike Browning, Betjeman's speakers seem to speak on some cuttingly recognizable or trivial level. Bishop Gandolf, Ferrara and the cloistered Spanish monk are certainly hypocrites, and they are just as concerned with social position, wealth and keeping up public appearances, but with Betjeman there is something of Chekov's ability to both care and castigate the all too human failures that beset us. Such delicate and humane comedy does not come easily. As any actor will tell you, comedy is hard, but comedy without cruelty is harder still.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kisses, Like Poetry

Kisses, like poetry,
Make nothing happen.
No one is fed,
Or saved;
Nor is the world made a whit more just,
Though we are often told love makes the world go round.
This is a lie, of course.
The world will go one spinning
After our last kiss.
What then is it?
A blind firing of neurons?
Genes groping for a life beyond us?
Or only this
Ironic tenderness.
How like a poem then.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Down here below the clouds

As is clear from the masthead of this blog, I teach at a small liberal arts college. We are a fine institution, but in all honesty we are well below those lofty summits of academia around which gust the latest ideas and theories. I spend no time teaching the most recent critical interpretations of Baroque era art and literature. It's all I can do to teach students that there was a Baroque era.

And it's not always bad to be down in the valley or off in the hinterlands. A lot of the academic trends and fads that swirl about prestigious institutions just blow over us entirely. It takes years for a hot button idee du jour to trickle down from on high. So it was a surprise to receive a paper from a student recently employing all the slick theory-mongering arguments that I had to endure when I was in graduate school. He was holding forth on the need for students to be empowered with "multiple critical heuristics" that would allow them to test the "solvency of identity in an anti-foundational paradigm."  That's just not the kind of student writing I usually see at this place. So in Wildean imitation, here is the response I would love to give:
Oh my dear boy! What dreary claptrap has someone inflicted upon you? One doesn’t need training in literary critical analysis to be moved by the plight of well-drawn characters experiencing the beauty, tragedy, wonder and fragility of human life; nor does one need to be “empowered” with a dozen of the latest interpretive approaches.
People read long before they understood heuristics and Derrida (and with every sign of keen enjoyment). Yes, that's right, my boy. You've finally encountered a professor whose aesthetic stance is despised by the hip kids over in the English Department. I’m the fuddiest of fuddy-duddies.
Literature, my dear, is useless. That’s its value. Reading is by its very nature selfish, elitist, probably anti-social, and politically a waste of time. That's what recommends it! It is the reminder that if the world were perfect, if war were ended, universal harmony achieved and every disenfranchised minority treated with justice and equality, someone somewhere would still feel the urge to write a poem.
To put it bluntly, politics befouls the poetry. I like to keep the two as far away from each other as possible. Art for art's sake and all that. I affirm the heretically delicious notion that the primary intelligibility of a work of art is as a work of art. Of course, clever people can interrogate a poem away from this primary intelligibility, but they haven’t really proven that literature is about politics; they’ve just changed the subject.
This is not to say that literature doesn’t contain its share of political content, or that it can’t be read through some tedious socio-political lens. Yes, yes, my boy, we can always go on a prosecutorial mouse-hunt for misogyny in King Lear, but who is the poorer for that? The play in all its spectacular grandeur will be here long after our politics are moldy footnotes in dull, unread books.

You wouldn't think this is a point that needs to be made, but you would be amazed at what blasphemy it is to speak these ideas aloud in graduate programs and most literature departments. It marks me as a reactionary. Well, so be it. I can carry a protest sign in one hand and a book of verse in the other. The two have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Indeed, it may suprise you that I am usually in political agreement with those who inhabit contemporary English departments. It's not their politics I object to. It’s their taste.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Will-he Nil-he?

I first tried to read Hamlet in junior high school. It wasn't assigned. I just thought I had better read it because everyone said it was such an important work of literature. So I got a copy from the library and tried to read it, but I gave up after three pages because I had a hard time remembering who was supposed to be talking. And, to be honest, much of what was being said didn't make sense. Amazingly, Hamlet didn't show up in high school, but when I got to my freshmen English course in college, there he was.

Now I had to read the play (if only to finish my term paper). Still, I must confess, that I wasn't terribly struck by the play's genius, nor was I bowled over during my four years as an undergraduate when I had to read it a few more times. I tended to prefer Shakespeare's history plays. Henry V had some interesting battles and great speeches, and I also liked Julius Caesar, which, by the way, is one of Shakespeare's shorter works.

Then it was off to graduate school where all English majors are supposed adore Hamlet. I was too sheepish to admit I did not see the point. After grad school I found myself teaching a freshman literature class and what do you know? Hamlet was a required text. But how could I, of all people, explain to my students that reading the play was worthwhile? Was there something wrong with the play or with me? Not wanting to look like an idiot, I sat down to read Hamlet one more time and slowly I began to come to grips with Shakespeare's astonishing work. For the first time I started to get it. Maybe it was because I was closing in on 30; maybe it was because I had gone through a few rough times, but Hamlet at last started to make sense.

I can't possibly say anything about the play that hasn't been said before (and most likely said better). The library shelves groan with criticism. But I've never dipped too deeply into this critical mountain, so whatever take I hold on the play is my own however many times it's been said before. (In truth, I suspect mine is a fairly generic existentialist view.) So for what it's worth, here is my take on Hamlet.

I love the play a great deal for its language, which on its own merits our appreciation. But Shakespeare offers us more than just beautiful language. He provides us with a compelling metaphor for human experience. Think of it this way. We have a hero, Prince Hamlet, who through no fault of his own finds himself in a situation without any good options. A ghost has told him that his Uncle Claudius has murdered his father and stolen the throne of Denmark. As heir to the throne -- not to mention a grieving son -- he should seek vengeance. And yet all he has is the word of a ghost. Poor proof indeed. What's more, Claudius has all of the power of the state behind him. So even if Hamlet believes the ghost, he can't act too rashly or he'll likely become the next victim. Taking out the king is not to be undertaken lightly.

So Hamlet hesitates before acting and people always wonder why. Part of the answer, it seems to me, is that he's in a tight spot, one that necessitates a pause for consideration. But there seems to be something more worrying Hamlet. At his very first appearance in the play, he comes across as deeply cynical about life. He calls the world "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable" even before he meets the ghost. It's also clear that he has seriously considered killing himself.

Hamlet actually is so cynical about the world that he seems to doubt whether there's much point in doing anything. So when people wonder why Hamlet hesitates, I always wonder what they expect him to do. If you really believe the world is hopelessly screwed up, why should you take action? It won't change anything. Thus even before the ghost's revelation Hamlet has arrived at the philosophical dead end of nihilism, a philosophy that holds that life is ultimately devoid of purpose and meaning. And if the nihilists are right, why bother to kill Claudius?

Nevertheless, Hamlet does promise the ghost he will seek revenge, although he does wait long enough to test Claudius' guilt with the play within a play; after which, assured of the guilt, he takes action. But look what happens when Hamlet does take action! Instead of setting things right, he inadvertently kills his girlfriend's father, triggers her insanity and suicide, and makes a mortal enemy of Laertes. Even worse, he tips his hand to Claudius, who then sets another murder plot in motion. Instead of solving the problem, he's made it ten times worse.

Many years ago I had a disturbing dream. I was standing on the balcony of a tall high rise apartment building, perhaps some 40-50 stories above the ground. Next to me was a large, very heavy dog attached to a 50-foot leash. For some reason the dog decided to leap off of the balcony. Instinctively I grabbed for the leash to save him from falling to his death. I braced myself and managed to stop his fall, but now the poor thing was swinging by the neck. I started to pull the dog back up and it began to strangle on its collar. It was clear I would kill the dog long before I got it back onto the balcony, yet my only alternative was to let go of the leash and allow it die upon impact. I have often thought of this dream as a direct analogue to Hamlet's dilemma.

You come into this world through no actions of your own, and what do you find? You find yourself in a no win situation. There are no guarantees that anything you do will make much difference. Bad people prosper, the good suffer needlessly, and all of your efforts won't change human stupidity, greed and cruelty. They might even make things worse. To any person who isn't kidding himself, life seems an absurd, meaningless series of nasty experiences; then you die.

Maybe, just as Hamlet speculates in the "to be or not to be" soliloquy, the only rational thing to do is kill oneself and have done with it. Hmm, suicide rational? It has been a philosophical assumption at least since Aristotle that every rational activity aims at some good. We do things because we are trying to improve our lives in some way. And now, in Hamlet, Shakespeare seems to be asking the rather mind-blowing question but what if there is nothing rational or irrational that we should be or can be aiming at? What if it is all meaningless? If this really is the case (and let's face it, we have no hard evidence it isn't) what should we do as we crawl between earth and heaven, the grave and the sky? It's a disturbing question indeed.

In the play, however, Hamlet does eventually slay Claudius, managing somehow to chose action over suicide. He even tells Horatio near the end of the play that he has found a kind of peace within himself. So what happened? How did he go from thinking all actions are meaningless to finding the courage to act? Curiously, the transformation happens off stage. While Hamlet is on his way to England, he discovers Claudius' plot to kill him. Literally and figuratively, then, he is at sea. But somehow coming face to face with the reality of his own death seems to give him a clearer understanding of his situation. Yes, maybe everything we do is futile. Maybe life is meaningless, but there remains a kind of heroic maturity to acting in spite of our inability to know if life has meaning.

In Act V he says to Horatio (the only person in the play who knows his heart), "Since no man knows of aught he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?/ Let be." Here, then, is the answer to his question of to be or not to be, but note his formulation of the answer. One must let be. Simply to be is not enough. It is mere existence, while the act of "letting" is by definition one of conscious choice.

Still Shakespeare will not wimp out. He will not say that now Hamlet has accepted his lot all will be fine. No, Shakespeare refuses to compromise with our desire for a happy ending. Hamlet may have accepted his absurd position, but his peace of mind won't matter much because his decision to act still only makes things worse. Think of it this way: if Hamlet had died ignominiously in England, his mother and Laertes would have lived, and perhaps Claudius would have been in a better position to save Denmark from Fortinbras. Hamlet's return, however, unintentionally dooms his mother, Laertes and Denmark. Once again, his actions don't improve the situation at all.

I find it interesting, too, that the awareness of his death's immediacy is again tied to his ability to act. In the final scene Laertes tells Hamlet that he has been poisoned: "Hamlet," he says, "there is not half an hour's life left in thee." And for once Hamlet doesn't speak. He doesn't philosophize. No more words, words, words. The second he knows death is upon him, he acts, slaying Claudius. Here, his awareness of his mortality seems to lend meaning to his actions, not rob them of meaning.

And even now Shakespeare won't give in to our desire for the universe to make sense. Near the play's end a dying Hamlet begs Horatio, "Tell my story aright." He is hoping, I suspect, that the story of his life may at least provide a lesson to those who come after him, and so the play closes with Horatio setting off to tell Hamlet's story to Fortinbras, Denmark's new leader. But Fortinbras is no deep thinker. Throughout the play he's been presented as an unreflective, hotheaded thug, and it's pretty obvious that Hamlet's story will mean nothing to him. So even the tale of Hamlet's struggle with life comes to nothing. Looked at this way, the play's ending is far darker than even a stage full of corpses might suggest. At least the corpses find rest. Life and all its ignorant cruelty, Shakespeare brutally assures us, will continue unabated.

This, then, is Shakespeare's dark metaphor for human existence. We are creatures capable of realizing there are no guarantees but the inevitability of death, and how we face this inevitability is, for each one of us, our lonely choice. And yet Hamlet -- flawed not by indecision but by the very fact of being born human -- does somehow seem heroic to us. After all, he does something instead of nothing. He vainly attempts to assert meaning into the very face of apparent meaninglessness. That he fails is tragic; that he tries is heroic. Indeed, without deluding himself, he realizes that the uncertainties of this life do not absolve him from action. There is an intellectual and moral heroism to this, although it's not one with much comfort.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...