Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Usual Ghosts

It's funny, but whenever I pick up a book (and I mean pick it up of my own volition), it's almost never because I want some specific information. Oh, I may want to understand something, but that's not the real reason I read. Rather, I tend to read with the mute expectation that I will be a different person when I finish the book. Okay, maybe not a different person, but altered in some small way. I can't even say this expectation is a conscious thing, but I know that I will abandon books if they don't meet this need.

There's an aspirational aspect to personal reading, as if the right idea or feeling might pull it all together, which is really silly when you think about it. Still, I continue to read with this expectation. This brings to mind an old poem I once wrote about going to the annual book sale at the State Fairgrounds each autumn.

At the book sale
I meet the usual ghosts
Amid the neatened rows of
Cookbooks, play scripts and college
Course copies of Jude the Obscure.

They always turn up,
These ghosts,
When my neck is hunched, eyes
Racing over the spines,
The box already nagging my arms.


I pause,
Handle the heft,
Admire its pleasing 19th Century solidity,
And imagine it on the pile
Near the nightstand,
With all the other ghosts
I once meant to be.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ba-REEE… Bah-onnnnnnds…

A friend asks in the one of the comments below what I thought of the inaugural poem. Well, it was okay as such things go. Ceremonial verse is such a strained species of poetry. It has to commemorate, evoke, or capture some vast and lofty moment. It's the most performative kind of poetry (well, outside of the snark-laden spoken word performances you see in coffee house slams).

Sometimes I feel about spoken poetry like I feel about classical music when I hear it in a live performance. I find that the physical presence of the performers robs of me of the solitude needed for full appreciation. I start staring at the cellist's drooping socks. Unfortunately, too, a lot of poets are really bad readers. Why is it that so many—both the acclaimed and the amateur—feel the need to alter their voices when they read their work aloud? Is there really a need to achingly elongate each vowel and diphthong or invest each line ending with weighted profundity?

For laughs a friend of mine used to satirize this style of reading poetry. He’d start with the premise that any formulation of words could become a poem so long as you read it with the right inflections. He would just speak very slowly and insert a pregnant pause at every caesura. Also, he stretched any vowel sounds, and always, always, ended every line with a wistful upward inflection. Then he’d recite some twaddle like

Ba-REEE… Bah-onnnnnnds
Why do you hit so Min-NEE … home-ruhh-nnnnnnns?

Now there are a couple of schools of thought on how to read poetry. Some say you should read to the punctuation rather than the line ending. In other words, read past the line ending until you come to the punctuated stopping point. Others say this style of reading effaces the line itself as a valuable unit of rhythm. I tend to agree with this latter view. Here, for example, are the opening lines of John Berryman’s The Moon and the Night and the Men:

On the night of the Belgian surrender, the moon rose
Late, a delayed moon, and a violent moon
For the English and the American beholder;

Something valuable is lost when you try to read it simply for the punctuation. It would read like this:

On the night of the Belgian surrender, the moon rose late.

Said this way, it sounds like the opening of a bad novel or a parody of Hemingway. But with the enjambment of “Late” into the second line, the poem is showing you how to read it. That “Late” is struck with a kind of resigned bitterness. So even if you’ve never seen this poem before, you can tell—almost by the end of the second line—with what tone it should be read. What’s coming is a memory, a war memory. The voice on the page is somewhere in the future, but looking back in an attempt to order the objective details. Here’s the full stanza.

On the night of the Belgian surrender, the moon rose
Late, a delayed moon, and a violent moon
For the English and the American beholder;
The French beholder. It was a cold night,
People put on their wraps, the troops were cold
No doubt, despite the calendar, no doubt
Numbers of refugees coughed, and the sight
Or sound of some killed others. A cold night.

The short, crisp clauses and the repetitions of phrases like “no doubt” and “cold night” make this a flinty, disillusioned kind of elegy, more matter-of-bitter-fact than mourning. Later, of course, Berryman will describe a dead soldier as “Part of the bitter and exhausted ground/Out of which memory grows.” People die in war, the poem says, simply because it is cold and they can’t help coughing, or simply because the moon finally comes up to make them visible and vulnerable.

So perhaps the way of reading a poem (if it has to be read aloud at all) is to let the style of reading emerge from what’s on the page; it shouldn’t be some grasping add-on of unearned effect. Let the poem decide how it should be read rather than the reader, or even for that matter the poet.

Friday, January 16, 2009

In my opinion, Maud is an evil woman.

A few years back I rented a documentary about the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. It was perhaps the best introduction to teaching I ever saw. The film chronicled his year-long attempt to work up a new stand-up act. After his success on television, he just wanted to see if he still had it, so he began building up an act from scratch. He would write a few jokes every morning and then test them at various comedy clubs around the country. He wasn't even on the bill. He'd just walk on stage after all of the headliners and do five to ten minutes of the new material.

Watching the film I was struck by how similar his process was to teaching new texts or courses. Seinfeld would do a bit, it would work or bomb, and then he would start to tinker with it: change the timing, add an element that was not there before. Sometimes a joke just wouldn't work and he didn't know why. One he tried dozens of times. He thought it was great, but he could never get a laugh so he finally pitched it. Week after week he added and changed things until he had 20 minutes of good material, then 45 minutes. By year's end he could do a 90-minute set.

And that's not too dissimilar from my approach to teaching. It makes no difference how well I plan the assignments, schedule or syllabi. Until I've tried to teach something before live students, I don't have a clue whether it will work. Of course I'm trying to get people to think and Seinfeld is trying to get people to laugh, but it's the same process. I try stuff and then change the timing. I add an element and even reluctantly pitch out stuff I love but doesn't work. A course is never perfect; I'm always tweaking it. I hate to admit that there's a performative aspect to teaching, but there is. It's about 50 percent of the job.

Sometimes the devices used in comedy have a direct application. My 11:30 section of the senior seminar this semester is not a particularly talky group. A lot of the energy has to come from me, which is draining, but that's just the way it's going to be with this group. Now when you get a class like this, you need to constantly break the rhythm or you'll lose them. You have to resort to gimmicks (staged debates, instant polls, whatever--anything to change the dynamic). So yesterday I found myself using an old comedic tradition: the call back.

I start a lot of days with a poem, so I read them Stevie Smith's "Emily Writes Such a Good Letter." It's a droll little poem, written in the voice of an upper middle class British woman who is revealing more about her narrow-minded self than she realizes:

Yes, I remember Maurice very well
Fancy getting married at his age
She must be a fool

You knew May had moved?
Since Edward died she has been much alone.

It was cancer.

No, I know nothing of Maud
I never wish to hear her name again
In my opinion Maud
Is an evil woman...

After reading the poem, I said a few words about why I admired it. I like the way it employs pathos and dark humor. I also like how it uses prosaic and banal language, but twists it just enough to evoke the pretence and loneliness of the narrator's life. Then we turned to our discussion of The Crito. We had a reasonably good debate about what constituted justice and a citizen's moral obligation to his or her society. At certain points, however, when the discussion began to flag, I'd just stare into the middle distance, wait until everyone was looking at me, and, appropos of nothing, say, "In my opinion, Maud is an evil woman."

I did this about two or three times. It was amazing how it changed the dynamic in the room. It was like rapping the lectern and saying "wake up, pay attention," but in a more gentle way. As any good comedian knows, you can go to the call back too often. Less is more. Still, it worked. At least it did yesterday.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Eating Hay

"Reading Aristotle is like eating dried hay."
-Thomas Gray
Yesterday was a disaster in the freshmen honors seminar. I was doing something at the board and in all of an instant I knew I was tanking. I didn't have to turn around. I didn't have to hear a single yawn. I just knew the students weren't following any longer. Worse, they had lost the will to extend me the polite fiction that they should be following. I can always tell when I've reached this point. There's a lethargy that enters the room. Sometimes, too, there's this look that comes over their eyes that seems to ask "What in the world does this have to do with anything that I could ever possibly care about?"

Why should they give a hoot about the Aristotelian concept of the human soul or on what grounds Aristotle rejected Plato's theory of ideal forms? More importantly, why do I think it's so damned important that they do? Unless I can answer this, I'm sunk. Okay, so why should they bother to understand what Aristotle was putting down about human nature 2,300 years ago? Well, it's worth knowing because it is the root of a question still very much on the table about humanity: is there a purpose to human life? For Aristotle the answer is yes, absolutely, but it's not a purpose immanent in the universe; rather, it's specific to us.

His logic on this point is humorous in a way. He first points out that all things have a purpose. For example, the purpose of an axe is to cut. Reasoning from this, he says that a human being must also have a purpose, for it is absurd to think that an axe has one but a human being does not.

It's important to note here that Aristotle never attempts to support this analogy. After all, we impose the function on a axe, but we do not know with equal certainty that human beings were created with any specific purpose. Nevertheless, the entire argument of The Ethics hangs on this simple, unsupported assumption about humanity. The teleological move Aristotle makes in the opening pages of the Nichomachean Ethics gets made over and over again. Indeed, many of my students made this very move in their initial definitions of human nature last week. But what if it' s wrong? What if we are a species with no particular place to go? Then, as Hamlet asked, "What should such fellows as [we] do crawling between earth and heaven?"

In a few weeks, my students and I will be out on that storm-drenched heath with Lear and Edmund and seriously entertaining the possibility that the heavens are not as just, well-ordered, or purposeful as we might assume. That heath is a disturbing place. That way lies madness, but that's where we have to go.

Sometimes I hate this job.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What Secular Society?

Yesterday in the senior Seminar we were discussing Plato's Apology, and I was pointing out that Socrates saw learning more as a process of "unlearning" old ideas rather than acquiring new ones. The goal was to take already existing ideas out of your head, examine them for consistency, logic and evidence, and then to make an informed judgement about whether they were ideas worth keeping. So I asked the students if there was any idea that they once held as accurate or true that they have since revised after four years of college.

To prime the pump, I gave the example of nursing students revising their ideas about anatomy after taking A&P or business students who have come to realize that marketing is more than a catchy jingle. You'll note that I steered clear of religion on this one. Painful experience has taught me not to try to make the point I was trying to illustrate on religious grounds.

There was a long silence after I put the question forward. At last, one thoughtful young woman volunteered that she was a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran and came to college assured that her belief system was the absolute truth. Then, she said, she took a comparative religion class and was struck by the degree of similarity among the world's major faiths. She said it made her wonder how she could be so certain that hers was superior in every respect. She was still a Lutheran, but she had many more questions and had lost her idea that everyone else was just in error. Another student volunteered that she took that comparative religion class and it only made her realize how "stupid those other faiths were." By the time the class ended, still another student had asked how there could be any right and wrong without God? I kept trying to steer clear of theological minefields, but we keep circling back.

Sometimes I wonder why I just don't start every class with the question "Is there a God?"

Monday, January 12, 2009

Plato's Chat Room

In the latter part of Plato’s Phaedrus, there is an interesting discussion about the nature of writing versus the nature of speaking. Socrates contends that for purposes of enlightening the human soul through argumentation, writing will forever be inferior to speech. Writing, he insists, is merely a chit for memory. The enlightenment of the soul requires the actual presence of at least two human beings in pursuit of higher truths through rational debate. Indeed, human encounters are prerequisite for truth finding. The gist of his argument runs like this: our souls contain dimly recalled fragments of truth, so it can only be through them we will find our way back to the ultimate truth.

Despite all of the fanciful metaphysics, Plato’s view has the support of common sense. It always aids debate to be able to quickly cross question, to interrupt the argument to ask for clarification, to agree on usages, and to establish mutual assent on key points or definitions before moving on. To conduct this process through the medium of writing is fraught with ambiguity and the chance for error – not the least of which is the likelihood that you may miss an ironic tone or a shoulder shrug, or that the speaker might sense his listener’s confusion and clarify himself.

Derrida went back to this idea in the Phaedrus, but he argued that the difficulty in getting at truth that Socrates attributed the nature of writing was in fact a magnification of the nature of language itself. For Derrida, all communicative acts are misreadings (or misprisions), and there is little chance of arriving at any final agreement on meaning. I have been thinking about Plato’s dialog lately (and not, thankfully, about Derrida). It seems to me that twittering, threaded bulletin board discussions, and Internet snark do little to enlighten understanding. Like-minded people tend to gather at Internet sites, so not much happens but the reinforcement of already-held views. When there us debate, it tends to degenerate into invective and cheap shots (not unlike what Plato and other critics of democracy predicted would happen in egalitarian societies).

My question is this: to what degree is it the inherent nature of electronic communication to defeat the goal of persuasion? Would people be so quick to ridicule opposing ideas at a dinner party? Does the disembodied, anonymous nature of the exchange inhibit intellectual humility and encourage intemperate responses? In other words, to what degree was Plato right? Is direct communication a prerequisite to influencing the human soul?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Nary a Soul

Why is everything I teach such a minefield? In my honors seminar we've been reading Plato's Phaedrus, which contains a metaphorical description of the human soul. So, in passing, I mentioned that there's not a stitch of evidence that we actually possess a soul; nevertheless, the belief in one seems to be universal in human culture. That provoked a lot of furrowed brows and a few troubled rumblings in the response papers: What do you mean I don't have a soul? It says so in the Bible!

First, I never said human beings lack a soul. I said there is no evidence for it. These are separate points. Second, the biblical notion of the soul is, er, well, problematic. There are contradictory mentions of the soul in the New Testament, but nowhere in the Old Testament is there any idea that we possess a soul that can separate from the body. The Hebrew word nephesh, which is usually translated as “soul” in the Old Testament, tends to mean “self,” “person,” or “creature.” The noun was developed from the verb naphash, which meant to breathe, to take breath, to be refreshed. In most biblical usages, nephesh just means personhood. In other words, it’s not something we possess. It’s what we are. So instead of soul, a better translation from the Hebrew might simply be “selfhood” or “person.”

Ironically, the ancient Hebrew meaning of nephesh is not so different from the modern secular idea of "the self." Even people who profess no religious faith will say they have an essential self that exists separately from their body. Indeed, much of the modern concept of “the self” is a secularized version of the soul, a kind of cherished individual personhood.

So where did we get this notion of soul as a disembodied essence? Well, a lot of it came from the pagan Greeks. Plato posited a soul that survived the body and contained the higher elements of what it means to be human – namely rational thought. For Plato the soul (or anima) is more a philosophical or even biological concept. Those things that have volition (i.e., they can move without being moved) possess a soul. In this sense, a soul is merely what distinguishes living from non-living things.

Even so, you can see why the early Christians were attracted to Plato's ideas. His notion of an ideal good from which all things derive sounds a lot like Christian monotheism. Moreover, Plato’s goal was for humanity to suppress or even rid itself of the irrational elements until the soul became a kind of static fusion of reason and will basking in the eternal knowledge of pure goodness. Change the emphasis a bit, and Christianity can absorb the authority of a weighty intellectual tradition.

But woe to the professor who points out the utter lack of evidence for the soul, or who points out that there may be more than one way of conceiving it. Once again, I've stepped on a landmine. Yikes.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Poetics of Stinking It Up

For years I’ve had this notion that a compelling area of study would be the poetics of unoriginality. So many critics have anatomized new and original art. Many more have tried to make cases that what we once deemed bad (genre fiction, sci-fi, mysteries, etc.) actually merits more serious consideration. And I am not talking about primitive or naive art. I also don't mean kitsch, which gets inverted into hip irony or backhanded social critique (see Elvis plates, paint- by-numbers Last Suppers or even Jeff Koons).

No, what I mean is just drek, mind-blowingly banal works of art created by unoriginal amateurs. Anyone who has ever gone to an open microphone poetry reading has encountered what I'm talking about. Indeed, bad poems exhibit a curious uniformity in subject and style. How is it that all of these amateur poets came to write the same kind of terrible poetry? You would think that they would stink each in their own uniquely bad way, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

In his autobiography, My Life in Art, the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski described how his nieces, who had never seen a stage production, were fully conversant in clich├ęd dramatic gestures. “Where did they get this knowledge?” he asked. More importantly, how did it become established as the typified or stock form for demonstrating a particular emotion?

Similarly, why are so many bad poems likely to be written along Romantic lines? At least since Wordsworth, it's been a tenet of poetic theory that the “self” is the essential subject of poetry. Of course, Modernists like Eliot and Pound argued that the self should disappear in poetry, but few beginners or bad poets ascribe to the Modernist line. For the most part, they’re thorough-going Romantics, even if they’ve never had so much as a whiff of Wordsworth.

Consequently, most bad poets believe they have to write poems that put their deepest thoughts and feelings on display. But what if that self is not particularly original, interesting or talented? When this happens, it’s excruciating to watch and you only pray that the performer isn’t aware of what he has just done.

The late critic Raymond Williams used the terms “residual, dominant and emergent” to discuss the stages of cultural evolution. Cultural values overlap, he noted. At any given time you can find residual values and expressions (Gothic windows on 21rst century churches, a few mom and pop video stores lingering into the age of Netflix). At the same time, however, you will see dominant and emerging values. What's curious is how dominant Romanticism still is with really crummy poets.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Whither Middlebrow?

I’ve been reading Susan Jacoby’s new book The Age of American Unreason. One of the more interesting chapters in her book concerns the rise and fall of post-war middlebrow culture. She gathers together a lot of information about such things as the Book of the Month Club, the University of Chicago's Great Books series, and the popularity of Will and Ariel Durant's multi-volume The Story of Civilization. The prominence of these, she notes, suggests that many people in the middle and working classes of the 40s and 50s felt they could "better themselves" through an exposure to culture.

Indeed, until the early 60s classical music still represented 20 percent of all record sales. Of course, highbrow critics at the Partisan Review and others sneered at housewives who hung cheap prints of Degas' ballerinas over the couch, organized book clubs to discuss the latest Michener novel, or shuttled the kids to an afternoon orchestra production of "Peter and the Wolf." But what was some Middle-Western mom supposed to do? Not everyone lived on the upper-east side, sent the kids to prep school, or took summer trips to Paris. For a lot of people, this was as good as it got.

One thing I recall as a kid was how big Masterpiece Theater was. Everyone had to get home to watch it on Sunday night. It was TV, to be sure, and quite middlebrow, but people weirdly felt it was a sign of taste to value Shakespearean-trained actors with honest-to-goodness British accents appearing in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited or Dickens' Bleak House. No doubt, too, a lot of those Book of the Month Club offerings went unread, and the multi-volume collections of the Great Books sat on shelves in the den with uncracked spines. But what's curious is that people felt guilty about that.

Average middle-class Americans had this sense that they ought to get around to reading them. James Michener may have been a tedious bore and earnestly middlebrow, but people felt his historical accuracy was edifying and worth shelling out for. Compare his novels to, say, The Da Vinci Code and the difference is rather stark. Something has changed.

So where has middlebrow culture gone? Conservatives like David Horrowitz and other right-wing harrumphers like to complain that this is due to the faddishness of academics in the humanities and social sciences who have abandoned their role as cultural gatekeepers and proponents of rationalism. These "tenured radicals" see all expressions through the lens of semiotic equality. Thus Buffy the Vampire Slayer becomes as "thick a cultural inscription" as anything by Shakespeare. Jacoby dismisses this argument. Academics may have been foolish, but the conservatives overestimate their influence.

Instead, Jacoby argues that middlebrow culture was done in by mass culture, which is essentially indistinguishable from the economic system that pervades nearly every aspect of our lives. Today, people express their cultural aspirations via brand names. Heck, MTV was the first time I noticed the seamless merger of marketing and culture. I remember watching it and thinking, "Damn, they finally did it. The ads are the programs!" But the melding of culture and marketing was a long, long time ago. We're well beyond that now.

It's easy to tilt at the Mortimer Adlers and Robert Maynard Hutchinsons of a few decades ago, but they were no less earnest or well-meaning in their desire to democratize the life of the mind than academics of today who believe it is their job to right the wrongs of bigotry and sexism by adjusting the curriculum. Both are programs to "save the world" through education, a dubious task at best.

What strikes me is not the narrowness of the canon in those old middlebrow efforts, but the disappearance of any widespread aspiration to be more "cultured." People used to feel guilty about not reading "deep" stuff or understanding a poem. They don't any more. In the end, middlebrow cultural products always contained a built-in design flaw: they necessitated effort on the user's part. Today's marketers know all too well that effort just isn't a point of sale.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Number

Just looking over my teaching evals from last fall. Mostly good stuff, but there's always the occasional sour note. One student complains I don't seem to be teaching the unit on scientific thinking in accord with Christian principles. A few kvetch about the amount of reading required for a senior capstone. By and large, though, it's 90-95 percent on the positive side. But here's the thing: these evals are fragile at best and almost meaningless at worst.

I always have to remind myself how unreliable the evaluation numbers actually are. How do I know they are unreliable? Well, consider this: last semester I taught two sections of a senior capstone for the general education core, one at 8:00 am on T-Th and another at 9:30 on the same days. Same class, same material, same approach, same assignments, same everything. Yet the scores are very different.

Now in my 8:00 am section the scores were generally in the upper half of the middle 40 percent, which means I'm about where most people are across the country, maybe slightly to the right of the bell curve's center line (mid 50s to low 60s). Okay, that class files out and 10 minutes later a new group files in. Now my scores jump to the top of the second highest quintile (upper 70s to mid 80s). Again, same course, same day, same material, same approach....

The only variables are the time of day and the students. Yet were I untenured, I'm the one who would be held accountable to these numbers. Well, to be honest, the numbers are good overall, so I probably wouldn't suffer any adverse consequences. But the point is that something as simple as scheduling a class at 8:00 am affects the scores. You should see what happens to the numbers when you teach a late evening course (8-10:25 pm). Keep in mind that such a course is mostly populated by people who have to go to work in the morning.

But we must have a number! You would be amazed at how much these numbers are relied upon by various people. These are smart people, too, many of whom have been trained in statistics and measurement; but give them a number and that's good enough. It's almost like they were stock analysts looking at Value at Risk data and models. All those quant jocks on Wall Street had plenty of numbers.

Didn't really help, did it?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Harry Breeze starts another door jamb

Years ago before I ever started college--before I even considered myself college material--I worked a few years as a journeyman painter in the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades (since renamed to omit the inherent sexism of "brotherhood"). I spent the better part of a year helping to construct a high-rise hotel. It had 714 rooms, a number I can easily remember because it matched Babe Ruth's home-run record. Anyway, each of those rooms had two metal door jambs, one for the entry and one for the bathroom. But that was just the rooms. There were countless other jambs in that hotel for offices, service kitchens, linen closets... I would guess there were close to 2,000 door jambs in that hotel.

And there were only two guys assigned to paint them: Harry Breeze and me. To be precise, Harry was assigned to paint them. I, a lowly second-year apprentice, was assigned to sand and prepare them for Harry's brush, a task that involved chipping off loose bits of concrete and clods of dried mud. Then I sanded smooth the flat red factory primer until my fingers (each uselessly wrapped in masking tape) couldn't feel a thing.

Day after day we went through the same routine. I'd outfit myself with various grits of sandpaper and Harry would fill his paint pot and spin out his sash brush. You might think this an excruciatingly tedious job, but I always preferred doing the same thing day after day to a series of different, short-lived tasks. It was easier to switch off, to daydream. It made the day pass more quickly.

For almost a year it was just Harry and I moving up that building floor after floor, with the paper hangers a floor below and the carpet layers a floor below them. One Friday afternoon about 30-minutes before quitting time, I was covered in red dust and leaning against a door jamb talking to an iron worker who was welding handrails in an emergency stairwell. The iron worker, whose name I've long forgotten, looked down the debris-filled hallway and saw Harry at the other end. He just shook his head and said, "Look, there's Harry Breeze starting another door jamb."

I am not sure why this memory has stayed with me over the years. There was a kind of wonder in the man's voice, but more a sense a comic weariness. More than once as I've started in on some job I've done countless times before, I've heard that iron worker's voice in my head. It seems to be there this morning as I set out on another go-round of teaching. Look, I think, I'm starting another semester.


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