Showing posts from January, 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 Ob…

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 sa…

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. We…

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…

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 th…

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 condu…

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 d…

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.


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." …

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 whe…

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 o…