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Showing posts from April, 2009

A way of happening, a mouth

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In his book How We Listen, the American composer Aaron Copland notes the way music alters our response to the world around us. He writes,
You may be sitting in a room reading a book. Imagine one note struck on the piano. Immediately that one note is enough to change the atmosphere of the room--proving that the sound element in music is a powerful and mysterious agent, which it would be foolish to deride or belittle.The experience he mentions is instantly recognizable to almost everyone. There are certain pieces of music that can alter my mood in just a few seconds, but this effect is not exclusive to music. It can happen while reading certain authors as well. I don't mean the effect created by a novel's plot or its descriptive atmospherics. It is more the sound quality of certain writers, their tone and language. I remember years ago reading Ulysses for the first time and having an alternately maddening and fascinating time of it. I had to use Stuart Gilbert’s outline to claw m…

An Irish Jag

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Don't know why, but I've been delving into Irish literature of late. I blogged about Big House novels the other day. After finishing the The Big Houseof Inver, I looked around for something else. The only thing on the shelf was Dubliners, so I started rereading it yesterday (devouring it really). Now only the The Dead is left.

Some general observations: the fourteen stories and novella have the impact of a novel. Tied together by space and time, their sequence evokes the development of a single consciousness. The initial stories—The Sisters, An Encounter, Araby—have child first-person narrators. This intimacy is lost as the "protagonists" progress into adulthood and experience frustrated love, disappointment and a root alienation from a more cosmopolitan European culture.

The book, of course, is a very Joycean indictment of his native land but its tone is never angry or especially accusatory. Each of the characters is inexorably and tragically deadened by Irish provinc…

Leaning in

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In The Courage to Teach, the author and educator Parker Palmer writes about "The Student from Hell," a name he gives to those students who actively oppose all attempts to bring them into the discussion or class activity. He admits that he can become so obsessed with reaching this student that it distorts everything he is trying to accomplish. I suppose most teachers have met the Student from Hell. I've had people in class whose negativity and derision for the subject matter poisoned the entire course and made me dread walking into the room. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

On the other hand, I've also had "The Student from Heaven" or as I like to call them leaners. Around the room people will be half-listening, day-dreaming or making desultory notes, and then suddenly you sense that one is dialing in. It's as if what you are saying has become the single most important idea in the world and--almost in spite of themselves--they start leanin…

Very well then, I contradict myself

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Most of the professors I had in graduate school entered the profession in the late 1960s or 1970s. They were perhaps the last generation to be schooled on critics like T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, and F.R. Leavis, the big critical cats of 50 or 60 years ago. Quite naturally they rebelled. By the time I entered graduate school the rebellion was complete and discussion of the New Critics or the Scrutiny crowd only arose as a way of explaining the sweeping egalitarian changes that entered literary studies in the 70s and 80s. I had one professor who always sneeringly referred to the old gang as “High Anglican A-Holes.”

My grad professors went into battle with slogans like “Always Contextualize.” Ironically, they seldom contextualized their elders. The standard line I heard about the old guard was that they had seen themselves as mandarins carefully guarding something called “The Tradition,” which was exclusively white, Western European and male (although Jane Austen and George Eliot usual…

Hoots and Air Horns

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Next Saturday is graduation and this year’s ceremony will differ little from those in the past: names will be read, air horns blasted, and smiles and empty diploma sleeves will be flashed before digital cameras. For the students this event is supposed to mark the culmination of all their “hard work.” For many of them it does, but for just as many it doesn’t. The dirty little secret of American higher education is that we graduate a lot of people who’ve been singularly unaffected by the experience.

Every year I watch students walk across the stage who cannot write a clear English sentence, draw a logical inference from a paragraph, or name one of Newton’s three laws of motion. Yet on Saturday we will mouth words about these people entering the “community of scholars.” This is certainly not exclusive to my institution. The meager nationwide data we possess on educational outcomes for liberal arts graduates is not heartening. Less than 11 percent of seniors and juniors are rated as “profi…

Final Answer

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I gave up on final exams a few years ago. I wish I could say I did so for high-minded pedagogical reasons, but it was more exasperation. The use of heavily-weighted finals seemed to cause unnecessary stress for students and encourage the worst kind of bulimic learning: shove it in, puke it out. Sometimes, too, I would find cryptic acronyms written in the margins of the exams that were actually mnemonic devices. In other words, the student was so nervous that the facts would disappear from memory that he or she had to make a note in case the information vanished before the first page was turned!

In What the Best College Teacher's Do, the education writer Ken Bain recounted a study conducted by two physicists at Arizona State University. In the early 1980s these two professors wanted to know whether students really changed their understanding of motion after taking an introductory physics course. They used a carefully validated test to determine how students understood motion and ga…

The Bronco Strain

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Sometimes you find a poem that really surprises you. I knew a bit about the late British poet Donald Davie, and always found him proper, clear, donnish. I had even read his books Articulate Energy and Purity of Diction in English Poetry. He was a bit better known as a scholar than a poet. Mostly I knew him as a critic associated with The Movement, the early 1950s reaction to the neo-romanticism of poets like Dylan Thomas and George Barker.

I liked those Movement poets: Kingsley Amis, Phillip Larkin, Thom Gunn. But I was surprised to find this quiet little gem by Davie in old copy of the Times Literary Supplement (I was throwing out old issues this weekend):

Or, Solitude A farm boy lost in the snow
Rides his horse, madrone,
Through Iowan snows forever
And is called "Alone". Because gone from the land
Are the boys who knew it best
Or expressed it, gone
To Boston or Out West, And the breed of the horse madrone,
With its bronco strain, is strange
To the broken sod of Iowa
That us…

Frankly proposing nothing...

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Last night while driving to my night class, I decided to call an audible. I had something planned but was bored with my stale old routine. So I rewrote the whole lesson in my head. Instead of slogging through a dull discussion over the text, I walked into the room and put the following thesis on the board:
Understanding, appreciating and evaluating works of aesthetic creativity is no longer relevant in a society that needs a competent, well-trained workforce and a self-sufficient, productive citizenry. Given this, and the exorbitant cost of higher education, there should be no required courses in aesthetic appreciation in the general education core curriculum. We then went on a campus tour and I showed them how to read architecture like a text. We came back to the room and I had them analyze the structure of a poem by W. H. Auden. Next, I gave them a short lecture on Baroque style as manifested in painting, architecture, and sculpture. Then I had them analyze the concerto format in a …

Husker Du?

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Memorizing poetry is a task usually undertaken for dubious reasons. It's sometimes required by teachers. I had to commit Eliot's Prufrock to memory for an undergraduate professor, and the thing is still there all these years later. Oftentimes, too, one commits poetry to memory as part of some ill-advised self-improvement project (not unlike those ads you see suggesting that you can become a business success by improving your vocabulary). Then there are those memorizers who hope to impress others with vain displays of erudition. Sadly, I've memorized verse for all of these unflattering reasons. Even so, I'm glad I did.

The problem, of course, is that the opportunity to recite seldom arises-- unless you're with drunken Irishmen of a certain grizzled age. One night in Milwaukee I found myself with a bunch of Irish musicians in a rooftop hotel bar. Everyone was pretty well lit, and someone said a poem aloud. Having more than enough in me, I decided to recite one as well…

More Lemonade?

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Yesterday in the freshmen honors seminar we were watching a video entitled The Mind's Big Bang, in which a number of anthropologists were describing the origin of symbolic culture about 100,000 years ago. This development set in motion cultural evolution, which moves at a much faster rate than evolution and natural selection. Indeed, cultural evolution is a kind of auto-catalytic reaction that builds and builds. The Clovis spear point was the cutting edge of technology (no pun intended) for thousands of years, whereas software today may last only a few years before its outdated. I thought the video made this point rather well. It even discussed the physical development of brain capacity and compared modern and Neanderthal skulls.

When we began to discuss the video, however, one of my students blithely dismissed the validity of Carbon-14 dating. I couldn't figure out where this was coming from, so after class I Googled "Reliability of Carbon-14 Dating" and came across …

The False Promise of Critical Theory

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Ask someone to justify the teaching of critical theory and you will often hear that familiarizing students with a range of critical approaches enables them to make more interpretive choices. The implied assumption here is that theory is an instrument of reader empowerment. I have always been suspect of this justification. After all, what was it I used to do when I read with little or no consciousness of critical theory? If, as those who defend teaching critical theory contend, all reading is governed by implicit interpretive strategies, then I must have had a strategy? So what was it?

In reviewing my own experience, I seem to have been after a couple of things. The first was fun. I read because I enjoyed it. Secondly, I read under the assumption that insight was to be gained from books. In a fuzzy kind of way I just assumed that books taught me something. Now whether they ever did -- whether they contained any insight that I wasn't in fact supplying myself -- is a debated issue, a…

"But of course you can, old sport."

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A few years back I paid a visit to Jamestown, or I should say what’s left of it. There’s not much there: the ruins of a church tower built in the 1600s, a few glass cases of pottery shards. Later, I did a little reading about the colony, and the impression I had was not flattering. Essentially, the Jamestown colonists were a bunch of ignorant, avaricious schemers, in whom one can see many of the future sins of our country. Of course, the film at the National Park Service’s Visitors’ Center (narrated by the sensually-voiced Sally Kellerman) tries to present the story in the best possible light. But even a cursory look at the facts and you can see what a disaster the entire thing turned out to be.

It was, to be sure, the first North American English settlement to make it, although just barely. Ninety percent of the 104 original colonists died within the first year in what later became known as “the starving time.” Yet despite their sheer ineptitude, they managed to eke out survival in t…

The Retirement Cull

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There is a certain agrarian rhythm to academic life. You follow the seasons more or less and perform work that is not unlike planting and harvesting. The ground that you cover year after year becomes as familiar as any family farm. You even come to accept that a lot of things are out of your control. Some crops are just going to be better than others. My semester comes to an end next week, which means that the college is moving into a series of annual events: honors convocation, baccalaureate, graduation. The faculty will trot out the academic attire in all its finery and formulaic speeches will be made.

There are other annual traditions that occur at this time of year. One of them I find rather bittersweet. Along about mid-April, invitations will be issued for retirement culls. Departing colleagues may invite you to their office and let you pick through their book case. "Take what you like," they will say. "It saves me from having to move them."

There is an unspo…

Demotic Vistas

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My first introduction to public poetry occurred in a construction site porto-potty. You know the kind of stuff: "Here I sit broken hearted..." These little ballads were often signed works of art, their authorship always attributed to "The Outhouse Poet."

I often imagined he was the same wag who used to scrawl "This gum tastes terrible" on condom machines. I haven't found a poem in a public restroom in years. Sometimes, especially near large universities, you can still find gnomic statements or bits of lowbrow repartee:

God is dead – Nietzsche.

And underneath in a different handwriting:

Nietzsche is dead –God.

Once in Madison I found this line scrawled across a bathroom wall: "Eat dignity, excrete self-righteousness." It's always stuck with me for some reason. Sadly, the quality and quantity of such verse has declined in recent years. In most places it's practically an abandoned genre. I do read poetry in the bathroom, however, almost ever…

Out Hitting Ted Williams

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Reader Solveig sent a note the other day about the inclusion of a few lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay in a post (SeriouslyApril). It just so happens that I have been reading some Millay lately. Her sonnets are so seemingly effortless. They aren't contorted by the formal requirements. Indeed, you only realize they are sonnets upon close inspection. She attains such a freedom within the form.

The sonnet, of course, is taught in just about every English literature class on poetry. The problem is that no English teacher I ever had was able to impress upon me the stupefyingly complex demands of writing one. In class we would examine a few sonnets by Shakespeare or Petrarch, count the syllables in each line and dutifully put little letters next to the end rhymes. The exam question inevitably had us distinguishing between the Italian and English forms.

But if this is all you know about sonnets, then you really don't know much. I never realized just how demanding a form of poetry it …

Notes on Larkin

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The late British poet Phillip Larkin wrote two novels before turning full time to poetry, yet many of his anti-romantic themes are apparent in these novels. Indeed, some critics feel he had potential enough to become the novelist of the 1950s. Jill, 1946, is an Oxford novel, but decidedly different from Waugh’s nostalgic Oxford of the 1920s. Set during the war years (1940 to be exact) Jill depicts the first term of John Kemp, a shy, working class scholarship boy from the north of England who has been plucked from his grammar school class by an ambitious but essentially shallow master. Drilled in English literature, John works hard and gets into Oxford. There he rooms with a wealthy but arrogant rowdy named Christopher Warren.

Kemp feels at sea, lonely and unambitious. After an initial period of admiring Warren and his equally dissolute crowd of friends, who alternately exploit and ignore him, he finds solace by creating an imaginary young girl named Jill. He composes letters from her, …

The Flat Ephemeral Pamphlet

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I was driving home a while back and listening to NPR. They were featuring the work of a Mexican woman poet (the name escapes me). A voice read one of her long poems that impressionisticallyleapt from one scene of oppression to another. Valiant campesinos were being slaughtered by hired thugs from the hacienda, the US military was testing missiles on sacred burial grounds; on and on it went. The language was occasionally beautiful, sprinkled with unexpected turns of phrase, a striking image.

And yet, for some reason, I bristled at it. Why? Was it because the poem was so overtly political? And what’s wrong with that? Why can’t a poem be political? Heaven knows, there are whole critical schools of thought that argue even poems that avoid politics are political. I’ve decried that tautological reasoning elsewhere, but--still--why is it that I want poetry to stand at odds with politics? My standard reply is that poetry makes poor politics. Auden, it seems to me, made this point best in his “…

Seriously April

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It's April, that alternately refreshing and depressing month. It's a month that shows up throughout literature. It’s the month of Chaucer’s “perced roots” and Eliot’s “dull roots.” It's the month in which students begin to sense the end approaching. Their bare knees and sockless, sandaled feet reemerge from seclusion for the first time since that last warm day in September. My institution returns to classes in early January, which means that the semester is completed by mid-April.

The seniors, of course, are so close to the end that doing any work seems pointless. They will graduate, so why come to class? Why put forth the effort? And then there are the refrains of "can we have class outside?" I always tell them no. I can't compete with April. This month is just not conducive to learning. And everything conspires with its charm.

Even the rain seems young and restless. I have been listening to Louis Armstrong on the rainy days. It seems to fit somehow. And on…

What I saw was Adlestrop--only the name.

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In my freshmen honors seminar we have been discussing our tendency to anthropomorphize nature, and in the senior capstone we've been discussing John Lewis Gaddis' Landscape of History, in which he analogizes the study of history to map making. All maps distort the object they represent, Gaddis claims. That is at once their benefit and drawback. A map of Minnesota the size of Minnesota would be useless. Map makers simply have to omit some features and emphasize others just as historians must focus on some historical events and not all of them. Something similar could be said of teaching in general. We map our subjects but inevitably leave other things out. At times it is the language itself that distorts what is there, a notion that always makes me think of Edward Thomas' poem Adlestrop.

A few years ago I got into reading Edwardian and Georgian poets and was especially struck by the work of Thomas. He is sometimes classed as a war poet, although few of his poems are explici…

You mean there's a name for that?

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I was thinking about the post I made yesterday (The Highest F). It reminds me of an old trick that is sometimes used on the first day of basic news writing courses in college. The prof asks the class if they know how to write a news lead. Most students in a reporting class have done a bit of writing for the high school paper, so they raise their hands and spout something about who, what, when, where and how, the inverted pyramid, etc.

“Okay” says the prof. “Let's see your stuff. Here are some facts. I want you to put them in order from the most to the least important and write me a lead that nails the most newsworthy detail in the story." Then she walks to the board and writes down the following facts:

Who: The college faculty.

What: Attend an excellence in education conference.

Where: Chicago.

When: Monday, September 2.
Why: To improve instruction.

How: Leave by bus at 6:00 am and return at 8:00 pm.Now the students start writing their leads, careful to get all of the facts into the…