Showing posts from August, 2009

To a Dead Poet Upon Commencing My Latest Critical Essay

I feel as though I should apologize
For those truths I am about to abuse,
But an apology does not excuse
An argument of enterprising lies.
The dead, you see, we're free to denigrate,
The living too (though often they fight back),
And now you're silent, unable to react,
A voiceless victim, libeless, in state.

Dead poets, like Iphigenia, are
Soft sacrifices to immediate ends,
Led upon some careful critical altar
And quickly slain for a burst of wind.
I ask forgiveness, then, for what I am about to say,
But your body's here and lifeless and Troy so very far away.

O' My Fruitless Design*

I began teaching a sophomore honors section this fall, and it's got me all jumpy and nervous. I still don't understand how the texts go together despite staring at them all summer. Here's the reading list: Plato, The Apology and Crito.Sophocles, Antigone. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth.John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. George Orwell, 1984. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience. John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Assorted authors, The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Writings.I've never before taught Locke, Mill, Wollstonecraft or Freud's Civilizationand Its Discontents. I'm beginning to feel as though the other texts are lifelines. My problem is that I never know exactly…

It's Simple

The other night I watched The Third Man and thought that's how to do it. It's so simple: a guy named Martins arrives in town to take a job that’s been offered to him by a friend, but he immediately discovers that his friend has been hit by a car. And at the funeral, everybody—the dead friend’s lover, the witnesses, the police—have a slightly different story about how the accident occurred. All of the plot’s other touches hang on this simple gimmick: the post-war international intrigue, Martin’s dime store cowboy tales, his comical lecture on the modern novel at a cultural institute, the disquisitions on good, evil, innocence and guilt. Once you’ve set up the Rube Goldberg contraption of the plot, the rest is gravy. But as much as I love a good plot, I can’t come up with a compelling one. My brain is rotted with 40,000 hours of televised contrivance. It's August. I haven't taught in a while and my brain's gone soft.

An Idea Two Weeks Ahead of its Time

My oldest brother has worked construction for almost 30 years and is now within sight of retirement. You can drive all over the city and see the buildings he has built or remodeled (some several times). He once said to me that you know you’re getting close to the end when you are remodeling for the second time a building you originally built. I am only at the midpoint of my career, but I am beginning to see his point.

In education, debates, arguments, failed ideas from the past and everybody’s brilliant solutions never go away forever. They return over and over with newly remodeled names and theories to support them. The faculty hashes it out once more, and then we scrap a policy or implement a program that has been implemented and scrapped many times, but only after after a lot of acrimonious debate.

Just yesterday, for example, one of our librarians clued me into an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a bold new idea: “Teaching Naked.” By naked the movement’s proponents…

Splashing in the Distance

It’s come to this. They are assigning me to mentor new faculty. What in the world can they possibly be thinking? I am beginning my 18th year and feel completely befuddled, hapless and unprepared. Good heavens, I met my mentee last Tuesday and I feel he should be mentoring me. He has a hundred wonderful ideas and lots of eagerness to get started. He will be fine. I can’t think what I can possibly tell him about teaching or academic life or anything for that matter.

I remember my first semester. Egad, what a disaster. I was so anxious to make an impression and volunteered for everything. At my first committee meeting I volunteered to be recording secretary. Then two students sought me out to be an advisor to their campus club. Of course I said yes. The professor I replaced had been the advisor to a student poetry club and these two students were the sole remaining members. One was a lanky guy with pale skin and red stringy hair. The other was young woman. I can’t recall what she looked …

Crimes, Follies and Misfortunes

History doesn't offer much hope. At work I sometimes take a little heat for being an old school humanist who rather snobbishly favors the classics over current literature, but reading that old stuff helps me to remember that the current state of affairs is not something new or unique. Political stupidity, cupidity, and duplicity have always been a part of the human condition. When I read about Athens' folly in precipitating the invasion of Sicily or the savagery of Roman power politics, the modern messes and scandals don't seem so odd or unusual. "History," Edward Gibbon once said, "is little more than a register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."

I sometimes doubt that the 21rst century will be an American Century like the last one. It all seems to be coming to an end in an orgy of triviality and obesity. Even so, I try to remind myself that there must have been a few pleasant afternoons as the late Roman Empire went down the long slide…

Catching Up

It's the last week before classes, the end of summer, which means that I have only a few more days to read what I want and not what I must. I've been culling through the book case downstairs. There is always something I have that I've been meaning to get to, but for some reason haven't. Just yesterday I happened across such a book and found that I'd used the receipt as a book mark. (It was wedged into the introduction so I didn't get too far.) The date on the receipt was April of 1998. I really need to catch up on my "mean to read this" pile. The book was "Who Killed Homer?"

Written by two classicists, it lays out the demise of classical education in the Western academy, although it admits that much of the classical notion of a core curriculum residually shapes, however pathetically, our ideals for education. Their case is compelling, especially the initial chapters in which they argue the urgent relevance of classical studies to a proper und…

Ringing the Bellhop

Christianity is a wildly diverse religion. Indeed, to say Christians think this or Christians believe that is pretty much to go off the rails before you even get started. There are all manner of Christians. Some believe in a militant Christ, some a pacifist Christ, some a judging Christ, and some a forgiving Christ. Some believe in a Christ who helps you lose weight. In many versions of Christianity this world is God's wonderful creation; in others it is a vale of tears. Some believers act on their Christian faith to reform society; others say we must avoid all contamination of the Earthly City.

You can find people calling themselves "Christians" who believe Jesus visited the native Americans after his gig in the holy lands, or that he's coming back any minute, or that whether he actually lived is irrelevant. Sure, they all worship a figure called Jesus, but that's about where the similarity stops. Christ is the ultimate Rorsach blot. People see what they want to …

Good Mistakes

Sometimes students ask questions so good that they may not realize just how good they are. A few years ago a young woman in a freshmen seminar asked me whether a wrong answer could ever get an A. I had to think about it for a moment before I said, "It could in my class."

A biology prof who overheard this was appalled, but he really shouldn't have been. If you can sort right answers into gradations of A, B, C and D, then certainly you can do the same for wrong answers. Some mistakes are really, really good. More importantly, they tell me a lot about the quality of thinking that's going on.

Anyone who has taught for a while has had the experience of asking a question and hearing one's own words parroted back in the answer. The answer may be right, but most professors hate it because it usually indicates that very little thinking has taken place. Now contrast this with the following example: when my son was three or so I overheard him explaining to his fellow pre-scho…

Defining Literacy Down

The only time this humble blog ever touched off a hint of controversy came when I made a few skeptical remarks about on-line education (The Empirical Strikes Back and We Should Talk). I was reminded of this minor contretemps by this morning’s New York Times, which quotes Dr. Sheryl R. Abishire, chief technology officer for the the school system in Lake Charles, Louisiana:

"Kids are wired differently these days,” Abishire said. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite. They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote. Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.”

Now I agree with Dr. Abishire on at least one of the points she makes. We do need to get beyond bad textbooks, those dumbed-down amalgams with their pre-annotated margins, chapter summaries and bright info-graphics. But other than that,…

The Summer I Read Too Much Henry Miller

Speaking of diaries, I ran across the following entry from the 1990s a while back. It was written when I had just begun teaching. I had spent a long, lonely summer reading a lot of Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov, which may account for the overheated prose style. Anyway, that's where I was in those days:

Babble. Start talking like pregnant mud bubbles from a trembling smudge pot. I am ready to speak. I am sitting here at the keyboard, my gut full of black coffee, my hands clean, my butt wiped; I am ready to say something now. I am going to tell you how I have always talked too much, how I could never leave well enough alone, how I could never listen in a classroom or a roomful of people; how I have to speak everywhere and at all times. How I climb out onto conversational precipices and look back at the smirking faces. Yes, let’s talk, talk, talk, talk; let’s rattle our fool heads off. There is so much to say – each moment an encyclopedia, volume after volume, abracadabra to Aztec…

Always at my back

One of my early memories is standing alone before our house and tapping a stick repeatedly on the concrete pavement of the sidewalk. I was only perhaps five or six years-old, but I had become fixated by how queer it was that the interval between each tap of the stick marked a moment that could never happen again. I had some silly idea that moments had to wait a near-eternity to bloom and it seemed so sad that they passed unnoticed into nothingness.

There was just something terrifying to my childhood mind at how many moments were destined to be forgotten. I can recall several times in grade school saying silently to myself “I must remember this, I will not forget this.” Ironically these were seldom significant events. I would be walking home in the rain from school, or staring at Laura Paulson’s plump, bland face as she worked a first grade math problem. These were the things I feared losing.

I no longer get quite so wrought up by the rapid passage of time, but in one way or the other I’…

Lies for sale

There's a game I like to play in class whenever we're discussing the value of literature. I'll tell three stories, two of which are true. Then the students have to guess which one is the lie. The stories are usually (but not always) told in first person, and I add a lot of little details to create verisimilitude. The point (in as much as there is one) is to introduce students to the paradoxical idea that fiction can be a medium for truth telling in which the truth doesn’t especially matter. So here are the three stories I usually tell. Ready?

1. The Night I Didn't Find God

Many more years ago than I care to confess, I briefly entertained the idea of going to seminary. I made a preliminary visit to a seminary in Minnesota (where I was living at the time), and even met once or twice with a recruiter. Anyway, during this period I was working for the Minnesota Historical Society and living in St. Paul. I didn't know a lot of people in the Twin Cities, but I would occasio…