Saturday, April 05, 2008

Torrential Downpour

Writing as Reaction
When I'm discussing an essay with students, I will often ask a question to get at the writer's focus and tone: What is this writer responding to? Often we can understand a writer's points of emphasis and intensity of rhetoric by working backward to what this writer is reacting against. For example, we read Theodore Dalrymple's essay "Just Do What the Pilot Tells You," which emphasizes the value of obedience. We can understand Dalrymple's emphasis on the good of obedience by examining what he is responding to: Milgram's obedience experiment and the reaction to it, which focused on the dangers of obedience. Another example: some of my students react negatively to essays we read that are harshly critical of malls. I ask students to consider what the writers are reacting against: the writers likely see themselves writing in an environment of unbridled and unreflecting consumerism.

I'm often turned of when a writer uses harsh insults or mocking name-calling. For several reasons I don't like when discourse on ideas devolves into demeaning insults. But I ask myself that question: What is this writer responding to?, or perhaps more strongly, What is this writer reacting against? Sometimes this allows me to see past inflammatory rhetoric to the point a writer wishes to make.

Valjean and Javert
Les Miserables is my favorite musical: it is absolutely stunning. And I see continuing significance in the contrast of Javert and Valjean. Javert lives by the belief that there are good people and there are bad people, and that bad people cannot change; "redemption" is not even a concept for Javert. But Valjean's life teaches us that the lines of good and evil do not run between people, but run within people; Valjean provides us a story of forgiveness and redemption.

I'm rather struck by how much it is literature that inform my religious beliefs and give them meaning.

At We Have Mixed Feelings About Sven Sundgaard
On matters of peace and violence, Katherine Kersten claims that "pretty thoughts" don't work, but on matters of teens and sex, Kersten has some "pretty thoughts" that don't seem grounded in reality. I write about it at WHMFASS instead of here because that's where I write about Minnesota media.

Currently Reading: William Golding's The Lord of the Flies
An academic career in literature is sort of odd. An advanced degree in English and a job teaching English at college certainly suggests you've read a great deal. But of course there are so many great books out there, and with limited time (and specific academic focus), there are all sorts of major books you haven't read (and that you suspect most people in your position have read). Sure, you recognize that all English teachers don't share a common life reading list. You can also tell yourself that in your studies you've read several books that are rarely read, even among academics. Still, you can feel sheepish about having failed to read certain books. You reach a point in life where you really think you rather should.

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