Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Poetry in Life

The first lines of poetry I spoke to my new son were from William Wordsworth: "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

How you know you are an English teacher nearing the end of a term

When you stop grading papers in order to prep for class, and it feels like "taking a break."

Friday, April 24, 2009

downpour: blogging helps improve my teaching.

If this blog is a  journal of what I'm reading and thinking about, then that helps my teaching.  With my comp students, I promote the value of informal prewriting exercises: forcing ourselves to work out our thoughts in writing certainly allows us to articulate our thoughts, but also allows us sharper clarity of thought.  By making an effort to write about literature and ideas, I'm clarifying and articulating my own thoughts.  Since a lot of my reading is for class, writing my thoughts certainly sharpens my teaching.  Furthermore, in the past year I read The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Namesake for pleasure, not directly for academic work.  I also blogged about some of my thoughts about reading these works.  Now I'm planning on teaching them in a lit course next fall--suddenly the extended time not just reading these books, but thinking about them and writing about them, perhaps contributed to my decision to include them, and certainly helps me prepare to teach them.

But it's not just the writing on this blog that helps me, but the reading.  I regularly check most of the links on the side.  That means I'm constantly learning about what books people are reading, what people think about particular books, how people are experiencing reading, current issues in literature, current issues in academia, how other teachers are approaching their work, contemporary theoretical issues, contemporary academic topics, etc. etc. etc.  Using these links as my regular reading list keeps me informed on subjects relevant to my teaching, as well as ideas that can be incorporated into my teaching.

Or is this what I try tell myself?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Marxist Reading

In "Going Boom" at bookforum, Walter Benn Michaels has, I believe, some strong insights.  My main problem with the essay is the assumption that it is the duty of literature (or literary criticism, or literary study, or simply reading) to explore and expose the problems of the free market.  First, aren't there better areas of inquiry more suited to this project?  Economics, Journalism, Political Science--it seems there are fields that would do a much better job with that project than writers of literature.  Second, I'm skeptical that more novels like American Psycho or more television shows like The Wire are really going to foster anything like a revolution or reform of the free market system.

But it seems Michaels also views the primary concern of human beings as our material conditions, and thus what we read should reflect that concern.  I think, given that much of our lives is devoted to those material conditions, that when we read we perhaps should devote our attention to "something else," whether that be pleasure, or spiritual fulfillment, or self-knowledge, or personal growth, or intellectual curiosity, or any of many, many human concerns that are not about the economic system. I might agree with Harold Bloom when he writes, "Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read. Self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit." 

(via Dissent)

Monday, April 20, 2009

downpour: some things I'm teaching

Avoiding Staleness
I'm very excited that next fall, I'll be including John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake in my gen ed lit syllabus. I feel like including these novels makes the course my own. I'm also not assigning any books that feature poetry; instead, I'll be creating my own poetry reading list through digital attachments and online links. And I'm also changing texts for my comp class, again simply because I feel the old text was getting stale and dated. This certainly adds work to the summer, but I think it is well worth it. I want to be energized by what I teach, and think I'll do a better job teaching it if I am.

In "Obedience," Ian Parker writes "It's hard not to think of Stanley Milgram in another set of circumstances--to imagine the careers he did not have in films or in the theatre," and quotes from Milgram from a letter: "I should not be here, but in Greece shooting films under a Mediterranean sun, hopping about in a small boat from one Aegean isle to the next."

I find this remarkably unsurprising, and think the same thought could apply to Philip Zimbardo and his Stanford Prison Experiment (for some reason, in my imagination Zimbardo appears like the "impresario" artist at the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman). Parker and Zimbardo are psychologists that appear to view themselves as something like artists. And perhaps, from Freud on forward, it is psychology with an artistic bent that most frequently forces its way into the popular imagination.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

On the Commodification of Peace

At We Have Mixed Feelings About Sven Sundgaard, a mostly silly blog where I sometimes examine consumer life, I discuss the consumer fashion appeal of the Peace Symbol.


Using "the end justifies the means" logic leads to an obvious problem. If you believe nefarious means can be justified by a desired end, then you would be willing to use nearly any means to achieve ends you deem very important, and you will use absolutely any means to achieve ends you deem absolutely necessary. But if you do so, the only thing that separates you (whom you consider good) from your enemy (whom you consider evil) is the desirability, nobility, morality, goodness of the ends. Horrible atrocities have been perpetrated by those that believed so strongly their ends were just/right/desirable that they were willing to kill to achieve those ends.

In history there have been those (such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi) who believed their moral superiority to their enemies must exist in the means, not just the ends. John Howard Yoder's understanding of Christ in The Politics of Jesus also suggests a leader (with social/political ends) who insisted on using a moral means.

Religion does not provide a clear direction. Too often religious motivations have led humans to murderous means to achieve the ends they view their religion demands. And sometimes it is religion that leads humans to recognize a moral demand, a "higher law," which extends beyond the desirability of the end that humans have in view. So religion can lead humans to treat other humans as "means" to be used for transcendent purposes, but religion can also insist on transcendent purposes which forbid certain evil means to achieve human ends.

There is little doubt that torture denies the dignity of the one being tortured. Torture insists that the tortured person is simply a means, a means to be used to achieve the torturer's end. The tortured person does not have inherent value; the value of the tortured person is only his/her value to the torturer. Humans distort, limit, and deny each others' inherent dignity all the time, but violence is perhaps the most intentional, outright, egregious denial.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Trifles" as a metaphor for canon formation

Those in power get to determine what matters, what is important, what is worth time and exploration, as well as what is less significant, not important, "trifling."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Ethical Decisions of Imaginary Characters

I'm not afraid to ask students whether the fictional characters we encounter do "the right thing."  I do think sometimes this question can help us better understand the particular text.  But I also don't think a literature class is an inappropriate setting to challenge students about ethics and values.

In Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles," two women cover up evidence that would help convict a murderer.   I will ask: did the women do the right thing?  At the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden kills (the lobotomized) McMurphy.  Again I will ask: was Chief Bromden's action ethical?  Certainly the contexts of both these works push a read toward a particular answer, but I still find the discussion engaging and fruitful.  I think these may be the sort of questions students want to engage with; perhaps young adulthood is a time when people find themselves both open to exploring such questions and deeply invested in these questions.

Gratuitous Link

Matt Richtel's "If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone" in The New York Times.

I've thought the same thing while watching Seinfeld (just a decade later, some of their plots and situations would be wrapped up with a cell phone) and horror movies (since the essence of many horror scenes is isolation, writers may need to find a way to get rid of a character's cell phone: dying batteries, broken phones, locations without connection, etc.).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

2,400 year old dirty jokes

Here is my pattern for teaching Lysistrata:

1. Before the semester, make a syllabus including Lysistrata.  It seems like a good idea at the time.

2. A few weeks before Lysistrata is scheduled, look at the syllabus and think "How are we supposed to talk about that?"

3. During the time that Lysistrata is scheduled, spend my free moments fretting up ways to get through class.

4. After we're finished with Lysistrata, and our coverage of it in class goes reasonably well (it usually does), think "Well, that went well: we actually raised some good, important issues that are extremely relevant to this class."

5. Lose all notes taken for this preparation, and forget everything that I did that seemed to work well.*

6. Prepare a lit syllabus for the next semester including Lysistrata: it seems like a good idea at the time.

*I'm working on eliminating this step.

Gratuitous Link

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food reviewed at The New York Times.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Torrential Downpour: scattered thoughts on pacifism and vegetarianism.

Unpredictability of War
David Samuels' "Why Israel Will Bomb Iran: The rational argument for an attack" in Slate illustrates one of the problems of war. Samuels makes a lot of predictions about what would happen if Israel bombed Iran. Most of these results appear as positives. But almost any act of war can seem sensible when justifying it by predicted results (especially if the war proponent is the one predicting such results). But nearly every act of war brings about unforeseen, unpredictable results. It is the unpredicted results that are often longterm negative results of acts of war.

Orwell against Tolstoy
In James Wood's "A Fine Rage: George Orwell's revolutions" in The New Yorker (abstract), Wood recounts Orwell's opposition to Tolstoy. The matter seems to be about "soft power:"

"The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power." The example he appends is an interesting one: when a father threatens his son with "You'll get a thick ear if you do that again," coercion is palpable. But, Orwell writes, what of the mother who lovingly murmurs, "Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?" The mother wants to contaminate her son's brain. Tolstoy did not propose that "King Lear" be banned or censored, Orwell says; instead, when he wrote his polemic against Shakespeare, he tried to contaminate our pleasure in the play. For Orwell, "Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind."

Surely the problem of Orwell's argument is obvious. In a free society, if Tolstoy tries to badger me into hating King Lear, I'm free to resist. In fact, I have two forms of "soft" resistance at my disposal: I can either argue against Tolstoy, or I can ignore him. But if Tolstoy starts punching and kicking me because I enjoy King Lear, that is another thing altogether. The key distinction is, in fact, between violence and non-violence.

Sanctity of Life
Today at the church I attended for Easter service, there was a prayer that included a desire to embrace a "culture of life," followed by some specifics, including concern for the unborn. And I wondered: if everybody in America that opposed abortion on the grounds of the sanctity of human life, also opposed war on the very same grounds, we might not have any more aggressive foreign wars. The same thought could probably extend to the death penalty.

That's the problem of this "culture of life" business--which life, in fact, is of concern? Opponents of abortion usually don't share the same political (or cultural?) affiliations with opponents of capital punishment or opponents of militarism/warfare (and I'll limit to a parenthetical the observation that in most contexts, when people argue over "life," the concern is limited, of course, to human life).

Paradigms of Thought: Animal Rights
When I read articles about animal rights, I consistently come across the word "suffering." It is apparent that for many animal rights advocates, "suffering" is the paradigm which grounds their beliefs. Many of the arguments against humans using animals for our benefit are framed around the animals' suffering (arguments for the animals' capacity to suffer, or arguments on the conditions which lead animals to suffer). It is certainly not the only paradigm (the question "do humans have a right to use animals?" is not dependent on animal suffering), but it is a significant one.

I must admit that the suffering paradigm does not ground my vegetarianism; for me the paradigm is personal moral integrity. It is not the suffering of animals that motivates me precisely. I attempt to avoid moral complicity in the deaths of animals. I've suggested in the past that it is the religious thrust of my mind that made me a vegetarian: it is a religious desire to live a compassionate life and a religious desire to preserve personal moral integrity (it is not with mock humility that I note my constant failure in both these areas).

I make these observations on paradigms of belief without intended judgment. These are some of the thoughts that arise when I ask myself why I am vegetarian and not vegan. It is possible that either paradigm will, at some point, push me toward a strict veganism. At the moment, however, they have not.

Moral Arguments on Meat
I have been thinking of developing a post with the sentence "I've never heard a good moral argument for eating meat." But I think I could take out the "good," and simply say "I've never heard a moral argument for eating meat." Certainly I've heard many "defenses" or "justifications" for animal consumption. But nobody can really raise the argument that consuming meat is a morally superior choice to abstaining from consuming meat. I come back to a rational claim: if you eat meat, you are choosing your own pleasure over the life of the animal. It is difficult to make this choice and still claim it as a moral choice.

And you should see how I hold a fork

In The New York Times, Calvin Trillin speculates on whether he is "an uncultured oaf."

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Imagining Lear

While teaching King Lear, I find myself entirely immersed in it: reading it, talking about it, thinking about it, watching it.  In my free, dreamy moments, Lear comes to mind.  And I considered revisiting ideas about imaginary characters, about the human capacity to imagine that which isn't, about how non-existent characters are imagined by an author, re-imagined by a reader, and take on an authentic realness from the creativity of the human imagination.

And while thinking about how I imagine Lear, I recognize that the image I have of Lear is built out of various sources.  But when I imagine Lear talking, the voice I often hear is that of my grandfather.  And Lear's character and personality, his mannerisms and his emotions, are formed by my ideas of my grandpa.

And I think that the human capacity to imagine is nearly limitless, yet that imagination is built and perpetually fueled by already existent material.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Highlight of the Semester

Once a semester I tend to write on here about what a moving, invigorating, emotional, and joyous experience it is to teach King Lear.  I hope I never tire of teaching this play.

Friday, April 03, 2009

I do, after all, have a "stupid" tag

I am very liberal; I know this because a Facebook quiz told me so.  But when reading literature, my impulses are sometimes what might be called conservative: in respect for the Western canon and tradition, in a willingness to just go ahead and say a Shakespearean character is evil, in a desire for spiritual fulfillment or moral edification in literature.  I don't know what this means.