Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Overshadowed by "umbrage"; or, you learn something old every day

My student wanted to know what umbrage meant in a poem by Wordsworth, and although I know what umbrage means in the phrase to take umbrage, I took umbrage over the use of the word in these lines describing the earth beneath a grove of yew trees:
                                              a pillared shade,
Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,
By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged
"It looks like umbrage is being used as a color word," I said, "but that doesn't make sense."

"You could Google it," my student said, and so we did, and you'll never guess what we found: umbrage survives in common use today only in phrases like to take umbrage, but in the past it carried a whole host of usages as a term relating to shadow. The OED lists dozens of citations for umbrage meaning shadow or shade, alongside figurative uses meaning a feeling of suspicion or doubt or even a suspicion, hint, inkling, or slight idea. I had no inkling that an umbrage could be an inkling.

I was even more surprised to find that umbrage was once used as a verb with meanings like to shade or shadow, or to overshadow, or even to disguise, as in this example from the OED: 
1675   R. Burthogge Cavsa Dei 312   If she mentioned others, it was by way of caution, only to secure her self, and Umbrage what she said that it might down the better.
Apparently, just a spoonful of umbrage makes the medicine go down. But the woman above may have found her match in a young gallant described under the meaning to give a pretext for:

1689   E. Hickeringill Speech Without-doors 35   Like that young Gallant, studying what he should see in her [sc. an old woman] to Vmbrage the fondness of his Embraces.
So umbrage leads us into the shadows, where women shade their meanings to make them more palatable while young men invent pretexts to embrace older women. That's pretty far from today's meaning, but not far from Wordsworth's usage to describe the shade under a grove of yew trees--the kind of umbrageous place that could provide cover for all kinds of shady behavior.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

After passionate debate, a path forward

I think my favorite moment at the faculty meeting last night occurred when a colleague who is not a native English speaker struggled to produce the phrase "throw out the baby with the bathwater" and colleagues from all departments and divisions of campus and from every side of the conflict chimed in to help her out. See? We know how to work together!

This was the fourth and, thankfully, the last in a series of very long faculty meetings (most lasting two or more hours) in which we've been debating a proposal to make sweeping changes to the General Education curriculum. Depending on whom you ask, the new curriculum is either The End of the World as We Know It or The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. After all those meetings and all those hours of (mostly civil) debate, the Sliced Bread party prevailed, although not by much.

In the end I was more interested in the process of the debate than in the final vote. Yes, we'll have to make some changes to adjust to the new curriculum, and our department will need to start working on a new minor and perhaps discover some other ways to engage students outside the major, but we can handle that. What impressed me is that we survived some pretty passionate debate without losing respect for each other.

Lots of faculty members spoke--from untenured newbies to grizzled veterans of the curriculum wars. Most spoke succinctly and to the purpose. The Faculty Chair and his assistants from Council kept the debate orderly and civil, assuring that no single voice dominated and that those who wanted to speak could be heard.

And they were heard. There was some very intense listening going on in that room, and even when remarks got a little heated, no one was rude or dismissive. It does us good as a faculty, I think, to hear how much our colleagues on all sides care about our duty to provide a meaningful education for our students, and nothing happened at any of those meetings that will prevent us from working well together in the future.

Aside from a few minor tweaks, this is the first major revision of our General Education curriculum since around 2001, when I was the untenured newbie uncertain whether I could contribute anything to the debate. I don't recall much about those meetings, but I could name some colleagues so incensed by the result that they stopped speaking to each other--permanently. 

But I won't. Because life goes on, you know? Times change, curricula change, committee appointments change, and we will all have to keep working with each other regardless of which side of the debate we favored. This time, though, I think we can do it.    

Monday, January 29, 2018

A paean to bad poetry

If you'd walked past my Literary Theory class at the right time today, you might have heard me reading aloud stanzas from James Whitcomb Riley's dreadful poem "The Happy Little Cripple," or William McGonagall's tone-deaf take on "The Tay Bridge Disaster," or midwestern poet Lillian E. Curtis's ode to "The Potato," which begins thus:

What on this wide earth,
That is made, or does by nature grow,
Is more homely, yet more beautiful,
Than the useful Potato?

What would this world full of people do,
Rich and poor, high and low,
Were it not for this little-thought-of
But very necessary Potato?

Curtis claims that the homely potato improves on acquaintance, but the poem, sadly, does not.

Why read bad poetry? We've been reading Hume on taste and Burke on the sublime and Schiller on the power of fine art to develop character, and I wanted students to get some practice in putting their principles to work. What makes great poetry great? To tackle the question, I decided we needed to experience some not-so-great poetry by poets who once enjoyed a healthy readership. 

And so I read them some sentimental drivel, and then we looked at a short poem by Wordsworth ("I Travelled among Unknown Men") alongside James McIntyre's "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese", that which there is no poem more cheesy. We quickly agreed that the Wordsworth poem was "better," but then it took quite a while to pin down the principles informing our judgment. If there are universal principles determining the worth of a poem, why can't we articulate them? Are these principles purely personal, or are they constructed anew by each community of readers? Or is the whole idea of universal principles bogus?

It was a lively discussion, full of laughter and passion and philosophical concepts, but the cheese poem made me hungry, not to mention the paean to the potato. Put those two poems together and you'll have a feast you won't soon forget.

Friday, January 26, 2018

So demanding!

What I need today is a helicopter, not to elevate me above the nasty potholes along my commute because the potholes have been filled, but they haven't added edge lines to the highway yet so driving to work in the pitch dark is an act of faith--I'm never sure whether I'm in my lane or getting ready to drive into the river. A helicopter would be just the thing.

A helicopter and a few more hours of sleep--that's all I need to be happy. Woke up with a splitting headache around 3 a.m. and had trouble getting back to sleep, so  here I sit trying very hard not to fall asleep in my office before my 9 a.m. class. Sleep would help, sleep and a helicopter.

Sleep and a helicopter and a tutor, not for me but for some students who are struggling to understand the readings in Literary Theory and asked me whether any tutoring would be available on campus. I doubt that we have anyone in the tutoring center who has ever taken this class since it hasn't been offered for a few years, so I'm working on putting together a workshop on strategies for reading difficult texts, except every time I think about it, my eyelids start drooping. Sleep would help. And a helicopter. And a tutor.

And some more time, some extra hours in the day to meet the needs of students who are uncertain how to approach writing the draft due next week. They asked if I could set up some extra peer-review time outside of class and I am happy to do so, but next week I have a bunch of evening meetings so it's not easy to find a time that suits everyone. The calendar is full of potholes and obstacles, and the road ahead is unclear, and I need someone competent to wipe away all these problems and deal with it.

A personal assistant! That would be just the ticket. But don't bother applying unless you can fly a helicopter, tutor Literary Theory, and manufacture more time in the day while I take a nap.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

"Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars"

From "The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction":
I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.
So, when I came to write science-fiction novels, I came lugging this great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets which when laboriously unknotted are seen to contain one blue pebble, an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time on another world, and a mouse's skull; full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don't understand. 
Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story. In it, as in all fiction there is room enough to keep even Man where he belongs, in his place in the scheme of things; there is time enough to gather plenty of wild oats and sow them too, and sing to little Oom, and listen to Ool's joke, and watch newts, and still the story isn't over. Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.
Nobody says it better. Rest in peace, Ursula K. LeGuin.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New text, new class, new challenges

At 9 a.m. I teach from a Norton anthology so old that the pages have gone all soft, and some are falling out or so scribbled-on they're barely readable--but if I want to find a specific passage, I know exactly where to look.

At 1 p.m. I teach from a brand-new Norton anthology so pristine that the spine crackles when I open the book and the pages still have that new-book smell, but I've never taught these texts before so I can't always put my finger on the specific passage I seek.

Teaching from a new text poses certain challenges, but a new text in a class I've never taught before raises a whole new set of issues. This is the situation in my Literary Theory class, which is going well so far--but we're only a week into the semester. 

The class was taught for ages by a colleague who retired a few years ago and is no longer in the area, so I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder to tell me I'm doing it all wrong. Further, it fulfills no General Education requirement and isn't even required for the English major, although it's strongly recommended for students planning to go to grad school and those seeking certification to teach high school English. This results in a small cadre of students (nine), all English majors and all interested in teaching or graduate study, and they're all motivated to maintain a high gpa. Further, they know each other from other classes so they're comfortable asking questions. I can't imagine a more congenial situation in which to teach a class for the first time.

When I planned the syllabus, I thought long and hard about what these students need from the class. They need to be familiar with important ideas associated with specific literary theorists and they need to be able to put concepts in conversation with each other, so that means they'll take a few exams (three). But they also need practice in applying theories to specific literary works, which means they need to write some papers (five, roughly a paper every three weeks).  Since it's not a Writing Proficiency course, we don't have to devote time in class to peer review of drafts, but they realize the value of getting feedback on their writing so I've encouraged them to meet outside of class for that. So far, so good.

But these students are in the class because they're interested in graduate study or teaching, which means they need to know how to explain ideas to others and how to engage others in meaningful discussion, so I added a set of assignments requiring students to serve as discussion leaders for specific works. Twice over the course of the semester, once before Spring Break and once after, each student will briefly introduce a text and then guide the rest of the class through a discussion of that text. I gave them a list of texts and asked them to rank their top three, and I was able to give most of the students their top choice. (The only wrinkle arose when three of them wanted to lead the discussion of Freud, but that was resolved without resorting to fisticuffs.)

On the date assigned, the student has to come to class equipped with written questions, so we spent some time last week talking about what makes a good discussion question and practiced writing some; however, I've reminded them that sometimes the best discussions veer sharply away from our best-laid plans, so they'll have to demonstrate their ability to guide a discussion even when it doesn't follow the rules. I've also encouraged them to support each other by responding to questions (and, if necessary, to bribe their classmates), but based on what I've observed so far, I don't believe they'll have a problem getting the class to talk.

In fact, my students' careful reading of the texts has come in very handy when I'm struggling to locate a specific passage in a book so new that all the pages all look alike. I'm up there fumbling through the pages and asking where the author says some interesting thing, and sure enough a student jumps in and tells me a page number. 

That's my kind of class. I knew there had to be an advantage to teaching from a brand-new book that sometimes makes me feel a little lost: if we're all a little lost sometimes, we can all learn the benefits of helping each other out, taking turns leading the way toward enlightenment.  

Monday, January 22, 2018

Smiles by the miles

My daughter and I are sitting on the floor playing keep-away with the imps--rolling a ball past my grandson, who runs around shrieking "Bat-ball! Bat-ball!", and tossing another ball over the head of my granddaughter, who screams with joy when she catches it--and all that laughter hits me like a stimulant. I can feel brain cells waking up, no longer sleepy from the two-hour drive, and the big rolling belly laughs feel like a whole-body workout. 

There's nothing like a visit with the grandkids to remind me that I don't get enough laughter in my daily life. I feed on the kids' silliness, knowing that I'll soon have to go home and deal with serious issues, like course preps and grocery shopping and doing our taxes, which is more likely to make me laugh than cry.

I need a laugh--a big, helpless, all-consuming belly laugh--and I'm not getting it from the pile of reading quizzes on my desk. What my office really needs right now, then, is a mess of little imps running around and being silly--but I don't believe I can get them from the office supply store, and if I could, the College would never approve the purchase order. 

Think he's enjoying his swimming lesson?

Instant snowman kit. Some assembly required.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Will someone please help me dig out of this mess?

Guy shows up to class in shorts and I want to tell him, "Dude, it's 6 degrees outside! Put on some clothes!" But then I remind myself that he's dressed appropriately for the classroom, which is so beastly hot that I've been teaching with the windows open.

Am I going to complain about the weather again? Seems like all I ever talk about lately is the weather or local road conditions. Fun fact: two of the city's snowplows are out of commission just when they're most needed, making the brick streets even more treacherous than usual. 

And here's an even more fun fact: before Christmas, the state started a resurfacing project on a stretch of highway that I drive every day; they got as far as scraping off the surface of the road before the snow fell and the salt-trucks spread salt all over that rough subsurface, and then we had a brief thaw and a ton of rain and a sudden freeze, and now that 15-mile stretch of highway is pretty much Pothole City. Every day I face a challenge: drive on the slushy, icy spots or barrel right through the potholes? Making a frequently traveled highway virtually undriveable: my tax dollars at work!

But on the plus side, the snow drives birds to seek a more steady source of seeds, so they're all over our feeders all day long--tons of juncos plus one solitary towhee that doesn't get along well with the juncos, and then we'll sometimes have a dozen or more cardinals out there all at once, providing frequent bursts of scarlet against the white winter landscape. 

The even better news is that I don't have to go to campus today, so I'm working from home, where the temperature regulator on the wood burner is on the fritz so the house is holding a pretty steady temperature of 62 degrees. So it looks like I just can't get away from complaining about the weather.

But seriously, folks: I ought to celebrate my 12-year blogiversary by writing about something more interesting than the weather, but I'm going to need a little help. Put a topic in the comments--any topic, large or small--and I promise to write something about it before the end of the month. I can't guarantee that I'll say something profound or life-changing, but at least we'll distract ourselves from the massive pile of winter that's burying us alive.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I dream of readers

I don't know why I do this to myself. On the first day of a literature class I call roll and ask each student to respond by answering a simple question: "What's the most interesting thing you read over break?" I tell them it doesn't have to be a book--could be an article, a blog post, a tweet, whatever. Nevertheless, on Monday nearly half of my American Lit students said they hadn't read anything over break.

Is that the saddest thing you've ever heard?

Well, no, not really. The news about 13 siblings tortured by their parents in California is a lot sadder, and when I think about historical horrors like slavery, the Holocaust, or the Black Death, the decline in reading among college students pales by comparison.

Nevertheless, every time I hear a student admit to not reading at all, it feels like another nail in the coffin of the English department, another stab in the heart of the literary enterprise, another reminder that the world in which I grew up is fading into the ether.

But maybe I ought to see it as a challenge. Unless they're English majors, I'll see these students in one class and never again, so I have exactly one semester to persuade them that reading matters. If a student has read nothing for the past month but gets motivated to read the four poems we'll discuss in class today, I've already increased that student's time spent reading, and I'll increase it even more when we move to longer works. If I can engage them in reading interesting texts for the next 15 weeks, maybe reading will become more of a habit than a hated chore.

Am I dreaming? Maybe, but if I didn't succumb to pipe dreams once in a while, it would be really hard to keep on teaching.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Keep calm and carry markers

While my subconscious mind creates unlikely nightmare scenarios--showing up to class in a ragged nightgown, forgetting to write a syllabus, forgetting about a class entirely--my conscious mind writes little reminders to make sure the first day of class runs smoothly. Take markers, I tell myself, mindful of all the times I've arrived in a classroom far from the supply closet only to find no visible means of writing on the whiteboard. 

Today I'm obsessing over what to wear to class tomorrow, provided that I can get out of my driveway in the morning, which is another story entirely. (When snow falls on top of ice, there's only so much a plow can do.) I've already crossed "ragged nightgown" off my list of first-day clothing options, and despite nightmares to the contrary, I'm not going to show up to class naked. 

But I have to wear something appropriate to the outdoor weather, something that will serve me well if my car slides off the road somewhere and I have to walk through snow and ice, but also something appropriate for the indoor weather, which varies so much from one side of my building to the other that dressing for success is pretty much hopeless. Something professional but not brand-new; something amenable to layering, that will look nice over long-johns and a turtleneck sweater. I look at my closet and my heart sinks. Suddenly the ragged nightgown is starting to look like a possibility.

I am not worried about syllabi or first-day activities; if anything, I'm overprepared. I do worry, however, about learning students' names, a greater challenge every semester. Here's a real-life nightmare scenario: I encounter an unusual name on the roster and I don't know how to pronounce it, so I ask the student, who turns out to be a mumbler. Am I really supposed to call him "Brhhhmhhm"?

Do my students worry about how to pronounce my name? What do their first-day nightmares look like? Do I play the role of fearsome beast out to destroy their lives? Or are they too busy enjoying their last day of winter break to worry about what horrors the semester may bring?

I don't have time to think about that. Instead, I'll go look at my closet (again) and maybe write myself a few notes along the way. Wear boots, I tell myself. Print rosters. Check classroom computers. Find green gel pen.

Here we are on the runway, about to take of for another exciting journey. What could possibly go wrong? Wear clothes. Take syllabi. Don't fall on your face. And if you do, keep calm. (And carry markers.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

What am I do-do-doodling now?

This morning I finally put away all the books cluttering up my desk and when I got to the bottom of the pile, I found Doodling for Academics: A Coloring and Activity Book by Julie Schumacher, with illustrations by Lauren Nassef. Schumacher, as you will recall, wrote Dear Committee Members, a novel composed entirely of letters of recommendation from a harried English professor, which is hysterically funny when it's not tragic, displaying a sharp eye for the more ridiculous elements of academic life. 

Doodling for Academics was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows me really well, obviously. On Christmas day the book circulated amongst the academics in the crowd, who took turns chortling in bitter recognition over pages illustrating, for instance, officemate hobbies (like amateur kombucha brewing and bad taxidermy) and souvenirs of academic conferences (don't we all need a T-shirt that says "Fungal Genetics and You"?). 

Especially apposite over Christmas break was the "Cheering Section" page, featuring family members' responses to academic careers: "That must be nice, working only a few hours a day" or "Aunt Mary says that a monkey with a computer could...." Other pages invite readers to "Circle the items in the department refrigerator that most closely resemble lunch" or "Color the new football stadium subsidized at the expense of the library."

A page titled "Tidying Up" asks "Which office objects spark joy?" Among the objects are a dropping plant, a pile of dried-out highlighters, a file folder full of rejection letters, and a slide carousel collection, but the object in my office that sparks the most joy right now is my copy of Doodling for Academics. Now I just need someone to bring me some crayons so we can doodle together.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Screaming eyeballs syndrome

My eyeballs are screaming, but why are they screaming and why didn't I notice how fatigued they were getting before they reached full scream mode? Because when I get really involved in assembling a syllabus or creating a new writing assignment or constructing a presentation, I lose track was I doing?

This week I've spent entirely too much time staring at a computer screen and not enough time looking at birds or books or literally anything else, like, for instance, the new minion in my office, a birthday gift from my daughter, who surely knows me well. I can't tel whether the minion is protecting Jane Austen or threatening her, but I do know he's absolutely no help when it comes to writing syllabi. (Fun fact: he comes with spare parts, so you can transform the two-eyed pirate minion into a one-eyed caveman minion, but I doubt that he'd be any more helpful with one less eye.)

And speaking of eyes, I clapped my eyes on two eagles yesterday afternoon and one this morning. With the Muskingum River mostly frozen over, birds congregate at the open water below the dams, where sure enough we saw an adult and a juvenile eagle swooping yesterday afternoon. No photos, though: yesterday we were looking straight into the sun (ouch!) and this morning the sky was too overcast to allow good shots. I could go out there right now, but I'm not sure I'd be able to see any eagles because everything is blurry. Have I mentioned that my eyeballs are screaming?

One more day to get everything ready for the start of classes. I've copied my syllabi, prepared first-day-of-class activities, posted piles of stuff on the course management system, and put everything in place for a successful first day except for printing out my class rosters, and there's no point in doing that until the last minute because they change. Tomorrow I'll start tackling the administrative task I'm handling this semester (in exchange for a course release), which will not require quite so much staring at little screens.

And here's the really big news: soon I'll be staring at a big screen! Yes: our IT folks have promised to bring me a new wireless mouse and a humongous (well, bigger, anyway) monitor that will dock with my laptop, possibly providing a break for my eyeballs and preventing future episodes of screaming. That's about the best solution I can come up with--at least until my minion offers to trade eyeballs with me.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Reading "Reading with Patrick"

Michelle Kuo's teaching memoir Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, A Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship describes her attempt to "save" a struggling student, but it soon becomes clear that the life she saves may be her own. Though the book is suffused with the sort of Teacher-as-Messiah imagery that lures so many into teaching before tragically reminding them that they can't save everyone (or possibly anyone), Kuo's thoughtful self-reflection deconstructs that imagery by showing how a messianic attitude may in itself erect barriers between teachers and students. 

The book begins with Kuo's two-year term as a Teach for America instructor in Helena, Arkansas, where the Harvard graduate steps into a classroom full of black students ill served by an educational system that marginalizes the poor. Entering the classroom as a crusader for justice, Kuo quickly finds her superhero cape wilting as her attempts to forcefully impose her own worldview on her students fall flat. The book then details her transformation into a teacher who cares enough about her students to get to know them and meet them where they are.

The bulk of the book deals with one student, Patrick Downing, who seems to make progress under her tutelage. But when she leaves Helena to enter law school at Harvard, Patrick quickly declines and ends up eventually behind bars, accused of murder.

Kuo's sense of responsibility inspires her to return to Helena to try to repair the damage, a process she describes in elegant prose that nevertheless grasps the gritty lives of her poverty-stricken subjects. The best parts of Reading with Patrick describe the months she spent visiting him in jail, reading books first to him and them with him, responding to his writing and constantly re-evaluating her own role as a teacher. Kuo's depth of research is evident in eye-opening passages about the history of racial violence in the Mississippi Delta and the impact of educational policies on the quality of education, but her deepest research looks into her own heart, examining her complicity in the lives of her students. Toward the end she concisely describes the complexity of this role:
And yet to know a person as a student is to know him always as a student: to sense deeply his striving and in his striving to sense your own. It is to watch, and then have difficulty forgetting, a student wrench himself into shape, like a character from Ovid, his body twisting and contorting, from one creature to another, submitting, finally, to the task of a full transformation. Why? Because he trusts you; because he prefers the feel of this newer self; because he hopes you will help make this change last.
Note the repetition of "know": while she may begin her teaching career convinced that teacher knows best, Kuo discovers along the way that she can make the biggest impact on students only when she takes the time to know them, their families, their lives, to know the world as they see it. This patient commitment to knowing inspires the student/teacher trust that makes transformative learning possible.

Reading with Patrick made me cry but it also made me think about how I relate to students and how I can commit to knowing the world through their eyes. Kuo shows that swooping into a classroom like a superhero out to "save" the students from themselves only leads to frustration and regret--after all, what about all the students she doesn't help? What about the ones who drop out or get shot or take drugs or otherwise slip through her grasp? Despite this, Kuo demonstrates how the careful attempt to know one student well, to enter into his world and learn with him, can be a life-changing experience--not just for the student but for his teacher.  

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Easy tips for (not) paraphrasing poetry

I was diligently following a bright, clear path through the woods when all of a sudden I got dragged down a dank rabbit hole, and I would still be down there if a poet hadn't pulled me out. Let me explain:

I was in my office this morning clearing up last semester's detritus and getting caught up on e-mail when the quietness of the building inspired me to focus on a challenging task: writing a sample essay for my literary theory class. In my other literature classes I can choose from among a whole host of sample essays written by prior students, but I've never taught theory before so I thought it would be a good idea to provide a sample essay that looks more like what I expect my theory students to write.

So I chose a poem more or less at random ("Instructions to an Artisan" by Amit Majmudar) and briefly explained how the ideas of a certain literary theorist illuminate the poem. It was fun to write and I learned a few things, the most important being that I couldn't complete the assigned task in under 1200 words--and I'm a pretty concise writer. I'll have to share that information with my students, some of whom tend to quit writing the minute the word count reaches 751.

BUT!!!! While I was noodling around online to find a poem to analyze, I happened upon a long list of websites promising students easy tips for paraphrasing poetry. They all sound pretty similar: read the poem several times, focus entirely on the literal meaning of the words, and substitute each word or phrase with a word or phrase of your own. Every single site assumes that the entire meaning of a poem is conveyed through the literal meaning of its words (without regard for sound, rhythm, line length, figurative language, or any other elements of form) and that therefore it is possible to restate that "same meaning" in my own words.

Here, for instance, is some advice from one such site:
After making sure that you already know the poem's message, close your copy of the poem and try reciting it using your own words. Imagine the poem's message in your head. This way, you'll be able to have a few words of your own. This is the initial step to effectively paraphrasing the poem.
Note that this advice assumes that every poem carries a single, comprehensible "message" that can be easily grasped by the reader through the use of imagination. Okay, what kind of paraphrase does this method produce? The site offers this paragraph as an effective paraphrase of Langston Hughes's poem "I, Too":
Although the color of my skin may be different than yours, I am also like the rest of my fellowmen and you. And because we are not any different, I can also eat at the table with the company of other people. My darker complexion makes me no less beautiful than everybody else, which should make them feel sorry for treating me like less than the average individual. I am also like the rest of you.
Now that's a nice message and even an important message, but where is the poetry? If Langston Hughes had written nothing more inspired than this utterly banal paragraph, would we still be reading his work? 

The more time I spent looking at wretched paraphrases of wonderful poetry, the more I wanted to throw up. But then I reached up through the rabbit hole just in time and found a lifeline: Amit Majmudar's "Instructions to an Artisan," which reminds us that a thing of beauty can be more than the sum of its literal parts. Majmudar describes an artisan carefully constructing a crucifix from ordinary scrap materials--torn paper, burnt wood, bits of rust scraped from a can. How does a devoted artisan create the body of Christ?
                        From a wick that still whiffs of smolder,
wax, because wax sloughs a smooth skein on the fingers just
below sensation's threshold.
I could paraphrase these lines by saying "the body is made from soft wax, which feels good on the fingers," but look how much my paraphrase leaves out. Better yet, read Majmudar's lines out loud and listen to how much the paraphrase leaves out--those silken sibilants and w-sounds flow like wax through the hands, evoking a level of meaning "just / below sensation's threshold."

In his closing lines, Majmudar instructs his careful artisan, "Cry, if you feel like crying, and if no one else is there. / Then set it on the counter with your other wares"--a reminder that no matter how carefully an artisan crafts his work, no matter how much of his own flesh and tears he pours into it, the purchaser may well see it as just another kitschy knicknack carrying nothing more than a literal message. 

I suppose there are legitimate reasons to ask students to paraphrase a poem, but I hope those students will be reminded that a poem speaks through more than just the literal meaning of its words. Who will teach them to hear what's happening "below sensation's threshold"? You won't find that lesson in "Seven Easy Tips for Paraphrasing Poetry."

Sunday, January 07, 2018

On daring to ask dumb questions

From Timothy Morton, in his new book Humankind:
Theory class is intimidating, students are shy, participation is part of your grade, and so on. So, I say to them, "The dumber a question you ask, the higher a grade you will get." Children are well known for asking the most profound questions because these are the most simplistic: Why are you my dad? Do we have to have Wednesday? One teacher I like says, "Dare to be dumb." Some of us theory teachers could remember that a bit more when it comes to writing theory-style prose, no? It might be quite a relief if the questions became more profound and sound more dumb, and looked less sophisticated and intense. It might be more like what Socrates was aiming at, saying that he was just a clown, an eiron, from which we derive our word irony. This isn't just a cute version of theoretical wonderment, setting the bar nice and low for intimidated students. This is the actual face of theoretical reflection, not just a dumbed-down version of it.
Good advice as I put the finishing touches on my literary theory syllabus. The question is, will I dare to dare my students to be dumb?

Also, why do we have Wednesday?

Friday, January 05, 2018

End of the neverending road

Last night I dreamed that I was driving, which seems kind of superfluous after all the driving we've been doing for the past two weeks: north to Canton for Christmas, south to Florida afterward, with overnight stops in South Carolina on the way down and North Carolina on the way back. 

We saw a lot of roads, mostly interstate highways but also South Carolina backroads bordered by cotton fields where the fluffy detritus of harvest lingered along the roadside. We hiked in two wetlands and walked along a beach where the water was warmer than the brisk wind, where we saw some guys surfing in wetsuits but no one else getting wet. We saw a little sun and a lot of clouds, felt the wind on our backs and heard the rumble and crash of waves, watched squadrons of pelicans skimming the surface for breakfast.

We visited my dad and brother and sister-in-law and brother-in-law and a niece and two nephews, shared meals and watched bowl games together, ate sushi and interesting cheese and a delicious ham and marvelous barbecue and a ridiculous amount of chocolate. We visited a shop selling fancy-shmancy oils and vinegars and came home with a few bottles that I will now have to figure out how to use in my cooking.

In Georgia, a brief stop at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge revealed ibises huddled in the tall grass and shore birds walking on thin ice, plus a few ducks and cormorants but little other visible life. Mostly we saw cat-tails and reeds and a narrow road surrounded by water.

How many miles of road did we see? I don't know, but we left Florida before the freeze hit and left North Carolina just before the snow and eventually arrived home to find a cold, snowy mess, but it's our mess so we embrace it. Next week I'll have to start driving to campus again but just for today I'd like to remain relatively motionless and look out my own window, so I'm giving the car a rest. (Except in my dreams.)