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Archive for April, 2007

Losing My Mind

I know that quite a few fellow academics read this blog, and because of this, I have taken upon myself the arduous and humiliating task of serving as the Designated Moron(tm) to make professors all over the world feel better about themselves.  When a professor in, say, Kansas, reads my blog, she can say to anyone near who happens to be casting a critical eye on her performance, “Well, at least I’m not this Hobgoblin idiot!  That guy’s a real loser.”

You’re welcome.

Last week, I was sitting in my office, wasting time by pretending to grade the huge metaphorical pile of essays that had accumulated on my computer’s hard drive.  One way I pretend to grade papers is to check my e-mail frequently.  The other way I pretend to grade papers is by reading blogs.  On the day in question, I was pretending to grade by checking my e-mail.  I got this message*:

Hi Dr. Hobgoblin!  I decided that I want to apply for the education program here at Small Catholic University.  When I talked to you last semester, you said you could write me a letter if I needed one someday.  Would you be able to do this?  Sincerely, Perky Girl.

I replied:

Hi Perky Girl.  Sure, I could do that for you, but I will not be able to get it out until after finals.  Sincerely, Dr. H.

Good, right?  I have a good relationship with my students, so much so that I can shorten my name to the funky, hip, and imminently approachable “Dr. H [not my real initial]” and still maintain some sort of casual yet elegant je ne sais quoi-esque air of good-natured authority.

Here is where all of you out there in the blogosphere** can feel superior to me.  I deleted the original message.  I cannot remember which of the Perky Girls who inhabited my classes last semester wrote me the e-mail.  I had my e-mail settings programmed NOT to keep copies of outgoing mail.  Why?  I don’t know.  I am hoping that she will send me a reminder e-mail.  This needs to be said loudly:

I AM AN IDIOT.

There.  Feel better about yourself? Good–glad to help.

*These are only approximations of the actual messages.  Names have been changed and details redacted to protect the identities of innocent students and moronic professors alike.

**Why is “blogosphere” not on a blog spellchecker?  Just wondering.

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New Voice

Some blatant promotion:  There is a new voice in the blogs worth reading.  Jump over to “The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”  She’s a smart, sensitive reader and a thoughtful writer with a lovely voice.  How do I know?  Readers, she’s my student.  She was longing for a bookish community outside of school, so Dorothy and I told her about book blogs.  And here she is.  I know she would love to feel the welcoming embrace of her fellow readers, so drop by and say hi.

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My academic life is haunted by literary criticism, and that lit crit frequently seems to me to be devoted to denying the existence of joy or pleasure in reading. I realize that this is a terribly unfair statement, and that a great deal of lit crit does, in fact, recognize and even celebrate the pleasure that leaps from the pages when we open books. However, I still have a very difficult time escaping those ghosts, and, as a result, I have been formulating in the back of my mind a series of short essays about that I am calling, in a punning and all-too-clever way, “The Joy of Text.”

Perhaps one of the greatest impediments to the joy of text is the fear of boredom. Too many of us were bored by the forced readings we endured or escaped in high school and college, and we therefore either believe that there is no joy to be found in reading or that any joy we may find exists solely in certain types of glamorous texts. The boredom that certain books elicit comes not from the books themselves, though, but from us. We just might not be ready for them yet.

As I was ruminating on the dilemma of teaching books that might all too easily be dismissed as too boring to endure, I started to see the books that I love to read in the guise of a romantic comedy. Now, follow me here, because this is where I spend a lot of time explaining an overly elaborate parable that contains a valuable lesson that we all already knew anyway at the end.

Our little froth of a film opens with Joe Reader in high school. Since this is a romantic comedy, all of us viewers know that the cardinal rule is “There must be some sort of romantic triangle to complicate things.” The low point of this triangle (which is far from equilateral) is, hmmm, let’s call her Natalie. Natalie Hawthorne. Natalie is a geek. She has braces, she dresses in frumpy, old-fashioned clothes that you know her sad and weird mother bought for her at the thrift store or something, and she wears clunky, unfashionable glasses to boot. We know she is smart (she’s wearing glasses, and in the movies only geniuses wear glasses), but she is also not at all fun. The high point of the triangle is Stephanie, Stephanie King. She’s popular, and we know this because she speaks in the most current teenage slang, or at least the Hollywood screenwriter’s version of current teenage slang, which is to say that it is not so much accurate as prophetic: once the movie becomes popular, Valley Girls from all over (including from the tops of mountains) will be talking like her. She wears trendy clothes, talks on her flashy cell all the time, and drives a cute car–maybe a Mini convertible. A red one.

Natalie is, of course, deeply in love with Joe, but Joe, of course, has eyes only for Stephanie. But we, the viewers, know better. We know, we just know that Natalie and Joe are soulmates. They belong together. But Joe and Stephanie go to the prom together, where both of them get disgustingly drunk, and Joe ends up throwing up on Natalie, who had to go to the prom with her equally geeky cousin, John Austen.

Years pass. Joe returns home, a sadder but wiser man. We learn that he and Stephanie ran off together the day after graduation. They moved to Hollywood, where they both became bigtime movers in the entertainment biz. But Joe got tired of the life. The endless parties, the beautiful starlets hanging on him, begging him to get them a part in his next big picture, the fancy cars, the drugs. It finally got to be too much. And now he is back home.

And there is Natalie. She looks…different. She still wears the glasses, but now they look sorta hip in that almost uncool way that architects’ glasses look. She has her hair pulled back in a severe-looking bun, but a few hairs have pulled loose, and float around her face, framing it and making it look…intriguing. Joe is not sure how to react to her. He knows that he treated her badly back in high school, but that was years ago and he has grown up, hasn’t he? After some hesitation he asks Natalie out to dinner.

They talk. They almost don’t taste the dinner because the conversation is so great. They go to a coffee shop after dinner and keep talking. When they part for the evening, Joe wants to talk more. He calls her the next day and asks to see her again. Just the sound of her voice drives him out of his mind with desire for more conversation. This goes on for days until…

Natalie pulls off her glasses and reaches back to pull the hairclip out. She tosses her glasses and her now-freed hair in that hot-librarian way…and Joe is smitten.

My point is that we need to read things when we are at the right age. When I read Hawthorne for the first time, I hated his work, but then again, I was fifteen, and I was an idiot. Now, though, it’s a different story completely. The crucial difference between books and the people in my romantic comedy is that you do not need to be faithful to books. In other words, Natalie will not care at all if Joe stops off to have a good romp with Stephanie before coming to see her. Natalie, in fact, introduced Joe to her cousin, the one she went to the prom with, and she is happy to hear that Joe and John had a gay old time together. She is already plotting to get Joe together with her sister, the dashing and dangerous, and slightly weird, Hermione.

That’s Hermione Melville.

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Lesson Plans Awry

In my old blog home, I frequently found that readers had stumbled across my blog by searching for lesson plans on one of the books or stories I was discussing.  I very rarely put actual lesson plans on the blog, largely because I so rarely use real lesson plans in my classes.  Perhaps in primary and secondary schools lesson plans are required, but in college, they are not, and I often find them to be more of a hindrance than otherwise; instead, I go to class with pages and pages of notes, and an outline of what I think is important about the day’s reading.  The class dynamics then dictate which notes I pull out and which parts of the outline I elaborate.  Today was a perfect illustration of that.

One of my courses is part of a new core curriculum that we are developing, and I am piloting the new class.  Our new curriculum relies a great deal on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, and, as such, urges the students to ponder some large philosophical and theological questions, and one inquiry is the place of the natural world in the human journey.  To this end, I have chosen to look at Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I examined yesterday in a post.  After writing yesterday’s post, I decided to toss out any plans that I had for teaching the book today, and went in to the class with a printout of my post and the book.

I then played a game with the students that I called “Where’s God?”  After talking about how Dillard’s book has been examined for its profound spiritual content, I read a passage and asked where and how we might see God, or any other spiritual longing, being expressed in the passage.  When the first passage elicited some smart comments, I kept going, choosing more and more difficult and abstract passages.  Finally, I ended the class by tracing the ecstatic tradition in American literature, from Edwards to Dillard.

Somehow, against all common sense, it worked.  We all had to be alert and thinking to make the connections, and, since I insisted over and over again that there were no correct answers to the question, the students started to get braver and more talkative.  Our talk ranged from Calvinism to Heidegger to eastern mysticism to astronomy to entomology.  I am not an expert in any of those fields, by the way.  If I tried to recreate that lesson I would die trying, but if I tried to do the same thing again, it might just work if I let it follow its own necessary course.

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The Ecstatic Now

Jonathan Edwards struggles mightily–and, perhaps, vainly–to express his sense of ecstatic transcendence.  He says:

And as I was walking there, and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express.  I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction: majesty and meekness joined together: it was a sweet and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.

Trained as he was in the Puritan religious tradition, Edwards of course frames his experience in terms of religious exaltation, but language fails him.  He falls back on repetition–he latches onto three words and strings them together in different combinations.

My mentor, Emerson, picks up on Edwards’s glory in a pasture scene and improves on it.  Emerson’s description of his epiphanic moment has delighted and annoyed everyone who has read him since, and whether you are delighted or annoyed depends on your state of mind.  He says:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.  Almost I fear to think how glad I am. …  Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.  I am nothing.  I see all.  The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

The crucial difference between the two men is their radically divergent sense of the holy.  For Edwards, it is something to fear–he grovels before it.  Emerson leaps at it and joins in.  The holy is not restricted to God alone but is something in which we all can and must participate.

Emerson’s protegee, Thoreau, plays with this notion.  His riff on Emersonian Transcendence has been parsed and analyzed less than the “transparent eyeball,” but his ecstatic eloquence even more dramatically attacks our linguistic limitations.  While standing on the slopes of Mount Katadin (Ktaadn, to Thoreau), he says:

Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untamable Nature, or whatever else men call it…  What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!  Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense!  Contact!  Contact!  Who are we? Where are we?

Although this is sometimes described as Thoreau’s “freak out,” I think that this is actually very carefully controlled prose–Thoreau, after all, was meticulous in his revisions as he translated his journals to final drafts.  He does capture the wild rush of thoughts that cascade through our minds as we contemplate the eternal from that singular moment of epiphany.

Annie Dillard, walking in her Thoreauvian boots, stops her car at a gas station in “Nowhere, Virginia.”  She sits, pets a beagle puppy’s taut belly, and opens up, thinks nothing.  Her ecstasy comes across as more reserved, more quietly analytical, more retrospective.  She says:

But on both occasions I though, with rising exultation, this is it, this is it; praise the lord; praise the land.  Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow–you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.

Now.  Right now.  I imagine that man standing there with his cup, the waterfall, pushing down, water looping up in crazy parabolas and splashing his shirt.  The waterfall is too large, too fast to capture in any way; the small tin cup (enameled steel, as I see it) and our language are equally inadequate to the task of capturing the eternal, or grace, or God.  Later, Dillard quotes from her vast reading, saying that a psychologist has found that the “psychological present” has a “maximum span [that] is estimated to lie between 2.3 and 12 seconds.”  Dillard goes on to ask, “How did anyone measure that slide?”  How indeed.  As soon as we become aware of now, “now” lies in the irretrievable past.  Our cup is knocked out of our hands.

When walking with Muttboy, I often envy him for his ability to live completely in the now.  His attention is focused not on the papers waiting to be graded, or the lawn growing ever more shaggy by the second, or the upcoming bike race that will require me to do at least some training.  No: he is thinking about how this pile of deer-kicked leaves smells right now.  How strange and ironic, then, that so much of our deepest philosophical pinings and the goals of our most intense meditations exist in the quivering of a dog’s snout, and animal supposedly without reason or intellect.

Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature.”  Henry David Thoreau, “Ktaadn,” from The Maine Woods.  Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

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Earth Day Field Trip

I am lucky enough at my university to be able to teach a lot of courses that I make up; I do my share of the core, but I have also developed a repertoire of upper-division literature and writing classes. One of my mainstay classes, one I teach every other spring, is Nature Writing. I developed a new approach to the class this year, with a new reader and some new writing assignments. An important part of the class remained, though: I offer a field trip option for interested students.

My university pushes the concept of “active and engaged learning,” and, though I am usually resistant to such obvious sloganeering, I like this concept a lot, since it means that I can incorporate some of my weird ideas and say that they are all part of my active and engaged pedagogy. This semester I did keep one of the readings–Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, about his ill-fated attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The students loved the book, and it gave me the opportunity to combine two of my obsession, namely reading and hiking. So I created an assignment called “active and engaged learning” and gave the students the option of doing a couple of things on their own (going to museums, botanical gardens, or outdoor art exhibits) or going up to the wilds of Litchfield county to do some real hiking on the actual Appalachian Trail. Six students (almost half the class) and one student’s spouse enthusiastically volunteered for the hike option.

After the tempest of last weekend, we were today graced with perfect hiking weather: mid 70s and perfectly clear skies. It was the kind of spring weather that makes New Englanders forget how awful the winter was and thank God that they live in such a beautiful area. We met at the trailhead parking lot–where everyone made it on time (!!!) and without getting lost–and started our trek up to Bear Mountain, the highest peak (but not the highest point) in Connecticut.

Since Dorothy and I hike a lot, and many of my students had hiked nary a mile, I knew that needed to be careful with my pace. I still ranged ahead, but we made many stops and took it slowly enough that we were able to enjoy the day thoroughly. Muttboy loves to meet new people, since new people mean more faces to lick and more lunches from which to mooch, so he also had fun despite his dislike of stopping for any time longer than fifteen seconds. We made it up to the top of the mountain in time for lunch, and after lunch the difficult north face descent was less of a chore than I had feared it would be. At one point, one student remarked, “I always thought of Bryson’s trip as just a walk in the woods, but now I have new respect for what he did.” That was one of those “teachable moments” that we all talk about so much, and here I didn’t have to do anything at all–my great students were able to teach it to themselves.

Once we got back down to the parking lot, the group seemed to be reluctant to disperse. We had been hiking for over five hours, and many were feeling tired and even a little sore, but no one really made a move to the cars. When we finally sauntered out of the trees to the cars, we still lingered, chatting, not wanting the shared endorphins to fade away in the trip back south. All of us–students, spouses, professors–had somehow transcended our roles and met each other as sharers of nature. Conversations flowed with the terrain, and we talked about books, teachers, food. For a moment at the end of the hike, we all just stood there, looking at each other, all of use with slight smiles on our faces, sunburned and muddy. A great day

class AT hike.

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Professing: Therapy

Dean Dad has a post up today about dealing with students and their personal problems. As usual, it is an interesting post, speaking as it does to the college teacher’s dilemma of dealing with students who are adults and free to destroy themselves if they so choose. I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately, at least partly because of the tremendous sense of empathy I have felt for the English professors down at VT who are second-guessing their responses to a very disturbed student’s writing. As I said to Dorothy yesterday, we are not trained as therapists: I can talk the psychoanalytic talk when I have to and when it’s all literary criticism, but I am truly not qualified as a psychotherapist. Nevertheless, a very important part–though it is never formally stated–of being a professor is being a sort of quasi-therapist.

An event yesterday illustrated this point to me. I will be vague here out of respect for the student in question, so use your imagination. A student, one of my favorites and a regular office-haunt, came to me to talk about one of her papers. As we talked about it, she said, somewhat sadly, that her literary analysis almost always focuses on some sort of strained social dynamic. She haltingly told me about some serious family problems she has been dealing with for years. Our talk went on for nearly an hour, with her doing most of the talking and with me making sympathetic and supportive noises.

This situation is a far cry from the issue Dean Dad’s post raised, and it is even further from the murderous foreshadowing found in a disturbed student’s violent plays, but it is, at the heart, similar. As teachers and mentors, we frequently must confront the real human who exists at the center of our concept of “student.” Many of us may have been trained in pedagogy (though I know that many graduate students find that their teacher training is pretty haphazard–but that’s another post), but that is all geared toward the “student”; that is, we are conditioned to consider the recipients of our brilliance as so many papers or exams or grammar mistakes to be corrected. We have to make up the rest of it on our own.

I feel that I am struggling to articulate something here that I do not fully understand myself. I realize that I am an important figure for many of my students and that they look to me as a sort of vaguely defined yet approachable authority figure who can help them out with all of their problems. Part of it, I am sure, is the nature of the discipline: English requires students to turn in their writing, which they have been conditioned to think of, rightly or wrongly, as deeply personal expression, even for lit papers. Literary analysis, too, is deeply personal and rooted in human emotion. It is no wonder that a student who is experiencing family difficulties would be emotionally tormented by the tortured family dynamics of Wharton or Hawthorne or Flaubert.

The difficulty for professors is in realizing the difference between a cry for support and a cry for help. My student right now is in no danger; she needed a metaphorical shoulder to cry on. Dean Dad’s example is in a more indeterminate area, while Nikki Giovanni’s situation was frighteningly desperate.

The difficulties and dangers of teaching and advising will not force me into a shell or inspire me to make myself more distant and unapproachable. I feel that the human connection in teaching is too important for me to cut myself off from my students. But I will be more aware, more careful. Humans are delicate and dangerous.

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