Archive for February, 2009

This Is Just to Say

Tonight in my American lit class we spent more than twenty minutes discussing William Carlos Williams’s poem “This is jus to Say.”  It’s an interesting little poem, a mere 33 words (counting the title).  This long discussion, which ranged from the image that the poet constructed to the way some thought the tone of the poem sounded more like a note a woman would write than anything a man would come up with, came right after we spent almost forty minutes tearing into Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”  We focused a lot of time on the famous line “Let be be the finale of seem,” and pointed out that the key words in this line–“be” and “seems”–are also keys to two of the more important lines in Hamlet.  There is, of course, Hamlet’s famous speech (perhaps the best known lines in the English language), but I also spent some time considering my favorite lines from the play.  Right after Gertrude gently prods Hamlet about his nighted garments and questions why he seems so sad, the prince replies, “Seems, madame?  Nay, I know not seems.”  The tricky line in the American poem, then, essentially states that we are going to be forced to set aside appearances for reality.

It was a good class.  We had some fun with the poems and played around with the ideas I threw at them and the ideas they generated themselves.  Out of the 17 people in the class, 15 had something to say, including the almost pathologically shy girl who, when she raises her hand, looks as if it is taking all of her courage to do so.  In our Tuesday meeting, we got gloomy and depressed with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is a great poem for middle-aged angst, but it also works well for angsty late adolescents.  In our discussion of what it means to count out your days in coffee spoons and whether or not one dares to disturb the universe, someone made the connection to Melville’s Bartleby, that great disturber of the universe.  Both Bartleby and Prufrock feel crushed by a sense of the futility of exitence, but Bartleby protests this, however ineffectually it turns out.

Maybe this is not terribly brilliant.  We are not using any deep-thinking literary critics to help us unpack the language of the poetry or explicate the symbols and metaphors.  The class is designed to give English majors a broad grounding in the “canon,” so I focus on the big hitters and leave the more complex analysis for the upper-division classes.  However, I do think our wide-ranging, almost anarchic discussions demonstrate that something valuable is happening.

Yesterday, my department had a meeting in which we were to discuss “academic rigor,” which is, apparently, edu-speak for “bitch about how stupid your students are.”  One of my colleagues complained that his students refused to engage the material, that class discussion was impossible, and that his students retained nothing from his lectures.  Another reiterated that her students simply do not do the reading, and furthermore, our students NEVER do the reading, and finally, our students are all lazy and stupid.  Yet another asserted that his students are utterly incapable of looking beyond simple plot in their readings of poetry, and they find deeper analysis impossible.

I am perhaps parodying and overstating their complaints, but this is in spirit close to their oft-repeated claims.  I should, however, point out that the students in question are exactly the same students who made the observations about Eliot, Stevens, Williams, and Moore in my class.

There are two possibilities that immediately occur to me:

1) I am both incredibly stupid and laughably naive to think that my students are at all engaged in the literature.

2) I am a spectacularly awesome professor.

Native modesty makes possibility #2 deeply uncomfortable for me to contemplate.  Native pride makes #1 equally distasteful.  So let’s skip this for a little while and move on.

Yes, students are frequently lazy, ill prepared, duplicitous, venal, distracted, and even stupid.  But, as an undergraduate, I was all of the above and more.  Students often do not do the reading.  I got a B in a European Novel class where I read five of the ten assigned books.  Students often don’t pay attention in class.  I still have notebooks from 1986 with more doodles than substantive notes.  Students often just don’t get it.  I remember with deep embarrassment a paper I wrote making some incomprehensibly dense argument that displayed my complete misunderstanding of The Odyssey.

My point is really fairly simple.  Students do lack skills and knowledge.  If they did not lack these things, I would be out of a job.  I would be superfluous.  The corollary to this is perhaps up for more debate.  Students generally do want to learn something.  They just want to know that their teachers are willing to teach them and take them seriously.  I know of a professor who is notorious for telling students they are too stupid to be in college.  That sounds to me like a way to guarantee your students will not learn and not want to learn.  Kurt Vonnegut once said that people would be happier in marriage if they said, “Please, a little less love and a little more common decency.”  (I might be misquoting here.)  Perhaps something similar could be said of higher education:  A little more common decency, a little more mutual respect.

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