Re-Defining the Humanities

Oh, the Humanities! Belittled. Beleaguered. Besieged. Over the past few years, there has been a very public debate played out in numerous publications about what role, if any, the Humanities should play in academia. Questioning the value, monetary and otherwise, of majoring in English, Philosophy or Art History has become part of our nation’s political discourse. (Et tu, President Obama?) Colleges and universities are working to try and re-brand themselves as institutions where students will learn skills without having to “waste time” on subjects that don’t have anything to do with their majors; very often, those “unnecessary” subjects are in the Humanities.

As a poet and as a faculty member in the English Department at a small, liberal arts college in Brooklyn, I have watched this ongoing debate with both personal and professional interest. As someone who majored in English as an undergraduate, I have first-hand knowledge of how valuable Humanities courses are, and I have read a number of excellent articles defending the presence of the Humanities in academia. And as Chair of my department, I have seen the distress on some parents’ faces when their children approach the English Department table during my college’s Open House.

What I have not seen, however, is a discussion of just what the Humanities are; not in terms of academic subjects, but rather in terms of the roles they play in our everyday lives.

Last year, I was one of 31 people selected by the New York Council for the Humanities to be in their first cohort of Public Scholars, and since then I have been thinking very carefully about the presence of the Humanities in the world outside the classroom. The Council describes the role of the Public Scholars Program as one that “promotes vibrant public humanities engagement across New York State by offering a selection of dynamic, compelling presentations facilitated by humanities scholars.” How the Scholars fulfill the Council’s goals is by traveling all across the state talking about topics we love (literature, music, art, mapmaking, media – the list is long and varied) in venues that are generally not in colleges or universities. I, myself, have spoken at a museum, two libraries, a landmark society and an historical society in places ranging from Utica to Spuyten Duyvil to East Greenbush to Vestal to Roslyn. These events have been tremendously rewarding for me, and have allowed me to meet people across New York State who have an appreciation for the valuable contributions the Humanities make to society.

If it were only the people attending the Public Scholars events who expressed this appreciation, it could be argued that the group is self-selected (i.e. people who already appreciate the Humanities). What I have found, however, is that some people (a waitress in Vestal, for example) who find out why I’m in their town will take a minute to talk about how important reading, music and art have been in their own lives. Touchingly, after telling me about their own experiences with the Humanities, they will thank me for coming to their community to talk about Sherlock Holmes stories, or about American war writing. Even if the topic is one that does not speak to them, they appreciate the value in what is being presented.

So how do we expand this understanding of the importance of the Humanities? I believe that, in order to do so, we must present a broader definition of what we mean when we say “the Humanities,” and provide clear examples of the impact the Humanities have on our lives each and every day.

It is probably easier to start with the examples. Forget for a moment the novels and poems you studied in school, the lectures on art and music you attended as a student. Think, instead, of your experiences outside of the classroom.

Have you listened to music recently? Did you sing along in the car, or in the shower? Have you ever put together a playlist on your phone, or through a streaming site? If you did design a playlist, then you are not just a person who listens to or even produces music (which you do when you sing, whether you can carry a tune or not). You have used a personal aesthetic to put works of art in a particular order for a particular aural effect – in other words, you are a curator.

Did you ever take a photograph? Better yet, have you shared that photograph through social media, or used it as your cover photo on Facebook or Twitter? If so, you have created a public work of art, viewed and enjoyed by many people.

Have you ever read a storybook to a child? Or watched a silly video on YouTube? Or enjoyed looking – however briefly – at a mosaic at your local subway stop? Do you doodle? Dance? Watch movies? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions (and these are just of few of the myriad possible questions I could have asked), then you have, in one way or another, engaged with the Humanities in your everyday life.

How, then, can these examples help us improve – or, better yet, expand – our definition of what the Humanities are? By helping us understand that the academic disciplines that fall under the category of Humanities represent more than just subjects taught in classrooms. They represent those activities that make us most human, and those activities that help us express our humanity in ways that are both beautiful and celebratory.

What seems to have been lost, then, is what is represented by the very word “Humanities.” Through familiarity, repetition, apathy, even deliberate distortion, the human seems to have become separated from “the Humanities.” We must learn to once again recognize the roles that areas such as art, music, literature, history, philosophy, and theater play in society. Once we recognize what the Humanities truly are, we will come to understand that they are an integral part of each of us. We are each, in our own way, engaged with the Humanities. Perhaps some of us just haven’t realized it until now.

Cognitive Whiplash

For the past ten months, I had to put this blog on hiatus, and I thank all of you who contacted me to make sure I was planning to continue writing when I could.

Last year, I became Chair of my department on July 1st. This was not something I had anticipated happening, and the appointment was made after the end of the Spring semester, so I did not have any time to really prepare. Luckily, our department is a good department, with good people, and everyone was supportive and helpful. Still, learning to be Chair was a time-consuming task — enjoyable, but exhausting.

Added to my first few months as Chair was the fact that I was applying for promotion and tenure (P&T) during the Fall 2014 semester, so when I wasn’t attending to my duties as Chair, or teaching (Chairs get only 1 course reduction, which means we teach 9 credits per semester), I was preparing my P&T application folder.

All of this led to an extremely interesting, sometimes challenging, bifurcated existence. During my first semester as Chair, while I was being observed and evaluated for P&T, I was also observing all of our department’s adjunct faculty as well as our non-tenured resident faculty. I saw many different teaching styles — some more effective than others — and observed many different ways of organizing and teaching a class — again, some more effective than others. I would write up an adjunct’s evaluation, then turn to writing about my own teaching in the letter that needed to accompany my P&T application.

Very early on in the Fall semester, I realized that, while it produced a bit of cognitive whiplash to move so quickly from the observed to the observer and back again, the switching actually informed both my work as Chair and my analysis of my own teaching.

Then came the seminar. Working with our Education Department, I developed an upper-level seminar to help Education Majors with an English Concentration prepare for the New York State edTPA (a new assessment method for student teachers). The seminar focused on Young Adult (YA) Literature, and modeled many of the challenges the students would face with the edTPA. Because the assessment method is new, everyone (students and faculty alike) is learning what is required and navigating through what can often-times be confusing — even contradictory — information from New York State (imagine that, confusing information from a government entity!).

The Fall 2014 semester was the first time the seminar was offered, and it provided an amazing opportunity for me to learn from my students while also teaching them, often in the same class discussion. Talk about cognitive whiplash! Yet it was wonderful. We started out by reading Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and then watching the film adaptation of the book. We discussed the work as a class, picking out themes that we found interesting and that we thought would resonate with junior high readers.

Then we developed a lesson plan, using edTPA guidelines (as best we could). We thought about ways in which the material could be presented at different levels, and for differently-abled students. Each of us picked one theme, then worked up a single day’s lesson plan using that theme. I was fascinated to see how, while each student integrated our classwork into her plan, each plan evolved differently, depending upon the theme the student chose, her classroom experience (or lack thereof), the grade level she was focusing on in her Education courses, and her own tastes and preferences.

This was a small class — 11 students — so we got to know each other very well and, I hope, to trust each other. When I didn’t understand something, or didn’t know something, I told them, and together we found the answers. This seemed to encourage them to express doubt or confusion themselves, which made for much more interesting and informative classes.

Then it was their turn to choose material for a lesson plan. Each student picked a work appropriate to the grade level she was planning on teaching when she graduated. Everyone worked out a day’s lesson plan for that work, then taught it to the class. Each student’s lesson was videotaped (just as it will be for the edTPA), and the class and I provided comments on how the lesson went.

The final stage of the seminar was a model of at least some of what a student will have to do for the edTPA. After reviewing the videotape of her lesson, each student went back and modified her lesson plan where necessary. She then wrote a reflective essay discussing the process of writing the lesson plan and watching herself on videotape, as well as what changes she needed to make to the plan and, perhaps, her teaching style. Then each student needed to write a literary analysis of the work she taught, again based upon edTPA requirements. These three documents (lesson plan, reflective essay, literary analysis) made up each student’s final seminar project.

As I was reviewing those final projects, I could see how far each student had come during the course of the semester. And I realized how far I had come as well. Like the three sections of my students’ final projects, the three sections of my semester (learning to be Chair, applying for P&T, developing and teaching the new seminar) provided me the opportunity to think about, and in some cases revise, the way I teach my courses. As Chair, I had an “outsider’s” view of what worked — and, more importantly, what didn’t — in composition and literature courses. I saw some instructors do things that I had done, things that I thought worked well, and realized that maybe they didn’t work as well as I thought they had. In the process of applying for P&T, I had an “insider’s” view of my pedagogy, and the opportunity to look long and hard, and extremely critically, at my teaching philosophy, at what I want to accomplish in my classes, and at how I might adapt my methods in order to become a better teacher. Teaching the seminar in a subject area I knew well, but with a focus that was very different from any I had used before, I became — in the best sense — a student again, learning right along with everyone else in the class, both “outsider” and “insider” at the same time.

As I finish my first year as Chair, newly-promoted and newly-tenured, I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead, challenges I will face heading up the English Department and challenges I will face in the classroom. What I hope to find, what I hope will continue to occur, are these disconcerting, enlightening and, sometimes, uncomfortable moments of cognitive whiplash.

To Be (Or Not To Be) Online

For 25 days in June I taught my first fully-online course, the core freshman composition requirement. My developmental composition course has been a hybrid now for a number of semesters, with each student working at his or her own pace to complete an online grammar and syntax component while also attending physical classes. Originally hesitant about using a hybrid structure for these at-risk students, I discovered that it works very well. Sure, the students complain because they say they would much rather sit in class and have me lecture them, but by the end of the semester even the most reluctant students admit that they learned a great deal by having the responsibility for that learning placed squarely on their shoulders.

A course taught entirely online is a horse of a different color, however, and it was with some trepidation that I decided to give one a try. My teaching style is very personal, especially in the composition courses where I spend a lot of time working one-on-one with students and moving among their peer-groups as they review their weekly assignments. I impose my personality on the class, and rely heavily on immediate feedback from my students to help me tailor each course (indeed, each lesson) to the cohort of students in that particular section at that particular time. Even though I use many of the same writing assignments and lessons from year to year, there are so many variables and each group of students is so different that it seemed daunting to try and design an online course that would be successful.

How could I translate the give-and-take I foster in the classroom into a style that would work online? Without having the students in front of me, I would not be able to see all those little clues that tell me who understands what I am saying, who is confused, who is lost. I would not be able to cajole, encourage, bully, support, advise, and maybe even occasionally inspire students to do better, to do well, to come to understand the importance of not just writing but writing well.

Even with all that, though, I thought I saw that there was the possibility to create an online course that could, indeed, help students become better writers. I would have to rethink a number of assignments and, even more importantly, find a way to convert those one-on-one personal review sessions into meaningful written feedback on student papers.

Complicating matters was that this course would be taught during one of the college’s summer sessions, meaning we would have to accomplish in less than a month what is normally done in a 13-week semester. As I sat down to begin designing the course, one thought kept looping though my mind: “What the heck was I thinking?”

One daunting aspect I faced was that nearly everything had to be prepared and posted online by the start of the course. Now obviously we teachers prep our courses before the semester starts, and this preparation takes a long time. We reread the texts we will be assigning students, re-watch videos we are thinking about using, design new Keynote or PowerPoint presentations, upload material to our course management systems, update our syllabi and rethink our assignments. But at the end of it all, there is still something intangible waiting for us in the classroom, something that does not appear, that cannot be planned for, prior to starting a lecture or discussion. As William James advised teachers: “Prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall always be on tap: then in the classroom trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care. . . .Just as a bicycle-chain may be too tight, so may one’s carefulness and conscientiousness be so tense as to hinder the running of one’s mind” (Talks To Teachers on Psychology and To Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1902, p. 222). Trust yourself. Trust your knowledge. Allow the joy you find in studying your field to inform what you are teaching your students. I try to do this. Rarely do I have notes, and if I do they are usually just to remind me of dates or other information I do not want to forget. So how could I take this style of teaching and turn it into prepared (some might even say pre-canned) video lessons?

As is so often the case, something I at first perceived of as a deficit turned out to be an asset. I had to think very carefully about what was most important in the composition course. I had to distill all of my experiences teaching writing into video lessons that would, I hoped, take students from where they were and lead them to — or at least closer to — where they needed to be as writers. Where I would normally spend the first half of the semester leading up to, and the second half of the semester scaffolding, the documented essay that would be the culmination of the course, here I had to dramatically revise the prompts and scaffolding so the students would not only produce a good documented essay but would also, more importantly, become better writers.

Did it work? In many ways, and surprisingly, yes. Of course I had a couple of students who crashed and burned, one who plagiarized and others who failed to hand in an assignment (or, in one case, ANY assignment). But the students who stuck it out? Each one’s writing improved.

Some students had a little trouble adjusting to the concept of an online course. A few of them asked to meet with me in person (I was not even in the state at the time). Except for one student who Skyped with me, all of our communication was via the written word, either e-mails or comments on their assignments, which actually helped reinforce for the students the importance of being able to write clearly. My comments on their assignments were very detailed, much more so than what I would do in a “regular” course, and I was pleased to see that their peer review comments were thoughtful and detailed.

It was a little odd to become so familiar with these students without knowing what they look like. Usually my composition students are the ones whose names I am first able to associate with faces because writing is such an intimate act; I read someone’s paper and her personality comes through very clearly, which allows me to “know” her faster than I do even a student who participates in class discussions but has not yet handed in a written assignment.

For students, an online course offered the opportunity to try something different. At least one of my students was out of the country during the month of June. Another’s learning disability suddenly was not a factor because we were not in a classroom. And for the students working full-time jobs, being able to watch course lectures on their own schedule meant they could take a summer course.

Would I do it again? Yes, I would. I would like to see if it works as well the second time as it did the first. I would like to refine some of the videos in response to what the students did and did not have trouble understanding. And I would like to offer an alternative way for students to learn how to write better.

Would I do another course this way? I don’t know. The composition course, through its unique nature, seems better suited for online instruction than any of my literature courses do. I will have to think about this some more before I decide.

Should all composition courses be online? Absolutely not. Even with the generally-positive results of this first online course, I still believe that something is lost when the classroom is in cyberspace. Yes, the students did pretty well overall, but there were at least three who, I firmly believe, would have done better if they had been in a traditional classroom setting.

I do believe that hybrid courses can work well, and that it may be possible for at least some types of courses to be taught successfully online. Technology can enhance learning, but only if it is used properly and appropriately. It is as important to know when not to turn to technological solutions as it is to know when to use them. My fear is that, as colleges and universities look to balance the seemingly mutually exclusive problems of saving money and maintaining/increasing enrollment, they will push for more and more online courses. As with so many things, teachers and administrators need to ensure that a balance is maintained. We lose vitally important aspects of learning if we move fully into the cyber-classroom, not the least of which is the spontaneity that James, and all good teachers, celebrate.

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Teaching the Teachers

Last December, on the Saturday after the last day of classes at our college, my husband and I participated in a one-day “Writer as Reader” workshop at Bard College’s Institute for Writing & Thinking. The theme of this workshop was “The Pride of Wisdom” and our work focused on the novel Frankenstein and Ray Kurzweil’s essay “The Coming Merger of Mind and Machine.”

We decided to attend this workshop because we will be team-teaching the course Philosophy and Science Fiction in the Fall 2014 semester and wanted to improve the writing strategies we employ in the course. In these one-day workshops, the leader models the use of numerous writing strategies in the classroom, with participants filling the role of student in order to experience different practices first-hand.

As I was performing the workshop’s opening writing assignment, I realized that this was the first time I had been a student since my last graduate school courses ended in the Spring 2004 semester. The role felt very familiar, yet it was filtered through my six years of experience as a full-time professor. This bifurcated view was reenforced by my dual roles in the workshop itself: I was a student using writing exercises to explore the texts I had read at the same time I was a teacher learning to use these writing exercises in my own classroom. There were times when I was uncomfortable with some of the writing I was being asked to do; at other times, I was excited at how easily the words came as I scribbled away in my notebook. The workshop leader did a fine job, the other participants were intelligent and thoughtful, and the experience was one I would love to repeat.

When we got back to Brooklyn we plunged right into final exams, and that last exhausting push to get our final grades in on time, so I didn’t really think too much more about the experience at Bard until late in our Winter Intersession break. As I looked at ways I might use some of the workshop’s writing practices in my own classroom, I found myself thinking about the Education majors I have in my courses. When a student majors in Education, s/he also chooses an area of concentration (English, History, Mathematics), and must take a series of courses in that concentration, so I usually have a number of Education majors in each of my classrooms every semester.

What has always impressed me about my Education majors is the responsibility they feel for the material they are studying. They know that, very soon, they will be teaching these texts to their own students, and using the literary theories they studied in my classroom to better understand how to teach those texts. When faced with a difficult work, Education majors draw upon both their previous English courses and their Education courses in order to try to understand what the author is saying. They are not afraid to say they don’t understand something, to ask me to clarify a point or go over an interpretation again, to come into class with a question they weren’t able to find the answer to.

As a corollary to this sense of responsibility, Education majors tend to be, shall we say, highly structured. (Full disclosure: I am this way myself.) They want you to tell them exactly what you want, when you want it, and how you want it done. They are most comfortable with detailed prompts for writing assignments, prompts that describe not only the texts they need to examine but also the topic they should deal with and, if at all possible, at least a hint of the thesis they need to prove.

Compare this with English majors. They revel in ambiguity. When I teach poetry, and say to the class, “I’m not at all sure what the poet means in these lines,” I can see the English majors’ eyes light up as they begin to run through possible interpretations. English majors dislike those detailed prompts for writing assignments; what they like most of all is to be asked what they think about a text, with an open-ended assignment prompt that could lead them in a number of possible directions.

Now, obviously I am speaking in generalizations here. There are highly-structured English majors and non-structured Education majors. And in no way do I mean to imply that being one way is better or worse than the other. What I am saying is that, when I am faced with a classroom of both Education and English majors, I need to find teaching strategies that not only engage each type of student, but that also — at least occasionally — shake the Education and English majors out of their comfort zones. To rattle the Education majors a little, I like to use a very open-ended prompt for formal essays, something like, “Using one of the themes we have discussed in class, discuss at least two of the texts we have read this semester.” To do the same to the English majors, I design at least one very detailed group presentation project, where the prompt is highly structured. And to make both groups at least a little uncomfortable, I use in-class writing exercises such as the ones our workshop leader taught us at Bard.

Thing is, a number of my English majors are going to become teachers as well. So along with the poems, novels, stories, plays and films that I teach, I also try to teach teaching as well. I try to make my pedagogy as transparent as possible, explaining the purpose behind each exercise, asking my students why I might employ a particular strategy at a particular moment in the classroom. The idea of the “teachable moment” is starting to become a cliché, but I do believe that there are things that happen in the classroom (things both planned and unplanned) that can be used to help teach my students how to teach.

So when the leader of a construction crew working on a roof just outside my classroom knocked on the window and proceeded, along with his fellow carpenters, to climb through that window carrying a very, very long ladder, I asked my students what they would do if that happened in their junior high classroom. Or when I was ill last semester and one of my students offered to teach the lesson, I said, “Yes.” (She did a brilliant job, by the way.) It is why I will ask, “Education majors, why would I not allow you to pick which peer group you are in?” or “Education majors, why would I structure the exercise this way instead of that way?” and then turn around and ask the same question of my English majors.

I am a teacher, the child of teachers, the wife of a teacher. I am, perforce, a little biased, but I truly believe that teaching is a calling. Obviously, we aren’t in it for prestige or money or fame. We teach because we believe education is important, and I can think of no better legacy than preparing the next generation of young men and women to take over our classrooms. Teaching the teachers is one way to do that.

Model Joy

My grandmother, Ruby Bean Faulkner, who lived her entire life in Maine, had a number of colorful and pithy sayings. The one I think I love the most is the one she would use after completing a tedious task. She would step back, give a little shrug and say, “Good enough for the guy I’m dating at the moment.”

There are all sorts of reasons I like this saying, not the least of which is that — particularly when I was younger — the thought of my grandmother having dated anyone other than my grandfather was shocking. As I grew older, and especially after I began teaching, Nannie’s saying took on a special resonance. As much as we need to teach our students to take their efforts seriously, to understand that they must write multiple drafts of papers and read carefully and work hard, we also need to teach our students that there are some things that do not require 100% effort all the time.

Okay, I know. I can hear you from here. “But Wendy, students need to learn that good enough isn’t good enough!” “But Wendy, my students write a first draft of a paper and think the assignment’s finished!” “But Wendy, how will students ever learn to apply themselves fully to an academic task?” I agree. Wholeheartedly. Yet I also know that when everything is important, nothing is important. I know that it is imperative that our students learn to prioritize, and learn that they need to revisit their priorities every day and make adjustments when necessary. And I know that unless students are able to master the idea of “good enough for the guy I’m dating at the moment,” they will struggle to master the necessary art of managing their time and their projects successfully.

I think an example that illustrates this necessary art might help. In my last semester of graduate school, I came upon a fellow student standing by the mirrors in the ladies’ rest room. She was new to the program that year, and I had come to know her in a course we took together. I started to say “hi” when I saw that she was silently weeping. (This is not as unusual a sight in graduate school as one might hope.) When she was able to speak, she said, “I’m just so tired. I’m teaching, and then all that reading.” (Again, not unusual.) As she continued to talk, however, I discovered that this poor young woman had been trying to read everything — and I mean everything — related to all her courses. Not just the assigned readings, but all the suggested readings, anything the professors or her fellow students mentioned in class, books and articles mentioned in books and articles she had read — I mean, EVERYTHING. When I told her that this was impossible, that nobody could read everything, she was surprised. “You mean, you don’t do that?” she said. “Sweetie, nobody does that,” was my reply.

Now, this young woman’s experience was extreme, but it is an experience that I have with my undergraduates quite often. Every task, every reading, every chore, carries equal weight, and students become immobilized. And what do they do when they are immobilized? Yup. They do nothing.

There is a corollary to this problem, a corollary that is a direct result of the “everybody gets a gold star” method of dealing with children and teenagers: students do not want to do something they can’t excel at. Now, I don’t mean to imply that all fear of failure stems from the “gold star” method. What I am talking about is how, when children are not allowed to fail naturally as part of their everyday experiences, they develop neither the coping mechanisms to deal with failure nor the self-confidence to try new things without knowing whether or not they will succeed at those things. They become closed off to new experiences, afraid to venture into areas where they might not get that gold star. My husband often quotes G. K. Chesterton, who said, “If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing badly” (What’s Wrong WIth the World). This doesn’t mean one should set out to do something badly. It means that some things (“hobbies,” for Chesterton) have an intrinsic value and that doing those things (things such as taking photographs, writing poetry or drawing, for example) has an intrinsic value. I am a horrible piano player, yet I take pleasure in those afternoons when I am able to spend an hour or so working my way through my favorite sheet music. If I worried about whether I was ever going to be good at piano playing — and believe me, I will not — I would miss out on something that I enjoy. A student who fears failing becomes immobilized. And what does a student do when s/he is immobilized? Well, you know.

So. . .what can we do for our students? Encourage them to try new things. Teach them to prioritize. Find ways to break that cycle of immobilization and fear. All of these will help. Yet there is something even more import that we can do for our students: model joy. Model the joy we find in learning. The joy we feel when the writing goes well. The joy of discovery. The joy, not of failure, but of recovering from failure. Model joy, and you model a way of living and learning that will serve your students well.

The Letter

This week, I am turning this space over (mostly) to a guest blogger.

Francis Burke O’Neill is a former student of mine, and we have stayed in touch since his graduation in Spring 2011. As an undergraduate he was an English Major and wrote an excellent senior thesis, “If Margo Channing had Quit Smoking,” which was an analysis of adaptation, translation and appropriation (and which was awarded a Pass WIth Honors). Francis is a native New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn, and says that he considers himself an “unread writer” at this point in his career.

There is no greater gift for a teacher than to have a student do well. By this, I don’t mean make lots of money or become hugely successful. I mean go out into the world and evince character, kindness and thoughtfulness. Francis is one of those former students who has done just this, and I am very proud of him and the work he is doing.

Now for The Letter (and subsequence responses).

Dear Wendy,

          I hope your semester is off to a good start. Something interesting (upsetting, actually) happened in my class on Chaucer this week, and after reading your most recent blog entry, “Female Poets, Agency, and the ‘Suicide Girls,'” I thought you might find it valuable.
          While the professor was mentioning how “awesome” he thought it was that Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde had probably had sex with each other, a young woman yelled out, “Okay, like I am not okay with that.” With all eyes now firmly planted on her, the student went on to say, “Oscar Wilde couldn’t have been gay. He was a genius!” She then attempted to preface this with the only mildly less ignorant assertion that if Wilde had been gay, he would have certainly been “out.”
          The professor explained the circumstances by which Wilde had been put on trial, to which the student responded, “No, that was for his work – not because he was gay.” The discussion ended in quiet exasperation.
          This is not the first time I have been in a literature class where this particular form of prejudice has commandeered the discussion. As far back as high school, I can remember teachers avoiding the subject of queerness. Perhaps it seemed easier for them to make a student feel misunderstood than have to blush their way through an exploration of Nick Carraway’s sexuality or the unrequited longing which serves as the driving force of John Knowles’s heartbreaking A Separate Peace. I vividly remember when one of the students had the courage to ask what many of us were thinking by questioning the queer overtones of that text, the teacher snapped back mockingly, “I don’t know what book you’re reading.” The class of all boys laughed as if his masculinity had rightly been called into question by merely allowing for such a possibility to surface.
          One would hope by the time one reaches graduate school, things would be different. Unfortunately this type of biased reading seems to be just as rampant, and at times more disquieting when one considers the age of the participants.  Last spring when I took a class on feminist literary theory, the students seemed for the most part broad minded in their readings of the various texts, but when it came to the subject of queerness there was expressed among many a strong resistance to this kind of interpretation. Such resistance went beyond mere hesitation and took on a quality closer to outrage.
           During a discussion of Nella Larsen’s Passing, I felt the need to speak up in defense of a queer reading of the text. Most of the students refused to consider the implications of interpreting the text in this way, but took no issue with the complexities of race the novel presented. I relied only on textual evidence to prove my point, and emphasized Larsen’s embracing of ambiguity to construct a multifaceted narrative voice.  It is in this marvelous ambiguity that one finds room to interpret or refute suggestions of queerness. After all, Larsen so elegantly uses the interiority of her characters and the act of racial “passing” to play on an experience of otherness most closely associated with queerness, that of invisible otherness.
          Unlike race or gender, Queerness has no discernible biological signifiers and so it is possible, some would say unavoidable, to be exposed to prejudice in its truest venom and be seen not as the target, but as the audience. There is a passive agony unlike any other given way to upon hearing judgment espoused as if you were not the intended subject. Such ignorance or hate is both expected because it is feared, and yet no less shocking when it arrives in the room, laying its hand on your shoulder amidst the shallow clatter of shaking teacups. And it was all right there in the text.
          I guess the most frightening suggestion of finding this casual prejudice in a literature class is the stripping away of a text’s identity. Works by women and minorities have always been underrepresented by the academy, but when we talk about queerness we are not only talking about being omitted or devalued. We are also talking about those texts being included in the canon but under the condition they are taught as if queerness were not an element of their complexity. In other words some would purchase Dorian Gray’s picture only to hang it in a heteronormative frame. 
          The text itself dictates how it should be taught. I would never argue that a writer should be taught as being solely a “gay writer” or a text as solely a “gay text,” because that would be limiting, but if the text itself deems such interpretations valid then we owe it to the writer and to ourselves to include it in the discussion. Is it necessary to know of Virginia Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West to successfully interpret all her work? Of course not, but surely it enlivens a reading of her Orlando. And can we ever hope to know the man who wrote A Room with a View if we refuse to also see him as the man who feared publishing Maurice? It is said that when that manuscript was found, it included a note which read “Publishable, but worth it?” Forster knew all too well how his story would be read.
 
Best wishes,
Francis

Francis’s letter prompted this response from me:

Wow! You have written well and movingly about a subject that is so important.  I have been lucky in that, when I teach LGBT writers I haven’t had overt reactions such as the one expressed by the student in your class.  I am very aware, however, that there is, in all likelihood, at least one person in the classroom who would react that way if asked for his/her opinion.  As you well know, I believe that knowing the biography of a writer can — in some instances at least — help us better understand her works.  

Even worse is when a teacher responds as yours did to the suggestion about A Separate Peace.  It’s bad pedagogy, it’s bad scholarship, it’s just bad.  And, as you point out, it scapegoats the student who had the courage to try and get at what the text is “about.”  Shame on that teacher!  

There are times, such as when I get the news about one of my gay or lesbian friends getting married, when I start to feel hopeful about how things are changing in the world.  Unfortunately, that hope (at least in its unmitigated form) never lasts long, because there always follows something that reminds me that things haven’t really changed all that much in many places.

Your point about queerness having no distinguishable markers is so important.  This means that “passing” as heterosexual can be “easier” in practice than passing as “white,” but obviously not psychologically.  In fact, it may be harder psychologically because gender and desire can be hidden.  It’s something that I think teachers can forget sometimes; it’s too easy to look out at a sea of faces and think, “We’re all the same.  We have the same beliefs.  We have the same experiences.”  Unless and until teachers break out of that mindset, we will have those moments of cruelty (many, I like to think, inadvertent, although I’m not so naive as to believe they all are).

And I leave the final word to Francis:

I suppose at the heart of it is something very bittersweet. For any artist’s work to be both so celebrated and so restricted by the same institution is violent. There is no word quite strong enough to describe allowing someone a place at the table on the condition they leave their selves at the door. 

Female Poets, Agency and the “Suicide Girls”

After three class meetings, my course on Contemporary American Women’s Poetry has come together nicely. There are 15 young women in the class who are — more or less — engaged and interested. It saddened me to hear how afraid of poetry they are, but it didn’t surprise me. This is a response I expect, and one of my goals is to get my students past that fear so they can read and enjoy poetry. I have a number of Education Majors with an English concentration in the class, so I hope that if I pass along my love of poetry to them, they will pass that love along to their students in turn.

Students’ fear of poetry is one of the big hurdles we must overcome during the semester, and it is one of the reasons poetry is more difficult to teach than prose. I have found, however, that poetry, by its very nature, lends itself naturally to being taught, and I try to use that to my advantage when faced with a semester in which my students and I are going to spend long hours “working the poems.” The very things that students find difficult about poetry — its structure, its imagery, its metaphors, its wordplay — are the things I can use to help them learn not just to analyze poetry but to enjoy it as well. I know that at first, as i move line-by-line through the poems, many of the students feel lost, confused. But in very short order (if we are lucky) they begin to see, they begin to feel comfortable hazarding a guess as to why a poet might use a particular word in a particular place.

Starting off was (relatively) easy. On the first day I used Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” because it allows me to demonstrate so many things to my students: received form, enjambment, imagery, word play. How does one lose a place? A name? The poem also allows me to talk about whether we should use a poet’s biography as a lens through which we examine her work. By the time I was halfway though the poem I had a few students who were already engaging with the work.

It was also easy to figure out the poems we would read for the next two classes. The second time we met, we had read “Mountain Time” by Kathryn Stripling Byer and we spent the class watching Byer’s marvelous March 2013 reading here in Brooklyn. The students enjoyed the video very much and said they found it helpful to hear a poet read her own words.. For the third class we went through Bishop’s “The Prodigal,” with Bishop’s wonderful imagery and wordplay drawing responses from the students as they began to find their way toward a little more comfort with poetic analysis.

At the end of that third class meeting I introduced the concept of agency, and talked a little about the ways in which female poets are not accorded the same agency as male poets. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are the obvious examples, the easiest for my students to grasp. We discussed how critical reaction to a male poet such as Robert Lowell, who suffered from what used to be called manic depression, ran along the lines of, “Look how, despite Lowell’s mental illness, his poetic talent was able to emerge.” Then we talked about how critical reaction to a female poet such as Sexton or Plath, a poet who, like Lowell, suffered from a mental illness, tended more toward, “Isn’t it amazing how her craziness made her a good poet?” The students can see how Lowell retains his agency, which for Plath or Sexton is granted to her mental illness and not to her.

But now I’m faced with a quandary. I am not working with a pre-determined order of readings for this course, so each week I pick the next week’s poems depending upon where our class discussions go. Sexton’s “Her Kind” is a great poem to use early in the semester; students respond well to it, and it’s a good work to have them start their own analysis now that I’ve modeled the process for them. So that was an easy choice for Tuesday’s class meeting. I decided to add “Wanting to Die” to the same class so the students can see Sexton’s power and control as she writes about suicide: “But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.”

So far, so good. It seemed natural, then, to move to Plath for Thursday, and “Lady Lazarus” was the obvious choice: “I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real. / I guess you could say I’ve a call.” Like Sexton, Plath is retaining agency, presenting the act of suicide as her choice, as something over which she retains control. And even if she was not successful in her most recent attempt to die, she still retains a potent, feminine power: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”

Here’s the rub. Have I now, by linking Sexton and Plath through these readings, somehow perpetuated the mythos of the two writers as the “Suicide Girls” of poetry? Have I done them a disservice? Yes, they are both fine poets with strong, vibrant voices. And yes, both do address suicide in their works. But have I reduced them to a caricature, the self-destructive female poet driven to suicide by her uncontrollable madness? Have I taken away their agency just as surely as do those who reduce the two poets’ work to a function of their mental instability?

Of course I can address these questions in next week’s class discussions. The problem is that somehow subtleties get lost, and the action of linking the two poets will end up speaking louder than the words I use to reinforce the idea that both Sexton and Plath retained agency within their poetic works.

I have decided to go ahead and have the students read these poems as planned, and I will address these questions and my uneasiness with the assignment during class. I will trust in the poems — and in each poet’s vision, vibrancy and voice — to carry over the idea that the strength and power in the works are ample evidence of Sexton’s and Plath’s agency. No mere “Suicide Girls,” these two poets produced original, groundbreaking works that continue to speak to readers today.

There’s No Place Like Home

My hometown on a late-August evening.

My hometown on a late-August evening.


Next week a new academic year begins, and we are preparing to reenter what a friend of mine called “the maelstrom that is our lives” in academia. This means we are finishing up things here in Maine and preparing for the roister and roil of a new semester in Brooklyn.

Which has me thinking a lot about the idea of “home.” What do we mean when we talk about our home? When my childhood friends ask, “When are you coming home?,” by home they mean the town in which I grew up, the town where my parents still live. My friends in New York ask the same thing, but by home they mean Brooklyn. And wherever we are living at the moment, I will refer to that place as home (as in, “Look at the time! have to be getting home.”).

Obviously, this is not a problem. We are lucky to be able to spend time happily in two different places. What I mean when I say I have been thinking about the idea of home is that I have been considering what “home” means to my students (and, by extension, to me).

I teach in a commuter college, so many of my students still live at home with their parents. For them, there is no hanging out in the dorm’s common room until the wee hours of the morning, eating pizza and watching junky movies. More often than not, they leave the college to go to work, then to their family’s home to study before getting some sleep. They have not yet made homes of their own, a prospect that both excites and worries them as they contemplate graduation, finding a job, finding a spouse. Yet even as they face life after commencement, they are grounded to their sense of home as a physical place to which they return at the end of each day.

This is not the case for the students who come from someplace other than the five boroughs. Some of them are from other states, some from other countries. In my freshman courses I am always amazed at the number of students who say they arrived in New York mere days before the start of Fall classes; while some are staying with family, others have to find apartment shares or other places to live after they arrive.

For these students, the ones whose families are far away, the idea of “home” is a lot more complicated. Even if they have not explicitly thought it through, they have an innate understanding that they have, in some way or another, lost the home they once had.

I don’t mean to suggest that a student who moves to New York to go to college can never return home again. She most likely will go home, whether to visit family or to live, but something will have changed. Or, rather, some things will have changed. Her home will seem different because it is different (despite the childlike belief we all have that when we leave a place it goes into stasis until we return), but it will also seem different because she is different. The very act of moving to another place will have fundamentally changed her, and she will not see her home in the same way as she did before. Yet some part of her will always consider that place home.

This is what we are getting at when we talk about someone’s hometown. “Hometown” is understood to mean the place where a person grew up, not necessarily the place where she makes her home now. “Hometown” acknowledges that we are influenced in many ways by the place where we grew up, and that we continue to be influenced by it (some more than others) throughout our lives. And that each of us — even those who end up living their whole lives in their hometowns — finds that in some way or other we lose that home as we get older.

Which brings me back to those students who are living at home while going to college. For they, too, will find that their homes have changed by the time they graduate. The separation is not as sudden, nor as obvious, as it is for the students who move to the city to attend school. But in the end that separation does occur. That physical place, home, will seem different to them in much the same way that it seems different to students “from away” (as we would say up in Maine). And this is as it should be.

This question of leaving/losing home is one that recurs throughout my teaching. In many courses (both composition and literature) I use the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. This villanelle talks about “the art of losing” and examines the ways in which personal loss, even devastating loss, can be borne. In the poem Bishop talks about losing names, cites and places (among other things), and I find that often the most fruitful and rewarding discussions we have as a class will be about the question, “How can you lose a place?” My students from away often nod in agreement as we discuss what it means to move, to leave behind a home, a family, even a country. The students who still live at home also recognize something of themselves in this idea of a lost place; they may still have to “practice losing farther, losing faster” before they recognize the loss, but the loss is there nonetheless.

Most of them don’t know it yet, but the “art of losing” a home is bittersweet. It is what fuels nostalgia, what gives a hint of melancholy to even the most enjoyable trip back to one’s hometown. It is why I think wistfully of how my hometown will look and feel as August gives way to September and the days shorten and cool, while we are “back home” in Brooklyn. It is why I miss the ocean when I am away from Maine (yes, I know, New York is a port town, but I mean the ocean that opens before you and sends waves rolling to crash against the shore) and why I find myself thinking it would be nice to stay put instead of taking the train south next week. This doesn’t mean I don’t like living in Brooklyn; I do. It just means that, like my students, I have lost the home I once had and, while I have a new home where I am very happy, I still haven’t quite mastered “the art of losing.”

Why Study Women’s Poetry?

For the Spring 2008 semester (during my first year as a full-time instructor), I designed and taught a new course, Contemporary American Women’s Poetry. I was working straight from my dissertation, and the course gave me the opportunity to see the poems I’d been living with for so long from a new perspective, that of my students. A poetry course can be a tough row to hoe, particularly when students have avoided studying poetry and are suddenly faced with going through works line-by-line and analyzing everything from punctuation and word choice to metaphor and rhetoric. That this was an upper-level course (juniors and seniors) only complicated matters because, in addition to analysis, students must now work at synthesis — in simple terms, coming up with their own ideas and interpretations. It isn’t enough for them to simply tell me what each aspect of the poem is (X is a metaphor for death, Y is a word that has two meanings and the poet meant both); they must also tell me how those parts combine to make a whole, and then tell me what the whole means.

As I was teaching the course, I was also organizing a one-day conference on women’s poetry. I decided to title the conference “Why Study Women’s Poetry?” because this was a question my students and I were discussing in class. “Why Study Women’s Poetry?” isn’t meant to suggest that the work of female poets is somehow inferior or less-worthy of study; what we all were struggling with was the idea of studying women’s poetry separately from men’s. We talked quite a bit about why you hear people discuss “women’s poetry” but not “men’s poetry.” We questioned whether teaching a separate course in women’s poetry was somehow buying into the idea that women’s writing was something different, something “Other.” My students (ten young women, two young men) struggled with these issues, often saying that they could see both sides: poetry is poetry and should be taught as such, without regard to sex or gender, versus the very real fact that poetry by women is often not taught in traditional lit courses (or, if it is, there are only one or two works by female poets included in the syllabus). That the scholars and poets who attended the conference were also struggling with the question “Why Study Women’s Poetry?” was reassuring to the students, even if it didn’t help them decide which side was right.

Then in May of that year, I ended up teaching Contemporary American Women’s Poetry as a “mini-mester” course. It was the first time the college was offering these intensive courses, which met from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for ten days. After the first day, we all (myself and my students alike) were viewing this as a sort of poetry boot camp. I had six students enrolled (three young men, three young women) and the majority of them needed this course to graduate. And I do mean needed, because graduation came smack-dab in the middle of the mini-mester and if they weren’t doing well they wouldn’t be able to walk at commencement.

Instead of using the poems from the semester-long course, I had the students get the anthology No More Masks! edited by Florence Howe (and don’t get me started on the fact that this wonderful collection is now out of print). We read a lot of poems and did a lot of work. I assigned some poems for them to discuss, and then we did a lot of “down and dirty” analysis and synthesis by picking out poems that appealed to us each day and doing cold readings of them. After three or four days, a young man in the front row raised his hand and asked wearily, “Are all the poems about sex?” The three young women and I cracked up, and I couldn’t help but tease him a little by saying, “Yes,” to which he (and the two other young men) gave a little groan. I then went on to explain that no, the poems wouldn’t all be about carnal pleasure; he managed a weak smile and bent back to his book.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that young man this summer as I work to revise the syllabus for Contemporary American Women’s Poetry, which I will be teaching this Fall for the fourth time. In June I reached out to the wonderful people on WOM-PO, the Women’s Poetry Listserv, and asked them if they were teaching the course what would be the one poem they believed absolutely must be included. I got many, many terrific suggestions (and no, most people couldn’t limit themselves to just one), and have been spending wonderful hours reading and researching and revising the course. But I keep coming back to that question: “Are all the poems about sex?”

What if we read “sex” to mean not physical relations but our own sex, the equipment we were born with (or chose to change)? Are all the poems we (both male and female poets) write somehow about our sex, about being a man or woman? I don’t think there is a poet in the world who would, like Lady Macbeth, cry “unsex me” before s/he sits down to write. We are who we are because we are men or women. Our experience of the world is mediated through sex (and gender, and race, and class).

Yet our experience of the world is also mediated through myriad other “smaller” things. I grew up in a small town on the coast of Maine. I read a lot as a child. My parents were both teachers. I have only one sibling, a sister, with whom I am close. I married later in life. All of these things, and hundreds more, go into shaping the way I move through the world, the way I observe things, the way I react to different situations, the emotions I feel in response to certain experiences. And the way I write poetry. We certainly are not going to break poets down into minute categories — that would be neither helpful nor productive.

So what do I tell my students this semester? One thing that has helped me frame this discussion is telling them about a book I read while writing my dissertation on metaphors of motion in women’s poetry. One obviously important metaphor for poets (both male and female) is walking. In my research I ran across an academic book published in 1991 that dealt with walk poems, and eagerly began reading. Here I was, almost literally hip-deep in copies of poems written by women about walking, wonderful poems that speak to the human experience and condition and do so through taking a particular experience and universalizing it. So imagine my annoyance when it quickly became apparent that the author of this book believed that women’s walk poems focused on the poet’s particular experience rather than on using the poem as a way to link different kinds of experiences together as men’s walk poems do. In other words, Walk Poems by men speak to a universal experience, no matter how particular the subject of the poems may be, while walk poems by women (and yes, the capitalization is deliberate on my part) speak only to the particular experience within the poem. My students are appalled, but the female students are not surprised. Though young, they have already seen this dismissal of women’s experience as too inwardly focused. Too particular. Too, well, female. They push back when they can, fighting the good fight as generations of women who came before them did, but they do get discouraged and it doesn’t help when the very place where they should be judged by their intellect and abilities — academia — is home to some of these very same prejudices.

This, then, is the answer to “Why Study Women’s Poetry?” Because we must.

Synchronicity II

Being good stewards of the Earth means living within nature.

Being good stewards of the Earth means living within nature.

As if you didn’t see that title coming (with apologies to The Police).

What got me thinking about synchronicity in my last post was the work I have been doing to prepare for my Fall semester courses. As it happens, I am teaching an upper-level English seminar entitled “Nuclear Nightmares: Storytelling After the A-Bomb” and a Freshman Honors seminar on sustainable environment (this year’s Honors topic). The Honors seminars are interdisciplinary, but each of us who teaches one does so through the lens of our own discipline.

I had not planned things this way, but as it turns out there are a lot of points of convergence between the two topics, so my research for one course complements my research for the other.

What strikes me over and over, as I read things as varied as Silent Spring and On the Beach and Welcome to the Greenhouse (a terrific Cli-Fi collection of stories) and A Short History of Nuclear Folly and Flight Behavior and Fail-Safe is that so much of what gets us, and by us I mean all of us, into trouble is hubris. This isn’t a word you hear a lot about today, but it is a theme that is both as old as human time and as current as the debate on climate change: We are masters and commanders of not only our own human domain but of the natural realm as well, and woe betide anyone who tries to point out that maybe we haven’t been the best stewards of our world(s).

Which brings me to what is going on here in Maine. It seems to me that when we picture climate change, we think about the Arctic and Antarctic. We can visualize ice shelves separating, icebergs calving, as the global temperature rises. We can look at NASA’s illustration of the melting polar ice cap and, while the thought of this occurring is intellectually upsetting, it doesn’t really hit home. I mean, not really hit home, not with the sort of sock-in-the-stomach realization that things are changing for the worse.

What does give us this type of shock? The kinds of stories that have been appearing this summer in our daily papers and our local broadcast news. And even more than that, the changes that we are observing all around us.

Maine puffins, already on fragile footing, are having trouble finding the small herring that they need to feed their chicks. Higher tides, warmer water, everything associated with climate change is making it harder for the puffins to survive. These slightly-goofy, comic birds are doing a little better this summer than last, but problems still loom as the global temperature continues to rise.

Even puffins, though, are relatively out of sight for most Mainers. Chickadees, however, are a different story. Even before this article appeared in the Bangor Daily News, it was very apparent to me that something was up with the chickadees, Maine’s state bird. Bold as brass, these little birds will sit on the feeder pole or wait at your feet as you change the birdseed. For many summers, when I would sit out on our deck the chickadees would be all around me, sometimes going so far as to sit on the back and arms of my chair. (This always made me feel a little like Disney’s Cinderella.) This year, I saw one or two chickadees in early June and haven’t seen another since.

And don’t get me started on the fireflies (nearly all gone), bees (disappearing fast) and bats (dying of white nose syndrome).

So here is my challenge, as I see it. I need to help my students find the connections between “big-picture” climate change and the small, everyday moments in their own lives. And the connections between what is happening half a world away in terms of nuclear arms development and the safety of all of us on the planet. One way to do this, I believe, is through literature, by reading stories that humanize the issues involved. Another way is through helping them find the synchronous moments in their own studies, in helping them make the connections between the hard sciences and their lives, between political science and what is happening in their own backyard. Most importantly, they need to come to recognize the ways in which hubris can not only lead to personal downfall (Macbeth, Dr. Frankenstein, Nebuchadnezzar) but, when played out on a larger scale, end up causing global disaster.

Will I be telling them the answers? No. I have my own opinions about what needs to be done to help stop climate change, to end nuclear proliferation, but my task is to allow my students to come to their own decisions about what is happening in (and to) the world and figure out their own responses to what they are learning about. For that, they will need everything a liberal arts education can provide (STEM courses, humanities courses, public discourse and private studies). What we can do, as teachers, is give them the best education, the best resources, the best skills, the best ammunition we can, then keep our fingers crossed that they go out and do a better job than what has been done by those who came before them. Our students, then, embody – both literally and figuratively – the best hope our planet has.

So I guess we now have our answer to what sort of job a humanities major can have: She can save the world.