Monday, May 05, 2008

Teaching Writing: Reflections, and Thanks, Year Two

Two years of University Writing -- and I've had fantastic students the entire time.

Today's class not only brought me a Thank You card, but gave me my very first round of applause in teaching. Ten students, each and every one interesting and intelligent -- a teacher couldn't ask for more, really.

I've often felt this semester (and other semesters) that I have more fun in writing class than most composition instructors. If that's true -- it's due in no small part to the students I've had. I map a crazy course through a semester which embraces everything from the "human" to the "nation" to monsters and beyond -- but as with all teachers, perhaps, the course wouldn't be any fun at all if it weren't for students who are consistently willing to take a leap, take a chance with their thinking, and find unintended results. This semester saw students who wrote on everything from how we speak about feces, to "villainous" pirates, to folklore heroes and nationalism, to language and communication, to Santa Claus and panopticism, to how mimetics influences stable or instable cultural forms, to the psychology of nationhood, to Jurassic park, to linguistic identity, to Mexican revolutionary imagery. How often does that happen in a writing course? With first years, no less!

We had a class blog -- and so I know some of the class may be reading this now. I generally don't mention my students on-blog (as you all well know), unless it's to praise you -- consider this high praise, then. But I do want to say thank you to all of you guys, and highlight how great a semester it was for me too -- I learned from this class, and for that, I'm grateful.


This from Ph.D. Comics, by the inimitable Jorge Cham.

Eerily accurate. I used to say this: "I will change the world with Old English!"

Then it was "Changing the world one dead language at a time!"

Then it was "Changing the academy, one Kalamazoo at a time!"

Occasionally, it has been "Not saying something dumb in class, one day at a time!"

Although lately it has more often felt like "Writing a page that makes sense! One page at a time!"

I fear the eventual stop on this road may in fact be -- "Changing my socks! Every day!"


Sunday, May 04, 2008

This I Believe: Writing

One of the reasons you should never assign homework to a writing class, telling them that you too will be submitting an assignment for it, is that you then must write it yourself. I give you, in draft form, the writing I will read aloud with my class tomorrow, when they read aloud theirs. The assignment is to write about what you think writing can do. We've framed this as a "This I Believe" assignment. Typically for me, it has become about hearing, reading and connecting as much as it is about writing.

And yes, mine is 526 words. It was that, or leave out the Zawacki at the end of the piece. Which I CANNOT do.

THIS I BELIEVE: The Words of Others

…she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born …Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. ~E.M. Forster

In the short space of time which is given us on this planet, why would we bother repeating the words of others? One might as well ask, why bother with the lives of others? Or the dreams of others? Or the past? If “communication” is what makes us human, then it is, in fact, the words of others which matter most.

However, I do not believe that we must regard all writing – all words – as messages from the past directed to us specifically. The point, rather, of allowing ourselves to connect with the past is that that the words we hear might in fact change us – without ever having been meant for us at all. To this end, it listening to the words of others that matters most when we regard writing, that make us most human, and finally most humane. When the words of the past are transposed to the present, a new kind of reverberation takes place. It is not the sound of voices that we hear in wavelengths on the air, but the straining of our own minds and perhaps even hearts to comprehend the pains, sorrows, joys and loves of someone who is fundamentally different from us.

It is most recently in vogue to criticize the “Post-Modern” for not mandating a certain political action, for criticizing even the idea of a “position” from which to make judgments and for suggesting that even when we’re aware of the discourses and systems which create our very souls we cannot ever truly escape them. Irony becomes the last preserve of reason.

I believe that the truth of the Post-Modern age is that we must learn to think for ourselves. I believe that belief, though powerful, isn’t enough to live in this world. I believe that to live in this world, we must learn to love one another. To love one another, I believe we must learn to hear. To hear, I believe we must start with a respect for the words of others.

I believe that medieval voices speak powerfully to a modern soul from a time long past. I believe we must let that past affect us, and through it, learn to hear the Other voices of our own time.

I say I,

but little is left to say it, much less
mean it—and yet I do. Let there be

no mistake. I do not believe
things are reborn in fire.

I believe they’re consumed by fire,
and the fire has a life of its own.

~Zawacki, Credo



I just realized: explaining Augustine's philosophy of history in clear, precise, concise prose is difficult.

In fact, it leaves me feeling rather like this:

After all, how do you explain anything in words which unfold, as Augustine's Confessions, Chapter 11 part 28 tell us,

Suppose I am going to recite a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my faculty of expectation is engaged by the whole of it. But once I have begun, as much of the psalm as I have removed from the province of expectation and relegated to the past now engages my memory, and the scope of the action which I am performing is divided between the two faculties of memory and expectation, the one looking back to the part which I have already recited, the other looking forward to the part which I have still to recite. But my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. As the process continues, the province of memory is extended in proportion as that of expectation is reduced, until the whole of my expectation is absorbed. This happens when I have finished my recitations and it has all passed into the province of memory.

What is true of the whole psalm is also true of its parts and of each syllable. It is true of any longer action in which I may be engaged and of which the recitation of the psalm may only be a small part. It is true of a man's whole life, of which all his actions are parts. It is true of the whole history of mankind, of which each man's life is a part.

What's important here, it would seem, is precisely the status of any temporally unfolding event -- be it the recitation of a psalm, the course of a human action, or life, or the world's history. The whole, in Augustine's view, is in some ways imagined quite materially -- note how he speaks of the future: my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. It's almost as thought the future might be thought of as a kind of matter, which passes through a solution of the faculty of "attention", and in doing so undergoes a chemical reaction with said solution in the process of becoming the past.

Obviously, this is all far too scientific for an Augustinian reading, and it's not the sort of thing one would write in a dissertation on medieval English literature. Also -- and equally important -- is that the human is changed by the movement of expectation into memory, too. But this is where the analogy has to break down: because all of this is just an illusion. In a world of successive instances, there is no sample of a chemical compound labeled "Future" which comes out of solution as "Past" -- precisely what Augustine argues against when he says that there is no long past or long future, only the long expectation of the future and the long memory of the past. Now -- and now, and now, and now -- are all we ever know or experience with any certainty. All else is a function of human recall.

The point of all this rambling, of course, is that the only person who can see the totality of this weird time reaction would be God, who exists outside the changing world. The point of view of the Divine already knows all that was, is or ever will be, which exists in a single perfect IS. Change -- and so too temporal reactions as written above -- does not exist for the Divine.

And so human time is always measured in step with another time, a perfect time, a time into which humans can hope to enter, but cannot really understand from an earthly point of view.

I wonder, then, if part of the problem is that so much of the enterprise of intellectuality in the Middle Ages was bent on trying to not only understand how God worked -- but to see the world as they believed He did.

And this, my dear readers, is why I can't write the silly little section of my dissertation chapter that will focus on Augustine's concept of history.