Category Archives: Education

Six Rules for Reading (and Enjoying) Julius Caesar

I have always assumed that the best example of my argument that most people get Shakespeare plays all wrong would be Romeo and Juliet. But I have to admit I was mistaken. In fact, I think it is safe to posit that no other Shakespeare play is so maligned and misunderstood as Julius Caesar.

I think this is largely due to the way we teach the play in the United States. Of course, because we do teach the play in high school, Julius Caesar has always gotten tremendous exposure: almost everyone I’ve met has been forced to read the play during their high school career. In fact, I think it’s still on high school reading lists today. But that’s probably also exactly why it’s so misunderstood.

I’m not blaming high school teachers, because by and large they’re told to teach these plays without any adequate preparation. I suppose if anyone deserves blame, it’s the colleges that train teachers. But all blame aside, before I talk about what a great play it really is, and what a shame it is that most people summarily dismiss  Julius Caesar without ever really considering it, let’s look at why this has happened.

julius_caesarFirst of all, it goes without saying that making someone read a play is not a great way to get him or her to like it. Especially when that play is over 400 years old and written in (what seems to be) archaic language. But a still greater problem is that there is a tendency to use the play to teach Roman history, which is a serious mistake. (American high schools are not alone in this; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, criticized the play for not being realistic in its portrayal of Roman politics back in the early 1800s.) In short, far too many people associate this play with a bunch of men showing a great deal of thigh or swathed in endless yards of material, flipping their togas around like an adolescent girl tosses her hair over her shoulder. It’s all too distracting, to say the least.

So, in order to set us back on the right track and get more people to read this fine play,  I’ve made a little list of rules to follow that will help my readers get the most enjoyment, emotional and intellectual, from the play.

Rule Number One: Forget about Roman history when you read this play. Forget about looking for anachronisms and mistakes on the part of Shakespeare’s use of history. Forget everything you know about tribunes, plebeians, Cicero, and the Festival of Lupercalia. The fact is, the history of the play hardly matters at all. Rather, the only thing that matters is that you know in the beginning moments that Caesar will die and that, whatever his motives and his character, Marcus Brutus will pay for his part in Caesar’s assassination with his own life and reputation.

Rule Number Two: Recognize that this is one of Shakespeare’s most suspenseful plays. Our foreknowledge of events in the play, far from making it predictable and boring, provides an element of suspense that should excite the audience. Here we can point to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, in which he explains that it’s the fact that the audience knows there’s a bomb hidden under a table that makes the scene so fascinating to watch, that makes every sentence, every facial expression count with the audience. It’s the fact that we know Julius Caesar is going to die on the Ides of March that makes his refusal to follow the advice of the soothsayer, his wife Calpurnia, and Artemidorus so interesting. We become invested in all of his words and actions, just as our knowledge that Brutus is going to lose everything makes us become invested in him as a character as well. A good production of this play, then, would highlight the suspenseful nature within it, allowing the audience to react with an emotional response rather than mere intellectual curiosity.

Rule Number Three: Understand that this play is, like Coriolanus, highly critical of the Roman mob. Individuals from the mob may be quite witty, as in the opening scene, when a mere cobbler gets the better of one of the Roman Tribunes, but taken as a whole, the mob is easily swayed by rhetoric, highly materialistic, and downright vicious. (In one often-excluded scene–III.iii–a poet is on his way to Caesar’s funeral when he is accosted by the crowd, mistaken for one of the conspirators, and carried off to be torn to pieces.) It’s almost as if this representation of mob mentality–the Elizabethan equivalent of populism, if you will–is something that Shakespeare introduces in 1599 in Julius Caesar, only to return to it nine years later to explore in greater detail in Coriolanus.

Rule Number Four: Recognize that this play, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is misnamed. It is not about Julius Caesar. It’s really all about Marcus Brutus, who is the tragic hero of the play. He is doomed from the outset, because (1) it is his patriotism and his love of the Roman Republic, not a desire for gain, that drives him to commit murder; (2) he becomes enamored of his own reputation and convinces himself that it is his duty to commit murder and to break the law; (3) he falls victim to this egotism and loses everything because of it. Audience members really shouldn’t give a hoot about Julius Caesar; he’s a jerk who gets pretty much what he deserves. But Brutus is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, a character whose every step, much like Oedipus, takes him further and further into his own doom. The soliloquies Brutus speaks are similar to those in Macbeth, revealing a character that is not inherently bad but rather deficient in logic, self-awareness, and respect for others. In fact, in many ways, it’s interesting to look at Julius Caesar as a rough draft not only of Coriolanus but of Macbeth as well.

Rule Number Five: Appreciate the dark comedy in the play. Shakespeare plays with his audience from the outset, in the comic first scene between the workmen and the Roman Tribunes, but another great comedic scene is Act IV, scene iii, when Brutus and Cassius meet up before the big battle and end up in an argument that resembles nothing more than a couple of young boys squabbling, even descending into a “did not, did so” level. This scene would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high, and if we didn’t know that disaster was imminent.

Rule Number Six: Experience the play without preconceptions, without the baggage that undoubtedly is left over from your tenth-grade English class. Once you do this, you’ll realize that the play is timely. It explores some really pertinent questions, ones which societies have dealt with time and time again, and which we are dealing with at this very moment. For example, when is it permissible to commit a wrong in order for the greater good to benefit? (surely Immanuel Kant would have something to say about this, along with Jeremy Bentham). How secure is a republic when its citizens are poor thinkers who can be swayed by mere rhetoric and emotionalism instead of reason? What course of action should be taken when a megalomaniac takes over an entire nation, and no one has the guts to stop him through any legal or offical means?

In the end, Brutus’s tragedy is that he immolates his personal, individual self in his public and civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is the inability to understand this sacrifice and the conflict it creates, not the play’s historical setting in a distant and hazy past, that has made it inaccessible for generations of American high school students. Too many decades have gone by since civic responsibility has been considered an important element in our education, with the sad but inevitable result that several generations of students can no longer understand the real tragedy in this play, which is certainly not the assassination of Julius Caesar.

But perhaps this is about to change. In the last few months, we’ve been witnessing a new generation teaching themselves about civic involvement, since no one will teach it to them. And as I consider the brave civic movement begun by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I am hopeful that from now on it’s just possible that reading Julius Caesar could become not a wasted module in an English class, but the single most important reading experience in a high-school student’s career.

 

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How I Became a Writer, Part 3

And now, as promised, the last installment on how I became a writer.

By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew that I needed to read as much as I could, and, with an older brother in college who evicted me from my bedroom each summer when he came home and left his previous semester’s English syllabi laying around, it was not difficult for me to devise a reading plan to fill out my knowledge of literature. For example, I declared tenth grade the year of the Russian novel; during that year, I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. It was an ambitious undertaking, and I neglected my math and science classes to achieve it.

But I worked hard at the task I set myself. For example, one day in Band class (I was an underachieving clarinet player), the instructor was going through a piece with the flute section. Earlier that month, I had found a fantastic copy of The Brothers Karamazov–hardbacked, with two columns of print on each page–and I found that it fit perfectly on my music stand.

Usually I would put my sheet music on top of the book to camouflage my reading, but I had reached a really rivetting section (a chapter called “Lacerations”) that morning and I was oblivious to pretty much everything around me. I didn’t realize that Mr. Wren had crept up behind me and was, along with everyone else in the band, watching me read. When I finally realized the entire room was silent, with no flutes playing dissonant notes and no baton clicking out a rhythm on the conductor’s stand, I looked up to see what was going on, and met Mr. Wren’s small blue eyes peering at me. I expected to be duly chastised, but all he said was, “Lacerations? Do I need to send you to the counselor?” Mortified, I shook my head and shoved my book beneath my seat.

This is merely a long-winded way of demonstrating that I was a dedicated reader at a fairly young age. I tried to create a system, a reading method, but when I reached college, I realized how very inadequate my system was. My subsequent years in graduate school were probably an attempt to fill in the gaps of my literary knowledge. That attempt also ended in relative failure. I got a master’s degree and filled in a few of the many gaps left by my undergraduate education, then continued on to the Ph.D. level and filled in a few more. I was still very imperfectly educated in terms of English literature by the time I received my Ph.D., but thankfully education has no definitive endpoint. And if one becomes a generalist, as one must at a community college professor, then one can continue to add to one’s knowledge year after year after year. Even now, some years after retiring, I am still working hard to fill in those gaps.

But of course all this reading derailed me from becoming the writer I had originally planned to be. In other words, the preparatory work I set myself that was designed to make me a good writer eclipsed the desire to write for a great many years. There was, after all, so very much to learn and to read! I decided that if I had to choose between writing and reading, I would opt for reading, because I wanted to know what was out there. I guess you could say that my quest to perfect my knowledge of English literature (certainly an impossible task) has never been anything more than mere nosiness.

I would still pick reading over writing any day. In fact, most days I usually do. There is still so much to read, so many gaps to fill. For me, reading comes first, and it always will. I write to show that I am reading, that I am paying attention to what is out there. In the end, I write not because I love story-telling , but rather because I love the stories we’ve told throughout the ages so much that I cannot keep myself from adding to the ever-growing collection of them that makes up human culture.

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How I Became a Writer, Part 2

As I recall, my first real attempt at critical writing involved a book review of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, written in third or fourth grade–I’m not sure which. Why did I pick an obscure novel by a largely forgotten American writer? I believe it was because I had read White Fang (or was it The Call of the Wild? or perhaps both?) earlier that year and felt that writing a book review about a book I’d already read seemed to be cheating, so I found another book by Jack London. Perhaps this was my first foray into literary studies. I didn’t really get much from The Sea Wolf, unfortunately. My book review basically argued that London’s use of curse words within the narrative was a distinctive feature of his writing. I have no idea whether or not this is true, never having gone back to read The Call of the Wild, White Fang, or The Sea Wolf again.

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Some more recent critical writing

This was, if I recall, the year I had requested to be allowed to bring in the Bible for independent reading. My request was denied, which was a good thing. Mrs. Cirillo (or was it Mrs. Moss?) was right to curtail my outrageous desire to be a precocious reader. No one who spells the word “universe” with almost every letter of the alphabet, as I did back then, has earned the right to be a waywardly precocious reader. As for writing, we were allowed to make a book that spring, and I chose to write an elegy about my parakeet Dinky, who had dropped dead on Christmas morning. (This, coupled with the fact that during the Easter pageant at my church that year I was chosen to play the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, may account for the fact that I later converted to Judaism.) The little book, which I can no longer locate, itself is nothing special, but it may be telling that the “Note About the Author” (written in a pretentious third person) at the end of the book refers to its author’s ardent desire to become a writer.

After this, there was a long spell of forgettable short stories, poems, and other forced writing assignments. But then, in my senior year of high school, I was nominated by my long-suffering English teachers to compete in a nationwide writing contest held by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The contest had two components: first, a prepared story (mine was some atrocious story about Brian Boru, King of Ireland–even the passage of fifty years cannot erase my shame at having concocted it) sent in ahead of time, and second, an on-demand essay. I remember being pulled out of algebra class on a April morning in 1976, ushered into an empty classroom, given pencil and paper, and losing myself in an essay in which I mused on my relation to my birthplace–Brooklyn, New York–a place I had moved away from some nine years earlier. I also remember that I left the classroom feeling somewhat pleased that I had mentioned my grandmother, who still lived in Brooklyn, noting that she was in fact the last thread that drew me back to my birthplace summer after summer. Somehow, I was surprised but not shocked when, an hour or so after I got home from school that day, my father called to tell me that my grandmother had died that morning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she had probably died while I was actually writing my essay. (Two days later, I received an Easter card in the mail from Grandma. She always had great timing.)

I won the contest despite my dreadful story about Brian Boru, and was chosen as one of 26 students from Texas to win the NCTE Writing Award in 1977. It wasn’t such a big deal. While it may have helped me get into college, I have to admit that I completely forgot that I’d won such an award until a few years ago, when I was cleaning out some old papers. It came as something of a shock to me to realize that I had been involved with the NCTE years and years before I myself became a teacher of English and a member of that organization.

I have not gone into detail about the short stories I wrote in my high school years, because they are too pedestrian to stand out. Everyone writes those kind of stories. I was, however, quite a letter writer in those days, stealing funny bits from P.G. Wodehouse and other comic writers and inserting them into my letters to my parents and siblings. Below is a letter I found while visiting my mother last year. (Obviously, she recognized my genius–or she decided to save it as evidence that time travel really happens.)

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Once again, I’ve made less progress on this project than I had anticipated. That leaves one more post (I promise–just one more!) to bridge the gap between my young adult and middle age years, and how I postponed my writing career (such as it is) by making a study of literature and becoming a professor of English.

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Teaching Behind the Lines

French resistance fighters putting up posters

French Resistance Fighters putting up posters.  Image from “History in Photos” Blog (available here)

It’s been a year now since the election, and here I am, still fighting off a sense of futility and hopelessness about the future. During that time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord in an astounding demonstration of willful ignorance about climate change, suffered a spate of horrific mass murders due to lax gun laws, and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Suffice it to say that things are not going well.

But I should point out that the emphasis in my first sentence should be on the word “fighting,” because that’s what I’m doing these days: in my own small way, I’m waging a tiny war on some of the ignorance and egotism that seems to be ruling my country these days. Somewhere (I can’t find it anymore, and perhaps that’s just as well), the French novelist Léon Werth said that any action taken against tyranny, no matter how small, no matter how personal, helps to make things better. I’ve taken his words to heart, and I’m using this space to take stock of what I’ve done in the last year. I do this not to brag–far from it, because I know I’ve done far too little–but to remind myself that although I feel powerless too much of the time, I am not quite as powerless as I seem.

Let me begin, however, by saying what I haven’t done. I have not run for office. I did that in 2012, perhaps having had an inkling that things were not going well in my part of the country, but I was crushed by an unresponsive political system, apathy, and my own supreme unsuitability for the task. I am not ready to run for office again. In fact, I may never be ready to run again. I did write about my experience, however, and over the past year, I have encouraged other people, specifically women, to run for office. I’ve talked to a few activist groups about my experiences, and perhaps most important of all, I’ve donated to campaigns.

The thing I’ve done that merits any kind of discussion, however, is what I would call “resistance teaching”: going behind the lines of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and using any tools I have to fight it. I still believe, naive as I am, that education can fight tyranny, injustice, and inequality. So I have engaged in a few activities that will, I hope, result in creating discussions, examining benighted attitudes, and opening up minds. I haven’t done anything too flamboyant, mind you–just a few actions that will hopefully develop into something more tangible in the months to come.

Here is my list:

  1. In spite of feeling gloomy about the future, I’ve continued with my writing, because I felt that even in difficult times, people should concentrate on making art. I self-published my second novel, and I wrote about it here, explaining why self-publishing can be an act of resistance in and of itself.
  2. I began to translate a novel about WW I, written by Léon Werth. I am now nearing my second revision of the translation. I have submitted a chapter of it to several fine magazines and received some nice rejection letters. I will be using my translation to present a short paper on WW I writing and Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Paris this summer.
  3. I’ve traveled–quite a bit. I went to Italy, to Wales, to France, to Dallas, to Boston, and some other places that I can’t remember now. Traveling is important to open up barriers, intellectual as well as political. For example, in France I learned that while we Americans thought of Emmanuel Macron as a kind of savior for the French, he was viewed with some real skepticism and even fear by his electorate. Sure, he was better than Marine LePen–but he was still an unknown quantity, and most French people I met expressed some degree of hesitation about endorsing him.
  4. I directed a play for my community theatre group. Although it was hard and very time-consuming, I discovered that I really believe in the value of community theatre, where a group of individuals come together in a selfless (for the most part) effort to bring the words and ideas of a person long dead back to life. So what if audiences are tiny? It’s the work that matters, not the reception of it.
  5. I gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Festival, which you can read here. It was fun and stimulating, and I remembered just how much I enjoy thinking and exploring literature and the ideas that shape it.

All of these things are fine, but I think the most important thing I’ve done in the past year is going back into the classroom again, this time as a substitute to help out some friends, but also to engage in what I think of “resistance teaching.” As a substitute professor, as a lifelong learning instructor, I can engage students and encourage them to think without being bound by a syllabus or any other requirements. I can get behind the lines of bureaucratic structures and work to create an atmosphere of free discussion and intellectual exploration. It is small work, and it may not be very effective, but I have taken it on as my own work, my own idiosyncratic way of combating the heartless ignorance, the dangerous half-assed education that prevails in our society.

I have always loved the idea of Resistance Fighters. I just never thought I’d be one myself.

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My Short, Tragic Career as an Independent Scholar

 

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Several months ago, I had what seemed like a fantastic idea: now that I was retired from teaching English at a community college, I could engage in critical research, something I’d missed during those years when I taught five or more classes a semester. I had managed to write a couple of critical articles in the last few years of my tenure at a small, rural two-year college in Northern Michigan, but it was difficult, not only because of the heavy demands of teaching, but also because I had very limited access to scholarly resources. Indeed, it is largely due to very generous former students who had moved on to major research institutions that I was able to engage in any kind of scholarly research, a situation which may seem ironic to some readers, but which is really just closing the loop of teacher and student in a fitting and natural way.

And so last fall, on the suggestion of a former student, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply to  a scholarly conference on Dickens, and my proposal was chosen. In time, I wrote my paper (on Dickens and Music– specifically on two downtrodden characters who play the flute and clarinet in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, respectively) and prepared for my part in the conference.

It had been close to 25 years since I had read a paper at a conference, and so I was understandably nervous. Back then, there was no internet to search for information about conference presentations, but now I was able to do my homework, and thus I found a piece of advice that made a lot of sense: remember, the article emphasized, that a conference paper is an opportunity to test out ideas, to play with them in the presence of others, and to learn how other scholars respond to them, rather than a place to read a paper, an article, or a section of a book out loud before a bored audience. Having taught public speaking for over a decade, I could see that this made a lot of sense: scholarly articles and papers are not adapted to oral presentations, since they are composed of complex ideas buttressed by a great many references to support their assertions. To read such a work to an audience seemed to me, once I reflected on it, a ridiculous proposition, and would surely bore not only the audience, but any self-respecting speaker as well.

I wrote my paper accordingly. I kept it under the fifteen-minute limit that the moderator practically begged the panelists to adhere to in a pre-conference email. I made sure I had amusing anecdotes and witty bon mots. I concocted a clever PowerPoint presentation to go with the paper, just in case my audience got bored with the ideas I was trying out. I triple-spaced my copy of the essay, and I–the queen of eye contact, as my former speech students can attest–I practiced it just enough to become familiar with my own words, but not so much that I would become complacent with them and confuse myself by ad-libbing too freely. In short, I arrived at the conference with a bit of nervousness, but with the feeling that I had prepared myself for the ordeal, and that my paper would meet with amused interest and perhaps even some admiration.

It was not exactly a disaster, but it was certainly not a success.

To be honest, I consider it a failure.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. In fact, I was satisfied with the way I presented it. But my audience didn’t know what to do with presentation. This might be because it was very short compared to all the other presentations (silly me, to think that academics would actually follow explicit directions!). Or it could be because it wasn’t quite as scholarly as the other papers. After all, my presentation hadn’t been published in a journal; it was, as C.S. Lewis might have called it, much more of a “supposal” than a fully-fledged argument. Perhaps as well there was something ironic in my stance, as if I somehow communicated my feeling that research in the humanities is a kind of glorified rabbit hunt that is fun while it lasts but that rarely leads to any tangible, life-changing moment of revelation.

Yet this is not to say that humanities research is useless. It isn’t. It develops and hones all sorts of wonderful talents that enrich the lives of those who engage in it and those who merely dip into it from time to time. I believe in the value of interpreting books and arguing about those interpretations; in fact, I believe that engaging in such discussions can draw human beings together as nothing else can, even at the very moments when we argue most fiercely about competing and contrasting interpretations. This is something, as Mark Slouka points out in his magnificent essay “Dehumanized,” that STEM fields cannot do, no matter how much adminstrators and government officials laud them, pandering to them with ever-increasing budgets at the expense of the humanities.

And this is, ultimately, why I left the conference depressed and disappointed. I had created, in the years since I’d left academia, an idealized image of it that was inclusive, one that recognized its own innate absurdity. In other words, sometime in the last two decades, I had recognized that research in the humanities was valuable not because it produced any particular thing, but because it produced a way of looking at the world we inhabit with a critical acuity that makes us better thinkers and ultimately better citizens. The world of research, for me, is simply a playground in which we all can exercise our critical and creative faculties. Yet the conference I attended seemed to be focused on research as object: indeed, as an object of exchange, a widget to be documented, tallied, and added to a spreadsheet that measures worth.

Perhaps its unfair of me to characterize it in this way. After all, most of the people attending the conference were, unlike me, still very much a part of an academic marketplace, one in which important decisions like tenure, admission to graduate programs, promotions, and departmental budgets are decided, at least in part, by things like conference attendance and presentations. It is unfair of me to judge them when I am no longer engaged in that particular game.

But the very fact that I am not in the game allows me to see it with some degree of clarity, and what I see is depressing. One cannot fight the dehumanization of academia, with its insistent mirroring of capitalism, by replicating that capitalism inside the ivy tower; one cannot expect the humanities to maintain any kind of serious effect on our culture when those charged with propagating the study of humanities are complicit in reducing humanities research to mere line items on a curriculum vitae or research-laden objects of exchange.

I can theorize no solution to this problem beyond inculcating a revolution of ideas within the academy in an effort to fight the now ubiquitous goal of bankrupting the study of arts and humanities, a sordid goal which now seems to characterize the age we live in. And I have no idea how to bring about such a revolution. But I do know this: I will return to my own study with the knowledge that even my small, inconsequential, and isolated critical inquiries are minute revolutions in and of themselves. As we say in English studies, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. And in the end, I feel confident that it will take far more than one awkward presentation at a conference to stop me from pursuing my own idiosyncratic path of research and inquiry into the literature I love.

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The Art of Reading

 

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green, from https://thesleeplessreader.com/about/fellow-readers-favorite-paintings-of-women-reading/

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green   Image from The Sleepless Reader blog

 

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.”  –Jorge Luis Borges

 

“In short, reading is directed creation.” –Jean-Paul Sartre

As the number of blogs and podcasts about writing multiply with Malthusian abandon, overpopulating our digital feeds, the topic of reading seems much less popular these days. Of course, there are the articles published in the various newspapers and magazines stating that science bears out what every English teacher has always suspected: the act of reading makes us more sympathetic and thus better people. (You can read articles of this kind here and here and here.) But are these articles enough to make us better, more serious, “literary” readers?

Apparently not. And the reason is simple: the creation of better human beings is not the sum-total of what reading offers us. In other words, reading literature is too important an activity to engage in just because it might make us better or more moral people.

That might seem an incendiary statement, but I don’t mean it as one. In fact, I am echoing C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his short book An Experiment in Criticism, published in 1961 and thus one of the last things he wrote, “I have rejected the view that literature is to be valued (a) for telling us truths about life, (b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself.” But this, he has said earlier, is precisely what most readers simply cannot do.

In this book Lewis theorizes that there are two kinds of readers: the unliterary readers (whom he calls “users“), and the literary readers (whom he calls “receivers.” Users tend to, well, use books to achieve a desired end: entertainment, escapism, gathering information. In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to theorize that the epidemic rise of unreliable news is due to the fact that there are too many users in our society and not enough receivers. According to Lewis, “the most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know.” It’s just possible that these readers and the demand they place on profit-seeking media are skewing the type of reading that is available to us, leaving receiving readers out in the cold and clogging up our news feeds with sensationalist tripe. These users, Lewis might say, would be better off reading mystery, spy, or some other kind of thrilling novels, but their desire for “the news” precludes them from doing so.

Receivers, those who read in a literary way, exert their critical and imaginative faculties to treat the book as an end in itself, not as a link in a chain leading to a desired end. They give themselves fully to the experience of reading. As Lewis says, those of us who want to be receiving readers “must empty our minds and lay ourselves open.” Such readers, few though they may be, can change the way they see things, and in this way, they can help to change the world itself.

Yet the idea that reading makes us better people puts the whole activity of literary reading at risk, co-opting it for some kind of greater, communal good, which is in my view putting the cart before the horse. In other words, reading may be good for human beings, but it certainly won’t be if reading is relegated to the role of making good human beings. This kind of utilitarian advocacy of reading is dangerous. We have already lost so much to utilitarian ideas. In our universities, composition classes have been usurped to create students who can write discipline-specific reports and papers, not essays that allow for exploration and expression. In fact, college itself has become a mere step in the path to obtaining a good job (with the irony that going to college does not necessarily lead to a good job and almost certainly leads to the acquisition of debt). And of course there are those who argue that art must have a political dimension to be relevant. So many intellectual and artistic activities have already been offered up on the altar of utilitarianism. Must we really give up the act of reading, too?

My point is this: only in pursuing these activities in and of themselves–for example, in reading for the sake of reading, in educating oneself for the sake of being an educated person, in painting in order to depict the world, whatever shape it takes–only by doing these things freely, without the thought of some added benefit, can we engage in truly imaginative activities. We should be far beyond the point of saying that reading is good for us, that it makes us better human beings. That’s the kind of thinking that went out of fashion with the death of Jeremy Bentham (whose embalmed body presides over University College London). Instead, we should be asking ourselves this: how do we become better readers? And perhaps more importantly, how do we turn using readers into receiving readers?

Reading is something of a holy act when we do it freely, because it marries the ability to sound out words with the use of our intellect and our imagination, connecting us with the past and propelling us into the future. As Sartre says, “reading is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.” Reading, as Borges says above, is its own art form. If we acknowledged this, we would be much less tempted to assign it additional value; reading would be enough in and of itself.

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Jump-Starting the Revolution

Women's March on Rome

Women’s March on Rome

 

I woke up early this morning thinking of all the women I love and respect who are out today in the cold dawn, protesting an American administration founded on hatred, lies, and ignorance. In past years, I would be out there with them, raising my voice with theirs, matching my stride with theirs, fighting injustice with a show of peaceful but determined resistance. I’m not: I jumped the gun and raised my own thin voice too soon, missing an opportunity to be part of this powerful and impressive force for change. Yet there is work of all kinds to be done everywhere–in the streets of Washington, D.C.; in Rome, Italy; in Lansing, Michigan, and all over the world on this day and in the days to come. There is work to be done in my own study right now, as I hunch over my computer in the darkness with a small black cat and a steaming cup of tea to keep me company as I try to explain why a revolution is necessary.

This involves facing several hard but absolutely necessary facts, which I will lay out below.

First, education in the United States is not under attack: rather, for the last generation, it has been systematically eviscerated and dismantled. We are used to hearing that K-12 schools are under attack, and they certainly are. But what goes unnoticed is perhaps just as dire: Public education at the college level no longer exists in this country at all. The steep rise in college tuition, even at state schools, which we have accepted for decades as a matter of financial need and fiscal responsibility, means that few people can afford to go to university without making great sacrifices. College students today must be able to pay tuition that is, frankly, unaffordable–or they must be willing to hock their futures by taking out student loans that will shackle them for years to come. This is not public education. Public education is free, or available at a small cost. So, as one of the first steps in starting this revolution, let us first admit what we all know to be true: We live in a world in which getting a college education is reserved for the wealthy or the financially improvident. As a society, we are eating our young, telling them to go out and get an education for all the wrong reasons (namely, to get a job that probably doesn’t exist), and then we are imprisoning them in debt, a debt which forces them into penury and servitude for years, if not a lifetime. Student loan recipients should be in the streets protesting–and yet they can’t do so, or they would lose the paltry, minimum-wage jobs they must work to pay back these loans. The cause of all of this? It’s simply this: education is tottering on the brink of the abyss today, because for decades, power-seeking politicians have understood that an uneducated electorate serves them well.

Second, government is not an evil. Government is good and necessary. Since the Enlightenment at least, government has been essential to safeguard the welfare of a population. We have been told it is a sad necessity–we have even been told by some that the less government we have, the better off we will be–but this is not true. It is a lie. The only people who really believe that government makes their lives worse are the truly uneducated: people who accept the lopsided stories they’ve been told repeatedly and loudly by lying politicians who stand to gain by fostering this anti-government stance. These demogogues use a hatred of government to get elected, to create tax breaks for themselves and their bosses, and to continue to dismantle government entities that work to create a population of critical thinkers. We can argue about the amount of government we need, but to say that government is by and of itself bad is both wrong-headed and short-sighted.

Unfortunately, these two things go hand in hand. We live in a society that values ignorance over education, displays of strength over deliberative thought, and blind faith over a spirit of inquiry. We live in a society that is fearful and superstitious. We live in a society that vilifies those who are different, and ignores and marginalizes those who have diverse stories, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

And so I say let the revolution begin. We are running out of time, people. We need a revolution, because at this point in human culture, we are facing the most dire threat imaginable: not an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse, but a sudden shift in our climate that will affect every human being on the planet. Because we are a resilient and clever species, chances are we will survive this threat, but to do so, we will need  to muster all our resources. We need to be educated, smart, and open-minded, so that we will be able to anticipate problems and crises, and to react to them with well-conceived solutions.

So on this morning, I say to my sisters out there marching in the cold: thank you. More than that–I tell them, Let’s start this revolution today, right now, and bravely face the future we have created for ourselves. It will be a hard job, but we must mend the miseducation of our society, just as we can end the diseducation that has been systematically thrust down our throats for the last 30 years. We can become a nation of thinkers who accept difference and welcome diversity. We can replace fear-mongering with critical thinking, and we can set American exceptionalism aside, once and for all, as we face our future together with people of all nations. Only by doing so will we have any hope of being prepared for the uncertain future that lies before us.

Let the Revolution begin.

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My Short, Unhappy Life as a Politician

 

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Four years ago, I made a decision that turned out to be a mistake–a real whopper of one. I ran for state representative. It is a decision that I still regret today.

Why would I, a political innocent, so to speak, decide to run for office? The extent of my experience in the political world at that time was knocking on doors fo2009-01-07-shepardobamaposter.jpgr Barack Obama back in 2008. I knew next to nothing about the real political climate. I was naive and optimistic, and, excited by the events in Zuccotti Park (the Occupy Wall Street movement), I thought I saw real possibility to be the  change that President Obama had called for. I thought I could make a difference–that my very innocence in the realm of politics might make me more credible and hence more  attractive to voters. Of course, I can see now, at a distance of almost four years, that I was not just naive, but downright stupid. It probably isn’t the first time a candidate has been motivated by silly, misguided ideas.

The real question is this, however: why did I, a person with a more than adequate supply of humility, decide to run in the first place? What made me think I could make any kind of a difference? I’ve been considering that question for the last three years. Looking back, I see there was a perfect storm of situations that made me believe that it was not only my right, but my duty to run for office. First of all, as a community college professor, I was teaching writing and public speaking to a population of largely underprivileged students. I realized that not only could I gain valuable experience as a teacher if I ran, but that I could also serve as an example to my students. After all, at the end of every semester, I would offer both my writing and my speech students this parting advice: “Now you know how to raise your voices. Go out and do it. Make trouble for other people. Be good citizens.” Running for office was a chance for me to practice what I preached, and it would help make me a better teacher.

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Primary Night Tally

(Side Note: This much was true. I did learn a lot from campaigning, which I tried to incorporate into the tiny textbook I wrote for my speech students. I used what skills I had in writing and in public speaking several times a day, and I found that teaching those practical skills was both meaningful and necessary. I do think I became a better teacher by running for office.)

Second, my position as a community college professor in a very rural area allowed me to see that the people whom recent legislation hurt were my students. I felt obliged to help them as much as I could. Third, as union president, I was also able to see the willful ignorance and arrogance of those in office. Fourth, my husband is a whiz at numbers and finance, and I knew he would make a fine campaign manager, and that by sharing the experience with me, we could be partners in a greater good. Fifth, I knew many people in my town, and they all told me they thought my candidacy was a good idea.

All of these things added up to a feeling of excited inevitability, which then turned into a sense of obligation to run. The only way I can describe the result of this transformation is to compare it to a statement found not once, but three times in Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart: “There are things you have to do even if they are dangerous, otherwise you aren’t a human being but just a bit of filth.” This may be overstating the case a bit, but at the time, I really felt that if I didn’t run, I would be shirking an important responsibility, and that I would be avoiding an unsavory but necessary duty.

The result of all this will not be a surprise. I lost–and by a hefty margin. I don’t mind losing the election; it was probably the best thing that could happen to me personally. But I lost more than the election, and that’s what really bothers me. Somewhere along the way, I lost my my faith in a political system that unabashedly favors those with large campaign coffers. I lost my desire to talk to and get to know people, which had been so useful in the classroom, and which I am only now regaining. I lost a good deal of self confidence, too, because I saw the limit of my own ability. Most tragic of all, I lost what had started me on my journey in the first place: hope.

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Even a wonderful group of supporters can’t guarantee a victory.

For three years, I have tried not to talk about my abortive foray into politics. To be honest, I look upon it as if it were a stupid stunt I pulled while on a bender, as if I woke up one morning to remember that pulling off my clothes and jumping into the fountain was not a dream, but a horrible reality. And, like a hungover college student on Monday morning, I now regard my actions while under the influence with a sense of bemused shame:  I’m impressed with the enormity of my mistake, because I should have known better than to have exposed myself.

But I am healing from my experience, and perhaps the best evidence of this is my willingness to analyze my feelings about running for office. I offer up this post as a testament to a person’s ability to recover, if not to learn, from unpleasant experiences.

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A collector’s item

 

 

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Postscript to Previous Post

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Tolkien, the story goes, wrote the first words of The Hobbit in the pages of a student examination blue book. He had been grading examinations as a form of part-time work, and, exhausted by the monotony of the task, he celebrated his discovery of a blank page in the book, untouched by the student’s ink, by writing the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

I am far luckier than Tolkien. I received the following essay from a student (who gave me permission to post it here) as a final exam. It is a lovely way to end my final semester at the community college where I teach. Thank you, Cari Griffin, for summing up my attitude towards the study of literature in such a humorous and appropriate way. Indeed, I am a very lucky teacher. After all, a doctor is only as good as his or her companions.

 

 

27 April 2015

“Doctor” Shumway:

For nearly two years, I have been your companion as we have traveled through space and time. Your Tardis is not a blue Police box; it is your classroom, and you are “The Doctor”; a madwoman with a YouTube account. Though there was never a fez involved, exploring foreign lands, examining history, and best of all, discussing literature has allowed for, myself, at least, great understanding of the space-time continuum as it pertains to the literary world.

There can be no question that our travels, having begun in September of 2013, frequently took us to England. I think we can both agree, it is our favorite stop. Whether it has been a visit with the Anglo-Saxons, an exploration of medieval England, several visits with our favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, or an extensive amount of time spent in 19th century Great Britain, each visit afforded us an opportunity to see British history and its inhabitants in a new way. We lacked only our tea while we observed an Abbey, paid a visit to Thornfield Hall, or grasped the devastation of World War I.

We were not always in England. We’ve been to France with a philosopher, to Spain within American, and Germany to witness the beginning of the Romantic Movement. We saw 17th century Turkey through the eyes of an English woman, visited Japan at the turn of the 20th century, and briefly stopped in Imperial Russia. The authors we have covered acted as conductors, providing the means for us to travel. Their voices allowed us to see into their worlds, to spend time in their society, to have a momentary glimpse of a fixed point in time. We have seen revolutions, oppression, and inequality in many of the places we have visited, but always, the voices of those authors who have guided us cried out for equality, rallied for peace, and asked us to question, alongside them, our purpose within our community, our country, and our society, just as they did the same in theirs. Together, on our journey, we have celebrated the individual, applauded the growth of the female author, recognized brilliance, and felt the influence of those long ago voices within our modern society.

It was not just the authors that we met. We examined the world around them. We studied the era in which they lived: we viewed their art, heard their music, and, ultimately, questioned the validity of their place within the literary canon. Perhaps we did not always embrace them as friends, but we did not leave as foes. No. Our relationship with these authors, however brief, brought us a little closer to our fellow man, allowed us see into his or her own world through their eyes, and, to realize they are very much like us, though they lived in a far different world than the one we inhabit now.

As our journey nears its end, you ask, “why?” I interpret this as, “why take the journey? “My answer is quite simply this: we must. For anything less than a madman in a blue box landing in our backyard, we have no other way to reach across time and space, to look at a moment in man’s history, and have an opportunity to see that moment through a different set of eyes. Yes, Doctor Shumway, literature is our Tardis through space and time. We have an obligation to not only understand our place within our own culture, in history, but our fellow man’s place and his culture as well. After all, “We’re all stories, in the end” (The Eleventh Doctor).

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The End of Something

My career as a full-time teacher is drawing to a close, and I’m having some trouble getting used to the idea.

Several weeks ago, I decided to take advantage of an early retirement program at my college, so I will be leaving at the end of this semester. Of course, I’m really excited about the prospect of having free time to read whatever I want, in whatever order I want to read it; to focus on my writing, music and knitting; and, most of all, to do a bit of traveling. Teaching, as I told one of my colleagues, was getting in the way of my own learning, and so I’m grateful to be able to step back from a career that, despite its frustrations, has been a central and valued part of my life. I have learned more about teaching in the dozen or so years I’ve spent at this small community college in rural Northern Michigan than I ever thought possible, which is part of the reason I have mixed feelings about leaving.

In some ways, I feel I’m at the top of my game as a teacher. I don’t have to take a lot of time to prepare for each class, and most classroom situations don’t really throw me. (Of course, there are a few that were pretty funny, and, once I retire, I look forward to sharing these stories, like the one about the time a speech student tried to bring a goat to class.) Grading papers, of course, is still a tremendous burden, and like most writing instructors, I greatly resent it. But it turns out that grading is not as heavy a burden for me as the human burden. By this, I mean that I try to see each of my students as an individual; everyone, I told myself as I began my teaching career, is someone’s child. I asked myself, how would I want my child treated by their professors? The answer was clear.  So I have always tried to be open, inviting, and encouraging with my students, and it’s made for some great moments as a teacher. But it’s also made it possible for me to see the real pain in my students’ lives. From the student who schleps her infant to class, no matter subzero temperatures, to the student whose grip on religion is ironclad because he’s found no other outlet or support, to the student who suffers from a laundry list of health problems as a result of serving in Afghanistan–each of these students has a claim on me, because I have always felt it’s more important to be a human being first and a professor second.

It’s a noble idea, but now, as I move towards my last days of teaching (at least full-time), I can see its flaws. In essence, teaching as a human being is like “hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat,” in the famous words of George Eliot in Middlemarch (Chapter 20), whose narrator predicts that those who can attend to such emotional minutiae are likely to “die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” I am not in danger of dying from being exposed to that roar, but I am pained by my work these days. I’m stricken by the sadness of seeing the eccentric student who has no friends, sitting alone in the cafeteria; I’m depressed by the difficulties facing young mothers and fathers as they try to gain an education to make life better for their children; and I’m overwhelmed by the challenges, and, yes, the tragedies, that lie behind the eyes of many of my students who stare up at me as I try to dish out some wisdom to help them in their journey through life.

It’s a tough job, and I’ve given it what I could over the years. One consolation I’ve always had, however, is that if I do a poor job one semester, I could always improve the next time around. This semester is different, though. There is no next time. Does that mean I’ll finally get it right and teach well this term? The answer has become clear over the past few weeks. This semester will be like all the other semesters I’ve had: some successes in the classroom, but many more failures. I’m satisfied that I’ve made the right decision, though. It’s time for someone else to step up and try their hand at this job. I’m ready to take my ball and go home, even if that means that I leave a career I love.

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