"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

End of the World lectures on Shakespeare

Three of my four "End of the World" series of lecture/readings on Shakespeare were recorded and are now up on YouTube as follows:

Lecture 1 on Julius Caesar was not recorded.
Lecture 2 on Troilus and Cressida is here.
Lecture 3 on Macbeth is here.
Lecture 4 on Pericles and a summation of the series are here.

I recommend having read each of the plays first and having a copy of the play open in front of you during the lecture. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Student Bloopers

Going through old files, I found one in which I had preserved some student bloopers:

A cry that was bone-chilling to the ears.

The phrase “ignorance is blitz” is manifested in this novel.

We talked about everything from previous relationships to future relationships.

[Use the word in a sentence that indicates its meaning:] 
You will be prevailed before your wedding.
She wore a prevail before the wedding.

Their consummation of water surpassed that of any of their neighbors.
He made a pot of chicken consummation.
Witches oftentimes belong to a consummation.

            The monks lived a life of depravity with no luxuries.

Here Virgil is explaining to Dante the punishment chosen for the lustrous people such as Paolo and Francesca.

To have money meant power and importance in society and this was the dream of every pheasant.

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is such a manipulating character with so many extremities.

Gremio, the pantaloon, is convinced that he is a suitor to Bianca; however, his age and insufficient dowager leave him behind in the race for her hand.

This man has all of the feminine characteristics that were appealing on men in Shakespeare’s time; however, the young man does not have the short comings of a woman.

The promotion of sexual conduct that the Duke [in Measure for Measure] does is done ultimately to promote monotonous relationships in the marriages that he creates at the end of the play.

Rafew our lives how we will there is a divinity that smooths them out.

Lady Macbeth convinces him by playing with his manlyhood.

The author of this poem [“A Hymn to God the Father”] is speaking to God asking if he will forgive all of his own sins in iambic pentameter.

She portrays a heroine who sometimes resembles a goddess but is yet human with faults and prejudisms.

“The Second Coming” is about the end of the world and the birth of the anarchist.

James Joyce:  the cult leader that influenced a few hundred people to “start again” building a so-called ideal Christian society in South America.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lecture at UCSC on April 7, 2016

I recently gave a lecture at UCSC for a Cowell College course taught by renown balloon twister Addi Somekh.  The course is called "Paradox, Meaning, and Love:  Mary Holmes and Beyond," devoted to sharing the ideas and teachings of my greatest teacher, who was also Addi's teacher.  She taught at UCSC from 1965 until her retirement and well beyond that.   

I did not dare to pretend that I could channel Mary.  But I did my best to convey at least some of the ideas that were basic to her teaching.  My ostensible topic, set by Addi, was Mary's own title for one of her most remarkable courses:  "Art and the Inner Life."  I would not have titled my talk so pretentiously.  But I did try to convey some of the teachings of Mary Holmes that have formed the backbone of my own teaching.  The lecture is in three parts, and you can access it on YouTube here

For further exposure to Mary Holmes, go to the site describing the book Addi wrote (and I edited) of interviews with Mary in the last years of her life.  You can find it here:  MaryHolmesBook.com.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Trivium Links

The book I have co-authored with my colleague is now available online.  It is called Introduction to the Fundamental Liberal Arts:  Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.  (I.e., the Trivium.)  Check it out.

You can order from either CreateSpace:  https://www.createspace.com/5589750

We make more on the former site.  

If you like it, spread the word.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

On Panaesthetics

            At the suggestion of a former student I have bought and read Panaesthetics by Daniel Albright.
            Albright, who died this past January, was a professor of literature and music at Harvard.  In his obituary he is described by a former student as “the most generous and warmhearted and kind mentor one could ever ask for”; a colleague says that where he was present “the room was full of fun and amusement and delight because of his range of literary allusions and music allusions” (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2015/1/10/daniel-albright-obituary/).

            I do not for a moment doubt these encomia, nor do I wish to speak ill of the dead.  Nonetheless from his last book I feel an obligation to warn my readers away.  Though the book exhibits intelligence and knowledge, both are put into the service of the utterly destructive nonsense that is the most common understanding of art and life in today’s academy.

            Here is my letter to my former student:

            I write to you to beg and plead that you get yourself out of this kind of thinking before it is too late.  The author of Panaesthetics is an atheistical, self-congratulatory, sentimental, pontificating, post-modernist, existentialist, nihilistical Harvard smarty-pants.  Every half-truth is pressed into the service of destruction, every interesting fact soaked in arrogant, willful misrepresentation.

            Yes art depends on the human body.  The human being is a body-soul complex, and art must speak to our souls through our bodies.  But that art can be about nothing but itself, that our bodies are the only sources of all experience, that all experience is ultimately meaningless except as sensation, that the fact of medium is nothing but a porous illusion, etc. etc. make up the ravings of a desperate and despair-justifying ego at play in a hyper-intellectual sandbox with no adults in sight.

            I quote almost at random:

“interpretation, like the rest of human life, is vanity.  Even the most heavily overt allegory, or the plainest narrative, can sustain itself for only a little while before it sinks back into unmeaning.”  (so why are you so busy pretending to interpret?)

“the situation was exasperating to painters with an ounce of originality” (implying worhsip of originality for its own sake, one of the commonest false gods of art)

“seizing control is the default language of all representation since all representation is an attempt to gain power over, or at least not to be the slave of, the thing represented” (all art a function of a Marxist power struggle or Nietzschean master morality?)

“This is perhaps not quite the story that . . . meant me to think, but it seems as good as any” (because no story is better than any other, because all stories mean nothing in any case, because artist, intention, meaning, and form are all illusions that exist to be debunked by Harvard professors making a living from using the great art of the past as grist for the mill of nihilism)

“each member of the audience at a performance of Tosca experiences a different opera because the opera exists only as an airy shimmer generated from components each one of which bulges and recedes in a space uniquely defined by, and for, a particular spectator” (then why are we all similarly moved by Tosca or Don Giovanni and all similarly bored and revolted—if we’re honest—by Philip Glass and Penderecki?)

“wonder is a little scary, and we need to relieve ourselves of wonder by verbalizing it” (wonder being nothing but a human emotion, nothing real being there to be wondered at)

“A dentist’s drill touching a raw nerve is sublime:  it so fills your mind that there’s no space left to contmplate your overdue credit-card payment, or yesterday’s poor haircut, or Fermat’s last theorem” (thus are we robbed not only of the sublime but of the very word sublime)

“Art always exasperates . . . it will dissipate under my gaze, deconstruct into a cloud of endless cultural self-interrogations . . . [or] it will recede before my eyes, clench itself into a tight closed object . . . [or] it diffuses into a swarm of mosquitoes . . . [or] it becomes an armadillo curling itself into a scaly ball” (well, yes, under YOUR gaze, you Medusa of an art critic!)

“There is a danger that intermedial exercises will expose the vanity or uselessness of art” (and so by all means let us play with “intermedial exercises” because exposing the vanity and uselessness of all art is the only valid art form)

“the aesthetic phenomenon is most strongly felt when art is liberated from itself, a condition that can happen only through the act of forcing it, more or less against its will, into an alien medium” (I neglected above to call him the tyrant that he admittedly is being here)

“I’m not sure that an artwork can even possess purposiveness” (because if it did, the Harvard literature professoriat as it is now constituted would be out of a career)

“the infinite multiplication of interpretations tends to erode any viable sense of an objective telos” (and infinite multiplication is the only arithmetic that interpretation has at its disposal; hence all hope for a vision of unitary truth must be nugatory)

“Perhaps every artwork is like that:  we imagine that it is full of friendly doors through which we gain intimate access, but in fact we are shut out” (certainly anyone who denies a priori the possibility of meaning is shut out of any meaningful work of art—and well he should be)

“in the Eroica finale these clonks undergo a remarkable development that could be called the apotheosis of the stomp” (Beethoven reduced to infinite multiplication of interpretations of the stomp)

“To learn to see with the epigastrium and to hear with the elbows is part of the mission of the artwork” (those who won’t believe in God will believe in anything)

            Why must I expend energy refuting this nonsense?  It is the fruitless spinning of a very intelligent and knowledgeable mind cut loose from all moorings in real experience, all faith in a meaningful reality inhabited by man, all significance.  Meaning is reduced to sensation, sensation to the body, and the body to absurdity.  And of course in the process we ride over the cleverly sophisticated debunking of Beethoven and Raphael atop the bandwagon of progress through Schoenberg and Kandinsky toward the frisson of John Cage and Malevich, who calls on us to sail after him “into the abyss,” hyperintellectually freewheeling on the highway to hell paved by Nietzsche and French literary theory.   

            For an antidote I will quote Philip Thompson’s delicious satirical poem called “His Semiotic Hyper-Euphoric Semaphoric Sparkler:  Roland Barthes Barks in Bliss”:

The ecst-
Of text!
   To be
A rol-
An eis-
Tic or-
Tic hem-

            Panaesthetics provides a perfect distillation of the deadly intellectual poison of our age.  I pray you, avoid it.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Shakespeare's REAL Treatment of Jews, Women, Blacks, and Revenge

Below are the links to four lectures on Shakespeare called “Shakespeare’s Real Treatment of Jews, Women, Blacks, and Revenge” given in February-March 2014. 
Thanks to Alex, videographer, editor, and tech master;
to Ethan, second cameraman;
and to LJCDS for providing the venue.
My advice: read each play before listening to the lecture.

I.  The Merchant of Venice:  "Hath Not a Jew Eyes?"

II.  Measure for Measure:  The Marriage of Justice and Mercy

III.  Othello: What Is the Cause?

IV.  Hamlet:  Divine Shaping

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Rush to Digitized Learning

I have just been paid a marvelous compliment by one of my students, who reports that he has read my entire blog from the beginning until now.  And then he asks whether I will continue to post.  His question reminded me that when I began writing this blog, I promised myself to post only when I had something to say.  It also reminded me that I have had not much to say lately that seemed appropriate for a blog rather than for a letter to some editor (for example).  

To honor my student, I decided to post such a letter from 2011, which only becomes more relevant as the school where I teach rushes ever more rapidly toward digitized learning.  Students who ask whether I am a Luddite get the answer "no, but I may be a Luddite sympathizer."  I believe digital tools are extremely useful.  But the purpose of a tool is not to manufacture more reasons to use the tool.  In the following letter I try to express the downside of digital learning as I see it.

July 14, 2011

Mr. Gary Beckner, Managing Editor
Education Matters
Association of American Educators

To the Editor:

            Having just finished reading Education Matters of July 2011, I must write to say that Jill Newell (“Natives and Pioneers:  Digital Education for Students and Teachers”) has apparently been on a steady diet of techno-cool-aid.  She claims that it is “essential to embrace digital learning,” a claim apparently based on little more than wishful thinking about technology’s being “a key, if not the key” to “retooling the old style of learning.” She neglects to notice that the initial effect of this “retooling” is illiteracy. 

            As a teacher for 38 years, 25 of those in high school, I am finding that the generation of students who almost from birth have sucked at the iPhone and been weaned to the screen simply cannot read—that is, cannot understand what they read in language above the elementary level.  Many have no inkling of the notion that a challenging passage of English prose can be mastered with concentration, a dictionary, and labor.

            The real objection to the digitalization of learning (which Newell equates with “improvement”) is not, as she argues, that it is “an attack on educators.”  No.  The real objection is that it is an attack on students, an undermining of their intellectual development by just those institutions that are supposed to be fostering it. 

            The point was well made by Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, in an article called “Too Dumb for Complex Texts?” (Educational Leadership [Vol. 68, No. 5, Feb. 2011], pp. 28–33).  Professor Bauerlein is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) (Penguin, 2008).

            Bauerlein writes that in 2008 “43 percent of students at two-year public colleges and 29 percent of students at four-year public colleges” “had graduated from high school, but they didn’t have the knowledge and skills to tackle readings, tests, and papers at the next level.  So the college assigned these freshmen to a remedial unit in math, reading, or writing.” 

            Why was this necessary?  Because trained up on “blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, multimedia assemblages, and the like,” or given “traditional texts—novels, speeches, science articles, and so on—in digital format with embedded links, hypertext, word-search capability, and other aids”—just the methods Ms. Newell is advertising—the students are simply unready for college. 

            Why?  The “cause is, precisely, the inability to grasp complex texts,” an inability arising from the substitution of technological connectivity for focused reading.  Professor Bauerlein argues that unlike the screen, complex texts demand a “willingness to probe,” “the capacity for uninterrupted thinking,” “a receptivity to deep thinking,” and “a habit of slow reading.”  And then he shows us how digitalized learning militates against precisely those necessities.

            “This is not to say that schools should go Luddite,” he says.  But we should “preserve a crucial place for unwired, unplugged, and unconnected learning.”  In contrast to Newell’s “key,” Bauerlein’s key is “to regularize the instruction and make slow reading exercises a standard part of the curriculum.  Such practices may do more to boost college readiness than 300 shiny laptops down the hall—and for a fraction of the price.”

            Professor Bauerlein’s essay only confirmed my own experience and my own theory, which is that students trained up on screens have only ever experienced instantaneous comprehension.  Everything presented on a screen is, to them, instantly understood.  If in three seconds it is not understood, they need only click to a new screen that will be instantly understood.  As a result, they never experience their own ability to break through to comprehension through attention, concentration, and thought.  They simply believe, through no fault of their own, that they can’t do it—and no wonder.  They have never had to try.

            Ms. Newell’s prescription, I believe, will lead to a generation of highly techno-capable information junkies who cannot read or reason.  I see the problem every day.  And in the context of all the hype about the usefulness of gadgets, it has become a labor of Hercules to force students, against their will, their experience, and societal pressure, to concentrate enough to have even a single experience of the intellectual breakthrough that can be delivered only by intellectual concentration on a complex text. 

            “In other words,” says Bauerlein, “complex texts require single-tasking, an unbroken and unbothered focus.”  Of that focus the “digitalization of education” is the constitutional foe.  Without that focus, no amount of so-called “improvement” by the innovation-besotted will make a dent in the inability of our students to comprehend a complex text—that is, to think.