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Lecture 1: readings by and about Native Americans

When I planned the syllabus I wanted to make this week’s reading on the light side, to give you more time to develop your Confluences paper and produce your Prospectus while still enjoying Spring break. Well, Corvid-19 had its own response to human planning. At any rate, that means what I plan to do in terms of this week’s “lectures” is to talk a bit about the various readings today and hope that you’ll watch the talk, and then be available by email and the class Facebook page to answer questions (email or Facebook) or engage in some discussion (Facebook).

The week before Spring Break we looked at readings that expressed the views of colonial settlers and, later, white Americans towards the peoples they found on these shores and the encounters that had transpired. Some of these sentiments are also part of William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” you’ll recall. The ideas that Native Americans could be helpful neighbors or exploitable trade partners—but were nevertheless alien, untrustworthy creatures worshipping devilish gods and living debased lives and thus in need of conversion (or elimination, depending on circumstances)—these ideas inform a number of writings, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s letters informing the King and Queen of Spain that the native people he encountered in the Caribbean islands could be taught Christianity, persuaded to reveal the sources of their wealth, and snatched up to become slaves for Europeans.

The determined hatred that is the lens for Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration originates not only in the horror of the attack she and her family suffered during King Phillip’s War of desperation, but also in her implacable belief that non-Christians were incapable of goodness and mercy. After seeing her relatives and friends killed and her home burned in the space of two horrific hours, and being herself captured and held for months, this minister’s wife can be excused at least her initial attitude; she does become sufficiently accustomed to her captors to admit they are capable of kindness, but that’s nearly at the end of her book…a book that was a huge best-seller for some time, no doubt contributing to her living expenses but also to the continuous rise of anti-Indian sentiment and actions that became more emphatic in popular literature and fueled more wars on Native tribes in the latter 1800s (which our course does not include).

Still, we have also had the refreshing views of Benjamin Franklin, in “Remarks Concerning the Savages,” which begins with the astute if ironic observation “savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.”

We also have the sympathetic myth-making of Philip Freneau’s poem “The Indian Burying Ground,” which offers a beautiful and haunting vision of an afterlife where social community and nature-linked life belong to the Indian for all eternity.

This week’s readings, representing the views of the same Native Americans, show that continuing clash of world views and values, although in the Iroquois Creation Myth, Pontiac’s Speech at Detroit, and Occam’s “Short Narrative” of his life we see the growing influence of Christian teachings as natives sought to understand white settlers—the Establishment, eventually—and accommodate Christian mythology into Native American ways of thought. Occam’s later experience with his “mentor” Reverend Eleazar Wheelock threw cold water on his trust in whites but not on his dedication to teaching English and reading to Indian children.

Benjamin Franklin has shown us in “Remarks Concerning the Savages” why reaching an understanding between white colonists and Native Americans was difficult, especially in circumstances where the Whites were in control and their mythology dominant even when it didn’t quite match their behavior. Red Jacket in his 1809 speech to the U.S. Senate attempted to explain with logic, examples, and clarity how hard his people had tried to understand Christian beliefs and behavior and why, ultimately, they had to reject them, concluding eloquently that “We do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.” As our editor points out, it was essentially a separatist speech, suggesting that two nations side by side could get along but forcing Native Americans into a larger nation and expecting them to conform to the dominant beliefs and laws was a bad idea. Red Jacket’s traditional and courteous “Brother:” that begins each paragraph of his statement yields in 1811 or so to Tecumseh’s speech to the Osages, beginning “Brothers: We all belong to one family: we are all children of the Great Spirit,” but going on to argue for taking that family to war, on the basis that “nothing will pacify [the white man] but the destruction of all the red men,” and calling for a united resistance that will “stain the earth red with their blood,” with the help of the Great Spirit.

Our editor tells us that eloquence was highly valued in Native American tribes, being the traditional measure of effectiveness in an argument, and argument being the method of resolving disputes. Argument was the responsibility of males in the tribe. (The traditional role of women, by the way, was to listen to these disputes and remember the issues, the eloquent arguments, and the resolution: kind of a combination Court Stenographer and Tribal Memory, a role of great respect and, in pre-literary cultures especially, critical importance.)

These opportunities to hear the voices of Native Americans have been provided to us by historical and cultural historians, tribal memory, documents preserved in government and tribal archives, and, as we see this couple of weeks with Jefferson and Ben Franklin, transmission in letters and other documents by “white” political figures recording true encounters with “red” men they had learned to respect and admire. And don’t forget Roger Williams’ belief that the best way to understand and interact with Native Americans was to learn to talk with them in their own languages.

I’d like to hear your thoughts and questions.

I May Require Shaming or Even Shunning

Excellent meditation on the nonverbal power of words, especially 140 characters at a time!


Twitter has been central to a number of controversial cases that have tested the definitions and the limits of academic freedom. The brevity and compression of tweets means that they exist outside of any fixed context and they are therefore very frequently tonally ambiguous. What seems very provocative or even outrageous to one reader may seem edgily ironic or just mildly sarcastic to another.

Yet, the one thing that tweets share with other types of written–and oral–communication is that if you have to start explaining what you intended, you are already in trouble.

It does not require the prophetic gifts attributed to Nostradamus to predict that Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for Twitter and his often unrestrained and seemingly impulsive use of the medium are going to make these kinds of issues a central part of our public discourse for at least the next four years. The core issue for academics may…

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Twelve Fiction Pet Peeves

Dear readers: You will LOVE this, by a friend and former colleague. Sort of “You Knew What I Meant” macro….

Sonya Huber

Me in sophomore year of high school, I think. All those things we shouldn't have done.  That hair.... another pet peeve. Me in sophomore year of high school, I think. All those things we shouldn’t have done. That hair…. another pet peeve.

I’m reading fiction for Dogwood today, and here’s what I’m noticing in stories that strike me the wrong way. Some of these, of course, irritate me because I have done these exact things when I used to write fiction.
1. When a main character’s first problem is that he or she is bored.
2. Puns in the title. I love puns. But not in the title.
3. A flurry of people introduced in the first paragraph.
4. A flurry of people with trendy androgynous names in the first paragraph. Karp, Jae, Ren, Jasp, whatever. People often have dorky and awkward names in real life, not these little moments of sculpture. Don’t give them the names you wish you had.
5. A kid setting a fire for no reason.

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The soft bigotry of low expectations.

The title is an important reminder of why we bother. The post is a warning about what we would see if the MOOC people succeed in creating a future without genuine professor-student interaction

More or Less Bunk

“We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.”

– Daphne Koller of Coursera, WSJ, November 24, 2013.

“Coursera founder speaks the truth,” is the way that Gianpiero Petriglieri described that quote on Twitter this morning, and of course that’s right. You can only get those deeper cognitive skills through face-to-face interaction, which means (by implication) you can’t get those skills through a MOOC. So why then is yet another MOOC maven acknowledging the inadequacy of their product?

To borrow a phrase from the Bush years…

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best-laid plans…

Well, I’ve been so busy trying to juggle the beginning of the semester and a show I was both producing and acting in— “Once the show is open I’ll get back to me BLOG.” I told myself. And then, at the final dress rehearsal, I fell down the stairs from the dressing room to the stage and broke my left wrist. Not my leg, blessedly, and not my eye socket (which happened the last time I took a header down some stairs…)

Anyway, typing is not easy, quick, or accurate. I will be, essentially, taking a hiatus here. I hope you’ll browse in the archives, where I believe many gems lurk. I will continue with my classes, so I expect to collect more Horrors for when I can write them up. Perhaps I’ll be able to post from time to time during recovery—I will if I can.

Meanwhile, please hang in and hang out with me.

Love to all those who follow this blog!

Some good reading for a lovely Sunday

If you haven’t read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s piece in today’s New York Times, here’s a chance to read it now.

Called ‘The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” it considers the tangible and intangible benefits of reading good literature.

Klinkenborg is one of my favorite writers, and in this piece he seems to be speaking for me as well as for himself. Click the link above and enjoy.

update on sharing…

So sorry that the hot link doesn’t work. But if you just copy the url and paste it into your browser, it should work for you. (Works for me.)

On the subject of the Internet and the English language:

The Lead In Your Pencil

The Lead In Your Pencil. Take a look at what else can be done with that writing implement. As I commented on the site where this is posted, I live in the same area as the artist and have had the joy of seeing an exhibition of his skillful and witty work.

just a test post

to see if the Facebook publish link is live again….

“He worried that his son would fall down the slippery slope…”

This is killer-father again.

In class discussion we explored ideas that might explain the probated sentence. Because I require that students defend that sentence, I try to get them to see the story from angles they might not have thought of. One is the possibility that the judge felt prison would be too easy for the father to handle—certainly easier than having to stay in the house where he had shared such happy times with his son—and so chose probation as the harsher punishment. Another is the possibility that the judge saw the father as confused and well-meaning and therefore not deserving of prison, and saw probation as the more humane punishment.

To develop the latter, I try to walk students through a story that might explain the father’s claims that “any use of drugs is dangerous” and that he had to save his son from a certain horrible end. To do that, I remind them (or inform them) of the “This is your brain on drugs” commercial, all the Law and Order scenes of discovering teens dead in crack houses, and all the claims that marijuana use leads inexorably to addiction to “harder stuff.” Then I explain the idea of logical fallacies and present the “slippery slope” fallacy.

You know what that is: an argument or interpretation based on the claim that one step in the wrong direction is inevitably followed by a process of sliding downhill to a dire conclusion.

No matter how carefully I explain this, a lot of students make statements later that suggest they have a literal slope in mind and that people slide down it simply because it’s there.

My student has made this assumption:

“He worried that his son would fall down the slippery slope and end up in a world of drugs.”

Notice that this young man is going to take a regular tumble, not merely slide. I get the picture of a rather Jack-and-Jill hill, with the son just beginning to tumble down it toward a little drug city at the bottom. No shrubs or outcroppings offer handholds or brakes along the way; the tumbler evidently falls, without thought or effort, down a slick mudpath.

My student (and many like him) completely overlooks the term “fallacy,” substituting a presumption of fact. I enjoy figurative language, but this landscape is mixed and unrealistic.

Max Shulman, in his Dobie Gillis story “Love Is a Fallacy,” does a better job than I at demonstrating the whole idea of the logical fallacy. I used to teach it; I should put it back on the reading list.