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“This piece is a poem, so there’s no way of telling the real meaning….”

Another student who knows the truth of poetry: it’s impossible to understand. This sentence doesn’t take a side in the debate between “too many possible meanings to be sure” and “nothing but symbols that you have to wait for a teacher to explain.” But it’s still enough for a lover of poetry to realize that many students seem to think it’s some kind of secret code. Where can you possibly begin?

“The rose stands for Love.” “But it’s red, so it stands for Sex.” “How do you know it’s red? It might be white, for pure love…” “Because the writer SAYS it’s red.” “Oh, okay. Sex, then. So is THAT what he means by ‘Thou art sick’? Sex is SICK? Wow.” “No, that guy doesn’t say the rose is red. The OTHER one says ‘red, red rose.'” And there you have it: comparative literature.

I am sympathetic. Some poems strike a reader—even a seasoned and devoted reader of poetry—as obscure or dauntingly dense. But the student permitted to think of imagery, even symbolism, as a kind of code has nowhere to go in ANY real poem, where abstract concepts resonate within real things and thereby simultaneously shape and participate in the invitation into revelation that the poem as a whole offers. To read the images one at a time like code, substitutions in a secret sentence, leads only to further confusion. If you read a poem this way, yes, you’ll probably wind up agreeing with my student that “there’s no way of telling the real meaning.” Even if “meaning” is pluralized, that student is giving up in bafflement.

Well, I guess that’s a reason for hiring teachers, isn’t it? What a shame for the reader to cede such power.

Plus ça change—not necessarily for the better

I am sympathetic to the deep feeling of inadequacy as far as our binary-choice pronouns are concerned. I recall, still vividly, moving through life perpetually reminded of my marital status, back when females were either “Miss” or “Mrs.” (A bright light on that path was a student from Korea who insisted on calling me “Sir.”) Never mind that when “Ms.” was introduced it meant “Manuscript” to me and my literary-scholar colleagues—it was still a blessed refuge into the freedom of being myself independent of the existence (or nonexistence) of a spouse. I count a number of gender-fluid, questioning, and transgender people among my friends, and I sympathize with their dissatisfaction over yet another binary identity choice, and my own panic over pronoun choice particularly when referring to people I don’t personally know. It’s exciting to be present in a moment of language examination and creativity, even though it brings back memories of definition-by-single-factor associated with the “Miss/Mrs” dilemma.
But as a teacher of writing I have to keep my students focused on clarity; and the expedient, or experiment, of “the singular they” isn’t helping me. Here’s a little paragraph that will show you why: “In the article it discusses how the child does feel the impact and is upset when they first hear the news about their parents getting divorced, but it overall can bring themselves closer together in the end. The child still has two parents who care for them and are still able to reach the same milestones in life that they were going to reach and still able to have a good life even if it means that their parents aren’t living under the same roof.… It was also interesting to see is [sic] how sometimes the child will blame themselves for their parents divorce when they didn’t do anything at all but the parents just need to reassure them that it was nothing to do with them.”
Did you notice when grandparents seemed to sneak into the family picture?
One of the fundamental sources of confusion is that “they,” while doing service as an undefined third-person SINGULAR pronoun, also continues to be our standard PLURAL pronoun. In a context where the term could mean (to someone other than the writer, presumably) EITHER of those choices, the reader is left to clutch at other sentence clues in an effort to get the comprehensible mental picture that every sentence hopes to create.
The singular “they” can also mask the “they” that has always crept, grandparent-like, into sentences to save students from having to cope with a “he or she” situation or choose “he” for a gender-undefined filler individual, as in “When a student arrives at college he is full of hope.” (My own English teachers in high school and, yes, college [pre-Lib] explained it this way: “In English the masculine embraces the feminine.” Hot grammar!) Students produced paragraphs not unlike the child-of-divorce paragraph above BY MISTAKE in those days (and perhaps in the divorce example as well?). Maybe I should just relax and let “they” solve that grammar issue as well as the more-important identity issue.
For now, though, even the New York Times occasionally wanders into “they” chaos, particularly in the Weddings write-ups I so much enjoy reading on a Sunday morning. I would encourage the Times, as I encourage my students, to avoid the pronoun-choice issue entirely. The divorce paragraph above might then be rewritten thus: “The decision to divorce can confuse a child, who won’t know whom to blame, perhaps; but a divorce can bring family members closer together even when the structure of the relationship has changed. Parental care and attention are necessary, though, so that the child does not assume guilt for the change.” Well, I’m doing this on the fly, but you see it can be done. And the ideas get sorted out along the way, so that the central issue—the stress of divorce on the child—takes a more clearly central place in the paragraph.
Sonnets and haiku are pleasurably challenging to compose partly because of the demands the forms make on linguistic control. Maybe the same pleasure can be found in prose. Meanwhile, I hope our present quest for pronouns more appropriate to our very real identity needs will result in the discovery of devices that, like “Ms.,” allow each of us room without displacing the rest of our grammatical furniture.

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.