Monday, December 20, 2010

Eat, Read, Talk

For some years, my wife craved shrimp.  I have a photo of her at turn one of Watkins Glen International Race Track (it was during a weekend of races for "classic" sports cars) in a folding recliner with a bowl of shrimp and cocktail sauce.  She looks happy.  One day she announced, "That's it.  I am done with shrimp."  It must have been almost five years ago.  And she hasn't had a shrimp since.  This past term I had a student in my seminar who read the way my wife eats (or used to eat) shrimp:  find an author, read absolutely everything you can find by him or her until you are sated and can no longer bear the thought of another bit of this prose or poetry.  It's an interesting approach.  I couldn't do it.

It brought up the issue of how reading and what we read can be compared to our diet.  Are we classic meat and potatoes?  Or exotic flavors?  Do we think about trying a new dish?  Or do we stick the old and proven stand byes?  Are we adventurous or comfortable in our individual ruts? (I tried tongue for the first time at a Basque restaurant in Idaho -- I liked it.)  And once we make a choice, do we stick with it or do we try a taste and then toss it away if it does not sit well (I confess that I did that with one book -- that I remember -- during my reading life -- I started to read A Confederacy of Dunces -- I got through about a 100 or so pages and then just tossed the book -- not a good thing for a literature professor to admit).  And what makes us say, as my wife, "Enough!"

This led to a discussion of how a reading list (menu) should come with one of those plates with dividers for the separate components of the meal (like the old tv dinners or the new microwave gourmet meals).  And then whether it's ok if the portion in one compartment flows into the next (a kind of intertextuality?).

Ok.  It was not the most profound discussion of reading, but it did, somewhat oddly,  connect with students who are always looking for ways of compartmentalizing their lives so that the whole becomes easier to adjust.  My students weren't so willing to push the metaphor, but they did see a kind of point.  And they started, perhaps, to think about reading as a matter of both settled "taste" and exotic seasoning.  That might just pull them away from an overriding sense of the sameness of school reading (like school lunches of the past?).  And they might start to think a bit more playfully with the very idea of why and what and how we read. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mark Twain and Frances Harper -- Pudd'nhead Wilson and Iola Leroy

I expected a stronger reaction -- maybe even an argument. 

Last week I attended a small conference hosted by the Mark Twain Circle of American and the American Humor Studies Association.  We met in San Diego.  The groups meet together every four years; the most recent meeting was in New Orleans the year after Kathrina.

This time I decided to write a comparison of Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Frances Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy.  Harper's novel was published in 1892 (before Twain's).  It is within a time frame during which concern with "passing" took on a greater life.  William Dean Howells, for example, published An Imperative Duty in 1891;  Twain himself played with the idea of "passing" not only in Pudd'nhead Wilson in 1894 but sometime earlier in the 1880s in a brief fragment of a plan for a story titled (in manuscript) "The Man with Negro Blood."  This all ties to Harper and to writers such as Pauline Hopkins, Charles Chesnutt, and Nella Larsen (each of whom I teach in my course on African American Writers).  This is fertile critical ground, and it helps place Twain in a much more complex combination of writers, a combination that makes it more difficult to think of him as unique in the American literary tradition of writing about race.  Too often proponents of Twain raise him to unrealistic heights.  It's best, I think, to bring him back to earth by linking him to other writers, his contemporaries.

At the end of my presentation, I wrote -- "Both Harper and Clemens center the lives of their black characters in the relationship of parent to child; however, for Clemens that relationship, tainted by the ideology of servitude and ruled by both law and custom, holds no positive lesson, no positive result.  Once Chambers becomes Tom, Clemens begins to develop a story about the weaknesses of a motherly bond that is overwhelmed by racist doctrine and twisted by desperation and anger.  In this way Clemens writes about white fears in the 1890s – esp. the fear of being supplanted by blacks and the fear of hidden and unknowable racial backgrounds.  His portrait of Roxy and his description of her actions are not about sensitivity to black experience or black allegiance to the mother or family.  They are about white fear at the prospect of the growing black influence – the image of the former slave as subversive, not only within American society but more specifically within the American household.  Roxy’s act is ultimately the most disagreeable threat – from within – from the kitchen and the laundry – to white power and authority.

In the end, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson examines the fear of white society of the racial other and of the creeping reality of the result of miscegenation.  “Tom’s” fear is every white man’s.  Samuel Clemens is not interested in racial balance, but in the effects of paranoia on the white community.  The worry is that we are all black inside:  the inversion of Huck’s line about Jim.  The question is how white society will deal with and address its possible loss of status.  Chambers accepts his mother’s truth because it is the fear that has been placed within him throughout his privileged experience of life.  From Yale to Dawson’s Landing, the fear is that blacks will become a social force, a fear that is somewhat supported by the strong ties that Harper argues are the real legacy of slavery.  Her vision of a rising black community strengthened by its members’ allegiance to mothers and siblings, unified in its accepting responsibility for intellectual and economic lives and setting up the foundations for cooperation among generations of former slaves and their children is a contradiction to Clemens’ reality of white fear (it is a strange line from Pudd’nhead Wilson to Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots and later The Clansman).  It is a pity that his vision takes so long and so hard a hold on American society."

That last comment, I had hoped, might lead to a discussion that complicates Twain's reputation for racial transcendence (Dixon's novels are notoriously racist and aimed at sparking and reinforcing white fear).  It didn't.  And I am left wondering why not.

Maybe we have internalized the message of Twain's unique status and have become used to the idea that he is standing alone for racial justice.  And we are used to thinking that only his ideas matter.  That is all too simple.  We need to read Twain in context, and we need to think of his writing not as a signal that racial issues are easily resolved when white writers take them on.  Why is it that we embrace Twain (or Stowe or, perhaps, Thoreau and Melville) but do not acknowledge the long and complex tradition of African American writers who write from within an experience and not about an experience.  And why don't we see Twain as commenting more on the fears of white citizens than on their supposed ability to transcend race.  It's a puzzle.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Beneath the Canon -- electronically

I will teach a new course in the Spring term.  The course will use an Amazon Kindle as the primary technology, and I plan to ask students to read a 19th century American novel each week using the resources available via Amazon.  The point will be to choose novels that are no longer in print; the question will be how those texts relate to the usual canon of 19th century American novels.

I have been playing with my Kindle since I bought it several weeks ago.  There is a wealth of material available, and I have already bought collections and individual works by Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Louisa May Alcott, Thorstein Veblen, and Frances Harper. I have recently finished reading Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick and Norris' Vandover the Brute, each of which would offer students a chance to experience a much needed broadening of typical 19th century reading lists.

My intention for the new course will be to introduce students to writings that seem no longer to be part of the established 19th century canon.  We will explore the titles in relation to those books that remain popular and that are held up as representative of the genre and the times.  The question will be why some books are canonized and why some are not.  But rather than a conversation of the general merits and intentions of the literary tradition, I will hope to get students to engage in creating criteria and judging works based on that criteria.  And I will hope to spark a conversation about values and the way generational reading and teaching shapes what becomes a literary tradition.

All of this, of course, can also be discussed within the canon of an individual writer; for example, William Dean Howells, whose The Rise of Silas Lapham or Hazard of New Fortunes continue to get some attention while A Modern Instance, Annie Kilbourn, or Indian Summer remain virtually unknown to today's students.  Even Mark Twain has titles that are virtually exiled; for example, Recollections of Joan of Arc, Is Shakespeare Dead? or The American Claimant seem to have disappeared.  This will extend the discussions this term in my seminar (for senior English majors).  We have been exploring the idea of canonicity.  At issue is, I think, the very real separation between personal and academic reading.  Put simply, we read differently depending on the context -- school reading, especially for English majors, demands a level of analysis that is uncommon when civilians (I can think of no other way to describe non-academics or non-English majors) pick up a book.  Students admit that pretty readily. 

The question becomes how do we enhance an interest in "school" reading while preserving the level of interest and (even) enjoyment for readers.  A recent discussion of (parts of) Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books:  The Book of the Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire got us all thinking of contrasting (read antithetical -- even enemy) approaches to reading.  One of the ideas that my students embraced is the way that non-academic reading allows for a full range of emotional reaction.  They love the feeling of getting lost in a book and allowing the text to take them over and push them to new experience.  And they say that the harsher, clinical reading that academics do is alienating at times, even when the analysis, in the end, brings them to a better understanding of the writing or a broader knowledge of literary history.In the past I have tried to address the separation of academic and personal by suggesting that students read for class using the same approach they use for their own reading.  I don't give reading quizzes.  I don't insist that the artifacts of a culture (the books that grow out of it) are the primary means of realizing the reality of a society or its internal relationships.  But it's still the teacher telling them this.  And it's still assigned reading.  So we are never quite able to suspend the rules of academic reading (and I am not sure that I would do that if I could). 

I have also resorted in this class to asking students to read three books of their own choosing and to discuss those books (why they chose them and what they got from them) in a round-table format.  It certainly has broken the form -- last week's reading moved from The Scarlet Letter to Frankenstein to Dracula to Jane Eyre to Animal Farm to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Angela Carter, H.P. Lovecraft, Albert Camus, and David Sedaris' Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

So we struggle.  Have quiet moments.  And, from time to time, are able to realize the power of writing.  But students don't embrace academic reading (and I am not sure that I do at times) and are always a tad suspicious of the whole process.  So it goes.  Maybe their skepticism is for the best. And maybe the dance we do when we talk about reading keeps all of us a little more honest about intentions and results.  And maybe access to long forgotten texts will contribute to this conversation overall.  Maybe.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Mark Twain Industry

A recent post on the Mark Twain Forum -- an electronic list for those interested in the writing and life of Mark Twain got my attention.  It doesn't always happen.  This post was a complaint about an essay in The New Yorker, a piece written by Adam Gopnik titled "The Man in the While Suit:  Why the Mark Twain Industry Keeps Growing" (The New Yorker, 29 November 2010, pp. 78-83).  It seems Gopnik crossed a line when he claimed the new volume of Twain's autobiography to be "the Royal Nonesuch of American Literature" (79; go back and read Huck Finn to catch the entire significance of that), and at least one writer felt that he disparaged Twain scholarship by calling it an industry.  Both reactions are, in fact, unreasonable given the depth of Gopnik's commentary and his clear understanding of (if not reverence for) Twain's literary accomplishment.  And I wrote to the list to point out the fundamentalist streak in those who worship Twain and accept no criticism of their hero.  Twain had lots of warts, and it does us no good to think of him as a saint.

Anyway.  It is naive to argue against the industrial analogy when looking to the work done in Twain's name.  Few writers inspire as large a number of major publications each year as does Twain .  That is especially true of 2010, a year in which there appeared at least four major biographies, two editions of the autobiography (my own in a second edition from University of Wisconsin Press and, of course, the Mark Twain Project's hefty first volume), two special issues of journals noting the anniversary of his passing (one from Japan), and a full assortment of academic and popular essays.  Any industrial complex would be thrilled with that kind of output.  And it has been a more or less continual treadmill (or assembly line) since Twain's death.

The problem, of course, is that fans of Twain (as opposed to critics or scholars) can only see the value in works that reinforce the cultural icon (see my earlier post "Challenging the Conventional Mark Twain" from this past August).  For them (and for those involved in assuring the continued cultural and economic success of the icon) there is only a threat when readers (and most critics and scholars are readers) look more deeply into the motivations and accomplishments of Samuel Clemens.  So when someone like Gopnik offers a less than worshipful comment, all hell breaks loose.

What was most offensive about the reaction was that most of those taking extreme umbrage seem never to have read the whole essay.  They responded to a post that offered the abstract of the essay and then just went into rally mode.  Even scholars who should know better reacted with a sense of hurt and anger.  But, then again, some scholars are most interested in maintaining the holy image of Mark Twain rather than being genuinely interested in both the man's writing or the history of their own profession and perhaps their own complicity in pushing an inherently biased icon of Twain on readers.  In short, the "industry" stuck up for its product.  And then complained when it was caught in the act.

More's the pity.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Road Scholars" and Mark Twain

I spent each morning last week meeting with a group of 26 "Road Scholars" -- it's an elderhostel program at the Watson Homestead Conference and Retreat Center (about a 40 minute drive from my home in Elmira).  I would meet the group early in the morning and then leave quickly to get back to campus so that I could meet my classes.  I have participated in the program each fall (and sometimes in the spring) for probably a decade.  It's always a pleasure because the participants are eager to learn and open with their questions and their appreciation (that last is a very important part of my motivation for continuing to participate).

This year the group was energetic and interested.  When I teach my usual course on Mark Twain to undergraduates, there is often a lag as they get comfortable with the material and with the atmosphere of the classroom.  Students often begin to participate more as the term goes along and as they realize that I want them to ask questions and that they will not be taken to task for interpretations and responses that might seem a bit off bubble.  These older students (very adult) have no such worries.  They are willing to interrupt with questions and are happy to get answers throughout our time together.  I tell them that their agenda is the main point and that they are welcome to talk at any time.  It's a little like walking a high wire without a net, but they are, in the end, appreciative of the time and attention.

The key discussion this time was about a rather unconventional reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that links the theology of Horace Bushnell and Clemens' uncertainty in his role as a parent and Huck's growing in an atmosphere that withholds moral teaching -- in the end a notion that the novel is about bad moral parenting rather than racial equality.  The final day's discussion of the autobiography (many of them had been primed by the publicity surrounding the publication of the first volume of the autobiographical material by the University of California Press) opened questions of Clemens' lack of self-reflection and the contrasts between Clemens' authorial audience and his (now) actual audience..  An older and experienced audience, I think, is more accepting of strong opinions and not bothered (really) when their earlier assumptions are challenged.  Several of the group mentioned at the end of the week that the discussion had pushed them to want to read Twain again.  Or a different Twain.  And that is a profoundly encouraging reaction no matter what form a "class" or a "discussion" takes.

In the end, I am more encouraged to continue developing my own interpretation of the Clemens/Twain relationship and my exploration of how domestic concerns affected Clemens' writing and our own approach to his writing.  Academic audiences are often reluctant to think beyond a conventional image.  These men and women were not only willing to have their ideas challenged but reinforced the need to reinterpret Samuel Clemens' life and writing.  Watching the group digest the image of Clemens as a writer working to come to terms with his own worries about family and his own self-indictment as a negligent parent (over the deaths of Langdon and Susy and Jean) has made me more sure that I am on a meaningful path in my scholarship.  That group gave me a gift of their attention and their questions.  And their understanding.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Re-reading A Connecticut Yankee: Twain, Defoe, Conrad, and Vonnegut

It's been a while since I last posted any comment.  The mid point of the semester is always hectic:  this year seems unusually stained. I am not sure why.  But I hope to get back into some small swing of my own work, even if I am still in the midst of reading student papers and navigating committee demands.  I guess it's more of the juggling I wrote about a few months ago. 

Anyway.  Last night I started to re-read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  I will teach the first 8 chapters to my freshman class this morning.  Coming back to the novel has presented an interesting challenge.  At first, I was going to be content reviewing the passages I had highlighted and emphasized in earlier readings.  As I started to read, though, I was drawn into the story and the style of Twain's telling.  So I read through these first chapters with an eye toward tying the novel to the other reading in the class, especially Robinson Crusoe and, just completed, The Heart of Darkness.  As a side trip, I also thought about my recent classes on Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. 

Hank Morgan (the protagonist in CY) is intimately related to his fellow adventurers Robinson, Marlowe, and Billy Pilgrim.  If we consider the novels within the larger tradition of realism, we can see how each is faced with the very real dangers of life.  What I find compelling this morning is the kinship at work among these creations.  Each faces a deep aloneness and has his world view fully challenged.  Robinson's isolation pushes him towards God and an ultimate evaluation of his place within a threatening European society that is often torn by religious competition.  His isolated island becomes the frontier of the empire as he works both to populate it and to assure a community's existence.  Marlowe faces a similar isolation, though his is a good deal more lethal.  His ultimate interest is in the affect of the work of imperialism, and he comes to a rather limiting understanding of the error of exploitation.  For Marlowe, and perhaps for Conrad, the European exploitation of Africa is bound with his notion of the danger to the white sensibility.  I think, in the end, Chinua Achebe is right to criticize our romanticizing of Conrad.  The focus is not on the crimes committed against aboriginals but about the impact on the white imperialist.  Kurtz and Marlowe are irrevocably changed by their African experience.  And the point seems to be that whites have it worse than the rebel or criminal or simply natural Africans who are run over by the imperial activity.

Twain is also, it seems to me, finds the hubris of the invader as a primary interest.  The realism of Hank's growing sense of exceptionalism and his increasing condescension and strong willed exploitation of all of Arthur's England is telling.  Hank has been dropped into an undeveloped land and has the professional and managerial skills to become "the Boss."  And he gloats in the easy victory.  It is so easy that he comes to think of himself as invincible and ultimately takes on the role of savior, a savior who is not embraced by a people (or ultimately by a church bent on maintaining power).  For me, though, Hank's opening chapters are telling in his repeated reference to an asylum.  I have written elsewhere about Morgan's insanity, and as I read these opening chapters, I am more convinced that I am right.  The aloneness that Hank feels is not the isolation of the ship wrecked or the first wave of the imperial machine.  It is the aloneness of the loss of family (this becomes clear at the end of the novel, but you see a good many hints of its inevitability along the way).

So.  What ties the characters and their creators together is a search for the redemption within human ties.  Robinson finds this is Friday.  Marlowe finds a perversion of it in his promise to Kurtz.  Billy (a post for another day) struggles to maintain some connection to a belief in charity and a human potential for redemption.  And Hank forces a whole world into being to come back to his connection with a wife and child.  The psychological realism in these texts is deep and abiding.  Masterful work.  And perhaps too often overlooked for quick interpretation of colonial excess.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Mark Twain's Autobiography: Missing Pieces

On Wednesday of this week (it's now Friday), I received a copy of the University of California's new edition of Mark Twain's autobiography.  It's a hefty volume.  And this is volume one of a planned three-volume set.  While I haven't had a lot of time to examine it (at least not in the midst of reading student papers and preparing for classes and pushing through a set of meetings), I thought a few comments in order.

The editors have done a herculean job working through the scores of files and manuscripts (handwritten and typescripts) that form Clemens' autobiography file.  The main challenge was to find a way to reconstruct a definitive text of the typescripts based on Clemens' more than 250 days of dictations.  The editorial apparatus gives some indication of the difficulty of the task, a task that needed a good long time to complete with any degree of assurance.  Once I am able to find some time, I am looking forward to reading through their work to see how they managed all of this.  When I first read through the autobiography files in the early 1990s, I was simply intimidated by the chore, and I have since written several times about the weight of the task and (frankly) the unlikelihood that something like a "book" would ever come of it.  I am still not sure whether this edition is the "book" that Clemens hoped for, though I am sure he would be pleased at the amount of attention all this has gotten.  In the end, I wonder if the on-line version will be more accessible.  It certainly should be easier to read because of the volume's size.

I am a bit troubled, however, when I review the scholarship that serves as the background for the project and make my way through the extensive (though in another way limited) list of references at the end of the volume.  Several important essays that have given shape to our thinking about the autobiography do not appear.  DeLancy Fersuson's 1936 essay on the (then) unpublished parts of the autobiography is not mentioned; Paul Baender's correction regarding Clemens' piece "MacFarland" is not mentioned; Thomas Couser's essay on Twain and anti-biography is not there; Marilyn De Eulis' work on Clemens' autobiographical "experiments" is missing;  Jean Schinto's essay on Twain and Henry Adams does not appear. A very good essay by Jennifer Zaccara that Laura Skandera Trombley and I included in our 2001 collection Constructing Mark Twain (Missouri Press), "Mark Twain, Isabel Lyon, and the 'Talking Cure':  Negotiating Nostalgia and Nihilsim in the Autobiography," is also missing (I have included all of these as part of my editions of Clemens' autobiography).

It seems, then, that I happen to be in good company because none of the work I have done over the past 20 years appears as part of the scholarly record.  Even though the edition has a section devoted to the chapters Clemens published in the North American Review during 1906-1907, there is no record of the edition that I did (University of Wisconsin Press, first in 1990 and then at the beginning of 2010 as a second edition) of Mark Twain's Own Autobiography:  The Chapters from the North American Review  Three other essays that I wrote dealing with the autobiography and Susy, the idea of collaborative work, or the notion of persona (or one other that ties the autobiography to the tradition of literary domesticity) do not appear.

Clearly, the Mark Twain Project editors were focused on the problems inherent in Clemens' text(s); however, they have, I think, done a disservice by not including the work of others who have, like them, struggled to make sense of the mountain of material.  More's the pity.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Costly Lessons -- Defoe, Twain, and Other Considerations

I happen to be teaching Robinson Crusoe this week as part of our Freshman Studies sequence of courses.  The book was chosen partly in the hope of getting our president to give a common lecture to first year students -- he did a scholarly work on Defoe decades ago and is in favor of teaching "the Great Books" both as part of the Freshman Studies course and our (somewhat confused and confusing) Freshman Writing Program.  He declined the invitation to give the talk.

Anyway.  I am working through the novel, essentially reading right along with my students. It has been about 30 years since I first read the book.  This time through it's a totally new experience.  At the end of his chapter titled "The Journal:  Of Pots and Canoes," Defoe (in the guise of Crusoe) writes:  "This [failure to dig and then move a canoe to the sea] grieved me heartily, and now I saw, though too late, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost and before we judge rightly our own strength to go through with it."  It's a lesson too often neglected.  And often costly in money, time, and reputation.  Mark Twain knew that all too well, though it didn't stop him from bad investments and schemes through the end of his life.  We haven't learned from either man as we continue projects too costly for our meager selves.

Case in point -- Mark Twain's autobiography.  Volume one of a three volume edition is due out on November 30 though you can get copies today from the University of California Press or -- more cheaply -- from -- the Press seems unwilling even to offer review copies of the book unless you are willing to pay for the privilege (I asked for a review copy for a review essay I write for the annual American Literary Scholarship -- I was told I could buy one, thank you).  More to the point, I think is the notion that general readers will flock to buy the volumes.  The Press has invested a huge amount in the project (and the editors of the Mark Twain Project have invested countless hours to develop a new methodology for deciphering the texts, hand written manuscripts and typescripts and even pieces of newspaper clippings) in the hope to bring readers once again to the altar of Twain.  I think that they will succeed with volume one.  I just bought my own copy after all.  But once the general reader begins to slog through the material, I think that even Twain's optimism and ego will deflate as contemporary readers (and here I am not thinking of Twain scholars and maniacs each of whom has their own lust for all things Twain) realize that the material is not as groundbreaking and awe inspiring and confessional as they want.  Our culture's interest in pathography and tell-all, self-revelatory autobiography (from tales of incest to drug use to the struggle with fame) will not sustain interest in Twain's decidedly Victorian attempt to burnish his own image and burn those he believes were or are his enemies.  A recent revelation that Twain relished the idea of crushing James Paige's "nuts" because of the scam of the typesetting machine sent at least one scholar scurrying to buy a copy to see what other nuggets (pardon the pun) could be had.  But the general reader, I think, will be bored.  Maybe I will be proven wrong. 

The point here is that the whole project of putting together Twain's text may have been undertaken before there was a real plan to get that heavy and huge canoe of ideas and reactions to the sea of public demand.  Twain thought all of his works were water and, therefore, were attractive to a range of readers.  He also thought his autobiography would be large enough to fill a state.  And a collection that large won't float.  And it's hell to get it to the steam. 

In the end, it's all about planning and recognizing not limitations but the timeliness of opportunity.  Just as we try to push students to read Defoe and Twain and suggest that reading the canon will improve their lives, they are treated to the reality of economic life and the realization that a strict diet of literary texts and writing assignments based on those texts won't prepare them for the broader writing needs of college-level or professional work.  Just as we decide Twain's architecturally complex autobiography should be part of his legacy, the reality that he wasn't really up to deep and abiding reflection comes along to chasten our plans for aggrandizement.  Like Crusoe, we have created a stunning canoe.  But the damn thing is land-bound and won't float.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Academic Juggling -- again

It's that time of the academic year when student papers are due and a whole host of institutional and external deadlines come crashing in.  Students look exhausted.  Faculty tempers are threatening to flare.  By week five of the term, things start to unravel.  It pays to take a moment and recalibrate.  Or at least try to take a deep breath before the next go-round.  Sometimes that breath is raspy and painful.

Some faculty decide that the easier way to adjust to the demands is to pull away from some portion of the work:  they concentrate on their own discipline, their own projects and withdraw from any discussions of long-time worries or complaints.  The responsibilities of teaching (and a long list that is) remain in place (for most, though not for all), but many demands, even those related to the long-term stability of the faculty as a whole -- issues related to review, tenure, promotion, institutional planning -- become targets for quick cynicism and even quicker rants.  There is something disheartening about professionals who prefer self-interest over a commitment to inter-generational fairness, who look at their place as safe and do not consider the needs of faculty members who have still 30 years of service ahead.  Committee work takes on darker tones and the most senior people decide that issues that might make a difference in junior faculty lives just don't deserve their time and attention.  Things will never change, they say, and they embrace the status quo, even when that means everyone suffers.  Academics, it seems to me, are innately conservative:  even when their long-term growth is threatened, they remain stuck in a single thought and are unwilling to try anything different. 

Of course, it's both faculty members and administrators at the heart of this impasse.  If faculty are unable to break out of their mindset, administrators are often more than willing to take advantage of the static condition of the faculty to drive a completely separate and perhaps even less academically profitable agenda.  Programs that can be changed continue to live in academic limbo because of an unwillingness to admit the failure of an idea or an inability to articulate an alternative vision that takes academic content and resources into account.  Planning suffers because we live in a community that has learned only to react (and often badly) and not to seek new ideas; and the overall academic program suffers because we live in a community that has become fossilized within a pre-modern ideal of curriculum and a mid-twentieth century management model.

Tar babies and tar pits.  We seem attracted to conditions, behaviors, and thoughts that hold us fast in the glop of our worst selves.

Or maybe it's just a bad, rainy, arthritic day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Writing and Teaching Writing: Part Three

One of the real challenges is trying to get students to think of writing as more than an academic exercise.  They see writing papers as tied to getting a grade, and that is tied to writing to show a professor what you (kind of) know.  Summary is a big part of this.  They are tuned to demonstrating that they have read the material.  They are not very keen on the idea of showing that they have thought about the reading.  That part of writing is alien to many and intimidating to most.

How DO we try to get students to think differently about writing.  This week I have tried to re-introduce them to the process of writing and suggested that writing is an heuristic task, one that gives you a chance to try out various ideas and pushes you to think and even change your mind as you watch your ideas gain shape.  I talked to them about purpose and tried to complicate their understanding of purpose to take their own learning into account.  I spoke to them about the need to consider how they want to present themselves, what kind of persona do they hope to adapt.  To be honest, it seemed at times, that all of this was more than they wanted to think about.  Finally, I suggested that writing is a collaborative act.  The act of writing may be solitary, but the preparation to write and constant evaluation of your draft (another word that many did not want to hear) is more effective when you talk to others about what you are thinking and writing.  It's not cheating to talk to others while you are trying to write.  It's actually how writers find the value in their work and find and tune their voice.

But none of this seemed to crack their approach to writing as purely academic.  They weren't particularly comfortable (let alone confident) in using writing to find out what you know, what you don't know, what you think you know, what you have to say, to whom, and how.  Rather, it was all rather new and mysterious to (many of) them.  To crack some of this resistance, I tried to use small peer groups as a starting point.

But what do you say when a student asks you what it means when an instructor in the writing program tells him that his paper received a grade of LP?  What happens when students are more interested in conforming to the format of thesis statement and then body of a paper (again, the 5 paragraph theme model)?  I suspect that some of my students are facing a new model for writing, and these question show the limits of their experience (so far, anyway).  What they want is to get the damned paper written.  For many of them that means starting with hours and not days left to deadline and pushing through to the end:  writing is utilitarian rather than reflective.  Maybe that conflict is a place to start.

Changing our institutional focus is another.  The college needs to join the 20th century (let alone the 21st) and create a full and dedicated writing center.  With that, and with an appropriate focus on training tutors and staff to handle writing in varying disciplines, it could be possible to set aside the overly prescriptive and stodgy writing class to introduce students to writing as exploration rather than regurgitation.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Writing and Teaching Writing: Part Two

"Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work."
                                                                                    Ezra Pound, "A Retrospect"

Last time I suggested that teachers of writing bring authenticity to a lesson when they write on their own.   Being engaged in the work of writing gives those who teach experience navigating the difficult relationships that exist among writers, their subjects, and their audience.  That rhetorical triangle is basic whenever we sit with pen and paper (or keyboard and screen -- in any size or shape).  Anyone listening to advice from a writing instructor has a right to expect that that instructor knows something of the writing process.  Writing instruction is very different from interpreting literature.  At times reading and writing are related and work together, but the act of writing introduces and requires different strategies and expectations.  We can summarize a plot and talk of symbols and metaphors based on our experiences reading and our (often learned and, therefore, artificially developed) ability to interpret texts.  That is very different from sizing up an audience or trying to create a full argument that will somehow be accepted by a variety of readers. 

So.  I am arguing that teachers of reading bring a very different skill set to their work.  And it's not reasonable to believe (or to suggest by how we hire and promote individuals in the academy) that interpreters of literature can teach writing or, for that matter, that a content specialist is able to teach with nuance and sensitivity the requirements of writing to a peer or general audience).  Unless, of course, they write.  Therein lies a complicated (and sometimes too simplistic) argument for the link between scholarship (here meaning writing for an audience of one's peers) and teaching.

One part of this argument is that writing forces a "scholar" to fine tune an argument and arrange clear and useful discussions into a full essay.  That pushes an individual to understand content and then translate that content for a wider audience.  Unless you are trying to create something to be read by peers (or by those who know more and better things than you do) it is likely that you are not sufficiently challenged.  If you are writing to an audience of novices, it's easier to get away with less than stellar thinking and less than complete control over material (I understand the snottiness in that remark:  a specialist who writes for a general audience faces a whole other set of demands).

The point to writing within a discipline is to comes to terms with what you know and to bring that knowledge to readers with a hope that your work will help create a different understanding of a topic or idea.  It's not really about putting yourself on display.  Nor is it about writing to demonstrate that you have some facility with the topic.  That should end once you complete courses and requirements.

On a deeper level the struggle to put ideas into writing (or the demonstration of a struggle with ideas, which really is a good deal more interesting) is what ties us to our students.  We should bring our experiences as writers to them to show how writing works -- how it works both to demonstrate knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, how to create new knowledge by writing our way to see it.  If we don't struggle with all of that, how can we in good conscience stand in front of them and instruct them on the fine points of writing.  If the last thing I wrote was 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, I have no business teaching writing.  Further, if I haven't really challenged myself by submitting my writing to an editor or editors or to a reading public (which is the only way to demonstrate that you are serious about writing and being part of a discipline's conversation), I have little authority to judge my students' work.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Writing and Teaching Writing

During class yesterday I handed back papers to my students.  These are first year students, and the papers they wrote were tied to a summer reading assignment (James McBride's The Color of Water).  The assignment was meant to get them to think about the book and what ideas it might prompt.  Students were given a set of questions, and they wrote in response to those questions.  We (the instructors) collected the papers on the first day of class and were supposed to give them a close reading and give students some idea of how we would evaluate their writing.

Of course, students wanted to know what grade they might get based on the work.  I didn't give a grade; instead, I did a close reading of each paper and made both corrections (grammar, punctuation, etc.) and asked content-based questions or asked for added interpretation.  I think the students were, in all, fairly surprised by the amount of comments and the close reading.  I did tell them that none of them would have received an "F."  I also told them that none of them would have earned an "A."  So it goes.

As we talked through the exercise, I tried, though, to introduce them to an added dimension -- I write too, I told them, and I often have to take the criticism and commentary of editors into account as I try to work pieces into publishable form.  Writing is not easy.  Ever.  And it's always focused on getting a point across to a reader.  Whether you are a first year student in college or a long-time professor, you are always judged by how well you establish a point and how well you get that across to readers.  "You look for a grade," I told them, "I try to get published.  It's all a version of the same process.  And it's hard work."

I don't know if they believed me.  I told them I would share with them some of my writing when it comes back to me from an editor (I just recently submitted a long review essay on Mark Twain for American Literary Scholarship) so they could see what kind of comments I get.  This could prove folly.  But I want them to understand that writing isn't formula based and it's not going to succeed all of the time.  You struggle to write well at 19; you struggle as hard (maybe even harder) when you are 56.  (As an aside, I often wonder, too, how faculty members teach writing don't put themselves through the process -- how can you teach writing if you don't write?  But that's a subject for another time.)

In the end, I am trying to teach writing as a process.  This is my attempt to counter the lock-step and, I think, misguided attempt to teach all first year students here to use classical rhetoric.  And I want my students to think about writing as a way to communicate ideas and not just summarize some canonical text that they are being forced to read (again, part of our first year writing program).  Not all of my students will be excellent writers.  Maybe ever.  But they might learn the discipline of writing and learn to be self-critical instead of smug.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Deeper Read

For some time now an argument has been going on about what students need to understand the reading they are asked to do (the kind of background knowledge they need -- a la E. D. Hirsch) -- this has become a question because of a course here at Elmira College called Freshman Studies:  When World's Collide (the first of two courses first year students take; each is supposed to offer material that helps students gain some perspective on college-level learning).  The first book that students read for the fall term was James McBride's The Color of Water.  During a discussion with colleagues, some expressed dismay that students were unfamiliar with the history of Jim Crow in the US, a bit of information that would really enhance their reading of the experience of McBride's mother (or of his father and step father) navigating personal relationships during the 1930s.  "What are they being taught before we get them?" was one lament.

In today's class I tried to approach the question by showing students that the "lesson" in the memoir was not so simple as "with hard work anyone can succeed."  Students are prone to reading with that kind of optimism and with that kind of acceptance of the "American Dream."  The reality, of course, is a good deal more complicated.  And it requires that we bring a range of information to their attention.  And we need to do that and not merely bemoan that fact that they may be less sophisticated than we want them to be.

There are two issues here:  first, we have a responsibility to introduce students to the complexity of social and historical context.  I tried to do this by showing my students extreme examples of Jim Crow using Without Sanctuary (a website devoted to the collection of postcards of American lynchings from the early years of the 20th century).  That visual record is truly disturbing and can shock us out of a simple interpretation of the American dream.  The fact of the cards and the history behind them deepens the reading of McBride's commentary of American race relations.

The second issue is that sometimes WE need to provide the background material to help students read carefully and deeply.  That is, in fact, part of a college instructor's responsibility.  If our students arrived knowing everything they needed know, they wouldn't need to be in college and we would not be necessary.  It's our position to teach them and to lead them to a broader understanding.  Simply to complain about what students don't know borders on a kind of laziness.  It is a way to avoid taking responsibility for helping students (and students not only of traditional age but also returning students) see the world.

The first step in any classroom is to figure out where your students are -- what they know that can help them unpack the reading and what they need to know.  It helps to see the whole experience as a process, and it's best to begin slowly to build a foundation of content knowledge and students' confidence that learning is as much about having knowledge as about realizing that there is a good deal more to know.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Academic Juggling

It's not quite keeping balls in the air, but once an academic year begins, the real challenge is to keep multiple demands in focus -- once classes start, the question is how to keep teaching, committee work, reading, writing, editing all going.  This is on my mind since I have just completed a draft of a long review chapter (on scholarship produced on Mark Twain during 2009).  The draft is about 34 pages long.  It needs to be about 25 or so.  And, of course, the sooner this is done the better for the editor.  And for me.

Composing a review chapter is much like building a wall.  Each essay or book takes on a particular shape and size.  My job is to fit the individual parts together to form some kind of integrated whole.  Part of the challenge, of course, is just reading all that stuff (it takes about a summer of consistent reading).  Next is making sure to capture the author's point and writing a solid paragraph or two describing and summarizing and evaluating whether the author has been successful getting that point across.  Next comes the draft, which requires linking similarly themed discussions or at least pieces about the same piece of writing (connecting essays about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee or a short story, for example) and making sure that there is at least some kind of "flow" between major combinations.  I never worry about length at this point.  It's easier to cut material than to go back and find new material to add.  The final stage is editing.  I will begin that tomorrow.  It will require some time to go through the 30 or so pages and to make sure that the individual paragraphs and links between and among critical works make sense.  I actually enjoy the work of editing.

The key now will be strike some kind of balance so that I can meet all the individual obligations for the start of an academic year -- and still do the necessary editing work.  Juggling is the one metaphor that makes sense here, and I have to keep in mind the amount of time I need and the amount of time I have.

None of this, of course, is ever really part of a public discussion of academic work.  Recent blasts aimed at those with tenure demonstrate a lack of understanding of the kind and extent of work that is often part of an academic career (since recent complaints come from academics themselves there is something strange about this self-indictment -- perhaps a kind of guilt over having a job during difficult economic times).  I will pay more attention to this once the year fully begins -- and, of course, once I get past the editing of the review.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Duels -- Redux

I am searching for a quote to use as an epigram for an essay about Sam Clemens -- searching brought me to this, which brought me back to the earlier post on swordplay and duels.  Here is Clemens in his autobiography:

"I never had anything to do with duels since [his time in Nevada].  I thoroughly disapprove of duels.  I consider them unwise, and I know they are dangerous.  Also, sinful.  If a man should challenge me now, I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot, and kill him." (Mark Twain's Own Autobiography, p. 77)

The snap at the end is the key....

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Challenging the Conventional Mark Twain

My last post focused on the benefits of seeing writers from a different perspective.  Today let me offer a thought about what impact this has when dealing with a canonical writer -- Mark Twain.

When you begin to work with the history of criticism for one writer, you are often surprised at the way individual critics respond to a piece of writing or to a writer's life.  We are often taught that there is such a thing as the truth when writing about an author, that we are able somehow to create an objective interpretation of a story, novel, or a life.  The reality, however, is that each critic brings an intensely personal focus to the reading.  And critics have their own agendas for interpreting works.  If you read a series of biographies of Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), for example, you will see that each biographer has his or her own perspective.  Even the point at which their story begins says a lot about what they think is important about Clemens' life:  for example, Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain opens after Clemens has come east in 1867 and then follows the events of his developing career.  That suggests that there is a relatively clear break between Sam Clemens and the literary persona Mark Twain (Clemens first uses the pen name in 1863 but develops the full character of Twain over the next decade).  If you are drawn to this idea of the split personality, the work that you will do will be colored by the theory.

Something akin to that happens even earlier in Twain biography:  Albert Bigelow Paine and Clara Clemens (Sam Clemens' middle daughter -- the one that survived him [an interesting expression that could lead to yet another post eventually]) each set a specific ideal image of "Mark Twain" in the biographies they wrote. Twain is presented as a serious writer and sage who uses humor to poke at human nature.  It is the Twain of the white suit and wicked wit.  And that is the image that has come to dominate our culture.

But what happens when you look at the reality of Clemens' life and look behind the curtain that Paine and Clara (and a legion of later biographers and critics) used to obscure Clemens' reality.  And what happens when a critic or biographer challenges the long held image.  The Twain establishment is very particular about this image and will do what it can to discredit new perspectives.  Don't for a minute think that scholars are primarily interested in truth.  They are interested in making sure that their own theories and ideas are duplicated.  They want to make sure that there is a dominant view of their subject and that this view remains dominant.  There is self-interest as well as an intention to maintain a position in the hierarchy of criticism.

In future posts, I'll try to suggest how this works with Twain studies.  And I hope to offer some notion of what can be done to break the image of "Saint Mark" and find the reality of the man who was Samuel Clemens.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Literary Comfort Zones

Let me expand on the idea of breaking out of a comfort zone -- especially in our reading and interpretation of literary texts or the writers that produce them.  Turning to a new experience as a reader often is a mix of reward and anxiety.  While still a graduate student I was asked to read a sentimental novel written by an American woman during the mid 19th century. I chose Susan Warner's Wide, Wide, World, a novel published in 1850 (a contemporary and competitor to novels such as The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick) and which sold thousands of copies in both the United States and Great Britain (Warner would be one of the "damned mob of scribbling women" that drew Hawthorne's ire).  I was assigned to read a novel that, because of its sentimentality, was thought (still in the 1980s) critically inferior to Hawthorne and Melville.  The point was to read an "inferior" work so that I could better appreciate the aesthetic complexity of male writers.  And it worked.  For a while.

Later I read other women writers, but this time within a wholly different context -- a study of the tradition of women's writing and within a more broadly constructed definition of the purpose of writing.  These women were writing within a part of the culture and as critics of that culture.  Their writing was, perhaps, not as aesthetically sophisticated as some of the male writers, but it was authentic because it spoke to the demands of the household and the legacy of sacrifice that was part of women's lives.  Male writers were held at arm's length and thought of as "artists."  Women were set into a lower class of contribution and were considered too much a part of the culture to write useful (which meant) existential criticism.  I was, in fact, forced now to look at what I had been told both about the value of novels and the role of writers.  And over the years I adjusted my approach to reading and then to teaching to take into account the writer's place within society and the changing definitions of worth.  This also -- by the way -- made me more conscious of the quality of writing and more conscious of the link between art and social commentary.

The reality is that this kind of discomfort can bring about substantial change in how we think about our own disciplines and our work within those disciplines -- and then how we think about what we do as teachers.  It takes some time for the lessons to sink in.  But holding on to conventional notions deprives us of the excitement of a new perspective and ideas.  We can broaden out our understanding of the world, but only if we remain open to the lessons that help us.

Next time -- how all of this affected my work on Mark Twain.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mark Twain and Swordplay

Over four weeks during the months of July and August, my wife and I spent time taking a fencing class.  It wasn't quite what we expected.  It turned out to be -- according to our instructor -- a survey of weaponry and fighting strategies from roughly the 12th century to the 17th.  We started with broad swords -- four-foot long, two handed things (actually, we started with five foot-long wooden dowels that we used to practice both attack and defensive moves).  This week we ended with 17th century rapiers.  Afterwards we had ice cream.  It was our date night.

Oddly (perhaps), Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) devotes several chapters in his travel book A Tramp Abroad to the dueling culture of France and Germany (chapters 5-8).  He pays particular attention to the Germans, and he goes on at length both about the mindset of the culture and the results -- both physical and social -- of duels.  Clemens, of course, got into trouble during his time in Virginia City Nevada and ended up running out of town soon after his own experience with a duel (not with swords but with revolvers).  In Germany a decade or so later, he had the chance to watch young German men do battle with swords (foils actually).  Clemens was at times impressed, though I think it's safe to say he was, in the end, pretty much appalled by the spectacle.  He thought that while the young men demonstrated a form of fearlessness, their families would pay the price when injuries or (at times) deaths were the result (I think of Clemens' late version of collateral damage in "The War Prayer").

But the point I want to make is that stepping into this class was helpful to me as a teacher.  Really.  Some years ago when I was more active in high performance driving at Watkins Glen (I wrote an essay that linked that learning experience with my approach to Mark Twain scholarship -- it was published by the Mark Twain Annual), I found it valuable to step away from my comfort zone and try to learn an entirely new skill.  That same thing happened (perhaps on a smaller scale) when I went to fencing class.  I was trying to learn an entirely new skill.  At times I was really bad at it.  And I felt conspicuous and uneasy.  I have been teaching for at least 25 years in one form or another (from graduate assistantships through to my present position as a full professor), and moving out of that comfort zone is invaluable.  Especially when it's a difficult skill.  And, for me, especially when it is a blend of physical and intellectual.  Performance driving was like that.  And so, to my surprise, was sword fighting.

From time to time now, my wife and I will practice with our dowels in our back yard.  I am waiting for the neighbors to panic and report a strange spectacle of domestic conflict.

Monday, August 23, 2010

August 23, 2010

I am not sure what possessed me to start writing a blog.  It seemed a good idea -- a way to get some thoughts down and to share those with a wider (perhaps) audience.  It might spark some response.  It might not.  But we will see.

Most of my days are spent wrestling with ideas, and most of those ideas come out of the reading that I do in various texts from 19th century American literature.  I know that doesn't sound exciting.  I do know that many of our contemporary issues -- from class definitions to racialist thinking -- have their roots in the world of the 19th century.  From the psychological personae of Poe's fiction to the optimism of Emerson's individualism, from the moral code of Thoreau's Walden or "Resistance to Civil Government" to the complicated nuance of Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, from the realism of William Dean Howells' fiction to the domestic tensions expressed by Sarah Orne Jewett or Mary Wilkins Freeman or Kate Chopin, we can glean the starting point for a host of aesthetic, moral, and social arguments, all of which we can watch as they play out in our times.  Consider the Puritan voices of William Bradford and Mary Rowlandson, the conservative voices of Jonathan Edwards, and the radical voices of Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Consider the ambivalence toward freedom and equality as expressed by Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, or even Abraham Lincoln.  All of these make up parts of my days.  It's quite a chorus. 

In the coming weeks, all of this will take on added focus as I start teaching again.  This year I will be facing the spread of students from first year to senior.  And the ideas that come through will not always be welcome.  So it goes. 

Maybe writing about this will help it come into sharper focus.  My hope is to bring new life to my thinking and to my teaching.  Writing about it will become (I hope) part of the whole process.