On Failing to Wake the Dead

I seem to be waking slowly from the trance induced by the last few weeks of the semester. The cold, wet weather isn't helping. It's not that I was overwhelmed with work -- the number of papers and conferences and faculty meetings was about average, I guess. But I admit to feeling a little bit demoralized by my students this term. I had a long wrangle with some of the students in my Honors seminar on modernity because they really didn't believe the course had anything to do with their careers and they really didn't like the fact that I kept asking open-ended questions that did not appear to yield to the usual procedures of problem solving. Seniors in the Honors Program have mastered the art of problem solving, though in many cases they have not mastered much else. [Here is what I wrote on our class blog after turning my grades in.] But at least the wrangle with the Honors seniors involved the active expenditure of effort; the vast majority of the sixty students in the two sections of my Literature of American Popular Music course simply absorbed energy like sodden little black holes. Out of the sixty there were perhaps half a dozen who tried from time to time to help be ignite a discussion, but their efforts were ultimately futile in the face of the pervading passivity and sullenness. This was a course in which we read Howl and The Dharma Bums and listened to Monk and Bird and watched video of Lady Day singing accompanied by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. We watched documentaries about Dylan and listened to old ballads about murder and adultery. And they just fucking sat there. As if none of it means anything. I'm tempted to never teach the course again -- the students don't deserve it. It profanes the sacred texts to exhibit them to such dolts.  

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

3 thoughts on “On Failing to Wake the Dead”

  1. Brilliant post. All the more astonishing because you were able to put it together at the end of the semester. I’m so burned out I can’t put together a coherent sentence, much less a thoughtful rendering of Adorno on the autonomy of thought. Over the years I have had to remove certain materials that I love from my syllabi. Thus students cannot read Moby Dick with me, or Walden, or Pamuk’s Snow. They will read “Billy Budd” or “On Civil Disobedience” as substitutes. It is too heartbreaking to hear the complaints about such works.

  2. I love Moby Dick (though I’ve only read it twice). Walden I’ve been through more than a few times. Same with Billy Budd. I’m not sure I could have appreciated them as a student, but now as a man of some years, I can begin to see them better, and see that they merit multiple readings.

    I’m sorry for your frustrations.

  3. joseph, i came across an article in THE SMART SET
    by Morgan Meis (for dec 2, 2009) titled “The Heidegger in All of Us” in which it seems to suggest that heidegger subverted his teacher husserl’s phenomenology by connecting “being human to a certain set of conditions, to a notion or an ethnicity or anything else, the little fascist begins to grow….”
    had you seen this article? (i just came across it connected to the recent post by meis.)
    ed mycue

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