Teaching the Political Poem

I’m going to be teaching a workshop on the political poem at the University of Minnesota’s Split Rock Arts Program this summer. As I prepare, I’ve become aware of a presumption in my own thinking that a radical poetics equals a radical politics, but this is clearly not the case. Teasing out the relationship between poetics and politics is not nearly so simple as one might wish. To be honest, I’ve often thought of the New Formalists as a group of conservative poets, with the word conservative covering both their poetics and their politics, but that’s not a fair assessment of the range of political positions espoused by members of the group. Conversely, I’ve pretty often thought of the Language poets and their progeny as leftists and I think most of them are, but there is no necessary connection between the poetics of this group and their liberal or radical politics.

Decline

This site, which used to be funny, has become a leper colony of bitterness & bad writing. And anyone who would put up a link to a David Horowitz book  on the site (without balancing it with this text or this one) simply does not have the best interests of the teaching profession in mind. I used to write things for RYS from time to time, not now. Somehow, the people whose joy in teaching motivated their anger at idiocy in academe have been filtered out, leaving at RYS only people so devoid of feeling they defend rape jokes. Or make rape jokes.

Later: Apparently, the “joke” has been removed from the site.

End of Term Blues

Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.

Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.

  1. I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
  2. I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
  3. Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]

Observation

At the end of each semester, our departmental majors present the work they have done in their required research seminar. The subjects are wide-ranging because we are an interdisciplinary department the focus is on research methodology rather than subject matter. Earlier this week I attended this semester’s presentations. I had to leave a bit early, so I did not get to see every student present, but I was struck by something I had not noticed in previous semesters: Our students tend to speak almost exclusively in their research from the discourses of power. They are unable to distinguish the normative claims embedded in supposedly descriptive language. One student, a Business double major, presented her research on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), taking employers’ objections to provisions of the law as natural and just while dismissing provisions that allowed employees flexibility in managing medical leaves as “difficult to keep track of.” Another began her presentation of South Korean business conglomerates with a quotation from a journalist that contained the phrase “the more orderly Western mind” & though that phrase was mostly window-dressing, she took the behavior of the paternalistic, hierarchical, authoritarian business structures of the chaebols as natural, at least for Korea. It is this assumption of the naturalness of existing orders & systems that really struck me this time around. We need to do a better job teaching critical thinking in the research seminar.

Breaking Radio Silence

Winter has arrived with steady wet snow. I’ve filled the bird feeders and put away (most of) the summer equipment in the shed, binging out the snow shovels. The fall semester is winding down & with the exception of a heap o’ grading over the next two weeks, I’m pretty much in sabbatical mode. I have Spring Semester off from teaching & will spend January, February & March writing here in South Colton, then in April & May return to Vietnam after eight years away. I’m going to spend most of my time in Hanoi interviewing poets, then go down to HCMC and the Mekong Delta with my friend Ly Lan to meet some more poets. My intention is to collect enough material to put a winning grant application together so I can return a year later to complete the project and produce a book manuscript.

When I first began blogging, I called my site Reading & Writing. I’m going to keep the title Sharp Sand, but go back much more fully into literary mode & at the same time shifting away from a public voice toward something more notational & semi-public. I’m not sure what shape things will take, but initially I imagine making notes on my reading & comments here & there on my writing. Returning to first impulses, then, though I’ll also keep mentioning the birds & weather.

RYS Turns Three

That’s Rate Your Students for those of you not in the know. Started by a frustrated college professor in response to the site that shall not be named, RYS allows academics to tell horror stories about their students, from the precious snowflake who just can’t possibly get anything less than an A to the smelly athlete who stinks up the whole classroom. It’s a non-academic site for academics. The stories and responses, posted anonymously, come from academics all over the US — kind of a national barroom where faculty meet at the end of the week. Actually, I think more students should read the site — it would provide them with the clarity of a different perspective. For faculty, well, diatribe and invective are useful psychological techniques — the purpose of RYS is to keep our heads from exploding. At least in public.