One of the perks of being a college professor is paid travel. Yes, you have to write the grant, but when you go it is on someone else’s dime. And of course you have to have some project and come back and write it up, but most of us consider that an additional benefit. We like writing stuff up, that’s why we became academics in the first place. All of which is by way of preview to announcing that I will be returning to Vietnam this spring for a six-week visit. I’ll be spending most of my time in Hanoi, where I lived what I was a Fulbright scholar in 2000-2001, but I’ll also be going to the south. My plan is to record interviews with Vietnamese poets and collect poems for translation. I am particularly interested in placing contemporary Vietnamese poetry in its cultural and historical context. Vietnamese culture has long venerated the art of poetry above all others and I am interested to see how that attitude is holding up in the globalizing market economy that has taken hold with a vengeance in VN over the last fifteen years of so.
On a personal level, I feel a deep connection with the city of Hanoi. Unaccountably, living there I felt at home. Perhaps because I was free to be a flâneur, roaming the city at will & mostly without a need to do more than show up occasionaly at the offices of the publishing house where I was acting as an editor / consultant. In fact, all the freedom made me a little crazed at times, given to fits of obsessive compulsive walking. For a few weeks I went about in a kind of flaming daze, before returning to myself shortly before coming back to the states. Even that was lovely, in its way — “I have a great capacity for joy,” I repeated to myself incessantly as I walked the tree-lined streets and narrow back alleys of Thanh Long, the city of the rising dragon.
So I’m sitting around at home this morning looking out on the kind of beautiful fall morning that would usually pull me outdoors. My favorite yard chores are autumn yard chores. But I’m sitting inside because I picked up a head cold & sore throat at school. Colleges are viral breeding grounds. I just don’t have the oomph to get out & transplant perennials. Despite the cold, it has been a good semester so far — across the board, my students seem pretty engaged, though I remain amazed at their meager abilities as readers. And by that I mean, just the ability to get the basic prose meaning of a literary text. “That’s weird,” they say immediately in response to a poem they don’t understand (Stephen Dunn’s “Men Talk,” hardly a difficult text), dismissing it before they have even tried to suss out the meaning of all its words and images. Reading poetry, they tend to not read sentences, even when there are perfectly clear sentences. I guess they are reading lines as fragments. Perhaps it is just a very weak sense of grammar. And by grammar, I don’t mean knowledge of the names of different grammatical entities, but a sense of the way the parts of a sentence relate to each other to create a meaning. I also found out yesterday that I was one of four members of my department who had been nominated to replace our outgoing department chair, though I immediately took myself out of the running. Five years ago I wanted the job & didn’t get it, but I don’t want it now. I’ve passed that particular fork in the road. All my ambitions are literary & pedagogical these days. Inspired by Stuart O’Nan’s visit to campus, I have begun working on a short story — my first attempt in 20 years — & I’m still struggling with my long poem, pieces of which are lying around on my desk, in my notebooks, and on my hard drive like flotsam on the beach after a storm.
I was really too young to have been influenced by the New American Review during the main part of its run, but I remember in the mid-seventies picking up copies in used bookstores & feeling nostalgic for a scene I was never a part of. Ted Solotaroff is dead at 80. Those beat-up paperbacks, for my generation, were tokens of bravery to be lived up to. And they were printed (at a loss) by major publishers. Now there is something to be nostalgic for. Another believer in the efficacy of writing as an art is gone.
Seems like I haven’t had much worth reporting on the blog recently. I’ll read something & think, “I should blog that,” but then never get around to it. It’s not that I’ve been terribly busy — some work around the house & getting ready for the semester, but nothing overwhelming. Maybe the prolonged rainy weather we’ve been having since I got back from BMC has depressed my spirits. And there was a big blowup on the Poetryetc email list (a real nest of ninnies, where overt plagiarism goes unremarked & clique-politics is called “democracy”), of which I was one of the managers. My resignation from the list a week ago left a very bad taste in my mouth. Then there was the anxiety leading up to my annual physical exam — I always feel this for days — though I am routinely in “excellent health,” according to my doctor. I have been doing a lot of visual art, which is satisfying, but feels kind of mindless. I’m so used to thinking of imaginative work as involving language & a certain kind of verbal thinking that the processes of making collages don’t feel like using my mind, though I realize of course that I’m just doing another kind of thinking. And I’ve been spending too much time by myself — one of our cars is in the shop getting body work done, so Carole takes the remaining car, leaving me at home in south Colton. It’s funny, because in many ways I’m a quite solitary person, but if I don’t have conversations outside the home for several days I get way too much up inside my own head. Anyway, school responsibilities will really begin ramping up next week, we’ll have two cars, & I’ll be much busier. If past patterns hold, this will lead, paradoxically, to more posts on the blog. I think I’ve got a bunch of drafts, in any case, to finish up & post. So life will resume out here on the very tip of the long tail — somebody has to live out here!
William Major had a good column at Inside Higher Ed last week & surprisingly the comment thread generated by Major’s essay is intelligent & civil. (IHE has the most persistent anti-intellectual right-wing trolls on the internet — interesting as an anthropological study, but deeply dispiriting for regular reading.) Major’s main contention is that more full profs ought to be teaching comp & since I’m a full prof who regularly teaches comp I find it difficult to disagree. He also notes that the exploitation of adjuncts cannot be a good thing for writing instruction even though most adjuncts teaching comp do an heroic job under impossible working conditions. I’ve been teaching freshmen to write since 1979 & have developed a few theses on the subject — from the philosophical to the pedestrian — that I will now nail to the classroom door:
- The purpose of all education in the humanities is to disrupt students’ preconceptions about the world they live in. (Disruption is only the first step, but it is necessary.) Critical thinking is disruption of received ideas & conventional wisdom.
- Writing cannot be taught outside of a context of reading & responding to a variety of tests. The texts themselves ought to mix high & low culture, the familiar & the strange. Students often respond effectively to the strangeness at the margins of genre.
- Form follows function: students must have a reason to write before they will learn to write well. Among the writing teacher’s most important tasks is to help students discover the full implications of their particular rhetorical situation:who are they writing to? About what? Why is it important?
- In a typical composition class ten percent of the students will easily master the basics of style & usage, moving quickly on to considerations of paragraph structure, transitions & logical development. At the other end of the scale, ten percent will never master these things — at best, they will “aspire to the semicolon,” as Kay Ryan, the new poet laureate, said of her developmental writing students. The eighty percent of students in between these extreems are the main concern of the composition instructor.
- The five-paragraph essay is a blight upon the intellectual life of the nation.
- Writing teachers ought to be, in however modest a sense, writers themselves. They must share the struggle for high-level literacy with their students.
- Writing teachers ought to be sophisticated & curious readers both inside & outside their narrow disciplines. (When institutionally feasible, faculty from different departments ought to enter the Composition classroom, as visitors or full-fledged participants.
- Too many students are tracked into four-year institutions not designed to serve their needs.
- Conventions are important, but not a goal in themselves. Expectations need to be explicit, especially for the conventions of academic writing: If you want precise manuscript mechanics, fonts, etc., put it in writing. If you deduct a point for each spelling error, make that explicit. (These are really forms of social behavior, like learning to dress appropriately for different situations.)
- Tell students how you will evaluate them. If you are a stickler for deadlines, make them explicit.
- The five-paragraph essay is the enemy of deep literacy. It promotes the idea that thought amounts to a loose accumulation of examples rather than as a structure built for a purpose in which the parts depend upon one another to create an argument. (An argument is not a debate.)
- Colleges must recognize & justly compensate writing teachers, recognizing the labor-intensive nature of the work. The opposite situation prevails mostly under current practice, with writing teachers being at the bottom of the academic class system.
- The purpose of the enterprise — beyond turning out employable workers — is to contribute to the development of students as persons who are sufficiently connected to their world & to themselves that they can act successfully as free agents within our quasi-democracy. Perhaps as reagents. Which will no doubt make them less suitable as workers — we end in paradox, as usual.
Just wanted to note that Kay Ryan has been on my radar for quite a while, though I’d known none of the details now coming out about her life now that she has been named poet laureate. As someone who teaches Freshman English every fall, I was particularly impressed by the fact that Ryan teaches basic writing at a community college:
“It was mainly second-language students and students who lost their way in school,” Ryan says. “They wanted something that I could help them get: an understanding of the basic elements of grammar, pronouns, those pesky apostrophes. The goal was to write an effective paragraph that was coherent and well supported. We aspired to the semicolon, but that rarely happened.”
This, too, struck a chord with me:
But the stress of becoming America’s ambassador of poetry is already keeping her up at night. “I just lie in bed rigidly,” she says, “and I think about how I have moved from a condition where the world can humiliate me to one where I can humiliate myself. And let down other poets.”
The sentiment is consistent with the attitude expressed in this journal Ryan wrote while attending her first AWP conference. Unlike Ryan, I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to fit in at AWP (I was even on the board) & elsewhere before giving it up as damaging. (Though much of the damage was self-inflicted, only aided & abetted by the culture industry.) Anyway, I’m glad to have a poet like Ryan as the laureate. I must say in closing that I appreciated Mark Strand’s remark on the laureateship — after having read about the non-poetic demands of the job as recounted by recent honorees Charles Simic & Billy Collins, it was refreshing to read, “For others, though, the sudden celebrity is an upside. Mark Strand, who served from 1990 to 1991, says that hobnobbing at cocktail and dinner parties was his favorite part of the job.”
[See also this note (with two short poems) from 3 Quarks Daily.]