Thursday, September 27, 2012


Among the things I encounter when reading the journals I take are calls for proposals, requests for works to be submitted for presentation and publications periodical and otherwise.  I do not always answer them, as I do not always have it in me to offer what they ask.  But I do try to respond to a number of them, such as that which College Composition and Communication currently has open.

I have been doing a fair bit of thinking about how I am going to respond to it.  As I have done so, it has occurred to me that I am facing a task much like that which I assign to my students in various classes.  Like them, I am facing a general topic and a page-limit (well, really a word-limit, but it works out more or less the same).  Like many of them, I am having some difficulty in generating specific ideas to address in what I hope to submit and see get into print; the general topic being offered is fairly broad, and there are many ways in which it might be addressed.

I suppose that since I am in circumstances similar to those in which my students find themselves (at least regarding the assignments I give them), I ought to apply processes and exercises to my predicament similar to those I exhort them to employ.  It would be good of me to do, certainly; modeling is good pedagogy, and my use of the techniques I recommend accords them an additional degree of ethos.  Too, it will afford me more lived experience with them, which will make it easier for me to discuss them with my classes, and that can hardly hurt the quality of my instruction.*

Even so, some uneasiness attends on the idea.  Discussion of my struggles with the students may well be unproductive--or even harmful.  It is certainly possible that instead of developing empathy and rapport--"You see, folks, I am in the same place, facing the same things, so you can trust that what I tell you about facing them down works"--my expression of difficulty will undermine my authority to address the class from a position of knowledge, that I will present myself as someone not fit to guide them through their own difficulties--"Well, you jerk, if you have trouble, what hope have we got?  And if you're having trouble, what gives you the right to tell me how to do this?"

There is also the potential that I will try the things I have been recommending to my students and find that they do not work.  While I certainly expect that not all techniques work for all people (else why would we need to have more than one technique?), I worry about the implications of experiencing total failure of the tools with which I hope to provide my students.  Would I then be in the position of having to set aside my earlier teaching?  And would that not then give them reason to doubt everything else I give them?  Even though I do want them to be able to question that with which they are confronted, to be able to satisfy themselves of its validity, I fear the institutional ramifications that might arise.  Certainly, were I to admit openly that I have been in error in my instruction, the students would have ground to contest every grade I issue and every assignment I offer.

The consequences I imagine are, perhaps, a bit excessive.  They do, after all, assume that the students will pay attention to me in a way that will allow them to enforce those consequences upon me, and for all that I struggle to engage my students in the classroom, I am not convinced that they pay me much mind outside of it--and some do not do so within it, more's the pity.  Too, I have discussed this very issue before, and as yet, nothing bad has come of it.  But I remain conflicted as to how much I ought to let the students see of how I put my own work together--especially at the beginning, when I am having trouble focusing on a single line of argument.

*Those of you who are looking at me for my teaching style and techniques (and I know that there are some of you out there, even if you do not announce yourselves), take note that I worry about them even in my personal life, and that I discuss them openly in a forum which invites comment and critique.  And I do hope to receive some of each.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


On my subway ride to work today, I finished reading my copy of the September 2012 issue of College English.  Among its pages is an article by Kurt Fosso and Jerry Harp, "J. Hillis Miller's Virtual Reality of Reading" (79-94).  I am not familiar with the work of Miller other than as the two discuss it, but even in that discussion, I found much upon which to think.

Fosso and Harp repeatedly assert that Miller works to establish in his own critical work the idea of the literary world--that is, the world described within works of literary art and craft, in which their plots take place and their characters exist--is a virtual world, one which prefigures the text which gives a reader access to it.  They note that, in Miller's conception, "the literary work does not exist only in this or that copy of a text, nor in the mind of the author, nor in the experience of a reader.  Rather, any given piece of literature can be said to exit only in a dynamic interaction of texts, writers, readers, and hermeneutics" (81).  They also go to great lengths to present Miller's ideas as partaking of the tradition of the Platonic Ideal, and they state that art, being necessarily an incomplete presentation or representation, functions best when it acknowledges its own imperfectness.  Fosso and Harp depict Miller as positioning literature as a form of virtual reality long before computer-aided virtual realities gained mainstream acceptance in popular American culture, concluding that Miller's ascription of value to literature specifically because of its ability to immerse readers in an alternate reality is his own overriding, central tenet.  It is perhaps a bit simplistic an assertion with which to conclude, but the article overall does a fair job of relating Miller's major works to an audience perhaps not wholly familiar with them.

Fosso and Harp do situate Miller in a long tradition of literary criticism and one of its parent disciplines, philosophy.  My own biases, developed through my own years-long course of study and strange quirks in my literary tastes, tell me that Miller's assertion that literature at its most successful depicts events that take place in a world that exists before and after the text* is an echo of Tolkien's assertion in "On Fairy-stories."  I will admit that it is entirely likely that Miller has not read that particular bit of Tolkien's corpus; writers of genre fiction of any sort are not terribly highly regarded in a great many academic circles, and those who work in fantasy literature are typically worse off than the rest.  Similarly those old proponents of works by "dead white guys."  But the presentation of Miller as making the argument that there is a literary world for each text that pre-exists the text seems to me to be Tolkien's assertion of storytelling as a sub-Creative act written again.  For the Prince of Fantasists, it is the employment of allusions to remote histories--the reference to a pre-existing reality within the text--that does so much to lend his Middle-earth corpus the sense of being a living world, which sense fosters much of the appreciation of his work.

*This is, of course, according to Fosso and Harp's presentation of them.  I have no reason to actively doubt that they are--I tend to accept the editorial process of College English as being valid and resulting in the publication of good scholarship--although I am certain that there are other ways to interpret Miller.

Monday, September 24, 2012


As I might have mentioned once or twice, academic journals seem to have some trouble in reaching me, despite my avid reading of them.*  Just a day or two ago, well into the month, I received my copy of the September 2012 issue of College English, and I have only today made a start on reading it.  A new editor has taken over work on the journal, which happens, and with that editor have come a new appearance for the journal and changes to the format.  The former makes little difference; I am more worried about the inside of the publication than the outside.  The latter, I am not yet sure of; I shall have to see what comes of it in the coming issues--provided they actually get to me.

As it is, I am going to have to order an issue that seems to have vanished.

Anyway, I have already plowed through a couple of the articles in the volume, including Tara Lockhart's "The Shifting Rhetorics of Style: Writing in Action in Modern Rhetoric" (College English 75.1 [September 2012]: 16-41).  Lockhart makes a passing comment that, "As they worked toward an effective style in their own writing, the [authors of Modern Rhetoric, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren,] also gained a better sense of the middle style they hoped to encourage in students" (21).  It put me in mind of another article that I have recently read, one by A. Abby Knoblauch entitled "A Textbook Argument: Definitions of Argument in Leading College Textbooks" (CCC 63.2 [December 2011]: 244-68). In fact, I think I may try reading the two articles in conjunction to see what kind of productive dialogue I can find between them...

To return, however: Lockhart's remark reminded me of comments I have made before on this blog (such as one here) which address the necessity of continuing learning to effective teaching.  That there is such a need is evident to me, and for several reasons.  One, and one which I likely need a bit more help in learning, is that continuing to learn keeps the teacher humble; it is useful to be reminded that there is a lot of knowledge out there that I do not yet have.  Too, it is helpful to be reminded that knowledge changes, and pressing on with researches in all fields makes manifest at least some of the ways in which it does so.  Further, continued learning allows the teacher to model processes for students--and to empathize with them as they struggle with much the same process (although, as one or two students have commented to me as the new term at my institution has started, their struggles are a bit more pronounced, since they do not have the dedicated years of practice in learning that I do).

To be reminded of the fact, and to be validated by seeing it reinforced in print in one of the major journals in the field in which I do most of my keep-earning work, is a good thing.

*Of course, since in one sense to read something is to devour it, if emotions and understandings can be ascribed to the creations of humanity--and it is something of a commonplace to associate the written word with the child, so that it can be inferred that people in fact so so ascribe--it is understandable that a journal would resist coming to me.  Their pages prove a tasty dish, if not for me quite so much as for Strand's narrator.

Friday, September 21, 2012


I noted in a post on another blog I maintain that I have for a third time been accepted to present a paper at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.  I am as excited about the prospect now as I have been in years past when I have gone (2010 and 2011), perhaps even more so.  Before, I always had hanging over me the spectre of the dissertation (which is available, by the way, if you're interested, and you can check it out on WorldCat), and it largely directed my attendance at panels other than that on which I was presenting.  Now, however, I can more freely direct my attentions, and I very much appreciate being able to do so; the generalist nature of my graduate program, along with my indiscriminate readings during my happily vanishing your and after, left me markedly interested in a great many things.

Indeed, I find that it is very useful to be involved in things outside the regular subject area, both in the academy and outside of it.  The Good Doctor warns of the dangers of overspecialization (namely the fragmentation of knowledge and the inability to perceive singularly important connections between related--and even unrelated--areas of study) in "Sucker Bait," among others, and I, who very nearly cut my teeth on Asimov (and regularly return to him), keep the warning in mind.  That I have, as a petitioner for admittance into and an indweller of the ivory tower, seen too narrow field specialization inhibit understanding over and over again has served largely to push me to do what I can t keep it from happening to myself.

I do think that doing so, that pursuing even passing knowledge in a variety of fields (and I do, believe me), helps me to recall the interconnectedness of all knowledge and all scholarship.  For I truly do believe that it is the case that all of us who are at work in the ivory tower, from its deepest basements to its highest crenellated turrets and under its peaked roofs, are fundamentally pursuing a single object: The Truth.

Perhaps I am naive to think so.  Perhaps I am deluding myself that my own field of study, one engaged primarily if not exclusively in looking at what people centuries dead wrote and which few outside of college literature surveys and the professoriate (broadly defined) anymore read, can be trying to do the same thing that more "practical" fields like physics or medicine or explosives technology or brewing science (I am so very, VERY annoyed at my high school guidance counselors for not telling me that such programs as the latter two exist!  Among other things.) do.  I do not think so, but I could hardly be expected to view myself in such a light.

If I am a fool for my thinking, then I harm nobody by pursuing my passion.  But if it is not the case that I am pursuing some cockamamie idea in thinking that by studying and trying to promote a deeper understanding of the literatures of medieval England, as well as those literatures which derive from it at varying degrees and in varying sorts of removal, I am approaching a greater understanding of what it means to be a human being in this great and glorious creation we inhabit, then my pending return journey to Kalamazoo marks what I hope will be one step closer to what might well be termed enlightenment.

I look forward to it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I have been reading in preparation for my teaching (go figure, eh?).  Among that reading has been Edith Hamilton's Mythology, a book which I have had since I was in high school.  (I am familiar with the text, but I do occasionally need to refresh my memory.)

Only today did I realize the pun on the cover...

Thursday, September 13, 2012


A new term at my current institution has just begun, and so I have once again been spending some time thinking about the way I teach and the reasons that I teach.  It occurs to me that I have talked about it before, something about doing what I do in part because of the jokes.  And that remains true; as has been pointed out, earlier writers had as well developed senses of humor as current writers--if not more.  But there are other reasons...

As I was catching up on the reading I missed during my trip overseas, I read through the September 2012 National Geographic.  Andrew Curry's article, "Roman Frontiers" (106-27) captured my attention.  Part of the attraction comes from the fact that some of what Curry discusses had been discussed in one of the classes I took while I was at the University of Cambridge.  More of it, though, comes from the comment Curry makes: "Understanding why the Romans were obsessed with their borders--and the role their obsession played in the decline of the empire--might help us better understand ourselves" (110).  The comment draws a parallel to late Rome and some of the more contentious immigration issues in the United States and elsewhere*--we do seem to be preoccupied with the boundaries between countries--and serves as a reminder that we are now as we always have been.

There is a remarkable continuity of human endeavor and of human nature.  What we have done we still do, what has been important is still important, perhaps not in its surface trappings, but in its fundamental nature.  And that is another reason that I study what I study: it helps me to understand that person I am.  For I, as are we all, am a product of all that which has gone before me, whether I am aware of it or not.  By learning more of it, I learn more of who I am, and I approach closer to the one great truth towards which all who seek learning and seek to develop new knowledge strive.

*I am not here going to go into the question of whether the implication that the current state of affairs is an empire as doomed as late Rome was.  Later, I might get into it.  Might.

Monday, September 10, 2012


When I post entries about my experiences in and of church, which seems to have been a fairly frequent occurrence as far as my blogging goes, it tends to be on the days that they occur.  Such is not the case at present, not because I have not thought about what went on during yesterday's service at the United Methodist Church of the Village yesterday, but because my grandmother was visiting, and both my family an my guests come before my own personal endeavors.  It was quite good to have her in from Tama, Iowa; showing her around allowed my beloved wife and me to see things we had not previously seen in The City, which benefited all of us.

We did take her to church with us, though, and so we heard the senior pastor, our bishop, preach a sermon, "Choosing Your Seat," which he derived from James 2 and Proverbs 22.  During the sermon, the bishop, working from the Scriptural passages, stressed the fundamental kinship of humanity--a message particularly important as we approach the eleventh anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the self-sacrifice of passengers on United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.  As part of that message, he reminded us that it is the commonplace and mundane which makes possible the exceptional--and that the exceptional will do well to remember that truth.

The bishop often works from personal example and anecdote, a technique of which I approve in my own writing (obviously) and teaching.  The use of such devices lends an immediacy to the discussion and has the potential to impart significant ethos to it--both of which are good things for such folks as sermonists, teachers, and others whose primary vocation is to get people to believe things and act upon those beliefs.  And in "Choosing Your Seat," the bishop employed anecdote in expressing his valuation of his associates degree from a community college as the foundation of his later successes, such that he insists upon its being properly accounted for among the many honors that have accrued to his name.

As someone who teaches at a two-year college, where students are explicitly working towards such degrees, I wonder if any of my own students will have the kind of success that the bishop appears to have enjoyed (I only see the man at and around church, where he gives every indication of being quite happy with how things are moving; if I am wrong, it is through ignorance, and I apologize).  I wonder if they will find the kind of passion that evidently moves him and will be able to follow that passion in such a way that they are able to be of good and useful service to those around them--as the passages from Scripture he referenced strongly suggest we all ought to be.

That they will be is something for which I hope.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


It is often the case that the sermons at the Church of the Village, which I attend, provoke thought.  That it is so is one of the things that keeps me going back to that particular church, of all of them in New York City and surrounding areas (leaving aside the commonplace that academics, particularly those in the humanities, are non- or anti-Christian people across the board).  Today's sermon, the first I have heard from the senior pastor at the church for some time (I had been away for a while, you know), was thus provocative.

During the sermon, "'Talking to the Chair' Religion," the senior pastor made comments to the effect of true religion being that which takes care of those on the outside, that which reaches out and offers a hand to the untouchable.  Examples of Jesus doing so abound in Christian Scripture, for example in Matthew 8, Mark 5, and Luke 5.*

As a (too poorly) practicing Christian, I know that I can do worse than to follow as best as my mortal limitations allow the example of Christ--something about which I have commented.  As I took the train home from church this afternoon, I thought a bit about what the senior pastor said, and it occurred to me that I do so in more ways than simply the literary critique I discuss in a previous blog post.  Indeed, my teaching at my current institution can be said to be outreach to those deemed untouchable.

I have expressed before that many of my students come from profoundly academically disadvantaged backgrounds and that they are in many if not most cases largely dependent upon the (now reduced) charity of the state.  They come from immigrant and indigent populations, many are former convicts, and many others are wrestling with various problems which they only hint at with me (even as I know they discuss them in full with some of my colleagues).  They stand among the underclass, in many cases the nearly-permanent underclass, doing or paying lip-service to doing what they can to lift themselves out of institutionalized, generational poverty.  They are, in a prevailing United States society** which values people by their earning potential and the size of their bank accounts, among the untouchables.  In my classroom, they are the academic equivalents (and sometimes actual instantiations) of those "undesirables" the senior pastor rattled off with much more eloquence than I can summon in recollection.

They are the very people Christ served.

They are the very people Christ called His followers to serve.

In working with my students as I do, I seek to do unto some of the least among us some good in the world.  It was only today that I was reminded of the consequences thereof.

*I am not conversant enough in the scriptures and practices of other faiths to be able to attest to their teachings, for which I apologize.  I would love to learn more, however, so comments to that effect are welcome.

**I am aware of how fraught this term is.