gall and gumption

Friday, December 28, 2007

Since You Asked...

Email from Tom yesterday, asking me my thoughts on teaching reading. A friend of his is preparing to teach an ethics course and wonders how to teach students how to read older texts – such as you might find in, say, 18th century literature – that may discourage students because they are a little foreign in style and not quite what they’re used to.

He sent some samples of material that was about teaching reading.

Here are the links:

The first one is I.A. Richards.

This is a collection of impractical tips based on Richards -- impractical tips! That seems like an idea with some fun in it!

OMG people! Remember “close reading?” Note that none of these suggestions can be implemented by any student unless that student already knows, i.e., has been told, what he or she is looking for. But it is very impressive at conferences and department meetings. Shows that the person is acculturated into the academic environment: stay up all night producing something like this that shows how organized your mind is.

and here’s another, remarkable because it links to the mythical Sven Birkerts.

And here is what I wrote, after a speedy run-through.

My thoughts are that these all rely too much too on apparatus that is cumbersome and distracting from the act of reading. People learn to read by being interested in what they read. If that happens they will get the thing that they read, as opposed to whatever anybody tells them they should be looking for.

It's odd that these are about teaching reading, but they are all instructions for students. It seems to me that Phil's friend needs instructions for teachers and not for students.


Teacher needs to ask self:

Am I interested, excited, moved by what I have read, enough to think it is important for my students to understand it?

Really? Sincerely?

Can I locate the source of my excitement, of what is important, of what has meaning in what I and these students just read?

Can I explain it to my students so that they understand something of what it means, of why it is important, why it moves me?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, do not teach.

If the answer to all of these is yes, here is how you teach your students to read:

You select for discussion a passage or a text that you care about, that you see as important, and you talk about it truthfully, candidly, thoughtfully, and you show them how you got what you got out of it. If they follow you, they will get more out of it than you gave them, because they will learn from and make use of your example of how to read. Oh, and by the way that means you have to know your way around the text.

You ask open-ended questions, none of that "Socratic Dialogue" bullshit.

You encourage students to try to form their own questions about what they read -- to define their own problems n their own words. You don't tell them this necessarily, but defining the problem you are having with a text can solve about 80 percent of it. And then you answer their questions.

You don't judge their words. You respond to them with thoughtfulnes, care, and respect, establishing a lucid relationship between their question and the text. Because when they tell you they don't understand, that is the frontier of the humanitiies.

If you make this conversation interesting and rich, if you give a sense that the material has untapped riches and **that they have as much of a right to get at in their way as anybody else**, they will learn to read.

Give them permission to skim over the hard parts if they must, and urge them to make note of anything interesting -- page number, phrase, written out passage, comment on it, just so they can find it if they need to talk about it or write about it. In discussion, keep referring the conversation back to the text: as in "Well, let's see again what XXX actually says." Because it's good to remember that the actual text is different from your idea of it at any given moment.

Honestly I do not think it is necessary to do more. If you don't believe you can teach the material on the merits of its inherent interest you just should find something you can care about or get out of teaching.

Everything else just gets people tangled up in all the apparatus and then they feel even more cut off from the author and his/her material. All you are doing is giving it to them as a gift, not even as a gift, as something they already own.

Reading is experience, it is an activity like thinking; it isn't a method. There is no system for getting it, just reading one thing after another.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Junior Minister Jackass

Dignified silence. I learned at last to keep a dignified silence. Remember when Walter Shandy is looking for a tutor for young Tristram and he says he wants a man who "will not point at offal." When I say I have maintained a dignified silence, I just mean I haven't talked about it here in these pages. Some of you know the story about the man who is now Junior Minister for Research in Nevis (he was Junior Minister for Crafts a while back but has apparently upgraded himself). And when I was in Nevis I certainly didn't keep quiet. After I left Nevis I wrote here about other things that happened there but always left this alone, out of consideration for the other, truly decent people that he was working with, and out of that dignified silence.

But I lost it yesterday. Yesterday I learned a bit of news, and people, the full heart spoke. Well, the full heart laughed its head off actually.

Charlestown, Nevis: Seemingly enraged by what the Junior Minister for Research, Hon. Dwight Cozier, said during his address to Parliament in the 2008 Budget hearing, the leader of Opposition, Hon. Vance Amory, called the Junior Minister a ‘jack ass.’

Hon. Vance Amory said his reaction was as a result of a “tissue of lies” being told by the Hon. Dwight Cozier.

Hon. Cozier demanded an apology and threatened to walk out of the August House should Hon. Amory not apologise.

“If he (Hon. Amory) is allowed to stay (in the House of Assembly), I will leave,” Hon. Dwight Cozier stated.

“I looked at Honourable member and called him a ‘jack ass.’ I do believe he is,” Hon. Vance Amory was reported to have said.

Mr. Amory, who is also the leader of the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM) and a former Premier, said he would not apologize but Cozier lobbied to the President of the House of Assembly to get an apology from Mr. Amory

This may seem trivial to you, but while I was living in St. Kitts a man was fined EC$600 for calling an off-duty policeman a donkey. There, at least, people can take these things seriously.

What makes this even worse is that Cozier takes himself fearfully seriously, in a sort of primitive way. I mean, even Mr. Pecksniff practiced a certain amount of self-effacing, urbane wit. When Cozier feels his dignity affronted (by disagreement, lack of sufficient deference, by being caught shamelessly lying), the blood rushes into his eyes. He has no Kung Fu -- not even bad Kung Fu. So basically, of all the people in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, this is the man whose utter inability to deal with it, whose utter lack of wit, candor, and presence of mind ensure that he will feel the sting of it worse than anybody. And Vance Amory knew exactly what he was doing. The St. Kitts list people have been talking about nothing else since it broke in the list yesterday. They're absolutely feasting on it. This is the sort of thing calypsos get written about. Is it too much to hope...?

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Red Sofa

When I moved into the new place I was just camping here for the first week – I think all I brought was my bed, a suitcase full of clothes, my laptop, a table, and a chair. And a dog bed. And Sweetie, of course. The first few nights of that week Sweetie slept on the dog bed. Then she sort of migrated up to my bed. One of the last things that arrived from Germantown was the red sofa, and until it arrived she slept on my bed during her long doggy daytime naps and at night.

When we would go up to Germantown she would get onto the red sofa and stay on it till we were ready to head back; no wandering round the house, just bonding with the sofa. The sofa arrived here and it seemed that for the first couple of days she couldn’t believe it. Now, if she’s in the house she’s on the red sofa all the time. She has completely stopped spending any time on my bed, and won’t go on it even when she’s invited.

The red sofa is her friend.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Big Date

Some of you have read Marvin Mudrick’s review, “Out among the Heathen II," (in here) of a book, Traditional Chinese Stories, in which Chao Cheng, the master thief, visits the shop on the banks of the river where the proprietors, Hou Hsing and his wife, sell human flesh dumplings and poison their customers, in order to rob them (and make more dumplings I suppose).

”My father told me not to buy dumplings on the banks of the Pien River because they are all made with human flesh there. Look at this piece. There’s a fingernail, and it must be part of a human finger. And on this piece of skin are all sorts of little hairs; it’s got to be flesh from the pubic area.”
“Seriously sir,” protested Hou Hsing’s wife, “how can you say such things?”
Chao Cheng ate the dumplings and heard the woman say “Fall!” while she stood in front of the stove, watching for Chao to topple over. But nothing happened. “Bring me another five!” ordered Chao.

I remember when this review came out there was at least one person around who picked up that line, “Bring me another five!” as a sort of catchphrase.

Well, after my big date Monday night I thought of that line and that’s why I’ve quoted it here. After my big date I felt a bit like Chao Cheng. “Bring me another five!” I said to myself.

So back in September or so I got a phone call from a man I’d never met. He had met some friends of mine on Martha’s Vineyard, whom we shall refer to here as T. and P. I only have two friends on Martha’s Vineyard, and I didn’t meet them there but in St. Kitts, where T., the wife, spent most of each winter. My friends were apparently quite charmed by this man, whose mother they know quite well (she lives up there too, I assume) and gave him my phone number. He lives in this area and has enjoyed some success as a freelance journalist and knows all sorts of people, so wouldn’t it be nice, T. thought, if he could show me around a bit and introduce me to some people, and she told him various nice things about me, etc. So I got the call. And he offered to take me around to parties and events so I could get to know some people. “Well that’s very kind of you,” I said.

He called me up about two nights later to invite me to an event for the next night. Well, for any number of reasons it was out of the question, but basically all the reasons boiled down to my needing more lead time. “Well, he wasn’t sure because he gets these tickets and often it’s at the last minute etc.” and I just said, cheerfully, “That’s OK, when there is something with more lead time we can go then.”

So over the next few weeks I’d get emails from him with listings of various events. We had one longish chat on the phone that was quite pleasant, and he sounded intelligent and well-spoken, if just a wee bit afflicted with taking himself seriously. But then I also considered it possible that that was my frivolity talking when I made that judgment. At last we settled on an event at Kennedy Center for November 19, more than a month away. In that month I got this job, didn’t get the one I really really wanted, had to move, went through another health scare with my Dad, moved to “The Little House on the Prairie,” And I was not very communicative (as you know) so as the day approached I thought I should just drop a line or call Beany to make sure it was still on. And I will admit I felt a little guilty about not having made more of an effort. So for about four days I tried to reach him with no success.

But I thought, “Well, I said I’d go, and I should show up.” So I left work early, went home, walked the dogs, got ready, and checked my mail one more time and there was a message from Beany suggesting that since the Kennedy Center event was a “no-go” he had another one for a week later. I wrote back immediately and said I didn’t know the date was off. So I found out that a couple of emails he sent me had gone into my junk mail folder, and I hadn’t given him my new number, and what with the move my cell phone battery had run down, but anyway we got it all straightened out and agreed, next week we’ll go to this event featuring the Harlem Gospel Choir. So, somewhat relieved, I went back to work.

The next Monday came, the Monday after Thanksgiving, and I had spent the whole four days on the last dreadful push to get all our stuff out of Germantown, you know that part when you really think you’ve got everything but you keep finding things not cleaned or not packed? The part where you end up with three hangers, two odd socks, the detachable hood for a jacket, an extension cord, an old bank statement, a scrap of paper with a phone number, and a dust bunny. But you have to get them all out of there. At the end of each of these days I would just come home and work on this place till I collapsed into bed, sometimes fully dressed and with my glasses still on. But we got done at a reasonable hour on Sunday, I got a good night’s sleep, and was ready for my date Monday night.

It takes an hour of driving and Metro for me to get to downtown DC. I arrived at the appointed place at exactly the appointed time. It was at the Mellon Auditorium, and there was no marking outside to indicate what event was being held there. There were, however, several men dressed in colonial garb, actors, apparently, all very heartily acting the part. None of them could tell me whether this was where the Harlem Gospel Choir was playing. One of them thought the choir was from Richmond. The security guards didn’t know anything. “What if I’m at the wrong place?” I thought. But I found someone inside who assured me that this was it, and so I went out to wait for Beany. At about 5 to 7 I saw someone who resembled his picture go in the door. I caught up with him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Are you Beany?” “Yes,’ he said. “I’m Kia.”

His reaction was rather startling. He drew himself up and looked most unpleasantly surprised. “I told you I wasn’t going to be here,” he said. “Didn’t you get my messages?” “No.” “I left you two voice mails and sent you an email that I wasn’t going to be here.” “But you are here.” This statement seemed to irritate him. “Yeah, but I have to go.” “Okay,” I said, again, cheerfully, keen to reassure him that I was not offended that he had to cancel and certainly didn’t want to get in the way of his other plans, especially since he had come to tell me that he wouldn’t be able to be here.

He promptly walked into the auditorium. I didn’t even quite register this, but I thought if he was hanging around I could at least – I mean, isn’t it the form in misunderstandings of this kind to offer some kind of apology? Just for the sake of politeness? So I went in and found him standing with this woman, well, she was standing and he was sort of flitting away from her and back, schmoozing. When he sort of passed near me I said, “I’m still not quite sure I understand this. Am I missing something?” “I told you I wasn’t going to be here,” he said. “But you are here,” I repeated. (I mean, I just couldn’t understand why he kept saying this, when he was there. I wasn’t demanding an explanation, I was just puzzled, sorting out the knowns and unknowns.) “I don’t think I’ve been rude to you,” I continued, “So it’s not quite clear to me why you are being rude to me.” “I told you I wasn’t going to be here.” “And I told you I didn’t get the messages.” “That’s not my fault,” he said. “Listen to your messages next time.” And then he turned his back on me.

On the way home I figured out what had happened. He had canceled with me having found some better prospect, but apparently had lied about it in his messages to me. And I had just sort of blundered in on his lie. I was struck by how promptly he was able to take being caught in a double lie and turn it around and make it my fault for not getting my messages. I realized that this is a person who lies like this all the time and when caught, goes on the counterattack, putting the other person on the defensive. I can remember a time in my life when the inability to detect that particular M.O. cost me heavily. I did learn, you might say I learned at the feet of the master. And here I had detected it and escaped. I felt so happy to be a person who could not be played in this way. And that’s when I felt like Chao the master thief: “Bring me another five!”

Anyway a day or two later I was going through my spam folder (It was true, I had not checked my spam folder for some time) and there indeed was an email from Beany. It said he wasn’t going to be able to make our meeting because he was going to be out of town.

A few days after that T. called. I told her the story of My Big Night and she was shocked, and then added that she hadn’t liked him all that much anyway, and assured me that she hadn’t been trying to get any sort of romance going. What a pity, she added, that he couldn’t just on a friendly basis introduce me to some people… “T.,” I said. “I am not the first person to whom he has behaved this way. I don’t want such a character introducing me to anybody, I wouldn’t want to be seen associating with him.”

So that’s out.