Author Archives: Alex Glass

Sometimes you just need to talk it out

To some extent I should probably apologize. It was likely very jarring having been required to re-read the text a second time and then answer questions you weren’t ready for. I was very glad that the conversation went well, but it at many times had been hanging only by a thread. I guess that much is to be expected, given how difficult a piece “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is to plan a class discussion around. Conversation can snowball a variety of ways.

I very much value the power of good writing prompts. They’re great introspective thinking to prepare students. But for my micro-teach, I did not want that. I wanted to talk it out; I find that talking things out sorts a lot of confusion, especially when it comes to difficult texts.

Perhaps the one mistake I made was in hoping to get to the essence of the story in a matter of minutes. But even still, it was certainly fun to try. Non-directive teaching is probably something everyone was familiar with. To ask questions—and have students answer them—is nothing new or revolutionary. But when it comes to Hemingway’s work, at least with this story, it works best to dig deep, immediately. I’m still not 100% certain that I asked the right questions, which is something that I’ve taken into consideration. I guess one thing that’s worth mentioning is that I certainly would have taught it a different way approaching ENGH 101-level students. What I was trying to get across in my micro-teach was more about style than substance, however; and I took advantage of the higher reading level of the classroom and “dug deep” in ways that was meant to intentionally challenge.

And if that felt like an ambush—once again—I must apologize. But it was a lot of fun to engage in group discussion of the piece, and to do so with such a well versed audience in literary studies. It was certainly an exceptional learning experience, and great practice for one such as myself with no directly relate-able teaching experience: one of the better moments of what compiles a very successful semester course in teaching instruction.

Making knowledge explicit through learning outcomes in the study of literature

I like this multi-faceted definition of “knowledge.”

It is one thing to be able to parrot information received and regurgitate it onto a page. It’s another to be able to put it into your own words and apply it outside its original context.

I also like this discussion of what I’ve come to understand as “learning outcomes.”

It is one thing to, as Dr. Sample illustrated, fill a fifteen or sixteen week syllabus full of reading assignments that complete a semester. It is another to intelligently designate how those reading assignments contribute to a larger process—or, to steal from Wiggins and McTighe: have perspective.

I feel “having perspective” is a crucial element to course curriculum, at least in the Humanities, as one of the biggest contemporary issues facing us is that of perception. How does the ability to read a book translate as a useful tool in work force? I believe making our learning outcomes more explicit is one way, given that I believe that most of my coursework in English fruitfully invites the play of multi-faceted knowledge yet isn’t made so discreetly obvious the way the Pythagorean Theorem would be to a math student.

To steal Robb’s example (as I am a huge FMF fan), I can explain that The Good Soldier is a critical work that exemplifies the fragility of marriage in early twentieth-century Europe. I can interpret that, even with its title and publication proximity to World War I, the book is not about war but love—and having that love lost, not by war, but peace-time problems like mental illness and suicide. And I can apply that knowledge by comparing it to other canonical Modernist works (such as Mrs. Dalloway), illustrating its differences, as I did a couple years ago in my final year of my undergraduate program in a survey course on early twentieth-century Literature.

Yet to have perspective, to empathize—to have self-knowledge … these moments very rarely crop up in the classroom explicitly. They’re certainly intended to be learned a subconscious level (“textual power”). And I believe that a degree in English Literature, despite its lack of proximity to any real field of work but the academy, can be similarly applied to other doctrines/fields because of its practice in multi-faceted knowledge. But do we make that process explicit to our students? Do we even make it most explicit to ourselves? With designated learning outcomes we could at least get closer to addressing these two questions and answering them.

In regard to perspective and the larger picture, “So what?” is one of the most divisive remarks a professor can put on a student’s paper. Many students may find that kind of remark condescending. Others simply may not see the purpose behind it (something I spent a lot of time on as a campus writing tutor). Yet really, truly, all the professor is trying to get at is for the student to see the larger picture, to make certain the argument being made—and the thesis supporting it—is grounded in the perspective of legitimate “worthiness.”

Really, it’s hard to think that a classroom is ever NOT founded on learning outcomes, at least on a subconscious level. But by making them more explicit to ourselves, we may avoid confusion down the road in communication with our students and help overturn flawed “perspective” regarding the teaching of literature at the college level.

Changing My Mind

I know I should probably spend this week writing on the required reading materials, especially in regard to how Nat Turner stacks up to reality—to the best of our own understanding. To tell you the truth, though, I’m still hung up on last week’s conversation about “storytelling” and “literature.” In hindsight our discussion was incredibly nebulous. I’m not sure if that was more of the fact that we were grappling with very esoteric terms or just that I didn’t get a full night sleep the day before. I must admit I probably wasn’t the clearest in my thoughts that night in some respect, but that is the beauty of these blog posts and their existence as a sort of big red reset button on our thoughts for the week or the previous one.

I think the most interesting question that was never asked last week was in regard to the series of woodcut illustrations composed into novel format. What if Gods’ Man wasn’t “A Novel in Woodcuts” but simply “A Novel?” How much would that change our judgment of the book’s cover before even opening it? Does such a statement (and it most certainly is a statement in and of itself) change the way we read it? I’d like to think so, because when I see “A Novel in Woodcuts” I see a transfixion of what makes a novel a “novel”—that is, sequential prose of a given length—and adapting that to carved illustrations. To outright call itself a novel would be much more deliberate call to overturn genre conventions, but that may have not been the author’s intention.

Perhaps, ultimately, there is no harm in calling Nat Turner a novel or calling it literature. So let’s call it that. And what of it? The sky doesn’t fall. The sea does not run red. Season three of Game of Thrones still airs without a hitch.

I believe I was a bit harsh in my first response regarding Nat Turner in suggesting that there’s not much in the way of the written word being worked with in it to be considered literature. It was rightfully brought up by someone else last week before class had started that the confession and the way it unfolded as described in the back of the book was different from how Baker integrated the confession into the progression of the “graphic novel.”

In a certain sense, then, Baker is working with the source material—literature by definition—in ways that can be arguably seen as literary. Visual rhetoric and expression may overpower the piece, but there is certainly an engagement with the written “discourse” of Nat Turner and his multiple representations across various source materials that Baker is directly reacting to—if not responding to. If it’s unfair to call it literature, it is at least inviting the reader to participate in ways that are “literary” interpretations.

Graphic Novels: Are They Literature or Art?

On Scott McCloud: I take seriously his assertion that the content of a graphic novel can directly influence the ways in which we read it. A lengthy, drawn-out panel can influence the perception of time and a rough sketch can indicate the ruggedness of an action. Reading Nat Turner, the coarse, crude drawings were emblematic of the grittiness of the subject matter. I got that. I just don’t get how this makes it literature.

On the coattails of our discussion regarding video games, I think my reaction toward graphic novels is very much the same. My fascination with games, beyond my anal-retentive min-maxing of character attributes to break the algorithm of every game I can—this so-called “theorycrafting”—is in regard to their textual/expressive potential. Yet even despite how much I agree with Gee’s assertions that player choice in Deus Ex can “mean something,” I hesitate to call JC Denton’s disposition toward multinational corporate corruption and government conspiracy “literature” … or my process of annihilating it as literary.

I respect Baker’s Nat Turner and very much enjoyed reading it, as much as one can enjoy 200 pages of massacre. It was a quick read, and I found many of its moments quite powerful. Yet I feel literature must be read, imagined, and interpreted. You can interpret a painting, of course. But a painting is art. And art is not necessarily literature (though the written word can certainly be considered artistic). After all, when the words “run” and “boom” compose of 50% of the words embedded within the story’s frames (aside from the excerpts), there’s much to question whether a graphic novel—at least in Nat Turner’s case—is read or, perhaps better put: viewed.

I think there’s additionally plenty to be said that Scott McCloud directly compares comic books and graphic novels not to literary giants like William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser but visual expressionists like Van Gogh and Munch (which he transposes himself within at one stage of the piece). Perhaps this is a point that does not need to be made; this is an argument I’m not sure anyone ever even said. I think the visual rhetoric of a piece like Nat Turner is certainly something worth examining, but like the idea of actually teaching a video game in a classroom, I think there is more to learn from Nat Turner than there is to learn about it (not that I have anything against teaching it or video games in the classroom necessarily).

Learning to Leave the Lectern Behind

I, like many others that blogged this week, have had hesitations over the years with journal entries. I found them obnoxious. I found them irritating. But most of all, I felt they were inorganic. They were busy work designed to make me feel the crushing weight of my professor’s supremacy over me. Even if left ungraded (as they often were), my journal entries would be riddled with chicken scratch notes and check marks at the top of every page. It never felt like a dialogue with my professor—only mere exchanges in hopes for his satisfaction: constructed responses to reading that felt more like hoops of fire to jump through than actual conversation. Because they never talked back. Not entirely.

I hated it. And yet I don’t hate this.

By “this” I mean this blog post. This is not busy work. There are no hoops of fire. Instead this blog post is one of many this week that together compiles a conversation; this is our discourse. But it is still a journal entry, a series of them. And I think the difference lies in execution.

There is a hierarchy to the classroom. There must always be one, because inevitably there will be grading. That is how college works as an institution and will likely never be changed outside of the most liberal alternative education programs.

I do not wish for an absolution of this hierarchy. I merely think it does not need to be lorded over our students.

Submitting journal entries to one’s professor is simply retention of lecture-based instruction, planting the professor and student as opposite of one another. Journal submission is just another way of attempting to impress the professor, placing them as the authority.

I instead like what Blau asserts, with the sharing of journal entries. Like classroom discussion, reactions to texts should be designated toward a larger audience rather than simply with one’s professor. I think this especially works in concert with how Blau perceives the professor of the classroom.

Last semester I had the opportunity to enroll in the Teaching of Composition course with Dr. Paul Rogers. I learned many great, valuable lessons from his instruction, but perhaps the most important one is the necessity to engage oneself in the instruction. Do not lead the classroom—participate in it.

Blau similarly asserts acting as a participant in classroom activities to make it seem less like busy work. Doing journals with students, and actively engaging in sharing entries, changes the perspective a student may have about the work—as I do with this.

By sharing one’s journal entries with one’s students it also offers them a glimpse at what good “interpretive” reading is like. It allows students the ability to understand what the trained eye of a literary scholar looks for and sees in a written work without it being directly told to them.

In essence, it is teaching without lecturing. It’s learning to leave the lectern behind in classroom instruction.

Hemingway’s Iceberg

Having finished reading Wilner’s 25-page exposition, I reflect back on the first week or two of class, on my first blog post: apathy and its destructive nature in the classroom. If our previous reading was an illustration of the necessity of stepping outside of one’s own comfort zones to engage readers in the classroom, averting apathy, Wilner’s could almost be considered, in line with that conversation, the “what if” when such “comfort zone” methods go wrong.

She argues initially that her mistake was imposing authorial intent as a guide to the classroom, asserting that she now believes that historical context in most cases is irrelevant to our own interpretation: “[Sonny’s Blues] describes a young black man falling victim to the seduction of heroin in the Harlem of the 1940s—from such a threat my mostly white suburban students could feel relatively safe,” (189). She argues that by attempting to continually hammer home the cut-and-dry interpretation of the text, “the meaning of this profound story would not emerge for them,” (184).

I would argue that on one level Wilner perhaps misjudged the maturity level of her classroom introducing such emotionally- and perhaps politically-charged texts. When male students submit journal entries brandishing righteous indignation because underage girls could get into clubs slipping into revealing outfits, or because one boy felt emasculated in the shadow of his older brother, some kind of re-evaluation of course material must be made—or perhaps not.

I too, am in fact a white, upper-class, suburban male, and I had no difficulty grasping at Wilner’s suggested theme of the story. Rather than judging students by their privilege and stereotyping potential limitations by that, I think there’s plenty more to be said that the mistake was imposing a difficult text with an incorrect frame; that is, what I mean is that Wilner mistakenly assumes that the conventional reading of the text is the best one, and that by not grasping it, or paying attention to it—or the narrator’s transformation/epiphany at the end of the story—they have somehow missed the point of the text.

To place a little context of where I’m coming from, reflect back on last week’s discussion of Hemingway’s “Chapter IV.” It may not really matter all that much what Hemingway’s belief in courage or guts is; it enriches my own interpretation of the text by how I understand Hemingway as a writer, but that isn’t to say anyone must accept it as final. By all means, I would never assert that one has missed the point of the story by reading it differently. There are, after all, a lot of different methods to reading Hemingway. His writing is like an iceberg; it’s deceptively simple. But that is neither here nor there.

The issue is the reading of “Sonny’s Blues,” and I think she mistakenly concludes that authorial intent is an irreconcilable method to course instruction, as their understanding of authenticity may work in opposition to the author’s: “By imposing meaning that the students may not consider authentic, the ‘sacred text’ approach … can backfire; it can alienate them from the reading rather than engage them more deeply in it,” (192).

This is, in essence, throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I think what’s necessary to identify here is that you can include authorial intent and more foundational readings of a text without imposing it as sacrosanct.

To cut it out of the classroom based on their background as privileged compared to that of the narrator, because they “didn’t get it,” seems far more alienating than the process of finding reconciliation. If it doesn’t happen, what’s the issue? What matters is that these students engage with and take away something from the text. Let them interact with the more conventional interpretations of the text and mold them to their own perspective. This isn’t an all or none kind of game. I’ll identify Hemingway’s iceberg to a student; where they go with that is solely up to them. And it’s hard not to see any other writer’s work the same way.

The very idea that conventional methods of reading are immune to being overturned, after all, flies in the face of the way the Humanities has shifted and evolved throughout the years. She does to some extent come to this conclusion herself, identifying “going meta,” but she does not so explicitly come to a balance that I find satisfactory (193).

What I actually find most liberating about the Humanities is that it is not so rigorously defined by hard facts and numbers—merely logic. And with enough logic applied, any argument works. This is practically the mantra of our field, a discipline that constantly pushes its disciples into newer boundaries—if not, at least, to so consciously avoid the realm of an “obvious” thesis.

I don’t like poetry. But I’m learning to live with it.

I really don’t like poetry.

There it is.  I said it.  I’m not a fan.  I’m sorry.

Despite my general love of all things Literature with an ‘L’ as anything considered Well-Written Awesomeness in this world, poetry and I just never truly meshed.

I don’t think that’s on any level at the fault of poetry itself, as a form, style, or structure, if there’s a difference between such things?  I’ve just always been taught to read poetry that certain way. That formalist, New Critical method where the meaning of the poem is some Objective Truth with an ‘O’ and ‘T’ just waiting to be unearthed by each and every reader. i.e., me. Because authorial intent (or so I was once told) is king: the beginning and end of interpretive reading. What I thought of the poem or how I reacted to it barely mattered. But I was often taught to read all literature the same way yet didn’t have this problem with other forms.

Yet novels and short stories—and perhaps just prose in general—is meant to be understood. Sure, not everyone is meant to “get” Ulysses. But I would argue that James Joyce is very much an exception to the rule. Strictly speaking, prose is written in a language, more often than not, in a style that is intended to be understood thematically if not plainly; something written as “prosaic” is something entirely meant to be common-place, bridled in opposition to “poetic” language. Any attempt otherwise is just an overturning of convention.

So after all those years being forced to interpret in the formalist, New Critical technique of reading, I “got” the message of a novel, short story, or whatever, because they’re generally written in ways to be understood. But poetry always came to me later, if at all. And I guess that’s where my disconnection from poetry arose.

Not to make any too-sweeping claims, but my long-time disconnection with poetry arose likely because trying to “get” the message of a poem is to so painfully miss the point. Perhaps it was wrong of my instructors all those years force-feeding the “meaning” of the poem rather than asking: “Well, Alex, what does this poem mean to you?”

Like the way in which we often pick our favorite songs, albums, or bands, there’s a resonance to poetry that speaks to readers on a level that gets well-beyond the constraints of theme, motif, or message. It’s a feeling. Poetry is a feeling. And students will react to that feeling differently, just as my best friend will roll his eyes when I put Radiohead on the car stereo.

I think that helps too, to have struggled that way with poetry. To think that everyone will automatically come to appreciate it or understand it the same way one does would be a mistake; one must draw in readers of various perspectives, avoiding “apathy” if you will. To garner the attention of most of your students you must create an approach to poetry that eliminates “getting at the objective meaning” and more about “what it means” to them.

Students are still allowed to dislike poetry, as I often do, but they should be coming to that conclusion through their own perspective, in that it does not relate or resonate with them—not that they simply don’t “understand” it or its “meaning”—whatever that is.

I am learning to live with poetry, and feel better about my relationship to it having better understood how to read it. I just want to make sure no one endures the growing pains that I had to.

Collaboration Versus Apathy

I’m pleasantly surprised to have seen Carver’s “Cathedral” put on this week’s readings. It’s a long-time favorite of mine, first introduced to me many years ago either in high school or in undergrad—I don’t quite remember that part. But many years later, today, looking at it again, I read it differently. Similar to what Ben and Miriam have posted previously, perhaps it is best to see it almost as a fruitful exercise in instruction.

Many times as writers and literary scholars we take for granted how easily things come to us. To turn around and make it simple for another person that is quite not as experienced or quick on the draw—to get to the essence of a text—can be a very difficult, strenuous, and sometimes painful process. Because like images—and our imagination—we structure our understanding of language in methods that suit our personal preferences. Knowledge, thus, is stored in a sort of “personalized” fashion. You can’t teach a classroom expecting everyone learns the same way, which is why I think lecture-format classrooms are so harmful. To attempt drawing out or extrapolating similar conclusions to your own, from a text, from the minds of other readers never a care for what they think or believe or understand or wish to know, well … that can be quite difficult—if not unabashedly flawed thinking in teaching instruction.

But I guess, to be fair, what do I know?

At 25 years old, this being the final semester of my Master’s degree, I’ve never had the opportunity to teach either a Literature or Composition course. I’ve worked as a tutor over the years, however, and I can assuredly admit that some processes of bridging gaps between my knowledge and another student’s at many times were filled with bumps and impediments.

Like Carver’s narrator with the old, blind man, I was at times forced outside of my comfort zone to suit the needs of the “tutee,” so to speak. And in doing so, I often learned a lot about myself and my own understanding of texts, language, and meaning while at the same time helping students learn about, develop, or improve theirs. Education is a collaborative process that requires dropped barriers of both the student and the instructor to get the most of it, and that doesn’t always come easy.

I reflect back to last week’s in-class discussion, which I spent for the most part of in silence, observing, as the rest of your addressed the issue of apathy in the classroom. I wonder, now, if apathy is largely caused because of this disconnect—the failure to remove barriers. It can be difficult to motion troubled students into participation, but perhaps if we stepped off our pedestals—closed our eyes like the blind man if you will—we may manage to convince one or two of them the true inspiration of studying works of language. And who knows. Perhaps we’ll learn a thing or two about ourselves, too.