Sunday, September 14, 2014

To blog or to tweet . . . that is the question

Ah well, it's been two months since I have blogged.  But in the meantime, I have tweeted.  Many people choose to tweet and blog, or to limit themselves to one or the other form of expression.  I disdained tweeting when it first became popular (tweeting is so similar to Sweeting, I just noticed!) but now I find a timely tweet is just the thing.  At 42 tweets, I am by no means an avid tweeter.

My discomfort with tweeting is in its brevity, which usually lead to fragment sentences, which really annoy me!  But I have found if I can communicate something, and still write in a complete sentence, I'm satisfied.

My mom and I met at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon this summer.

The Great Society is a Great play - covers LBJs tenure from '65 - '68 - highly recommend

We saw a few plays together, namely The Great Society, Cocoanuts and The Tempest, and I saw a few plays by myself, Richard III and Comedy of Errors.  They were uniformly wonderful.  The acting was superb, the settings were unique and creative, and I was transported.  But I didn't have the time nor the energy to blog about them.  So I tweeted.  Short and sweet, I told the world I had seen the plays and loved them.  So there is a place for a tweet.

When should one blog, instead of tweeting.  Read my next post to see what I think, and please post a comment to tell us all what you think.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Nigeria is a country rich in natural resources, people, and literature.  Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (1930-
2013) wrote "Things Fall Apart" in 1958, and since that date 12 million copies have been sold, and it has been translated into over 50 languages.  Why is the book so popular?  Achebe offers a realistic portrait of what happened when the indigenous Nigerians were confronted with missionaries and colonial governors, and it offers a more human, a more realistic portrayal of Africans than the portrayals offered by earlier European writers like Rider Haggard and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness).  The book offers a peek into African culture, beliefs, traditions and practices.

This was the last text we read and discussed in World Lit 2, and it was one of the best.  The language, the proverbs (see below), the description of traditional practices, and the dialogue all coalesce in a brilliant snapshot of African life -- then the missionaries and colonial rulers arrived.  Having served as a short-term missionary in Africa, in Kenya in 1979, I appreciated the perspective of an African who held on to traditions, and though his parents converted to Christianity, he never did.  Achebe thought missionaries did more harm than good.  It should probably be required reading for missionaries to Africa, even today.

Take a look at some of the proverbs taken from the book, and ponder their meaning for yourself:

"A man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness."  1611
"You can tell a ripe corn by its look."  1613
"Looking at a king's mouth, one would think he never sucked at his mother's breast."  1614
"Those whose palm kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be                        humble."  1614
"A chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted the very day it hatches."  1632
"When a mother-cow is chewing grass its young ones watch its mouth."  1634
"If I fall down for you and you fall down for me it is play."  1636
"When a father beats a child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut."  1663
"Living fire begets cold, impotent ash."  1671
"The clan was like a lizard; if it lost its tail it soon grew another."  1677
"A child cannot pay for its mother's milk."  1676
"As a man danced, so the drums were beaten for him."  1683

Thursday, May 15, 2014


I will confess at the outset, Modernism is not my favorite genre/time period.  In addition, I tried to do too much during this class, so we rushed through the texts.
Sigmund Freud
  First we tackled Freud - enough said, right?  

My students read Freud's essay on the Interpretation of Dreams.  After a good opening discussion about dreams, the meaning of dreams, the importance of dreams, we looked closely at the text.  We needed to define terms like "manifest dream content," "latent dream thoughts," "condensation," and "free association."  We learned that what we remember when we awake is not the most important part of the dream.  To get to the most important part of the dream, of course a psychoanalyst is required to free up the hidden thoughts and desires of the dreamer.  

We moved on to some surrealist writings - the first by a Japanese author, Abe Kobo.  His short story, The Red Cocoon begins with a man wandering the streets, wondering where his house is, and ending up at a woman's house, questioning her - "how do you know this is your house?"  "Maybe it's my house."  It is an odd encounter, but not as odd as events that will soon transpire.  The man learns that he cannot sleep on a park bench, because such benches belong to everybody, and nobody.  The tone of isolation, homelessness, lack of identity and longing for belonging is potent.  The man then feels part of the heel of his shoe unwind, possible enough, but shortly thereafter he has become entwined in a cocoon.  In fact, the man IS now a cocoon . . . surrealism at its height.
Gabriel García Márquez 

Finally, we turned to Gabriel García Márquez' , "The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings."  Many of my students are Latino/Latina and one of my students is from Colombia, so I was glad we were able to study this short story.  A student in my ESL class informed me recently that Gabriel García Márquez recently died, so it was even more fitting to honor him by reading his story.In "The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the man of the title is found in a couple's backyard.  He becomes an instant sensation, and the couple sells tickets, charging the villagers to come and look at him.  His wings are dirty, with very few feathers, andt he speaks a language unknown to anyone.  When the priest tries to engage him in conversation in Latin, and the man/angel is unresponsive. the priest concludes that he cannot possible be an angel!   

All the modernist writings convey a sense of hopelessness, dissatisfaction, and disillusionment - again, not my favorites.  For our final week we read and discussed 'Things Fall Apart," by Chinua Achebe.  Stay tuned . . .


Friday, May 9, 2014

"The Cherry Orchard"

One of the most intriguing aspects of teaching world literature is learning about the authors.  I have discovered an unexpected trend -- many of the authors studied medicine, and some were practicing doctors, before they turned to writing.  Anton Chekhov is one example.  He wrote "medicine is my legal wife . . . literature is my mistress."  An unfortunate similarity among authors is their early death  - Chekhov was only 44 years old when he died (slightly older than Jane Austen at her death).  Another common thread is many of the authors had parents who read to them, or told them fabricated stories.  One can usually find glimpses of the adult author in the child.  As a child, Chekhov spent all his money on tickets to the theater!

Chekhov wrote,“you say you have cried at my plays…But this is not why I wrote them, it was Stanislavsky [Russian actor and director] who turned them into cry-babies.I simply wanted to say to people honestly: “Understand, how bad and boring your lives are!” People should understand this and…create themselves another and better life. What is here to cry about?”

In "The Cherry Orchard" an impoverished noble family is forced to sell their orchard and their home.  They are in denial and do not take the measures needed to hold onto the land -- basically develop the land for cottages (in today's vernacular it would mean selling the land to build condos).  The play shows the rise of the bourgeois middle class and the collapse of the upper class.  It has been viewed as both a drama and comedy, though Chekhov himself viewed it as a comedy, and there are many funny, eccentric characters populating the play. At the end of the play, the family is moving out and they have locked up the house.  Unfortunately, they locked the old butler in the house, and as he decides to "take a nap" since he can't get out of the house, the sound of the cherry orchard being chopped down can be heard.  Is this funny or tragic??

My class enjoyed the play.  The hardest part was learning the many characters' names, so I simplified the names and provided nicknames:

Lubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya - Lou  (Generous and loving)
Ermolai Lopakhin - Lop   (Peasant turned businessman)
Trofimov – Prof Trof (Eternal student)
Leonid Andreyevich Gaev – Gaev (the Big Baby)
Boris Semyonov-Pischik – Piss (Begging landowner – comic relief)
Semyon Epikhodov – Epi  (2 and 20 troubles – comic accountant)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rabindranath Tagore - revered Indian writer, poet, songwriter

One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching World Literature 2 is learning about fascinating worldwide authors.  I enjoyed learning about Tolstoy and Chekhov (he's next week), and I especially enjoyed learning about Rabindranath Tagore.  Say his name to an Indian and see a face light up!  Every Indian friend/colleague I told about our class studying Tagore immediately smiled and shared their own knowledge.  I thank Christina for her insights and links to songs and information!
Tagore was born in 1861 and died in 1941, so lived a long life full of creative writing.  He attended several schools, including University College in London.  Tagore corresponded and met with such illustrious peers as Mahatma Ghandi, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein!  He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, for Gitanjali.  He also wrote the national anthems for both India and Bangladesh.

Born when Britain controlled India, he embraced his Indian identity and the Bengali language, writing in Bengali, but often translating his own work into English.  Tagore wrote eight novels, and hundreds of songs and poems. Finally, he founded a school - Shantiniketan - at which students learned outdoors, as he felt they should be exposed to nature and the change of seasons.

For this special day in class, I wore a lime green Punjabi (thanks Ruby) and played Tagore's music as the class worked on the quiz.  After teaching them a bit about Tagore, we dove into the short story he wrote, Broken Ties.  I regret to write, this was not their favorite reading of the semester.  I think they found it hard to understand.  To fully understand this work, a deep understanding of the history of India, and of Hinduism, is necessary, and we didn't have time for that in one class period.  Broken Ties highlights the stark contrast between "Westernized" atheists and devout Hindus.  The two main characters, Satish and Srivlas, begin as confirmed atheists, but when Satish's atheist uncle dies, he becomes a devout Hindu, following a swami and eventually becoming a mystic in his own right.  These two men embody the extremes in Indian culture. The story has a lot of layers, and symbolism -- their house is literally divided in half, with the atheist brother living in one half, and the Hindu brother in the other half -- symbolizing the divided nature of many Indians under British rule.  The women in the story play an important, though secondary, role, and both die. Broken Ties has been described as a "complex exploration of the contradictions and ambiguities within Indian culture."

Although the class did not fully embrace the story, they did enjoy the music!  Here are some links to songs by Tagore.  Enjoy!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

King Leopold's Soliloquy 

Look at these maps.  The one on the left is a map of Africa before the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.  The one on the right is a map of Africa after representatives of 13 European countries and the U.S. met in Berlin, with a map of Africa on the table before them, and not a single African person present, and decided among themselves which countries would be "given" what territories.  "The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy, acquisitiveness during a period when Europe's search for minerals and markets had become insatiable" (Blij and Muller).
When I teach literature, I feel it necessary to share the historical context of the text, greatly increasing students' understanding. So before we discussed "King Leopold's Soliloquy," a pamphlet written by Mark Twain in 1902, wherein he puts words in King Leopold's mouth, I taught the class about the "scramble for Africa" and explained how one person, King Leopold, came to own over 905,000 square miles of prime land in Central Africa - the large red-shaded land in the middle of the map on the right.

"King Leopold's Soliloquy" is similar, in some ways, to "A Modest Proposal," in that Twain wrote the satirical pamphlet to alert the world to the atrocities being committed by King Leopold in Congo.  He had promised to bring education, health care and Christianity to the Congo, but what he did bring was enslavement, oppression and death.  Over a period of about 20 years, over 10 million Congolese died.  The majority of my students had never heard of King Leopold or what happened in the Congo.

The actual pamphlet is very well written, in typical irreverent, unapologetic Twain style.  The reader learns all about what King Leopold has done, supposedly from King Leopold's own mouth (through Twain).  He even incorporates primary sources, reports from missionaries who are trying to help the Congolese, and eyewitness accounts from others.  After we discussed the text, a Kenyan student shared his personal insights into the effects of colonialism in Kenya.  That personal, first-person account was enlightening.

We also read a short letter by George Washington Williams, an African-American author, soldier and legislator who traveled to the Congo to see firsthand if King Leopold was truly helping the Africans.  Williams met first with King Leopold in Belgium, and the king tried to dissuade Williams from traveling to the Congo.  Pretty suspicious, wouldn't you say??  When Williams' highly critical first-person account was printed, King Leopold staged an aggressive attack against Williams, vilifying him in the press.  I read an incredible article in the New York Times in 1891. The illustrious New York Times believed the character attacks, and thus Williams' true account of what happened in the Congo was not believed, and millions more Congolese died over the next ten years.  Williams died shortly after returning from the Congo, at the young age of only 42.  He is a pretty fascinating guy -- and may end up in one of my books in the future.

So my students learned  a bit of history, literature, and politics.  It was a great class.  Next week is the poet laureate of India -- Rabindranath Tagore.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Emancipation of Women

Last week we studied four female authors, from different countries, all of whom lived in the 19th century.  All the characters in the stories/poems suffered oppression of some kind, usually at the hands of the men in their lives.

Born in Galicia, Spain, Emilia Pardo Bazan (1852–1921) was the only child in a well–to–do family. žAt age sixteen, Pardo Bazan entered into an arranged marriage with José Quiroga, a law student.  They were separated in 1885, reportedly because of the controversy surrounding Pardo Bazan's writings.

We read Bazan's story entitled "The Revolver."  In the short story, a pretty young woman marries an older man, and they have a happy first year together, until the husband becomes irrationally jealous.  He tells his wife he will not bother her about where she goes and what she does, but if she makes any move he mistrusts, he will take his revolver and shoot her in the head.  As you can imagine, she lives on eggshells and her health suffers.  Her husband dies four years later and she discovers there were never any bullets in the gun -- no solace to her broken heart.
Our second reading was by Higuchi Ichiyo, žBorn in Japan (1872-1896) she died young, at age 24, from tuberculosis.  žHer ‘realism’ has a distinctly Japanese tone.   žHer father was a peasant farmer, but bought a place in the Samurai class.  Her story, "The Thirteenth Night," is about a night when the Japanese watch the moon, and a young wife, Oseki, leaves her oppressive husband and son and comes home to her parents. As she describes the emotional, verbal abuse heaped on her by her upper-class husband, her mother sympathizes with her -- but her father convinces her to return to her husband.  He is wealthy, and has secured a job for Oseki's brother, and respect for her parents.  She must do her duty, even if it means suffering, for the sake of her family.

       The third author we read and studied was Rassundari Devi, born in the Bengal region of India in 1810 (date of death unknown).  She wrote the first autobiography by a Bengali woman, titled Amar Jiban.  The title character is married in a Hindu ceremony when she is just 12 years old, and is torn from her family to go to her new husband's family home.  She is terrified and unhappy at this abrupt change in her life.  Interestingly, the husband is largely absent in the story.
       Finally, we read about Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. Emily Dickinson lived in a self-imposed exile for the latter years of her life, and wrote almost 2,000 poems.   Here is the poem we attempted to understand:
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Forgive my absence.  We had spring break last week, and an online class started this week - so I've either been resting or really busy!

Before the break our class tackled The Death of Ivan Ilych.  One of my students asked me pointedly, "are all our readings going to be depressing?"  That's an appropriate question, especially considering next week we are reading about King Leopold and the atrocities he committed in the Congo.  I am actually restructuring the latter part of the semester and adding a few lighter texts, to take the edge off the heaviness of the readings.

The Death of Ivan Ilych, in a nutshell, is about a Russian Bureaucrat who does all the right things.  He works as a legal official, and moves up the career ladder.  He marries a woman he is attracted to initially, but does not love, and they have several children, three of whom die.  The death of these children is treated in a matter-of-fact way, and his slight attraction to his wife ended with her first pregnancy.  Ivan began to spend more and more time at the office and playing bridge with friends, and less and less time at home.  He observed his duties, but there was no love expressed to his family, or even to his friends.
Then he is awarded a promotion.  They prepare to move into a new home, and Ivan spends much of his time, energy and money decorating the new home.  He falls from a ladder while hanging drapes, and injures his side.  Initially it seems like nothing, but the pain in his side steadily worsens, and within several months is it the cause of his death.

Tolstoy's family
Ivan's illness is treated with unconcern by his wife and daughter, and friends.  Only his servant Gerasim cares for him and acknowledges the severity of his illness.  Ivan comes to the terrible realization and it occurs to him that "maybe I did not live as I ought to have done . . but how could that be, when I did everything properly?"  (Tolstoy, Ivan Ilych).  Despite living a life of duty and propriety, he realized at the end of his life, that he should have lived in a very different way.  In the end he reconciled himself to his fate, and died joyfully, knowing he was releasing those around him and freeing himself from suffering.

We had a great discussion in class about what's important in life, the choices we all have to make, the relationships that are vital to us, and the people who will be there when we die.  We talked about the themes of isolation, happiness, modernization and lies and deceit.  I had the class write their own epitaphs, and though I wish we had more time, they did a good job.  The exercise reminded me of one of Stephen Covey's Principles of Highly Effective People -- keep the end in mind.

Count Leo Tolstoy
Before we discussed the book, I did a brief overview of Leo Tolstoy and his life.  He was a fascinating man--as are all the authors we are reading.  Tolstoy wrote the classics War and Peace, and Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy did his share of carousing in his youth, but experienced a religious conversion of sorts when he was older.  He rejected traditional orthodoxy, and created his own version of Christianity, based largely on the Sermon on the Mount.  Tolstoy influenced many world leaders, including Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.  Many came to visit him and learn from him.  At the end of his life, Tolstoy left his wife, got a train, and took it to the last stop.  He died shortly thereafter at the station master's house.  There is a movie about his life entitled "The Last Station." 

Tolstoy's ideas about how to live are worth emulating:

  •       Live simply
  •       Abstain from tobacco, alcohol
  •       Practice chastity and vegetarianism 
  •       Live by the principles of love, truth, and peace.
  •       Reject violence and government
  •       Live by 5 rules    –Love enemies    –Do not be angry    –Do not fight evil with evil    –Do not lust    –Do not take oaths

Saturday, March 15, 2014

William Blake
If I told you William Blake was my nemesis; I spent some restless hours when I should have been sleeping wondering how I would tackle him in class; I listened to hours of podcasts from Blake experts to try to get a handle on his thoughts and beliefs; I struggled for months to understand him for myself -- it would not be hyperbole.  William Blake is one of the hardest writers I have taught.  Was it worth it?  I think so, but you'd have to ask my students to get a better answer.

What makes him so difficult?  His poems are deceptively simple upon first glance.

Who made the lamb?  God made the lamb, and Jesus is the lamb and the lamb is Jesus.  The poem reads like a catechism. But what is important to understand about Blake's poetry, is who the narrator of the poem is.  In this case, the narrator is a child.  The child asks and answers the questions, putting the child in a position of knowledge and power, and removing the adult from the equation altogether.

Blake was a theist; he believed in God and identified himself as a Christian, holding the bible to be the best literature written, but was not a Christian in any traditional or orthodox sense.  He believed humans all manifest God and the kingdom of heaven is within all.  Blake believed in good and evil, but again, not in any traditional sense.  For Blake, the way in which we grasp reality can be evil, evil is in the mind. and we are all responsible for the evil in the world.  This is the just the fringes of his beliefs.  Blake was a mystic, and had visions of angels and God beginning at a very young age. His theology is so uniquely "Blake-ian", I imagine it would take a scholar years of study to fully understand and be able to explain it.

Now do you see what I mean?  Though I found teaching this class very challenging, it was rewarding.  When we finally got down to discussing the poems -- we discussed "The Chimney Sweeper"in both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience -- the students had wonderful observations and enjoyed dissecting the poems.

If you dare (!) click on the link below and listen to a podcast from a lecture by U.C. Davis Professor Timothy Morton.  You will need to download iTunes University to listen.   My students listened to it on their own, and then we listened to it together, with a power point presentation I created to help them follow it and explain terms.  Please let me know what you think.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

  As the class read and discussed Equiano, we saw the perspective of a male slave.  This past week we read Incidents int he Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet Jacobs, whose real name is Linda Brent, wrote her story after some serious persuasion exerted by abolitionist friends.  You see, Linda was embarrassed by parts of her story, and did not want to expose herself to ridicule or judgment.

Linda was born a slave, but didn't realize she was a slave until her mother died, when Linda was 6 years old.  She was sold to the daughter of her mistress's sister, and from the age of 12 was sexually harassed and tormented by her master, called Dr. Flint in the book.  He never raped her, but his constant harassment, including whispering lewd things in her ear, and writing foul notes, left her in a state of constant fear.

Her solution -- a white man in the town showed compassion and concern for Linda, and they began a consensual relationship.  Over the next few years a daughter and a son were born.  Of course, her master was furious.  Eventually Linda escaped, and ended up living in a small attic space above a shed in her grandmother's house - her grandmother was free.  Linda lived for 7 years in a space 7 feet by 9 feet, and only 3 feet high.  Assailed by heat in the summer and cold in the winter, and bugs and rodents all year long, Linda suffered many illnesses. She found comfort in seeing her children through a small peephole she had carved into the wall -- they lived with her grandmother.  After 7 years Linda escapes north, and is reunited with her daughter, while her son goes to sea.

The class found the story easier to read than Equiano's narrative; it was written about 50 years later.  After a good discussion about the memoir, the class enacted a trial.  We set up the room in a mock trial format

Dr. Flint was on trial for sexual harassment.  The defense attorney performed admirably, and the jury concluded that he was innocent (though we all know he was guilty).  It occurred to me how realistic the trial was, as many times those who are guilty are found not guilty, and sometimes the innocent are found guilty.  All my students were great - from the jury, to the judge, to the attorneys, to the witnesses, defendant and plaintiff.

Every week we learn from the writers and their texts, from each other, and we learn a bit about ourselves.
Stay tuned for next week's class . . .

To learn more about Linda Brent's story, view this PBS clip - in class we watched from 1:52 - 2:13 (time in video).  Enjoy!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Olaudah Equiano

Here is the latest update on World Lit 2.  It is going very well, and I am enjoying my students, as I hope they are enjoying the class.  We began with shock and awe - "A Modest Proposal."  Then we lightened up considerably with Tartuffe.  The following week we had a snow day, and last week we covered Equiano.

I had to offer a disclaimer at the beginning of class.  Olaudah Equiano is one of my favorite people, notwithstanding he has been dead for over 200 years.  Why?  It's hard to explain, but when I first read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in graduate school, I so enjoyed his writing, his tone, his story, his travels.  His conversion narrative is told beautifully.  He ended up marrying a white English woman and they had two girls together.  His wife Susanna Cullen died, their first daughter Anna Maria died, and then Equiano died, leaving their second daughter Joanna an orphan at the young age of two.  So much about her life attracted me, a biracial girl living in London in the early 1800s, that I decided to write a historical novel about her.  After a year of research and writing, I decided the novel needed some more drama, so I added the story-line of Equiano's sister, with whom he was kidnapped.  They were separated before they reached the coast of Africa, and he never saw her again.  His description of their separation is gut wrenching.

Equiano begins his narrative with descriptions of his native Africa.  I believe he was born in Africa, as he claims in his memoir, though the eminent professor and researcher Vincent Carretta has uncovered documents that suggest he may have been born in South Carolina.  Equiano describes the kidnapping, transport in a slave ship to Barbados, and then to South Carolina.  He was purchased by a British naval officer, Charles Pascal, and served him for several years, during the 7 Years War.  After the war Equiano believed he would be freed, but he was sold to another master, much to his horror.  After working for this second master for several years he earned enough money to purchase his own freedom.  He spent the next few years traveling and eventually settled down in England, becoming intimately involved in the abolition movement.  Fellow abolitionists persuaded him to write his memoirs, to bolster the abolitionist cause.

My students had a difficult time with the text.  Written in 1789, The Narrative does have some difficult vocabulary, but I am so familiar with the text, I forgot how I reacted to it the first time I read it.  After we had spent the class discussing the text, the students warmed up to it a bit, but I just have to accept that not everyone is as enamored with Equiano as I am.  Alas . . .

Thursday, February 13, 2014


For the second week of our World Lit 2 course, we discussed Tartuffe. This is much lighter fare than "A Modest Proposal," and most of the students really enjoyed it.  The author of TartuffeMolìère, is almost the French equivalent of Shakespeare - he is revered and admired -- through not as prolific.  Tartuffe is a comedy of manners, and all the characters are 'type' characters -- foolish father; obedient daughter; hypocritical religious figure; wise, witty maid; hot-tempered son.

Tartuffe is the epitome of a hypocrite - seemingly very holy and religious, but wasting no time in seducing his host's wife when alone with her.  Orgon, the husband/father in the play, is so taken in by Tartuffe he disinherits his son and leaves all his worldly goods to this near-stranger.  Orgon only believes Tartuffe's perfidy when he catches Tartuffe in the act.

As this is the first time teaching this text, I did not anticipate what questions would  yield good discussions.  We ended up having rousing discussions on morality, fidelity, adultery (just by calling it adultery we are making judgments about it, one student pointed out), and arranged marriages.  The class includes two male students from Africa - Egypt and Kenya.  They have seen arranged marriages and polygamy firsthand, so we had a fascinating discussion on these topics, with students taking wildly different positions on the topics.  This is what makes teaching so stimulating, so invigorating, so fun!  Take a text written in the mid 1600s, and find relevant themes for 2014.  Wow!

Here is a link to the text, for those of you who want to read it:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

An aside . . . on finding the right word

Allow me to digress for this post, and write about writing.

For about 7 months I have been reading TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann. Or rather, I've been picking it up and putting it back down.  McCann mixes historical and fictional characters, in Ireland and America, from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.  So far, so good. I'm enraptured by some of his writing, and aggravated by other passages.  We encounter Frederick Douglass giving a book tour in Ireland, and Brown and Alcock, the first two men to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. There are no chapter headings, and little guidance for the reader, other than dates when the action moves from one time period to another, either backwards or forwards.

I tell my students that they need to demonstrate they know the standard conventions of writing; then they can break the rules.  McCann is a luminous writer. . . and he likes to break the rules.  He breaks one rule frequently. Fragment sentences.  It's hard for me to even write one!  Here is an example, taken from near the end of Brown and Alcock's trans-Atlantic flight:
        It is close to sunrise--not far from Ireland--when they hit a cloud they can't escape.  No line of sight.
        No horizon.  A fierce gray.  Almost four thousand feet above the Atlantic.  Darkness still, no moon, no
       sight of sea.  They descend.  The snow has relented but they enter a huge bank of white.  Look at this
       one, Jackie.  Look at her coming.  Immense.  Unavoidable.  Above and below.
But then,  just when I get frustrated and want to put the book down, McCann pens a paragraph like this one:

       Stories began, for her, as a lump in the throat.  She sometimes found it hard to speak.  A true
       understanding lay just beneath the surface.  She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a
       sheet of paper.  Her imagination pushed back against the pressures of what lay around her. . . The best
       moments were when her mind seemed to implode.  It made a shambles of time.  All the light
       disappeared. The infinity of her ink well.  A quiver of dark at the end of the pen. . . The elaborate search
       for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well.  Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the
       mind.  Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught  
       hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Traveling through World Literature . . . Join me

This is our second snow day . . . this week!  So, as I'm housebound, I thought I'd begin a new weekly blog series.

I'm teaching a new class this semester - World Literature 2!  I've been teaching World Literature 1 for six years, and we cover texts from the beginnings of known literature - Gilgamesh - to Shakespeare.  World Literature 2 picks up in the 17th century and moves through the centuries to the present day.  How does one choose literature over such a vast period of time and covering the entire world.  I don't!  The editors who put together World Literature anthologies have that daunting task.  All I need to do is choose which of the offerings in the textbook to include in the class.

Our class began last week, so for the next 14 weeks, take a trip with me.  I'll share each week what text we covered in class, how the students responded to it, and even share links to the text - when available - if you have the time and inclination to read it yourself.

Last week we read "A Modest Proposal" out loud in class.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the essay by Jonathan Swift, in it he proposes a drastic solution to the problem of poverty and starvation in Ireland in the early 1700s.  The Irish women should sell their 1-year-old children to British aristocracy, who may then eat them for dinner.  This will solve the problem by not saddling the women with babies they can't feed, and provide much-needed income.

The tone throughout Swift's essay is one of reasonable thoughtfulness.  A few of my students -- I hadn't warned them in advance -- actually thought Swift was serious.  Of course they "googled" and found out it was satire. According to John Simon in a book review he wrote about Jonathan Swift, His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch, Swift wrote "what is the greatest satire in English (and perhaps any language), "A modest Proposal," which proves by careful arguments -- satistical, mathematical and social -- that the solution to impoverished Ireland's problems is the eating of babies and the selling of their carcasses."

So we began the semester with a little "shock and awe."  After discussing what satire and irony are, and the conditions in Ireland at the time the essay was written, my students understood and even enjoyed the text.  Here is a link so you can read the short essay for yourself.  Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What our speech reveals about us - use of pronouns

Happy New Year!  One of my goals is to write more consistently on this blog - so check back weekly to see what I'm thinking/writing about.

Several years ago my boss said something I still often think about:  our use of pronouns reveals a lot about us.  Do we say "I" or "we," "my" or "our."  When I hear someone talking about his or her job, or church, or even family, I'm tuned in to the use of pronouns.  So if someone says "at my job they . . ." it tells me the person doesn't really feel a part of the company.  They don't feel a sense of belonging.  Whereas, saying "at my company we . . ." shows the person does feel a part of the company. How do you talk about your place of employment?

For couples, some always say "we" and some always say "I."  This can be confusing either way, because then I'm never sure if the spouse is referring to just him/herself, or to both of them.  I invited a friend to a baby shower, and she replied "we will be there."  Hmmm - I didn't invite any men so I had to clarify her "we."  It turns out she always says "we."  This is lovely and shows a real sense of togetherness in the marriage, as opposed to married couples who always use "I."  

As parents we sometimes refer to "your" child, when obviously the child is "ours."  We usually use "your" when we want to distance ourselves from the child's behavior.   "Your son didn't take out the garbage."  The implication is that my son would have done it--strangely enough he is the same person!

Think about it.  And tune in to speech, your own and others' speech.

What do you think?