A 2014 study by Megan Gerhardt evaluated how instructors and students ranked contributors to teaching credibility. While everyone agreed that competence in subject matter and character are most important, students noted a desire for sociability that “has important implications for the classroom experience.” As Sarah Cavanagh observes, “one route to being perceived as trustworthy and competent is to be friendly and warm.” This is the exact opposite of the advice I received at UW-Madison when I started teaching, which was “Don’t smile before Thanksgiving.” The world is changing, and so are the needs of our students. Should we change too?
Cavanagh, Sarah Rose. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia UP, 2016, p. 87.
Even though he was wealthy and influential, Charles Dickens didn’t fit into middle-class life in Victorian England for many reasons. Here are three: He made fun of “society” people in his novels. Instead of writing anonymously, as the other novelists of his day did, Dickens became a celebrity who went on tours to perform his work. He made bold literary choices: His Oliver Twist was the first English novel with a child as the central character – and it was a child who lived in poverty. This biography by Jane Smiley describes Dickens’ “remarkable and disturbing” personal history and literary legacy.
Smiley, Jane. Charles Dickens: A Life. Lipper-Penguin, 2002, p. 119.
Who is poetry for? What is its purpose? If you like fist fights and barroom brawls, go ahead and ask poets and professors these questions. You’ll see two sides emerge: One will agree with “the noted American poet” who said “it is the responsibility of readers to educate themselves to a level that they can understand what the poet writes” (xvii). The other side will agree with Ted Kooser, who received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He’s editing a new series by poets who “make gifts to their readers” that are “open-handed and conversational,” including this book by Fleda Brown.
Kooser, Ted. Introduction. The Woods Are On Fire, by Fleda Brown. U of Nebraska P, 2017, p. xvii.
The reader who asked Jonathan Franzen this question touched a nerve. Franzen’s answer — a 30-page essay titled “Mr. Difficult” — describes two models for relationships between writers and readers. In the “Status” model, writers aim to create great art, and if only scholars can appreciate it, so what? In the “Contract” model,” every writer is “first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness” (240). Franzen has a remarkably prickly relationship with many readers. Even his defenders acknowledge he’s “the Internet’s collective punching bag.”
Franzen, Jonathan. “Mr. Difficult.” How to Be Alone: Essays. Picador, 2003, p. 239.
Jessica Lourey continues: “. . . whether it’s because we are too close to the trauma, don’t want to hurt or be hurt by those we’re writing about, or simply prefer the vehicle of fiction.” Students in my classes on writing memoir have in fact expressed these same concerns. The solution proposed in Rewrite Your Life is to simply write fiction instead of memoir. Writing fiction gives us more freedom, discretion and control. Novelists, she notes, have “both a shield and a microscope” (25). In other words, they have the freedom to protect their privacy and to examine their feelings.
Lourey, Jessica. Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction. Conari Press, 2017, p. 16.
What? Only one book for all the students to pass around? In England? In many of his novels, Charles Dickens describes how difficult it was for ordinary families to get any sort of education. In Great Expectations, Pip’s family had a hard time scraping together money for a teacher to provide lessons a few evenings a week. Unlike the United States, which by the 1830s was establishing a public school system based on a common education for all its citizens, England did not establish a national school system until 1870, and didn’t make education free for all children until 1890.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Washington Square Press, 1971, p. 69.
Czeslaw Milosz, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, continues, “Thanks to distance the past preserved in our memory is purified and embellished.” We can consider the past “without our former passions” so we can find “details that had escaped our attention.” Rather than creating art “in the moment,” Milosz believed in calmly examining everything from a distance. This isn’t surprising when you consider that he lived through two world wars in Europe, which he described as “lethal events” that are “comparable only to violent earthquakes.” Under those circumstances, perhaps “distance” is a survival strategy and an approach to art.
Milosz, Czeslaw. A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry. Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. xix.
One of my greatest challenges as an English instructor is to address the learning needs of students with invisible disabilities, such as anxiety disorders. This population is growing at an astonishing rate. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of college students diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems jumped from 10 to 17 percent (Petersen, 2017). What’s a teacher to do? When I asked my school’s Disability Resource Services director for advice, he recommended using a flexible Universal Design approach. Universal Design principles suggest using multiple strategies for engaging learners and allowing students to have multiple ways to complete assignments.
Burgstahler, Sheryl and Rebecca Cory. Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Harvard Education Press, 2008.
Bronson Alcott continues, “…and in thus leading the mind by its own light to the perception of truth.” Using discussion questions to develop ideas instead of using the rote learning method to reinforce “the” right ideas was considered outrageous in the 1820s. In fact, Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott) was nearly 200 years ahead of his time. When parents discovered that he believed in “treating pupils with uniform familiarity, and patience, and with the greatest kindness, tenderness and respect” instead of using corporal punishment, they would fire him. Frequently broke, he moved frequently, until Emerson began to provide financial support.
James, Laurie. Outrageous Questions: Legacy of Bronson Alcott and America’s One-Room Schools. Golden Heritage Press, 1994. p. 41.
I once asked the director of our program for non-traditional college students what the biggest challenge was for these students. Was it ability? “No,” she said. “It’s their perception of their abilities. They don’t think they’re smart enough. Then they give up because they think they won’t make it.” These students aren’t the only ones in the world who underestimate their potential and the importance of effort. Angela Duckworth cites research that shows that “grit” — perseverance and passion for long-term goals — is an important predictor of success. To a surprising degree, hard work — not IQ or talent — determines the results.
Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016, p. 275.
In every class I teach, there is at least one student who will talk with me at some point about how high levels of anxiety are preventing him or her from completing assignments. This memoir by Andrea Petersen provides a vivid account of what living with anxiety entails. She writes, “Anxiety is an isolation chamber where worry and fear elbow out human connection” (188). In addition, Petersen, a contributing writer at the Wall Street Journal, adeptly summarizes dozens of studies and scores of interviews with experts. This book should be required reading for those who work with young adults.
Petersen, Andrea. On Edge: A Journey through Anxiety. Crown, 2017, p. 160.
The passage continues: “Your troubles are huge and meaningless, it seemed to say, there is only the sun on the side of the house.” The troubles of the people in this illuminating book are vast indeed: no novelist, including Charles Dickens, reveals more clearly the grim scars of poverty and the shame that comes with every attempt to conceal those scars. Elizabeth Strout doesn’t flinch when she articulates the darkest insights of the people in this masterful work, who attempt to live with pain, even while they are able to see the sun, which they cannot imagine ever deserving.
Strout, Elizabeth. Anything Is Possible. Random House, 2017, p. 85.
What will happen when the reigning 92-year-old queen of England, Elizabeth II, dies and her son Charles, Prince of Wales, becomes king? This play by Mike Bartlett, which PBS presented last Sunday, speculates that Charles will make a desperate attempt to protect one of the hallmarks of democracy, namely, the freedom of the press. In doing so, the new king upsets the prime minister, most of the members of parliament, and ultimately, his own family. The New York Times described this play as “flat-out brilliant.” I admire the subtle poetry infused into this “modern-dress version of an actual Shakespeare play.”
Bartlett, Mike. King Charles III: A Future History Play. Theatre Communications Group, 2015, 4. 2, p. 83.
Some memoirists see themselves as products of their times. Others see themselves in terms of the obstacles they surmounted or movements they created. Samantha Ellis measures herself against the strongest women who live between the covers of novels. Her approach – which the Guardian calls “biblio-autobiography” – is a unique blurring of the lines between fiction and memoir. After all, do we know for sure if what she tells us about herself is “true”? I love discovering new ways that contemporary authors challenge us to decide whether their books describe events that actually happened, could have happened, or might yet happen.
Ellis, Samantha. How To Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much. Vintage Books, 2015, p. 244.
Tony Beck, who wrote his dissertation for Cambridge University on Bob Dylan, notes that Dylan “borrowed extensively” from the English poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Bryon, who also used the “wind” as a central image in their poems. For them, the wind often symbolized change and freedom. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature can sometimes “sounds like a professor of literature” when discussing the works of other poets. These English poets valued intuition, nature, freedom and rebellion – all of which feature prominently in Dylan’s work, especially during the earlier decades.
Beck, Tony. Understanding Bob Dylan: Making Sense of the Songs that Changed Modern Music. CreativeSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011, p. 104.