“The secret of all art, also of poetry, is, thus, distance.”

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.

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“Of the students who report having disabilities, the largest and fastest-growing group is students who have ‘invisible disabilities.’”

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.

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“Education, when rightly understood, will be found to lie in the art of asking apt and fit questions…”

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.

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“More often than we think, our limits are self-imposed.”

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.

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“When I was younger, anxiety sometimes flat-out crippled my ability to work.”

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.

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“The Hopper painting hung on the wall with an indifference so vast it began to feel personal, as though it had been painted for this moment”

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.

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“The truth is that my greatest enemies stand not within the crowd outside . . “

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.

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“We have to keep making choices, keep transforming.”

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.

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So what about Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind”?

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.

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“While most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality.”

Trevor Noah’s mother was black and his father was white, which was a problem in South Africa in 1984.  The Immorality Act of 1927 prohibited “illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives” and said that such acts could result in imprisonment. Until the laws changed when Noah was six, it was risky for him to be seen with his parents. At any time, the government could strip his parents of their custody and send Noah off to an orphanage.  This memoir is “essential reading” because it does more to “expose apartheid than any other recent history book or academic text.”

Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Spiegel & Grau, 2016, p. 27.

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“It tells the stories of two revolutions.”

Revolutions, indeed. This book is about Revolutionary War era hero Alexander Hamilton, whose picture is on our ten-dollar bill.  It’s also about the revolutionary way his story is told by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who uses hip-hop, harpsichords, and a largely non-Caucasian cast in his Broadway production of Hamilton. Unlike any previous book about a play, this work has its own share of surprises, including samples of text messages from Miranda, interviews, pictures of notes and historical documents. If postmodernism is about defying structure, this book is a postmodern success story in which all assumptions are discarded and all ideas are welcome.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: The Revolution. Grand Central, 2016, p. 10.

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“Until recently, we simply didn’t know how immense this problem was, or how serious the consequences, unless we had suffered them ourselves.”

When Matthew Desmond was growing up, money was tight.  Sometimes the gas got shut off, and his parents eventually lost their home to foreclosure. This week, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction book Evicted, which is about eight families in Milwaukee and their evictions. Vivid and unsettling: it’s a difficult book to read.  The stories are sad, but the facts are even more unpleasant:  only one of four low-income households that qualify for housing assistance gets it.  Where do most of the subsidies for housing go? To families with six-figure incomes, who receive tax benefits for home ownership.

Desmond, Matthew.  Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Crown, 2016, p. 295.

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“It comes over him in a wave: He’s been wrong about his Tempest, wrong for twelve years.”

Anyone can retell as classic story, but changing a play by Shakespeare while remaining true to the themes and lessons of the original requires skill. Changes were needed, Margaret Atwood told a standing-room-only crowd in Madison, Wisconsin this week, to  make Miranda (the daughter who grows up on a deserted island) a believable character. Atwood said her biggest challenge was preserving the important relationship between the father and daughter after changing the setting that brought them close together. Atwood did this as only Atwood could do it, adding grace and depth — and a little magic —  to this unforgettable father-daughter relationship.

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. Hogarth, 2016, p. 291.

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The students felt that a few could carry the discussion for the rest of the class . . .

. . . while the majority of students adhered to a ‘norm of silence’ – not perceiving themselves as obligated to participate in the conversation (50).  Jay R. Howard, a sociologist, calls this the norm of “the consolidation of responsibility,” which tends to be the default setting in the college or university classroom, unless the instructor creates new norms. Awareness is the first step in changing the patterns,  which can lead to course design decisions that include activities that require student-to-student interaction and student-to-instructor interaction. Because this book provides specific, research-based suggestions, it’s on my list of “Ten Best Books for College Teachers.”

Howard, Jay R. Dicussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. Jossey-Bass, 2015, p. 50.

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“What’s past is prologue”

At first glance, this line from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” suggests that history repeats itself.  This view is written in stone – literally – on the base of the National Archives’ sculpture.  The Harvard Gazette and the University of Chicago Magazine use this quote in articles about the ways history determines the present. A closer look at Shakespeare’s line, however, suggests a different interpretation.  It’s spoken by Antonio, who is trying to convince Sebastian to kill the sleeping king.  In this context, the past is merely a prologue that sets the scene for a much better future – a choice, not destiny.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Act II, Scene I, p. 1621.

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