Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Fresh Take on Huck Finn and his America

Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn always held a special fascination for me. Yet, I never really discovered the book on its deeper levels until I read it for a survey course in American Literature during my sophomore year of college. That, of course, makes sense because it is anything but a children's book. It is, truly, the place "where all American literature begins." And, it is also one of our most complex pieces of art that will forever stir up controversy.

During graduate school, I encountered the book again in a course on Twain and the "Rise of Realism," and it re-captured my attention, so much so that I briefly considered the book as a topic for my master's thesis. My focus would have been the "American Adam" concept and the book's ideas about our never ending search for renewal and redemption. Alas, like many scholars, I accepted the conclusion that "pretty much everything has been said" about the novel, and nothing new could be offered. So, I turned my attention to a contemporary Canadian novelist, Douglas Coupland, and produced a reasonably respectable bit of criticism.

Now, my attention has been brought back to Huck, as it appears a scholar has found something to add to the discussion about Twain's most endearing - and complicated - character, Huck. Butler professor Andrew Levy recently published to positive reviews a fresh look at Huck Finn's America, by focusing on the role of minstrel shows and violence in childhood that so informed Mark Twain's view of American society, and subsequently the role of race relations.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Being Well-Read without Reading

So many books - so little time. Or, perhaps, so many books - so little interest in reading them.

In an old Woody Allen movie (I can't recall which one) there was a character who spoke with great authority about books and culture, but actually knew very little. The quote was something like, "Oh, I don't read the books. I read the reviews." That always amused me as a teacher, and friends often referenced it when I appeared to have a knowledgeable opinion about everything. For English teachers and students, the ability of students to just "get the gist of it" without reading the stories is the benchmark of the Cliff Notes and Spark Notes industry. And that seems like cheating - though it's understandable why kids do it. They need to pass the quizzes and tests, but they don't have the time or interest in reading the stories.

So, what's the motivation for adults?

There is actually a sub-genre of books about how to appear well read without reading. And perhaps being knowledgeable about the classics or well-known works is not a bad thing. Adding to that area is Slate Magazine's Gentleman Scholar Troy Patterson who offers advice on "How to Seem Well Read." Patterson's position is actually quite entertaining and useful. The most basic advice is to simply follow the lead of that Woody Allen character - read the reviews. Patterson advises people to simply read the New York Review of Books. The reviews - at least for an astute reader - can provide the basic premise and commentary on the quality of the writing and story. However, for novels they will avoid spilling too much of the plot. So, it might be necessary to check out the conclusions - or Spark Notes summaries if available.

Of course, there are other great reads on how to appear well read. Here are a few I find worth the time.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Beowulf on the Beach

Monday, July 28, 2014

Is Using "They" as a Singular Pronoun Acceptable

"Someone left their book on the table." Wrong, right?

The battle over the use of they and their for a singular antecedent has been a regular struggle for English teachers during the past one hundred years or so. It is a common mistake that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to the hard core grammarians and "strict constructionists." And, it is the cause of many a missed question on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT. Yet, the use of "they" when gender or specificity of a singular subject is ambiguous has become so common that it can certainly qualify for "acceptable use." That is except for standardized tests.

So, what's the answer?

In a recent piece for The Chronicle, scholar Geoffrey Pullum weighs in with commentary on "Valid Pronoun Ambiguity Warnings."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Re-Telling Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen Lives on in New Styles

Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen novels remain a cottage industry unto themselves. And there may be no author who is more targeted for re-invention and re-imagination and re-packaging, than the young British woman who wrote six novels which bridged the neo-Classical and the Romantic ages. The latest, and perhaps most "Austen-tacious" of ideas in its scope is The Austen Project, a new series which presents the stories of Jane Austen in contemporary settings, written by six well-known contemporary novelists.  An interesting take on this idea comes from Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, who offers insight about the challenges of adaption - "For Pride and Prejudice to Make Sense Today, Jane Has to be 40." It's a clever bit of scholarship that brings necessary understanding of why the novels of Jane Austen remain so popular and relevant.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Is James' Joyce "Ulysses" the Standard for American Fiction?

There are certain books that people just know - even if they haven't read them. James Joyce's epic and archetypal work Ulysses is certainly one of those. And it certainly qualifies as one that many people know, but haven't read. However, in a compelling piece of literary analysis and commentary, scholar and professor Robert D. Newman of the University of Washington argues that any fan of America's literary fiction actually know Joyce's work well because of its profound and significant influence on the works of some of the country's best known writers. Newman has written the book on Joyce's influence, and now offers a shorter synthesis of his position for, "James Joyce's Lyrical Sensual Literary Legacy: Why So Many Novels Steal from Ulysses."

While “Ulysses” is far from the first example of moral fiction in the history of literature and its critical reception often has tended to focus on its explosion of the boundaries of traditional narrative technique as well as its cultural and historical contexts, its persistent presence in traditional plot and character within some recent mainstream American fiction presents another layer of its compelling influence on the ever-widening circle of Joyce’s heirs. “Ulysses” is indelibly embedded in contemporary American cultural expressions. Our current literary everymen shuffle along their confused and revelatory paths while tipping their hats to Bloom.

In high praise for Ireland's most significant artist, Newman believes that the works of American novelists like Pat Conroy, Richard Russo, or even Faulkner and Pynchon, would not even exist if not for Joyce and the publication of Ulyssses. Certainly, the direct allusions to the novel are ever-present in American fiction and culture. And there are many areas of American art where people would not even notice the influence - such as the songs of Kate Bush or the columns of Prairie Home Companion writer Garrison Keillor. Truly the significance of the novel is vast and under-rated. And with that in mind, perhaps Newman and others will continue to remind everyone "Why You Should Read this Book."

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Problem of Grammar Books

The teaching of grammar is the nemesis of both English teachers and students alike. And while many lament there is "no good way to teach grammar," few English teachers would argue publicly against teaching it in some way. The problem with teaching grammar in the traditional way is that it lacks any sort of evidence that the practice improves writing or reading or understanding of English. It's true. Literally breaking sentences down into their disparate elements has no positive impact on a student's ability to write correctly. Of course, we like to use the "mechanic analogy" for grammar-mechanics - You can't fix a car if you don't know how the individual parts like a carburetor work. The example is probably as absurd as it sounds.

That said, many of us continue to teach grammar in a disconnected, "underline the verb or the error in a bunch of random sentences" sort of way. The primary reason for this is the continued emphasis on such "skills" in standardized testing. My high school has a pretty standard, and pretty effective, grammar program that, in essence, is simply an ACT-prep course. And we will keep plugging away until the ACT grammar section is no longer such high stakes (which may be sooner than you think). And if we keep doing so, the education publishing world will continue to put out "grammar books," - a situation which makes professor Geoffery Pullum positively ill.

Professor Pullum is a long-standing critic of the teaching of grammar in the traditional sense, as well the inability for "grammar books" to actually articulate what they mean. For all those in the world of English who actually care to follow the issue, Pullum's blog - The Language Log - is an invaluable source of information and commentary. And, in a recent piece for The Chronicle, Professor Pullum rants and raves against the inadequacies found in the most recent version of the "New Grammar Book," or NGB, which he refuses to identify because it's just like all the rest. Delving into Pullum's critique and thinking long and hard about how we teach grammar is worth the time of dedicated English instructors. And perhaps one of us will take up the task ...

... that whoever points out that something needs to be done is taken to have thereby volunteered to chair the subcommittee for doing it.

Some who have tried before - and probably failed in Pullum's view - are:

Jeff Anderson in Mechanically Inclined.

Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Mignon Fogarty in Grammar Girls Quick and Dirty Tips.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Quit ACT & SAT Prep & Focus on Essay Writing

The college admissions game is becoming more and more difficult to predict and to play. And the percentages continue to expose the dirty little secret of standardized test scores - one: test prep classes can help kids game the system, and two: these classes skew admissions toward wealthier students. And, there are plenty of innovative and thoughtful and skilled students who could greatly contribute to and benefit from higher education but are unprepared and unable to play the games to game the system.

Enter Bard College.

Bard College, the innovative liberal arts school, is making waves in the world of higher education by offering an alternative admissions route to the standard ACT and GPA route. Slate's education columnist Rebecca Schuman reports on the new system which asks students to "simply write four essays" to qualify for admission to Bard. Of course, these are no simple high school essays, and they're not just a variation on The Common App. The essays are complex, challenging subjects that demand about 10,000 words of innovative critical thinking and commentary.

Thus, as more colleges begin to re-think the excessive emphasis on the ACT and SAT, English teachers - and really all high school educators - need to amp up the writing instruction and prepare kids for the rigor of some high-level college writing.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Does Handwriting Tell Us About a Person?

With the decreased emphasis on handwriting that is happening in schools as a result of the Common Core State Standards (resulting from the need/plan to assess kids online via the PARCC or SB tests), some teachers decry the lost art of handwriting. Many believe handwriting can tell us so much more than the information which is actually written down. According to graphologists, many personality traits can be identified through handwriting analysis.

Here's a great presentation from BuzzFeed of some of those theories:

Certainly, there is a cognitive development and skill associated with manual writing. And it will certainly be a loss if handwriting instruction and cursive writing goes by the way-side in the name of standardized assessments.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Personal Narrative, or Telling Stories in Class

"Tell us a story."

That is a great interview question, and it's a great impromptu speech topic for high school students as well. Storytelling is the essence of what we do as English teachers, and the qualities of a good story, as well as the ability to deliver it, should be a primary focus of the classroom. For this reason, the personal narrative is one genre that I always incorporate into my classes, from middle school to AP Language to Senior Composition. And with the Common Core as well as our new Colorado Academic Standards emphasizing narrative as one of the three primary modes of writing instruction, it's important to teach the art form.

When I first began teaching AP Language and Composition, one of the first things I learned from a colleague, office mate, and good friend was the important role that personal narratives play in the rhetoric and composition classroom. Many AP Lang style analysis prompts over the years have been personal narratives. Some memorable ones: Meena Alexander on her Fractured Identity; Gary Soto on The Stolen Pie; Jamaica Kincaid On Seeing England; Nancy Mairs On Being a Cripple; and Richard Rodriguez Family Christmas.

I've always enjoyed teaching personal narratives, and on my colleague's advice, I begin with a class long analysis of Audre Lorde's Fourth of July. Lorde's work is so rich with rhetorical devices that it serves as the perfect example of how the personal narrative works. We also read a great piece by Michael Koenigs called Getting Off the Hammock, about his first summer job. It is a beautiful piece that he wrote at the age of seventeen, and it's a great example of how full of opportunities for writing our students' lives are. Ultimately, my students will write their own personal narrative, which is basically recounting a life event which progresses towards epiphany.

They can be insightful  and inspired or sarcastic and silly, but they should be meaningful. And year after year, they are.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Is Irony Ruining or Saving American Culture?

As Polonius unintentionally let us know, irony - not brevity - is the soul of wit. And there is perhaps no culture or time period the embraces and evokes more irony than contemporary America. And no group of writers has explored that more fully and insightfully than our newest post-modernists - people like David Foster Wallace.

Recently, with the publication of an essay by writers/artists Matt Ashby and Brandon Carroll, Wallace's work and criticism of irony in American culture has touched off a discussion about the value of that irony. Is it saving us, or will it be our demise? Ashby and Carroll assert that the irony used by Pynchon and others to criticize war is no longer as effective when it simply become entertainment. When the satirized laugh so naively at themselves that they fail to see the change an artist is hoping to effect, then irony has lost its value. In fact, it becomes an instrument of self destruction.

So where have we gone from irony? Irony is now fashionable and a widely embraced default setting for social interaction, writing and the visual arts. Irony fosters an affected nihilistic attitude that is no more edgy than a syndicated episode of “Seinfeld.” Today, pop characters directly address the television-watching audience with a wink and nudge. (Shows like “30 Rock” deliver a kind of meta-television-irony irony; the protagonist is a writer for a show that satirizes television, and the character is played by a woman who actually used to write for a show that satirizes television. Each scene comes with an all-inclusive tongue-in-cheek.) And, of course, reality television as a concept is irony incarnate.

In Ashby and Wallace's view, Americans no longer have the ability to learn from irony when culture is saturated in it.  However, it may not be as fatalistic as all that. In Peter Finocchiaro's response to Ashby, Carroll, and, in effect, Foster Wallace, irony is defended as not useless and ineffective, but more relevant and necessary than ever. With an interview with UChicago philosophy professor, Jonathan Lear, irony is given a defense that incorporates the brilliance of Wallace and the American irony he wrote about.
First I want to say, I think one way to start is just in terms of the article you wanted me to look at, where they quote David Foster Wallace as though he himself is opposed to irony. But when you look at what he actually says, he talks about the “oppressiveness of institutionalized irony.” And I think to understand what he was talking about you really have to put a lot of emphasis on the “institutionalized,” and that got suppressed in the discussion.
I mean, it’s not like I’m a David Foster Wallace expert, but as far as I understand him, he himself was an ironist, and what he was complaining about wasn’t irony, per se, but a very flat understand and misappropriation, what he called an institutionalization of the idea. And so I think for Wallace, institutionalized irony isn’t a form of irony, it’s a form of not being irony. Of killing it. With that in mind, and again, there’s this other issue of how do we understand the use of various words in the English language. And of course if a billion people use this word “irony” in this kind of institutionalized sense, then that turns out to be one of its meanings, and there’s no going against that.
I think what makes irony an important concept to be thinking about and approaching is precisely because there is a tradition of thinking about it and working with it, a kind of poetic tradition — you can find it in Socrates and Plato and I think one of the great thinkers about this was Kierkegaard in the 19th century — where, in a funny way, irony is understood and developed by these various philosophers and poets and religious thinkers as very much an antidote to the kinds of things the authors of your article were complaining about. So what I think they’re getting at — what irony is, and why it matters …
Of course, speaking for a man of Wallace's brilliance is tough, especially when he left us too soon. And that can lead to complications. For example, the Wallace estate is challenging a recent attempt at a film adaptation of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. And disagreements like that can complicate the matter in a way that would probably frustrate Wallace … and baffle Polonius [sic]. But as Charlie Alderman reminds us in a piece for the, we can all learn a lot from Wallace and his portrayals of an ironic culture.