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.

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."

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.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why Does Dystopian YA Literature Always Stereotype and Categorize Kids

Cliques. Are they real, or simply a creation of YA writers and Hollywood directors? It's not surprising to find people sorted into groups in most genres of teen entertainment. In fact, Grace, Ed Rooney's secretary from Ferris Bueller laid it out for us in one classic line:

So, why is it that writers and filmmakers always seek to fit characters into the standard groups that are supposed to make up high school? Is society that cliche? Or are the cliches actually valid, which is why they seem so common. Katy Waldman of Slate Magazine suspects there are significant forces at work in a world where "Everybody Knows Where They Belong." From the Sorting Hat of JK Rowling to Suzanne Collins' Reaping, much of the entertainment for young people is grounded in categorizing people. The latest work Divergent from Catherine Roth is only the latest to follow the archetypal story form.

The studies of societal divisions, especially in regards to high school cliques, are endless. But the question is: are they valid, and what can or should we do about it?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Jonathon Livingston Seagull Flies Again - Is It a Farce?

Anyone who has grasped with the metaphysical in the contemporary age is familiar with a little book from Richard Bach known as Jonathon Livingston Seagull. The small, simply fairy tale of less than 10,000 words was first published in 1970, and became an instant hit with its message of aspiring to greatness and believing in the power of believing. The book is a classic in the spiritual, self-help world. Books like JLS or any of its variations from The Celestine Prophecy to the Course in Miracles to The Tao of Pooh all derive from the basic premise of Norman Vincent Peale in his book from an earlier era, The Power of Positive Thinking.   JLS has flown into our consciousness again with the recent publication of a "Part IV."  Of course, not everyone loves Bach or his philosophy or his silly little tales. In fact, some people criticize books like JLS as the origin and inspiration behind the oversimplification of American thought in the last twenty years. Heather Havrilesky cites the story of "no ordinary bird" as the reason behind the decline of American society. Like all pieces of art, the story of Jonathon is not for everyone, but it does have value in the story it tells and the feelings it evokes. While it is certainly not the answer to our prayers, it also isn't the cause of the alleged "decline" of America, or of American thought. It's a story with a message that might give people a bit of an escape, or a shred of hope, a hint of optimism, or ....

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Shout Out to Young Adult Literature - YA Rocks

Beyond Goodnight Moon and all of Dr. Seuss and the Easy Readers and the comics, it was the books that connected with us in our awakening - our coming of age - that mostly likely inspired our passion and love of reading. As we prepare to celebrate Dr. Seuss' 110th birthday and honor Read Across America Day, writer and YA Lit fanatic Jen Doll explains and honors the YA genre with "The Thirtysomething Teen: An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

How to Talk to People - Saying This, But Not That

In a cult classic from the early 90s, Pump Up the Volume, Christian Slater's character explains to his friend that, despite his voice on the radio, "I can't talk to you." Communication is tough, and it's one of the standards in English instruction that is often underserved in the classroom. Occasionally, I play the game Catch Phrase with students in an activity I call "Communication Skills." I also focus on language choices for the students in all their writing, asking them to combine sentences and think about the concept of le mot juste- the right word.

Communicating comes more naturally for some than others, but it is a skill that can be taught, learned, and refined. These are the thoughts from numerous authors of books around the idea of "Say This, Not That." One of the more interesting and well written approaches comes from California therapist Carl Alasko. Alasko offers great advice when you "have something to say" but don't want to trigger an argument. Many of us can use advice on how to be more tactful. And, we would certainly be more productive in delicate discussions if we were mindful of these few bits of advice:
  • Have a plan
  • Bite your tongue
  • Avoid the unanswerable
  • Don't blame, abuse, or punish
  • Fend off fights

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Benefit of the Humanities Degree

The Common Core and PARCC testing and PISA or TIMSS have begun, little by little, to steal away or divert attention from the magic of the liberal arts education. Despite warnings from as far back as Charles Dickens' Hard Times, America has begun to myopically focus on a utilitarian foundation for secondary and education. Educating for job skills has replaced educating for the cultivation of the human spirit. And that has put the study of arts and the humanities at risk. In fact, some in our government believe that student loans should only be available to STEM-majors, and those English and philosophy students can pay for the luxury of studying the humanities. Yet, for as long as I've been teaching - in fact, for as long as I've been around - I've known countless successful business leaders and community icons who began with a humanities degree. And that is the heart of Caroline Gregoire's list of "Irrefutable Evidence of the Value of Humanities Degrees." While I might have expected it from the likes of Jon Stewart or Conan O'Brien, who knew that businessman and multi-millionaire investor Mitt Romney began his adult life with a bachelor's degree in English?