Thanks to my friend Peter for alerting me to the fact that my students, too, believe literally everything I say. Because I am not teaching them how to think, I am teaching them what to think. They are expected to regurgitate whatever New Critical theory I have about the texts we study. They do not earn their grades, of course–I give them out depending on how I feel and whether or not I like the particular student in question. However, I do aspire to the control Professor Mabrey has managed to achieve over the minds of her minions–er–students:
“I could, honest to God, ask them to tear their copies of the novel in half because that’s what Kerouac ‘intended the reader to do,’ and they would do it.” (The Onion)
Haw, Haw. As Flannery Would say.
One of my favorite Channels on Youtube is JustinGuitar Songs. Justin is a guitarist from Australia who posts really helpful videos to help people master the guitar. I mostly watch his videos to learn how to play specific songs or riffs that I can’t figure out by ear, but his website, justinguitar.com, has wonderful links for beginners, intermediate players and advanced players on everything from how to choose a guitar to music theory.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and play almost every day, but I peaked awhile ago and have never really improved my technical skills since. I’ve been pretty content being able to follow along by ear and write my own songs, but I have done little to challenge myself or learn new musical styles. One of my goals for this year is to push myself and become a better guitar player.
Speaking of better guitar players–
I play Tommy Emmanuel’s music all the time during Writing Fridays, when my students are working on in-class essays. A lot of them really love it.
“Does that mean you’ll play guitar for us again?”
I had just informed my sophomores about my exciting plan to transform my classroom into a coffee shop.
“We’ll see. This is a poetry coffee house event. You guys are starring in it.”
“But music is a type of poetry, Ms. Shea.”
Next week, my students will be bringing in poems they have chosen to memorize (though these poems must meet certain criteria) and the week after that they will be performing them in front of the class. We’ve worked a lot on tracking tone and mood, and they will be using their interpretations of the poem to give a successful, compelling delivery.
To make this daunting prospect more attractive, I am having my students transform my classroom into a coffee shop for this event. We will be arranging the desks in little circles, like the tables you see at Starbucks, and volunteers will bring in Christmas lights and other decorations to set the mood. Most thrilling of all (and they are really pretty psyched about this), they can bring in coffee and donuts. Last year in Louisiana, I had a couple of kids bring in coffee-makers so they could brew themselves fresh coffee!
I guess perhaps I am sort of distracting them from the real issue–memorizing a poem and trying to deliver it in front of your peers–but this tactic really works.
Some of them have already been showing me poems they like and want to learn.
It’s been popular in education over the last thirty years to jettison knowledge of “mere” facts and “rote memorization.” Memorizing things, in particular, has been condemned as uncreative, limiting, and requiring only lower levels of Bloom’s learning verbs.
But I’ve discovered that memorization is one of the best things you can force your students to do.
Especially when it comes to poetry.
At UD, during our legendary Junior Poet semester, all English majors are required to not only become intimately familiar with the entire corpus of a chosen poet–we are also required to choose an “exemplary poem” of said poet to memorize and deliver as part of our oral examination. Delivering this poem to a panel of professors and explicating it, and then being ready to answer any sort of question they ask you about your poet’s life and work, was extremely terrifying–but was also one of the best learning experiences of my life.
Essential to my experience was memorizing “An Event” by Richard Wilbur (and several other of his poems as well). It was amazing how much easier it is to understand a poem when you have memorized it–when you have allowed it to sink in and become a part of you.
Brad Leithauser, in a New York Times article on the subject, describes this phenomenon beautifully:
So why undergo the laborious process of memorizing a poem these days, when—tap, tap, tap—you have it at your fingertips? Has this become another outmoded practice?
[…] The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” (Leithauser, “Why Should We Memorize”)
But best of all is when, unbidden, those cherished words come to you in a moment of need or joy or loneliness. I remember walking to class one day in October of my senior year, and seeing that the trees were absolutely radiant with color. And Wilbur’s words, which came to me then, helped me to really understand and articulate the beauty I was beholding–something I could not have done without those words:
The leaves, though little time they have to live,
Were never so unfallen as today,
And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve
The very light from which time fell away.
A showered fire we thought forever lost
Redeems the air. Where friends in passing meet,
They parley in the tongues of Pentecost.
Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street. (Wilbur, “October Maples, Portland”)
If my kids are able to choose poems that they really love, I hope they may have a similar experience.
Over at First Things, Peter Lawler continues the discussion on the worth of the humanities, which I have addressed before in my post series “In Defense of English Majors,” Parts I, II and III.
Lawler adds some interesting fightin’ words to the debate:
The problem is the proliferation of all those techno-lite majors, such as marketing, beverage management, environmental studies, public relations, sports broadcasting, museum science, graphic arts, and so forth. They are allegedly VOCATIONAL majors. But they are actually majors in limiting one’s options in life–or narrowing one’s horizon. (Lawler, “Are the Humanities a Shoddy and Overpriced Product?“)
Do you think “marketing,” “environmental studies,” “public relations” et. al. are majors that “limit” your options in life and “narrow [your] horizon”?
In a way, I think the answer is yes. As poor as liberal arts majors are stereotyped to be, those who “specialize” have different struggles. What if you major in “sports broadcasting” and aren’t hired by ESPN or even some more modest network? Or worse–what if you realize you hate sports broadcasting? Whatever skills you acquired while pursuing that major are less likely to serve you in other areas. The common argument for the liberal arts majors–English, philosophy, math, history, theology, etc.–is that they have a much wider applicability to various areas of life, professions and vocations.
Maybe it’s just by chance–or maybe it’s because I went to UD–but this story about a new Benedictine Brewery has been showing up a lot lately on my newsfeed. Jennifer over at ConversionDiary is actually related to one of these monks.
According to one label, “every bottle [is] brewed to the glory of God.”
Cheers to that!
5 thoughts on “7 Quick Takes Friday (1/17/14)”
Poetry compels one to take a delight in language and in the single word, to have a feeling for subtle shades of sound and meaning, for the nexus of structure and syntax, and for the vast historic associations which lie in any developed language whereby even the most trivial instance or mode of Being can be made ostentatious, can be made to demand of us that we ponder it deeply. It requires that in some sense one make oneself translucent to one’s own experience, that one know oneself. This is why we should memorize it.
It reminds me of something W.H. Auden said reflecting on the life and death of W.B. Yeats: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives/ Would never want to tamper, flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.” Yep, that’s why. It’s “a way of happening, a mouth.”
This is beautiful, pancakesandwildhoney– you put it so well. Do you mind if I quote you in a later post? Also: Auden is one of my favorites.
Thanks. And I do not mind at all. Quote away!
Auden is one of mine as well.
You’re very, very right about memorization. I’ve had to explain to my Latin students several times that under every beautiful house there is an invisible but absolutely essential foundation, and under the beautiful house of the human mind there is a foundation of internalized knowledge. You’re making me wish I had gone to UD.
Thank you for all your posts! I really love the way you look at the world.
Thank you Will! I took Latin for four years and high school and minored in it at UD as an undergrad. I’ve had amazing Latin teachers – and Latin is a subject that first habituated me to memorization and helped me appreciate how important it is.
Your explanation for your students sounds perfect. I might have to steal it from you and share it with my English students!