7 Quick Takes Friday (2/28/14)


Just this.



In Creative Writing, we are working on murder mystery stories. What’s so interesting to me about this genre is how particular it is. You just have to have certain strict elements to make this type of story work. For instance:

Objects. Objects are crucial to murder mysteries in a way that they are not to basically any other type of fiction. Obviously “the murder weapon” is often important, but more crucially, the plot itself is almost always driven by the discovery of objects–physical clues that lead the protagonist to the truth.

Think: in the first episode of the new Sherlock series, what object is crucial?

source: sherlockology.com
source: sherlockology.com

Yup. The pink suitcase. It’s essential. If the murderer had not forgotten leave the pink suitcase with the body, it would have been nearly impossible to prove that the lady had not committed suicide. But since the pink suitcase was missing, and Holmes knew (by the splash of dirty water on her left ankle) that she had been dragging a suitcase behind her in the rain, the so-called “suicide” had to involve at least one other person on the scene–the murderer.

Still not convinced?

sa columbo peter falk season 5 dvd review PDVD_020Think: In almost every Columbo episode, an object (or objects) plays a crucial role in Columbo’s deciphering of the facts versus the story given by the murderer.

In the episode we watched in class, for example, we see Columbo reading a newspaper while the police scurry about the house and the medical examiner peers over the body. As usual, Columbo gets some weird glances for seeming to be so uninterested in what is most important.

Wait. What? You’ve never seen a Columbo episode before???

But, in his characteristic way, there is always just “one more thing” that Columbo has questions about. In this case, he has questions about the newspaper. The murderer claimed she had not left the house all day and there was no one else who came to see her. The newspaper must have been delivered to the house, she said.

Ah– but only morning editions of the paper are delivered. The evening edition had to have been bought by someone at a drug store or grocery, proving that the murderer had, in fact, left the house even though she claimed not to.

So the challenge for my students is to recognize–and utilize–the importance of objects in their own murder mystery stories. Most really good mysteries rely upon them.


Speaking of objects, I wrote a paper in college tracing the development of the novel by looking at how objects are treated in four specific works: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Gustave Flaubert’s novella A Simple Heart, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The objects I consider in these works are, respectively: Mr. Darcy’s portrait, Felicite’s green parrot, the coffin and Our Lady’s tilma.

What’s interesting is how these four works suggest the increasing importance of objects in novels over time. Jane Austen (1775-1817) and other early novelists (Phillip Sidney, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Anthony Trollope) almost never talk about objects because they are more interested in ideas, concepts, conversation, and character. This is why the scene where Elizabeth experiences a revelation about Mr. Darcy while looking at his painted portrait is so interesting; it is very unusual for Austen and most other early novelists. By the time we get to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, objects are everywhere.

The biggest exception I can think of to this rule about early novelists is in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), where one of the best scenes in this early novel is about the main character salvaging various objects from the wreck of his ship. But the story still centers around his inner thoughts and religious conversion. Moreover, in most of these early novels, the narrator (even if she is not directly involved in the action of the story) uses 1st person–giving a sense of subjectivity rather than objectivity.

By the time we reach Flaubert and his parrot, however, objects become a lot more prominent in novels—perhaps partially due to the increasing influence of the Industrial Revolution and advances in science and what is “objectively” real. Think of the significance of the scarlet letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous work (1850), or the whale (is it okay to say it functions as an object?) and Captain Ahab’s wooden leg in Moby Dick (1851). Even in very interior and psychologically-driven novels, like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), objects (and characters’ interpretations of them) feature very prominently.  

By the time we get to Faulkner, the 18th and early 19th century subjectivity of the opinionated (and often 1st person narrator) begins to be fused with the objective mid-18th through late 20th century objective third person. Faulkner, Virgina Woolf and James Joyce and other adventurers into streams of consciousness and human interiority combine an emphasis on the external world with and its tenuous relationship to the internal world of the human mind.

I haven’t read as much post-modern fiction, but I would guess the relationship between character and object has already begun to change very significantly.

All of this is not to say that objects should “mean” something in a story– but rather that looking at the way an author presents objects tells us a lot about the his epistemology– what human beings can know about reality.


Obviously my above argument is fraught with holes and exceptions, but I think the general idea holds.

Speaking of ideas with a lot of holes and exceptions, this is a very interesting take on the popular Myers-Briggs Personality Test–a test which, by the way, has always fascinated me.

A taste:

All tests of the Myers-Briggs ilk are tautologies.  They are tautological because their results cannot exceed my input. If out of 100 questions, I 100 times affirm that I am likely to grow angry over criticism and confrontation, all my 100-question test-result really says is that “I am likely to grow angry over criticism and confrontation.” Sure, a test may express its tautological conclusions in words that sound like it has digested our answers and excreted some new diamond — as when we tell a test in 100 different ways that we are most likely to look outwardly than inwardly, and it tells us we are an “extrovert” — but closer inspection reveals that this new “identity” is no more than a simplified expression of what we usually do — an “extrovert” is defined as a person more likely to look outwardly than inwardly. The problem with test-takers is that we conflate words which summarize and offer back to us our habits with words that serve as identities given to us by the test. (BadCatholic, “Magic and Myers-Briggs”)


It is true that we should not so easily conflate “habit” with “identity” (although immediately Flannery O’Connor’s Habit of Being comes to mind).

But on the other hand: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle, anyone?

UPDATE: Or, as Molly pointed out to me, not actually Aristotle, but Will Durant’s characterization in The Story of Philosophy.



On the one year (!) anniversary of Pope Benedict’s official retirement, via Catholic News Agency:



Back to objects.

An excerpt from my essay:

For Felicite, however, this [relationship between a human being and an object] is more complex, and for Flaubert (or at least for his narrator) objects seem to gather more levels of meaning than they do for Austen. The portrait of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is simply a description of him—its meaning lies in its accurate rendering and its ability to convey something of his inner character to Elizabeth. But the picture of the Holy Spirit and the stuffed parrot have a more complex relationship to one another and to Felicite—because that very relationship exists only in her perception: “In her mind, the one became associated with the other, the parrot becoming sanctified by connection with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit in turn acquiring added life and meaning” (SH 35). The picture of the Holy Spirit is not a portrait of the parrot—yet the two objects acquire a kind of correspondence in Felicity’s “mind,” in her imaginative awareness. In Flaubert’s story the object’s significance is also much more subjectively determined; Darcy’s portrait would represent Darcy to almost everyone in Austen’s world (albeit to a lesser degree than to Elizabeth), but we may safely assume that the stuffed parrot would suggest the Holy Spirit only to Felicite. (Shea, “People and Things: Epistemological Possibility and Limit in Austen, Flaubert, Faulkner and Cather”)

Next time you read a really good novel, notice any and all objects presented. Do they figure prominently in the plot? Do they reveal something about how characters come to know the truth about themselves or about one another?

Are objects prominently featured at all?



Also, here is the most fascinating article to appear on my newsfeed this week (and, thanks to my very interesting friends, that is saying a lot):

“8 Surprising Historical Facts that Will Change Your Concept of Time Forever.”

This article features sliced bread, Betty White, the pyramids of Egypt, the Chicago Cubs, and other notables.


Not everyone can be a world history master, especially when we tend to learn about it in specifically segmented classes like “European History” or “American Revolutionary History.” Maybe you have an exceptional grasp on the global historical timeline. But for those of us who don’t, the list below, inspired by a recent Reddit thread called “What are two events that took place in the same time in history but don’t seem like they would have?” puts key historical moments into some much-needed context. (huffingtonpost.com)

Have a great weekend!

Of Friendship and Boundaries in Teaching


“Grading papers is always better with a beer.”

I posted this photo on my Facebook wall last night with the above caption, and within hours I had 38 likes and several comments.

I mean, 38 is unusually large for me, anyway.

A remarkable number of likes and comments came from my former students:

“We just like to know you’re human!”

“Who would have thought. You drink beer!”

One even remarked slyly that he is now questioning the grades I gave him.

Ha. Ha.

The funny thing is, while I NEVER accept Facebook requests from my students while they are still my students, I don’t feel too bad about accepting the requests once they graduate. It’s an easy way to keep in touch and sometimes they contact me that way for recommendation requests.

I guess it’s still kind of weird — I would probably die first before friending Mr. Murray, my formidable sophomore English teacher, on Facebook.

But then again Mr. Murray would probably die before opening a Facebook account.

Still, this Facebook experience reminds me of how important it is to maintain appropriate boundaries with students. High schoolers, because they are transitioning into adulthood and (some) are starting to really mature, discover that their relationships with “grown ups” are changing. They no longer relate to adults, especially young adults, as children do.  They can have much more “equal” conversations. The older they get, and the younger their teachers are, the closer our experiences seem to be.

In many ways, the ACE program leverages the youth of its teachers as a way to reach out and connect to students. And it works a lot of the time.

But still I think it’s really healthy and important for young teachers (well, really, ALL teachers) to realize that we are not called to be our students’ friend per se.

Friendly, yes.

Friend, no.

I see a lot of teachers crossing this boundary (hopefully by mistake) all of the time– whether because  they want to feel “cool” or they think this will help them connect with their students better. I myself struggle with this too. Especially during my first year of teaching, when I was barely four years older than my oldest students, I had to pretend I was very different in age in order to establish an appropriate distance.

source: ace.nd.edu

And yet I want to be real with my students. I don’t want to be condescending or distant.

But I also know that they have plenty friends their own age. And they don’t need me to be a friend.

They need me to be a teacher–dare I say it?– a role-model.

I have known teachers who converse with their students online via Skype or games or such things, and others who, thinking they are helping troubled teens, try to take on a student’s personal problems.

But this isn’t healthy, nor is it appropriate.

As Aristotle indicates in his Nichomachean Ethics, true friendship implies giving and receiving on an equal level. This equality (and a resulting emotional closeness) is NOT helpful between teacher and student. The teacher and the student are not “equal”– not because the teacher is better than the student, but because the teacher and the student have very different roles and therefore should not relate to one another as if they had the same role.

Part of what can make teachers so effective is the unique relationship we can develop with our kids. It’s a personal relationship, but it is also professional. This closeness (I see them every single day and care about them a LOT) and distance (I refuse every silly invitation I have ever received to ‘hang out’) provides a place where students can be uniquely respected.

Sometimes family members and friends are too close. Sometimes a student needs a responsible, caring adult to speak to, or at least to interact with on a consistent basis.

In some cases I know that I am the most responsible and respectful adult a student of mine may interact with on a given day, due to difficult family situations. As much as that student may want to be my friend, what that student really needs is for me to be a caring and responsible teacher.

Unfortunately, a lot of high schoolers (and teachers!) aren’t mature enough yet to realize this. I knew several teachers when I was in high school who ignored appropriate boundaries, thinking that they were doing the right thing and really “just connecting more” with their students. These teachers usually ended up being pretty popular but usually pretty ineffective. They had the “fun” classes in which students were not really challenged–nor did they learn much of anything other than unnecessary details about the teacher’s personal life.

Really loving someone often involves understanding and maintaining appropriate boundaries with that person. These boundaries vary depending upon the type of love involved. In all of our relationships–not just the more obvious ones with peers and family members and significant others–we should step back and discern what is truly good. Our coworkers, our bosses, our students, our teachers all deserve our unselfish love, a love that is rooted in the truth.

What Teachers Make

Apologies for my failure to post on Friday. I will do better this week!

In the meantime, here’s a great article (below) that gave me a little extra boost of confidence in my vocation. The problem with teaching is that one never really feels like one has done enough. It’s the kind of job where you have to accept constant feelings of disappointment and regret, and yet nevertheless press forward with hopefulness and determination.

Valerie Strauss taught for only two years before leaving teaching and becoming a lawyer. Her perspective is really interesting, and encouraging for the rest of us who do choose to press on with this somewhat under appreciated career.

“You Think You Know What Teachers Do. Right? Wrong.” by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post

A taste:

You did not learn that your 15-year-old students were pregnant from their answers to vocabulary quizzes. You did not learn how to teach functionally illiterate high school students to appreciate Shakespeare. You did not design lessons to teach students close reading skills by starting with the lyrics to pop songs. You did not miserably fail your honors level students at least in part because you had no books to give them. You did not struggle to teach your students how to develop a thesis for their essays, and bask in the joy of having taught a successful lesson, of having gotten through to them, even for five minutes. (Strauss)

And, on a related note, here is the (now pretty famous) slam poem video by Taylor Mali about “What Teachers Make.”

Warning: some explicit language and gestures

And (on a much more appropriate note), this has been my motto of teaching for the last three years. It gets me through even when I know I’m not doing a very good job:


The Fault in Our Selves

This wonderful quote by the extremely quotable C. S. Lewis appeared on my Facebook newsfeed today:

“In order to pronounce a book bad, it is not enough to discover that it elicits no good response from ourselves, for that might be our fault.” (Lewis, “An Experiment in Criticism”)

I think I am going to have these words painted in large letters right above the front board in my classroom.

And then I will have my students memorize this quote during the first week of school.

And at any point during the year, when a student complains that a book is “boring,” I will have him stand up and recite the words of C. S. Lewis from memory and see if anything happens.

But I am as guilty of Lewis’s implicit criticism as any of my kids. There are great works of literature I have had absolutely no taste for–and I readily admit the fault lies with me and not with War and Peace, Sir Gawain or Gulliver’s Travels.

There are other works which bored me the first time I read them but delighted me when I returned to them years later: Pride and Prejudice (gasp!) and Robinson Crusoe come to mind.

It’s not the book that changed. I did. I think for the better–at least insofar as I became able to appreciate what these books give.

In other cases, there are books that I used to think very profound and now have realized (or at least believe) that I misjudged.

But again, the books didn’t change, I did. And hopefully (though not certainly) for the better.

The relationship between text and reader is so complex that sometimes it is hard to tell where the “fault”–if any–lies. Flannery O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood has been criticized as an ungainly novel, and some critics suggest she should stick to the short story where she belongs. Honestly, I did not enjoy Wise Blood when I read it years ago, and sadly I have not attempted to read it since. But O’Connor is one of those authors whom I think it is better to approach again with humility as well as criticism.

A case in point. In one letter, O’Connor says:

I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up. (The Habit of Being: Collected Letters)

I’m inclined to agree.

During Bell Work today, I had a different but related quote written on the board that I asked my students to try to paraphrase in their own words:

“The fault […] lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

I did not cite the quote because I’m still leaving our next unit as sort of a surprise, but as many of you probably know, it is from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Cassius says this to Brutus early on in the play, when he is trying to convince him to take action against Caesar and eventually to join a conspiracy to kill him. Cassius insists that it’s not because of fate (“the stars”) that we little Romans are oppressed by a dictator– it’s our own fault. We let him have the power. Now we have to do something about it.

Louis Calhern as Cassius (left) and James Mason as Brutus (right) in the 1953 movie version of Shakespeare’s tragedy

Of course, in this particular instance, Cassius’ wise statement about human nature is really only a ploy to manipulate Brutus into joining him in his dark plans. A central question of the play actually does turn out to be whose “fault” is the tragedy really? Caesar’s, because he is “ambitious”? Brutus, because he is disloyal? Cassius’, because he is scheming? Marc Antony’s, because he is eloquent and manipulative? The Roman people’s, because they are gullible?

source: wikipedia

A lot of my students have been talking about (and even reading!) a book called The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, a novel about two teenagers suffering from terminal disease who fall in love with each other. Interestingly, Green inverts the original quote. His title seems to suggest that the “fault” really is “in our stars”–that is, outside of our own personal control, rather than “in ourselves.”

Which is, of course, what most teenagers (and human beings in general) like to hear*.

If I don’t like a book, it must be the book’s fault. If I don’t like a movie, it must be the movie’s fault. If I don’t like another person, it must be his fault.

How seldom do we wonder if our lack of joy, or of feeling entertained, or of liking someone else is because of our own deficiencies!

And not in a “1950’s Catholic guilt” way, either. That’s just too easy.

Real humility acknowledges what is true. As one of my UD Professors (Father Maguire) put it, “Humility is the reality principle.” It is the virtue of seeing oneself truthfully, both the good and the bad.

I notice that Christians (like myself in particular) bring this sort of “fault” misplacement to prayer and liturgy just as much as to our reading. The Mass is boring. The music is bad. The priest can’t string a word together in the homily. So-and-so was distracting me. This is so “Spirit of Vatican II.” This is so “Pre-Vatican II.” I prayed and nothing happened. God isn’t listening. It didn’t make me feel better. I wasn’t uplifted.


Maybe if my heart had been in the right place…

*Caveat: I have not read Green’s book. But I’m thinking of doing so because so many of my kids are reading it. Though many of them may just wait to see the movie version that’s coming out soon.

Grading Papers

source: villanova.edu
source: villanova.edu

It really is kind of a funny concept.

What am I grading, exactly?

How do you “grade” a teenager’s thoughts about a poem? Especially a poem that he spent hours memorizing, delivered in front of his peers, annotated and marked up for tone and mood and all sorts of literary devices, and quite frankly knows better than I do.

I mean, really.

Ms. Shea, how many papers have you graded so far this morning?



Yes, two. And I have been grading for almost an hour.

And am I procrastinating right now? (See previous post for a thorough explanation of the psychology of why writers procrastinate).

Maybe. But these two papers got me thinking.

It’s an agonizing process, as any English teacher (or perhaps History, Theology and Philosophy teacher too) knows all too well. Sometimes it’s agonizing because you find yourself spending far much more time reading and making comments than the student probably did in writing the essay. Sometimes it’s agonizing because the student is obviously muddling through dyslexia and dysgraphia and cognitive obstacles that create hopeless roadblocks between thought and paper.

Sometimes it’s agonizing because you flounder through a mountain of essays, and finally, mercifully, by some Herculean effort finish them…

source: diogogomes.com My life.
source: diogogomes.com
My life.

…Knowing that in order to be a good teacher you have to make them try again. Which means another mountain of essays.

Sometimes it’s agonizing because your student is obviously very proud of her cliched and hackneyed ideas and innocently believes she has written something very profound.

“It shows that you should look for the deeper meaning behind the poem.”

“It” shows? Who is ‘it’? The poem itself? Don’t you really mean the author or the speaker? “Behind” the poem? What about “in” the poem? Why is the poem trying to stand in front of its own “deeper meaning”?

And what is “deeper meaning,” anyway?

source: teachthought.com
This is the rubric I really should be using.

Other times, grading papers agonizing because you realize that no matter HOW much time you spent teaching thesis statements and quote sandwiches and how to explain evidence, some kids just didn’t get it.

Like, at all.

Like, were you in class for the past two weeks?

Or the past year?

Have I taught you nothing????


–the two papers I just graded did not have any of these problems. They were quite good, in fact.

(Okay, I’m grading my honors class first this time.)

And yet the process was still rather agonizing. The amount of attention you really have to muster to think through someone else’s thoughts and then evaluate how she expresses them is rather staggering.

What do I write in the margins to help her? What do I write at the end to affirm her efforts and at the same time challenge her to strive for better?

Even if the student earns an A — there is work to be done. How do I push her further?

Or if the student — especially an honors student — does not earn an A (according to my meticulous rubric that makes something subjective and mysterious seem objective and mathematical)? Perhaps an A-? Or, heaven forbid, a B?

And yet the essay is truly well done and demonstrates remarkable improvement from the previous one? How do I let her know that?

How do I put a definitive letter grade on something (written small, at the very end) and make it clear that the grade itself isn’t really what the student should care about? That I appreciate his thinking and his time and his struggle, and that I am proud of him?

I love grading papers, and I hate grading papers. I love it when I feel like I am establishing a helpful relationship with my student, when I get to see how he is thinking and what he is doing to improve. I hate it when I realize it’s a one-sided relationship and the student probably isn’t going to read my comments anyway, or try to learn from them, but is going to flip to the very end, glance at the letter grade, groan and toss the whole business into the nearest recycling bin.

But learning how to write was one of the greatest gifts I was ever given by a teacher. My English teacher, my sophomore year of high school, hemorrhaged in red pen all over my first essay, and somehow transformed the way I look at writing, read writing, and attempt to write.

I want to do that for my students, too. Even if they don’t fall in love with writing, I want to help them learn how to think and express themselves articulately.

Because it’s language that separates us from pretty much everything else on this planet.

And yet it is language that helps us connect to everything else on the planet — to name it, like Adam in Genesis — to learn to know it, to come to love it.

7 Quick Takes Friday (2/14/14)


It’s Valentine’s Day. So the theme is love.


My friend Serena has written a beautiful article over at Public Discourse entitled “Politics, Art and Love: A Lesson from Dante.” You should read it. She gracefully weaves together an argument for the proper approach to debating political issues with a simple but profound explication of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

A taste:

Just like Dante, every person has the capacity to open himself to truths that are bigger than our minds can initially fathom. We can often lose sight of the fact that the answers to political questions on abortion or marriage, for example, are based on understandings of the nature of human life and love that are just too big and too profound for us to grasp all at once. The process of changing someone’s mind on such questions will probably be slow, but it can be helped along by relationships that, in love, persistently ask others to reconsider the philosophical foundations of their beliefs. (Serena Sigillito at Public Discourse)


Speaking of love…

Via Catholic News Agency Blog:


This may sound rather abrupt –

But I truly believe this: if you don’t love teaching, if you don’t love your kids, then go do something else.

You might be a very imperfect teacher (like me). You might not know everything about your content or how to “control” a classroom or how to help a student. I have struggled with all of these things. And I still do.

These things you can learn and improve upon.

But if you do not love the act of teaching itself — if you don’t love spending time with young people, if you don’t love your kids, then you should not be a teacher. You will not have anything to give if you do not have love.

The truth is, if you do not love teaching, then maybe you really are called to something else. You can show your love and serve God in a different way. And that is okay.

But please don’t stay a teacher because you get summers off and because you’re “qualified.” If you don’t love you’re kids, then you’re not qualified.

Okay. Rant over.


Here is a fascinating article in the Atlantic on “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators”, whose pithy title alone seems to explain my entire academic career both as a student and as a teacher.

I have always struggled with procrastination, even though I have done well in school and pretty consistently turned assignments in on time. McArdle explains:

Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible. (via  The Atlantic)
This is very true. The adrenaline rush that an impending deadline provides is a much stronger motivator for me than almost anything else. Since I feel as though I no longer have a choice in the matter, the words come. They come out of my fingertips though the keyboard and onto the screen almost in spite of myself.
What makes this article even more awesome (besides explaining me to myself) is that it cites Carol Dweck’s research on success and failure, growth mindset and fixed mindset, terms that have greatly influenced my own teaching for the last few years.
Dweck argues that people often procrastinate because they are afraid of failure. If a student plays video games all night instead of studying for a test, he can always explain his failure on the test later by saying “Oh I didn’t even try to study for that” rather than by his own poor abilities or lack of understanding.
It is easier not to try in school than to try. If you try, you actually are putting yourself on the line. You are putting yourself into your work. If your work then receives all sorts of red marks on it, you feel as though you have nowhere to hide: you are a failure.
But if you don’t try at all, no matter how many “red marks” you receive, you can always attribute them to your lack of trying–not your actual talent or performance.
It’s safer that way. But it’s also cowardly, and prevent real learning from taking place:

“You never see the mistakes, or the struggle,” says Dweck. No wonder students get the idea that being a good writer is defined by not writing bad stuff.

Unfortunately, in your own work, you are confronted with every clunky paragraph, every labored metaphor and unending story that refuses to come to a point. “The reason we struggle with”insecurity,” says Pastor Steven Furtick, “is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” (Ibid)

We forget that writing–and all learning–is a labor of love. Key word: labor. No labor, no love. No mistakes, no learning.

Happy Valentines Day! Or, as some of my students informed me, “Singles Awareness Day”… aka S. A. D.
My friend Emily posted this wonderful list of Catholic Social Teaching Pick Up Lines in honor of the day.
I like these:

2. You must be poor, ’cause I’ve got a preferential option for you.

3. Hey, don’t I know you? I could have sworn we were in solidarity with one another once?

And this:



For those celebrating the S. A. D. version of today, there is a beautiful article over at the CNS Womanhood Blog about living the single life.

Best of all, the author, Elise Italiano, looks to Saint Edith Stein for her advice:

As Stein notes, one’s singlehood might not be deliberately chosen. But one does have freedom in the face of it. Father Jacques Phillippe writes in Interior Freedom, “We need to understand that there is another way of exercising freedom: less immediately exciting, poorer, humbler, but much more common, and one immensely fruitful, both humanly and spiritually. It is consenting to what we did not originally choose. (Italiano, “Edith Stein’s Advice to Single Ladies” CNS)


Which brings me to the topic of vocations.

Brother Justin Hannegan, a fellow UD graduate, recently wrote in Crisis Magazine about vocation. He made a rather startling argument – that discerning one’s vocation to the religious life, married life or single life has less to do with searching through one’s desires than it does with one’s abilities. One should not ask: what does my heart desire? But rather: what am I able to do? In other words, if you can do the religious life (with God’s grace), then do it.

He references the Church Fathers (especially Aquinas) and seems to have the first 1900 years of Catholic tradition on his side.

Hannegan’s original article: “Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism”

His response to critics:”Sacrificing Religious Life: A Reply to Critics”

But another graduate and friend of mine from UD, Gabbi Chee, respectfully disagrees:

We have also forgotten how to discern. On that point, I agree wholeheartedly with Br. Justin. But I don’t agree that searching one’s desires is the wrong way to go about discernment. But we need to clarify and define “desire.” Earlier in the article, Br. Justin quotes one of my favorite authors, Fr. James Martin, S.J., as saying “God awakens our vocations primarily through our desires.” I can’t speak for any of the other religious orders or for their take on discernment, but in Ignatian terms, desire is not just about what I want, like ‘I want a Ferrari’ or ‘I want to live somewhere sunny’. It is about what is at the core of my being and my heart. This is not something that everyone can articulate right away. That’s what discernment is for. Discernment requires that we stop and take stock of our life and the direction it is taking and the way that God has been leading us all along.

Read her excellent article too over at Saintable: “The Role of Desire In Discernment”

What do you think?


I’m considering responding to the questions about discernment Hannegan and Chee raise. In the meantime, however, I’ll just end with a beautiful insight from Italiano’s article:

[A Dominican priest] spoke to the temptation of the person in their twenties or thirties to measure their life in a linear way: to measure their worth and success by whether or not they had achieved certain standard markers that they felt they “should” have arrived at: obtaining degrees, landing a dream job, getting married, having a set number of kids by a particular age, and buying a house. The priest said that we ought to measure our lives vertically, like the corpus on the Cross. We should measure our lives by the depth that we enter into the present moment and how much love we are putting into it. (“Edith Stein’s Advice to the Single Ladies”)

It’s all about love, people.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

7 Quick Takes Friday (2/7/14)



Last Friday I mentioned the Pope’s powerful words to the University of Notre Dame, and how I hoped the university would really take them to heart.

In particular, I said:

I mean, I don’t want to foist my own personal biased political agenda (albeit backed up by Church teaching) on Pope Francis’ words, but that sounds a lot to me like: Don’t back down on the HHS mandate. Don’t give in. Don’t be like everybody else. (See last Friday’s post)

However, my dad brought an article to my attention by Richard W. Garnett, a current law professor at ND, entitled “Solidarity, Not a Scolding.” He argues that interpretations (like mine) that discern a critical tone in the Pope’s message are off the mark:

Surfing around the more “conservative” sectors of the Catholic blogosphere, though, one might get the impression that Pope Francis had called the university on the carpet for a Petrine scolding, or for a finger-wagging session dedicated to chastising Notre Dame for its various failings, or for marching orders regarding the handling of the university’s lawsuit challenging the HHS contraception-coverage mandate. (Garnett via National Review)

And, quite honestly, Garnett does a good job of explaining his view. Perhaps I was too hasty in detecting a critical tone in Pope Francis’ words. I thought about this for a while and reread the message, as well as Garnett’s article.


But then I remembered that I am a teacher. And though it sounds absurd to compare myself to Pope Francis, I feel like I recognize what he is up to as the primary teacher of Catholics and Catholic institutions.

He is teaching, and he is using the method my karate instructor used to call “praise, correct, praise.”

Yes, Pope Francis is very laudatory about Notre Dame’s “outstanding contribution to the Church” over the years and its “commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason and in the pursuit of truth and virtue.” He praises the university for what she has done well.

But I think the critique remains. He then uses the subjunctive mood–“shoulds” and “oughts”–and speaks of what the ideal Catholic university ought to do in more general terms.

Finally, he ends his message with an uplifting, encouraging tone.

Praise. Correct. Praise.

I do the same thing when some of my kids are misbehaving or, at least, thinking about it:

“Good job staying focused, Andrew and Emily. All of you should be writing silently and answering the question on the board to the best of your ability. The best answers will not only be in complete sentences, they should also carefully explain the evidence they provide, Peter. Nicely done – keep up the hard work, everyone.”

You see?

I am correcting and critiquing certain behaviors without drawing undue attention to them. I am focusing instead on what the kids ought to be doing in order to remind them.

I think Pope Francis was doing something very similar.

But Garnett argues:

To the extent [Pope Francis] was being critical, the object of his criticism is not the university for its alleged half-stepping but those “quarter[s]” — such as the United States Department of Health and Human Services — that are trying to undermine and dilute Catholic universities’ and institutions’ “uncompromising witness” and commitment to “missionary discipleship.” (Garnett, Ibid)

But Pope Francis was not speaking to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. He was speaking to the administrators of Notre Dame–the ones who are actually in control of the university’s “uncompromising witness” and “missionary discipleship.” While I agree his critique of entities that are seeking to undermine the Catholic identities of American schools is evident, I also think it’s clear that he is addressing these remarks to the people who have the responsibility to resist such forces.

What do you think?


Speaking of Pope Francis’ praise-correct-praise style of teaching–

My friend Molly recommended the Pope’s Message for World Youth Day: “Resist ‘low cost’ offers of happiness and embrace the revolutionary Beatitudes.”

You should really read this address. It is beautiful and motivating.

It also demonstrates the pope’s awareness of one of the primary weaknesses of young people: the tendency to embrace easy happiness rather than lasting happiness.

To be blessed means to be happy. Tell me: Do you really want to be happy? In an age when we are constantly being enticed by vain and empty illusions of happiness, we risk settling for less and “thinking small” when it come to the meaning of life. Think big instead! Open your hearts! As Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati once said, “To live without faith, to have no heritage to uphold, to fail to struggle constantly to defend the truth: this is not living. It is scraping by. We should never just scrape by, but really live” (Letter to I. Bonini, 27 February 1925).

Text from page http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/02/06/pope%E2%80%99s_message_for_wyd:_resist_%E2%80%9Clow_cost%E2%80%9D_offers_of_happiness_and/en1-770756
of the Vatican Radio website

Notice that the Pope is pointing out an error — the error of “scraping by,” the error of “settling”– that so many of us (young and old alike) struggle with. But he sandwiches this critique (for lack of a better verb) between encouraging images.

The young people don’t end up feeling criticized or judged, even though they have been given the opportunity to examine their own consciences.

As a teacher of young people myself, I know how important this is. Yes, sometimes I need to be harsh with them and be more explicit in my criticism–but these occasions are rare. Most of the time my students respond best to encouragement and challenge.


Speaking of encouragement and challenge–

I finally shuffled my way through a mountain of essays. I was a little disappointed in a lot of the essays, and thus my comments on the papers were copious and critical. My kids repeatedly forget their audience. They assume their readers can read their minds, and they don’t see the need to thoroughly explain evidence.

Most distressing of all was that errors we had discussed and learned how to fix many times before– unclear pronoun references, pronoun / antecedent disagreement, lack of parallelism, etc. — kept occurring.

Even worse, it was obvious that some of the kids had not really put any effort into proofreading.

source: scifi.stackexchange.com

So, really, I was frustrated.

But telling them I was disappointed wouldn’t do anyone good, except perhaps to relieve my own feelings.

So I did my best to find the things they DID do well – like the thesis sentences (granted I gave them a formula for this) and the much-improved conclusion paragraphs. I made sure to tell my classes what they had done well first, and then I explained to them that I was going to give them a more structured way to explain evidence and be sensitive to the audience:

Quote Sandwiches.

They look like this at their most basic level:

source: ereadingworksheets.blogspot.com

But you wouldn’t believe how challenging they can actually be for many of these kids.

The top piece of bread is Context – and I broke this down further and told the kids they had to tell me two things: 1) Where in the poem the quote is from and 2) what they plan to do with it / their topic sentence.

The nutella in the middle (I always call it nutella) is the quote itself, incorporated using one of the four methods I taught them last semester.

The bottom piece of bread is the analysis. Again, I explained this more simply: 1) Paraphrase what the quote means in your own words and 2) Explain how this quote proves your topic sentence.

I hope this helps them.


My friend Mary, who teaches 3rd graders, suggested that I watch this video.

If you are a teacher, you will love this.

Even though this video is about addition, the struggle it reveals is something I encounter on a daily basis with high school kids. How do you help students do their own thinking when sometimes it seems like… they can’t… think…?



I guess I’m sounding pretty darn critical about my students. But actually I am also impressed with them many times!

For instance, I replayed my evidence-experiment-scenario I first explored my first year of teaching with my honors students this week, and then had them discuss the meaning of seeking the truth in a poem, and how using evidence factors into that.

I did it more gently, of course, and with a lot more thought and preparation than I had when I tore about poor Abbey’s argument about Emily Dickinson.

My honors kids did really well, and even gave me a lot of suggestions about how I could do a better job of encouraging truth-seeking in my classroom.


I mean, this is my dream job.

So I look like this most of the time:

source: hecticparents.com
Hectic parents? How about hectic teachers?

Yes, Writers Can Be Wrong About Their Own Stories

Of course, as my friends pointed out to me, it depends what you mean by “wrong.”

As Joseph says,

“[Rightness or wrongness in literature is] about properly understanding it–just like I can be wrong about what you’re thinking, even though in doing so I’m not necessarily “wronging” you. If a moral element sometimes creeps into our language, it’s because misunderstanding someone often involves “wronging” them morally, and works of art, while not persons, are kinda like persons; we like pretending they’re our friends. (See comment in previous post)

I like the idea that works of literature are sort of like persons. We can be mistaken about them. We can be mistaken about them even if we ourselves gave birth to them–if we were their authors.

In my previous post, I mentioned that the whole J. K. Rowling regretting her Ron and Hermione romance was making me think about the relationship of authors to their own writing, and that I believed this has something to do with God’s relationship to Creation.

Theologians often say that we are made “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis) insofar as we have free will–we can choose to love or not to love. The more we choose to love, the more like God we are. In other words, we, as creatures, are better the more we conform to our Creator.

1) Now I think that being in the “image and likeness” of God has lots of other repercussions as well, and I am starting to wonder if literature is one of them. Not only do human beings share in God’s creative act when they beget children–they also share in God’s creative act (analogously) when they “beget” literature. Like God, they create entire worlds, possibilities, lives and choices. Unlike God, human beings are not capable of bestowing free will in a true sense on their characters as God does upon us. Whether they like it or not, characters conform to the will of the human author.

2) God, obviously, is always “right” about his creation. He is right in the sense of composition–how He created us. He is right in his perspective–He sees us as we truly are. Though some people quarrel with the whole “free will” plot element, since that leads to sin, suffering and death, Christians nevertheless believe that this plot twist is essential to God’s greater story for us, and will make sense when we finally arrive at the last chapter. (See also the chapter on the crucifixion and resurrection.)

3) Human beings, however, are not always right about their “creations”–whether we are speaking about real children or fictional characters and plots. They can be wrong in the sense of composition–how they raise their children or what qualities and techniques they use to make their characters. They can also be wrong in their sense of perspective–human beings do not see their own children, or their own stories for that matter, as they truly are.

Again, Joseph:

The question of composition is an entirely different one from interpretation; the author who misunderstands her work is like the parent who misunderstands her child after the child grows up, while the author who errs in writing her work is like the parent who raises her child poorly. Can a compositional choice be incorrect? Yes, if it makes the composition worse than some other easily accessible option. Works of literature are often wrong, that is, worse than they could have been. (Ibid)

It is in this last sense–interpretation–that I believe J. K. Rowling is mistaken or “wrong” about Ron and Hermione. It is in the former sense–composition–that I believe she is “wrong” in her resuscitation of Harry in book seven.

But Amanda raises an interesting question:

But […] Rowling wasn’t talking about being wrong in her understanding of the Harry Potter books, she was talking about being wrong in composing it. Of course anyone can misunderstand a work that’s written, but can you misunderstand it when you’re writing it and then say you wrote it wrong afterward? Being wrong in her compositional choice is what I think Rowling meant… being wrong in some technical aspect of her writing. But Maura seemed to be positing that authors can be wrong about their works in another way, and I’m curious what way that would be. (Ibid)

In response, I would also claim that while J. K. Rowling believes her error lay in the composition of Ron and Hermione’s romance, I believe she is actually wrong in her interpretation. This is rather a bold thing to claim, because obviously I am not J. K. Rowling and she knows better than I do why she was motivated to create the story that she did. Maybe those reasons were “personal,” as she stated. Yet whatever they were, I think her composition of that particular romance was, in fact, successful and appropriate, even though she believes now that her composition was flawed.

I could write an entire post or two on why I believe she is wrong, but I will contain myself to just a quote from Rosenberg’s article:

[…] It’s so sad that Rowling appears to be treating Ron and Hermione’s relationship as a kind of fan service that she was too weak to resist. Love isn’t always immediate, and it doesn’t always come from a place of strength. Sometimes love is strongest between people who have seen each other at their ugliest and most damaged. […] Ron knew Hermione when she was a priggish scold and a coward. Hermione knew Ron when his privilege was exposed and his will broke. That they love each other anyway, and that they help each other become heroes, is a truer illustration of the power of love than the idea that it’s magic. (Rosenberg)

But apart from enjoying Rowling’s books, what actually gets me interested in all this is the question of authority: who has it in literature?

In some ways, I am inclined to the think the author of a work has more credible authority on the meaning of that work than most readers. I see this all the time in the classroom. There are many letters in which Flannery O’Connor expresses her frustration at the lack of understanding among her readers.

And yet, in both the Rowling and Woolf example, and in others, I am finding that oftentimes authors don’t know their creations quite as well as they may believe.

This seems to me to be rather mysterious but also very natural.

When Flannery O’Connor says, “I write to discover what I know,” she is hinting at a rather remarkable truth about language — that it is not only expressive, but revelatory. The one who speaks–or writes–has just as much to discover in the process of writing as the reader does in the process of reading.

In some ways, the finished work has a kind of integrity apart from the author. It is a created thing, and while it does not exactly have free will, it does have a kind of independence.

This is why readers can find things in a work an author never intended to put there. But sometimes those things are very much there. Sometimes the reader sees things the author does not.

It is very amazing to me that works of literature can actually contain truths that the creator did not intend or even understand. We see this most especially with Scripture–because of hidden Divine inspiration behind the human authorship–but we can also see it in more ordinary pieces of literature.

The truth about human relationships can be discovered in J. K. Rowling’s work even if she herself has not discovered it.

Serena brought to my attention a wonderful article that follows this line of thinking:

“What J. K. Rowling’s Ron and Hermione Bombshell Tells us About True Love and Harry Potter” by Alyssa Rosenberg

A taste:

[I]t is interesting to me that Rowling apparently regrets what I see as some of the most sensitively written and emotionally well-realized passages in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as an error of judgement.

Brianna also found a great article about this whole shenanigans you should read:

“Why we shouldn’t care who Hermione Granger dated” by Marama Whyte

A taste:

Following the bombshell, many Potter fans have divided angrily along the old shipping lines – Harry Potter vs Ron Weasley. But one character has been distinctly overlooked in the heated debates that have followed – Hermione Granger, the woman at the centre of both (potential) relationships. It seems like everyone has their own opinion on who Hermione is best suited for.

But why do we care?

Yes. Why indeed?

Can Writers Be Wrong About Their Own Stories?

*Spoiler alert if you have not finished the Harry Potter series. You have been warned.*

So, apparently J. K. Rowling shocked the Muggle world today by admitting that she is second-guessing Ron and Hermione’s relationship:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling says in the interview. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” she adds. “I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.” (via CNN)

Um, what?

You’ve got to be kidding me.
source: hypable.com

So, apart from the fact that this interview will probably be the cause of much consternation amongst some of my students, it also got me thinking.

1) First of all, though I have some reservations about the series, I have always been a big fan of Ron, Hermione and their relationship. They seemed to me to be two of the most lovable and best-drawn characters–surpassing Harry himself by far. Their relationship, too, always struck me as endearing and authentic.

2) What never seemed authentic to me was something even more central to the plot: the whole Harry sacrificing-himself-at-the-end-and-dying-but-not-really. It seemed like a very poorly executed semi-Jesus-like resurrection that had none of the gravity and devastation of the real thing. The way the Potter series built to its final climax, especially within the context of its semi-pagan magical universe, it seemed proper for Harry to die for his friends, and stay dead.

In fact, I believe the series would have been much better if Harry had died. (Most of my students protest vehemently).

3) I think Rowling is wrong about Ron and Hermione, and about Harry’s cheap resurrection at the end of the series.

4) But can authors be wrong about their own stories?

I am usually inclined to say no.

On the one hand, I despise any kind of literary criticism that attempts to explain a story in terms of its author’s own psychology, history, and sexual/social/economic/political anxieties. Furthermore, I am usually much more aligned with the New Critical school’s attention to the dignity and authority of the text itself than most other approaches that seem to foist their own agendas on a text.

But Rowling herself seemed to apply the very sort of literary criticism I hate to her own work:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling says in the interview. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” (emphasis added)

So, according to Rowling, she was wrong about her own story. She gave into personal wishes and ignored the demands of “literature” by putting Ron and Hermione together.

I think this personal wish fulfillment (or, perhaps, pressure from her readership?) was much more obviously the case when she resuscitated Harry from the odd limbo-esque train station.

But apart from all of this, what about the real question?

It first occurred to me in a meaningful way in college when I was reading Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. There’s a strange moment in that story when I really thought Woolf might be wrong about her own character. I was afraid to say this outright in my paper, so I raised the question and moved on without really answering it.

I add this because I believe Woolf to be a far superior writer to Rowling (obviously) and I don’t think the answer is simply: mediocre/bad writers are often wrong about their own writing, good writers never are.

There’s a curious relationship between a human author and his text that reflects something of God’s own relationship to creation that, I suspect, is involved in all this.

More to come.



See also Leah Libresco’s take: “Fantastic News! (with one bitter note)” over at Unequally Yoked

And Elizabeth Scalia’s take: “Harry and Hermione, Agape and Narrative Thrust – What Do You Think?” at The Anchoress

Oh so many thoughts.



See the really long comment I added for this post, in which I copied and pasted a bunch of awesome thoughts from friends who commented on this on Facebook. I plan on replying and incorporating some of these into my next post, so I thought it only fair for you to see the lively discussion.