Today’s post represents the ripening of an idea I pondered in the first post I ever made to this blog, way back in September. (Sigh… how young I was back then…) I had been pondering the concept of “emotive reading” as a way into understanding literature—and lucky for me, I got assigned to teach a whole semester’s worth of Shakespeare this spring, the perfect lab for testing my ideas! (Just this morning, in fact, one of my students caught on to the game, stating grimly, “so we’re your guinea pigs, huh?” Bless his heart!) Indeed experimentation is, in my world anyway, a big part of the process through which I learn how best to reach my students, and recently I experimented with an unconventional assignment (i.e. not an essay) that I would consider a success. I thought I’d pass it along. Continue reading The “Play” Within the Play: A Sample Assignment
This blog represents a “jump-for-joy” moment in my studies where my reading relates directly to an activity that I dearly love: rock climbing. In the process, the news to me was how the act of close reading this small passage in The Prelude that taps into my adrenaline-performance-junky self became more about language and representations of identity. More specifically, it became about how Wordsworth lays bare the way in which the process of *writing* about memories changes them and merges selves in ways that logically conflict, and that teach.
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Yesterday I reread a bunch of books in The Prelude as well as book 1 of The Excursion, and right now I’m rereading (for the first time since a sophomore year poetry class with Robert Pack at Middlebury College) “Michael”. In the process of diving back into all this Wordsworthian juice and joy, I’ve been thinking about individual connections to language, activity (mostly bodily), and histories.
It seemed to me while working through the Prelude, that one important pivot for WW is the body: its a place where outside (nature, society, history, words on a page) meets inside (nature [again], imagination, identity, desire, memory). It is a locomotive human frame that interacts with the motions of nature and that contains the whirrings of ideas and blood. In a very Lockean sense, the body is the gateway to thought and perception of the world at large.
I’m an avid rock climber, and this passage made my palms sweat (Book I (1850) ll. 326-356). Finally, my two worlds — academic and athletic — were colliding in my work. Like free gelato, it’s just too good to be true. (Why didn’t this passage catch me in previous Prelude readings?)
Nor less when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth — and with what motion moved the clouds!
Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have been borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.
The emphases on the “means” are mine, of course. My first thought when reading this passage was: I know exactly what he means when he describes the sensation of being quite high off the deck, “ill-sustained” on “slippery rock,” barely hanging on by half-inch fissures and protected by a bunch of knots (hopefully cams and/or nuts would be involved as well, but not in the author’s time!). Your senses pick up on the most interesting things when you are relaxed mid-route and can observe the vertical environment without being concerned about gear or falling. You find birds nested in cracks (who might poop on you); you notice the “exposure” or the “airy” feel of being up high and having a panoramic view, as if from the side of a tower; and you might notice how your shadow moves with you on the adjacent rock wall.
But in this passage, WW is not relaxed: he’s nervous, hanging by “grass” knots, on a “perilous” ridge. When that’s me (and I use a really good rope, not grass!), I am so NOT listening to the utterances of the wind, I’m not noticing the sublimity of the sky, and I’m definitely not tracking the motion of the clouds unless a storm is rolling in. I would be focused on executing the moves and placing/clipping gear to make sure I reach the top without taking a bad fall, (though I also happen to find this fun).
So WW here is taking a moment of real, physical danger, and mentioning how he notices the natural world in which he is suspended. The rock and the climbing are just a means to an end: that of gaining a different perspective on the elements, one that makes the climber feel incapable of falling, like the birds, and supported by the wind. The question becomes for me: how can the knowledge of bodily peril and discomfort and serene appreciation and enchantment by the motions of the wind and sky exist together? I argue that they can’t (unless you’re comfortably hanging out on a nice, big ledge, or belaying, or celebrating on the summit!). The body’s survival mechanisms don’t readily allow for those separate feelings and emotions to coexist simultaneously. And yet somehow they do in that stanza … Here’s some real-life evidence:
In this moment, as a poet, and due to his engagement with his changing self, his history and his memories, WW can’t help but write or record tenuousness and fear-factor into this passage. As a kid playing around on steep, slippery, probably potentially fatal vertical rocky terrain, he was fearless (and stupid) and therefore could look around while dangling from a cliff. As an adult, both W and I would find it hard not to think about the painful ends – possible consequences – of falling.
In the next stanza, WW goes fairly “meta” and comments on the fusion of his child and adult perspective and language in the preceding stanza’s moment: “there is a dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements, makes them cling together / In one society.” Suddenly, we’re not rock climbing anymore: were thinking about *writing about* rock climbing long ago. The “discordant elements” of fearless child’s play and adult awareness “cling together” as if hanging onto the rock for dear life. Crag meets poem, nature meets society, past meets present, reader meets poet. They don’t get the job done on their own.
The “means which Nature deigned employ”: he gives thanks to them, but precisely for what? For not killing him? Nature seems to encompass the narrator’s reckless desire to climb this rock, the rock itself, as well as an idea or a construct that exists in the author’s memory that urged him to do things that would make an impression on him (or break his leg). Even if the impression is only understood later (like the way in which his books from Cambridge mean more to him in later years than they did while in school). And what means? Why “deigned”? Nature is billed as a teacher here – but one whose lessons you have to learn while potentially soloing a crag and then live on to tell the tale. And nature is stooping to teach you. But doesn’t that sortof mean that we are stooping to teach ourselves, since we are not only affected by, but also create the natural world that we exist in? Is WW learning nature’s lesson not through climbing, or remembering climbing, but through writing about remembering this climb?
Does his attention to the work of writing poetry about memories then, which brings back all the risk that he never encountered in the moment, go hand in hand with an inherent realization of risk? Perhaps the risk in writing about memory is somewhere in the lacunae between now and then, the inability to ever fully return on our own, and the reliance upon readers or audience to make an imaginative “leap” (or climb) in order to attempt to preserve these things which do not endure. The risk infused in the climb was also, perhaps, the risk in recording it.
Hi. This is Kelli T. Jasper, secretary of the NGSC, checking in with an only slightly self-indulgent reflection on the vicissitudes of teaching literature. My regards to all of you out there who, like me, are still figuring it out!
It’s Monday, and the end of September. The euphoria and excitement of starting new projects begins to wear off, and tiredness starts to kick in. I return my first round of graded essays to students, and along with my lengthy critiques sinks in the reality that we’re going to be together for a long, long time. For me, at about this point every semester doubts appear. Perhaps I’ve been too ambitious? Perhaps I’ve assigned too much work? I begin to notice my own teacherly rollercoaster—exultation at gorgeous moments of discovery in class; reservation about the structure I’ve set of for the course; discouragement over the students I can’t seem to reach or who already hate my guts; frustration at the disconnect between short class periods and rich, lengthy texts; and gratitude for those students who flatter me with their enthusiasm or their compliments on my shoes. I take comfort in the regularity of this crisis, and solace in the way it prompts me to reflect—constructively, I hope—on where we are now, and where I want us to go.
This is a semester of firsts for me: first time teaching a literature course, though I’ve taught composition and humanities in the past; first time teaching Milton and Shakespeare, as required by the course; first time reading Paradise Lost, a risk I took alongside my students; first time preparing to take my comprehensive exams; first time contributing to a blog. All things considered, I suppose it’s only natural to feel a bit unsure of myself. And the upshot is that, as sometimes happens with steep learning-curves, I feel some of the various planets of my academic life aligning—or if not aligning, then at least constellating into something as yet ineffable, but still awesome. I’ll do my best to explain.
For my comprehensive exams, I’ve been reading Frankenstein—another first, though how I got to my third year as a PhD candidate without ever reading this book is a mystery. I’m struck by how much of the story revolves around the transformative power of reading: after a failed career as a poet, R. Walton’s reading prompts him on a voyage to the North Pole; reading Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Magnus sets Frankenstein on his path toward animating life; the creature discovers Volney, Plutarch, and Milton, producing in him “an infinity of new images and feelings.” As I try to define for myself what exactly it means to study Romantic Literature as well as what it means to teach literature at all, I wonder how to help my students access this kind of transfiguring reading experience. Have they ever, like Walton, “perused […] those poets whose effusions entranced my soul, and lifted it to heaven”? More importantly, have I?
At times I feel that my own reading experiences have become so focused on analysis that I forget to feel transported. I’m told that as an English teacher it’s my job to teach close reading, and while I agree, it’s so often a tough sell! But today, I had an epiphany. Perhaps in order to teach close reading, I first need to teach active, performative reading. In my class we have been performing short scenes from Richard III. I borrowed the lesson plan from a friend, and had the students break into small groups, choose a scene of about 100 lines, and then stage it for the class—handing in to me about 500 words’ worth of “director’s notes” explaining their interpretive choices. We worked quickly, and having no drama training of my own, I gave them none; I simply asked that they read their parts in a way that conveyed a clear sense of the meaning to the audience.
The results have surprised and inspired me—not because the students were all amazing readers, but because so many of them were not! They could pronounce most of the words correctly, and could pause when they came to periods (that is, they’re certainly literate), but very few of them seemed to read with intentional, interpretive emotion. What a fascinating disconnect! When I read in my head, the characters take on voices in my imagination—they intrigue me with their personalities, and I delight in the visions of their rages or reveries that are somehow conjured in my mind from the words on the page. Having felt relatively comfortable with Shakespeare for many years now, I forget that such conjuring does not happen automatically for most students. Lacking practice in active, performative reading, it’s no wonder they prefer more obvious writers like Stephanie Meyers, Dan Brown, and Nicholas Sparks. While students seem to have no problem connecting emotionally with plotlines (thank you, Sparknotes), it seems to me that the average non-English-major needs training in order to connect emotion to written language—particularly the slightly archaic language found in pre-20th-century texts.
In pondering these ideas, I find myself rethinking the philosophy of my course, and planning future courses exclusively around reading, writing, performance, adaptation, and interpretation. According to Thomas Tanselle in A Rationale of Textual Criticism, written texts provide only the blueprints of a “work” that must be reconstituted by the reader. “Close reading” is simply the term we’ve given to the process of analyzing our own acts of reconstitution—but if we lack the skill or practice to reconstitute effectively, then what is there to analyze? I therefore commit myself to helping students become emotive readers as a means to becoming close readers. Richard III obviously lent itself well to performance, but now as we move on to reading Fanny Burney’s Evelina, I’m envisioning much more reading aloud, and much more discussion about how we as readers might perform these characters. These discussions might propel us toward an exploration of writing as performance, whether it’s the author writing the work, or characters within the work writing/reading/performing.
I know that none of this is headline news. Reader-response theory has been around for a long time, and I’ve learned in pedagogy classes how useful it is as a framework for teaching literature. Yet still, somehow, these concepts have gained substance this week in a way I’ve never experienced before. For the moment, my own “soul is lifted to heaven,” and I think I catch a glimpse of how to help my students rise above the clouds as well. So off I go to make a lesson plan and design a new unit project.
Take that, September blues.