· Scholarly, Critical, Theoretical Academic Librarianship, Leon Howard Style ·
I've been packing books lately since I've moved into a new Trope Topic College building. The move has had the effect of putting me in mind of academic librarianship, literally the care and keeping of books. It has had the effect, too, of putting in hand a valued text from the past, an academic biography I studied forty years ago now, Leon Howard's Herman Melville (1951). You should know that Howard was my Doktor Vater, and as I had not seen his work in years, I took a brief peek.
Howard was a fine scholar trained in the German style at Johns Hopkins — one writing the nineteenth dissertation in American literature ("of which there are no extant copies," he happily joked). His long career at Northwestern, UCLA, and New Mexico was highlighted by New Mexico's naming a small library for him in 1983. I thought that fitting, since as Moby-Dick readers may recall, "librianship" is a key theme in Melville's novel.
My own work in that service (getting students into the library and weaning a few from the net) is modest enough, but since books are all helpful, getting folks to read, and even beyond that to "think" about literature, is still more so. You may recall my Whose Words These Are I Think I Know, a January 2005 post centered on finding abstraction, figuration, and organization in books. Today I thought to add a fresh take on still more academic work — work stretching over the entire course of the past century.
Howard's biography can help us in defining it — at least at the boundaries.
As I tell students, twentieth-century literary academics fall broadly into three kinds, scholars, critics, and theorists. All have played one-upsmanship games over time, the older looking down on the younger, and vice versa, of course. Though I am quite non-sectarian, in aging I have grown to appreciate the work of the older scholars like Leon Howard.
Here's how he stakes his claim on "critical" study in his brief "Preface":
To those critics who insist that a work of literature makes its most admirable appearance an an independent object of aesthetic experience, I can only suggest that the arts which we call the humanities are, as a matter of fact, unavoidably human. Of them, literature is the most comprehensive and illuminating in its humanity; and, for my part, the knowledge of human beings, in all their complex relationships, which can be gained from literary study is one of the greatest incentives to its pursuit. I cannot, in short, share the apparently widespread feeling that a rereadable book is so delicate a plant that it needs to be removed from its natural environment before it can attract the imagination.
Those perfect adverbial phrases, "as a matter of fact," "for my part," and "in short," catch Howard's concern: some gathered "facts," "personally" acquired, and all "briefly" shown are, indeed, his point. So, naturally, his conclusion ("Recollection and Renown") drives it home more stylishly.
Critics whose impulse has been to worship Art have found in Melville's works a challenge to their ceremonial ingenuity in rationalizing impressions. So satisfactory has been his reflection of their subtleties that typographical errors in cheap editions of his books and mistranscriptions of his difficult handwriting have inspired them to intellectual gyrations of ectasy. The omission of a comma in modern versions of a sentence addressed to Bulkington in Moby Dick has transformed that character from one of Melville's forgotten men into one of his most "significant" heroes. The error which changed a "coiled fish of the sea" into a "soiled fish" in some editions of White Jacket has been the basis for a lyrical tribute to the author's unique genius in imagery. The probable misreading of Melville's original spelling of the word "visible" as a reference to a "usable truth" in a letter to Hawthorne has provoked discourse on the "usable truth" of both men and inspired a meditation on the "usable past."
What more can I say?
Lots, of course, but any real "usable truth" in this "blog post" cannot sustain — even theoretically — a more "usable past" in his book.
And, less so, that in the Leon Howard Memorial Library.
· Diagramming the American Moment: One Stylish Student Essay ·
Though I've good examples aplenty, seldom do I cite passages from student essays. I mostly prefer professional work. But here I mean to make an exception, with a brief essay drawn from the work of a student last spring in English 101. You might find Steve H's piece instructive.
Steve H. is something of a classic "Man in the Street." At fifty-one, he tells us, he's "been around the block a few times." With twenty-nine years in the metal trades (he's been a machinist, welder, and millwright locally), lately he's been studying for work in habitat restoration. English 101 was a degree requirement, and, as you will see, he earned himself an "A."
For years I've had an assignment in class meant to promote wise reflection on "The Art of Writing." You can read my take on it at Community College English in a short post I wrote called One Helpful Portfolio Cover. But what matters here is Steve's approach, which you have (slightly revised) by permission. It's happily entitled
Integrity vs. Ambiguity: Ethics and the Art of Writing
I left the eight parts of speech behind me thirty-three years ago, though not the imprint they left on my memory. I have always enjoyed quality fiction and non-fiction, but I never understood what separated good writing from bad — save for my difficulty in reading some piece or my inability to attend to it without keeling over from boredom.
Surprisingly, I was good in high school at diagramming sentences and naming their parts (nouns, pronouns, verbs), but I never in fact asked anyone, "What was the purpose?" Now with the understanding that comes from hindsight and having been around the block a few times, I more clearly see the purpose. You must eventually analyze even your own writing to examine subtle relationships among the words. Then you will understand better how to put your thoughts together, tying one to another in good order and learning to communicate clear ideas, beliefs, and feelings.
I believe no one starts out wanting to be the village idiot, for stiff competition alone should prevent us all from ever applying for the job. I also believe in order to be a responsible citizen, you should be able to discern quickly when someone is trying "to pull the wool over your eyes," especially someone from the government.
Among the hardest concepts to master when learning how to write well is what I call "racing the chariot of Aristotle's three steeds of writing" — called ethos, pathos, and logos — the "horses" better known as ethics, emotions, and logic. For someone like me, my ethics seem to make me crack the whip mostly over my emotions — "damn the logic, full speed ahead," I say. This might be acceptable for some B-grade Hollywood movie, but it doesn't work as well in a world where we are all judged by our ability to manage the three — morals, passion, and thought — to achieve real goals.
When this balance is sacrificed for the purpose, say, of deliberately trying to hide our intent within our writing, we set aside proper ethics for personal gain and take up the sword of ambiguity and obscurity to find, as a general rule, something else. Exclusive language, double speak, bureaucratese, and a host of other evasive writing "skills" become a smoke screen behind which we sneak past the guards of moral high ground toward our dark aim.
Of course, there is the old adage "live by the sword, die by the sword," but it never occurs to us we may be the ones to fall under the overwhelming blows of truth.
Being the practical person that I am, one learning from seeing, feeling, and doing, I find it easier to show than tell. The following is the record, as I remember it, of an actual event where the outcome was a direct result of a person's deliberately putting up a "smoke screen" to cover his own dark maneuverings — proof of what happens when you abandon ethics, clarity and integrity for blind ego and ambition.
· Wherein I Pick Up, Academically, Where I Left Off ·
I'm celebrating my fourth anniversary, though judging from my recent posts, you might say I'm resurrecting YGS. I'm glad to report that summer has been pleasant — though spent less at what Wallace Stegner, in a well-named western novel, calls an Angle of Repose. I spent my summer roofing — at an angle of 53o.
I was employed on Smart and Soulful's roof in July and August. Though consumed only at day's end, cheap beer was my pay, and hearing loss my pain. We had powerful, pneumatic tools and much fun shooting compressed breezes through our nail guns. I suppose you could say — evoking an old theme — that summer labor has knocked some palaver out of my writing.
Pacific Northwesterners are lucky folks, having hereabouts the largest new-used bookstore in the world to wander in. It is called Powell's, known in Portland as "The City of Books." Powell's occupies an entire city block, and with 1,000,000+ books in nine rooms on four floors, "once you visit," as they say, "you won't want to leave."
This happened to a portion of my philosophy class recently. A wise administrator gave my class permission to do a short field trip there, and a good choice it was, for as we left I heard my students agree: "Best field trip ever." That is maybe heartening news today with so many plugged into their I-Pods, for books are in some ways, still, "equally technological."
Jack Goody once famously said "Literacy is the technology of intellect" — a wise judgment partly stemming from the old Baconian saw that "Reading maketh a full man." You may perhaps recall Francis Bacon's essay
STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores [Studies pass into and influence manners]. Nay, there is no stand or impediment in the wit but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man's wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores [splitters of hairs]. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers' cases. So every defect of the mind may have a special receipt.
Happily, as we left I noticed no real defect of mind in my own students. For over a meal later in another Portland landmark — The Old Spaghetti Factory — I overheard a pair debating the fate of World Federation Wrestling under Vince McMahon. Though I was about to mention Roland Barthes' great essay on professional wrestling, in Mythologies, I desisted, with some apt Baconian principles perhaps partly in view. Sometimes heated participation in the ring does beat cold theory in print.
Besides, I'd induced one of them to buy a book to supplement his favored music major, Frank Conroy's Body and Soul. For the human arts are, all — don't you think? — really of a piece.
I don't think I mentioned our trip to Texas. Stylish and I spent spring break in Bandera, "The Cowboy Capital of the World," taking in sights in Houston and San Antonio, Kerrville, Fredericksburg, and Austin, too. Returning two weeks ago last Saturday, we have been busy teaching since.
Ironically, Texas teaching framed our trip from first to last. Initially passing through some dairyland enroute to SEA-TAC, we got word of Barbara Bush's plans to donate — through her son Neil's IgniteLearning company in Austin — COWs (Curricula on Wheels) to Houston's Independent School District. You may have seen the story. Meant partly for Katrina victims, the family largesse looks suspiciously like a clever tax gimmick — and it may just smack of Bushism, too (corporate cronyism).
We didn't reflect on it more till, visiting later in Texas's Bob Bullock State History Museum, we saw in Austin a COW being rolled in for public presentation. Well, you can imagine our surprise: that the thing (pictured at right) was being brazenly displayed in public suggested a better teaching tool I can show a bit more modestly in print — Bill Perry's famous 1963 essay, "Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts." I thought to define its two essentials.
Perry himself calls his piece a study in "Educational Epistemology," turning on the bovine concepts of "cow" and "bull." Here are Perry's definitions:
Cow (pure): data, however relevant, without relevancies.
Bull (pure): relevancies, however relevant, without data.
To cow (v. intrans.) or the act of cowing:
To list data (or perform operations) without awareness of, or comment upon, the contexts, frames of reference, or points of observation which determine the origin, nature, and meaning of the data (or procedures). To write on the assumption that "a fact is a fact." To present evidence of hard work as a substitute for understanding, without any intent to deceive.
To bull (v. intrans.) or the act of bulling:
To discourse upon the contexts, frames of reference and points of observation which would determine the origin, nature, and meaning of data if one had any. To present evidence of an understanding of form in the hope that the reader may be deceived into supposing a familiarity with content.
Today, reflecting on the clan's claims to leadership, I'm wondering if, in public as well as private, the Bushes have somehow got "cow" and "bull" together in a way better recognized, rather more neutrally, as "The Bum Steer."
In any event, to the Georges, Neil, Jeb, and, of course, Barbara, here's my slightly more literal, semi-pictorial version.
At Trope Topic College I've been busy. Indeed, since my last posting here, I've been testing and grading, conferring and advising, editing and recommending. To give you some idea of my work, I thought to share a single scholarship recommendation, a classic form I've had a few chances to perfect. Happily, my student — Jason Artful — made my own work easy.
To the Trope Topic College Scholarship Committee:
Jason Artful has asked for a recommendation supporting his TTC scholarship application. As his teacher in English 101 last fall, I can happily comply. Jason is a very deserving applicant.
Jason combines good sense with personal integrity and, vocationally, very impressive artistic talent. I have just finished reviewing a shared set of CD images that, like three essays I still possess, affirm the conclusion that he works skillfully. In everything, he succeeds, and I would consider his work still more broadly competitive. For I trust he will transfer one day, and with the pride he now takes in OHS carry on our fine traditions at TTC to bigger and better things. I know he has designs on such, already now partly fulfilled in his recent promotion at Starbucks — with whom he wishes to continue working one day in the design department. Goal-setting, I tell my students, is the real deal, and Jason truly is its exemplar.
He is also an exemplar of the steady application of head and heart to class work. His first essays initially fell short of that task in 101, but without batting an eye — and sitting always up front — he learned his lessons, applying himself and coming away, as he wrote in a final bluebook essay, as "a simple, complete, and focused writer." I wish more students would do the same.
In any event, he deserves everything TTC can give him, and your committee clearly has a fair share to offer. I trust Jason won't misspend it.
Jason thought that might do the trick, and I concurred. Some few letters do just write themselves. Prompted here by his own well-formed self, Jason's is but a brief, quite colorful, artfully "stylish" example.
I learned students' names today. It's always my task the second day of a new term. Classes go better on an all-first-name basis, especially if students figure out (fast) that academic literary criticism needn't take itself so seriously.
My trick is simple. Since "writing about reading" is our common theme, I ask everyone to mark in a paragraph the experience of "getting lost in a book." Next I've the task of linking faces to texts — applying names and joking with everyone about their getting suckered by "virtual reality."
I start everyone out with
A Slam Dunk for Thomas Mann
That I missed a basketball game is all I remember. The year was 1962 and Reading University, my alma mater, was playing a home game across the street when one of my dormmates, Bill Keyes, griped loudly of my lackluster enthusiasm: "You mean you are going to stay here in your room while we go off to the game?" Sure enough, I was letting them go off to the game while I sat there reading. I had just begun a translation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to support my beginning studies in German. Perhaps because I was so rudely interrupted, I have only a vague memory of the book now. All I have in mind is the sad image of poor Gustav Aschenbach, a famous writer on vacation in Venice who, in tarrying over a vision of ideal beauty in the form of a young boy, succumbs to a cholera epidemic his Italian hosts have hidden from the guy as he soaks up a few rays on a sunny beach. I now think he might have gone to the game. In any case, old Gustav's experience serves to raise an interesting question: "Why should any beautiful work of the human imagination so fascinate us?" With Mann's considerable authority behind me, all I can say is that ideal beauty gets us all at last, as does the grim reaper. Only basketball provides the form for some, and, for others, books do.
You'll be interested to know how I learned today of a "Brandy" who started a small kitchen fire by solving a Who-Done-It one night here, and of a "Leah" who ran her car out of gas to the sound of her husband's reading Riptide over the "Continental Divide" in Wyoming.
As both discovered coasting thirty-seven miles to safety, literary criticism, naturally, I suppose, always goes downhill from there.
Since commenting on Walt Whitman in Literacy, Halloween Style, I thought to mark my point more explicitly. It turns, implicitly, on more active reading. You'll recall my About-page remarks: "My writing is unfortunately affected by too much old book learning, the revenge of dead trees upon the living." It falls equally upon aging writers, too.
Two great-souled men of philosophy and literature, Francis Bacon and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, today seem apt in their own spirited thoughts on book reading and what I'd call adult-level literacy.
Some books are to be tasted [Bacon claims], others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
There are three kinds of readers [Goethe judges]: one, who enjoys without judging; a third, who judges without enjoying; another in the middle, who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. The last class truly reproduces a work of art anew; its members are not numerous.
You might consider such souls as reminding us anew of our own duties, to get on with life while simultaneously finding meaning — especially on this day — in the full face of death.
It's the triple groundwork — don't you think? — of freedom, of democracy, and, perhaps, of happiness itself.
Boo! I thought to sustain a ghostly theme today since, ironically enough, I have recently used the word haunted here. For I've a spirited passage to share with a bit of added comment.
Stemming from my cleaning a desk Saturday to make room for a new computer, it's ordered less by space than by time — and for serious consideration of college-level literacy. Here is my tale.
In papers horizontally filed and archeologically found, I chanced to spot an old letter I'd sent a few years ago to my local newspaper. The paper had done a piece on a forty-year-old who had started reading through the dedicated help of our college staff. You can imagine what personal courage it took to tell his story. My thank-you letter appeared as
Literacy begs all pause
"Literacy," according to R. P. Blackmur, "is the form ignorance takes in a society subjected to universal education."
Although disagreeable, even arguable, Blackmur's definition has, like your front-page story last week, an arresting appeal. Literacy begs all pause. We readers are in your debt for the reminder of what it is we do and are. My thanks.
Lest we forget our ignorance, however, we might pause at literacy's definition. Blackmur helps. Ignorance is, universally and ironically, he suggests, an "ignoring" of real education, the education of selves in the sense of their "leading out."
I submit that functional illiterates led out of school to our current boundary line of failure only reveal our definition of success. Our failure now to produce folks who fill out forms or read signs is just that, our failure. We only miss what we call a target.
Clearly, we miss much. My hope is that in years to come when we air education's dirty laundry, we'll find souls merely confessing that poetry or the ways of persuasion passed them by. Though still taking courage, the confession would, for us all, not be embarrassing to read.
It so happens I've some youngsters at my door begging Halloween treats. Understandably, I'd like to tell them how Martin Luther, four-hundred-eighty-eight years ago tonight, changed the world by showing that the real trick — always requiring "missing what we call a target" — demands more "leading out."
As I recall, Luther posted reasons why on his church door and created a Reformation by his effort — one with true Literacy, Halloween Style as its start.
· Wherein Some Administrative Rubber Meets the Pedagogical Road ·
Revision musings have just prompted from me a new thought. Why not make my stylistic revisions even more eye-appealing? For in my recent Mind's Ear post, I used the formal trick of paired columns to suggest my aim. I thought: "Why not go directly to the power of the screen to make it more colorful — maybe giving readers implied 'earfuls' of heard representations?"
So here's a draft of a memo I edited some time back, one marking the score in a classic game between school administrators and college teachers. It happily suggested itself to me just now. You'll see its point in the end, but note first my play among dark words (text originals), blue (strike outs), and red (scores), all playing themselves out fully, but still subtly, in my text. Naturally, styled instruction is my aim.
A Brief Curriculum Committee Report, 2001
Summary: Throughout April, May, and June, five members of the English faculty participated in a series of meetings devoted to discussion of teaching and learning in English 101. Topics covered included student preparation, pedagogical and technological
changes, evaluation standards, desired outcomes, the ideal vs. the real, and the expected role of writing skills in our students' lives. The consistent focus throughout all sessions, regardless of topic,Regardless of topics, throughout our meetings the consistent focus was the relationship between college Englishour own courses and those in K-12 English, or between the desired
student learning outcomes in composition and the desired proficiencies
articulated in the Washington State Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs). Unfortunately, although time constraints prohibited us from realizing the fullest intents of our original projectour implementing all goals fully — which involved collaborationincluding collaborating with the English teachers in the local K-12 schoolsour K-12 colleagues — we were still
able to accomplish the primary goal of refiningthe project's primary goal: refiningtheour common English syllabus in terms of required essential outcomes and assessments. Further Indeed, all participants came away in possession ofwith new strategies and fresh perspectives that willshould be useful to us in the future.
Evaluation: Ultimately, the English faculty who participated in this project are satisfied that — although our
teaching styles are distinctdiffer and our approaches varied,vary — student learning experiences in ourvarious sections of English classrooms are similar in manymeaningfulimportant ways. We surely agree upon the importance of several outcomes essential to students' success in 101, including the following:
thoughtful use of
appropriate information in essays
of the connection between claims and support
unity within the essay and
coherence and sequential
development of ideas
clarity of expression
usageuse of theStandard English language
stylistic precision, economy, and freshness
anduseregular employment of reflective revision strategies
finding as a result of this project is Unfortunately, we are today forced to conclude that the criteria listed for the tenth-grade
writing EALRs are unrealistic in both
ambition and specificity — mainly by being too pedagogicallyidealistic. Indeed,all participantswe all agree that we would be much surprised to find high-school students or recent high-schooleven graduates who met or surpassed these criteria. In fact, we now agree that — in our more than 75 years of collective teaching experience — we had neverhave rarely encountered a student who, upon graduating with an AA degree, could consistently score passing marks based on the criteria set for all tenth-graders.
Recommendation: Together, we will continue to help students improve their skills and knowledge in composition , modifying
and enhancing our methods along the wayby modifying syllabi and improving methods. Along the way, we will continue to consult each otherone anotherin order to maintainin keeping a degree of needed professional uniformity in our class offerings. In fact, we will continue to be mindful that some of our students will go on to become K-12 English teachers, and we will approach our classes accordingly. But we will not put too much stock in the particulars of the Washington State Writing EALRs.
Just imagine what I can still hear in these dialectical alternatives to what our committee in fact discussed. Unfortunately, that old dialogue — as you might now guess — is almost wholly unprintable.
· English Style's Logical Character — William Shakespeare ·
My comp students last week were tweaking characters. I mean they were learning to match grammatical subjects stylistically to persons in their essays. It's a stylistic trick Joseph M. Williams recommends, calling it his "first principle of clarity" (and he is right) — for as Williams claims, readers typically watch people, and all skilled writers usually try to keep persons up front syntactically.
Take my "comp students," adding as well my "I," "they," "Joseph M. Williams," "he," "readers," and "all skilled writers." They are all characters — and if you're like my noon class, you're already good at spotting them.
Last week we divvied them up into two helpful types, called the "rhetorical" and the "logical." The first — the words "I," "You," "One," and "We" — are those "topic-independent personal pronouns rhetorically governing reader-writer relations." They let us be as formal or informal, familiar or distant, as we might wish, serving typically to keep readers in tow.
By contrast, personal nouns come next, naming only those folks we might logically associate with whatever subject we're exploring. But my students ran into trouble Friday. We were all brain-storming their kinds — singular and plural, common and proper — when to my surprise, asked to name the most famous of our writers, they stumbled. Consider:
Danielle Steele? John Grisham? Stephen King?
Edgar Allen Poe?
He's having his 441st birthday tomorrow, and his name is William Shakespeare.
If you've also forgotten this, I have a memorable quote just for the occasion:
They had not skill enough your worth to sing;
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
You might recall my December post on Richard Mitchell. Honoring The Underground Grammarian, it noted beyond our mutual fondness for old presses the summer, 1982 interview I did at his home in Pitman, New Jersey. Mark Alexander, keeper of Mitchell's official web site, has just transcribed our talk, publishing it in parts at his own blog, Witnit.
My interview, included in its entirety, was part of a larger project called "A Penny for Your Thoughts: Dialogues on Literacy." Mitchell's remains the deepest of the twenty-plus I did that summer. I'm glad it has now found its proper home at Alexander's fine site.
Except for the last, the section titles are Alexander's:
· The Pen Commandments and "I've Got a Crush on You" ·
I've always been a sucker for free books. Last week in San Francisco, at the mere cost of an old email address (employed so that the publisher couldn't easily find my current one), I became the proud owner of The Pen Commandments: A Guide for the Beginning Writer. As Quill and Scroll says, Steven Frank has written a "highly readable book that entertains as it instructs. . . . Even veteran writers will find a new perspective on the whole writing venture. . . . Almost anyone will find the book a delightful, useful tool for writing well."
Well, with such a pointedly elliptical recommendation, how could Styles resist: I mean, with so punny a take on a truly biblical theme, Frank's The Pen Commandments seemed even naturally to commend itself to me. And no wonder; its injunctions are wonderfully witty:
Thou Shalt Honor Thy Reader
Thou Shalt Not Waste Words
Thou Shalt Not Kill Thy Sentences
Thou Shalt Not Pick on the Puncts
Thou Shalt Keep Thy Structure Holy
Thou Shalt Describe Thy World, Express Thy Opinions, and Preserve Thy Past
Thou Shalt Take Pleasure in Thy Pen
Thou Shalt Not Take Essay Tests in Pain
Thou Shalt Overcome Writer's Block
Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Prose
It wasn't long, though, before I found myself succumbing to the sad temptation of envying Steven Frank his own style. "Was it a good or a bad sign," I wondered, "right or wrong?" Then suddenly I remembered what Terry Teachout had remarked in his own take on such envy through that old Gershwin standard, "I've Got A Crush on You." You can see as much in A Terry Teachout Reader (2004), where he says this of his long fling with the famed artist-critic Fairfield Porter:
A few years ago, I fell in love — with a prose style. . . . My eye fell on this passage: 'Some art has a very open meaning, and can be written about in terms of this meaning; but the chances are that if the meaning is the most interesting thing about it, it does not stand alone, it does not assert itself. It leans on what it means. An implied meaning is richer.' I immediately snapped to attention — it was as if an invisible man had clapped his hands next to my ear — and by the time I put the book down, my cheeseburger was stone cold.
You can see that I've found in Steven Frank a somewhat less-good teacher than Teachout himself. That's why I thought to end on TT's rather more gracious explanation of style envy:
I do know that for me, style is a project, something at which I am constantly working. Rereading Raymond Chandler made me feel that my prose was too dry, and so I resolved to fertilize it with metaphor; my encounter with Fairfield Porter, by contrast, has made me want to be more direct (not to mention smarter). And, of course, one can also work on matters that go deeper than style: reading M. F. K. Fisher, for instance, filled me with a parallel longing to write about the place of music in life as it is lived. . . .
That's why I'm not planning to settle down with Fairfield Porter. . . . Does that make me promiscuous? No, just a hopeless romantic. . . . That's me, in spades. My bookshelves, like my writings, are haunted by the ghosts of influences past, all remembered with great tenderness, much as one recalls an old flame from college days: Whitney Balliett, Edmund Wilson, William F. Buckley, Jr., A. J. Liebling. Somerset Maugham, Diana Trilling, Randall Jarrell. Otis Ferguson, Joseph Epstein, Neville Cardus. In time, Porter will join them; I hope his spirit is pleased by the company it keeps.
· Musical Paper Grading: Joseph Haydn to the Rescue ·
I've been marking student papers recently. Always trying work, it's nevertheless pleasant, particularly so if, when fortified with coffee, I can pen comments to the accompaniment of Joseph Haydn's fine piano sonatas. They've long been favorite marking aids — especially as interpreted by Sir Alfred Brendel. Brendel's recordings, 11 Piano Sonatas, I've almost burned through with the intense laser light shed on Haydn in sunrise bouts with student writing. In fact, I'm listening to the man now, and he's again having his salutary effect: calming, regulating, teasing, stimulating, provoking, ironizing — all, of course, what teachers most need to mark, beyond accuracy and correctness, what Robert Frost once called "the part where the adventure begins."*
It was yesterday that I began to understand Haydn's heretofore mysterious effect on me. The revelation came from the book I quoted just last week, Russell Sherman's stylish Piano Pieces. Since there's no rule against repetition — especially with some theme and variation — I've thought to share Sherman's grasp of Haydn's use. Though he approaches his own work from a musical standpoint, I can by analogy, at least, mark mine also from a literary. Both go hand-in-hand.
[A]ll teachers are likely to recommend certain favorite composers and pieces deemed useful [Sherman writes] to the growing-up stages of their students. To promote discrimination of ear and execution, some teachers assign Bach; others start with Chopin as the ground of touch and control. For me, the exemplary guide and mind-opener is Haydn.
Haydn instructs in thinking: heart-thinking and brain-thinking. Haydn instructs in faith; Haydn instructs in skepticism. Haydn instructs in resolve and in resignation; in structure and strategy; in caprice and tenderness. Haydn instructs, above all in that which is root, premise, and condition of all else: composition, or how the notes are put together, broken apart, reassembled, and transformed. Everything is up-front, exposed. Life is tragic, life is amusing; things come and go; one is at the center of the storm, and at the periphery.
For the notes are alive. They create and crumble right in front of our bloodied nose.
Haydn provides a pedagogical example in one other respect [Sherman adds], a lesson imperative to contemplate in this day of media glut, of the siren call of cheap fame, and of the triumph of notoriety over talent. In his writings Haydn reflected on the fortunate fact of his relative isolation at the Esterhazy estate, where he served as music man to the prince. For a crucial period of maturity and growth, he was thankful to be distant from Vienna, from the center of fashion and commerce, and thus allowed him to develop his own ideas, personality, and vision.
This is not to say, of course, that I'm not going to enjoy fashionable San Francisco.
But while I'm gone — all of you, please — do give Joseph Haydn a listen.
*"You have got to mark, and you have got to mark, first of all, for accuracy, for correctness. But if I am going to give a mark, that is the least part of my marking. The hard part is the part beyond that, the part where the adventure begins."
· Pianoforte-Style: Russell Sherman on Spontaneity and Tension ·
When I last wrote on music in November I collected in my Soul Music of the Night some random thoughts on pianists, classical and modern, black and white — all the way from Ray Charles to Rachmaninoff — and I have thought to extend my theme by focusing on Russell Sherman, a player whose book I've been reading recently.
Long with the New England Conservatory, Sherman is also a fine teacher and, for me, in Piano Pieces, his rare gift of bringing theory to practice is what makes his writing appealing. Take these elegantly, neatly styled two paragraphs on "fluid sponaneity":
Heralitus said that you can never step in the same river twice, a chilling insight into the evanescence of all things. But even the flow of water abides by certain principles, an illustration of the more comforting perception that chaos itself has laws.
The sponaneity of Artur Schnabel or of Thelonious Monk does not flow from unrehearsed consciousness, or because they never thought about things. It flows because they thought about things so hard and honestly that they were attuned to the puzzles and contradictions which demand a leap of faith, or play. Only from a thorough preparation which teaches all and the limitations of all can the conditions arise for inspired "accidents." Only the anguish and amusements of hard work can train one to perceive the charms of chaos, the dynamics of its properties and improprieties.
One sees here that Sherman asks much of his students, and rightly so. But in such cerebration look also on what he asks of their working a "distributive tension" into their performing bodies. It reminds me of Frank Conroy's Body and Soul (1993), a fine novel by another pianist, and, indeed, by yet another teaching writer.
The bouncing up and down of happy hands [Sherman writes] represents the physical analogy to feel-good methods for boosting the psyche. The bogeyman here, as always, is vile tension, lean as Cassius and mean as Iago. But, in fact, how does tension develop?
Tension arises from insecurity, and insecurity arises from ignorance. Ignorance, in our line of work, means not knowing the notes — an umbrella charge covering a multitude of sins, such as not knowing how the notes are organized, related, structured, and composed. That is, one's not knowing the composition leads to a good deal of insecurity even if all the tactile and mnemonic devises are functioning. Spurious gestures of liberation superimposed on a shaky foundation and insufficient grounding in the detail provide only a film of authority.
If, however, the notes are securely fastened and the mechanism is orderly, the answer lies not in the elimination of tension, for tension is the sword and glue of music, but in the distribution of tension. The spine, the arms, the shoulders, the legs, the torso all must share in the musical enterprise, and by their breathing and coordination convert it into a statement of convictions. Tension, nerves, psychic and metaphysical uncertainty are in fact the actual ingredients of musical pathos if properly balanced and exploited.
Today I've thought to note Sherman's book not so we can perform on his keys, but so that we can grasp "the keys to performance" — in writing and music alike.
Recently I have been prompting class rewrites. It's often hard work. I read essays, add needed comments, schedule room conferences, coax reflection, cajole enterprise, and often promise help till the cows come home. Naturally, my work isn't all that formal, since it ambles casually in and out of classroom doors, plops comfortably down in armchairs, and gets done typically in hallways — often, in a rush, in the copyroom. Frankly, it's mostly messy, but I do like it. It has a nice, real-world, naturally "analogue" feel to it.
I was thinking about that word last week. I was chatting with Mike, a twin I have in English 101 now. Dan, his brother, is the better writer — an artist — but Mike has the more charming, digital personality as you might guess. I remember when I guessed right that Mike is a Fedora-Linux fan, and understandably thinks "open-source" means global salvation. Well, last week, when I tried to convince him that 99% of his life was lived in analogue, wouldn't you know he shot back, "Yeah, but I live for the digital."
So for Mike today — and for you, too — I've thought to provide, if not an Insight into writing as yet, at least an InSite into its current marketing.
Last week I put grammatical moves on my students; I touted the strength of active verbs.
Comp teachers always have similar advice: to "prefer" them. We're so moved by them that, when passives appear, we are seen to hang our heads low, or at the sight of linkers, often to fall into a deep, existential angst. You might recall symptoms of that behavior even here, in my On Parsing English Justice.
Today I thought to beg the collegial but not yet psychological help of a great Civil War historian, James McPherson. His essay on Ulysses S. Grant, "The Unheroic Hero" (The New York Review of Books, February 4, 1999), I've long used to help students assess such verbs. McPherson's examples are instructive, not only in literature, but in life.
McPherson claims Grant's greatest stylistic achievements are two: "triumph in war, and success in writing [a] book [Personal Memoirs] in a race against death." Both are in turn based on a similar reality: "words," McPherson notes, not only "produce action — they become action."
Consider Grant's field orders in the Champion-Hill campaign at Vicksburg (1863):
To General Francis P. Blair, Jr.: Move at early dawn toward Black River Bridge. I think you will encounter no enemy by the way. If you do, however, engage them at once.
To General John A. McClernand: The entire force of the enemy has crossed the Big Black. . . . Disencumber yourself of your [supply] trains, select an eligible position, and feel the enemy.
To General James B. McPherson: Pass all trains and move forward to join McClernand with all possible dispatch.
To General William T. Sherman: Start one of your divisions on the road at once with its ammunition wagons. . . . Great celerity should be shown in carrying out the movement. The fight might be brought on at any moment — we should have every man on the field.
As McPherson explains, "[i]n the manner of Ceasar's Veni, vidi, vici, these sentences bristle with verbs of action: 'Move . . . engage . . . disencumber . . . select . . . feel . . . move . . . start.' Grant used few adjectives and fewer adverbs and then only those necessary to enforce his meaning: 'early dawn . . . engage at once . . . move with all possible dispatch . . . great celerity . . . every man.'"
Still more impressive was Grant's final battle against death. Fighting ruin and throat cancer, he rushed to finish his impressive Memoirs with a courageous command of language nowhere better shown than in a note, penned three weeks before his death, to his physician. Unable to speak, he wrote two short sentences every teacher might claim as the paradigmatic truth about verbs:
A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.
That life lesson, too, my own students have already begun to learn.
You should maybe hear in my title a poetic line from Robert Frost. It's changed, of course — his "woods," from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," turn (without acknowledgement) now into my "words."
I begin this way because, poetry notwithstanding here, my subject today is history — especially this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We Americans celebrate it each January, of course. My own day I've spent preparing for a writing class tomorrow, one King has long figured in. Of interest has been a scholarly essay noting King's quoting of black clerics, but citing white, in My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence (Keith Miller, "Composing Martin Luther King, Jr." PMLA, January 1991).
Miller's claim is interesting. He explains how in borrowing from black preachers, King is not rightly to be charged, thoughtlessly, at least, with plagiarism. My students always take his essay to heart.
My purpose, however, is neither to commit nor commend such borrowing, but rather, in the interest of study, to inform solid, scholarly reading — which, as I tell my students, necessarily includes three key tasks:
abstracting the main ideas,
noting any ordered figures of speech,
and observing the main divisions of topical organization.
Here I thought to note just the second, implicitly giving you the gist of Miller's essay. Fit to the task is an email I wrote Friday to a student who, down with an incipient cold, asked me for a short study update. Here is our exchange.
Student: I will not be able to attend class today (1/14), and I sincerely apologize for this. I have been trying to fight off a bad head cold (even though it's just beginning). I would greatly appreciate any information you could give me as to what the class read or discussed today, granted no new hand-outs were given. I apologize for the inconvenience.
Styles: My thanks for your note. Since not everyone finished it, we had a conversation today about Miller's essay. I stressed only his use of figures, ignoring everyone's suggested titles and Miller's topical divisions. We'll do them Tuesday.
His main concerns are three: the key word "borrowing" (which when critics quote it may be ironical), his two phrases "shared treasure" (suggesting money and coinage) and "the black folk pulpit" (preachers preaching, literally, at Ebenezer Baptist Church), and, last, his key claim that King's discourse is whole-cloth weaving not quilt-making ("tapestry" not "patchwork" [p. 75]). You should note, however, Miller's prior use of "mine," "weld," and "alloy" — metallurgical terms — which he does not, of course, stress so much.
This reading, though technical, is really quite helpful in understanding Miller's argument. We all began, by the way, saying whether we agreed or not with his claim, however much we really understood it.
Do get well. I'll start analyzing his text and thought more Tuesday. Then you can share your own suggested title.
This short title, a classroom heuristic I use, will take the form tomorrow of "_____________, _____________, and the Idea of _________________." It helps my students inform their understandings of what I call an author's "conceptual topic." But tonight my topic is just bedtime, or, as Frost might say (echoing a prayerful rhyme), "Now I lay me down to sleep."
I've never been a teacher given much to rules, though should you think I'm loose, my students might counter that I'm at least not lax — though they do sometimes find me late.
I've taught philosophy in a science building at some distance from where my comp students have often sat waiting this term. So my arrivals have sometimes prompted smiles, smiles occasioning a few of us to grasp an important principle of indulgence: how one sometimes meets his limits on the long climb from science to art.
I begin this way because I have one happy rule to share today, what I call Handy-Dandy Rule 22½:
Be matter-of-fact and plain as a rule and clever only when you're feeling wicked, else you'll get in trouble.
I've of course tried to follow it myself because it aptly underlies so much of what I try to teach. Still, I've thought to offer another's more stylish discussion of it today, that of the fine English writer, F. L. Lucas:
In short, you may ironically overstate, or ironically understate; but I suggest that you should always flee from blind exaggeration as from a fiend.
Now among the various passions that tempt a writer to distort, one seems to me especially dangerous. And that is a passion for his own cleverness. Well for those who can be both wise, and good, and clever; but this third quality, thought the least valuable of the three, has a horrid habit of playing cuckoo in the nest to the two others.
Although seldom from my example have students ever begun to learn it, I'm pleased to say that, in student portfolios I'm grading now, I'm beginning to see the rule's steady application — which Lucas marks, indeed, much better than I:
But, be poetry as it may, my conclusion is this [he writes] — that a prose-writer should not overstate, except when he carries overstatement to such outrageous lengths that he is obviously jesting. . . . For the rest, a prose-writer should state exactly what he feels; or else — and this is often more effective — deliberately understate. But how difficult to persuade young writers of this! So often their impulse is to assume that talking big is the same as talking vigourously. As well suppose that the best way to sing well is to sing loud. I have been told that when the late Sir Edward March, composing his memoir of Rupert Brooke, wrote "Rupert left Rugby in a blaze of glory," the poet's mother, a lady of firm character, changed "a blaze of glory" to "July." I cannot guarantee that this is true; but it is worth remembering.
But I come by my theme honestly. I mean, I was getting fitted Sunday afternoon for a quite classy, stylish sport coat hereabouts. As you'll likely not see it, I'll just say that it's a Hickey-Freeman bought so cheap that tailoring wasn't included. The thing does need, perhaps, "Carlylean" editing.
Indeed, I just had a chance to say so in a comment posted Sunday at Jocalo's A Writing Teacher's Blog. Conveniently linked there (as "Sartorial Rhetoric") in a follow-up post Monday, Close, Cloze, Clothes, I thought you might like reading it. Its ironic subject is Dressing for Success.
My school year ended yesterday. Today's · You Got Style · subject is quite apropos, periodicity. It is delaying the rhetorical point: suspending grammatical attention better to mark logical emphasis. It naturally thrives (if you think about it) on ceremony.
Yesterday, for instance, a colleague here learned he'll have his name forever gracing an existing natural landscape. Our board-approved declaration included a long, indeed a ceremoniously-long WHEREAS list, one followed necessarily by a THEREFORE emphasizing, at last, HIS NAME.
I even got in the mood, since our president is also getting a proposed campus building named for him. So today I thought to share something I wrote yesterday before graduation. Here with my point following (but with names, times, places omitted) is a routine classroom visitation report. Its subject, as you might guess, is retired.
At _______'s request I visited Mr. _______'s 101 class on May __, leaving with a positive impression of his teaching. He clearly commands the respect and attention of students. Addressing Bruce Catton's famous comparison of Civil War Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, he marched his students across a field of historical-literary ideas with impressive authority, and with the pedagogical challenges of expository writing always clearly in view.
I was especially impressed by his strategic inquiry skills. Working from simpler to more complex matters, he engaged student attention directly, following what seemed a planned route of real learning from biographical-historical to rhetorical-logical detail. Although he ignored one student's too-quick grasp of a crucial logical point — perhaps analogous to one's ignoring Grant's "genius" for topographical thinking — he yet served students well, grasping clearly how such points all eventually appear.
But Mr. _______ also himself grasps good beginnings. I was taken by his initial quiz. Gathering facts and judgments alike, it focused inquiry by training student attention, whether students quite understood things or not. As a result, all were dutifully "engaged."
Clearly, Mr. _______ merits general commendation for his work, perhaps even a medal, especially now in retirement. Obviously, ___ is well served.
My own point? Simply, if belatedly, to wish our newly-honored colleagues deservedly happy retirements.
"The following passages, though differing some in substance, differ widely enough in style to merit critical ranking — say, good, better, best."
With those words, I have long asked my English students to pass critical judgment on three short passages included below. A colleague years ago introduced me to the helpful classroom exercise, and my mother — everyone should have one so judicious — to my chosen criteria: "Good, Better, Best," she said: "Never let it rest, till your good is better and your better best."
Good, Better, Best Since La Rochefoucauld once remarked that "everyone complains of his memory, none of his judgment," my students typically disagree on their styleful choices, but after brief discussion they come at last to some agreeable consensus. Today I thought to share my exercise. You might even be willing to share your own opinions:
Judgments: Good # ___ Better # ___ Best # ___
A formal course in writing can be a revelation to an undergraduate, opening up new powers of thought and expression, as if one were given new eyes for keener sight and a new tongue for more fluent speech. But it can also be a futile exercise in the degrading art of conformity. Students can learn to create sentences that flow in rhythmic patterns, or to avoid grammatical errors; they can be encouraged to discover the solid shape of real ideas, or to follow mass-produced blueprints for paragraph development; they can find how to make sense, or how to make an end at 500 words.
What's the use of English 101 anyway? More often than not you'll find a frustrated teacher droning on about participles and non sequiturs and deadwood and stuff. While the class is thinking: this guy is the deadwood and I wish he'd sequitur his participle somewhere else. Keeps interfering with my serious dreaming. True enough, sadly, more often than not. But occasionally, just every once in a while, some kid in the back row thinks: "Hey, I get it! Sentences are sounds that make sense, that make sense gracefully. That's all. Like a good song or a good joke or a great Ted Williams' homerun." And that, that moment of revelation, is one of the uses of English 101.
The process of learning how to write is one of the unique facets essential to a successful career in college. Because of this fact, it is important that the purpose and motivation for a course in writing be made perfectly clear at this point in time. Sometimes this is not done with adequate thoroughness, with unfortunate consequences for the one who is involved in the problem. Therefore the unique purpose of the course should be clearly stated at the beginning, so that every student is motivated to succeed in this important aspect of his career.
Naturally, Mom — paleo-matriarch that she was — could have nixed my final pronoun here, but she might also have overlooked, I think, such obviously politically-incorrect behavior. Of course, I'll leave that substantive judgment to you. It's judicious style I'm after now.
I'm up to my neck in homonyms today. I'm not, I confess, considering San Francisco-style weddings, or anything subject to pending constitutional amendment. Rather, as Shakespeare says, I'm giving myself to the marriage of minds, minds truly fit to the task of forming written words "stylishly." As I tell my students, it's a smart, fourfold task.
"Write, Right, Wright, Rite," I tell them. They get a kick, of course, out of my injunction since I can pose as a sadly repeating, redundant, reverberating punster. Whenever they all get around to asking what I mean, I simply say, "Check out my definitions":
Write, (rīt), v.t., to form or inscribe (words, letters, symbols, etc.) on a surface or screen, especially with a pen, pencil, or computer.
Right, (rīt), adj., specifically in accordance with fact, reason, or some set standard; being correct in thought, statement, or action.
Wright, (rīt), n., a worker, maker, creator; a person who makes or constructs: used chiefly in compounds, as, cartwright, or, even, word wright.
Rite, (rīt), n., any formal, customary observance or procedure, often expressly or implicitly religious.
Here I'll make my way straight to my principal point, which, if you think about it, is but the plain styling of a single sentence: Do Correct Work Religiously.
Naturally, the full conversion of all workers to the work is at times difficult, though they do take to it when (with Jonathan Swift) they maybe see its sharp point: "proper words in proper places."
I should perhaps let you decide what our busy bee ("at right") is doing.
· Presidents' Day Thoughts on Christopher Lasch's Plain Style ·
I've been reading Christopher Lasch's volume of writing advice, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. Printed for graduate history students at the University of Rochester (1985) and published in paperback by the University of Pennsylvania Press (2002), the book lives up to its apt title. I heartily recommend it.
According to Weaver, Plain Style "is something of an essay in cultural criticism, a political treatise even, by one for whom directness, clarity, and honesty of expression were, no less than for George Orwell, essential to the living spirit of democracy." Weaver's allusion is no mistake, for Lasch holds to Orwell's belief that, as Orwell's own "Politics" makes clear, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" — that "an effect can become a cause . . . A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks."
To second Orwell's claim, I thought to share Lasch's sharp styling of the thought in one spirited paragraph from his third chapter, "Characteristics of Bad Writing" — a paragraph entitled "Abstract Language":
Abstract Language Bad academic writing [Lasch writes] avoids concrete (literally solid or coalesced) words and phrases as assiduously as it avoids the active voice, and for the same reason: it seeks to convey an impression of scientific precision, of painfully acquired learning and scholarship, of Olympian detachment from the commonplace facts of everyday life. It prefers phenomena to things or events, socialization to growing up, orientation to position or location. Abstractions are often indispensable, of course (as are forms of to be). Sipped in small amounts, they may even have a slightly intoxicating effect, not inconsistent with verbal clarity. Over-indulgence, however, leads to slurred speech and eventually destroys brain cells.
Lasch's own happy take on Orwell tells. Beyond one tipsy academic, though, it's worse to see America's sober-sided politicians from the President down reeling so clearly now under the inebriating influence of such abstractions as "The Axis of Evil" and "Strategic Outsourcing." You'd maybe think that they would foreswear such stuff, rhetorically as well as politically.
A justly temperate nation might, I would suggest, ask them to try.
"There are some punctuations that are interesting," said Gertrude Stein, "and there are some that are not." Stein's judgment, quoted from Joseph M. Williams's Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, I have long found helpful in my teaching. The marks we silently take for granted, I've discovered, make for useful classroom conversation.
Typically, after introducing my students to the two chief means of grasping punctuation ("regulatory" and "syntactical" I call them), I turn everyone loose diligently looking for "interesting" punctuations. My students take to the task well, finding in what they have first read for pleasure larger lessons in compositional technique.
For fun I have thought to share two such finds. Each comes from a now-dated class textbook handy for reference, Lynn Bloom and Edward White's Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader. You, too, might find my students' punctuations "interesting."
Begging what I call "regulatory" questions, the first comes from Mike Rose's short essay, "'I Just Wanna Be Average'":
We were talking about the parable of the talents, about achievement, working hard, doing the best you can do, blah-blah-blah, when the teacher called on the restive Ken Harvey for an opinion. Ken thought about it, but just for a second, and said (with studied, minimal effect), "I just wanna be average." That woke me up. Average?! Who wants to be average?
You can imagine my students' response. They like, of course, Rose's hyphenated boredom ("blah-blah-blah"), his paused, adjectival aside ("with studied, minimal effect"), his one solecism ("wanna"), and, mostly, his equivocal end-punctuation on "Average?!" "But is that right?" they ask, and I reply: "But of course! Was Rose here following some stuffy, single-minded grammarian's 'pointing rule'?"
My students take even more, however, to John Updike's "syntactical" stretch in his fine autobiographical essay, "At War with my Skin":
My mother tells me up till age six I had no psoriasis; it came on strong after an attack of the measles in February of 1938, when I was in kindergarten. The disease — "disease" seems strong, for a condition that is not contagious, painful, or debilitating; yet psoriasis has the volatility of a disease, the sense of another presence coöcupying your body and singling you out from the happy herds of healthy, normal mankind — first attached itself to my memory while I was lying on the upstairs side porch of the Shillington house, amid the sickly, oleaginous smell of Siroil, on fuzzy sun-warmed towels, with my mother, sunbathing.
You can imagine my students' take. After traversing Updike's semicolonized lead sentence ("Svc; svc" is his pattern), they "gasp" inquisitively at a writer's deft style dashing their hopes for some subject-verb closure in his longer second sentence ("S — svc; svc — vc, c, c, c"). "Can Updike do that?" they ask, amused by his lengthy, comma-filled sentence ending. "Well, he did, didn't he? It's a stretch," I say, "but — hey! — if your old skin is rather inelastic, why not limber up your syntax? For Updike it's verbal gymnastics."
Students of course get my point, as they get, too, Victor Borge's in a still more stylish take on punctuation, happily recorded (even if without his accompanying story) partially online. Do enjoy.
· From Substance to Style: G. H. Lewes Takes on Immanuel Kant ·
I've the task here of introducing students to Immanuel Kant. You can imagine their groans: "What," they ask, "was this dude really on?" "You expect us to understand him?"; "We mean, like, 'He's boring!'" While I sympathize, I feel at least compelled to induce some into believing, even as the French sometimes say: "Le style le moins noble a purtant sa noblesse" — "The least noble of styles has nevertheless its own nobility." Most students scoff: "Don't give us that stuff; the French even eat their greasy fries with a fork!"
So what of English speakers? Well, we're of course betwixt-and-between, typically adopting Kant's essentially smart intellectual substance while necessarily abusing his style. Consider the mid-Victorian writer George Henry Lewes. His The Principles of Success in Literature (1865), published in The Fortnightly Review, catches well the spirit of Kant's words while abusing his often drab style. Take this from Lewes' sixth chapter, "The Laws of Style":
The aims of Literature being instruction and delight, Style must in varying degrees [Lewes writes] appeal to our intellect and our sensibilities: sometimes reaching the intellect through the presentation of simple ideas, and at others through the agitating influence of emotions; sometimes awakening the sensibilities through the reflexes of ideas, and sometimes through direct appeal.
Lewes' vocabulary, "intellect" and "sensibilities," "ideas" and "emotions," is lifted, of course, right from Kant's three great classic critiques of reason, practicality, and judgment, but used in the direct service of literature, not of philosophy. Yet as to Kant's own prose style, Lewes himself disparages it as do most of my smart students. Take this brief passage from Lewes' fifth chapter, "The Principle of Beauty":
Bacon, . . . having an opulent and active intellect, spontaneously expressed himself in forms of various excellence. But what a pitiable contrast is presented by Kant! . . . not simply unwise, he was extremely culpable in sending forth his thoughts as so much raw material which the public was invited to put into shape as it could. . . . he might have been induced to recast it into more logical and more intelligible sentences.
Before you gloat with my students, however, do at least consider this happy exchange from Friday afternoon's English 101 class:
Styles to the Class:
I spent a whole hour arranging my words in the passage I shared with you yesterday.
A Student to Styles:
Well, you've got too much time on your hands.
To which G. H. Lewes' reply is:
Styles to the Class again, quoting Lewes:
[M]en who will spare no labour in research, grudge all labor in style; a morning is cheerfully devoted to verifying a quotation, by one who will not spare ten minutes to reconstruct a clumsy sentence.
Whether researching or writing, I do have, it seems, Lewes' point made expressly for my own style.
· A Saving Imagination: The MLA's "Necessary Angel" ·
A year ago I shared an image in a holiday post entitled Christmas Light. The implied relationship expressed there between imagination and reason I thought to develop more fully today. I have marked it earlier in other posts, especially in Wilsonian Democracy, but I thought to define it with the explicit words of the twentieth-century American poet Wallace Stevens, this from his book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination. His words seemed particularly apt today.
The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things. . . . We cannot look at the past or the future except by means of the imagination. . . . [The imagination] enables us to live our own lives. We have it because we do not have enough without it. . . . The imagination is the power that unables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos. . . . The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them. If this is true, then reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination. It may be that the imagination is a miracle of logic and that its exquisite divinations are calculations beyond analysis, as the conclusions of reason are calculations wholly within analysis. If so, one understands perfectly that "in the service of love and imagination nothing can be too lavish, too sublime or too festive."
I mention this because I'm off to one such "festive" occasion, the annual meeting, December 27 to 30, of the Modern Language Association in San Diego. This lavish professional conference annually draws thousands of teachers, readers, critics, and scholars who celebrate imaginative poetry, fiction, and drama in various forms of the critical-scholarly essay. You may ask how such folks add to the creative mix of such fare? Simply by sharing such loving "Festivals of Light" as wisely, generously, enthusiastically, and imaginatively as they can.
Naturally some will scoff at this view, saying with Scrooge, "Bah, Humbug," but even they are effectively open to the hope of "Peace on Earth, Good Will to All."
Why else would MLAers have chosen Christmas-time to say that poetry, fiction, and drama are among our age's saving human graces!
I'm giving my final exams this week. Without time to describe them, I thought to share something from the philosopher Michel Serres today, a writer whose extended 1995 text, The Natural Contract, grasps both substantively and stylishly the aims of the work I typically ask students to do.
Serres' words pass a clear test of intelligence and mark well the two aims of real study, instruction and education. As we sometimes forget them, I've thought Serres' "Rearing" section, from his book's third chapter ("Science, Law"), apt to our use. His passage, given today without added comment, I hope you'll agree merits a solid "A."
In any case, here's Serres' "Rearing":
May this Sage1 found a lineage. The rearing of the human baby is based on two principles: the first positive, concerns his instruction; the other, negative, involves education. The latter forms prudent judgment and the former valiant reason.
We must learn our finitude: reach the limits of a non-infinite being. Necessarily we will have to suffer, from illnesses, unforeseeable accidents or lacks; we must set a term to our desires, ambitions, wills, freedoms. We must prepare our solitude, in the face of great decisions, responsibilities, growing numbers of other people; in the face of the world, the fragility of things and of loved ones to protect, in the face of happiness, unhappiness, death.
To deny this finitude, starting in childhood, is to nurture unhappy people and foster their resentment of inevitable adversity.
We must learn, at the same time, our true infinity. Nothing, or almost nothing, resists training. The body can do more than we believe, intelligence adapts to everything. To awaken the unquenchable thirst for learning, in order to live as much as possible and to persevere, sometimes, through invention: this is the meaning of equipping someone to cast off.
These two principles laugh at the paths that guide today's contrary educational practices; the narrow finitude of an instruction that produces obedient specialists or ignoramuses full of arrogance; the infinity of desire, drugging tiny soft larvae to death.
Education forms and strengthens a prudent being who judges himself finite; instruction by true reason lauches this being into an infinite becoming.
Earth, the foundation, is limited; yet the casting off from it knows no end.
· Around the Academic Bell Curve in Artful-Scholar Style ·
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reviewed Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb's book, Just Being Difficult? (Stanford, 2003). Subtitled Academic Writing in the Public Arena, the book aptly lands on the much-contested subject of modern academic prose. Carlin Romano's witty take, Was It as Bad for You as It Was for Me?, links it to academic sex, marking the meeting there of philosophical opposites: postmodern constructivism and classical essentialism, ideological obscurity and ideal purity, savvy complexity and naïve clarity. Here is his lead.
For most scholars, bad academic writing, like bad academic sex, doesn't call for explanation — or argument.
It's poor chemistry between writer and reader (pontificator and pontificatee, in the academic version), like lack of sizzle between jaded full professor and enthusiastic asst. prof. It's failure of Interrogator A to make the noises and gestures that work for Hegemonized Reader B. It may be Defamiliarizer A's clumsy attempt to shake up the ideological/emotional/instrumental reflexes of Overly Essentialized Reader B. It may be sheer incompetence at nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
Typically, I hold to the latter view — "grammatical," as you may call it — aware that Romano's theme, like that of E. M. Forster in Howard's End ("Only Connect"), partially bridges (or "pontificates") such a gap nicely. Such is my hope too, but it is hard work — especially in view of the examples. Here, for instance, is Judith Butler's winning quote in Philosophy and Literature'sBad Writing Contest (1998):
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
As I have sometimes abused such prose — recall High Style and Compromising Style — you may find it strange that I sympathize with Butler's point, not to say with Butler's writing. It is simply because Butler delineates here, with a line that may drift and circle around too much, the analogous concerns of Robin Lakoff's excellent discussion of "How to Write Like a Professor." To Lakoff's credit in Talking Power: The Politics of Language, Butler's "question of temporality" — considered vis-à-vis "structure," "power," and "style" — is even graphically well-illustrated.
The curve of the line suggests that academic style, as Lakoff claims, "is connected to notions of privilege and power."
If academic style were merely the result of carelessness or unconcern for the graces, it would increase as its user advanced in the field, in a straight upward direction; and if undergraduates were capable of using the style, it would be deemed an unmixed sign of competence, not a little off-color. But we find instead the parabolic curve of Figure 8.1 . . . You are allowed to use academese when you have convinced the elders that you are a serious apprentice, no longer an outsider (who is not allowed knowledge of the mysteries). You must use academese to prove your worthiness of acceptance and your ability to submit to discipline. You may abandon academese, wholly or more likely in part, when you are the gatekeeper and need no longer worry about being excluded from the society.
So where, pray tell, does that leave Styles, as a life-long academic bottom-dweller — a wily old fish, full of Ancient Academic Graces and all the Modern Gumptions? Just stuck in the reedy backwaters of learning, warily observing clumsy bait-hurlers like Butler (her aim is good, by the way) and stylish fly-tossers like Robin Lakoff (she must shop at R.E.I.) almost communicating effectively. But so much Butlerian telling and Lakoffian showing leave this fish reflecting, if truth be told, on Norman Maclean's sage advice in A River Runs Through It: "Grace comes by art, and art does not come easy."
· Blue End Note: Louis Menand Sings "Chicago Blues" ·
I saw the PBS documentaries on The Blues last week. Seven independently-directed films produced by Martin Scorsese, they had me tapping my toes and singing "Sweet Home, Chicago" like a blues brother. I especially liked Clint Eastwood's series-ending "Piano Blues" — capped off by Ray Charles doing "America the Beautiful" with an orchestra. There's nothing like Ray's going low-down and high-flown at once.
It is 2:30 a.m. of a Monday, spring semester . . . Things are looking extremely good. Forty-eight hours of high-intensity stack work and some inspired typing have produced the thirty-page final paper for Modern European History . . . you are satisfied that you have turned out, in two days, the intellectual and moral equivalent of three months’ steady application . . . Only the notes and the bibliography remain. . . . Two-thirty is by no means an unreasonable hour of the night. You anticipate a decent five or six hours of sleep before class time. And you are, of course, so wrong. You are not nearing the finish line at all. There is a signpost up ahead: you are about to enter The End Matter.
Foreshortened, you can almost hear old Muddy Waters wailing, strumming, and beating out the 12-bar blues:
Baby, you've found us the right source
Do, Da Da Da, Duh
Baby, you've found us the right source
Do, Da Da Da, Duh
But, Baby, you gotta cite us that source!
Do, Da Da Da . . . Duh?
You are in "Muddy Waters" indeed. As Menand has it you're in fact sailing into trouble. Included are such odd arcana as whose citation form is it? (MLA, APA, or Chicago's?); what do you do with those punctuations and abbreviations? (,:;.* loc cit, ibid, et al.?); where do publishers today really do their thing? (New York, Chicago, London, Cambridge, Toronto, Sydney, Delhi, or Cambridge, MA?), and why can evil Redmond (I know it well) make your life so miserable today? ("First of all, it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program.").
Though I can't begin to carry Louis ("The Delta Dart") Menand's bluesy tune, I can at least essentialize its point. It smiles in his last paragraph:
The "Manual" is not too long. It is not long enough. It will never be long enough. The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence. We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. It would be worth it.*
*What Robert Nozick once said of philosophy could now be said of all academic subjects: They're
beset by the temptation to say everything explicitly.
And what J. David Bolter noted of their latest media equally applies:
The network can never be fully explicit.
Between the temptation and the reality we have, of course, "Chicago Blues."*
· Late Night Thoughts on New-World Illiterates, Tutored and Untutored ·
I've spent much of the past week preparing for the new year. If you're keen on academic rites, you already know my story. It began Monday with welcome-back meetings, moved to freshman advising Tuesday, turned Wednesday to two faculty meetings, returned to more advising Thursday, and lapsed today into some needed chores of copying and syllabi-shaping. There's beer and barbeque tonight, or, rather, there were, since I also had a wedding rehearsal to attend — which justifies my failure to make my subjects and verbs agree.
So at midnight I have thought to wed — shotgun-style — subjects and verbs, words and actions, of two obvious illiterates. They're not illiterates, of course, since they're quite able to write, but they don't write well. They are, alas, "Illiterates, Tutored and Untutored."
The first addressed our faculty meeting Wednesday afternoon from the lofty heights of Regional Accreditation, in a style mediated Microsoftly by the dominant abstractions called "Bullet Points." Dr. Power B. Point, you can call him, had this sentence to share on a slide entitled
The New World Order
Shifting societal values, attitudes, and expectations foster application of critical thinking skills in the form of questions regarding the relevance, significance, and efficacy of traditional measures (grades, certificates, degrees) as meaningful indicators of educational quality and institutional effectiveness.
Now there's a natural-born communicator. Actually, he's well-credentialed and degreed, "tutored" in the compromising and educationizing styles I abused in February and October. I can almost hear Malcolm Cowley say, "This dude's been adorned with laurel branches and flowering hegemonies," and Jacques Barzun, "Such is the educationist mind everywhere." Too bad Dr. Power Point's work hasn't been seen by Pootwattle and Smedley.
My next example is more difficult. It's the almost-Joycean musings of a semi-conscious girl on the realities of today's high schools. Included in a recent newspaper editorial — the editor threatens one day to print all his letters unedited — it marks not the sad arrogance of power but the sorry ignorance of technique, which is, of course, a bit more easily corrected. In any event, I give you
Ms. Molly Bloom
You see high school telivision shows when your little the drama's, Musicals, Chick filcks so much more. you wonder if thats what high school is realy going to be like wow i am aa cool kid i am in a pink ladys jacket on grese but thats not how it goes i thought it was that way when i was little. i think the people writning the scripts are aboustly mastaken high school isnt like that well besides the drama there are pros and cons of high school the only actuate people is all the dramma iam in many 'clicks' Semi preep, hicks, Friendly, Scrubs christian and more i really dont see them like that its just they way peopel dress and talk i have been in a few areument with one of my good frined now about __________ high school dril tean and ohter such as fighing over a boy man that was bad then people can lie to you and say this boy likes you and you will have your head stright up high thinking he does and the next day flift with him o boy howdy. The pros are the friends you get! . . .
Well, all I can say we get at "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is this:
Maybe do nothing but "subvert" the one and "convert" the other?
I spent last week away attending to academic essays on literary style "Back East." As I've said, academics make much of the view, adduced directly last week even, that style is sometimes more important than substance. Now while I have never held to that view, I am still intrigued by those who do so, as well as by those who don't. For there's something to be said for both.
For example, here's a short piece of writing showing how both are reciprocal. Its apparent subject is a "stylish" take on Henry David Thoreau by a student:
It would be another age-of-reason novelist, Henry David Thoreau, who consequently shows that style is more important than substance. In his novel Walden, Thoreau wrote with such beautiful academic prose that — even reaching a poetic voice throughout the novel (although the book is one of many of the somniferous school of literature) — it is still considered to be in the American literary cannon of literature, thus showing that style is more important than substance.
Don't you think that even "substantively" charming? By taking a novel approach to Walden, the student has marked the end of modern American schooling, providing us a "somniferous" acquaintance with literature which even "cannon" fire can't really disturb. Of course, the irony is that students themselves are now quite capable of saying so, stylistically and substantively.
Which is maybe why "Rocket" firing was the real news last week — Roger Clemens going 300 in The Bronx Friday.
· Conservative Soul Substance: H. L. Mencken on Style ·
The so-called "Sage of Baltimore" prompts my post today. As I've been busy teaching — attending here, as he would say, fruitlessly to "natural" ignorance — this late-inning post (my term ends June 20th) defends my liberal do-goodism against Mencken's sadly conservative take on it. For I've in mind, from his well-named Prejudices, Fifth Series (1926), Mencken's essay "Literature and the Schoolma'm" — a brisk but sadly benighted attack on the utter uselessness of one's teaching style. What can I say?
I do love the way Mencken begins, though:
With precious few exceptions, all the books on style in English are by writers quite unable to write. The subject, indeed, seems to exercise a special and dreadful fascination over schoolma'ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates. One never hears of treatises on it by George Moore or James Branch Cabell, but the pedagogues, male and female, are at it all the time. In a thousand texts they set forth their depressing ideas about it, and millions of suffering high-school pupils have to study what they say. Their central aim, of course, is to reduce the whole thing to a series of simple rules — the overmastering passion of their melancholy order, at all times and everywhere.
Mencken has, I admit, a flair for words, and we must agree: we are all in his debt for his truly impressive work, The American Language (1921). But when Mencken takes on my students — "They write badly simply because they cannot think clearly" and "They cannot think clearly because they lack the brains" — forgive me, but I detect the passing of a noxious fascist gas on my favored topic. And not surprisingly, Mencken links it here to taxes:
Trying to teach it to persons who cannot think, especially when the business is attempted by persons who also cannot think, is a great waste of time, and an immoral imposition upon the taxpayers of the nation. It would be far more logical to devote all the energy to teaching not writing, but logic — and probably just as useless. For I doubt that the art of thinking can be taught at all — at any rate by school teachers. It is not acquired, but congenital. Some persons are born with it. . . . They constitute, I should say, about one-eighth of one percent of the human race.
There you have it. Nowadays we often hear Menken-like echoes in the thought of Rush ("Always to Judgment") Limbaugh and of Bill ("No Spin") O'Reilly. Like him such wanna-be thinkers also claim: "there is nothing mysterious about the written language; it is precisely the same, in essence, as the spoken language. If a man can think in English at all, he can find words enough to express his ideas."
Multiple sets of papers prompt the need today for writing relief. There is none better, perhaps, than that of Dr. Steven Pinker. In his The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, the famous Harvard linguist offers a "homely remedy" for that one "aspect of language use that is most worth changing" — "the clarity and style of written prose."
Since I'll be pushing his remedy in the days to come, I thought you might like, without added comment, Dr. Pinker's prescription:
Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conversational partner, a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one's natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and — probably most important — intensive exposure to good examples. There are excellent manuals of composition that discuss these and other skills with great wisdom, like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. What is most relevant to my point is how removed their practical advice is from the trivia of split infinitives and slang. For example, a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively. Good writers go through anywhere from two to twenty drafts before releasing a paper. Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, "Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times." Kind of takes the fun out, doesn't it? It's not something that can be blamed on television, rock music, shopping, mall culture, overpaid athletes, or any of the other signs of the decay of civilization. But if it's clear writing that we want, this is the kind of homely remedy that is called for.
Today's post is brought to you, guardedly, by the letters PC. They stand for "Politically Correct" — rendered perhaps more meatily by the better phrase, "Philologically Crippled." You can be the judge today. It is a good day for truth.
In a recent review of the new Diane Ravitch book, Merle Rubin asks:
What do dinosaurs, mountains, deserts, brave boys, shy girls, men fixing roofs, women baking cookies, elderly people in wheelchairs, athletic African Americans, God, heathens, witches, owls, birthday cake and religious fanatics all have in common? Trick question? Not really. As we learn from Diane Ravitch's eye-opening book "The Language Police," all of the above share the common fate of having been banned from the textbooks or test questions (or both) being used in today's schools.
Although I don't want to stretch Rubin's point from the April 28th L. A. Times, Rubin's ending does mark Ravitch's importance:
Lucid, forceful, written with insight, passion, compassion and conviction, "The Language Police" is not only hair-raisingly readable but deeply reasonable. It should be required reading not only for parents, teachers and educators, but for everyone who cares about history, literature, science, culture and indeed the civilization in which we live.
Might Ravitch, though, approve of my citing one of those "elderly people in wheel-chairs" — one able to speak to "the civilization in which we live"? Nancy Mairs, say?
First, the matter of semantics. I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are "handicapped" and "disabled." I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so. Even now, I'm not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering. People — crippled or not — wince at the word "cripple," as they do not at "handicapped" or "disabled." Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger.
Now the harder question: Would Nancy Mairs approve of my saying now: "Yeah! And who doesn't 'swagger'? Why, those desert-fried, cookie-baking educationists I once trashed for layin' down sad 'barbaric yawps' on the roof-tops of the literate world with (what's it called?) God-awful athletic fanaticism! You know, heathenish, forked-tongued mountaineer wannabes, full of verbal aspiration, owl-eyed and bird-brained — all fixed to witch's tits, degenerate dinosaurs mostly, with 'brave' fronts and 'shy' behinds."
I met again with a group of academics from around the country last week. Putatively interested in the love of wisdom, we gathered in a hotel outside of New York. We considered what were generally some inadequate tests of thought falling short of a serious ideal but few enough fortunately to allow our taking in New York's cultural scene. For me that meant Art, Opera, Theater, and Ballet. Even philosophers decend into the city's cave to pass judgment on its shadows on the wall.
Beyond subterranean rides on the subway, my added adventures included Mark Adamo's Little Women at the New York City Opera, Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out at the Walter Kerr Theater, and Boris Eifman's Who's Who ballet at the City Center Theater. I also ventured north to the Natural History and Metropolitan Museums and south to NYU and Grenwich Village, seeking in NYU's Stern School my friend Katya for some needed Russian translation at the ballet. Her cell phone was unfortunately disconnected. Let it be said that my one week away was exhausting, coming hard on the heels of quarter finals and preceding three new classes this spring. But my sense of style has at least been liberated.
Big-city "liberation" is, after all, the past week's other, more substantive news.
Today my hit counter reached 1000. I'm hardly impressed since my own visits count, though I am pleased. Indeed, I even found this link to "round out" my pleasure. My thanks.
With due respect for his considerable authority, I thought to cite a passage today by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I think Whitehead is doubly served by my Platonic footnote, as you can perhaps infer from my previous post For \ Four \ Fore:
A man really writes for an audience of about ten persons. Of course, if others like it, that is clear gain. But if those ten are satisfied, he is content.
With that I think I'll return to my neglected weekend paper grading.
It's amusement time. Having two sets of papers to grade, I thought you might be in need of some amusement. "Waste Not and Want Not" is my theme today. Relief is near.
It comes from Karl Smith — "The Yellow Dart" — a good guy with a great future — likely political. I mean Karl's got promise . . . style . . . even sound. Although his "Englilsh" may be off, you'll be moved, as I was, by his "Hustle and Bustle." In any event, here's Karl "The Yellow Dart" Smith's A Well Thought-Out Englilsh [sic] Paper.
P. S. Note the budding political power of Karl's $2.13 "cash advance."
· Compromising Style: Malcolm Cowley on Socspeak ·
I'm sure you've seen what I call compromising style. It follows from delivering what's wanted, not what's needed. The compromiser typically writes worse than he can, promising to go along — to get with the program: toeing someone else's line toward a presumed, predicted, pompously prescribed point. Although it necessarily marks a favored way to bureaucratic perdition, it does of course pay one's bills.
I got to thinking about all this Friday though prudence begs me skirt specific circumstances, but I thought to share the literary generics. And who should come to my aid but Malcolm Cowley, the literary chronicler of "The Lost Generation." From 1948 to 1985 Cowley regularly advised The Viking Press and, in 1956, wrote an impressively witty piece called "Sociological Habit Patterns in Linguistic Transmogrification." I thought to share it today. Although I can represent it only partially, it is an instructive tale of "compromising style."
I have a friend [Cowley begins] who started as a poet and then decided to take a postgraduate degree in sociology. For his doctoral dissertation he combined his two interests by writing on the social psychology of poets. He had visited poets by the dozen, asking each of them a graded series of questions, and his conclusions from the interviews were modest and useful, though reported in what seemed to me a barbarous jargon. After reading the dissertation I wrote and scolded him. "You have such a fine sense of the poet's craft," I said, "that you shouldn't have allowed the sociologists to seduce you into writing their professional slang — or at least that's my judgmental response to your role selection."
My friend didn't write to defend himself; he waited until we met again. Then dropping his voice, he said: "I knew my dissertation was bady written, but I had to get my degree. If I had written it in English, Professor Blank" — he mentioned a rather distinguished name — "would have rejected it. He would have said it was merely belletristic."
Perhaps it's well to recall that — as Robert Frost once said "belletristically" — "I was educated by degrees." What Frost really meant, etymologically, was, of course, "by degradation." You can bet Cowley knew the derivation. But I'm happy to report that Cowley himself turned to the grammatical rather than rhetorical implications of Socspeak, summarizing in his final paragraph the sort of "degradation" (or "transmogrification") grammar undergoes in Socspeak. It's a matter, you might note, of "conquered" parts of speech.
The whole sad situation leads me to dream of a vast allegorical painting called "The Triumph of the Nouns." It would depict a chariot of victory drawn by the other conquered parts of speech — the adverbs and adjectives still robust, if yoked and harnessed; the prepositions bloated and pale; the conjunctions tortured; the pronouns reduced to sexless skeletons; the verbs dichotomized and feebly tottering — while behind them, arrogant, overfed, roseate, spilling over the triumphal car, would be the company of nouns in Roman togas and Greek chitons, adorned with laurel branches and flowering hegemonies.
Today, alas, I feel "robust" enough — but a little "yoked and harnessed." I feel like a "February adjective" to an October post.
Last week, from Tuesday to Sunday, I met with a group of academics from around the country interested in literary style. Their interests, if you know such academics, were pretty dull. There's not much to say (literally), of course, of folks given to reading papers in hotel ballrooms, discussing them aloud, and passing judgments upon them in terms sometimes so substantively reductive as to suggest imaginative incapacity. Such folks are, at least, mostly harmless. After all, can academics earnestly looking for "clear, concrete, comprehensive, coherent, and concise" writing be all that bad?
The group I was with — numbering around seventy — has even developed a happily elaborate and often insightful code enumerating their concerns. They've figured out how to figurate style — just a couple of points shy of a "proper" ideal maybe — so as to make time for still more substantive matters like eating and drinking. Indeed, the group last week styled things so well as to make time for a night on the town Thursday (we were near New York) and at a local mall Saturday (I fancied even Stanley Fish would have been lured by the $359,000 Bentley convertible I saw).
Anyway, all of this falls quite naturally under the rubric of "The Leisure of the Theory Class" — though I suspect Thorstein Veblen would say (observing me returned from "Back East"): "Vatch out! Dat's a T'ree, Styles."
I linked last to a footnote seen on top of a page and thought today to say why. In An Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes, I linked to a Gibbon footnote represented in my text by its generic content initially:
Although I cannot stop to quote [my author] for every fact, I will observe that the navigation of [the subject] from [one place] to [another] and [another] is contained in [a text] ( [on some page] ), and that the historian has the uncommon talent of placing each scene before the reader's eye.
Although I haven't fully represented my own use of Gibbon's text, you can link to it to infer my larger intent. But my point is still larger, namely, to raise anyone's use of the academic footnote by such a dialectical move from a "low art" to a "high science," instructively invoking, to that end, a passage from Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft.
Marc Bloch you may recognize as a member of the Annales school of historiography (including Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, and Le Roy Ladurie). Although Bloch wrote as a practical French Medievalist, in The Historian's Craft he advocated scientific-theoretical standards for a still larger historical purpose. He believed that beyond objectivity, verifiable truth was the historian's ultimate aim. Bloch warranted this view on the assumption that history is a truth-seeking, scientific enterprise done by a group — even if conducted by individuals. So it's toward the development of the group's historical consciousness that Bloch aimed; indeed, he aimed ultimately at humanity's scientific consciousness.
Though I cannot pretend to outline Bloch's thought, I can present a small but subtle part of it as it bears on footnotes. These are the humble forms binding Bloch's theory to his practice. For Bloch the footnote helpfully binds word to deed, language to reality, consciousness to act, and, indeed, historian to craft. Initially, he starts by noting the low footnote's too-common abuse:
[W]hen certain readers complain that a single note, strutting along by itself at the foot of the page, makes their heads swim, or when certain publishers claim that their customers, doubtless less hypersensitive in reality than they would have us believe, are tortured by the mere sight of a page thus disfigured, these æsthetes merely prove their imperviousness to the most elementary maxims of an intellectual ethic. For, apart from the free play of imagination, we have no right to make any assertion which cannot be verified and a historian who in using a document indicates the source as briefly as possible (that is, the means of finding it again) is only obeying a universal rule of honesty. Corrupted by dogmas and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification.
In noting the humble footnote's higher use, however, Bloch rises to a stylish eloquence linking factual notation to scientific verification to suggest, I think, even truth itself.
On that day when, having first taken care not to discourage it with useless pedantry, we shall succeed in persuading the public to measure the value of a science in proportion to its willingness to make refutation easy, the forces of reason will achieve one of their most smashing victories. Our humble notes, our finicky little references, currently lampooned by many who do not understand them, are working toward that day.
Published posthumously in 1953, Bloch's own text is ironically without footnotes. Considering his circumstances — tortured and executed by the Nazis in 1944 as a part of the Free French Resistance — we should maybe see Bloch as an abused footnote himself. The artful words of D. W. Brogan can suggest why:
I remember vividly the day on which the news of Marc Bloch's death reached us in Cambridge, and how eagerly we pounced on the rumour — false, alas! — that he had escaped. When we learned beyond doubt that he was dead, we felt that a blow had been dealt to the whole world of learning.
Consider — "in proper citation style" — about whom you could say that.
Yes, I know. Sorry. But they do charm me, and like puns mark a low form of thought — even (to mark to J-P. Sartre's case) of "Dialectical Reason." Know that I come to them here under the necessity of explaining the art of thinking to my students.
I begin with this "dialogue" (invoking the wider "dialectic" to which it points) because footnotes do, in fact, displace thought as puns do. You start out on one line of thinking, and end up on another. It's their virtue — though some think notes a low vice better lost than found today. Bruce Anderson in The Decline and Fall of Footnotes expresses the thought wittily: "Coming across a footnote, Noel Coward observed, is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love." I grant: Coward does have a point.
But they do bring good news, too. It might be — think about it — Ed McMahon at the door. Take an academic note cited from Fredric Jameson's Marxism and Form (1971) and translated from Theodore Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik (1958):
It is hardly an accident [just like my titular "Ode"] that mathematical techniques in music as well as logical positivism originated in Vienna. The fondness for number games is as peculiar to the Viennese mind as the game of chess in the coffee house. There are social reasons for it. All the while intellectually productive forces in Austria were rising to the technical level characteristic of high capitalism, material forces lagged behind. The resultant unused capacity for figures became the symbolic fulfillment of the Viennese intellectual. If he wanted to take part in the actual process of material production, he had to look for a position in Imperial Germany. If he stayed home, he became a doctor or a lawyer or clung to number games as a mirage of financial power. Such is the way the Viennese intellectual tries to prove something to himself, and — bitte schön — to everyone else as well.
"So what now of your titular 'Owed'?" you ask. Well, naturally, it's Jameson's own take on Adorno — quite instructively explained. "Stylistic juxtapostion of music, symbolic logic, and financial sheets?" he inquires. "The text under consideration is all of these things, but it is first and foremost a complete thing, I am tempted to say a poetic object" — a footnote! So Jameson of course sings its praises. Adorno's mind "incarnates itself in order to know reality," he claims, "and in return finds itself in a place of heightened intelligibility" — a place where there's "momentarily effected a kind of reconciliation between the realm of matter and that of spirit . . . a socio-economic style [my emphasis] which can be named." Then Jameson adduces his own footnote, one partially quoted below:
[A]n almost physical cause [Jameson writes] may be said to account for the structural peculiarity of the text in question, which is neither more nor less than a complete footnote: and the abundance, as well as the stylistic and philosophical quality of the footnotes to Philosophie der neuen Musik is itself "no accident" and has symptomatic value. The footnote in this context may indeed be thought of as a small but atonomous form, with its own inner laws and conventions and its own determinate relationship to the larger form which governs it — something on the order of the moral of a fable or the various types of digressions which flourished within the ninteenth-century novel. In the present instance, the footnote as a lyrical form allows Adorno a momentary release from the inexorable logic of the material under study in the main text, permitting him to shift to other dimensions, to the infrastructure as well as to the wider horizons of historical speculation. The very limits of the footnote (it must be short, it must be complete) allow the release of intellectual energies, in that they serve as a check on a speculative tendency that might otherwise run wild, on what we will later describe as the proliferation of "theories of history." The footnote as such, therefore, designates a moment in which systematic philosophizing and the empirical study of concrete phenomena are both false in themselves; in which living thought, squeezed out from between them, pursues its fitful existence in the small print at the bottom of the page.
Naturally, Jameson's own debt to Adorno marks my debt to him, so before quitting, maybe I should add another footnote. And what better one to cite than an apt, long-time favorite from Edward Gibbon, a footnote simply, directly, and wisely marking the many debts authors generally owe one another. I mark Gibbon's text generically.
Although I cannot stop to quote [my author] for every fact, I will observe that the navigation of [the subject] from [one place] to [another] and [another] is contained in [a text] ( [on some page] ), and that the historian has the uncommon talent of placing each scene* before the reader's eye.
*Here what Gibbon calls "each scene" is a readerly metaphor, but if we just think about it, of course, the footnote's unfitful existence is likewise "seen" here.
Sometimes my cousin Grace, who figures discreetly around here (she found the Harvard joke for The First Grace of Style), sends me brief, cryptically blank, occasionally really hilarious emails. Recently, she sent, for example, "Excuses" and "Excuses . . . (second try)," suggesting ever so graciously, of course, that I've been neglecting my posts. Well, yes, of course, but the phrase on my About page is "occasional takes," not daily, and as for excuses, Grace, your blank notes and collegial jokes are on the one hand, and the other — as you should know — stylish enough to publish. But if you won't, here's my excuse.
I'm suffering from a quarterly-acute case of anecdotal polysyndetonitis. It goes like this:
Styles to Therapist:And I was grading and conferencing and grading again and committeeing and assigning essays and grading and conferencing and grading again and not-committeeing and then . . . fortunately . . .
Therapist:Look, Styles: please, slow down: It's clear that you've had little time for dalliance lately. So I'm prescribing a week's break.
That's the case. So wouldn't it be nice, Grace, if folks could see the strikeouts and home runs you send me, Mariner-style, in the off-season. If not last week's whiff marking my week here, then today's A-Rod home run. It deserves, I think, a laugh all the way to Texas. So how about commenting? But now I'm testing and grading and conferencing and
Styles to Stressed-Out Student:And you want WHAT? Help with "College Pressures, Really Fast Relief, and the Art of Writing"?
Marianne Moore has given me my title. I've alluded to her before, but she deserves direct quotation since my subject today is compression, well illustrated in her clever, short poem
To a Snail
If "compression is the first grace of style,"
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, "a method of conclusions";
"a knowledge of principles,"
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Given the value of compression — Miss Moore's quote comes from Democritus — I thought to share an apparently true story from Harvard University, though I'm a bit doubtful. (Anyone who knows the story of "veritas" there should, of course, be a skeptic.) But regardless, the anecdote is amusing.
Students in a Harvard English 101 class were asked to write a CONCISE essay containing four elements: religion, royalty, sex and mystery.
The only "A+" in the class read:
"My God," said the Queen, "I'm pregnant! I wonder who did it?"
Alas, I don't have any A+ essays in the sets I'm reading today — at least by Hahvahd standards.
At last I broke out of my trivial pattern above, although I'm worried still about my three spaced periods. What convention, I ask, determines the trivial set we call ellipses marks — some divine revelation or some human convention? To have broken free does help, however, although I'm afraid I've today another set to share.
They came, trivially, from a friend's e-mail:
Small minds discuss people.
Average minds discuss events.
Great minds discuss ideas.
For the moment their meaning is at least patently clear to me:
People: Three Classes of Students.
Events: Tests and Papers Given in Each One of Them This Week.
Ideas: My Now Having to Do Simple Justice By Them.
So what of their Added Fourth & Fifth Dimensions?
We are all, indeed, small, average, and great at once!
· Jacques Barzun "Takes On" Wayward Educationists ·
Newsweek's issue of 9/30 featured a fine "My Turn" essay called "Forget the Fads — The Old Way Works Best." A colleague dropped a copy in my mailbox yesterday, and after reading it on my way to class and then reflecting on it overnight, I thought more seriously about it: "Where," I thought, "have I seen these ideas expressed before?" Then bingo: Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, the sanest, shrewdest collection of education essays ever.
But to Newsweek first. Author Evan Keliher, author of Guerrilla Warfare for Teachers: (A Survival Guide), takes on the likes of Walter H. Annenberg and others in it, who, with private, sometimes public funds, have endowed Projects, Programs, and Policies aplenty while forgetting, of course, the fourth, most important "P": People (classroom teachers especially).
What's the result of their work? Mostly meetings. In fact, while making my slow way to Barzun overnight, I think I was put on track by chancing to read one such teacher, Naomi Chana, in her fine weblog Baraita.
We do not have a faculty meeting this week [she writes, in Two Texts Over Easy]. This is exciting, because for the past seven weeks we've had meetings every week — a spot of curricular reform, some mission-y stuff, a few searches to get underway, all things that needed doing. I, of course, got accustomed to the weekly meetings because I'd never known anything else. But this week we are meeting-free, and — in further proof that all's well with the academic world — . . .
Do you sense the relief here? Bored? Call a meeting, all educationists say, their answer to every curricular ill. And their question? Why, as Keliher explains, it's ever the same, a variation on the one Pharoah put to his geometry teacher Euclid — "Isn't there a short-cut hereabouts?" "No," Euclid rightly replied, "there is no royal road to geometry."
Obviously I'm not on it. So on to Barzun. In one essay, "The Art of Making Teachers" prefacing "Occupational Disease: Verbal Inflation," Barzun defines the problem by taking a bee-line to the heart of Keliher's complaint and of Chana's relief: the style road. He simply fixes on the chronic disjunction between educationists' words and deeds, on all educationese — powered by big bucks and small ideas — that turns teachers like Keliher into Survivalists and those like Chana into Dutiful-but-Duly-Relieved Skippers.
By temperment they [educationists] have no interest in Learning or capacity for it; by purpose they are bent not on instruction but on social work. They care little about history or science or good English, but they grow keen about any scheme of betterment; one recent proposal is: teach the importance of washing the hands.
The result of half a century or more of this world-reforming attitude may be seen in the language in which educationists think and talk. A fair sampling appears in the discussion of art teaching . . . : It[s] characteristics are: abstraction instead of direct naming; exaggeration of goals and results; seeing the student not as an individual but as an example of some psychological generality; taking any indirect means in place of the straight one; and finally: mistaking words for facts, and intentions for hard work.
Such is the educationist mind everywhere.
That's enough to make one educationist like me ashamed, for here I am today (October 11th), dutifully heading off to a meeting to hear talk about "mission-y" things (love that word) — having not yet learned to "wash my hands" of the stuff (in deed at least). But Listenin' to the Talk ain't Talkin' It, is it?
It was like the Fall of Man when some "woman" naturally got the point about spacing, I said.
That's when we got flows like this:
woman without her man is in paradise
You can image the bloody battle that followed — sharp swords of punctuation drawn — with half my class going at the other half's jugular, so to speak.
"Woman, without her man, is in paradise," some said.
"Woman! Without her, man is in paradise," replied others.
The noise was awful, and the blood worse (I hate to see young people sacrificing themselves so).
But judging from some Dear-John letters I then shared, you'd hardly know who won at last. You can see why for yourselves:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?