Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Just Google It

Posted: October 26, 2016 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

A few weeks ago, my colleagues and I were delighted to see a “Q & A: Student Discussion Panel” listed on our meeting agenda. Little known secret about teachers: we adore students. Students are the reason we do everything; we long to hear candid feedback from our target audience. just-google-1-516x300

At one point in the Q & A, a wonderful and ambitious student said, “We don’t even need to text books. Anything we need to know, we can just Google it.”

There was some laughter in the crowd, some incredulity, too.

I’m no fan of over-priced textbooks. In fact, members of my Liberal Arts department and I work to eliminate textbooks whenever possible, instructing students to use the University’s copious (and costly) library resources instead.  Nonetheless, the idea that Google could replace all book learning naturally upset my inner librarian and bibliophile.

A week later, I was in my HUM 310, a truly tremendous course in Contemporary Comparative World Literature, teaching “The Guest,” a short story by the brilliant Albert Camus.  After we discussed the story, I introduced my students to existentialism, often associated with Camus’ work, and a significant post-WW II philosophy that still resonates over 75 years later.

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If you also think this is hilarious, you might be a professor.

My students gamely struggled to even pronounce existentialism as I covered the basic precepts. Suddenly I was able to identify why I don’t think students can “Just Google” what they want or need to know. The truth is, many times we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know where to begin. They had never heard of existentialism; why would they ever ask Google about something of which they are completely ignorant?

In the same class, I shared an incredible project completed by an astounding woman, Ann Morgan, who decided to address the gaps in her knowledge base in an extraordinary way: by reading a book from every country in the world. In her talk, she explains difficulties she encountered as she sought to find books from each country to read in translation, and her complete unfamiliarity with leading authors in countries she’d never visited. Naturally, the Internet (and Google) helped make her amazing project possible, now allowing her to share her remarkable experience.  However, it also proves we need more, deeper knowledge than mere “fun facts” can provide.

While I’m glad my students believe that every seed of human knowledge is within reach, I’m certain that book-length texts (whether read in print or online) more fully enrich the foundation of our understanding, enabling natural curiosity to bloom and grow and thrive.

bookslearn

It’s always a good time to hit the books!

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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

One of the many benefits of a profession in education is time off in the summer. The others include the certainty that everyone needs what I can provide, and the product I deliver will perpetually increase in value.mandela

My school year concludes on July 9th. Now is the time to reflect on my year as an educator. Reflection is a central part of education, and I am happy to model a behavior I frequently urge my students to practice. Intellectual inventory can be conducted in countless ways, but I typically frame the discussion as “what’s working” and “what’s not working.” I try not to get too fancy with the daily stuff of life.

I’ll limit this reflection to the classroom. All the rest of professional life is just meetings and paperwork, both of which are necessary, but neither terribly fun. Side note: I am a proponent of the rare, trendy, and marvelous “walking meeting,” and will push for its further use next year.

I confess I’d have to look up my schedules for fall, winter, spring terms to determine exactly which classes I led in 2014-2015. I know I taught writing classes, and communications classes, and creativity classes, and literature classes, and humanities classes, and I suppose that is specific enough. In each of these courses, I was offered the opportunity to learn for and with and from my students.

As a teacher of a wide range of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, I regularly learn which texts work and which don’t. Students always enjoy reading Martin Luther King, Jr., finding his writing to be even more impressive than expected. The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton was so well received by my Creativity 230 class that I bought the book for my nephew Alexey; he starts college this fall at my alma mater, The Ohio State University. I find my students generally like poetry more than anticipated, this year’s favorites included “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden and “The Facebook Sonnet” by Sherman Alexie. My Dystopian literature classes proved Bradbury and Vonnegut’s appeal is timeless. And we all loved a twenty-first century short story treasure (with a ridiculously long title) that I found by Eugie Foster.

Readings that didn’t work are always a surprise because I believe I’ve chosen spectacular texts. My students could not get excited by Brave New World; too slow, they lamented. The creativity text Out of Our Minds by Ken Robinson did little to engage my classes, his examples oftentimes distracting from the abstract ideas represented. I’ve already identified new books to try next year, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and The Creative Habit by Twlya Tharp.

Besides the texts, things under the heading of “what’s not working,” included a set of assignments that I considered reasonable, but were deemed overwhelming by students. Midstream, I made changes to better serve the intentions of the class. Over a decade of teaching provided prep work for the lesson I only recently accepted: the paramount importance of flexibility; I have learned to bend.

What worked included a student’s desire to know more. When many tired students were asking for a day off, or at least a “movie day,” one student rejected the idea, observing: “She’s not going to cancel class, so we might as well learn instead of just watching a movie.” At least someone was paying attention.

Ultimately, what matters involves groundwork for what happened in the classroom. A class worth being a part of is not an ordinary occurrence. Teachers struggle to concoct a winning mix of preparation, enthusiasm, knowledge, openness, and community. My primary efforts lie in creating circumstances in which all of the above flourish. Establishing a true sense of community among the students is of paramount importance. I forge community slowly, introducing new ways to meaningfully interact. I am sometimes struck by the sense that I am just throwing a perpetual intellectual cocktail party (sans cocktails), and any omission or inclusion can spoil the occasion.

What works is when students are truly present. I remind them that their presence starts with the act of waking up, putting on clothes, and coming to class (ideally with books and other learning materials, too).

group-of-people-walking-and-texting1This effort, I assure them, ought to be respected, rather than negated by texting throughout the class. Many, many of my students would rather text or do whatever it is they do on their “machines” than attend to what is happening in class. Such is the burden of their generation. I do not envy them.

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Ranger Trish?

What works is when students take ownership of their learning; then, I simply facilitate, answer simple questions, offer suggestions. Analogies illuminate every aspect of my teaching practice. One equates a teacher to a park ranger: both provide necessary information, note potential dangers, and point to a wide range of paths each individual might explore. I never tire of an awesome analogy.

Watching my students work together, talk, learn, grapple with meaning, that’s the stuff of a good day teaching, always and forever “what’s working.”

I am eager to have a term off, to read and write (as I encourage my students to do), to travel and explore, to rest and relax, to reconnect with who I am and who I long to be, to inspire myself so that in the autumn I will have energy to begin again.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Just today, I finished a biography of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to posterity as V. I. Lenin.  The biography was written by the historian of twentieth-century Russia, Robert Service. I enjoyed the book, but Ibooks2_stout thought it was a bit schizophrenic. The first half of the biography explored Lenin’s early life, early adulthood of revolutionary activity and exile. In these 250 pages, Service did a great job of balancing the story of the man, with the story of his politics. This first half was chocked full of the esoteric details of Lenin’s life that brings to light a true person. Unfortunately though, the second half of the book was not as enlightening. Service started to become a bit too enthralled by the minutiae of Lenin’s political decisions during the early days of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War, and in so doing, lost sight of Lenin’s non-political experiences. This discordant nature of Service’s book illustrates why I often don’t read biographies.  I find that biographers usually have a hard time balancing character study, human interest stories, and the larger political or social events that shaped their subjects’ lives. On the other hand, when biography is at its best it has the rare ability to humanize mythologized figures. Biography can deconstruct the demonized or lionized historical statue, and transform him or her into a human being. Happily, there were moments when Service transfigured Lenin into a living, breathing man.

Lenin as a Child.  Notice, no goatee.

Lenin as a child. Notice, no goatee.

There was one fleeting portion in Service’s biography that provides a perfect example.  Evidently, when Lenin was an adolescent, he was obsessed with books, reading and literature.  No real big surprise there, right? Like me, you  probably imagine little V. I. Lenin (admit it, this makes you think of a bald headed, goateed boy of 12) picking up some heavy Russian literary tomes.  Sure enough, according to Service, Lenin did love Russian literature, even when that literature was at odds with his later political fanaticism.  He read Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol.  But, Lenin apparently had cosmopolitan tastes.  He loved non-Russian books and authors as much, if not more, than Russian ones.  He enjoyed Zola, Hugo, Machiavelli.  Though I can still imagine him reading such authors, some of his reading tastes seemed more out of the blue. Most notably, Lenin evidently loved an unexpected American classic: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

‘Huh?!?”

That was exactly what I said to myself, out-loud, as I read about this factoid.  I gave a little laugh, cocked my head, and kept reading.   But, I had to come back to that unforeseen UTCcover1853statement: “Lenin loved Uncle Tom’s Cabin“.  To me, that just seems strange. In my mind’s eye, I initially had a hard time picturing Lenin reading Stowe’s sentimental novel.  However, once I wrapped my head around it, Lenin was transformed, and Service’s biography was a success.  Before knowing about his love of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I imagined Lenin exclusively as the father of Bolshevism, the founder of the Russian Revolution, the advocate of state-terror against class enemies, and the mummified corpse in Red Square.  By simply providing his reader with Lenin’s unexpected literary tastes, Service made him into a person who was multidimensional; not quite so easily categorized or understood.

Now, let’s be clear.  After reading Service’s biography, I don’t really like the human Lenin.  He was obsessed with politics and power as much as any other twentieth-century dictator, and Service makes this blatantly clear.   That being said, Service’s description of a young provinicial Russian’s love of Harriet Beecher Stowe provides the complexity of a life story that Lenin himself, ironically enough, wanted to hide away for propagandist reasons. Service illuminated what was hidden, and I thank him.

Still, I can’t get completely past the mummified Lenin laying in Red Square.  Man, that was creepy.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

As the weather warms, and the sun becomes radiant, I know what is coming: ‘Beach reads’.  NPR will do a story about the best ‘beach reads’; Facebook friends will share lists of  the ‘hottest summer reads’;  bookstores will John Lavery (Irish Painter, 1856-1941) Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pooldisplay the most scorching books of the summer.  Well, I am here today to proclaim ‘ENOUGH’!  I have had it with the ‘beach read’ status quo. We need a literary revolution.

Let me be clear, I have nothing against bringing books to the beach.  I myself have a book with me at all times. When I go to the pool, I bring a book.  When I go to the playground with my kids, I bring a book.  And yes, when I go to the beach, I bring a book.  So, it is not the idea of ‘beach reads’ that irks me.  What annoys me is the notion that ‘beach reads’ must be mind-numbing, poorly written pap. ‘Beach reads’ have become the reality television of the literary world.

I ask myself, why do Americans willingly waste hours and hours of relaxation reading books that are turned out by authors who are formulaic and, as most will admit, absolutely forgettable? I realize the answer that most give to this question: ‘Beach reads’ should be entertaining and should allow the reader to ‘lose himself’.  I understand, I really do.  But, this points to the central kernel of why a revolution is necessary.  Though publishing houses, bookstores, and our mass media disagree, entertainment is not the antithesis of quality.  Unlike the deadening ephemeral nature of today’s ‘beach reads’, great literature lives and breathes beyond the three months of summer because it is so entertaining. Don’t believe me? Pick up Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby this month, and feel the life pulsating through the pages. Grab Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in July, and discover the definition of a ‘page turner.’  In August, just try to put down Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

As with all revolutions, this one has a utopian undercurrent. I hope this summer, millions of Americans will be laying on the beach, lost in Phillip Roth, or Richard Wright, or Yukio Mishima, or Toni Morrison and gain insights into humanity.  What better time to be meditative on the human condition then when you are lying under the scalding sun, breathing in the scents of summer?  Perhaps Franz Kafka can be our revolutionary forebear? Over a century ago, Kafka wrote to a friend that:images (12)

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy…? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Okay, maybe Kafka goes a little far, but the basis of his idea is correct.  Books should stay with us after we close the cover.  The ‘beach reads’ of today are the opposite of this ideal.  They are particularly marketed as the art of the forgettable.  Like so much else in our society, ‘beach reads’ are intended to be disposable.  So, I say, let’s dispose of them!  Bury your latest Faye Kellerman in the sand!  Toss your Richard North Patterson into the waves!  It is time for a revolution, and this revolution will not be reality-televised!