Tag Archives: teaching

University English

It would seem bleeding obvious, but apparently it isn’t, that the people who teach university English courses should be people with degrees. More than one. If a course offers university credit, the way for that course to be credible is to have an instructor with credentials. If the only credentials a person has are a couple of well-received novels, then that person should be teaching creative writing, at most.

Today, U of T English faculty members are falling all over themselves to voice their dismay at recent comments uttered out of the mouth of David Gilmour, novelist, who teaches literature courses. They should be falling all over themselves. He announced in an interview that he won’t teach any writers who are not straight white males. That leaves out a lot of writers. I bet you thought we were over that approach to literature. Well, this is what happens when people get jobs doing things they don’t know how to do, are not qualified to do.

Meanwhile, there are people in this country, armed with a PhD in English, scrabbling for a job, just one course, even. English departments have brought this embarrassing PR mess on themselves. What did they think would happen? Those courses have been taught by a person who doesn’t know what the point of an English course might be. English courses are all about critical thinking. U of T’s Victoria College went for some flash and prestige by having an acclaimed author on the job, and that big idea has now reached its logical conclusion.

Really, Mr. Gilmour isn’t the problem. The problem is the people who gave him the gig. They should have known he doesn’t understand. They should have had more respect for their own profession. They should have known that they needed to hire a PhD. There are loads of them looking for work. How are departments looking their grad students in the face?

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Filed under On Reading, On Thinking

Nothing but Myself to Recommend Me

In one of my favourite novels, Jane Austen writes about “a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him.” It would be wonderful if people would look for themselves and judge another’s merits. Isn’t it strange that people don’t value their own judgement? They’re so uncertain about it that they need the validation of three referees. Who knows where that magic number three came from, but in my experience, that’s how many we need. Everybody asks for three. I suspect they do it because they’ve seen somebody else asking for three, and so it goes.

We apply for jobs or grants or residencies, and agencies don’t trust their own judgement. In fact, they’d rather avoid personal contact. It’s really odd, this whole keeping a distance thing. I make claims for my own merits, and I understand that some fact checking might be necessary. I don’t want to end up in Catch Me If You Can. But it’s especially easy now to see if I did teach all those courses and publish all those things. Those are the accomplishments, those and the education. Those are the things that qualify me for the job or grant or residency. But, very ironically, those things are not the focus of investigation. Only one of my many applications has ever required proof of a degree.

I have nothing but myself to recommend me. In the end, as Austen’s Persuasion shows, even if we have rank and possessions, we still have only ourselves, for good or bad. Today, yet again, I have sent out requests for people to write reference letters for me. I wish I were past that. In a very real way, reference letters don’t prove anything. Letter writers might be fabrications. I wish I were measured by my merits as I describe them, rather than how someone else describes them.

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Reading Photographs

When I teach courses in lifewriting, I always start with an exercise on photographs because they are the most common resource, and almost everyone has at least one picture. Photographs reveal a vast variety of information. We can see with our own eyes the measurable physical attributes (height, weight, age, shape) of a person, as well as make note of the posture and positioning of the subject in relation to others and to things. We can see what people have. My sister has a lovely pin that is a family heirloom, although we did not know its exact origins. A few years ago, I was sorting through photographs for my work, and—because my sister had worn the pin just recently—I recognized it at the throat of our great-grandmother. I excitedly showed the portrait to my sister, who paused for a moment and said “well, that explains why it never sits right—I’ve been wearing it wrong.”

Look through albums and boxes full of photographs. People always say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but really, a picture provokes a thousand words. Here are a few tips to help you read and interpret photographs:

  • Notice the captions—dates, places, names, quips, nicknames
  • How do people relate to each other—detached, affectionate
  • How do people relate to the camera—confident, self-conscious
  • Who stands next to whom
  • Is the picture a formal studio portrait or a casual family snapshot
  • What are people wearing—overalls, suits, gowns, aprons
  • What are people doing—posing, working, playing
  • What else is in the picture—pets, cars, furniture, machinery, landscapes

Notice all of those things. And then, think about what they mean. Some of these considerations are very revealing for a researcher. Maybe you’ll see that in group pictures, one person stands a little apart from the rest, or that two people are always standing together in the group. It’s possible that you have the luxury of someone with whom you can sort through the pictures and ask questions—who is this? when was this taken? where was this taken?—or that you’re on your own with all your questions. If you give a photograph a little time, it can tell you things you didn’t know, if you let it, if you ask it.

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Filed under On Biography, On Thinking, On Writing

Intersections of Print and Visual Art

Somebody somewhere remarked on how much a person learns about a subject in the process of teaching it. That may seem odd, since we hope that those who teach know the subject already. Well, we do–at least, we know more about it than our students do. But in every course I have taught, I have learned something new, often from a student, and it’s a thrill. Still, creating and teaching a new course is like a graduate mini-degree. It starts with an idea based on exposure to a representative body of materials. Once the idea is clear enough to be proposed, there’s a thesis. Then, the case has to be made in the form of the course outline, the assignments, the theoretical and creative primary resources.

That’s where I am right now. Presented with the necessity of creating a new course for an existing program, and needing to blurt out the basis for the course in under an hour, with seeming nonchalance, I explained that we’d engage with interdisciplinarity in Irish art forms, examining how a culture’s print and visual arts engage in storytelling about the culture, how they are part of a larger narrative about history and identity. It’s there. I see it everywhere. But I can’t just assert it. So there has to be a little foundation in interdisciplinary theory, a little bit of Claude Levi-Strauss, some Roland Barthes, and a bit of Walter Benjamin. There also must be some basic art theory, maybe a little Burke on beauty, Wilde on lying, Carlyle on symbols, and Hirsch on interpretation. After that, after presenting ways to think about things, bring on the art.

If the evidence isn’t there, it’s nowhere. House-end murals, high crosses, statuary, novels, speeches, poetry, paintings–in art, we find out what concerns a people, and we can read visual art as surely as we can read print. A bust of Constance Markievicz in St. Stephen’s Green can be read alongside her account of battle during the Easter Rising and her prison letters, and then she shows up in documentary footage and Roddy Doyle’s novel A Star Called Henry. We see it, and then we analyze it–assign meaning. Yesterday, I read in The Irish Times how the painter Jack B. Yeats was “an important influence on Samuel Beckett: the abstract spaces and isolated figures of Yeats’s late paintings are also those of Beckett’s late plays.” An intersection if I ever saw one.

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Biographers’ Ethics

A friend happily informed me over dinner that I was a professional writer. Until I heard him say it, right out loud, I didn’t realize it, feel it, fully. We’re all secretly frauds, after all. And, my head had been down for years, as I scrabbled to make a living. I’d been teaching a lot, but for the first time, I was working on a project big enough to support me. A biography. Lifewriting is my doctoral specialization, but, when I prepared my requisite ethics approval and protocol for the degree, no one asked me if I’d be having sex with my subjects. Later, my publisher didn’t ask about that, either.

I was asked if I’d be experimenting with live subjects, but I thought that was covered by an explanation of my research and interview strategies.  I didn’t read the question as a euphemism. And, I did state that I agreed with Plath’s biographer, Anne Stevenson, not to include anything that would harm the living without serving any good purpose for the story. I meant it. There were some alcoholics in my subject group, but I didn’t out them individually. I made my point by discussing the overarching effects on the group. A biography isn’t exactly a tell all.

I wasn’t writing a written-overnight, unauthorized biography of Michael Jackson or a who’s-zooming-whom scandal sheet. Two of the most important considerations in lifewriting are the match of biographer and subject, and of the writer’s voice functioning in what otherwise could be a copy-and-paste exercise. Leslie Kaufman wrote about “The Quandry for Biographers,” in her 13 November article for The New York Times, and it’s an interesting piece to read because it opens this discussion, using the recent biography All In as a touchstone. The quandary is all about the ethics.

So, does it matter, as we watch the Paula Broadwell / David Petraeus story, All In, titillate news consumers, that the reason the biographer had such extraordinary access to the subject was because they were lovers? It may not be as clearly an ethical issue, from a biography point-of-view, as the James Frey A Million Little Pieces debacle. In that case, the guy called it a memoir, and he lied. If he had called it an autobiographical novel, no one would have cared. There would have been a fascination about what was autobiography and what was invention, and he wouldn’t have had to contend with the wrath of Oprah.

Someone might protest that Ms. Broadwell couldn’t be objective if she was sexually involved with Gen. Petraeus. No, probably not. Do we really believe in objectivity anymore? Don’t we instead accept that we cannot be objective, and then try to minimize our subjectivity? I have to say that if I were to write a biography of John Lennon, readers should question my objectivity, and no, it would not be because we’d been lovers. Alas. However, Broadwell and Petraeus’ relationship may affect the quality of the book, and it’s the quality of the book that we should care about, as writers. American national security isn’t our purview. The affair may be a factor there, but moralizing, on the basis of his marriage, should be irrelevant in that context.

If there is an ethical question here, for a writer, what is it? The only potential ethical foul that I can see is if the writer has a sexual relationship in order to achieve exceptional access to the subject’s life. Otherwise, who cares? We all have our own codes, presumably, things we would or would not do. But, as a profession, it’s difficult, or impossible, for us to articulate a list we’d all sign, maybe not even a single item list. We aren’t physicians, who very clearly are compromised by sexual intimacy with their subjects.

I am not a fan of the public humiliation of Holly Petraeus, but that public humiliation is the result of extra-marital sex being privileged as the Big Sin and therefore a thing to be trumpeted about the town. Sex between consenting adults ruining careers: there are worse things people could do. Is Mrs. Petraeus’ humiliation an ethical consideration for the writers who released and repeated the big news? If it should be, it certainly wasn’t. Who’s done harm to whom? Scandal mongering should be on the ethics hit list. If the general had an affair with a spy, then it should affect his career. But he isn’t John Profumo. In my opinion, if any writer has done something unethical in this instance, it isn’t Paula Broadwell. But there’s always an “unless,” an exception, a variable—because writing isn’t math.

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