Thursday, December 31, 2009

On teaching (part 2)

My previous post--that was a class, and an instructor to whom I responded positively. There were other, not so happy times, too. In the fall two years prior to the class above, I took my very first college class [a core social science] on a Monday or Tuesday morning, with MP. He was an intimidating figure then--impossibly crisp at all times in his mandarin collar shirt, with his hair slicked back, and round gold-rimmed glasses. A few weeks into the class, I went to see him at office hours (which was required). It was a trek into the ivory tower, as physically represented by the sixth floor of Harper. It really was a funny little tower, with more gothic windows overlooking the interior courtyard.

View of the interior courtyard (mew)

We had to sign up for office hours in 15-minute increments; graduate students could have 30 minutes. Before me, there was a graduate student, talking about Heidegger, I think. I was tongue-tied; I had nothing to say. It may not have been so imposing in reality, but I remember a very large desk, behind which MP was sitting, possibly leaning back with his fingertips touching--you know, the C. Montgomery Burns position--except that instead of “excellent,” he was saying, “this is a puzzling paper.” I’m not sure what I needed just then, but a human connection would have been nice. How I managed to pass the class--by finding something (anything!) to say about Marx, or Freud, or Durkheim--is beyond me.

In some ways my capacities are greater now, but I’m still capable of feeling adrift, left behind. My struggle with Sewell (and Geertz and Sahlins, by extension) is evidence of this. Life experience (including MP’s class, but also the intervening years since then) has made deciphering abstractions easier. I experienced a similar phenomenon mathematically, when I retook the GRE after having been a carpenter for three years. I did better. But my memory of college bears a certain similarity to my memories of early childhood: you know enough to be aware of the newness of everything, but not enough to do anything about it.

A pleasanter recollection of office hours is found in my memory of EL. I suspect he was somewhere between 75 and 80 when we first met. He wore large hearing aids; the kind that fit over the earpiece of your glasses. Also, he was a large man, both tall and robust. He used to wax poetic in class about potatoes and butter (he was Irish, you see, and it was Irish history). He used the Socratic method in class. You had to come prepared, like in The Paper Chase, because he would go ‘round the room, posing questions. It really looked bad when you couldn’t answer.

Nevertheless, he was a popular instructor, and at test-time I could only get a seat on the floor (thank goodness not everyone came to class for lecture). EL also required everyone to visit him at office hours. He remains the only person who has ever asked me:

EL: “So, what does your father do for a living?”
Me: [laughs] "Hopefully nothing!"
EL: “Oh, is he retired?”
Me: "Oh no, he passed away years ago."
EL: "He what?" [adjusts hearing aid]
Me: "He’s dead."
EL: “Oh, well, what did he do for a living?”

I have to give him credit for not saying “I’m sorry;” I hate when people do that. We also bonded over a love of Wilkie Collins, the Victorian sensation novelist and friend of Dickens. Even during his Socratic moments, EL was able to put you at ease. Some people do this quite naturally, others can’t . . . and in some cases, it depends upon the individual chemistry between student and professor.

On teaching (part 1)

I’ve been reading, among other things, UMass’s Handbook for New Instructors, in preparation for spring semester. In thinking about teaching, I am reminded of how I survived the Great Purge of Modern Chinese History. Picture it: Social Sciences 108(?), a small room on the first floor of a gothic building on 59th Street, with arched, multi-paned windows overlooking the Midway through wintering ivy. The first day of class, and I suspect there were 25 or 30 of us packed in there. 艾恺 comes striding in, in his customary fashion (I knew him already from his Civ course). I suppose he assessed the room and decided that the class was too large. He then began to lecture, and through his sharp content-driven questioning, he proceeded to frighten 15 students into never again returning to class.

I did not deserve to be spared. Perhaps he remembered me from the previous fall. Of course, even had he humiliated me, I would still have returned to class on Wednesday, and so maybe he thought any effort expended there would be in vain. Or, possibly he liked me. As I said, I didn’t deserve the confidence. He asked me two things (I’m sure I looked like I was in severe pain, since I was waiting for the other shoe to drop through the whole class):
1) “Miriam, you know what feng shui is?" (geomancy) and
2) “You’ve seen The Last Emperor?" (I hadn’t. This requires some explanation. He must have remembered me since a conversation in the previous year had uncovered a mutual love of movies, and had touched upon both The Cardinal and Oliver Reed’s enforced weight loss.)

Tenacity has its rewards, and we remain friends. Often, when I’m teaching a large group, I like to pretend that I am 恺. This includes his way of striding around, his mannerisms in talking, his actorly presence. Of course, I would never do what I’ve described above—I haven’t the nerve, or the heart. In my experience of him as a warm, personable, human individual, this incident has always puzzled me a little. Whatever its meaning, it really brings me back to a moment in which I can really, viscerally, remember what college is like—internally. And what it is like is . . . terrifying.

Social Sciences classroom (mew)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Midnight Mass

So I attended midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at Our Lady of Czestochowa (in Turners Falls) without chickening out. It was pretty, and smelled nice, though they might have given a page number now and again so I could see where we were in the liturgy. I was sitting in the back with all the other folks who don't take communion. There were quite a few people there, though, and most of them did go up for communion... and not all of them were in the senior set. The homily was of an interesting nature. He started out with a very gentle critique of the Bishop's method for bringing people back in to the fold, and then began to talk about the reasons which one might want to either return to Catholicism, (or perhaps convert?). As a way of beginning, he talked about the big bang--undoubtedly an unusual topic for a Christmas sermon. I guess the point was that there is an unknown at the time of the big bang--the "nothing" from which something is created. It is like Catholics (and Jews) to accept science and incorporate it into religious meaning, so for this I am appreciative, and it is one of the many similarities I find between the two religions.

He also spoke (though less eloquently than Gerry, the Vicar of Dibley!) about the enduring power of the story of Jesus, of Christhood, and the spread of the gospel over the last 2000ish years. It's been said better, but anyway. It was a nice, inclusive service, and there was some Polish in there, naturally, but the congregation is far from homogenous. There are African-American, Hispanic and other European-American parishioners there. I managed to sing along when I could, especially for Kyrie, which I like.

Swiss Guard at the Vatican, 2007 (mew)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sewell and Turners Falls

The paper about Sewell's Logics of History and its implications is done. I can now die with nothing on my conscience.

Winter gloaming
white houses
streets slick with ice
and lights strung up.
Plastic Santa Claus
lit from inside
like I never saw anything so beautiful

Monday, December 14, 2009


You and I, we did the same thing
we discovered the East,
leaving the hot sun and the shimmering oil
on Highway 99 through the Central Valley;
leaving Locke or Groveland or Oakdale,
passing Murder Burger;
leaving the fruit and vegetables that
flourish in the dust.

We crossed the mountains into
alkali desert.
You can't water your cows there
it's a primeval land of rocks and salt
and a lone coyote pants by the side of the road.
We stopped at a cowboy bar,
where the jukebox was playing,
when suddenly it rained huge heavy tears.
We drove fast on 80, maybe
racing into Salt Lake City,
a grid at the foot of the Wasatch.

And then we drove on to Chicago,
following the I & M
lost in Bridgeport with the ghost scent
of the stockyards creeping around the corners.
You and I, we spent a few years there;
I don't know how you were affected,
but I still bear a weight from that place
around my shoulders.

And then we came to the East,
with its carnivorous greenery;
the forests which rise
to cover all human detritus.
It has been my home, and yours.
I long for the desert (do you?),
"500 Metres" the music of the sand and stone.
We discovered the East, both of us--
but how we have been separated by time.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Portelli, Stanton, and musing

Well, things are moving slowly. I'll be in the new old house by December 9, I think. I ran out of heating oil yesterday night, which made me pretty unhappy all night and half of today, as I tried to rectify that. And then back to work. There was one pleasant surprise this week--some positive comments back on a piece of writing. I almost had a heart attack and died.

We discussed Portelli's The Order Has Been Carried Out, and somewhat surprisingly, people reacted in some of the most cold, clinical ways to it. I could hardly imagine why! It was as if Umberto Eco and Elie Wiesel had somehow combined to conduct oral histories in Rome. How poetically David Blight and Ed Linenthal responded to it, and how unpoetically, well... Anyway, the story is this, briefly: a Nazi massacre of 335 Romans occurred less than 24 hours after an Italian Partisan attack on the Nazis (killing 35), but years and decades later, Italians remember the Nazis requesting the surrender of the partisans to avoid the retaliation. In the end, many people blame the partisans, not the Nazis, for the massacre. It is an fascinating ambivalence on the part of Italians about their own involvement, and a sad commentary on politics, and an intriguing study of memory--of course. But why on earth did no one mention the memorial structure of the book? (You'll have to look at the book to see it--I don't really want to describe it). How could you not see that aspect of the book as somehow central? Like it or hate it, it was probably what I would have written about, if I'd had to write about the book myself.

I was also drawn in to The Lowell Experiment, though a lot of people seemed to have a lot of problems with it. As for me, I thought it elaborated quite well on Handler and Gable's The New History in an Old Museum and attempted to address some of the potential problems with that particular study. And people love Handler and Gable. What gives? Stanton dives right into the difficult questions: what of the homogeneity of museum visitors, public historians, interpreters, et al? Do historic sites fail to bridge gaps between the present and the past, or fail to admit to cyclical economic behavior rather than a linear progression? What of the attempts at including diversity, or social justice in the historical narrative? And most fascinating of all, that historians and anthropologists and presumably other professionals have difficulties with insight into their own colleagues--and so, what result does that have on the evidence they collect? At every turn, there was something really exciting to think about--and the best part is, there are no answers.

I am often accused of "musing" in my writing (this criticism is accompanied by "lose the first person")... and as a matter of fact, I do often muse. Well, I think, what about all these authors we read, whose writing is littered with the first person, and who are musing in the extreme (!). I understand that you must pay your dues (apparently over and over and over again) but when you think about the mechanics of learning, you see that people learn to write by reading. And what they're reading influences what they write. (Which is why I continue to hope that someday I will pop out a Graham Greene novel, after so many years of wonderful immersion. I would settle for a short story.)

What else? I also had dream that involved me getting a paper back from DG, and as I flipped through it, I realized that I hadn't looked at the pages after they'd printed, and so did not realize that some of the paper had printed in gibberish (zapf wingdings?). And, in what might actually be in the style of DG's sense of humor, he had written some comments in French. I don't, of course, speak French. So naturally I found the joke very amusing, but I was also mortified. I think I would rather dream about the Mormons and the Mennonites fighting charcoal creatures at a sanatorium.