Sunday, January 23, 2011

Singing in English class

I've posted before on a general reluctance to sing, which is to say I'm aware of it. My theory is that people think there's a group of people who are "singers," who are allowed to sing because their voices have been approved (by somebody) as not dangerous to the natural order of the universe. Everyone else is "audience."

I have a parallel theory, that everyone actually wants to sing and hopes that someone, somewhere, will let them into the group of approved singers, because singing is really damn fun. This is the desire that drives karaoke, American Idol, and the like. The trials of shame are worth it if perhaps one day you'll be allowed to sing without shame. Sometimes you'll see friends casually sitting around singing, or somebody singing in her car with the window rolled down. It's as though they're getting away with something.

For my Didactic Modernism class on Tuesday morning, I made my students sing. I wasn't sure I was really going to do it, up until that very morning.

Nearly first thing, I asked them to sing a major scale, which they did, being good sports. Then I had them sing the scale in parallel thirds, which they again did. Finally, I taught them to sing the first four measures of this song (the whole song only being eight measures anyway), in four-part harmony. The bass situation was a little pathetic, especially since I categorically cannot sing bass, and we sounded terrible, but I gave them to understand that sounding like angels wasn't really the point. Wonderful students that they are, they gave it a shot, and we muddled through pretty well.

The point was this. By making my students sing scales, and then learn from scratch a piece of music they'd never sung before, I put them in the position of beginners, including those who happened to have a lot of musical training. Perhaps they were feeling mildly insulted and not a little frustrated. Perhaps they felt that, as advanced English majors, they knew what they were supposed to be doing in an English class, and this was not it.

Modernist poetry, I argued, will do this to you. You think you know how to read, but it makes you start over; it puts you in the position of someone who has to go back to fundamentals and learn from the ground up. It addresses you as "ephebe." It tries to teach you the A B C of Reading. Hence "didactic modernism." As Julie Andrews would say: "When you read, you begin with A, B, C; when you sing you begin with do, re, mi."

Modernist poetry, I argued, is most difficult precisely when it seems simplest. So we spent some time looking at a snippet from Tender Buttons, and then a bit more time reading that often-read Williams poem, "This Is Just to Say."

I had one more ulterior motive with the singing, which was to set a tone for the class. They've all sung in front of one another; nothing they wish to say about Pound's Cantos could possibly be more risky. (This was of course a brilliant segue into my draconian course policies.)

I can't tell yet whether it was just a funny first-day gimmick or something that will produce a difference in the way the course operates--actually, there's no way I can ever tell. But if my students were traumatized they've hidden it well, and they were terrific discussing I. A. Richards on Thursday, so I'm calling it a success.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tonight: Robert Duncan: The H. D. Book

The Holloway Series in Poetry Celebrates

Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book (newly out from University of California Press)

Thursday, January 20
315 Wheeler Hall (the Maude Fife Room)
*Reception to follow*

This legendary meditation on poetics, a central text of the San Francisco Renaissance
and of the New American Poetics has been buried in fugitive literary magazines and
literary archives for several decades and is now appearing for the first time in its
entirety in book form from the University of California Press.

Featured Readers

Michael Davidson
Michael Palmer
Brenda Hillman
Cecil Giscombe
Aaron Shurin
Giovanni Singleton
Susan Thackery
Jane Gregory
Gillian Osborne

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Me: Did you know that I can see the sunset over the San Francisco Bay from my office window?

Dan: I can see Oakland....

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I made my students sing.

That was the aforementioned unorthodox exercise. More anon.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Q. What should I do if I'm on the wait list?

A. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the answer is: Wait. On the list.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Spring semester

Yesterday a colleague and I wandered out for a post-MLA, pre-spring semester tea. In the process, it came to our attention that it actually is kind of springlike. I've been going around in a cardigan. It's sunny and beautiful here, while all of our friends are digging themselves out of snowdrifts. We're at that stage of life when we don't quite know where we'll be next year. But right now? Bay Area, people. It's pretty nice.

"Winter" in Berkeley. (The Japanese quince outside my apartment, photo taken five minutes ago.)

With the new semester about to begin, it feels like a good time to take stock of current projects.


I'm very excited to be teaching an advanced American modernist poetry seminar this semester. Cal students are great, and we'll be reading some of my favorite poetry. Any time I teach texts I really adore, I feel like I'm beating the system. Which I guess I kind of am. I have a somewhat unorthodox exercise planned for the first day of class; I'll report back if I actually do it.

I'm also serving as faculty sponsor for the De-Cal "Video Games as an Artistic Medium," which should be fun.

  • I'll be giving a paper on feminist periodization at ACLA in Vancouver. I was kind of suckered into this, but I've brought myself around to the idea that overcommitment is a good thing, and I'm looking forward to going. I've heard good things about the ACLA seminar format, and now's as good a time as any to see it in action.
  • Scott Selisker and I are putting together a panel for MLA 12. I'm excited about every aspect of this except the part where I draft the proposal, which I'm supposed to be doing this weekend instead of blogging. Prepare to be blown away. Will there be Roombas? Maybe.
  • I really am going to propose that Against Innovation panel for MSA 13. I've had a surprising amount of interest already, considering I haven't actually put out a CFP, but you know. Interested/amused/bewildered parties are still more than welcome to contact me.

Research projects.
  • An article on Berssenbrugge, on which I've posted a few times, is close to being sent out.
  • Remember when I said I didn't have time to write anything on the relationship between children and animals? I'm going to.
  • An article on Stein, in progress.
  • Possibly, text-mining, the responsible version (not the epistemic candy version.)
  • My book. I can't really summarize what's happening with the book, but let's provisionally say that the Williams chapter is leading inevitably to Olson and thence to contemporary notions of "experiment."


New multimedia will go live as soon as our tech editor has time to flip the proverbial switch. Colloquies and a Drupal upgrade will follow.

* * *

It probably says something about academia that I find the beginning-of-semester onslaught as familiar and comforting as a fuzzy blanket, but I'm just going to roll with it. Happy spring semester, everyone!
Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The weird thing about the recent Huckleberry Finn "controversy"

The words "Huckleberry Finn" have been trending on Twitter all day. Evidently some dubious press of which neither you nor I has ever heard is putting out an edition in which the word "nigger" is replaced by the word "slave."

This is not really newsworthy. It wouldn't be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn if someone weren't trying to censor it--I believe Myra Jehlen wrote an essay on this very subject. That the press doing the censoring is so very, very marginal speaks to how utterly canonical the novel--and its quasi-iconoclasm--has become.

What's interesting to me is the way the news is being received on Twitter. Most of what I've seen is plain outrage. How could they etc. My impression is that most people don't realize the following:

1. There are multiple editions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, put out by different presses and different editors, among which readers are free to choose, and also the first edition is in the public domain and widely available for free.

2. The press that is putting out this edition is negligible, not least because the only thing of note that it has ever done is put out a bad edition of Huckleberry Finn.

3. Huckleberry Finn is not a franchise like Dora the Explorer. There is no single corporation that can or will control its image or content. You can't "update" Huckleberry Finn the way you can "update" Nancy Drew or Strawberry Shortcake or the aforementioned Dora.

It's the last point that's the most striking to me. It gives us tweets like these:
"They're really changing Huckleberry Finn? America lost their common sense"

"Huckleberry Finn is eliminating the "N" word from new editions to be less offensive. Also, Moby Dick will now be called Moby Penis."

"New editions of Huckleberry Finn will be censored to remove the "n" word? #fuckyourpoliticalcorrectness #apparentlyfuckclassicliterature"

Huckleberry Finn becomes a unified brand, like Coca-Cola. It's as though we cannot imagine an art work that is not first and foremost corporate intellectual property. It suggests that those of us whose job it is to know about publishing, intellectual property, textual editing, and so-called classics (a word that I've seen thrown around a lot regarding this most recent of HF controversies) haven't done enough to get the word out to those whose job it isn't, but who would benefit from knowing. It would be worth tipping people off that, yes, bad editions exist, and so do good ones. Sometimes it takes a little investigation to tell the difference.

The truth is that the academic humanities has often relied on the publishing industry to do its public outreach. Sometimes that works out, but not in this case. It's not in trade publishers' interests to get people to care about textual editing, because critical editions are almost by definition not what they sell. (How much does Viking care about the Schulman edition of Marianne Moore's poems? Not very much, because it's still in print.)

Cheap reprints of public domain works--like the Higginson editions of Dickinson's poems, of which I remember receiving a pretty hardcover edition from an aunt one Christmas--have long been a boon for publishers wanting to exploit the cultural capital of "classics." The most recent version of this is the fact that you can read Project Gutenberg editions for free on the Kindle. Which is true enough, but there are some situations in which the Gutenberg edition is fine and others in which it's a dreadful idea. This has always been true; it's just more obvious when it comes to removing the word "nigger" from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And in fact it wouldn't be a controversy if it weren't news that texts are always mediated, that multiple editions of a work can coexist, and that a novel isn't always the same thing as a franchise.

I've heard it lamented that, since Wikipedia reached its effective saturation point, it's no longer possible to assign the salutary "write a Wikipedia article" project. Perhaps the next step is to get our students to go to existing Wikipedia articles for particular works and add summaries of the major textual issues.

Somewhere, Roland Barthes is having a big laugh. But then, I guess that's always true.