Archive for ‘teaching’


“As we get older, and stop making sense…”

English teachers make great idols. Rich kids who can’t pursue their dreams should kill themselves. Such are the awful lessons of Dead Poets Society, a movie I love to hate—not only because real-life English teachers are dubious exemplars, but also because the movie takes too much glee in damning “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D,” the textbook author who supposedly reduces the evaluation of poems to a simple trick of geometry. Not even my worst English teachers would have endorsed the idea, so I assumed such a book didn’t and couldn’t exist—until I discovered the real Dr. Pritchard, but found that he’s hardly as bad as he seems.

When the Dead Poets Society teacher, played by Robin Williams, asks a student to read aloud from a textbook by “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D,” this is what we hear:

 To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech, then ask two questions: (1) How artfully have the objectives of the poem been rendered; and (2) how important is that objective? Question one rates the poem’s perfection; question two rates its importance; and once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter. If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of the graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great.

As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this manner grows, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

In 1956, Southern Methodist University lit professor Laurence Perrine published the first edition of Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, which he apparently developed for use in his own classroom. Flip through the book, and there it is, in similar wording, the notion that anthropomorphized a thousand bales of straw:

In judging a poem, as in judging any work of art, we need to ask three basic questions: (1) What is its central purpose? (2) How fully has this purpose been accomplished? (3) How important is this purpose? The first question we need to answer in order to understanding the poem. The last two questions are those by which we evaluate it. The first of these measures the poem on a scale of perfection. The second measures it on a scale of significance. And, just as the area of a rectangle is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, breadth and height, so the greatness of a poem is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, perfection and significance. If the poem measures well on the first of these scales, we call it a good poem, at least of its kind. If it measures well on both scales, we call it a great poem.

Boo! Hiss! Down twinkles! Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind!

Dead Poets Society imagines this infamous passage occurring on “page 21 of the introduction,” but you won’t find it in Perrine’s introduction. Sound and Sense doesn’t have an introduction; Perrine’s shaky effort to quantify taste occurs way in the back of the book—on page 198, in the penultimate chapter, which focuses on learning to spot obviously bad poetry. In real life, Perrine chases this passage with a near-retraction:

The measurement of a poem is a much more complex process, of course, than is the measurement of a rectangle. It cannot be done as exactly. Agreement on the measurements will never be complete. Yet over a period of time, the judgments of qualified readers tend to coalesce: there comes to be more agreement than disagreement . . .

[…]

For answering the first of our evaluative questions, How fully has the poem’s purpose been accomplished? there are no easy yardsticks we can apply. We cannot ask, Is the poem melodious? Does it have smooth meter? Does it use good grammar? Does it contain figures of speech? Are the rimes perfect? Excellent poems exist without any of these attributes. We can judge any element in a poem only as it contributes or fails to contribute to the achievement of the central purpose; and we can judge the total poem only as these elements work together to form an integrated whole. But we can at least attempt a few generalizations.

Of course, all this comes not on the first day of school, but near the end of the course, after an absolute beginner has learned about figurative language, imagery, allusion, tone, rhythm, meter, sound, and pattern—subjects I daresay many English majors can’t discuss competently now.

Still, Perrine/Pritchard is a bit dry, isn’t he? Hasn’t his soul been smothered by tweed? Aren’t his whimsies constrained by the iron cage of reason?

Here’s what “Pritchard,” in his real first chapter, actually says.

Poetry is spiritually vital:

Poetry in all ages has been regarded as important, not simply as one of several alternate forms of amusement, as one man might choose bowling, another chess, and another poetry. Rather, it has been regarded as something central to each man’s existence, something having unique value to the fully realized life, something which he is better off having and which he is spiritually impoverished without.

Poetry lets us live deeply:

Indeed, the two approaches to experience—the scientific and the literary—may be said to complement each other. And it may be contended that the kind of understanding one gets from the second is at least as valuable as the kind he gets from the first.

Literature, then, exists to communicate significant experience—significant because concentrated and organized. Its function is not to tell us about experience, but to allow us imaginatively to participate in it. It is a means of allowing us, through the imagination, to live more fully, more deeply, more richly, and with greater awareness.

Poetry helps us live triumphantly:

We find some value in all intense living. To be intensely alive is the opposite of being dead. To be dull, to be bored, to be imperceptive is in one sense to be dead. Poetry comes to us bringing life, and therefore pleasure. Moreover, art focuses and so organizes experience as to give us a better understanding of it. And to understand life is partly to be master of it.

Poetry is rich:

If it is to communicate experience, it must be directed at the whole man, not just at his understanding. It must involve not only his intelligence but also his senses, his emotions, and his imagination. Poetry, to the intellectual dimension, adds a sensuous dimension, an emotional dimension, and an imaginative dimension.

Poetry can’t be quantified:

You may have been taught to believe that poetry can be recognized by the arrangement of its lines on the page or by its use of rime and meter. Such superficial tests are almost worthless. The Book of Job in the Bible and Melville’s Moby Dick are highly poetical, but a versified theorem in physics is not. The difference between poetry and other literature is one only of degree. Poetry is the most condensed and concentrated form of literature, saying most in the fewest number of words. It is language whose individual lines, either because of their own brilliance or because they focus so powerfully on what has gone before, have a higher voltage than most language has. It is language which grows frequently incandescent, giving off both light and heat.

And that’s just the first chapter! Despite that one iniquitous passage at the end of Sound and Sense, Perrine spends much of the book arguing against the quantification of poetry. At one point, he contrasts the chemical equation for sulfurous acid with the limitless connotations of the word “sulfurous” in a poem. “The poet, we may say, plays on a many-stringed instrument,” he writes. “And he sounds more than one note at a time.” If Perrine often mentions science and psychology, particularly in the chapter on imagery, he does so because he assumes his students already speak those languages. He’s not diminishing poetry; he’s offering novices a way in.

Perrine frequently sounds just as you’d imagine someone who got a Ph.D from Yale in 1948 ought to sound, but I find his old-fashionedness refreshing. “The difference between your figures of speech and the poet’s is that yours are worn and trite, his fresh and original,” he tells his readers, making clear that he’s not some fretful “facilitator,” but the expert in the room. A man of his times, he urges the cultivation of taste through study, scrutiny, and thought—and in his own genteel way, he advocates zeal:

Undoubtedly, so far in this chapter, we have spoken too categorically, have made our distinctions too sharp and definite. All poetic excellence is a matter of degree . . . But a primary distinction between the educated man and the ignorant man is the ability to make value judgments.

A final caution to students. In making judgments on literature, always be honest. Do not pretend to like what you really do not like. Do not be afraid to admit a liking for what you do like. A genuine enthusiasm for the second-rate is much better than false enthusiasm or no enthusiasm at all. Be neither hasty nor timorous in making your judgements. . . . Honesty, courage, and humility are the necessary moral foundations for all genuine literary judgment.

Yes, Perrine can be stuffy. The 1956 debut edition of Sound and Sense contains more than 200 poems, but there aren’t many by women, and as far as I can tell, only one is the work of a non-white poet, Countee Cullen. (Not even Paul Laurence Dunbar? Oh, professor.) Perrine’s idea of a wild, loosen-the-spats, extra-credit challenge? The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. 

Still, the poets in Sound and Sense would make fine desert-island companions—Noyes, Tennyson, Millay, E.A. Robinson, Wilfred Owen, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, even James Joyce—and anyway, isn’t academia usually behind the times? My professors in the 1980s and 1990s taught the poets of the 1950s and 1960s as if they were the consummation of poetry itself. They didn’t clue us in to the New Formalism occurring off-campus. Perhaps they weren’t aware of it.

(Sound and Sense is still in print in an overpriced 14th edition. Two editors have updated and broadened the selection of poems—but amazingly, as recently as the 13th edition, the first half of the paragraph that bred “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D” is still stinking up chapter 15! At what point in the past 50 years did that passage get pruned: before or after Dead Poets Society in 1989?)

It’s a shame Perrine has been vilified in fiction, because in chapter 15the chapter with the dreaded Dead Poets Society passage—he begs students to think for themselves, with no histrionic page-ripping or standing on desks. He flings out examples of trite popular verse so students won’t be suckered by sentimentality, rhetoric, didacticism, and cheap appeals to emotion, patriotism, and religion. A truly excellent poem, he says, will be complex and fresh; it “will not be merely imitative of previous literature, nor appeal to stock, pre-established ways of thinking and feeling which in some readers are automatically stimulated by words like mother, baby, home, country, faith, or God, as a coin put into a slot always gets an expected reaction.” He would have liked Roger Ebert’s dismissal of Dead Poets Society as “a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand,” a movie that “pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon.”

Four years ago, I sat across a conference table from an assistant dean with a Ph.D in the humanities who, with no evident trace of self-loathing, asked me to write bullet points summarizing the “workplace relevance” of medieval literature. (That day I confirmed that the soul really does exist, because I felt mine howling to leave my body.) More recently, I rolled my eyes at the news that a “professor emeritus and former chair of the department of recreation and leisure studies at Southern Connecticut State University” has developed the “Collegiality Assessment Matrix and Self-Assessment Matrix,” which are “designed to clearly assess the level of collegiality of a faculty member.”

This sort of dehumanizing Taylorism thrives in education these days, but you won’t find an endorsement of it even in the final subdued paragraph of Sound and Sense:

Yet, after all, we have provided no easy yardsticks or rule-of-thumb measures for literary judgment. There are no mechanical tests. The final measuring rod can only be the responsiveness, the maturity, the taste and discernment of the cultivated reader. Such taste and discernment are partly a native endowment, partly the product of maturity and experience, partly the achievement of conscious study, training, and intellectual effort. They cannot be achieved suddenly or quickly; they can never be achieved in perfection. The pull is a long pull and a hard pull. But success, even relative success, brings enormous rewards in enrichment and command of life.

Perrine’s conclusion is tepid, but his purpose is profound: He wants you to use poetry to think harder, live better, and feel more deeply. There’s more depth, pleasure, and (every committee’s Questing Beast) “critical thinking” in the stuffiest chapters of Sound and Sense than you’ll find in the latest platitude-sodden government report on the humanities. If you live to defend the value of literature, history, and the arts, turn your Dead Poets Society DVD into a drink coaster and take heart. In real life, “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard” is an ally after all.

“You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time…”

No medievalism this week. Just some links and comments about the humanities, all of them hanging by a common thread.

* * *

From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick, 1968:

“You androids,” Rick said, “don’t exactly cover for each other in times of stress.”

Garland snapped. “I think you’re right: it would seem we lack a specific talent you humans possess. I believe it’s called empathy.”

* * *

From a Chronicle of Higher Education story about Google Glass:

[Assistant professor of journalism and communication] Mr. Littau said he hoped to see further application of Glass in the classroom, although he could not say for certain what else it could be used for.

“It’s a device made for the liberal arts,” he said. “The whole device is about putting you in the shoes of the wearer to experience the world through their eyes. An auto-ethnography in history could be an interesting thing to experience.”

Only in a visually obsessed age would we believe that literally seeing someone else’s point of view qualifies as an experience. If that’s true, We Are All Cops Cameramen Now.

What’s it like to view a work of art through filters other than your own? How does someone with a trained ear experience classical music? How does someone feel, from his forehead to his gut, when his daughter is born, his candidate loses an election, or his childhood home is torn down? God help liberal-arts faculty who need Google Glass to develop empathy. To make that imaginative leap, just find time for reading and thinking—which are analog, and not recent inventions.

 * * *

Here’s a more delightful melding of tech and the humanities: Last week, I found a pocket universe of clever people composing poetry in programming languages.

Experiments with computer-generated poetry aren’t new, but for creative works wrought from the human mind, Perl has apparently been the language of choice. You’ll find poems written about Perl, poetry generators for Perl, Perl poems as April Fool’s jokes, and translations such as “Jabberwocky” rendered in (non-functional) Perl. The go-to text in the field is writer and software tester Sharon Hopkins’ 1992 conference paper and mini-anthology “Camels and Needles: Computer Poetry Meets the Perl Programming Language.”

A Spanish engineer and software developer also put out a call in 2012 for contributors to code {poems}, an anthology of verse in such languages as C++, Python, DOS, Ruby, and HTML. The poems couldn’t just be goofs, though; they had to run or compile. An April 2013 Wired story showcases one of the entries: “Creation?”, a poem in Python by Kenny Brown.

I love this. There’s great creativity here—and a reminder that computers speak only the languages we give them.

* * *

In “Cryptogams and the NSA,” which I’m assuming is not fiction, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch recounts how he was indicted in 2011 after he tweaked the NSA by emailing himself snippets of James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins from a proxy server in Peshawar:

“There are a lot of references to mushrooms and yeast in Joyce,” I said. My attorney touched my arm lightly, but I ran on.

“Look—” I took the book up, “There’s a part late in the book. . . Here, page 613. Halfway down the page.” I pushed it across to Fitzgerald:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild. . . 

“See? Fungoalgaceous muscafilicial,” I said. “It’s a portmanteau of different types of cryptogams.”

The stenographer interrupted here, her north Baltimore accent like a knitting needle stuck in my ear. “Are those words in that book?” she asked, “Because – otherwise you’re going to have to spell them.”

She was waved off by one of the US attorneys.

Fitzgerald read the text, or looked at the letters anyway, and then he looked at me again. A kind, blank, innocent look. Unaware of the fear he was instilling in me, not knowing what he was doing, he suddenly twisted the knife.

“And why would someone write like this?”

My silence now. “Why?” I repeated, meekly. I was devastated.

“Just your opinion. A short explanation.” Absolute innocence in asking the question.

My hands began trembling. One of his assistants looked at the clock.

“I don’t know, sir – honestly I don’t.”

“And why would someone write like this?” Because it’s fun; because it’s artful; because government exists not to perpetuate itself, but to protect these odd, wonderful flourishes of civilization. And because it helps us know who the androids are.

“Cover my eyes and ears, ’til it all disappears…”

“I feel like I spent the day scooping out portions of Mondoville’s memory—lobotomizing an educational institution,” writes Prof Mondo, lamenting a book-cull at his small college library:

We’re getting rid of some 25,000 volumes, somewhere between a quarter and a third of our overall holdings. To be fair, something had to be done. Our building is simply inadequate for our collection, many of the books are obsolescent, and many others hadn’t been opened in years — indeed, a colleague of mine found a set of Thomas Hardy’s works, many of which had unopened pages. The library has been held together with spit and baling wire, thanks to an overworked, underpaid, and insanely dedicated staff.

Furthermore, our students are ever less likely to venture into the stacks. They do their research online, relying on the library’s online databases to find articles and such.

The good prof finds the cull troubling for many reasons, but he ends on this desolate note:

Finally, there was the sense that I was engaged in a kind of intellectual Black Mass, inverting the sacrament that I was meant to perform. I love my students, but I also love the worlds of literature and ideas; indeed, I show my love to my students by offering them these other things I value so much. These books, these ideas in them, matter so much to me that I’m devoting my life to the business of letting those stories and ideas survive another generation. But instead, I spent today making it that much less likely that a Mondovillian might encounter someone’s story or idea, even through a confluence of idleness and serendipity. Education is meant to help the mind grow, and I see libraries as symbols of the growth that has gone before us. Instead, I spent today making our symbol shrink. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the opposite of what I do.

Also today, at the Atlantic Monthly, Megan McArdle makes a not-unrelated observation:

Today, according to Amazon, eBooks have surpassed print books entirely; they are selling more Kindle editions than they are selling from all of their print formats combined. Since April 1st, they’ve sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 print editions.

The speed is remarkable, but the outcome doesn’t surprise me.  I buy almost everything for Kindle now, unless it doesn’t have a Kindle edition, or it has lots of pictures that I want to examine in detail.  Which is to say, not many.  Frequently, if it doesn’t have a Kindle edition, I don’t order it at all.

McArdle is generalizing about trends in reading solely from her own experience, but I don’t mind countering with anecdotes of my own.

* * *

For example, if a pundit needed to research the background of the Icelandic financial crisis, the 2010 book Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland might be a boon. Unfortunately, it’s not available as an e-book. Neither is The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness, the first English-language bio of the author who brought Icelandic culture to the notice of the world. A clever pundit might know to allude to his novels.

If you’re dabbling in verse, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is indispensable (and addictively browseable). Many of its entries contain better, more, or just different information than you’ll find online. This 1,383-page tome has been in print for nearly 20 years, and apparently it still sells well, but there’s no Kindle edition.

For several years, I’ve wanted my students to read Brian Stone’s translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure. I don’t know why Penguin Classics let it fall out of print. Fortunately, you can buy it used for two bucks or read it for free in hundreds of North American libraries. There’s no Kindle edition.

Last Thanksgiving, I made jawārish, a carrot jam from a 13th-century Islamic cookbook. Published in 2009, Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World is packed with neat recipes and commentary. There’s no Kindle edition.

* * *

“But wait,” I hear yon straw man cry, “who cares about Icelandic social history? Who but you wants to read an encyclopedia entry about the Ultraism movement in Spanish poetry? And seriously, dude, medieval Islamic carrot jam?”

The digital age is supposed to help all of us pursue our passions and explore our intellectual interests. Ostensibly smart people—journalists, especially—shouldn’t endorse only what’s mainstream or popular or shut out sources of information because they don’t appeal to one’s sense of novelty.

It’s troubling for a pundit at The Atlantic to say, essentially, “If it doesn’t exist for my cool new e-reader, then as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t exist.” That’s an admission of willful ignorance—and we already have problems with journalists who can’t see beyond their own worlds.

Besides, medieval Islamic carrot jam is tasty.

* * *

“You must be a Luddite!” Guess again, scarecrow. I share my home with thousands of books, but I’m increasingly unsentimental about them. Becoming Charlemagne is doing well on the Kindle, I’ve self-published an e-book of a translation of a medieval romance, I’m reading Ulysses on my smartphone, and I’m in the market for a 10-inch Android tablet for reading and storing academic PDFs. Liking technology doesn’t make you anti-print. You can be pro-both.

* * *

Another rustle from the straw: “Eventually, everything will be online!”

Verily, I say unto you: Are you so positive that we’ll have several more decades of the stability and prosperity required to digitize “everything” that you’ll bet centuries of accumulated knowledge on it?

I fled grad school 13 years ago, but I’d love to be a budding medievalist now, when I can access online dictionaries for Latin, Old English, and Old Icelandic and browse the Monumenta Germaniae Historica without schlepping over to campus. I’m keenly aware of how much progress universities, government agencies, corporations, and museums have made in digitizing material that many dismiss as obscure.

And yet, two years ago, at the National Park Service archive, I glimpsed just how far we have to go. Around 2,000 of the best photos in their historic image collection are online, but their physical archive holds millions of objects, including posters, newsletters, snapshots, and un-photographed doodads like vintage ranger uniforms. The entire collection was overseen by just two employees. When they weren’t scrambling to fulfilling never-ending requests from commercial publishers and calendar makers, they occasionally found a moment to scan some old slides. At this rate, unless a legislator takes up their cause, most of their collection will languish forever in file drawers.

So if you’re a pundit, a historian, or a photo editor and you’re relying on digitized stuff to tell a story, you’re likely spinning the same yarn as everyone else. To tell a bigger story, to show or say something new, you’ll need to push away from the computer and patiently seek out an archive.

* * *

Megan McArdle concludes:

What will happen to the pleasures of pulling a random book from the shelves of a home where you are a weekend guest?

They’ll be replaced by other pleasures, like instant gratification.  And it’s probably more gain than loss.  But I’m just a little bit sad, all the same.

It’s not just about “pleasures.” What about the brainy kid whose parents are either too poor, too disdainful of education, or just too ignorant to give him a Kindle or an iPad? Yes, nearly anyone who wants Internet access can get it, and inquisitive kids are resourceful kids, and the Internet offers brilliant opportunities for intellectual exploration—but there’s no reason to diminish or destroy one convenient, low-tech, time-tested way to feed the brain.

“But you know,” croaks yon straw man, flailing his arms, “it’s expensive to store books in a big building and pay for a staff to maintain them.” Of course it is—but preserving and propagating knowledge is a core function of a college or university. Most American campuses have dozens of costlier programs and facilities that would wither if anyone were challenged to justify their educational merit.

Harvard isn’t trashing a quarter to one-third of the books in its libraries or turning them into glorified Internet cafes. If your college your kid attends is, you may want to ask a dean why they assume their graduates will never compete against kids with big-name degrees. (You might also ask them: “Would you send your child here?”)

* * *

But then why would most people associate libraries with learning anymore? Ads in D.C. Metro stations tout public libraries as places to take yoga classes and hold meetings, and the library system’s website assures the aliterate that a new library “offers more than just books.” (Whew! No one will think you’re a nerd!)

My own neighborhood branch is extremely popular, and the staff is terrific, but when lawyers in million-dollar homes use their library cards to check out government-subsidized Backyardigans DVDs for their kids, we aren’t exactly living the Carnegie dream.

* * *

Maybe there’s hope. In November, I sat in a bayou and beguiled my seven-year-old nephew with the exploits of Beowulf. Last week, by phone, he told me that during a recent visit to the local library, his quest for a sufficiently gory version of Beowulf led him to books about Theseus and the minotaur, the labors of Hercules, and Odin and Loki.

These books may change the course of his life; they may be a fad. Either way, a first-grader in rural Louisiana senses what pundits and college administrators forget: Random access to analog information is a freedom all its own. The Internet is wondrous, and e-readers are great, but if you let technology circumscribe and define your intellectual world, you literally won’t ever know what you’ve missed.

“Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!”

When you teach Chaucer or 19th-century medievalism, no one clamors for a preview of the syllabus, but when you tell people you’ll pulling together a course on modern fantasy and science fiction, everyone has opinions, questions, recommendations, stories, and gripes—and everyone wants to see the reading list.

So here it is. From the start, I tried to avoid creating one of those “sources and analogues” courses where Poe ballads and old French werewolf yarns implicitly apologize for the presumed deficiencies of modern fantasy. (It’s a valid approach, but spending so much time studying where something comes from leaves little time to study the thing itself.) We’ll talk about Lucian of Samosata, Thomas More, and Mary Shelley, and we’ll give H.G. Wells his due, but we don’t need to disinter their corpses for caryatids; let’s see if recent works can stand on their own. If they can’t, their collapse will at least raise an impressive dust cloud from afar.

This list balances several competing goals: sketching the histories of both genres to 1990; showing their ideological ranges by intermingling fan favorites with academic darlings; assigning works not for their coolness quotient or erstwhile popularity but for their ability to prompt discussion; and selfishly finding slots for a favorite or two of my own.

Plenty of worthy authors, books, and short stories didn’t make the cut—it’s impossible to be comprehensive in thirteen weeks—and this course was, I think, harder to prepare than any of the medieval-lit courses I’ve taught. I’m not used to being so spoiled for choice.

Isaac Asimov, “Nightfall”
Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God”
Robert A. Heinlein, “The Roads Must Roll”
Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations”
Lester del Rey, “Helen O’Loy”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
Samuel Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah”
Ray Bradbury, “Way in the Middle of the Air”
Frederik Pohl, “The Day After the Day the Martians Came”
James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”
William Gibson, “Burning Chrome”
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Joanna Russ, “The Clichés From Outer Space”
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Liebowitz
Henry Melton, “Catacomb”
* * *
Ludwig Tieck, “The Elves”
William Morris, “The Folk of the Mountain Door”
Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”
James Branch Cabell, “The Thin Queen of Elfhame”
Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”
Robert E. Howard, “The King and the Oak”
Robert E. Howard, “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming”
Jack Vance, “The Loom of Darkness”
Fritz Leiber, “The Bazaar of the Bizarre”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Terry Bisson, “Bears Discover Fire”
Ursula Le Guin, “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight”
Lucius Shepard, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”
Gary Gygax, “The Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D Games”
Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”
Italo Calvino, “The Distance of the Moon”

“…’cause the only thing misplaced was direction…”

The books are tired: They let themselves yellow, they reek of teenage habits, and they laze around the shelves as if they own them. Stone-faced, you say: You there, all of you: Goodbye. With soft groans, they sprout little legs, stumble down the stairs, and march away. You admire their sense of duty; you commend yourself for knowing how to treat them.

You wonder where they went only years later, when an email asks: “Would you like to teach Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction?”

Thus begins the blur: creeping through library basements, climbing over warehouse piles, swinging a sun-bright shopping basket where books replace groceries in long, looming rows. Look: A spaceship reminds you of a long-lost friend, the guy who once loaned you this book. Over there is the novel you never quite got; its crude, trippy cover still mocks you. A fantasy trilogy leaps from a shelf, desperate to be held again; years ago, you all spent a week at the beach. Paperbacks peep and cry out sideways, and people gawk as titles start to blur: Axaxaxas mlö, dhcmrlchtdj…

You bring them home in plastic bags.

That face you make as you drive? It’s the thousand-year stare, the result of looking too long at the Middle Ages. The cure is a holiday, a summer spent sniffing ’round the future—but when you come home and toss those bags on the floor, they rustle, and you look down. Some books squeak and hide under the sofa; others dance and do flips before clambering onto your shelves. In the chaos, you catch a whiff: musty, sure, but sweetly familiar, and you know that you’re not in the future at all. You draw a deep breath and you think, Well, I’m back.

“Ran down, and the lady said it…”

When the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp tomorrow to honor Anna Julia Cooper, she’ll be remembered, rightly, as a remarkable woman. Born into slavery around 1858 in North Carolina, Cooper earned a degree in mathematics but also taught Latin and Greek. As principal of the nation’s best public high school for black children, she fought for high educational standards and prepared her students for top universities. In essays and lectures, she addressed racism, the concerns of black women, and other issues of the day. When women’s rights groups turned out to be white women’s rights groups, she started her own.

But Anna Julia Cooper was also a Charlemagne buff—and an inspiration to exhausted grad students everywhere.

From 1911 to 1913, Cooper spent summers studying French literature and history in Paris. In 1914—at the tender age of 56—she enrolled in the Department of Romance Languages at Columbia University with plans to earn her doctorate. Scholars of medieval French literature were clamoring for an accessible version of the epic Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne to replace a hard-to-find German edition, and Cooper gave them one, but Columbia didn’t grant her a degree. As a widow raising her dead brother’s five children while holding down a full-time job as a teacher and principal in Washington, D.C., she couldn’t fulfill the one-year residency requirement.

In response, Cooper sought out a university with no such requirement. The Sorbonne accepted her credits but her work on the Pèlerinage didn’t meet their dissertation requirements, so Cooper wrote a second dissertation. In 1925, she earned a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and found a Parisian publisher for her edition and facing-page translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. She was 66 years old.

Cooper’s Pèlerinage was never published in America. When she offered the book and all its proceeds to her alma mater, Oberlin, the school hemmed and hawed—and then nervously declined. Even so, the book was the standard edition and translation for decades, American libraries and language departments sought it out, and several pages were included in an anthology of medieval French literature reprinted as recently as the 1960s.

Beyond its manageable size, it’s not clear what drew Cooper to the Charlemagne project she cheekily called her “homework,” but few American teachers have so aptly encouraged students, then or now, through indefatigable example. Cooper, who lived to be 105, understood the pedigree of that tradition:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Alcuin wrote that. It’s a Carolingian sentiment, but one that Cooper, a proper medievalist, could easily endorse.

“And a strange dust lands on your hands, and on your face…”

When the sun is shining and the world is all a-green, it takes a tendency toward Tennysonian drear and a special leap of faith to study—and to teach—the Idylls of the King, especially Arthur’s “last weird battle in the West,” which falls on “that day when the great light of heaven / Burn’d at his lowest in the rolling year, / On the waste sand by the waste sea.” You’d think a week of rain would set the tone, but the present gloom is undeniably springlike. A sad tale’s best for winter; even in the stormiest May, students want to see suntans and beach umbrellas, not a despondent Bedivere sobbing on the bleak December seacoast.

Fortunately, Tennyson is a poet for all seasons. Arthur’s climactic rush-and-push against Mordred offers hardy perennial advice about facing a final exam:

Then spake the King: “My house hath been my doom.
But call not thou this traitor of my house
Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me.
My house are rather they who sware my vows,
Yea, even while they brake them, own’d me King.
And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,
When all the purport of my throne hath fail’d,
That quick or dead thou holdest me for King.
King am I, whatsoever be their cry;
And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see
Yet, ere I pass.” And uttering this the King
Made at the man…

My students, sharp and studious, will know whether Arthur is exhorting them to end on a note of defiant triumph or advising them to fail with dignity. This week, they’ll free themselves from my Vortigern-like tyranny, and they can remember the Mabinogion and William Morris however they like. I’ll remember them as the first group in ten years to find notes of perseverance and hope amid Guenevere’s severity. Generous and unexpected, that sort of personal response refreshes a tired-out teacher.

In Arthurian legend, when the old order passes, the world doesn’t end; instead, it gives way to something new. If Bedivere can watch the sunrise on the coast after the winter solstice, then melancholy at the end of the semester makes sense even when, as Tennyson puts it, “the world is white with May.” My students can tell you that there’s no more conventional month to revel in medieval romance; maybe there’s nothing inherently un-Arthurian, also, about going to the beach.

“I like hammering nails, and speaking in tongues…”

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” The Internet, in its collective wisdom, attributes this chestnut to Charlemagne, even though the old emperor seems to have uttered it no earlier than a UPI “thought for the day” distributed to newspapers on April 2, 1989. (A 1920 article about the study of French inexplicably attributes this same saying to “the great Spanish monarch, if it be he.”) Like other things Charlemagne supposedly said, it’s the sort of thing Einhard or Notker might have wanted him to say, and several quotation dictionaries and educational treatises have accepted that he did. People love this quip because it seems to say something profound. I’m just not certain it’s true.

Ten months ago, I decided it was time to learn German—not dabble in German to pass a watered-down reading exam, not fake it by squinting at German hard enough to sweat out the Old English cognates, but really learn the language at the fastest pace my schedule and the local curriculum allowed. Since then, I’ve taken classes that have raised my fluency from “feeble” to “mostly feeble,” I’ve learned love songs, hymns, and party tunes, and and I’ve looked upon lists of irregular participles and despaired. I’ve also remembered what it’s like to be a student.

After you spend ten years as an adjunct, familiar texts come around just often enough for an awkward reunion; they’re the old friends with whom you have too much history but also too little in common. Meanwhile, you stare past those piles of personal reading: novels that somebody forced on you; books bought on a whim; discards from strangers who passed through your life. Back then, the thrill of ignorance made everything a mystery, and each new book promised wisdom. Now, folded pages lead you back to useless secrets: verses and lines that were, for a while, the language you shared with someone who probably doesn’t remember. Trace a swirl in the dust; whole shelves smell like bookstores that long ago closed.

And so, ich lerne Deutsch. I download old pop songs that torture German ears; they’re fresh and intriguing to me. I despise crosswords—but I finish my first childish kreuzworträtsel in German with pride, having done what I couldn’t do a year ago. I flip through collections of Rilke, dictionary handy, wandering with pleasure through century-old poems that carry no personal associations, only the ones they acquire today. Sometimes I’m stopped by an opening line: Ich glaube an alles noch nie Gesagte…

The books on my syllabus all seem a little more strange to me now. Thomas Malory, William Morris, Tennyson—to my surprise, they each have something new to say. They tell me that Charlemagne had it all wrong: A new language doesn’t give you a second soul; it refreshes the one you’d forgotten you already had.

“He sits in the canyon with his back to the sea…”

Every few years, I’m asked to teach Arthurian literature, a gig that’s led to a curious custom here at “Quid Plura?” headquarters: In the week before we talk about The Mabinogion, I fly the Welsh flag above my television. When the week is over, the flag gets folded and stowed, but not before I’ve caught up on several years of Welsh news, reread the relevant scholarship, and startled myself daily with the sight of a huge red dragon by the bathroom door.

What more can I say? Y Ddraig Goch ddyry gychwyn! Let the red dragon show the way to this dubious assortment of Welsh-themed links.

Amazon user G.R. Grove has kindly compiled a list of novels set in medieval Wales.

Watch the first part of an eight-part BBC documentary about Owain Glendywr.

Need a fix of Welsh? Listen to BBC Cymru, partake of their “Learn Welsh” Web site, or dabble in the language with the Cardiff School of Computer Science.

The Digital Medievalist has a FAQ on learning Middle Welsh.

Last year, locals officials made a wonderful mistake on a Welsh-language road sign.

What’s more Welsh than a male voice choir singing the national anthem? Possibly a male voice choir singing “Myfanwy.” (You’ll find the lyrics here.)

If you ever need accommodations in Snowdonia, pop over to the Plas Gwyn Guest House. The proprietor cooks a fine breakfast and stocks a nice library of maps for the overzealous hiker.

While you’re there, gawk from the highway at Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern supposedly tried to build his tower on the shakiest of foundations.

If you want to follow in Patrick McGoohan’s footsteps and be chased by a giant inflatable white ball creature thingie, Plas Gwyn isn’t far from Portmeirion.

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a “Welsh language hip hop 80s style badminton video.”

To my knowledge, there’s only one song about a wheelchair-bound savant who takes a break from starting World War III on his cell phone to wax nostalgic about his Welsh upbringing. Here it is.

“Back to school, it’s a bad situation…”

It’s back-to-school time for teachers and students alike. If you stroll along Massachusetts Avenue looking for inspiration, you’ll find this fellow at the Embassy of Croatia.

It’s Saint Jerome, who’s clearly immersed in his work. If you’ve ever grappled with Jerome’s page-length Latin sentences, you’ve probably made this gesture, too.

For many of you, the coming weeks will call for much sighing and staring at tomes. Whether you’re a teacher or a student, here’s to a pleasant and productive semester—without too much hieronymian clutching of the forehead.