Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Shakespeare and English Studies

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni , of which Lynn Cheney is the Chairman Emeritus, has recently published a survey of select colleges and universities to draw attention to the absence of Shakespeare in the curriculum of English undergraduate majors. This council laments the decrease in university standards, particularly the movement away from what the council refers to as “a body of important writers, genres, and works that all should know,” making it possible for someone to graduate with a BA in English “without thoughtful or extended study of central works and figures who have shaped our literary and cultural heritage.” The council also expresses surprise and dismay at the kind of courses currently offered in English departments, such as children’s literature, film, theory, and “an array of courses that center on politics, sociology, and popular culture” but not literature.

Although I didn’t attend a university that the US News and World Reports ranks as one of the best, which is the criterion that the council uses in its survey of colleges and universities, I graduated without having had a course in Shakespeare. The English department at Wichita State in the late 1970’s offered three options for a BA, creative writing, English Language and Literature, and English education. The English education degree required Shakespeare because it was necessary for a Kansas teaching certificate in secondary education. Majors in English education, on the other hand, only had to earn 24 credit hours in English whereas majors in English Language and Literature had to earn 30 credit hours. I opted for the more demanding major in English Language and Literature because I didn’t see myself teaching at that time.

In choosing to study English, I wanted to gain what T.S. Eliot refers to as a historical sense. My program largely emphasized poetry, beginning with John Skelton and Sir Thomas Wyatt. When I realized that I would be graduating without having studied 17th and 18th century poetry, I arranged to work independently with a professor who assisted in my reading of John Donne, John Milton (including Paradise Lost), and Alexander Pope. There were still deficiencies in my education because I didn’t complete the course that I started in 20th century American literature; the professor chose to emphasize African-American novels instead of the Harlem Renaissance and modern poets like Robert Frost and Robert Lowell.

A course in Renaissance literature placed greater emphasis on poetry instead of drama, so we read Shakespeare’s sonnets and his two longer poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” but not his plays. Drama hasn’t been my specialty, and I personally haven’t seen the reason or had the desire to study drama. I largely designed and completed my own program of study in college while still completing the requirements for a degree, eventually adding a capstone of sorts to my education by visiting Milton’s cottage in Chalfont St. Giles. While I was attending a high school for military dependents in England, we made a trip during the senior year to Stratford upon Avon, where we saw Anne Hathaway’s cottage and a performance of the Merry Wives of Windsor. Giving Shakespeare more of my attention wasn’t an interest of mine.

I cannot recommend my course of study for everyone. Each institution should offer options in the study of English. Wichita State, I learned recently, has toughened its degree program in English education and still requires a course in Shakespeare for secondary certification. Maybe those colleges and universities surveyed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni aren't representative of English studies in this country.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Living Life Amid Uncertainty

Those of who grew up in the 1950’s have learned to live with uncertainty and doubt. We were taught to prepare for nuclear bombs. Initially, we were deceived to believe simply ducking down in a school corridor and covering our heads would allow us to outlive the blast; later we came to understand that our bodies would vaporize from the heat, especially those of us who lived in my neighborhood in Glen Burnie, Maryland, which was only a short commute from NSA at Fort Meade.

It’s this uncertainty that led to the turmoil of the 1960’s because when the length of one’s life is not known and when one’s life may be cut short, what’s important is making the most of what we have now. Hedonism, to a degree, is an outcome of this awareness, but so is striving for one’s equal rights.

Those of us who weren’t college material after graduating from high school also recognized that we risked getting drafted into the Army or Marines before being shipped to Vietnam. It was only a matter of time before our birth date would appear in the newspaper as one of those numbers drawn for the draft. My initial attempt at joining the Navy wasn’t successful because of my test scores. I think I would have hated getting crowded onto a ship with so many other sailors and sleeping in a bunk with only a foot of space between my mattress and the bunk on top of mine. I tested for the Air Force soon after and enlisted six months after high school and three months after arriving back in the States from the UK where my father had been stationed.

That familiarity that I had acquired as a child preparing for nuclear war was reinforced in the Air Force when I guarded nuclear bombs. Spending so much time with that kind of weaponry seemed easy at first. Those of us in the restricted area housing jet fighters armed for immediate take-off got together at night, when the fog prevented anyone from outside of the perimeter seeing our movements, and smoked hashish. Even so, it was hard to take life seriously after my discharge. I still kept waiting for that white flash to appear overhead.

It also proved difficult working for anyone else. When I had first started teaching, I mentioned in class one day my job history and included the list of firings and jobs that I left without notice. My students were amused at first but also surprised that I continued to show up three times a week. Knowing they depended on me was what it took for me to become a caring and dedicated teacher.

There have been times since that first semester when I have worried about some of my students seeking revenge because of their grades. Some students take any criticism of their writing personally. I have had students break into tears when they got back their essays. Students have also become aggressive, accusatory, and threatening. My grading has even become harsher since I started teaching online. Whereas I used to think about having to hand back the essays in class and having to face the students afterwards, I now grade more consciously aware of the criteria for each assignment. At the same time, I try to stress the positive in any one essay and provide helpful advice for the next assignment.

Much as I love my family and want the best for them, and much as I like my life, despite the hassles of student loan debt and the academic crapshoot regarding full-time employment, I recognize that the possibility of death always exists, whether it’s from an accident while driving, getting shot when walking to the mailbox, getting shot by a disgruntled student, or anything else. All I can do is make the most of my life while I can.

It’s for this reason that I also get outside whenever I can to take pictures and appreciate nature. I find that taking pictures draws me outside, taking me away from the computer and my student essays. It’s easy staying awake all night to get my grading done; it’s easy getting up after three hours sleep to take to my son to school when I know that the possibility of rest and renewal exists at some later time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Kneeling in Prayer

I am adding an older post here for the day in which we pay taxes to the government in exchange for whatever it is we get from the government--war, death, stockpiles of nuclear bombs, etc.

Kneeling in Prayer

after the Pygmies
of the Iture Forest

I dropped part of my car outside
Enid, Oklahoma, along U.S. 64,
almost two years ago. My mechanic

gives it, maybe, another year.
The rust crunches away at its body,
peeling off strips of paint
before it chews through the frame.
My bank account spits out mud

whenever I lift the handle and try
to fill the sink. The IRS offers
to garnish my wages, adding a sprig
of watercress with each check.
Such gestures won't pay my bills.
If I only knew what to awaken,

I would sing sweetly, like droplets
of rain, offering a song each morning,
afternoon, and evening. My only tree,
a twenty year old cottonwood, whose limbs
shaded my window, and whose seeds
floated past like moths, dirtying

the neighbor's yard, was cut down
last summer when she complained
to the town. Nothing else covers me
but the sky. My landlord releasing
the coolant from the air conditioner
lets its cancer spread to clouds
and gnaw holes over Antarctica.

Maybe I should lie down next to you,
placing my ear over your stomach,
to hear a forest waking in your body.
The hourly bells of academe drifting
over the town call us now into prayer.

This older poem of mine appeared in Red Rock Review 13 (2003): 82. The references to the pygmies come from Denise Carmody"s The Oldest God: Archaic Religion Yesterday & Today, which I read when I was an undergraduate and in one of her classes.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Jim Richardson and the Kansas Flint Hills

Jim Richardson’s photographs of the Kansas Flint Hills appear in the National Geographic's April 2007 edition. These same photographs can be viewed at the website for his gallery in Lindsborg. An exhibit of these photographs is also traveling the state, having started in Topeka in March. These photographs were in Olathe at the Great Plains Mall, where I was lucky enough to see them last Saturday, the last day of the exhibit before it moved to Council Grove. Unfortunately, this exhibit won’t be returning to the Kansas City area.

I encourage any one who happens by this blog to click on the link to Richardson’s photographs. Some of the more memorable ones are “Burning at Sunset,” “Fire on the Prairie,” “Under the Milky Way,” “The Golden Hills,” “Patterns of the Spring Burn,” “Flowing Lands,” “A Sea of Hills,” and “Perennial Partners.”

People unfamiliar with Kansas assume that the entire state is drab and best traversed at night as one drives from Missouri to Colorado. Ian Frazier in Great Plains says that this attitude encompasses not only Kansas but also the entire region because many people, that is, those who haven’t been trained to see, believe that beauty can only exist in the mountains and where the land meets the ocean. Kathleen Norris in Dakota, a book which attempts to disprove the stereotypes associated with that state, makes the same mistake as other outsiders when she refers to “the flats of Kansas.” Actually, Kansas increases in elevation by 1,500 feet as one travels from the eastern edge to its western edge. This upward climb is broken at times and sometimes accelerated when traveling westward by, first, the Flint Hills and, second, by the Smoky Hills. The Smoky Hills are more subtle and not nearly as well preserved because of the bombing range used by the Kansas Air National Guard. One portion of the Flint Hills, on the other hand, remains as undisturbed prairie.

Having grown to love the Flint Hills after moving to Manhattan from Pratt, a small town located on the high plains, my wife says that she wants her body cremated and her ashes scattered on the Flint Hills. Located off of I-35, there is one valley that runs to the north that she has designated as her final resting place.

Monday, April 09, 2007

An Explanation of my Randomness

Sometimes when approaching a blank screen in Word, I often have no idea what I’m going to say. All I know is that I want to write. There are initial ideas that start the writing, having learned from composition theorists how important it is to write without stopping and without a concern for editing. Organizing and reworking what one writes doesn’t come until later. In the previous posting, I shifted from one thought to another and didn’t begin to maintain one idea until I arrived at Boomer Lake and begin to explore what associations the place holds for me. Some of the postings here in this blog are focused; other postings reveal my thinking process as I move from one subject to another. If one of my students had turned in the previous posting as an essay, I would have asked the student to delete the first couple of paragraphs and part of the third one because those paragraphs serve as warm-up writing. I cannot guarantee that my upcoming postings will be focused and only explore one subject in detail, but I can assure you that they will continue to reveal my thinking process. Taking the curves at a high rate of speed and running over potholes may well lead to the place where you wanted to go all along.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Spring Delayed & Graduate School

A few reminders of spring remain in Kansas. The lilacs in my yard have been killed by the late frost that we have been having. A low of about fourteen degrees is forecasted for Easter morning, and a few other frosts still await us in April. Much as I hate to work in the yard, I have already had to mow my grass this season. Linda Hasselstrom had the right idea when she recommended planting native grasses in one’s yard because they are most able to endure the temperature extremes that characterize a continental climate. Some of my neighbors have planted nonnative species like pampas grass. The city of Leavenworth has come to recognize that the purple coneflower strives in this region and has planted a large flowerbed of purple coneflowers near the entrance to the city pool. When other plants start wilting in July and August, these flowers continue to strive and are particularly attractive to bees.

My wife and I thought that the season for running the heater had ended until earlier this week when we were forced to turn it on again. It was a simple process, only requiring the flipping of a switch; it was much easier than lighting those heaters in the floor that require attaching a wooden match to a pole with tape and then extending the pole down into the heater to light the pilot light. Our rental house in Stillwater had a floor heater. After the flood of 1993, the landlord installed central heating, probably at a considerable cost, too. With the expansion of the athletic facilities at Oklahoma State, that house has been razed. In fact, the entire one-block long street that we once lived on has disappeared. Oklahoma State, unfortunately, has gotten a lot of financial support from Boone Pickens, a wealthy oil tycoon and alumnus, who has given the university millions of dollars for the expansion of its athletic department. This money comes at a price because the university is forced to adopt his plans. What the university needs to do is expand the number of scholarships available in basketball so that the university has a better chance of competing against other Division I schools. Much as I like college basketball, I still have to wonder how the players find the time to get their studying done. My son’s friend recognizes the demands of sports in college when he said recently that he plans to study archeology or to get a scholarship for football when he attends Kansas State in about six years from now.

We haven’t been back to Stillwater since we left in August, 1998. We have talked about going back to visit. The best salsa we ever tasted is only found at Mexico Joe’s. I also have fond memories of Boomer Lake, a manmade lake north of town. When I had to endure deep scaling one summer and when I had a root canal on one of molars, I visualized myself back at Boomer Lake flying my kite from one of the piers, tugging back on the line as it dips toward the water, or watching the water birds, particularly a great blue heron at the shoreline, as my son plays in the sandbox, building a castle with his green plastic mold or filling a blue bucket that he tips upside-down just a few feet away. It’s doubtful that a visit would help to recapture those memories. Boomer Lake was my escape from the tension present in the English department, which was felt immediately upon entering Morrill Hall. Whereas other graduate students regularly drank beer at a local tavern on Friday afternoons, I sought to get as far away as possible from the department, from departmental politics, and from graduate school woes.

I began to sour on the additional elements of graduate school when I was working on my MA. Graduate school wasn’t the lofty pursuit of the mind that it was once extolled to be. Some of my professors, particularly those who were second-generation college students, had the good fortune of not having to work while in graduate school. Even student loans weren’t required. It would have been possible then to devote all of one’s time to scholarship and publishing—those things that lead to tenure track positions.

Instead of devoting all of graduate school solely to scholarship, I juggled two composition classes each semester as a means of paying my way. When we were going through our orientation sessions before the start of the first semester of teaching, we heard stories about TA’s who, during the first class session, ensured every student that he/she would earn an A and who never held class again during the semester. The more experienced TA’s told us to never spend more than fifteen minutes when grading an essay. Read it through once, make comments during the initial reading, make the end comment, and assign it a grade before going on to the next essay. This practice made it possible to grade fifty essays in only twelve and a half hours. When you consider that each student turned in six essays, that amount of grading required about seventy-five hours.

When I started teaching in graduate school, I was so happy at having a steady income that I gave it more attention than I should have. My own work should have been my priority all through graduate school.

In addition to the exhaustion that accompanied late-night grading and late-night study sessions, I grew tired of the schmoozing. Like other new graduate students, I hung around the department at first, ingratiating myself to the professors. Once I met the woman I married, we started living together and mostly kept to ourselves, only showing up in the department when we had to.

A friend of mine, who entered graduate school when I did, was an expert at schmoozing, recognizing the advantages that came from befriending the other students and, most of all, from endearing himself to his professors. Halfway through that first year, his conversations usually centered on what good thing one of his professors said about him. This person had the knack at making everyone he met think highly of him. Years afterwards, I have heard people say good things about this person when the person I knew was much different; at least the persona he presented to me when we were together was different than the one he adopted among those he sought to impress.

This bragging about oneself and this selling of oneself to others turned me away from those kinds of dealings. I chose to absent myself from that form of networking and to quietly work on my classes and my poems, when not teaching, preparing for class, or grading, sometimes getting ignored and overlooked in the process. The departmental darlings, like my friend, got the accolades, the awards, and the easier teaching assignments. This success followed him through his PhD program where he befriended the people who published his poems, who helped him refine his dissertation, and who helped him have his dissertation win a major poetry prize. That’s how the process works for those who recognize how to negotiate the system and what rewards the manipulation of others will bring. My friend and I no longer have anything to say to each other. He pursues his goals elsewhere and has far more famous friends than me.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Restaurant Recommendations

It’s obvious that I am not one of those bloggers attempting to update their blogs daily during April. My life lately has kept me from adding a more recent posting. I have been swamped with grading, which is one of the drawbacks to teaching writing. I got through two sets last week, finishing the remaining six essays late Saturday night, after my wife and son took me out for dinner and a movie to celebrate my birthday. My birthday wasn’t officially until Monday, so returning to my grading late that night didn’t ruin my plans and didn’t interrupt my life, other than preventing me from sleeping until after 4:00 a.m. I also don’t drink and didn’t experience an interruption in my mental functioning, something which would have kept me from finishing my work. My students were expecting their essays. I guess we teachers are a dedicated bunch despite our complaints about the amount of work and the quality of our students.

For those of you looking for a good restaurant, I recommend Ted’s Montana Grill. Whenever I eat there for special occasions, say, two or three times a year, I make a point of ordering the kitchen sink buffalo burger; it’s layered with mushrooms, onions, bacon, ham, cheese, and an egg. I tend not to eat the top part of the bun, so I use a knife and fork to eat it, just as I do when eating a sloppy joe or a Manwich. This burger when combined with a house salad is an appetizing and satisfying meal, one of the few meals that I actually enjoy eating away from the house. Ted’s Montana Grill in Kansas City, Kansas is located at the Legend’s, a retail area that has been developed next to the Kansas Speedway. This area contains a number of restaurants designed to satisfy the appetites of the Nascar followers. Restaurants like Cheeseburger in Paradise and T-Rex don’t compare to the quality of Ted’s Montana Grill, however. I even had the good fortune on Saturday of having a friendly waitress instead of the sullen teenagers who so often seem unable to talk to a 50-something man. My wife tells me I intimidate young people because I don’t smile and I’m not outwardly friendly. Perhaps the difference when eating at Ted’s is that I actually enjoy the experience instead of dreading having to eat something that usually isn’t as good as what I could cook at home.

Other than Ted’s, my preferences include Panera Bread and Einstein Bagels. Both restaurants offer the opportunity to eat relatively quickly, without a long wait for one’s food, and don’t require a lot of money. Einstein Bagels, particularly the one on Barry Road near Barrywoods 24, a multiplex theater, comes close to the restaurants that used to be located in Noe Valley and North Beach back in 1977 and that made eating out a relaxing and pleasant experience. I used to like eating at Eden Alley, a vegetarian restaurant off of 47th Street in Kansas City; it used to be my first choice for special occasions. Almost an hour-long commute one-way proved to a deterrent. It also seemed as though Eden Alley stopped offering much variety, like its Suzi platter, and resorted to serving only bruschetta.

On the subject of restaurants, I can also recommend the Mongolian barbecue in Lawrence on 23rd Street. It offers plenty of variety, not only the vegetables and meats that can be cooked on the grill but also additional options available at the buffet. It also has the freshest egg rolls and desserts. There’s a Mongolian barbecue off of Barry Road that’s good, too, but it offers few options besides those foods meant to be cooked on the grill and has a limited selection of desserts, most of which are served frozen.

Notice the buffalo grazing next to the federal prison in Leavenworth in the picture I’m adding to this posting. Although the prisoners at the state prison in Lansing raise their own cows, the prisoners at USP Leavenworth don’t dine on buffalo; the buffalo are there for aesthetic reasons, I guess. Someone visiting us once thought the buffalo were there for Leonard Peltier, who has since been transferred to another federal prison somewhere in the East, and other imprisoned Native Americans. A few years ago, when my wife and I had picked Sherman Alexis up at the airport and brought him back to Leavenworth where he spent the night, we told him about Leonard Peltier and drove by the prison once we got into town. The next morning, when we picked up Sherman Alexis at his hotel for the trip to Kansas City, he mentioned having written a poem the night before addressed to Leonard Peltier. If anyone has seen this poem, you need to let me know.