[Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

Carol Barton cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Thu Feb 21 10:04:50 EST 2008

Jason, the issues you've raised are important ones, and suggest that you are and will be a good teacher.

The trick is to believe what you believe, but not to be closed-minded about it: you will learn the most phenomenal things from your students' fresh insights and "stupid questions," because the best way to get an education is to try to teach someone else something you "know." Case in point: my stepson (who had ADD) always had trouble with math, which was my least favorite subject, and he found fractions and decimals particularly hard to master. One day when I was tutoring him, he asked why a thousand was written "1,000" (with three zeroes), but a thousandth was written ".001"--with only two? My gut reaction was "How the hell should I know? Because it *is*!--but you don't answer a child (or any student) that way. I had to think about it for a minute--then I realized that it was because the latter was a *fraction*, and that if you added the zero place-holder for the whole number, ignoring the decimal, you'd have the mirror image: "0.001." The same thing happened with metrics: while teaching them to him, I suddenly realized that all of the fractions derived from Latin, and all the whole numbers were in Greek! 

The same thing has happened many times in the classroom, with a student insight or question that has made me see something in an entirely new way. Sometimes--as in the case of the young man who thought Blake's song-of-experience chimney sweep was of African descent because he's "a little black thing amidst the snow"--the perception is clearly wrong, but reveals an ambiguity you hadn't even realized was there. Other times, as with my male students' perception that Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" describes a lighthearted romp between a loving father and his son, their questions reveal a conflict (in the sense of duality) that even the author may not have realized was there--the poem can, legitimately, be read as a story of drunken child-abuse, or as a tale of giddy rough-housing between the speaker and his parent, though when Roethke reads it himself, it is pretty clearly the former.

Let them teach you as you teach them, and you'll be astonished by the magic that unfolds!

Best to all,

Carol Barton
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Jason Kerr 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2008 9:35 AM
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

  I want to respond to Michael Bryson's pedagogical question from the graduate student's perspective of being on both sides of it at the same time. In paraphrase, his question seems to be: what do we do when we teach? Should we help students master certain critical discourses about a text, or should we guide them in a process of trying to figure the thing out for themselves?

  First, I don't think these are necessarily diametrically opposed. After all, the point of graduate school seems to be to get a sense of the field (master critical discourses) and then to make an original contribution to that field. Merely cribbing Fish (or anybody else) seems off the table, or at least unlikely to help one in getting a job. That said, I don't think the best original contributions are made in a state of innocence--as envisioned by the twentysomething guitar player I overheard as an undergraduate saying he didn't want to listen to Nirvana because he didn't want to corrupt his style with their influence. But I don't buy this; I think creativity demands as complete a knowledge as possible of one's medium. To continue the musical analogy, Coltrane might be an example here: all those hours the man spent practicing (and devising!) scales gave him an extraordinary palette in the moment of improvisation.

  But undergrads aren't grad students, so what expectations ought we to have of and for them? I'm still working through this for myself (and so welcome feedback), but I don't think they can or should become dissertating Miltonists at the end of the semester. So what are the alternatives?

  I'm teaching a general studies lit. class (17 freshmen and 1 senior) right now; I loaded the syllabus with texts I love, but not ones about which I can claim much expertise. I told the students at the beginning that this wasn't my field, but I listed the long years of school (and going on 30 years as a nerd in general) as my qualifications (side note: maybe I should've voted for Hillary). So now we're reading Berryman's Dream Songs, and our approach to them has become one of admitting (on their part and mine) what we just can't make sense of. Then we'll take the time in class to try and make sense of it anyway. Frankly, I couldn't have been happier than when students first began having the courage to admit their confusion. And my admission that I don't understand everything has made the classroom a safer space for their suggestions (mine probably end up carrying a little greater weight in the end, just because I'm the teacher).

  Granted, this gets harder when we know a text intimately, as list members do PL and others. So I'll recast Michael's question in other terms: given all we know (or think we know) about PL, how can we resist the temptation to make our usual arguments (or those of others) to our classes so the students can ask "dumb" questions about things that just don't make sense to them? I think one answer is to withhold our knowledge at first and deploy it strategically when the time comes. I'd be interested to know what other list members do and think (even if you think I'm asking the wrong questions...).

  Jason A. Kerr

  The purpose of poetry is to remind us
  how difficult it is to remain just one person,
  for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
  and invisible guests come in and out at will.

  —Czeslaw Milosz, from "Ars Poetica?" 


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