[Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

HANNIBAL HAMLIN hamlin.22 at osu.edu
Thu Feb 21 11:17:10 EST 2008


There's much to say in response to Jason's question -- and for what it's worth, my feeling is that something's probably wrong with your teaching if you're not occasionally anxious and frustrated.  Teaching is an art not a science, and it's also a relationship (or based on one), so it will change with every new configuration of teacher and students.  This means one can't set down firm rules; one adapts, one experiments.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.  There was a wonderful thread on the Sidney-Spenser list a while back, where even retired emeritus professors confessed they still had nightmares about showing up to class without notes, or pants.

As for the specific question re. critical discourses, this is obviously a hot-button issue.  According to Gerald Graff, one should teach the critical controversies, and this is really what will get students excited.  My experience leads me to disagree.  Sure, this can be effective sometimes, especially if you throw in some obviously nutty criticism (Johnson on Lycidas, for instance).  But the vast majority of our undergrads are not going to be literary critics, or academics of any variety.  Your Milton course may be the only experience of Milton they have in their lives, or perhaps the only experience of serious literature.  What's more important and interesting, reading Milton or reading Stanley Fish?  Graduate students need to know the criticial field because it's the profession they are entering.  If you're going to write seriously on Milton, you need to know what others have written before you.  But this isn't true for undergrads, or at least not nearly to the same degre
e.  I remember writing undergraduate papers myself where I incorporated a pastiche or cento (or what have you) of critics, but what I remember is the close engagement with the literary works, not the critics (with a few exceptions).  In fact, the critics I usually got excited about were the ones that took me most deeply into the work.  In teaching there are always too many books, too little time.  I'd rather spend more time teaching what makes a poem tick -- or exploring its mechanisms together -- than slogging through the critical or theoretical mire.

This is more a ramble than a structured argument, but let me throw in one more point.  it's been fashionable for many years to think or speak of literary criticism as if it were a science.  It isn't.  One bit of evidence for this is the fact that it is not a field that is progressive, in any substantial way.  I would not trust any doctor whose practice was based on nineteenth-century research.  But despite my dismissive comment on Johnson earlier, it's entirely possible that he could have had greater insight into some aspect of PL than someone writing in the latest Milton Quarterly.  Literary criticism has fashions and trends, it's subject to cultural winds from one quarter or another.  Of course, we all feel that good criticism "advances" our understanding of a work (though this is a metaphor).  And we also feel that there are really important critical works that every serious student (in the broad sense) ought to read, though this doesn't mean they have the final word.  Bu
t what is most important is our own engagement with a work, which will always begin from scratch (whenever it occurs).

Anyway, all this simply to say that I don't think you should worry about the critical field.  If you can get students excited by and engaged with Milton, you're doing great and valuable work.  And if they are really excited, they'll probably find the criticism themselves.

Hannibal


Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University
Book Review Editor and Associate Editor, Reformation

Mailing Address (2007-2009):

The Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003

Permanent Address:

Department of English
The Ohio State University
421 Denney Hall, 164 W. 17th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210-1340
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Jason, the issues you've raised are important ones, and suggest that you ar=
e 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 in=
sights 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 stepso=
n (who had ADD) always had trouble with math, which was my least favorite s=
ubject, and he found fractions and decimals particularly hard to master. On=
e 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 do=
n'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*, a=
nd that if you added the zero place-holder for the whole number, ignoring t=
he decimal, you'd have the mirror image: "0.001." The same thing happened w=
ith metrics: while teaching them to him, I suddenly realized that all of th=
e fractions derived from Latin, and all the whole numbers were in Greek!=20

The same thing has happened many times in the classroom, with a student ins=
ight or question that has made me see something in an entirely new way. Som=
etimes--as in the case of the young man who thought Blake's song-of-experie=
nce chimney sweep was of African descent because he's "a little black thing=
 amidst the snow"--the perception is clearly wrong, but reveals an ambiguit=
y 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, thoug=
h 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 -----=20
  From: Jason Kerr=20
  To: John Milton Discussion List=20
  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 gradu=
ate 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 themselve=
s?

  First, I don't think these are necessarily diametrically opposed. After a=
ll, the point of graduate school seems to be to get a sense of the field (m=
aster critical discourses) and then to make an original contribution to tha=
t 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 b=
est 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 demand=
s as complete a knowledge as possible of one's medium. To continue the musi=
cal analogy, Coltrane might be an example here: all those hours the man spe=
nt practicing (and devising!) scales gave him an extraordinary palette in t=
he moment of improvisation.

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

  I'm teaching a general studies lit. class (17 freshmen and 1 senior) righ=
t 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 wa=
sn'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 v=
oted for Hillary). So now we're reading Berryman's Dream Songs, and our app=
roach 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 studen=
ts first began having the courage to admit their confusion. And my admissio=
n that I don't understand everything has made the classroom a safer space f=
or 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 t=
o make our usual arguments (or those of others) to our classes so the stude=
nts can ask "dumb" questions about things that just don't make sense to the=
m? I think one answer is to withhold our knowledge at first and deploy it s=
trategically 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

  --=20
  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.

  =E2=80=94Czeslaw Milosz, from "Ars Poetica?"=20


---------------------------------------------------------------------------=
---


  _______________________________________________
  Milton-L mailing list
  Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu
  Manage your list membership and access list archives at http://lists.rich=
mond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l

--=20
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<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2>Jason, the issue=
s you've=20
raised are important ones, and suggest that you are and will be a good=20
teacher.</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2></FONT>&nbsp;</D=
IV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2>The trick is to =
believe=20
what you believe, but not to be closed-minded about it: you will learn the =
most=20
phenomenal things from your students' fresh insights and "stupid questions,=
"=20
because the best way to get an education is to try to teach someone else=20
something you "know." Case in point: my stepson (who had ADD) always had tr=
ouble=20
with math, which was my least favorite subject, and he found fractions and=
=20
decimals particularly hard to master. One day when I was tutoring him, he a=
sked=20
why a thousand was written "1,000" (with three zeroes), but a thousandth wa=
s=20
written ".001"--with only two? My gut reaction was "How the hell should I k=
now?=20
Because it *is*!--but you don't answer a child (or any student) that way. I=
 had=20
to think about it for a minute--then I realized that it was because the lat=
ter=20
was a *<EM>fraction*, </EM>and that if you added the zero place-holder for =
the=20
whole number, ignoring the decimal, you'd have the mirror image: "0.001." T=
he=20
same thing happened with metrics: while teaching them to him, I suddenly=20
realized that all of the fractions&nbsp;derived from Latin, and all the who=
le=20
numbers were in Greek! </FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2></FONT>&nbsp;</D=
IV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2>The same thing h=
as happened=20
many times in the classroom, with a student insight or question that has ma=
de me=20
see something in an entirely new way. Sometimes--as in the case of the youn=
g man=20
who thought Blake's song-of-experience chimney sweep was of African descent=
=20
because he's "a little black thing amidst the snow"--the perception is clea=
rly=20
wrong, but reveals an ambiguity you hadn't even realized was there. Other t=
imes,=20
as with my male students' perception that Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" descr=
ibes=20
a lighthearted romp between a loving father and his son, their questions re=
veal=20
a conflict (in the sense of duality) that even the author may not have real=
ized=20
was there--the poem can, legitimately, be read as a story of drunken=20
child-abuse, or as a tale of giddy rough-housing between the speaker and hi=
s=20
parent,&nbsp;though when Roethke reads it himself, it is pretty clearly the=
=20
former.</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2></FONT>&nbsp;</D=
IV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2>Let them teach y=
ou as you=20
teach them, and you'll be astonished by the magic that unfolds!</FONT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2></FONT>&nbsp;</D=
IV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2>Best to all,</FO=
NT></DIV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2></FONT>&nbsp;</D=
IV>
<DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2>Carol Barton</FO=
NT></DIV>
<BLOCKQUOTE=20
style=3D"PADDING-RIGHT: 0px; PADDING-LEFT: 5px; MARGIN-LEFT: 5px; BORDER-LE=
FT: #0000ff 2px solid; MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px">
  <DIV style=3D"FONT: 10pt arial">----- Original Message ----- </DIV>
  <DIV=20
  style=3D"BACKGROUND: #e4e4e4; FONT: 10pt arial; font-color: black"><B>Fro=
m:</B>=20
  <A title=3Daelfric at gmail.com href=3D"mailto:aelfric at gmail.com">Jason Kerr=
</A>=20
  </DIV>
  <DIV style=3D"FONT: 10pt arial"><B>To:</B> <A title=3Dmilton-l at lists.rich=
mond.edu=20
  href=3D"mailto:milton-l at lists.richmond.edu">John Milton Discussion List</=
A>=20
  </DIV>
  <DIV style=3D"FONT: 10pt arial"><B>Sent:</B> Thursday, February 21, 2008 =
9:35=20
  AM</DIV>
  <DIV style=3D"FONT: 10pt arial"><B>Subject:</B> Re: [Milton-L] Thinking o=
r=20
  Rehearsing?</DIV>
  <DIV><FONT face=3D"Comic Sans MS" color=3D#0000ff size=3D2></FONT><BR></D=
IV>I want=20
  to respond to Michael Bryson's pedagogical question from the graduate=20
  student's perspective of being on both sides of it at the same time. In=
=20
  paraphrase, his question seems to be: what do we do when we teach? Should=
 we=20
  help students master certain critical discourses about a text, or should =
we=20
  guide them in a process of trying to figure the thing out for=20
  themselves?<BR><BR>First, I don't think these are necessarily diametrical=
ly=20
  opposed. After all, the point of graduate school seems to be to get a sen=
se of=20
  the field (master critical discourses) and then to make an original=20
  contribution to that field. Merely cribbing Fish (or anybody else) seems =
off=20
  the table, or at least unlikely to help one in getting a job. That said, =
I=20
  don't think the best original contributions are made in a state of=20
  innocence--as envisioned by the twentysomething guitar player I overheard=
 as=20
  an undergraduate saying he didn't want to listen to Nirvana because he di=
dn't=20
  want to corrupt his style with their influence. But I don't buy this; I t=
hink=20
  creativity demands as complete a knowledge as possible of one's medium. T=
o=20
  continue the musical analogy, Coltrane might be an example here: all thos=
e=20
  hours the man spent practicing (and devising!) scales gave him an=20
  extraordinary palette in the moment of improvisation.<BR><BR>But undergra=
ds=20
  aren't grad students, so what expectations ought we to have of and for th=
em?=20
  I'm still working through this for myself (and so welcome feedback), but =
I=20
  don't think they can or should become dissertating Miltonists at the end =
of=20
  the semester. So what are the alternatives?<BR><BR>I'm teaching a general=
=20
  studies lit. class (17 freshmen and 1 senior) right now; I loaded the syl=
labus=20
  with texts I love, but not ones about which I can claim much expertise. I=
 told=20
  the students at the beginning that this wasn't my field, but I listed the=
 long=20
  years of school (and going on 30 years as a nerd in general) as my=20
  qualifications (side note: maybe I should've voted for Hillary). So now w=
e're=20
  reading Berryman's Dream Songs, and our approach to them has become one o=
f=20
  admitting (on their part and mine) what we just can't make sense of. Then=
=20
  we'll take the time in class to try and make sense of it anyway. Frankly,=
 I=20
  couldn't have been happier than when students first began having the cour=
age=20
  to admit their confusion. And my admission that I don't understand everyt=
hing=20
  has made the classroom a safer space for their suggestions (mine probably=
 end=20
  up carrying a little greater weight in the end, just because I'm the=20
  teacher).<BR><BR>Granted, this gets harder when we know a text intimately=
, as=20
  list members do PL and others. So I'll recast Michael's question in other=
=20
  terms: given all we know (or think we know) about PL, how can we resist t=
he=20
  temptation to make our usual arguments (or those of others) to our classe=
s so=20
  the students can ask "dumb" questions about things that just don't make s=
ense=20
  to them? I think one answer is to withhold our knowledge at first and dep=
loy=20
  it strategically when the time comes. I'd be interested to know what othe=
r=20
  list members do and think (even if you think I'm asking the wrong=20
  questions...).<BR><BR>Jason A. Kerr<BR><BR>-- <BR>The purpose of poetry i=
s to=20
  remind us<BR>how difficult it is to remain just one person,<BR>for our ho=
use=20
  is open, there are no keys in the doors,<BR>and invisible guests come in =
and=20
  out at will.<BR><BR>=E2=80=94Czeslaw Milosz, from "Ars Poetica?"=20
  <P>
  <HR>

  <P></P>_______________________________________________<BR>Milton-L mailin=
g=20
  list<BR>Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu<BR>Manage your list membership and ac=
cess=20
  list archives at=20
http://lists.richmond.edu/mailman/listinfo/milton-l</BLOCKQUOTE>
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