“Suspended, like a prehistoric fly”


The title of this post is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Black Cat” (“Schwarze Katze“). Although the cat in this photo (Pollux, guardian of the Dallas Institute) is orange, not black, the poem suits him at times and through time.

I was going to post a hawk picture (taken here in Dallas), along with a quote from Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk“–but the picture was too dark. The poem is magnificent and pairs well with the Rilke.

On Friday we celebrated the conclusion of the Tragedy and Comedy course at the Summer Institute. The joy and gratitude are still all around me, in the sunlight and coffee, in the well-packed books. In just a few minutes I head out to the airport to return to New York City. My cats await.

From August 2 through 7, I will be guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs (as I have done in the past). Expect some pieces on languages, teacher education, literature, international education, pseudoscience, logic, and more. (If I write a piece on each of these subjects, there will be room for just one “wildcard,” assuming I post twice on one of those days. Let’s see what happens.) I may also post a piece or two here during this time–but look there first.

Like Pollux above, I am on a threshold, but I don’t know what’s on the other side (or on this side, for that matter). I have been applying for jobs for the fall, some within NYC, some elsewhere. Nothing definite has come through, nor do I know my chances. As the uncertainties grow, I open myself to more possibilities. I believe that something good and unexpected will come through.

But first: the flight.

Knowledge vs. Nonsense

Rarely does an article make me cheer as did Shannon Rupp’s in Salon (about the benefits of studying philosophy). Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

I’ve long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring — the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense.

A treasure! Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for bringing it to my attention.

It brings me back to my first year of teaching, when I wrote a letter to the New York Times about the misguided focus on “strategies,” especially reading strategies.

“Strategies” of that kind make me queasy (unlike chess strategies, which I enjoy). Yet I fear that the “strategy” nonsense is now being supplanted by other kinds of nonsense (or even wrapped up inside it). At least there are people calling out the nonsense! Here’s another quote from Rupp’s article:

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Yes, and the same can be said about “strategies.” What are they? In many cases, they are methods of evasion. When I taught elementary and middle school, I saw students dutifully look at the picture on the cover, read the blurbs, make predictions about the book’s contents–before even opening the book and reading. They had been taught to do this. Then, once they started reading, they continued dancing around the text–making “text-to-self connections,” using pictures to help with word meanings, and so on. I encouraged them to pay attention to what was actually there.

But now the focus is on “close reading,” and while that’s an improvement, it might get taken too far. For instance, you do need to understand certain things outside the text in order to grasp the text. Try a “close reading” of Aristophanes without any knowledge of mythology, ancient Greek literature, or ancient Greek history! You might as well try to boil a turnip without water (or other suitable liquid).

Also, reading is not always linear; the mind goes here and there, drawing connections and imagining things. When you read Crime and Punishment, for instance, you start to feel the presence of Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovich. You can cite textual evidence, of course, when describing these presences, but it’s also good to take them in less rationally, to imagine them in the room. This requires close reading, but not of a strictly analytical kind. Similarly, when reading a poem (such as Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“), it’s as important to take in its mystery as it is to notice its structure, syntax, and tropes. (This goes for literary nonfiction as well; if you try to read Emerson’s “Experience” in a strictly analytical manner, your mind will end up in knots, and the text will fly away.)

How should one read, then? Well, the thing one reads will often lead the way. If it’s good literature, it calls for careful, thoughtful, imaginative reading. If it’s nonsense, well, then, it calls for the “spot-the-nonsense” strategy, which requires some background knowledge–of philosophy, literature, and other subjects–as well as a salutary allergy to buzzwords and overpuffed ideas.