An Early Modern Christmas Poem

“Christmas (II)”

by George Herbert

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
      My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
      Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
      Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
      Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
      Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
      Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
      Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
      As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
      And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n His beams sing, and my music shine.

 

(Since 2008, I have posted a Christmas poem on either my blog or on Facebook.  Past poems have included Ben Jonson’s “A Hymn on the Nativity of My Savior,” John Donne’s “Annunciation” and “Nativity” from La Corona, “To Christ Our Lord” by Galway Kinnell, and “The Nativity Ode” by John Milton.”)

Designing Courses: . . . American Literature?

One of the jobs I’m interviewing for is a generalist sort of position, and I would need to teach American literature if I got the job (at least, it looks that way, though the job description is not 100% clear). American literature is not my area of expertise, and at first I was pretty nervous about designing a syllabus for something so far out of my area.  However, when I sat down and started going through American literature anthologies, I was surprised at how much American literature I have actually read and am even prepared to teach.  The MA exam helped a lot here, filling a number of gaps (I read all of Moby Dick, as well as Ellison’s Invisible Man, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and several important poets I had missed as an undergrad).  My own interest in seventeenth-century religion and literature also meant I knew a lot of the early American writers, such as Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Cotton Mather, etc.

But the other thing that helped was teaching and administrating UConn’s Freshman English Program. I had already taught Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl because it was included in Ways of Reading, the “standard” textbook for our “Seminar in Academic Writing” course (“standard” because everyone had to use it their first semester of teaching, but no one has to use it after that). Then, a few years later, I expanded my exposure to American literature in the process of working with Mary Isbell, my co-Assistant Director for the FE program for a time, and the rest of the editorial board to create our in-house textbook, Writing through Literature.*  Most of us who teach the “Writing through Literature” seminar center our courses around particular themes, and we cross all sorts of chronological, national, and continental boundaries when we choose our texts. The textbook we designed had to reflect that, and I spent a lot of time reading texts that were suggested by my colleagues for the textbook.  I read Susan Glaspell’s Trifles at the suggestion of Andy Maines, and a few Junot Díaz short stories at the suggestion of one of our adjuncts, and lots of Edgar Allen Poe because Jeanette Zissell pointed out that “The Raven” was not representative, and really, I would love “The Purloined Letter” and his other short stories. (She was right, of course.)  And after we whittled down the list of texts to what we could reasonably afford to include in the textbook, we had create assignments to go with them.  I ended up writing assignments for Mary Rowlandson and Sherman Alexie (among others), who I had read as an undergrad, but hadn’t thought about how to teach before.

So I’m feeling quite a bit better about the prospects of teaching American literature now! It’s always wonderful to think about teaching new things. I get a little giddy at the prospect, actually. I haven’t gotten to the point where I feel I can go do creative things with the course yet–I’d want to teach a “standard” version once or twice first. So, for now my syllabus is a basic survey, and I won’t bore anyone here with the details.

*After the 3rd internal edition, Mary Isbell–who did the heavy-lifting for refining this project, writing the introduction, and all the the little things that make such a massive endeavor come together–actually went and got a publisher for it, so it’s not just an in-house textbook anymore.

Reflective Writing Projects

Apparently I am temporarily ready to get back in the blogging groove.  We’ll see if I can keep this up for any extended period of time.  It’s the week after finals, and I just finished my first semester back teaching after a year off for a dissertation fellowship.  I was teaching a composition course (Seminar in Academic Writing through Literature) for the Women in Math, Science, and Engineering (WiMSE) Learning Community–and it was only the second semester of composition I had taught since having two years off while working as the assistant director of our first-year composition program. Our program has changed quite a bit in the eight years since I started teaching, and I’ve had to do a bit of adjusting, even accounting for the fact that I was working on many of the various teams that were designing the changes and making decisions about how they would be implemented. One such change was the formalization of a Reflective Writing Project as the last assignment of the semester, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about it’s use to students (and to me as a teacher) ever since I finished grading them last week.

The reflective writing project was meant to fulfill one of the course goals that, for many years, had appeared in our courses in implicit rather than explicit ways: students were to achieve “self understanding as an academic writer.” Some instructors incorporate lots of short reflective writing pieces over the course of the semester, sometimes with every draft, asking students to write a little bit about their process, revisions, areas the students think need work, etc.  This culminates in what is the standard form of reflective writing, I think, which is a full essay that asks students to look over the body of their written work from the semester (originally the project was envisioned as a formal portfolio, but I don’t think many instructors actually implement this), and reflect on what they have learned and what they are still struggling with. Some instructors have the reflective project go through the whole standard revision process, which at UConn includes either a small group tutorial or an individual conference, but this is optional, depending on how many other pages of revised writing students have done over the semester.

I will admit to a bit of skepticism when we first introduced the reflective writing project, especially the idea of a culminating essay.  I had often done an in-class reflective essay in place of a final exam back when we were required by the university to give a final exam, even when they did not make much sense given the type of writing and thinking our classes taught.  These in-class final exam essays I usually found to be trite, unduly flattering or insulting to me as a teacher (and sometimes, quite accidentally, both), and rarely did I see students actually learning something about themselves as writers. Rather, students regurgitated what they thought they should have learned by the end of the semester, based on what they had been taught but perhaps had not yet mastered.  It demonstrated to me that something I was teaching had gotten through to the students as a general concept, but not that students had actually achieved “self understanding as an academic writer.” This was most obvious when students would say that they had really learned how to write a focused paragraph that advanced the central ideas of their papers… but then proceeded to meander all over the blue-book page without ever making a point.

My first attempt at a reflective writing project two years ago didn’t go much better.  I had many of the same problems, despite having a statement that said, very clearly, that this was not a paper in which they were supposed to convince me how good or bad a teacher I was, or how good or bad a student they were, and that they did need to back up their claims about what they had learned with evidence, both from the other papers they had written, and in the form of the paper they were writing. The students didn’t seem to buy into the assignment, either. That semester had been a bit of a disaster from the very beginning, however, and it’s hard for me to tell if what went wrong was the assignment, or if what went wrong was the class itself.

So, I walked into this semester’s reflective writing project with a lot of pessimism and trepidation. I scaled down the assignment quite a bit, however, removing the research component and asking student to just reflect on their own writing. (I know, some of you are thinking, this is a scaled down assignment?) Here’s what it looked like:

Step 1: Re-read all your work, including short responses, rough drafts, and final drafts.

Step 2: Write a paper in which you reflect on the process of writing this semester. Your final paper should be at least 4 full pages (1400 words, roughly) but can go longer.

The emphasis here should be on reflection.  I want to see you thinking carefully about the purpose of academic writing, and how it is connected to the material we read and wrote about. Here are some questions to help you brainstorm possible avenues for reflection:

  1. What is the purpose of academic writing?  How did this class and the papers you wrote fit or challenge your expectations? (You may want to go back to Joseph Harris, and think about what he says the purpose of writing is, and how your papers and learning fit with the definitions of academic writing that we talked about at the beginning of the semester.)
  2. What was hard for you, and why?  What was easy, and why?  What started hard, but became easier?  What do you think will always be hard?
  3. What did you learn or figure out about writing that you didn’t know before?  What did you learn or figure out about the topics we wrote on that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t written the papers?
  4. What parts of writing are still a mystery to you?  What do you think you could or should continue to improve on?

You won’t (and shouldn’t try to) answer all of these questions in your paper.  You may want to choose just one set of questions, or even piece together bits from several of these. Also, don’t spend time trying to impress me. If you haven’t perfected some aspect of writing, that’s fine.  I’m much more interested in an honest reflection.

As with your other papers, you need to be sure to:

  1. Make an Argument.  It doesn’t have to be as complex as in your other papers, but you should have a central, controlling idea that guides what you choose to include in your paper. It should be evident to me from the introduction what that controlling idea is.
  2. Provide Evidence!  If you say that you really improved at figuring out a “so-what” factor, then you should walk me through the process of discovering your “so-what” factor in one or more of your papers.  If you got better at using ideas from other writers while giving them credit, quote a part of your paper where you do that, and explain why you did what you did with that quotation. If you discovered something about power or surveillance or spectacle that you wouldn’t have learned without writing your papers, quote a part of your paper as you explain what you learned. If one of your classmate’s comments on a rough draft really helped you see something in your paper that you didn’t see before, quote the comment.
  3. Have a So-What Factor.  Draw some conclusions about what you’ve learned over the course of the semester and where you still need to go.
  4. Revise, Edit, and Proofread.  Just as you know that your papers have all improved when you had the chance to revise once or more than once, you should give yourself the time to revise, edit, and proofread.  You may want to exchange papers with another student in the class, and give each other feedback and editing help, or visit the Writing Center.

I was really very pleased with most of the reflective papers I got this time, in a way that redeemed the reflective writing project for me.  In the case of one student who had struggled all semester, by reflecting on what she had been struggling with, she actually managed to do it in her reflective paper for the first time. This made the difference between failing the course, and passing. Another student realized that her fear of making her papers worse was actually preventing her from doing her best possible work, because she wasn’t able to bring herself to truly revise. There was a consistent pattern of students identifying something that they had worked hard on all semester, and honestly reflecting on whether or not they had actually *learned* to do it.  A lot of my students said that they had improved in a particular area, but also were able to tease out what still wasn’t working, and often times why it wasn’t working (and, most gratifyingly, all of their ideas about why a particular aspect wasn’t working were their own and not just parroting my comments, and they made sense). That kind of reflection, to my mind, is the most important step in figuring out how to fix a problem, even if it takes time well beyond the confines of a single semester.

Designing Courses: the Bible and Literature

One of the few fun things about being on the job market is that, in preparation for interviews, I need to start thinking about all the different courses I might want to teach at different schools.  All these schools have slightly different course descriptions: will the Renaissance survey be one course, covering from 1485 to 1660, or two, one focused on the sixteenth century and the other on the seventeenth? Or will it break into two along formal lines, with one course focused on poetry and prose, and the other on drama?  Will the Brit Lit Survey break into two around 1798/1800, or will it split into three with the breaks at 1616 and 1832? Will the school not even have literature surveys based in time periods and nations, but instead have Introductions to each of the forms: Introduction to Poetry, Introduction to Fiction, and Introduction to Drama?  Or will there even be an Introduction to Literature course, which is expected to introduce students to all three?

There are specialist courses, the classes that you use to answer the interview question, “What would be your dream course?”  For me, these might be classes in Milton, Shakespeare and popular culture, the Metaphysical poets, early modern martyrdom, or book history.

And then there are the other sorts of classes that I would love to teach occasionally if they were available, but aren’t directly in my field: Religion and Literature. The Bible as Literature. Speculative Fiction.

All of this is a meandering discussion to get to what I’ve been working on (on and off for the last few weeks).  For most of these courses, except in the last category, I already had syllabi put together for last year’s job market.  I may need to tweak a few to fit different schools’ schedules (oh, you’re on a 10 week quarter system instead of a 16 week semester?) or course descriptions, but mostly, they’re done. But, to give myself something to do that will keep me from panicking about the state of the job market and the fact that I’ve only got one MLA interview so far and it’s not even for a TT position (imagine saying all of that in one breath), I’m putting together some syllabi for a few of these other courses.

Right now, the syllabus I’m most pleased with is for the Bible and Literature.  Now, different schools have very different approaches to teaching the Bible and Literature just like they do with Renaissance or survey courses: there’s the Bible as literature, the Bible in literature, and the more ambiguous Bible and Literature.  The Bible as literature focuses on the Bible’s literary forms and genres, and how to interpret the Bible as a literary (rather than strictly historical or religious) text. Sometimes, though not usually, it involves looking at how modern literary theories (such as post-colonial or gender theory) can be applied to Biblical texts.  The Bible in Literature, on the other hand, examines the Bible’s influence on things we more usually understand as literature, from the influence of Christianity on the Beowulf poet up through Flannery O’Connor.  The Bible and literature can potentially mean any or all three of things I’ve mentioned (and probably a few things I’ve forgotten to mention).

I think my own approach, by preference at least, will be the combined model. I think students need to understand the literary qualities of biblical texts, but I also am very interested in how these biblical texts get used in texts we more immediately think of as literature. After all, the adaptation of Biblical texts–the parodic rewritings in Chaucer and the Wakefield Master, and Milton and Herbert’s quite serious adaptations–were what drew me to graduate school in the first place.

So, I’ve decided on a three-pronged approach to teaching the Bible and Literature:

  1. The Bible isn’t a prong so much as the handle, I suppose.  I want to give students a smattering of everything, but we’ll focus on the elements that get most used and referenced in our culture.  For Hebrew Bible narratives, we’ll focus on the Creation/Fall, Abraham and Isaac, the Exodus, Saul and David, Job, Daniel, and Esther. We’ll also spend a fair bit of time on the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah. For New Testament narrative, we’ll read all of Luke and John, a big chunks of of Acts of the Apostles and Revelation. For epistles, we’ll read Paul’s letter to the Romans, as well as the book of James. And we’ll do the book of Judith from the Apocrypha, as well.
  2. So, the first prong will really be contextualizing materials, primarily in the form of essays on literary form, on biblical and near-east cultures and religion, on Hebrew and Christian interpretive methods, etc. Most of the essays I’m drawing from would be in the Oxford Study Bible, but some will be from other sources.
  3. The second prong will be literary theory: there are several really great resources (such as The Post-Modern Bible and The Post-Modern Bible Reader) that explore how post-modern literary theory has been applied to biblical texts.  We won’t use such readings with every text, but I’m planning on using Robert Warrior’s “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” with a short bit from Joshua, Mieke Bal’s “Lots of Writing” with Esther, Terry Eagleton’s “J.L. Austin and the Book of Jonah,” and Hillis Miller’s “Parables in the Gospels and in Literature.”
  4. The third prong will be literary adaptations: for most texts, we’ll engage with several short literary or artistic adaptations of the texts. Limiting myself to adaptations rather than simply allusion makes it much easier to choose which texts we’ll be reading.  For the Creation and Fall, for example, we’ll read short selections from Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. We’ll read Wyatt’s Penintential Psalms as the bridge between our David section and the Psalms.  We’ll listen to Handel’s Messiah when we get to Isaiah, and look at Renaissance art when we deal with Judith (why were 16th/17th century artists obsessed with the beheading of Holofernes?).  We’ll read The Second Shepherd’s Play when we do the Nativity from Luke, and watch The Passion of the Christ when we get to the Crucifixion.The assignment that goes with this part of the course is where I get most excited: I’m imagining a five-minute student presentation on a piece of art–a song, a statue, a painting–that was inspired by or adapts the text we’re reading for the day. A good friend got me started thinking of all the different songs I could suggest to students: Metallica’s “Creeping Death” for Exodus, Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” for the Gospels, The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” for Ecclesiastes, etc.

Saving Aiming High

When I was in elementary and middle school, I was part of the “gifted” education program known as Aiming High. In elementary school, this meant one day a week I was sent off to a separate classroom with a different teacher, and I was joined by other students who needed to be challenged from around the school district (in sixth grade, I bussed across town for this program).  In middle school, my core classes of Language Arts and Social Studies were with this same group of students.

Now, the school distract is planning on dismantling the program.  It’s hard to tell from 3000 miles away when I can’t attend meetings, but it sounds like they want to implement differentiated classrooms, where the “gifted” students are integrated into regular classrooms, and teachers are expected to teach students of all different levels at the same time. This really breaks my heart: integrated classrooms were often a nightmare, and led to behavior problems when teachers didn’t know what to do with me. I almost always felt isolated and exiled from the rest of the class.

I’m not alone in this feeling, and there’s a letter writing campaign starting among other Aiming High alumni on Facebook to ask the school board to rethink this decision.  I thought I would post the letter I wrote to the school board here:

Dear Dr. Quinn and Members of the Ferndale School Board:

My name is Dr. Patricia Taylor, and I am writing to you in support of the Aiming High Program. It has come to my attention that the school district in Ferndale is considering dismantling the current Aiming High program in favor of differentiated classes. I am terribly saddened by this plan, and must ask you to oppose the changes that I believe would materially damage the benefits that Aiming High has provided students from Ferndale for decades. Changing the program, especially without first conducting careful studies through pilot programs, will put gifted students at risk. The Aiming High program had a tremendous positive effect on my life, and the lives of so many who went through the program along side me. In the rest of this letter, I would like to explain to you what I experienced in the Ferndale School District and why the Aiming High program in its current form means so much to me.

I graduated from Ferndale High School in 2001, after having been part of the Ferndale School District since the first grade. I entered Aiming High in the third grade, and it was a crucial part of my education. While I often had teachers in my regular classrooms who worked very hard to create a space where I could learn, I usually ended up isolated from my peers, in reading and math groups by myself, or with only one or two other students. These differentiated classrooms literally exiled me from the rest of the class. I was left to sit quietly and teach myself, or worse, to sit with nothing to do because the teachers did not have the time work with me one-on-one when so many other students had more pressing needs. This, more than anything, is my dominant memory of my non-Aiming High elementary school: hiding a novel under my desk so that I could have something to do while the other students continued with worksheets and lessons. Without my novels, I became bored and disengaged, which resulted in behavioral problems, making life even more difficult for my teachers. But even with the novels, I was not learning, only stagnating. At one point, a regular classroom teacher who refused to address my learning needs actually insisted I needed to stop learning so that my fellow students could catch up. He said that I should be tutoring the students who weren’t at my level yet, despite the fact that I was 10, had no training in tutoring, and would probably have done more harm than good to these students. My parents were compelled to home school me for the rest of the school year so that I could continue learning.

Aiming High was often the only thing that kept me invested in school. In elementary school, it was the one time each week when I received instruction that actually challenged me. I remember some assignments and activities from Aiming High with more clarity than I remember those of my college courses. In middle school, Aiming High pushed me beyond my comfort zone on a daily basis. Most important to me now, looking back on my educational experiences, was how Aiming High allowed me to learn in community with other students who were working at the same level, and who shared different, creative ways of thinking about problems. This community was absolutely crucial to my intellectual development, especially in conjunction with teachers who created lesson plans and assignments that pushed us all to think independently but work collaboratively. No class would do as excellent a job stirring my intellectual curiosity and creativity until I got to college. To integrate high achieving and gifted students like me back into regular classrooms will deprive them of the intellectual community we need to thrive.

The curiosity and creativity that Aiming High fostered was what made it possible for me to complete my Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature. I do not trace the origins of my success to my experience in college, or to high school, but all the way back to the first creative thinking activity we did in my third grade Aiming High Class, where we were told to think of every possible use for a toilet seat. We went around the room, and each student had to come up with a new idea. It isn’t the specific activity that mattered, but what it symbolizes: a constant, perpetual rethinking of the every day objects we encountered. If a toilet seat could become a fly trap, or a hat, or any of the other absurd things we thought of, what could we do with a literary text, a historical document, a math problem?  As my fellow Aiming High students have demonstrated, we could do a lot: we went on to win History Day prizes and Math Olympiads. We become engineers, lawyers, teachers, and musicians. Without Aiming High, I would not be where I am now. My ability to think critically, to push the boundaries of my field, to do careful research, and to write clearly all began in Aiming High, long before regular classes began to teach those skills.

Please, do not dismantle or substantially change the Aiming High program. It was the one place where I was encouraged to reach my full potential. It was the one place where I did not feel exiled and alienated from other students. It was the one place where I encountered fellow students who could truly challenge me. It was the one place where I felt it was actually safe to be excited about learning. To change the program radically runs the risk of ruining these benefits, without equitable returns.

 

Sincerely, 

Patricia R. Taylor, Ph.D.

Department of English

University of Connecticut

215 Glenbrook Rd., U-25

Storrs, CT 06269-4025