Thursday, October 25, 2012

Learning to Teach--Teaching to Learn

I received the Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Southern State College, now Southern Arkansas University, in June of 1967 and immediately moved to Alabama to do graduate work at Auburn, where I eventually earned the Doctor of Philosophy. My wife, also a recent college graduate, got a job in the Textile Engineering department there and my teaching assistantship started in the fall semester. I will never forget first walking into my assigned Freshman English class. I had no teaching experience at all and I am introverted and shy. But I knew I wanted a career as a college English professor, so I studied the Freshman English books with vigor, backed my ears, opened my mouth and taught.

By the second week I had learned that my talent for drawing came in very handy to gain and retain attention. I could illustrate poems such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn” on the old chalk board while explaining the poet’s intentions. Drawing a sprawling cartoon of the dramatic situation behind Browning’s “My Last Duchess” was a real crowd-pleaser, bringing robust laughter even from the thick-necked Southeastern Conference football champs. So, I got the hang of entertaining as I sought to impart insights into the material at hand.

Entertainment and enlightenment go hand in hand in all teaching, speaking and writing. Professors who are as dry as dust never learn this. It is as if they are so eager to get the subject matter across that they bore their audiences to tears. But there is another side to the issue as well. During the years when I was an academic dean, I had to bring subtle correction to several faculty members whose desire to entertain classes resulted in loss of credibility often culminating in loss of control. As the wise Roman Horace admonished, we must keep entertainment and enlightenment in balance with each other. Otherwise, we run the risk of being obtuse on the one hand or frivolous on the other.

During that first semester of teaching at Auburn, I learned some other things that have helped me through almost a half a century in the profession. As a general rule, college students lose more points from failure to follow instructions than from anything else. If the instructions say, “Discuss two of the following topics in a brief essay,” it is wrong to discuss one in great detail or three scantily. If the instructions say, “Answer the following questions in complete sentences,” responding in phrases will be incorrect. If the professor marks the phrase wrong, the student may counter, “But I obviously understood the material.” Unfortunately, however, the student didn’t understand the question. Another thing I have learned is that students who come to a professor’s office frustrated are seldom looking for a solution. Instead, they are looking for a listener. Very often, when students know you are listening intently, they verbalize a solution to their own problem.

The most important thing I learned in my first college class was that if I treated students with respect, I received respect in return. Even when recording an “F” on an essay, one should give written encouragement as to how to improve. People whose English is non-standard are not thereby bad people. Our linguistic skills have nothing to do with character.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Old Nancy

Probably because of all the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies I saw as a kid, I wanted a horse so earnestly it hurt. I let that desire be known on a regular basis to my not-so-longsuffering parents. Their answer was always the same: “We don’t have a place to keep a horse, son.” My consistent response was, “We could keep him down at the farm.” That suggested solution always ended the argument in their favor. They ignored me.

You see, we owned an old farm place in Louisiana, some 50 miles from our urban dwelling. My parents had rented their remote 40-acres and ramshackled house to an old couple named Eb and Flo for next to nothing. They kept the place up, sort of, grew an unkempt and often unwatered vegetable garden and maintained a motley flock of mismatched chickens, some of which regularly wandered up the rickety back steps and into the fetid kitchen. Eb and Flo ate at a table upon which undisciplined hens had waddled, pecking at food particles and leaving behind foul fowl designs.

Eb always had a huge chew of Red Man leaking down his stubble and he maintained several stashes of bargain-priced Red Dagger half-pints around the place. The hearth was decorated with splashes of tobacco juice and the place smelled like Red Dagger, Red Man, Watkins liniment, rotten sticks, mud and the dank and darkened pool hall in my town.

Anyway, when I could write my age in two ciphers, Mother and Pop relented and decided I could have a horse. They acted like it was their idea to keep the critter down on the farm. They purchased an old plow horse named Nancy for $20 and turned her over to Eb to use in whatever fashion pleased him, so long as Danny could ride the broad-backed behemoth on weekends. Of course, this arrangement was satisfactory to Eb, who worked the poor old equine to blisters during the week. When I rode her, I found her heavy-footed, recalcitrant, barn-prone and about as gaited as a slow loris. Old Nancy’s trot was cow-like but her walk made a delightful cradle for observing the country roads in that part of Louisiana. I was leaving the age of playing cowboys, but I learned to appreciate the way a horse ride can put you in touch with smells, sounds and sights no car ride can. And you don’t have to peddle a horse.

So, I wanted a pony, but in the fullness of time I got an old plow horse that had seen it all. She was not kid-friendly, though, so I had to learn to force my mount to do things my way instead of hers, which was good horsemanship training. The only time old Nancy galloped, if that’s what you want to call it, was when her nose was pointed toward home. Then she thought she was a quarter horse. It was a joy to feel her stretch out and even smooth out somewhat as she split the wind barnward.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Verbal Battery

Since my college is a little shorthanded in the speech department, the administration has resorted to using some English teachers like me to take up the slack. Of course I was excited about the political debates this year, since skills of argumentation are a large part of our program. We want to teach our students how to have civil arguments while putting their best foot forward.  So, I had my students watch and write a report on the first presidential debate, paying attention to such fundamental necessities as dress, grooming, eye-contact, voice control, articulation and gestures. When they came in, I judged all the essays to be successful in that they covered the subject, carefully pointing out that both candidates were professionally dressed and groomed. They gave the Governor the edge in eye-contact and gestures, but on voice control and articulation, the two were generally thought to be equal.

However, even though I didn’t ask for the students to declare a winner, most did and most agreed with the apparent consensus in the media that the Governor “won” the contest. Only four out of the twenty students enrolled wrote that the President had been victorious in the debate, though subdued. These four opined that the Governor did not resemble their previous impressions of him and concluded that the image he portrayed must therefore have been false. Other students who mentioned the ostensible change in the Governor argued that the debate was his first opportunity to appear unfiltered alongside his opponent. The language most of my students used in describing the event included words like “clobbered,” “beat,” “overpowered,” “dominated” and other bellicose descriptors.

Those word choices of my students interested me because of the etymology of the word “debate” itself. It is from an Old French word of the 1300s “debatre,” which meant “to fight.” The “batre” part of the word is related to “battery,” which means “beat,” in the sense of “assault and battery.” So, I concluded that the ancient sense of the word “debate” as a fight is still very much alive and well in the minds of contemporary students. For them, it is as if the candidates are saying at the beginning of the debate, “Them’s fightin’ words.”

I’m writing this before the vice-presidential debate takes place, but I’d wager that the attitude of the event as a fight will be very much in evidence in Danville. No matter how much the candidates smile, shake hands and even embrace before and after the debate, it is a war of words they wage.

In Oxford, Mississippi one time, I attended a panel of the top Faulkner scholars in America, two of whom had some well-known disagreements. When question time came at the end of the presentation, an audience member persistently tried to get the two of them to argue with each other. One of the scholars replied, “So, what you are saying is, ‘let’s you and him fight’.” I loved the line and so did the audience. And that’s why we love debates—watching word fights, linguistic assault and battery, you know.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Balance of Power

Violence to end violence has been a part of the human story from very early in our history. The so-called nuclear “balance of power” has that very concept at its root: the threat of violence neutralizes the act of violence on both sides. However, when terrorists who do not value human life, including their own, get ahold of atomic weapons, the concept falls apart rapidly. There is nothing to restrain such people from blowing us all away.

Along those lines of the human tendency to use violence supposedly end violence, I have been thinking about that idea in my own Anglo-Saxon roots. In the heroic poem “Beowulf,” for example, the title character comes to the aid of Denmark’s King Hrothgar to kill Grendel, a homeless demon who has been terrorizing Hrothgar’s celebration hall. Beowulf’s reputation as a strong man who uses his strength to destroy evil for the benefit of good proves true in Denmark. He rips off Grendel’s arm and hangs it in the hall as a trophy as the monster slinks back to his hideous hag of a mother.

Interestingly, the story was extant before the missionaries came from Rome. When scribes helped write it down in Anglo-Saxon, a language we call Old English, they added Christian elements. Grendel and his mother are described as descendants of Cain, doomed to wander. It just may be Grendel’s homelessness that makes him murderously jealous of the Danes.

At any rate, Beowulf uses what some may term excessive force in killing the demon, thus employing violence to end the violence against Hrothgar’s kingdom. But that episode does not end the strife. Grendel’s mother takes up the terroristic plot against the Danes and Beowulf doubles down on his violent response until the old hag is dead as well. Thus Beowulf’s reputation grows as a problem solver, one who does not turn the other cheek, but who returns blow for blow until he prevails against those who would harm his friends.

But neither does that episode end the violence. His reputation catapults Beowulf into a kingship of his own in his native land where he rules well for 50 years. Toward the end of his long tenure as a respected and feared leader, a foul old fire-breathing dragon on the outskirts of his kingdom has been offended and wreaks havoc on Beowulf’s subjects. With the help of his longtime right-hand man Wiglaf, Beowulf very violently kills the beast, but not before he himself is mortally wounded.

So, it would seem that very early in Anglo-Saxon myth, the balance of power, that is, using violence to end violence, is temporary and intermittent. As I read the old poem, I can’t help but think of the Book of Revelation in scripture. I ponder the demons, the whore of Babylon and the old dragon himself. While I don’t think Beowulf was intended as a Christ figure by the Christian redactors of the old story, they do show him victorious in the end, though mortally wounded. By contrast, the ultimate balancer of power in Revelation is victorious, alive, and armed.