Category Archives: Inside Ed School

Random experiences and thoughts as I pursue my M.Ed. in Adolescent Education-English at the Hunter College School of Education, CUNY

The Corporatization of Teaching

This is what’s going to happen to teachers very soon (read both articles). I’ll have more to say on this topic soon, I hope:

Temporal Bandwidths: Recontextualizations of Victorian History in Thomas Pynchon’s “Against the Day”

A work in progress. Read it (.pdf) here.

Ecstasies of Emptiness: Astronomical Perspectives in Wallace Stevens’ “Auroras of Autumn”

This recent paper is too long to post, so to read the whole thing, you’ll have to download the Word file.

Here’s a little excerpt:

The fifth and sixth tercets return us to “The theatre,” explicitly situating the earth in the universe:

The theatre is filled with flying birds,
Wild wedges, as of a volcano’s smoke, palm-eyed
And vanishing, a web in a corridor

Or massive portico. A capitol,
It may be, is emerging or has just
Collapsed. The denouement has to be postponed …

(Collected Poems, 416.)

Map of the entire sky, based on 95,851,173 stars. Courtesy NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The earth may be as “a web” in a universe that may be a “corridor” or a “massive portico.” The simplicity yet sophistication of these architectural metaphors for the universe is stunning. Two, possibly more, competing and equally valid conceptions of astronomical time and space are summed up in a mere five words. Stevens would return and expand upon the subject in canto vi (coincidentally) of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” – a poem on similar themes, if absent the apotheosis of the “supernatural” setting of “Auroras” – and its Alphas and Omegas representing the two competing theories of astronomical time (where “alpha” is the portico that “continues to begin” and “omega” the corridor that is “refreshed at every end” (469)), but nowhere else would he capture this concept whole with the same poetic intensity and economy. And what is this physical universe, this reality here – for that matter, what is the world or the galaxy? A capitol? May be. Emerging or just collapsed? Astronomical theories support both. “The denouement has to be postponed …” because we just don’t know, and because we must at all costs postpone our mortality. And our knowledge of the physical universe ends, not with a bang but with a whimper, as the canto drifts into that beautiful closing ellipsis, silenced by its own ecstasy of emptiness.

Read the whole paper here:

For a wonderful introduction to Wallace Stevens, see Professor Langdon Hammer — the chairman of the Yale English Department — introduce Stevens and his poetry on Yale’s Open Yale Courses channel here:

Education Thought of the Day

If you design a curriculum that can be taught by machines, it will be taught by machines.

William Faulkner Unit Plan

For those high school teachers out there, who may be interested today or tomorrow, North or South, the link will download and/or take you to an 11th-grade unit plan on William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.

It’s a draft, and your comments are most welcome.

UPDATE: Below is the link to the “final” version of this Unit Plan.

Happy Summer, everyone!

The 7 Continents of Marianne Moore’s “England”

[full text of the poem here:]

Marianne Moore’s “England” is, of course, a poem about America. (Ah, you devilish moderns; on reading you we might want to heed John Ashberry’s implicit warning: if we’d wanted to be clear, we’d have written an instruction manual; instead, have some Guadalajara) (Ashbery, 14:1-7).

So to the question, why is a poem about America called “England?” First, of course (of course!), and just to complicate – to look at the back side of the page as well as the front – to the high modern priestess Moore the poem, any poem worth writing, must follow the modernist creed down the alleys of the poem’s own Guadalajara-of-the-mind, must be always about its own making, its own self-actualizing. The poem must be an enactment of its own poetic thesis, at once a reification and one unique memorialization of the eternal rediscovery of first principles that was and is the high modernist project for poetry. So “England” is not just a poem about Americabut also, always, a poem about American poetry by way of being about itself, this specific American poem. And to Ms. Moore we (admittedly) presume, untroubled in 1920 as we suspect she would still be in 1960 by the idea that the American poem could be written by some Mexican or French Canadian, the American poem was a poem in English. And to the poet in English isn’t all the world an “England?”

In fact the poem works quite hard to conflate the “England” of its title (if a title
it can be called) not just with America but with the entire world. As Moore’s “The Fish” typographically enacts the shape of a fish, “An Octopus” an octopus, here in “England” we have seven blocky, tectonic-edged stanzas typographically representing the seven continents. Of course (of course!), in a world which is England which is the world which is just a poem, these are continents we wouldn’t recognize in any geography. (For all her “precision,” in W.C. Williams’ fine word for her, Ms. Moore will leave the niceties of Geography with a capital “G” for Sister Elizabeth.) Indeed, as stanza five points out, these are if anything “continents of misapprehension” (17), making up a world where Europe (constituted only of England, Italy, Greece, and France) spills across nearly two continents (stanzas one and two), where Asia as a whole (constituted only as “the East”) (7) takes up just two lines (or half a continent) that merely encrust the shores of Europe and America, where America sprawls across four continents, and where there is neither any Southern Hemisphere, Arctic nor Antarctic.

 “Misapprehension” – in the form of “continents of misapprehension” – which appears in the first line of stanza five (17), recurs in the first line of stanza six: “To have misapprehended the matter, is to have confessed / that one has not looked far enough” (21-22). The poem appears to turn in some critical way on the fulcrum of these twin “misapprehensions.” But what is in fact being misapprehended is highly ambiguous. The rhetoric of the poem (inasmuch as a poem where “words remain separate, each unwilling to group with the others” (Williams, 231) can be said to have a rhetoric) strains towards an American triumphalism, a glorification of the American grain, which the concluding stanzas of the poem appear to celebrate and which – mistaking the “ramshackle” south for America as a whole (11), “poisonous toadstools” (18) for “mushrooms” (19), Boston “a”s for proper mid-Atlantic “a”s (15-16) – minds like the Anglophile Eliot’s or the Italo‑phile Pound’s, subsumed in and represented in absentia by the “England” and “Italy” of this poem’s world, can and will never properly or fully apprehend.

                                  The sublimated wisdom
                    … the cataclysmic torrent of emotion…
          …the flower and fruit of all that noted superiority –
      should one not have stumbled upon it in America, must one imagine
that it is not there? (22-27)

Yet perceptually the poem enacts its own opposite and possibly even more radical misapprehension. In its argument for Americaand an American poetry “England” enacts a radical foreshortening of the world that is not America. This radically foreshortened world includes only America, Western Europe, and the coasts of Asia (a vision fraught with potentially unhappy political and canonical implications beyond our focus here). And from the heights of this radical American self-regard the poem reduces all of England to mere “baby rivers and little towns” (1) and a lone “voice … echoing through the transept” (2). Italy is likewise reduced to the symmetry of its shores and a “contriving … epicurianism” (4); Greeceto its “goats,” “gourds” and “illusions” (5); France to
a single, highly artificed pillbox (5-8); and all of Asia to “snails,” “jade cockroaches” and “imperturbability” (8-9). It is a vision almost comical in its foreshortening, instantly reminiscent of the iconic New Yorker

Steinberg for The New Yorker, March 1976.

cover where all the world beyond the Hudson River is reduced to a vanishingly small sliver on the horizon. But this foreshortening also enacts quite literally a misapprehension thoroughly congruent with – almost painfully analogous to – the classic Bloomsian ideas of misreading and misprision, which in their way themselves misapprehend and reenact Eliot’s ruminations on the functioning of the true “individual talent” and its implications for the ongoing re-immersion, reordering, and reconstitution of the past.

Because what are these England, these Italy, these Greece, but the grounds upon which the modernist poetical project must grow: a set of inescapable cultural antecedents here willfully misapprehended, belittled and displaced; a quite thorough catalog of the usable past shrunk to the dimension of the useful aphorism, the greatest number of big cultural fish skillfully caught in the flimsiest possible net justifying Moore’s nearly xenophobic (and certainly self-aggrandizing) boast, “I envy nobody” (25-26). What Romantic poet or Victorian novelist escapes the purview of England’s “baby rivers and little towns” (1), which in our dizzying American misapprehension sweeps up London and the Thames as readily as Thornton or the Wye? How pithily the full scope of Anglo‑Catholicism and Established Anglicanism are compassed both in two mere words, “abbey” (for Catholicism) and “cathedral” (for Anglicanism) (1), that so slim but still lethal crossing between them suggested with such poetic economy, “one voice perhaps, echoing through the transept” (2), which one voice subsumes not just the obvious Milton, but even Shakespeare himself, that “sun” of the crucible of Elizabethan politics who caught and reflected the heat and light thrown off by the great (and continuing) conflict and unrequited love of London for Rome. The enormity of the conflict between antiquity and modernity that is Italy captured whole, perceptually if not cartographically, between two “equal shores” (3‑4), the entirety of Western mythology encapsulated in a Grecian “nest of modified illusions” (5).

In nine-and-a-half lines Moore renders a complete (if necessarily distorted) catalog of laden tradition, the supposedly requisite cultural antecedents that have the power to either nourish or kill, and which, if to nourish, must first be killed. In Adorno‘s construction, properly hating tradition, condemned to an eternally self-cannibalizing menti, Tom Pusillanimous Possum Stearns with his nose stuck perpetually up his own ass, the properly modernist poet destroys to create, dances her circle-jerk of eternal return, while the rest of us, at least at first, scratch our heads and wonder, ‘what the hell was that all about?’

Ms. Moore’s American poem is both born in and borne along by just such a symbolic slaughter, her willful misapprehension – misreading (if there is any discernible nuance in the space between “misapprehension” and “misreading”) – of this uniquely catalogued set of indelible poetic antecedents which seem meant to stand for the complete set of all indelible antecedents, and which the poem seeks to put ‘in their place’ (as it were) – in their own, new place, a place “not confined to one locality” (28) – before and in the course of justifying its own enactment. And in the place of that foreshortened and displaced past, at the very center of this new world (and at the physical center of the poem), born of a pair of mutually exclusive but equally willful misreadings, we discover the one thing that stands unequivocally outside the otherwise inescapable web of misapprehensions: “not .. Greek,” “not … Latin,” “but … plain American which cats and dogs can read!” (14-15).

Yet, can this place exist? Can there truly be a place outside of misapprehension? If the space of the poem is, as we have postulated, a space caught between two symmetrical and irreconcilable misapprehensions – one rhetorical, one perceptual – a double-blind double-bind – can we trust either the world, ourselves, or the poem, when it asserts that something can actually be read? By its own logic the poem seems to be arguing that either this opaque and difficult thing before us is now poetry even if through some Euro-centric perversity it cannot be recognized as such; or alternatively that the perversity is Moore’s, that the poem’s distancing from tradition and historical modes of signification is too great, and this thing is no poem but merely a meaningless assibilation let loose on its own “language-less country” (13). Is there here, too, then, no there there?

Taken on its own terms Moore’s “England” wants to argue for a plain-spoken Americanism as a basis for a new poetry. But can the poem be said to succeed on its own terms? Can it be said to be as self-evident and unpretentious as The Compleat Angler, which it cites? To which we offer a halfway answer from the poem itself: to “cats and dogs” maybe. Certainly Moore has brought all the “correct” ideas – correct from the standpoint of a modernist theory of poetics (meeting all the minimum requirements of a modernist (cat and) dog-whistle) – to bear in her work. And there is certainly an exquisite refinement in the piquancy and economy of her language, an earthiness of voice, a precise, consistently utilitarian, and unpretentious choice of words. Yet somehow, in her zeal, Moore’s language has flown straight past America, landing in that place, as she herself says, that is “never … confined to one locality” (28). There is an almost patrician lack of song – lines that land too often on the ear, in my humble opinion, like Mitt Romney singing “America the Beautiful” – that holds her work, in general, one step from greatness. For all the lack of pretense in diction there is a commensurate lack of dirt and merde that leaves her poems one step too far along the continuum from affect to abstraction, a calculating cleverness that may leave one cold.

In all the cleverness of “England” being actually a poem about America something obvious – perhaps too obvious to theorize on – has been lost. I can’t imagine muttering, as I motor down the street, “contriving an Epicureanism from which the grossness has been extracted” (4-5) in the same manner in which I often find myself witlessly muttering, “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee,” (Stevens, 66:1-2) or, “Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (Whitman, 246:51:8-9). Moore’s vaunted but absurd efforts to name the Ford Edsel – “Intelligent Whale,” “Mongoose Civique,” “Utopian Turtletop” (Santos, 264) – missed the point in
a similar and telling way. Ironically, what they lack is a certain commercial “poetry.” They don’t scan. Like “England” they seem more clever words on America than trenchant utterances of America. And as the poem’s conclusion would have it, by having purposely unconfined themselves from any locality, these utterances belong instead to a nebulous space – a space between misapprehension and misapprehension, between abstraction and abstraction – that could no more be occupied by a real car name than by what we might more fully, bloodily, call poetry. If England is America is a poem, it is also nowhere: a place where place has no importance. And nowhere remains a difficult place for poetry.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. “The Instruction Manual.” Some Trees. New York:  The Ecco Press, 1978.

Moore, Marianne. “England.” In Lawrence Rainey, editor, Modernism: An Anthology. Malden, Mass., Oxford, andCarlton, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Santos, Irene Ramalho. “Poetry in the Machine Age. Marianne Moore: a voracity of contemplation.” In Sacvan Bercovich, general editor, The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume Five: Poetry and Criticism, 1900-1950.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 2003.

Stevens, Wallace. “Sunday Morning.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

Williams, William Carlos. “Spring and All.” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1: 1909-1939. New York: New Directions, 1986.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Whitman: Poetry and Prose. New York: The Library of America, 1982.

The Birth of Tragedy AND the Linguistics of Musicology — or Gleefully Problematizing Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (image courtesy WikiCommons)

Do we sometimes have the tendency to forget that the full title of Nietzsche’s essay that we have under examination this semester is “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music?” Yet Nietzsche hardly talks about music at all. And when he does speak of music, his observations strike me as highly suspect and far from unimpeachable.

Nietzsche himself, ironically, makes the case against Birth of Tragedy’s concept of music, recognizing in his 1886 introduction that he has mistaken the kitsch and bombast of Wagnerian opera for a glimpse of the Dyonisiac empyrean; that smell of death so unmistakable and overwhelming to Nietzsche on the opening bars of Act III of Die Walküre was in the end nothing more than the Georg Grösz bourgeois seated next to him lighting the cigar he’d brought from his desk at the munitions-works:

It certainly is too bad that I had to obscure and spoil Dionysiac hints with formulas from Schopenhauer, but there is another feature of the book which seems even worse in retrospect: my tendency to sophisticate such insights as I had into the marvelous Greek issue with an alloy of up-do-date matters; my urge to hope where there was nothing left to hope for, all signs pointing unmistakably toward imminent ruin; my foolish prattle, prompted by the latest feats of German music, about the “German temper” – as though that temper had then been on the verge of discovering, or rediscovering itself! … The intervening years have certainly taught me one thing if they have taught me nothing else: to adopt a hopeless and merciless view toward that “German temper,” ditto toward German music, which I now recognize for what it really is: a thorough-going romanticism, the least Greek of all art forms and, over and above that, a drug of the worst sort, especially dangerous to a nation given to hard drinking and one that vaunts intellectual ferment for its power both to intoxicate the mind and to befog it (“A Critical Backward Glance,” ch. VI, pp 12-13)

How much of Nietzsche’s argument can be said to lay on this false premise? Unfortunately, quite a lot. Music was, in the context of Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s very “door of perception.” And he gets it so wrong, dismissing with a Wagnerish wave of the hand nearly two centuries of German musical masterpieces beginning with Bach, and yet relying on this vulgar misrepresentation of the metaphysical nature of music to such an extent, that it is really difficult to continue to credit the rest of his argument. (What a pity Nietzsche couldn’t have lived, instead, to hear Mahler.)

Among the great thinkers there is only one who has fully realized the immense discrepancy between the plastic Appollonian art and the Dyonisiac art of music. Independently of Greek religious symbols, Schopenhauer assigned to music a totally different character and origin from all the other arts, because it does not, like all the others, represent appearance, but the will directly. It is the metaphysical complement to everything that is physical in the world; the thing-in-itself where all else is appearance….. Richard Wagner set his seal of approval on this key notion of all esthetics when he wrote in his book on Beethoven that music obeys esthetic principles quite unlike those governing the visual arts and that the category of beauty is altogether inapplicable to it – although a wrongheaded esthetic based on a misguided and decadent art has attempted to make music answer to criteria of beauty proper only to the plastic arts, expecting it to generate pleasure in beautiful forms. Once I had become aware of this antimony I felt strongly moved to explore the nature of Greek tragedy…. For the first time I seemed to possess the key enabling me to inspect the problem of tragedy… (Ch. XVI, pp. 97-98, emphasis in original.)

This is more than German chauvinism or unfortunate anachronism. It is pure poppycock. One can understand why, in his 1886 preface, Nietzsche would like to lay the blame for this nonsense on Schopenhauer. But that hardly explains away the utter violence to our fundamental understanding of music that is done in this single paragraph. To say, in one breath, that music properly should have no form, no beauty, and leads to no pleasure is a triple-whammy of BS that could only be made by someone capable of conflating the mutilated bodies on the fields of Königgrätz with the dying g*ds of Der Ring (or with our thrill at the “killing” of well-fed extras on the set of Apocalypse Now), a categorical error Nietzsche in his own inimitable way tries to make up for, but charmed by his own youthful excesses, can neither fully renounce.

Nietzsche’s confounding statements on music are also and critically so much more fundamentally flawed than his mistaking, via Schopenhauer, Wagnerian excrescence for genius. Nietzsche’s very characterization of “melody” as an a priori phenomenological structure, the example sine qua non of the penetration of the Dyonisiac into our pitifully Appollonian souls, completely misconstrues and insults one of the fundamental truths about music: that it is, very much like language itself, socially constructed, and therefore inalienably material and concrete. Nietzsche, quoting Schopenhauer directly, says:

[Music] resembles geometric figures and numbers, which are the universal forms of all possible objects of experience and applicable to them all a priori, and yet are not abstract but perceptible and thoroughly determinate. All possible efforts, excitements and manifestations of will, all that goes on in the heart of man and that reason includes in the wide, negative concept of feeling, may be expressed by the infinite number of possible melodies, but always in the universality of mere form, without the material … of which melodies reproduce the very soul and essence as it were, without the body (Ch XVI, pp. 98-99).

It is beyond the ken of this short essay to fully refute all the nonsense embedded in this notion, or how broadly this false premise plays itself out in the magnificently silly Wagnerian rhetoric of Birth of Tragedy. But it immediately brought to mind an observation of the Czech Formalist and linguist Roman Jakobson, made in light of his investigation of “the striking parallels between the fundamental problems of phonology and musicology” (Jakobson, 455).

An African native plays a melody on a bamboo flute. A European musician will have great difficulty in reproducing the melody accurately, but when he is finally successful in establishing the pitches, he is convinced that he reproduces the African piece exactly. But the native does not agree… The difference is that for the African the tone color is the essential point, whereas for the European it is the pitches…. The native and the European hear the same sound and mean by it totally different things (Jakobson, 456).

Nietzsche’s construct, via Schopenhauer, of melody and its “universality of mere form” has, in fact, no universal legitimacy. If music can be said to embody a geometry, it must be said to embody multiple, incompatible geometries leading to manifold incompatible “truths,” which manifest only in the most material way. In the case of music, differences in expression and perception are everything. The despised individual reimposes himself at this most critical moment of the argument, through a door of plain musical ignorance. What significance this has for Nietzsche’s arguments regarding tragedy will best be left to other complainants.

Jeb Bush is just another demagogue blowhard

Why is this man an “expert” on education?

Appearing alongside Cory Booker on the “Education Nation” special edition of this morning’s Morning Joe, former governor Bush jumped in when Booker was asked why teachers make less in Newark than they do in affluent school districts.

“Simple,” Bush said. “It’s collective bargaining agreements.”
Now, aside from being ridiculous on its face — really, teachers’ collective bargaining rights are the reason Newark teachers’ salaries are 1/3 as much as Scarsdale teachers? — Local 481 really wants to stick it to its rank and file, eh? — notice the change in meme here. It’s no longer “teacher unions are corrupt” or “teacher unions are too powerful.” No, now it’s “collective bargaining rights” themselves that are the problem. Take away teachers’ collective bargaining rights, and all of a sudden everything’s going to be right with American education?
Alongside Laura Bush’s push for the MBA-ification of school principals, one can see these “reformers” education agenda for what it is: a program for the corporatization of the public school system, with at-will employee teachers, little or no room for job security or workers’ rights, power concentrated at the top, and the bulk of resources committed to “solutions-oriented” third-party vendors like the Educational Testing Service and Microsoft. It’s a program for turning the public school system into another teat in the already grotesque corporate welfare system.
In the aftermath of Ohio and Wisconsin, the Republican showdown with America’s workers and working class is being framed as a great victory. Alongside efforts nationwide to suppress minority and youth voting — oh, please argue that Republican politicians lay awake at night worrying about the “epidemic” of voter fraud — and the Republican agenda for the near future of the United States is achingly clear.
  • No taxes
  • No collective bargaining
  • No voting rights

This reactionary program, adopted wholesale and nationally, should be called what it is: Reactionary. There’s nothing conservative about it. And through one, powerful wing of the so-called “education reform” movement, today’s reactionary Republicans are busy — very busy — making public schools the next front line in their crusade — their very own “children’s crusade” — to preserve and protect the privileges and assets of America’s new have-it classes, against all the rest of us.

What’s Really Wrong With the Schools Quote of the Day

“We … live in an age of seemingly ever-mounting anxiety; and when the adult world is unable to contain and process its own anxieties in a mature way, they inevitably get projected on to children, resulting in countless well-intentioned but often highly inappropriate intrusions into children’s experience that leave children’s true needs misunderstood and neglected.”

Dr Richard House, senior lecturer at Roehampton University’s Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, from the forthcoming book, Too Much, Too Soon.

Full coverage, from the Telegraph, here.

And now a little lesson to any students listening…

High school is, among other things, school. If you have teachers worth a damn, stop worrying about where you fit in and work for them.

Via Andrew Sullivan, Joss Whedon reflects, and collects some celebrity musings on high school. Aspiring teachers might benefit from paying attention to some thoughts expressed here, on what really, really matters to adolescent children, and taking some inspiration for how to help children achieve those personal and intellectual goals.