Finals week is jackrabbit country.

“People who claim to know jackrabbits will tell you they are primarily motivated by Fear, Stupidity, and Craziness. But I have spent enough time in jackrabbit country to know that most of them lead pretty dull lives; they are bored with their daily routines: eat, fuck, sleep, hop around a bush now & then….No wonder some of them drift over the line into cheap thrills once in a while; there has to be a powerful adrenalin rush in crouching by the side of the road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front wheels.”

                     – H.S. Thompson

I don’t know jackrabbits, but I have spent enough time in universities  to know that this same phenomenon can be seen in our undergraduates. Food, sex, and academic games of chicken: these are their highs. I see it moments before a presentation, when what should be weeks of planning happens at lightening speed, sometimes in front of the class before the lights dim. I see it in the last 40 minutes before a paper deadline, when my email box fills with urgent questions about the specifics of an assignment, or dramatic retellings of technological traumas, both meaningful obstacles to assignment completion and glitches insignificant in the face of submission. 

I saw it last week: finals week. No amount of reason could have saved them the gut-wrenching horror of waiting till 48 hours after the deadline to submit an assignment. I know because I tried. They love the fear, the intensity, even in the face of impending failure, which they fear with the same hysterical incomprehension as a jackrabbit might fear death.

After years of trying to design assignments that cannot be put off, I now accept that I have no right to deny them this thrill. Instead, I give them the jackrabbit analogy, and some recall the sight of a rabbit, a squirrel, or a dead they have left spread along the highway and exhibit a reticent willingness to work ahead. Others do not. It is a livable compromise.

——

chiral_mirror. ”Run, Rabbit, Run!” 23 July 2009. Flickr.

Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72. New York: Warner Books, 1973.

December, finals week. [or: it’s not procrastination if this is even remotely work-related]

I’m wrapping up the semester and happened to notice something. The first poem my students and I read this year was Raymond Carver’s “Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year,” which begins:

“October. Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen 
I study my father’s embarrassed young man’s face. 
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string 
of spiny yellow perch, in the other 
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.”

We concluded with Robert Hass’s “The State of the Planet:”

“October on the planet at the century’s end.
Rain lashing the windshield. Through blurred glass
Gusts of Pacific storm rocking a huge, shank-needled
Himalayan cedar. Under it a Japanese plum
Throws off a vertical cascade of leaves the color”
Of skinned copper, if copper could be skinned.

The first word of Carver’s poem is a lie. The first word of Hass’s poem did not strike me much until, in the midst of final papers, I realized why it sounded so familiar. 

My students and I make much of Carver’s lie the first week. We talk about Wittgenstein’s beetle, testing his theory by bringing to class images that, for each of us, would make a good illustration of the word beetle, and a few other words relating to Carver’s poem and essay and the personal essays that follow. The results are always amazing. We don’t see the same things, and in the end it seems wiser to try to communicate meaning rather than truth.

Hass wrote his poem on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Lamont-Doherty Observatory. Carver could not write his poem, could not write about his father, until long after he’d lost this photograph. What links there might be between the two are hard to say. This is perhaps our first question for the spring semester. In the meantime, I do not know what month the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory was founded, but I do know it feels like ages since the first week of the semester. Perhaps for this reason it’s comforting to know that (all things being equal) it’s still October.  

The state of the semester and (by very ambitious extension) the planet.

Somehow, totally inexplicably, this is our last week of the semester. I would report this with total hysteria, except I’m very lucky to have students I will keep for the entire year. This makes the last week stressful for all sorts of housekeeping reasons, but at least there won’t be any goodbyes.

Tomorrow my students will submit their final paper, a study of some new technology that they feel will make a real impact on a large scale. I’ve seen a lot of great topics, from accessible water filtration to augmented reality contact lenses. We spent a lot of time working up to this topic. We’ve talked about individual and community perspectives on progress, and extensively about communities as ecosystems. We’ve read Nicholas Carr, Andy Clark, Jamais Cascio, Neil Postman. They are ready, I’m sure, to finish their paper, and their semester’s work.

It’s easy as the semester wanes to focus on wrapping up loose ends and to lose focus on content. To refocus our thoughts and (no spite intended) to prove to Carr that we can still read deeply I’ve given them Robert Hass’s “The State of the Planet” for tomorrow. The assignment comes from a presentation I saw at SAMLA by the aforementioned Paul Corrigan. He has kindly offered me the slideshow he has given to his own students illustrating many of the phenomena described by Hass in the poem.

So far this year our work with poetry has been limited to Raymond Carver and Saul Williams, both of which I hope to write about here at some point. Poetry is always a test of reading skills, for the novice and the committed reader. Tomorrow, though, I think poetry will be a test of our ability to share briefly some perspective. I’m not yet sure what that perspective will be. If Hass is right, each technological advance is  a testament both to that which is most remarkable and most precarious about our species. That we are each one of billions is perspective we could all no doubt use. Hass wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory. We will read his poem more than ten years and one billion people later. What, now, can any of us say with any certainty about the state of our own small hideaways, much less that of the planet?

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans
Can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up
From our knees if we could” (section 4 lines 19-21).

Indeed. If we could, who could be bothered with a paper due tomorrow at 5pm? With preparation for class? With this blog post? Wonder, I suspect, is much more difficult to learn than most of the things we encounter in the classroom. This is not a criticism of education; it is simply and necessarily so. That said, I hope we can seize a little wonder tomorrow and reflect on how that which we’re inclined to treat as perfunctory (class for example) might be treated instead as a chance to borrow another perspective—to observe, take note, and to feel, frankly, a little bit shocked.

Hass’s poem is not available online, but Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is. Smile, and let the hollows of the serene sky glow with diffused radiance for thee.

——

Hass, Robert. Time and Materials. New York: Ecco/Harper Collins, 2007.

Every once in a while

it all comes together. As a teacher, I live for this.

I almost never see it, but today it’s here: the perfect storm. For weeks my students have been debating at length the all-too-fuzzy distinction between public and private space. We’ve looked at a variety of issues: homelessness, parks, graffiti, universities, you name it. As part of this debate, we’ve been looking at the internet as a kind of “space,” not literal or geographic, but still something we all inhabit together.

Then this happens, all on one day:

American Censorship Day and Occupy Richmond occupies the mayor’s yard.

I feel so…fulfilled. In class we’re looking at Boone’s yard and 4chan (though we will not, of course, literally look at 4chan, as I would lose my job immediately). Who has the right to what space, and how are they allowed to use it? 

SAMLA 2011

Recently I attended the annual meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association. It was my first visit to SAMLA, a special session on poetry, and I hope to return. I was very happy to see, among others, regular sessions on SAMLA poets, Appalachian studies, and pedagogy.  

Of particular interest:

  • a presentation by Paul T. Corrigan of Southeastern University who seems to be doing admirable work “teaching nature poetry to students who dislike nature and poetry
  • a fantastic panel by four women at the University of West Georgia who have fully integrated the Favorite Poem Project into about five weeks of their freshman comp seminar
  • Talked briefly with Andy Johnson, a young novelist from the University of Alabama, who is currently writing a novel on time he spent teaching in Liberia
  • ran into two of my former colleagues from IU who had organized a panel on Francophone studies; they’re co-editing a forthcoming volume of Theory, Culture, and Critique.

I gave a paper on Wallace Stevens that was organized by members of the American Humor Studies Association. In my analysis I have made liberal use of Stevens’s satire of the pedantic persona, only to realize mid-final-draft that I might want to curtail what sounds like praise for such satire when I would be playing the role of the theorist in a room full of critics, at a conference dedicated to aesthetic interpretation, in a culture where literary critics, too impatient to wait for others to question the value of their work, dedicate volumes to examining the death of the author, the death of the critic, and the death of the universities that house us.

Giving an academic paper on humor is never easy. One is faced with either deconstructing something humorous so far beyond recognition that no one present can ever again hope to find it or anything else funny, or attempting to be humorous in the act of literary analysis.

After some consideration I’ve decided the latter is a great deal sadder than the former; however, in the hopes that this display might be of the sad clown variety, wherein the audience laughs as the performer weeps, I decided to try to be funny. 

“It is all part of the universal comedy, which the poets ignore, because they continue to believe in tragedy” (625).

—-

Stevens, Wallace. Bowl, Cat and Broomstick, from Collected Poetry and Prose. Library of America (October 1, 1997).