Monthly Archives: January 2008

But Look Where Sadly the Poor Wretch Comes Reading

My literature students have been tasked to tackle Hamlet this weekend.

I taught Hamlet last term, and I had some moderate success with it, but I feel the need to take a different approach to the play this time around. Last semester, I didn’t focus very heavily on the text at all – we were crunched for time, having really gotten on a roll with Frankenstien which ate up two weeks more than I allowed for it, and looking forward to A Christmas Carol, which I wanted to investigate very carefully. As a consequence, I used Zeffirelli’s film as the primary text for the unit and handed the students passages that I’d photocopied from my annotated text for them to investigate.

Those of you who’ve been reading me with any kind of regularity know that I have zero issues with using film as text. For all the discrepancies in the Zeffirelli version of the play, I really do love it; I find that it’s accessible to my students and they (mostly) understand it, it’s well acted and lively so it keeps the students’ attention, and the dialogue is very faithful to the Bard’s original text, even if many of the scenes are deleted and mostof those that were kept were reorganized.

It’s not that I used the film as the primary text for teaching Hamlet that’s left me dissatisfied with the success of the lessons, I think, but the lack of time we were able to take to really sink our teeth into the play. I was talking to some friends about it the other day and explained to them that one of the reasons I love teaching this work as much as I do is that it’s a lot of fun to root around in and really dig into. We don’t know a lot of information – we have no idea what Hamlet Sr. and Gertrude’s marriage was really like, for example; we don’t know what motivates Claudius to do anything that he does; we have no idea what Laertes is really thinking and feeling upon his return to Denmark after tragedy strikes his family; we don’t know whether or not Ophelia took her own life. It’s the investigation of these questions, and the really interesting and intriguing paths that students take in working out their own answers, that fascinates and excites me about teaching this text. I’m hoping, with a reasonable expectation of success, that this will be a far more fruitful and challenging unit than I was able to pull off last time.

My students are (supposed to be) reading the play this weekend. I’ve told them to just do the best that they can with the language, and to email me if they can’t figure out what’s going on in certain passages. I have something close to four different copies of the play – each of them annotated to varying degrees – and am reasonably certain that I can talk my students off of whatever ledges they may find themselves on. One of them asked if she could read a modernized version – or, rather, one that was more modern than the text in their anthology – and I told her that she certainly may, but that I’d prefer that she try to tough it out with her textbook first. I certainly think there’s a place for No Fear Shakespeare, but that’s not really what I’m going for with this experience. It’s profoundly satisfying to unravel the Bard’s language, and I want them to have the confidence to believe that they can do this – that Shakespeare isn’t unattainable to TCC students.

I’ve told the girls that we WILL see a film version of this play, but that I’m not making any promises that it’ll be the Mel Gibson interpretation that I have in my DVD collection. One student suggested that I try to find the Olivier version of the play – and I’m looking for it (can you believe my public library doesn’t have it?!). I was cruising around Local University’s library site and found that they have this version, which I’m intrigued by and so have asked TCC’s librarian if she can score it for me. While I love Zeffirelli’s film, I’m ready to see how other directors interpret the troubled Prince of Denmark, just like I’m looking forward to seeing what this group of literature students finds in the play.

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Grammar Wednesday

Pronoun Reference Edition!

Even though they’re in a composition (as opposed to a grammar) class, I’ve been giving my students worksheets and quizzes to get them up to speed on the basics of grammar – you know, all the rules and conventions they don’t give a fig about when they’re texting their friends’ cell phones?

We started out, in the first class, with a quiz about possessive nouns. It did not go well for many of them (one student got only one of the apostrophes right, poor baby). This week, I hit them with a pronoun reference quiz.

Pronouns are simply words that stand in for nouns, and they can can be delightful things. They save us from having to write things like “Pronouns can be delightful things. Pronouns save writers from having to write things like ‘pronouns save writers from having…’” Here’s my favorite pronoun lesson – go on and watch; you’ll love it:

“WHAT made that horrible noise and WHICH one of them is getting off first!!”

So, we’ve very clearly established that pronouns save us a lot of speaking (or writing) and keep us from being mind-numbingly repetitive with all our nouns.

What this fun little lesson failed to mention, though, is that it’s terribly important to know WHO or WHAT we’re talking about before we start bandying pronouns about. We know that he in the Grammar Rock lesson is Rufus, that she is Rafaella and that I is Albert – that’s established before the pronouns start flying. We would get into trouble, though, if someone else were telling us this story – say the narrator is me, for example – and I said something like “he brought it on the bus, but they decided to walk.” Now we don’t know if Rufus is on the bus or if Albert’s on the bus (though we do know that Rafaella, being the only she in the story, is walking).

To illustrate my point further, let’s look at this sentence:

Carl told his father that he was too old to play with the Cub Scouts.

In this sentence, we’re not sure exactly what is being protested. Is Carl saying “Dad, I’m too old to be in the Cub Scouts” or is he saying “DAD! Go away! You’re too old to play with my Cub Scouts friends“?

Get it?

I’ve given my class a worksheet boosted directly from this site, which I love – how can you not love a site which boasts that it’s “grammar instruction with attitude”? – and I’m really hoping they get it. They’ve been instructed to figure out whether a sentence is ambiguous in its pronoun reference and, if so, to rework the sentence to make sense, though I suspect most of them will miss the “decide if the sentence needs fixing” part and will try to fix them all. Some of the sentences are just terrible, though; take the first sentence, for example:

Fred told Tony that polka-dotted underwear was showing through the ripped seat of his dress pants.

So, Dear Readers, how would you fix that sentence so we know just whose skivvies are showing?

Happy Wednesday!

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She Did it AGAIN!

She’s gone and asked me for my opinion!

I was sent a survey about the professional development meeting we had on Friday – the one that I wrote about here that got me all jazzed about thinking critically again. The colleague who sent the survey is J, the same one who was asking about why I thought that TCC’s students weren’t succeeding in ways that I would like to see, and to whom I sent a pretty scathing condemnation of the culture of the college and the expectations (or, rather, the lack of expectations) of the teaching faculty.

I’m of two minds about sending my responses to this questionnaire. On the one hand, I’ve already established my reputation as an uppity woman. I’m pretty sure that no one there – or, at least, no one who has any control over whether or not I get to keep my job – has any doubts about my commitment to my job, to my students, or to the integrity of my profession. I’m also pretty sure that everyone who matters knows that I don’t have a whole lot of respect for the culture of the college, that I think that, academically, we’re simply not getting it done, and that I want more for my students. Besides, she DID say to not be reserved about expressing ourselves…

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure there are only so many times I can accuse the college and the faculty of essentially being lazy ignoramuses before someone takes offense. I like my colleagues and I don’t want to disturb the working environment to the point where people clear out when I walk in and, while I am interested in broadening my horizons beyond TCC, I’m not quite ready to leave the little school just yet. Besides, when I do go, I’d like to leave on my own terms.

I’ve got a call in to J to discuss my answers before I send them to her. I want to make sure that they are received in the spirit in which they are intended, and that she’s very clear that my criticisms stem not from a desire to demean or belittle, but from a genuine desire to see TCC better serve our students and their needs. I want to work in an environment of academic inquiry. Right now I feel that I have to leave TCC to get that, but if we can start to aim in that direction, I’ll stick around to see how it goes.

Here’s a copy of the survey and my answers to the questions. Do YOU think I should hit “send”?

ASSESSMENT OF FACULTY DEVELOPMENT IN-SERVICE
January 2008
Would each of you please take a moment to assess the Faculty Development In-Service? I need all the feedback I can get, so don’t be reserved about expressing yourselves. THANK YOU.

Did you find the presentation by Dr. Smith to be informative and useful, and if so, how?

Honestly, I think this was by far the most informative and enjoyable in-service meeting I’ve ever been able to attend. While I’m not certain that Dr. Smith’s presentation was immediately useful in the context of what one would consider the practical applications of my courses to be, but it certainly served to expand my thinking in ways that it’s not been challenged since grad school. His exhortation that we begin to think in terms of the “third mind” – of creating that new space that happens when informed and inquisitive dialogue occurs – is an important one. Education, in my mind, is less about knowing “the facts” and more about being able to THINK. This critical, inquisitive thinking is something that I know for certain most of my students are profoundly uncomfortable with – they feel they lack the authority to inquire and hypothesize – and I’m excited to start bringing a bit more of that kind of expansive thinking into my teaching practice.

Could the information he imparted enhance your effectiveness as an educator or as someone who provides services to students?

ABSOLUTELY; if one’s focus on education is more about creativity of thinking and less about facts and figures. I feel fortunate to teach a subject that allows for a lot of creative inquiry – I am able to branch out, on the inspiration of one story or poem or movie, to wherever students are inspired to go and I believe those paths to be the most fruitful and edifying. My belief is that the purpose of learning literature and writing and communication is so that we can take these shared experiences and build a foundation for better understanding, not only of our own selves, but of others and our world. If I understand what he said correctly, Dr. Smith believes that everything in our world can be used to illuminate everything else – that there is no wasted experience. I really like that idea, and am working on ways to incorporate it into my own thinking and teaching.

What did you like the most and the least about Dr. Smith’s presentation?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay for the entire presentation, and I can’t recall anything I disliked about his presentation (though I wasn’t able to stay long enough to see how he connected his theatre presentation to his larger theme).

Did you learn anything new? If so, what?

I can’t say that I learned anything NEW, per se, though I can say that Dr. Smith reminded me of the kind of thinking I used to do on a fairly regular basis. I’ve not had an opportunity to think in terms of theory and creativity and risk-taking in a while, and I find that I really, really miss it. As I drove to my other commitment that morning, I called my husband at his office and lamented that I want to go back to school – maybe to pursue a Ph.D., but certainly to start challenging myself to think beyond the obvious or the easy. I was energized by Dr. Smith’s presentation, and it’s an energy I’m hoping to maintain.

How did you find the environment?

Honestly? I felt that the environment wasn’t entirely receptive to the speaker. I’m not certain that all of the faculty were appreciative of Dr. Smith’s work and likely didn’t see how it could apply to their teaching. I was particularly disappointed in some of the comments one of my teaching colleagues made – it was fairly obvious that s/he not only didn’t understand what Dr. Smith was getting at, but didn’t respect him much, either.

Other comments, questions, concerns, or advice about how to improve the process:

I really did find this to be the single most interesting meeting we’ve had in the year or so I’ve been attending these gatherings. I think that, as a faculty, we tend to get bogged down in the practical applications of our concentrations without recognizing that there’s more to an education than our students getting spit out the other side with a skill set and a piece of fancy paper. I understand that I may well be the idealistic minority in this opinion, but I would love to see more of Dr. Smith’s kind come to speak to our faculty, particularly if we’re going to be serious about expanding our scope beyond the trade-school model.

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I Want More

TCC had a faculty development meeting this morning.

Usually, I can’t stand these things, whether they’re for TCC or the health club or, really, for pretty much anyplace I’ve ever worked.  They’re generally poorly planned, long-winded, and boring, and this is the second such meeting I’ve had to attend this week (the first being an excruciating annual all-employee meeting for the health club on Tuesday).  I’ve been quietly glad to have the excuse of my fitness job to fall back on to get me out of TCC’s meetings early, but not today.

Today, the coordinator had invited a Ph.D. from a college in the next state over to come and speak to us.  This man’s work is grounded primarily in fine arts and performance, but he’s doing a lot of interesting investigation into what he calls “the third mind” – that space that is created when two or more people enter into a dialogue and new ideas, thoughts, possibilities and realities are created.

As I sat there listening to this admittedly eccentric man give his presentation, I felt energized, excited, and more than a little rueful.  Without coming off as conceited or boastful, I’m pretty sure that about 90% of my colleagues, sitting in the room with me, had no concept of what this man was really talking about.  They couldn’t see the connections between the examples of popular culture he was projecting on the screen and the ideas of critical thinking and analysis – I could tell this because of the questions they asked and the comments they made – and I’m pretty sure most of them (at least, the math guy, anyway) was waiting for “the point” without realizing that it was right there in front of them.

I hated the hell out of the fact that I had to leave an hour into this fascinating presentation to teach my yoga class.  I could just feel my brain starting to expand and stretch in ways that it hasn’t since graduate school, and I was reminded again of how much I get off on that feeling of excitement at the prospect of discovery and new perspectives.  As I drove to the health club, I called Mr. Chili at his office and lamented that, at least this morning, I felt wasted at TCC.  There’s so much more that I can do – and so much more that I can think – than I’m doing and thinking, and the environment at TCC doesn’t offer much room for that kind of inquiry.   I’ve noticed that I’ve generally stopped “thinking big.”  This morning’s meeting illustrated for me just how small my thinking has become, and I don’t like it one little bit.

There’s a lot of general disdain for pure academia, but I’ve got to admit that I love it.  More to the point, I think I may want to start aiming my little career boat a bit more toward the proverbial ivory towers.  I’m going to trot out my resume, add my TCC experience, do a little scrubbing and polishing, and send it out to schools that have a more academically-inclined program.  I would like to consider myself a peer to people like this Ph.D. (whether I get my doctorate or not) and I know I’m not going get there if I allow myself to settle with where I am.

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Why I Teach Film as Literature

I wanted to be all dramatic and just put this image as my entire blog post under this title – if you’ve seen this movie, then you know; what else can I say? – but it turns out that I DO have more to say than can be expressed in this picture:

 

images.jpg

If you’ve not seen Mississippi Burning, or if you’ve not seen it in a while, go and watch it. No, really; now. Go on… I’ll wait…

I teach this movie as literature because I think that I’d be hard-pressed to find a more nuanced and complex character than Agent Rupert Anderson, played pitch-perfect by the incomparable Gene Hackman. The film, though often difficult to watch, is nevertheless made spellbinding by this man’s performance.

Anderson is, above all, a pragmatist. He’s grown up and worked all his life in the south; he knows how the system works and understands how to play within it. More importantly, though, he knows how to subvert it. He seems far more at ease with the racist good old boys in the bar than he does with the liberal-minded FBI agents with whom he works, and we’re never quite sure who’s side Anderson is really on until the almost the end of the film, when things start getting really hot. It’s this uncertainty we have in his character – in what he truly believes – that makes this film so compelling.

Anderson insinuates himself into situations where he can observe – and we can tell that this man never misses a thing – all the while, just under the surface, there seems to be the sense that his ability to blend in with the bigots and the racists is something he feels is a like nasty film that he can never quite wash off. The scene where he takes his time walking through a demonstration on Main Street is just delicious, packed as it is with incredible ambiguity about what message he’s trying to send to everyone who’s watching. While he never spouts any of the ugliness that seems to pour from people’s mouths, he never recoils in disgust from it, either. I’m left with a giddy feeling of geeky English-teacher excitement after having watched – regardless of how many times I’ve seen the film.

Does the movie have serious flaws? Of course it does. Based on a true story, the film nevertheless monkeys significantly with the facts of the case. I’m not teaching a history course, however, so I don’t have to be overly concerned with the facts (though images-1.jpgI DO make a point of making sure my students know that the film is a fictionalized retelling of certain true events, and encourage them to do a little research on their own). What I want is for my students to see this character in all his craftiness and complexity, to exult in a truly stellar performance, and then to figure out a way to make language sufficient to the task of talking about it.

I’ve given my students these essay questions about the film, which I showed them yesterday:

1. About midway through the film, Agent Anderson says “Down here, they say rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide.” What does this quote mean, and why is it important?

2. Discuss Agent Anderson’s tactics in information gathering. Whose “side” is he on? How does he feel about the work that he does? Support your answer.

3. Consider the scene toward the beginning of the film, where Anderson makes his way through a demonstration march, and toward the end when Agent Ward marches with the funeral procession. How do these men show their support for the cause for which they both fight? Does one’s behavior seem more genuine or important than the other’s? Why or why not?

4. Investigate the role that ‘colored people’ had in this film. Do you think that the FBI could have been more effective in its dealings with the black community? How do you think the preacher’s son came to be so thoughtful and mature?

5. Toward the end of the film, Mrs. Pell says “hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught…. you get told it enough times, you believe it.” How does this sentiment support the underlying themes of the film? How do you suppose some people can’t – or won’t – learn new things?

I’m pretty sure that, like I did for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I’ll choose a question to answer for myself, if for no other reason than I’m still high from the experience of watching the film and am still having complex conversations with myself about what I saw.

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Grammar Wednesday

I’m collecting essays from both of my classes today: the lit students have their Jekyll & Hyde essays due this morning and my composition class was supposed to turn in a reading response by 5 p.m. yesterday. In anticipation of what I’m likely to find, I thought I’d offer you this for our Grammar Wednesday meeting this week.

Taylor Mali is my hero. I love what he stands for, and his energy is inspiring to me. Here, for your pleasure (and for my perspective and stress-release ahead of essay grading), is “The The Impotence of Proofreading.” Enjoy.

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My Essay *edited*

Truly – if you have the gumption to make it all the way through this, please give me your honest and, if you’ve got it, brutal feedback. It’s been a while since I’ve written an answer to an essay question, and it’s a skill I want to keep sharp. Your helping me to edit and improve this in any way will be greatly appreciated!

4. Compare and contrast the ways in which Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon represent different attitudes toward scientific ethics and, perhaps, toward the nature of evil itself.

Well we all have a face/ that we hide away forever/ and we take them out and show ourselves/ when everyone has gone./ Some are satin, some are steel/ some are silk and some are leather/ they’re the faces of the stranger / but we love to try them on.
-Billy Joel; The Stranger

Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written in 1886, is a complex and multilayered novel that has come to symbolize for many in modern culture the very nature of human duality. Set against the backdrop of proper Victorian society and populated almost entirely with “austure,” “sombre,” “reputable” gentlemen, the novel investigates, with a combination of telling detail and sly omission, the nature of evil that Stevenson seems to believe resides in every man.

Dr. Jekyll is first introduced to the reader by way of omission, and from the very first, his character is veiled in half-truth and deception. His good name is associated early in the story with the unsavory character of Edward Hyde, who uses a cheque drawn on Jekyll’s account to pay his way out of an unpleasant situation. As this story is related to Gabriel Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer and longtime friend, we begin to get a feeling that there is much more to be learned about Henry Jekyll and his tenuous hold on his good reputation, but that information may come at a dear price.

Utterson is already aware of a connection between his friend and this Hyde character that makes him profoundly uneasy. In the deepest recesses of the lawyer’s safe he retains a will, drawn by Dr. Henry Jeckyll, which directs Utterson to afford a Mr. Edward Hyde every bit of Jekyll’s property in the event of the doctor’s “disappearance or unexplained absence for any period exceeding three months” (4). Utterson’s attempts to find out more about the relationship that his friend shares with the unpleasant Hyde ends with Jekyll’s general evasion of the topic; he is immediately put off as Jekyll “grew pale to the very lips” (8) at the mere mention of Hyde’s name. Jekyll assures Utterson that he “can be rid of Hyde” whenever he chooses, and begs the lawyer to let the issue drop as “a private matter” (8). Deeply dissatisfied, but respectful of his friends wishes, Utterson strives to do just that.

His investigations take Utterson to a friend he shares with Jekyll, a Doctor Lanyon who “must be the two oldest friends that Henry Jekyll has” (4). Utterson learns that it has been “more than ten years since Henry Jekyll became too fanciful” (4) for Dr. Lanyon, who believes that their old friend has gone “wrong, wrong in mind” and is laboring at “unscientific balderdash” (5), though what, exactly, Jekyll has done to inspire Lanyon’s contempt is never made clear. In this brief exchange between lawyer and physician, though, we are given a glimpse into Lanyon’s character; for all the store he puts by his old friendship taking, as he calls it, “an interest in him for old sake’s sake,” he would rather “see devilish little of the man” (5) than entertain Jekyll and his “unscientific” pursuits. The doctor’s professional ethics, it seems, are far stronger than the pull of old friendships.

As the story continues, Dr. Jekyll’s strange relationship with Mr. Hyde attracts more attention. After the brutal murder of Sir Danvers Carew at the hands of Mr. Hyde, Utterson goes to his friend’s home to confront him about his connections to his unsavory friend and to warn against his continued relationship with a known murderer. Utterson finds Jekyll to be in a “feverish manner” and with a “changed voice” (11), and Utterson receives a letter that Jekyll claims came from Hyde, assuring the doctor that he has fled the reach of police and will no longer trouble his friend. Jekyll assures the lawyer that he is “quite done with [Hyde],” and that his concern for his reputation and character will serve as the motivation he needs to sever the relationship forever. Utterson doubts Jekyll, however; a doubt which is proven first when Utterson questions the butler about the post that arrived that day, and later when he shows the letter to a friend who compares the handwriting from Hyde’s letter with that of an invitation written in Jekyll’s hand. The two were found to be “in many points identical” (13).

The next time we are reacquainted with Dr. Lanyon, when Utterson visits him after being repeatedly denied entry to Jekyll’s home, we find him sick nearly to death. He has had a shock that has upset him so deeply that he himself knows he will never recover, and has “declared himself a doomed man” (14). Despite what he has seen, however, Lanyon remains true to his ethic of confidentiality and discretion; he won’t say what has brought him to the brink of his own demise, but rather insists that Utterson inquire of the matter directly to Jekyll, whom Lanyon now “regard[s] as dead” (14). Confused and deeply disturbed by the respective conditions of his two oldest friends, and wondering how they are connected, Utterson continues his investigations.

What comes to pass between Jekyll and Utterson is extremely telling to the characters of all the men involved. After Jekyll-as-Hyde commits suicide, Utterson comes to learn, though the letters his friends have delivered into his hands with instructions that they be read only when certain events have come to pass, what has happened between them. What he learns tells us much about the attitudes and behaviors of Jekyll and Lanyon.

As Jekyll loses more and more of his control over his “experiment,” he comes to find that he must rely on the support of Dr. Lanyon for his own survival, and that the favor he asks of his old friend is what causes the mortal shock that Lanyon suffers. Lanyon grants his friend’s strange and unseeming request to enter into his chambers and bring back a particular drawer – a drawer that contains the ingredients to a potion that form the foundation of Jekyll’s “unscientific” experiments. When Hyde, on the run from the police following the murder of Sir Danvers, appears at Lanyon’s door, Lanyon’s curiosity overcomes his ethics, having “gone too far in the way of inexplicable services” (25) to not see the matter through. Jekyll/Hyde, however, mindful of the disagreements between himself and his friend, warns Lanyon to consider very carefully what his is about to witness. “[A] new province of knowledge and new avenues to fame and power shall be laid open to you, here, in this room, upon the instant,” he tells Lanyon, “and your sight shall be blasted by a prodigy to stagger the unbelief of Satan” (25). Before he drinks his potion to turn himself back to the Jekyll form, however, he reminds Lanyon to recall his “vows” and that “what follows is under the seal of [their] profession” (25), thereby assuring Lanyon’s silence in the matter and, to a point, protecting both of their reputations.

Jekyll’s letter to Utterson gives us a good look into the man’s character and thinking. He tells of his investigation into “the relief of sorrow and suffering” and of his coming to the recognition that “man is not truly one, but truly two” (26). He sought to find a way to separate the two halves so that the “unjust could go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil” (26). Jekyll was, in short, looking for an easy way out of the complexities and complications of human nature and was excited to have seemingly found one.

Jekyll found that he was “braced and delighted” (27) in his Hyde persona, released as he was from any feeling of moral obligation and free to do as he chose. He was “conscious of no repugnance, rather a leap of welcome” (27) as Hyde, and he enjoyed the freedom that persona afforded him in the face of a society which valued order and propriety so highly. He noticed, early on in his experiments, that his “evil side…was less robust and less developed than the good,” (27), though it quickly came to pass that this would change.

Jekyll comes to quickly recognize, however, that his discoveries bring with them a heavy cost. Recognizing, albeit too late, that had he taken a “more noble spirit” with his experiments, had he been “under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all might have been otherwise” and he may have “come forth an angel instead of a fiend” (27) He notes that the drug “had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine” (27) but, rather, afforded an open door to the personality which most desired it. He discovers that he lacks the strength to resist the pull of the drug and the freedom it offers, and eventually the doctor falls into slavery (28) to his own discovery. He becomes disassociated and refers to himself in the third person, not knowing how to adequately describe his thinking as either personality. He finds himself reverting to the Hyde persona without the drug, going to bed as Henry Jekyll and waking as Edward Hyde (29) until it comes to pass that he requires the drug to return to himself as Jekyll.  He fails to see how wrong his experiment is, even as he forges letters and lies to the authorities and his dearest friends for his double, believing that he “sat beyond the reach of fate” (28).

In an investigation of human behavior, it may well be that while Lanyon stands for the ideal of professional and personal ethics, Jekyll is far more represents the fallibility of human nature. He “chose the better part” of himself “and was found wanting in the strength to keep to it” (29), all the while shielding his friends from the ugly truth of what he was doing. When he finally finds himself at a point where he can no longer endure – or control – his own behavior, he realizes that it’s far too late to go back. Suicide, even, is beyond Jekyll’s ability to contemplate because he “find[s] it in [his] heart to pity” (32) Hyde, even beyond the point of the ruin of his better self. In the end, he finds the courage “to release himself at the last moment” (33), though one is left to wonder, given all we learn about Jekyll and his inability to stand against his Hyde personality, whether his final act was one of courage or of cowardice.

jekyll-mansfield.jpg

image credit 

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The Essay Questions

Clix, over at Epic Adventures are Often Uncomfortable, left me this comment:

So what were the essay prompts?

Here, for your information, are the five essay questions I gave to my (now six) students (one of them dropped me like a hot potato. I’ll have to wait until Tuesday to find out why…):

1. Discuss the physical descriptions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and their respective homes (Jekyll’s main house vs. Hyde’s neglected laboratory cabinet) as they relate to major themes of the novel. Recognize that, in order to answer this question adequately, you must have a clear understanding of the themes of the novel.

2. Discuss the concept of control in regard to Jekyll’s relationship with Hyde. Is absolute control possible? Can one choose when to be completely good or evil? What does Stevenson’s conclusion appear to be?

3. How does the notion of loyalty contribute to the novel? Discuss this in reference to Utterson, Lanyon, and Dr. Jekyll. Upon close examination, does loyalty help prevent or expedite violence and tragedy? You may also want to consider the idea of “keeping up appearances” and the importance placed on reputation in the novel as you consider your answer to this question.

4. Compare and contrast the ways in which Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon represent different attitudes toward scientific ethics and, perhaps, toward the nature of evil itself.

5. Although we hear directly from several characters —Enfield, Lanyon, and Dr. Jekyll himself—Mr. Utterson might be considered the central figure of the novel. Why? What characteristics of his personality and circumstances give precedence to his point of view?

I’m churning an answer to question number 4 – I’ve reread the story and have been composing bits of the essay in my head since Thursday night. I’ll have it finished before the due date on Wednesday; in fact, it’ll likely be my Tuesday post. Watch this space…

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Tagged Again!

Lanie over at Laniepainie tagged me for this meme:

*Link back to the person who tagged you. (Check!)
*List three things that you believe are necessary to make writing good and powerful. (Check!)
*Tag five others and comment at their blog informing them that they’ve been tagged with this meme. (AW! Do I HAFTA!? I hate tagging, so feel free to boost this if you want. Comment here to let us know you did it, and we’ll all come over and read your answers.)

So, three things that I think make for good and powerful writing…..

1. Investment. Something that I tell all my students, regardless of which of my classes they’re sitting in, is that if they don’t care about what they’re writing about, neither will anyone else. The writer has to have some investment in what he or she is writing or the words will come off as flat and lifeless. I tell my students that they don’t always have to know what they’re going to end up saying when it’s all said and done, but they have to care enough about the process and all that it encompasses- the topic, the language, the construction – to make us care about it, too.

2. A willingness to take chances. Some of the best writing I’ve done has come as a result of my tossing myself in a direction I wasn’t sure would actually work, but I went there, anyway. An example is the fact that the paper from college of which I am most proud was also the scariest to turn in: I was in a literary criticism class and we were investigating Josef Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I wrote a piece in which I used a scholarly article AND an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to deconstruct Kurtz’s behavior and the attitude of the natives toward him. I thought, at the time, that I was taking a huge risk by pulling fluffy pop-culture into a serious class with a serious book, but I believed in the connections I was making and I was excited that I could make them. My professor agreed; so much so that she asked if she could copy my paper to show her other students that one of the points of studying literature is to find those connections in their own lives – much like I did that Saturday night while watching a science fiction television show.

3. A love of language. The writing I remember best is the writing generated by people who love language: Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, Richard Bach, Tolkein, Mary Shelley, and many, many others who hold certain images in their minds and are skillful enough with words to make sure that WE see those images, too.

I very clearly remember reading a passage from Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour about 20 or so years ago. She described the house that the story takes place in so vividly that I could actually see it in my mind. About five or so years after I read that book, I was watching an A&E special, or some such, about Anne Rice and New Orleans, where the author lives and where most of her books are set. At one point, there was a picture of the main hall and staircase of an old French Quarter mansion, and I nearly fell over. “THAT’S the Witching Hour house!” I thought to myself, a beat and a half before the narrator told us that this particular house was used as the backdrop for that story. Ms. Rice was able to use the words at her disposal to make me see EXACTLY what she saw, and it’s an experience that’s never left me.

There are a bunch of other things that I believe make for good and powerful writing, but I’ve been asked to limit it to three. If you want to chime in, please do! If you want to do this little exercise on YOUR blog, leave a comment here and we’ll come on over and read what you think makes good writing good.

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Essay Writing

I learned an important lesson yesterday.

I’ve mentioned that my literature class is populated by seven women. It’s a very small group, but I think that will actually work to our advantage.

Of course, that’s assuming that everyone shows up for class.

Yesterday, I had four of my seven students show. Of that four, one had done all the reading and the writing that I asked for, one had done “most” (her assessment) of the reading but none of the writing, one had done “some” of the reading but none of the writing, and one just picked up the reading that morning.

Sigh. It’s impossible to have a fruitful discussion of a text when only two out of five people (one of them being ME) has actually read the text in question.

I made a point of expressing my displeasure at their noncompliance, told them that it couldn’t continue if they expected to pass the class, and sent them home after the break. I then went home and composed a rather stern email and included some pretty tough essay questions for them to work on in lieu of the conversations we DIDN’T have about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

My lesson is that I need to not assume that my students will have done what I asked them to do, and that I need to have something in reserve to do if the greater percentage of them come in completely unprepared for the activities I have planned.

Grrr.

I’ve been thinking about the essay questions I gave them, though, and am seriously considering writing one up myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that kind of thinking about a text – the kind that requires a cohesive thesis and the support for that thesis – and I think it might be good practice for me to work through one of the topics I’ve laid out. I may also give my essay to my students, so they can see what kind of work I’m looking for from them (the last time I asked for an essay from my class, most of the students turned in two handwritten paragraphs…).

I’ll post my effort here so you can give me a critique; I’ll be interested to see how rusty I’ve gotten.

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Filed under about writing, concerns, frustrations, Literature, self-analysis, student chutzpah, Teaching, The Job, writing, Yikes!