Monthly Archives: November 2009

Arguing

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m spending a fair bit of my professional time lately thinking in terms of argument, debate, and persuasion.

This morning, I introduced the concept of rhetorical argument to my high school juniors and seniors, and I’m fairly sure that they really didn’t get it.

If you haven’t had much experience with them, allow me to explain that, in general, teenagers are a very sensitive and emotional lot. Further, they are very often prone to the exaggerated and the dramatic; if it’s worth doing, it seems, it’s worth doing BIG.

I probably should have remembered this when I tried the same tactic with them that I did with my L.U. kids; I came into class and wrote “arguing” and “fighting” on the board, then I asked them to discern a difference. Not only did they have trouble keeping their consideration grounded in the rhetorical (they wanted to explain that “fighting” necessarily involved some sort of physical altercation), but they had a tough time drawing a distinction between what one does when arguing with someone and what one does when fighting.

It took a while, but I managed to get them around to the ideas that my favorite LU kid came up with in terms of the goals of the different activities; the CHS kids were able to comprehend that, in this scenario, anyway, the goal of argument is agreement, where the goal of fighting is power.

They’re still firmly in the realm of fighting, though, so my aim for this week is to get them to understand the difference between reasoned and careful argument and, well, ranting.  To that end, their homework assignment for tonight is to go online and find a couple of different rants; one with which they agree and one with which they don’t (I gave them some suggestions for where to look).  Their task is to work through an analysis of each of these presentations; to determine the message and the intended audience, to see and explain the organizational structure of the piece, to recognize and respond to the way the opposition is addressed (and characterized), and to evaluate the piece as a whole in terms of its efficacy.

Tomorrow’s class will be about the structure of argumentative pieces and the ethical use of information.  The kids are going to go out of their minds in this unit, I think; I’m fairly certain they’ve never been pressed to present their thinking – especially about things they feel strongly about – in ways that are organized, careful, and logical.  Keeping them from rolling their eyes at each other and engaging in ad hominem attacks is going to be my biggest challenge, I think.  Wish me luck.

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Filed under critical thinking, debate and persuasion, fun, funniness, I love my job, lesson planning, rhetoric, student chutzpah, Teaching

Clearly, This Sort of Thing Has Worked for Them So Far

You know, if it didn’t actually HAPPEN to me, I wouldn’t believe it, either…

1. A month ago, I announced, loudly and for about a week, that my Pink Paper Policy was coming to an end. I posted the details of the new and improved homework policy on the classes’ websites. I handed out hard copies of what I put on the sites. Further, I told the kids that they had until today to get in everything they owed me; anything that wasn’t finished by today stays a zero in their grade book.

LAST NIGHT, a girl whom I’ve not seen for about three weeks (not sure why she’s not coming to school) emailed me.
Hi,
Im sorry I have been out
Could I have an Updated list of things I need to turn in to you
thanks

Um. No. I’ll see you in class next year, because there’s no way you’re passing this term.

2. One student – a painfully immature junior – decided to resubmit an essay I’d sent back to her for a rewrite without actually rewriting it. I don’t know what she thinks that’s going to get her; the piece earned her zero points the first time, and it’s clearly no better now.

3. I’ve got one kid in the freshman sophomore class who fancies himself a wordsmith. The end result is that his papers are almost always nearly incomprehensible. I think he subscribes to the “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” school of thought; I really do believe that he thinks that if he uses “big words,” people will think he’s smart. Here’s a hint, my darling; in order to sound smart, you’ve really got to understand what all those big words actually mean.

4. One boy, who’s done just about nothing all term, proudly handed me a stack of make-up work this morning. A quick glance through it showed me that he must have spent all of ten minutes putting the answers to my (pretty complex) questions together. I’ll replace his zeros with 50s, but there’s no way he’s getting full credit for two-sentence answers to essay questions.

Oy. I’m actually looking forward to this five day break.

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Filed under concerns, dumbassery, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I love my job, student chutzpah, That's your EXCUSE?!, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Sometimes, I Really DO Get Through

VERY long story short; CHS has decided to implement a program whereby teachers can hold classes online. We submitted a proposal to the DOE outlining our plans for document-able indirectly direct instruction time, and we got approval for the idea. We launched the program this week, and are using the time to make up for some of the days we lost when there was no heat in the building last month.

Anyway, my online classes were held on Thursday night, and I spent most of Thursday burning lots of calories worrying about them. I’ve taught “hybrid” classes before, but they didn’t involve interactive online classes; I had no idea if I could pull this off.

I decided to plan lessons for both my levels that revolved around letter-writing. I’ve mentioned here before – more than once, in fact – that I’ve often been stunned into shocked silence by the utter lack of decorum and regard with which some students hold email communication. I suspect they’re thinking that email is inherently an informal method of communication and, as a consequence, they send me shockingly familiar, often rude emails, all (I can only hope) without realizing how incredibly badly they come off.

When I was teaching at the junior college level I wondered – often, and often out loud – why no one had ever taken these kids aside in high school and given them at least a rudimentary foundation in polite communication. Regardless of what a student wants to do in adulthood – doctor, chef, auto mechanic, hair stylist, engineer – he or she is going to need good, solid communication skills. Further, he or she is going to need to know how to discern what register should be taken when making that communication; knowing how to read the level of formality that a situation requires is a life skill, not just an academic one.

Now that I’M teaching in high school, I make sure that MY kids get taken aside and given a bit more than a rudimentary foundation in polite communication, I can tell you THAT!

Anyway, I put together quick lessons in register and basic letter writing for the online classes (which went well, I think), then spent Friday’s in-school, face to face classes reviewing what we went over on the computers. Most of the kids were pretty clear about what was going on; while they admit that they don’t have a whole lot of practice with switching register, they got the basic concept (“you don’t talk to your grandmother the same way you talk to your friends in the lunch room”) and were willing to play around with the idea a bit.

I took part of the class to go over some of the basics of email. I pointed out to the kids that most of our written correspondence comes in some electronic form, but that the means of communication shouldn’t keep students from considering what register should be used. An email to a friend can be super casual (“Hey! ‘Sup? You still coming by this afternoon?”), but an email to a person in authority – a teacher, a boss, a client – should be a bit more formal. Don’t fail to include an opening greeting – address your reader, I told them, it’s polite. Close your message with a closing salutation; write “sincerely,” or something similar, and don’t forget to sign your name (ugh! My Local U. students have email addresses that are randomly generated by a computer program; I can’t discern who an email is from by the address, so when they don’t sign their messages to me, I have NO idea who I’m talking to).

Just before we finished the lesson (I also went over the dangers of “reply all”), I mentioned one last thing; “it is probably a good idea,” I told them, “for some of you to register a more professional sounding email. You know if I’m talking to you, right?” Several students grinned shyly and nodded; they knew who they were.

Before Friday night was over, I had received two emails from students in my class. They had created new email addresses for themselves and had forwarded the information to all the teachers at CHS. One student (God, I love him) included this little message:

Dear Teachers;

After a presentation today on “email manners” by Mrs. Chili, I decided to create an email that is more professorial than the one I had previously.

Thank you,

Sean Student
sean@emailaddress.com

Most of my work is a practice in delayed gratification; students usually come to me long after a lesson is over to tell me that something I taught them is meaningful in their lives. It’s pretty cool when they get it right away.

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What’s Your Purpose?

Kizz put up a post today in which she ruminates on the idea of positing a purpose.  This resonated with me because, in my line of work, the concept of purpose  and the concise and eloquent expression of it are often at the heart of much of what  I do.

When I talk to my students about purpose, I give a pretty clear and (I think) easy definition of the concept; the purpose of a piece is the reason it exists; what was the author trying to make happen through the creation of this piece?  I teach my kids to make very sharp distinctions about the different aspects of the things we investigate, be they films or poems or novels, speeches, advertisements, or letters;

• plot (or topic) is what happens (or what the piece is about)

• theme is the big idea (or ideas; there are most often more than one)

purpose is what the author wanted to accomplish with the piece.

Theme and topic questions are best answered with nouns – “this story is about friendship” or “that essay is about avian migration patterns and their effect on consumer spending.”  Purpose questions are answered with verbs – the purpose of this piece is to entertain or to inform or to analyze.

Kids find, in pretty short order, that purpose is not only pretty important – it’s what holds much of their writing together, after all – but that it also shows up in a lot of different places.  While some kids revere authorial intention above all else (I’m trying to break them of that, in fact), I will admit that working on discerning an author’s possible motives for writing a piece helps the kids to put that piece into a larger context and perspective; it helps them to get it.  Being able to come up with a possible reason that someone bothered to go through all the trouble of writing – much less of publishing – a piece of work really is an analytical exercise, and while I don’t hold much with the authorial intention angle, I often do ask the students to consider the author’s possible motivations for putting these words down in the way that he or she did.  I find, more than anything else, that getting the students to consider purposes helps them to clarify their own approaches to the material, and helps them to solidify how they think and feel about the piece in the end.

Where the idea of purpose comes up most notably, though, is in every writing exercise that students undertake.  They need to keep purpose in mind when they’re composing a letter, when they’re answering a question (I teach them to look for the verbs used in the questions they’re responding to – the way they “describe” is going to be very different from they way they “define”  or the way they “analyze;” or, at least, it should be), or when they’re composing a story or a poem.  Purpose is the glue that holds the whole thing together; it’s the unifying force of their writing, and when it’s absent, it’s obvious.

It is true that nearly every class I’ve ever taught has identified “organization” as a fundamental weakness in their writing.  They know what they want to say, they complain, but they don’t know how to get there.  That’s because they lack a purpose – they could have all the information at their fingertips, have all the time and resources in the world, but if they don’t have a reason to sit to write, they’ll likely never be satisfied with what they produce.  Try it sometime; before you begin a writing project – a letter to that fabulous restaurant you went to last week, a memo to your office, an email to your best friend about what you saw in the grocery store the other day – really think about what you’re trying to accomplish by sitting down to write; what do you want to happen as a result of your effort?  Once you’ve got a clear purpose in mind, you’ll likely find that the writing is much easier that it would have been without it.  I have multiple purposes for this piece, I think: I want to share my thinking with you (so that I can get your feedback), I want to record my own thinking so I can refer back to it later, and I want to explain the way I think about purpose and its importance in my teaching practice.  All of those things have informed the way that I’ve constructed this piece; how I’ve organized my information, what I’ve chosen to stress (and what I’ve left out altogether), and what voice and tone I’ve taken.  Were my purpose different (say, if I’d had a crappy day and just wanted to vent my shit), I would have put this whole thing together very differently.

Discerning purpose is, at least in the context of a creative exercise, a distinctly meta-cognitive thing; one has to be willing – and able – to investigate one’s motivations in order to be able to articulate a clear (and honest) purpose.  I think that this is one of the reasons that so many people have such a hard time positing purpose; we’re not really practiced in looking closely at how we think, or at what really motivates us. Think about how motivated some of us (ehem.. me!) are to write letters of complaint.  We don’t necessarily want to admit it, but when we write letters to businesses that have given us lousy service, it’s important, I think, to remember that intimidation – whether through righteous indignation or not – really is our purpose.

Not for nothing, but I also think that purpose, more than anything else, is the reason I could never sit to write a novel; I can’t find a purpose to the exercise that works for me and, accordingly, I can’t find enough motivation to string that many words together.  Purpose is a great motivator!

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Chutzpah

Wow.

My friend Eddie posted an entry the other day about some of the dumb things that students say.  We can only hope, we teachers, that the students genuinely don’t realize how dumb they really sound; to think otherwise would be to begin a spiral into despair from which few of us would recover.

In the vein of “if it didn’t actually happen to me, I wouldn’t believe it,” I’m going to share this little nugget with you.

By majority vote, we decided to read To Kill a Mockingbird in my I/II class.  The kids started reading last night, and this morning, I put a “choose one question” quiz on the board for their free write time.  Each of the questions was pretty straight forward; I asked them to tell me about the narrator, or to describe the setting and explain why is it important, or to analyze a particularly important (and kind of funny) scene that happens in chapter 2.

Hand to God, this is an exact transcription of one of the papers I received at the end of class:

Mrs. Chili.  I have only read up to page 11.  So I cant really answer these questions.  I have only read to 11 because I had alot to do last night and I did not use my time as well as i could have.  I opend the book at about 10:00 and read untill I almost passed out.  I am very sorry and I hope you know i am doing my best to do good and pass this and all my classes and here at CHS.

To which I responded:

Okay, Jan, but you understand I can’t give you credit for work you don’t do….

Oy.

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Filed under dumbassery, failure, student chutzpah, That's your EXCUSE?!, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

How My 12-Year-Old Helps My Teaching Practice *Edited*

One of the things I do to further my teaching practice is to act like a student.  When I’m getting ready to teach a unit, I will do a fair bit of investigation and research on the topic, I’ll read articles (and other people’s lesson plan ideas) and I’ll try to get at least a working outline of how I’m going to approach the material over the course of however many class periods I’ve set aside for the job.

One of the things I’ve never been overly confident about, either as a student or a teacher, is the area of debate and persuasion.  While I really do think of myself as a pretty fair critical thinker, I have a rather lower opinion of myself as a persuader, especially in person.  I’m what I call a “ten minute delay” person; I’ll think of a great response ten minutes after it’s relevant, usually in the car on the way home.  Gah!  In addition to that, I don’t find that logical connections come easily to me; I really need time to get smoothly from point A to point B.  If I’m talking off the cuff, I’ll fall into logical pitfalls as sure as I’m standing there.

To try to get a better handle on this whole debate and presuasion thing, I started reading about the art of argument about a month ago.  Thank You for Arguing is on my bedside table, I’ve got lists and definitions of logical fallacies at my desk, and I ordered (and received) a concise little Rulebook for Arguments from Amazon.

After spending some time working on getting a better understanding of the mechanisms of argument (and lightening up about the “rules”), I’m finding that I’m looking at the dynamics of my family in new and very interesting ways.

Case in point; Punkin’ Pie, my beloved elder daughter, is having a bit of a time in school.  Truth be told, she’s always had a bit of a time in school; typical of many young people, my daughter is far more interested in friends, t.v., and, well, pretty much anything but school, really.

Several weeks ago, Punk came home with the year’s first progress report.  Her numbers weren’t good (even worse if one considers that her parents place an especially high value on academic achievement).  We took beloved daughter aside and asked her what needed to be done to bring her low grades up to a level that would get her parents off of her proverbial back.  She told us that she needed to focus more on organization; that she was doing the work, but she often lost it between completing it and handing it in.  We reiterated how quickly zeros killed averages, and the child assured us that she had a handle on her problem.

The report card came yesterday.  Punkin’s English grade is, well, let’s just say that Mom (and Dad, too, of course, but mostly Mom) found this grade to be entirely unacceptable.

I had to leave for my Local U. class, so I decided to not press her too hard about this issue right before I had to head out; it seemed unfair of me to start something I was likely unable to finish.  Dad had no problem getting into it with her, though, so I had first-row seats to a pretty engaging discussion.

What I was able to observe from my semi-detached perspective in the few minutes before I left for work were gorgeous examples of what I now recognize as the appeal to popularity and the straw-man proposal.  EVERYONE hates the English teacher, my daughter claimed, and EVERYONE else is failing; thereby, she hoped, making it acceptable that she is getting a C- which isn’t, in point of fact, a failing grade.  The teacher is terrible; her policies are confusing and inconsistent, so it isn’t Punkin’s fault that she’s not turning work in on time; if the teacher were more predictable and consistent, everything would be different.

I took my observations to Local U. with me and started to talk about the difference between “arguing” and “fighting.”  I asked the kids to give me the qualities and characteristics of each, and they came up with a lot of great stuff.  Observe:

When we were running out of steam, I wrote “Goals” on the board.  One young man (he’s the one who took the picture, by the way, and I adore him on general principle), was looking carefully at the board.  “Oh, wait!” he said, “I totally get it now!  When you’re fighting, your goal is power.  You want the other side to do what you tell them to do because you’re stronger than they are in some way – they don’t have to like it, they just have to do it.  In an argument, you’re trying for agreement; you want the other side to want to do what you want them to do!”

BINGO!

I still don’t know that I have this whole logical argument thing under my full and complete control (in fact, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t).  I do, however, have a much stronger grasp of the concepts of argument and persuasion than I did before I started doing all this reading (and before I had a teenager.  Would that I could teach her the nuances of argument; I could do with a lot less fighting in my household.  Sigh).  I do love, though, that I can take experiences from my personal life to strenthen my professional life – and vice-versa.

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Filed under compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, debate and persuasion, I love my job, Learning, lesson planning, Local U., out in the real world, self-analysis, Teaching, the good ones

JUST the Boost that I Needed

It’s been a rough couple of days for me professionally, so when I found this in my inbox this morning, I nearly wept.

Sometimes, the positive reinforcement comes at exactly the right moment.
Dear Mrs. Chili:

This may be corny, but I have unfortunately never been a fan of English, it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I had a teacher that actually got me to enjoy English.  I just want to say that, keeping in mind this will probably be the last English class I ever take, it has been one of my favorite classes, along with my favorite English class ever. The way you conduct class, allowing us all to interact and be comfortable in doing so, gets the “job” done in a manner that not many teachers have the ability to do, and I admire you to a great extent for that. It is very enjoyable to come to class; in fact, I call my mom just after every class as I feel it is so refreshing that I have found a new enjoyment in a subject that I never was interested in. So though I have never expressed something like this to a teacher before, I just felt the urge to tell you how much I am enjoying class and I MOSTLY wanted to thank you for that. I don’t have the steadiest background, and coming back from two weeks at home, tonight’s class completely brightened my mood; as I sit here it is just nice to think about the fact that we have such a welcoming and delightful class and I realize it may be the little things such as a class that make us happy in our days.

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Filed under I love my job, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, the good ones

Collaborative Curriculum

I’ve been tasked with putting together a curriculum for CHS’s English department.

Carrie took me aside a while ago and told me that one of the reasons she hired me was so that I could re-work the entire English curriculum; she’s been doubtful about the way English as been taught at CHS for a while now (and I can’t say that I blame her, really; as far as I can tell, there’s really no plan at all there, and there really should be, both for the teachers’ sake and the kids’).  She asked me if I’d be willing to start from scratch and put together an ordered, careful curriculum that would span all four years and hit all the standards for a college-preparatory school.

Of course, I said “yes!”  What teacher wouldn’t jump at the chance to design his or her own curriculum?  Is it a shitload of work?  Hell, yes!  Is it worth it?  You betcha.

The thing is, though, I don’t want to do it alone.  If nothing else, I am well aware of the limitations of my “box.”  There are certain books and poems that I like to teach, certain movies that I like to show, and certain aspects of grammar that I feel have a firm enough grasp of to be able to teach really well.  I don’t want to limit myself, though, to only those things that I think of.

This is where you come in, Dear Readers.  I want your input.

Here are the basics.  I’m looking to assemble four years’ worth of English classes – freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior – that cover the standards of reading, writing, viewing, and communication.  I’ve done some surface investigation and have discovered that the curriculum standards for secondary school English are pretty much the same in most states; there’s some variation of the wording of the frameworks, but for the most part, they all want kids to come out of high school with strong communication (both written and oral), interpretive, and critical thinking skills.  You can go to your own DOE and look up the specifics if you want, but I think that common sense will tell you most of what you need to know about what the kids need to know.

My goal for this is to create a template that addresses the skills and competencies the kids need to demonstrate, and then use that template to fill in the materials – the books, the exercises, the films, etc. – that the teachers will offer the kids to help them get to those skills and competencies.  I want for the curriculum to be flexible – for the individual teacher to be able to scratch out this book in favor of that one, as long as s/he can justify the usefulness of the substituted text – because I know for sure that one of the things that drew most of our staff to CHS is the fact that we’re not told that we HAVE to teach THIS book to THIS grade level.

I’ve not committed anything to paper yet, but I’m envisioning a sort of scaffolding scheme.  The freshman class will start with the basics; the elements of fiction, an introduction to the writing process, some introductary work with poetry and drama, and a little bit of work with persuasion and media.  The sophomores will work a little bit more with what we started as freshman; taking their reading into a more critical exercise, introducing the some fundamental research techniques, digging a little bit deeper into poetry and drama, and beginning work on public speaking and persuasive writing.  The juniors will start getting into extended writing projects that take on both informative and critical approaches to the reading and viewing they do, they’ll start to make connections between literature (in whatever form the teacher chooses to present it) and culture, and they’ll work harder on the ethical practice of research.

The senior year ties it all together; those kids will start looking carefully and critically at the way literature informs (or is informed by) culture and how we express our humanity through the words we choose to commit to paper.  They’ll make connections between literature and history and they’ll think critically about the ethical responsibilities of being a consumer of literature.  They’ll take their writing practice up another level (my goal is to teach essentially the same writing skills to my seniors in high school that I teach to my freshman at Local U.) and focus on using the rhetorical skills they’ve picked up in the earlier grades.

What I’m asking for from you is critque, reading suggestions, and stories about your best high school experiences.  What books did you read that you adored (or which do you think it’s vital for kids to read today)?  What lessons stuck with you, lo these many years later?  What do you wish your teachers had done when you were in high school English class?  What would you like to see teachers focus harder on today – what do you want YOUR kids to come out of high school knowing?

Aaaand…. GO!

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Filed under analysis, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, composition, critical thinking, Dream Course, I love my boss, I love my job, Learning, lesson planning, Literature, Poetry, Questions, reading, rhetoric, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job

Poetry Analysis

Every once in a while (okay, more often than not), I’ll complete an assignment I give to my students.

I do this for a couple of reasons.  One, I want the kids to know that what I’m giving them to do is entirely attainable.  I have two jobs (three if you count the yoga teacher gig), two kids, and half of the responsibilities of our household; if *I* can take the time to complete an assignment, so can my students.  Two, I like to think in student mode.  I enjoy the kinds of thinking I ask my students to engage in, and taking up my own homework assignments gives me an opportunity to keep those skills sharp.  Finally, I like having an example of my work to give to students as a model.  Granted, I’ve had a lot more writing and critical thinking experience than they have, so I’m not asking them to create work of the same quality or caliber (and yes, I’m that good), but I am asking them to aspire to it.

To that end, I’ve written an analysis of a poem.

I’ve tasked my juniors and seniors with choosing some poetry to teach to the class.  I told them that in order to do this – and to do it well – they must have a close and careful look at the pieces they’ve chosen, decide what they think about it, and then come up with a way to lead us, if not to their conclusions, then to one of the students’ own devising.  Good teaching can’t happen without careful analysis, and while I’m holding out hope that they understand that (I’ve only spent the last three days saying it) I’m a little less confident that they’ll actually do it.

So *I* did.  I took one of my kids’ poems and wrote an analytical essay that I’ll bring in to class tomorrow.  There are two reasons why this was fun to do; the first is that, true to form, I didn’t really know what I wanted to say about this piece until I wrote about it.  I  knew that the poem intrigued me, but I had no idea what I really thought about it until I had to articulate it on paper.  The second reason this was fun is that this poem was actually written by my student; he’s a member of a metal band, and this is a song he wrote.  If I know this kid at all – and I think I’ve got a pretty good read on him – having this analysis is going to geek him out on a number of levels.  I’m looking forward to seeing his response to the effort I made in investigating a piece of his art.

Nameless Clairvoyance
By Blood Of A Cynic

An exchange of sacrifice is made between two races
Unique flesh stains this earth
A stern vexation
This itinerant pest and visions of apocalyptic doom are unfurled
As is the horrific truth of our wretched coexistence

Now all martyrs of science and religion
Shall fall to their knees before this creature
With vague intentions
Unprecedented and catastrophically divine contact

Unto this earth
A race kept in secrecy stirs beneath superior force
Ancient visitors bare knowledge of eternity

No man is safe in this place
Our enslavement will soon follow the invasion of our masters
Anatomic inferiority
shows the genetic manifestation of our future
Twisted and sickly misshapen
Our history eclipsed

Upon the end of this time of knowledge and understanding
A new age of insanity begins

Mrs. Chili
Nameless Clairvoyance Analysis
November 12, 2009

An initial reading of Nameless Clairvoyance leaves one with the feeling of foreboding and impending and inevitable violence due to reckless and unchecked technological advancement that outpaces the human capacity for compassion and empathy.  The poem seems to be serving as a warning; a call for man to be aware of the consequences of his attitudes and behavior, or suffer the logical and tragic end result of his callousness and disdain.

The opening stanza of this piece speaks of “an exchange of sacrifice…made between two races,” which could be read in a number of ways; war (as soldiers on both sides of the conflict die), vengeance (as in the morality of an eye for an eye), or even a more political interaction (Desmond Tutu famously told the world that oppression demeans and dehumanizes both the oppressed and the oppressor).  While the “unique flesh” mentioned in the second line could refer to some sort of alien presence, it could just as well speak to the uniqueness of the individual; that every death is the loss of untold potential.  The “itinerant pest” is racism, prejudice, and the heedless pursuit of power, control, and knowledge, which are attitudes that are found in literally every society on Earth, and which brings about, to the observant, the “apocalyptic doom”  and “horrific truth of our wretched existence.”  The second stanza brings the metaphor into sharper focus, telling us that the “martyrs of science and religion” will “fall to their knees before this creature.”

It is the contention of many thinkers, both modern and ancient, that religion is most often used to separate people rather than to unite them.  Institutionalized hatred – or, at the very least, segregation – seems to be the end result of most organized religions; if one is not one of  “us,” one is necessarily one of “them.”  Setting up that us/them dichotomy makes prejudice, racism, and other forms of social ostracization far easier and more palatable to the individual; if those behaviors are legitimized and condoned by the larger group – especially by the leadership of that group – then the individual is freed from the moral responsibility for his or her behavior.  In the course of belonging, we must necessarily identify against those who are not us; having the church – in whatever form that church takes – tell us that it’s okay to create an “other,” and that that is indeed part of God’s design, removes autonomy and free thought from the agent.

Despite their often being portrayed as opposing ideals, religion and science can have much the same effect of separating us from one another, and of giving us ways to justify and legitimize that separation.  While the mapping of the human genome has taught us that we are all of us far more similar than we are different, we continue to fear the knowledge gained in scientific pursuit as a doorway to an uncontrollable future; genetically modified foods, chemical and biological warfare, designer babies with “perfect” eye color and skin tone.  Our concerns over our inability to keep private our medical records, the proliferation of weaponry and biological agents, and the explosion of

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instant and global communication all have the possibility of leaving people a little less secure in our own existence.  While we may communicate more, we actually connect less; interaction through a computer screen hardly constitutes genuine human contact.  The end result of our advances in technology is that we run the risk of losing our very humanity.  The loss of our humanity only makes more likely the possibility that we will fail to recognize the humanity of others.  Those whom we deem less than ourselves are very easily abused, disregarded, or eliminated.

The third stanza hints that all of this was inevitable, that a “race kept in secrecy” has always had “knowledge of eternity.”  One is left to wonder whether this ‘race’ is in fact a separate and distinct group, or if it refers to those who have gained some sort of enlightenment.  If the latter is a possibility, one can read hope into this poem.  That some may survive by removing themselves from the choices that people make in how they treat one another – and that they operate outside the knowledge and control of the “superior force” – promises that another possible future exists, and that total destruction of humanity might be avoided.

The fourth stanza calls out the warning that “no man is safe in this place” and that “enslavement will soon follow the invasion of our masters.”  Recognizing that the blade often turns on those who wield it, it is reasonable to think that the behavior that the dominant engage in will cycle back to engulf them.  The reference to “anatomic inferiority” which “shows the genetic manifestation of our future / twisted and sickly misshapen / our history eclipsed” can be read both as a reference to past efforts to create a “perfect” or “master” race through the oppression and elimination of the so-called “other,” or it can refer back to science and the work being done to uncover and map the very nature of our existence.  We have, though the advancements of science, the capacity to destroy ourselves in ever more efficient ways.  Who lives and dies is entirely the choice of those in control of the knowledge and the resources.  The “masters” are those who decide who gets use of the media, the pulpit, the university, and the lab, and of what messages come from them.

The final couplet serves as the condemnation of technological advancement and scientific achievement untempered by human compassion; at “the end of this time of knowledge and understanding / a new age of insanity begins.”  Without the equalizing forces of empathy and goodwill, the effects of unfeeling science and polarizing religion will leave humanity with no reason to rely on one another for comfort or existence.  “Knowledge and understanding” – especially of ourselves and of one another as like beings -  are the key components to survival here; when they cease to be present in the human experience, all hope is lost.

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This is Mrs. Chili’s “I Am Not Pleased” Face

I’m totally pissed off at my Local U. kids.  They came to class completely unprepared to talk about Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail tonight.  I spent an hour up there, fucking talking to myself.

NOT.  COOL.

I sent them this letter.  I hope that at least a few of them are a little ashamed of themselves right now…

Dear Class,

Please; don’t ever let that happen again.

Precious few of you came to class prepared today (and those who were “prepared” were really fighting for it).  Look; I understand that you’re all lagging.  I get that many of you have been sick.  I very clearly remember the mid-semester doldrums from when I was a student.  None of those things excuses the train wreck that was tonight’s class, however.

I came to class excited to dig into this beautiful and articulate argument, and I spent the hour talking to myself.  I already KNOW this piece; I’ve studied (and taught) it many times before.  I wanted to share that with you, though, so that you could see an example of a well-crafted, beautifully worded piece of argumentation, so that you could learn from Dr. King’s example as you begin to compose your own pieces of persuasive writing, and none of you came to my party.  All of our time was wasted, and I am more than a little disappointed.

For homework, please do on paper what we were going to do in class.  Write a careful and detailed analysis of Dr. King’s response to the Clergymen’s complaint, being mindful to look not only at the main points King makes, but the subtle subtexts and inferences that he uses, as well.  This is a singularly gorgeous piece of rhetoric for a number of reasons; your job is to see how many of those reasons you can uncover and fully explicate in your analysis.

I’m available via email if you need anything.  Enjoy your Veterans’ Day off; I’ll see you again (fully prepared for class this time, please) on Monday.

Warmly,

Mrs. Chili

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