Power of Literature

In this era of austerity pushed by (predominantly conservative) politicians, education is generally the first target. This short term thinking, of course, fails to account for the long term benefits of an educated populace. Or, to be cynical, perhaps it does account for those benefits, but sees them as drawbacks (“I love uneducated voters”, as a current Republican stated while campaigning). Of all the academic fields, the arts & humanities are the primary targets. And, often, when someone decides to go into my field (English Literature), they get grilled by family members because of it.

First, people tend to mistake English for grammarians. That is, I think obviously, not all we do. In fact, we rarely do grammar as students in the field, though many of us teach it as grad students & adjuncts, because we have to.

Second, people generally don’t understand why we bother studying literature. It’s all just reading, after all. Or they think that we all focus solely on “Great Books” and ignore popular works.

To break this, I want to look at a piece of literature, briefly, to discuss the power of literature. In this case, a piece of popular writing: Richard III, by William Shakespeare.

People tend to forget that Shakespeare was the J.K. Rowling of the late-16th and early-17th centuries. He was popular. He wrote pop culture plays. He wrote for money (through his part ownership of the acting company).

But, on to Richard.

Our popular image of Richard III is that of a conniving, treasonous, hunchback who ran from his battle at Bosworth against Henry VII.

This is the image that Shakespeare presents and it has been part of pop culture and history books for at least the last century.

However . . .

Shakespeare used Thomas More’s history as his major source for the play. This is of great importance.

More was part of the court of Henry VIII and wrote under him. That Henry was, of course, the youngest son of Henry VII, who deposed Richard III by force. Likewise, Shakespeare was writing under Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII.

To keep things brief, both More and Shakespeare were writing propaganda pieces to enhance the reputations of the ruling family and cement their claim to the throne (by deposing a bad, murderous, hunchback king).

Shakespeare’s literary account was bought by generations of historians and sold in classrooms for even more generations.

Eventually, enough historians, and others, looked at other primary sources, ones contemporary with Richard. They looked at portraits, legal documents, and other records. They found that Richard was fairly popular, first as a noble and later as a king. Because of this work, historians have, by and large, changed their view of Richard, but it’s still filtering down.

All because of a work of literature.

This is part of why we study literature.


“What should we learn? Literature. [. . .] If literature is kept alive, then the dao, the moral way, is kept alive; and if the dao is kept alive, then teachings of the sages and worthies are kept alive. Thus we have much to gain from studying literature. Moreover, its influence can be more inspiring [than being in the presence of a great man] because it calls upon us to articulate our ideas and beckons us to draw analogies. Thus what literature offers us is more than something to rely on: it takes us by the hand and bolsters us up; it holds us by the arm to get us on our way.”
– Cheng Yaotian (18th c. Chinese scholar); from Analects, Confucius (2014 Penguin edition)

Free College, Brief Thoughts on

I have a somewhat rocky relationship with the idea of federal or state paid higher education, aka free college. I support the idea fully, but also have some qualifications based on both experience and looking at places where it has been instituted.

In sixteen years of teaching and tutoring at the college level, well, not everyone is cut out for college. And this isn’t a bad thing. Some people, whether a talented auto mechanic or a trust fund baby, just don’t do well with classroom learning and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Likewise, not everyone needs college. Contrary to cultural myths, college is not necessary for a “good” job, assuming we define “good” as paying well. For instance, the average plumber earns more every year than the average college instructor (most of whom are adjunct or “contingent” faculty working for low pay and no benefits).

In the countries where free college (university, in most of them) has been implemented, the percentage of people who attend college is lower than in the U.S. A big reason is that entry exams raise the bar for applications. However, the number of people who attend some form of post-secondary education, ex. trade schools, rises. This is, perhaps, a good thing. After all, society will always have need of plumbers, mechanics, electricians, and related trades, and in the U.S. we’re seeing a shortage in the trades.

I suppose the short version is that I think free post-secondary education or training for anyone and everyone is necessary. Any post-secondary training. Just focusing on college causes problems, like our current overproduction of degree holders at all levels. Also, frankly, focusing on just college is the bad kind of elitist (as opposed to thinking that people should be qualified for their job), and definitely classist.

Content Questions

With the last of the Codex material posted, I now need to generate content again.  🙂

There is a project I’m working on, but as it’s handwritten (my preferred for fiction), it’s not exactly postable.

So, I’ll open this up to the hive mind.  Are there any questions or is there anything you’d like to see my take on covering:
– Writing (fiction or non-)
– Fantasy (written or film)
– Sci-Fi (written or film)
– Worldbuilding
– Education (post-secondary)
– History (pre-17th century)
– Gaming (Tabletop RPGs; I’m a bit behind, but still follow such things)

– Shapeshifters

– Magic (historical or genre)
– Anything else interesting

Academic Dead End

I’m going to preface this post by saying that I enjoy my job and know that I am helping a lot of people (they tell me this pretty regularly). That said, everything else below is also true.

It seems strange to call a position in collegiate level education “a dead end job”. Culturally, we’re primed to think “dead end job” refers to food service, retail, etc., not positions that require a Masters degree. However, after a great deal of thought, I think the label is appropriate. After all, I’ve spent nine years in just such a position, with the same employer (for certain external reasons, plus assurances were made by said employer and never followed through), at a near poverty annual income. Frankly, people who have six or more years of post-secondary education cannot live on a pittance, really no one can at least not well.

So, why is this a dead end position?

In nine years, there has been no chance of promotion. There has been no opportunity for transitioning to full time (despite assurances of regular internal hiring, which hasn’t happened). There has been no raise, so someone with 10+ years makes the same hourly as the person hired yesterday. In fact, we’ve had a mandatory 20% pay cut, “to cut costs”, while the school created and hired new, six figure salary VPs.  There’s no incentive to do well, as pay remains the same and there’s a cap in hours that apply the same for the best and the worst.

I say all this not to complain, as such.

Rather, I say it to inform people about the model that’s been more or less standardized across higher ed for the last 40 or so years, at least in the U.S., though I hear it’s catching on in Canada & Europe too.

This is an unsustainable model for higher education. Colleges & universities cannot continue to rely on hourly positions, single semester contract positions, low annual pay positions that require a Masters degree and prefer doctorates. In the end, this practice harms undergraduate education, graduate teaching assistants, and doctoral graduates all; not to mention the fact that it shifts full time faculty more and more to administrative duties (shrinking pool of full timers to draw from) rather than teaching and conducting research.

Stereotypes & Assumptions

I’m not a deep thinker or writer, despite my background, education, and training.  This may seem odd from someone with a PhD in an arts/humanities field given the reputations of said fields.  We’re expected to be thinking and writing deep, meaningful, philosophical things.

That’s not me.

Maybe that comes from being the grandkid of working class families.  Maybe it comes from my Polish lineage (though we have Copernicus and John Paul II, so maybe not entirely).

I think this is the big reason I rejected doing literary theory in grad school.  Most of the things we read and discussed were doing pure theory, theory for the sake of theory.  People like Roland Barthes, Toril Moi, and Stanley Fish who were totally divorced from texts, just developing theory to further theory drove me crazy.  Meanwhile, I embraced, halfheartedly because theory was required, New Historicism, in short studying a text’s historical context or the historical context in which it was and is received.  It seemed, and still does, the most practical of the theories out there.

I remember being in a graduate level Shakespeare course, during my MA.  We were reading Othello and a fellow student asked, “Why is Othello so obsessed with his reputation?”  As I recall, a few theories were posited, some “I don’t knows” floated around.  Then I spoke up (and I usually didn’t talk much in class), saying, “Othello’s a mercenary, the commander of a company of mercenaries.  His reputation is literally his life.  It’s how he gets jobs for himself and his men.  That would be important enough, but he’s also a Moor, a Black Muslim, working in Catholic Italy.  That makes his reputation at least twice as important as it is for other mercenary captains.”  To me, this seemed obvious.  From the looks I got, it seemed to be a revelation to many others in the class.  It’s not a deep, philosophical interpretation, but a practical, historically important one, I think.

During a decade as a student in higher ed, I concluded that  students sometimes forget about the practical side of critical thinking and get too caught up in some skewed sense of how they think they should be responding and thinking, trying to “sound college”.  The problem is that “sounding college” is built on a stereotype, maybe an idealization, possibly fueled by pop culture (especially movies), in which the faculty are almost invariably the enemy who need to be appeased and outwitted (often by presenting convoluted responses, answers, and thoughts that really make no sense in the light of day).  Often, we just want a straight response that seems likely (at least I do).

Was Shakespeare using Othello as a commentary on hyper-masculinity?  I don’t know.  Possibly.  It’s perfectly valid for modern audiences to read the character that way.  But, I think, for an audience that was being reminded of the War of the Roses, had survived the Spanish Armada, was dealing with the Succession Question, and had the Vatican & Papists fomenting insurrection . . . I suspect they’d understand Othello’s obsession with reputation as part and parcel of being a mercenary captain and an outsider by faith and appearance.

Maybe that all means I’m not a deep enough or philosophical enough thinker for this field or academia.  I don’t know.  Maybe the stereotype & expectation are just false.

Writer Advice: Getting from A to B, or Transitions

A common issue for early stage writers, although it appears with more experienced people as well, is transitions. These are the sentences and phrases that link paragraphs together. They serve to demonstrate how we are moving from one point to the next; they connect points A and B.

In short, transitions show the chain of logic that the writer is making.

Transitions can be seen akin to middle school algebra.

For example, a teacher writes: X + 5 = 10

Most people say, “X = 5”

Teacher says, “Show your work.”

Most people grumble and groan.

But, the teacher wants to see X + 5 – 5 = 10 -5; X = 5 because it shows the chain of logic. That becomes important when we get 2X + 3Y = Z – 5.

That chain of logic is important for linking evidence to claims and shifting between claims.

This is one reason that I like outlining before writing. With a formal outline, there is a good, visual representation of the main claims. These can be manipulated and moved around to where they best fit, compared to the other claims. It is, in my experience, always best to group claims based on what relationship they have to each other. That is, putting related claims next to each other. With that sort of organization, the transitions tend to be smoother, because the points are more closely related.

The chain of logic, aided by the transitions, or as shown by the transitions, makes the argument easier for the reader to follow. If the reader has a difficult time following the argument, then they aren’t focusing on the content, they’re focusing on the structure and trying to figure out what’s going on. This, obviously, is not good for convincing the reader. Rather, we want to make things easy for the reader to follow, so they don’t have to work so hard trying to figure out structural elements—ex. organization, syntax—and can spend more time chewing on the argument itself. Ultimately, that will produce a more convincing argument, or a more productive discussion.

Personally, I find that one of the easiest ways to create a smooth transition is the use of echoing language.  By echoing, I mean using one or two similar terms (or concepts) in the last sentence of paragraph A and the first sentence of paragraph B.

For example:

Her concern comes after years of knowing Lupin, the clearest exception to the prejudicial stereotype, and at a time far removed from a full moon.

The source of this prejudiced view, and its racial connotations, is nowhere more evident than in the words of Dolores Umbridge . . .

(Note the echoing of “prejudicial” and “prejudiced”.)

Alternately, referring to the next main point can create a smoother transition.

For example:

the medieval construct of sympathetic versus monstrous werewolf forms a lens through which Rowling discusses Lupin’s lessons as well as a historical connection to our literary past.

In Rowling’s work, the primary werewolf—Lupin—serves to directly educate key characters . . .

Here the last sentence of paragraph A links the idea of an old dichotomy to the concept of learning/education, with the first sentence of paragraph B moving straight into education.

 

Writer Advice: Intros and Such (Non-Fic)

Tail end of the semester has started (one week until finals here) and I’ve been focusing my writing time on some fiction/world pieces rather than blog stuff, so I thought I’d take a quick break from story posting to put up some advice.  A lot of the advice I give regarding writing, particularly non-fiction, comes from things I’ve seen crop up often over the last 13 years of teaching and tutoring.

Introductions & Theses

One of the most difficult things for a lot of writers, especially new ones, to do is introductions.

 Each introduction, in a formal non-fiction essay, needs to have three things:

1) Something to get the reader’s attention.

2) A brief outline of the major claims.

3) The thesis.

 There are many ways to get the reader’s attention from telling a joke or an anecdote to inserting a surprising statistic or a rhetorical question. Sometimes the thesis itself gets the reader’s attention.

 Outlining the claims is relatively easy, just a one sentence list (for shorter works) of the main points.

 The thesis can be the really difficult part.

 A thesis is also known as a hypothesis or theory. It is the overarching idea and argument of the paper. Alternatively, we can think of the thesis as the roof of the house—the roof covers the house and is supported by the claims (walls) which are, in turn, supported by the evidence (foundation). A thesis is always a sentence and always answers a question. It is, in effect, a theoretical answer that the writer will attempt to prove with claims and evidence.

 The simplest way to produce a thesis, in my experience, is to figure out what question you’re asking as a writer/researcher. Without the core question, developing a thesis becomes very difficult. With the question in mind, creating a thesis becomes infinitely easier.

 A couple analogies that I use for introductions follow:

 1) Think of the introduction as a movie trailer or TV preview. The two minute version of the movie is designed to get the reader interested, but not give away so much that they refuse to pay for a ticket.

 2) As a researcher, you have 10 articles that you found. Each article is 20 pages long. So, as a writer, ask yourself: would you rather read 200 pages to determine if the articles are useful or would you rather read 10 paragraphs? I’m guessing most people would prefer 10 paragraphs. So the introduction should provide enough information for a casual reader to decide whether the essay should go in the “Useful”, “Not Useful”, or “Maybe” piles of their research.