Thursday, May 17, 2007


A while back, at some point I can't find any more, I talked about using the board and not powerpoint. I like to think that when I teach, I can respond effectively to student questions and interpretations on the fly. And I think that what I do on the board, on the fly, sticks in part because it's, well, memorable, but not in a necessarily good way.

But we all know that academics all want good examples, right? So I thought I'd give you some.

Here's one of my favorite poems, Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," with three bits highlighted from Bartleby:

HAD we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's wing├Ęd chariot hurrying near
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave 's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run

I also added line breaks to emphasize the three part structure of the poem: If X, but Y, so Z.

The first highlighted part pretty much sets up the poem up; the speaker's saying, hey, if we had all the time and space in the world, then we could take our time about this lovemaking. I think we often see carpe diem type poems, poems that tell us to "seize the day" and get on with living our lives. What blows me away about this poem is that it goes beyond the time dimension and thinks about the importance of space, taking space really seriously.

So, let's look at the next highlighted spot, and notice that it, too, includes both space and time. You've got this image of the speaker, moving along, and realizing that he's being chased down by Time's winged chariot. So Time's personified as a sort of person, one who has a darned fast chariot.

Here's my special genius:

I know what you're thinking, stunning, amazing... or, just dang, there's a crappy stick guy running from a badly drawn horse and chariot. But you can really get the sense of the spacial motion, no?

Now, let's look at the final bit of imagery, and remember, if you will, that the sun gets personified all the time in poetry as well. Not surprisingly, as a guy in a chariot. That's right, it's an appearance by Apollo!

So here's my go at Apollo:
Note the similarity, eh? Except this time, the speaker and the beloved are making Apollo have to run to get across the sky because they're just that hot and stuff.

Now, look at the poem again, and think about those pictures. They're crap, but don't you see the way space works differently?


I gave my poetry final today, and wrote one of my best final essay question options ever. I sure as heck hope that my students chose to write on it and really went to town. Want to see it? I thought you would!

Imagine, for a moment, that your friend has asked you for help reading and interpreting a poem you’ve never seen before. Explain what you would do to help your friend understand the poem. Using specific examples from poems we’ve read from before and after the midterm, explain what strategies you’d use, what you’d look for structurally, how you’d help your friend understand imagery, and so forth. When you use poetic terms, be sure to define them, as if you’re explaining them to your friend.

I think there's a lot of possibility for students to do really well with this, and for them to actually be reasonably fun and interesting to read. Cross your fingers for me!


  1. I don't even have the words to tell you how much I love this whole post. I've been trying to work out similar things with visual conceptions of poems, and also, coincidentally, with questions like the one you've set your students.

    So: I will be excited to see how it turns out.

  2. Hey B --

    Funny you should post this. My supervisor, Maggie, just gave a panel at a teaching conference about, I kid you not, informal drawing in the classroom! I've pasted below the excerpt from the program and a link to the conference page.

    E.1 Informal Writing and Drawing in the Classroom
    Maggie Berg, English; and Doug Babington, Writing Centre
    We usually deal in our courses with theoretical material. But students often remain unaware that theories are abstractions from actual experience and have relevance for their own lives. This session will present two strategies we have used to make academic inquiry in the classroom more personal and, we hope, pleasurable. We will engage in two exercises in response to a page of text: free-writing and cartooning (using stick-figures). The aim of the exercises is to make your responses to a text more visible as a foundation for further inquiry and reflection. Neither you nor your students need be artists or authors to benefit from this method!

    embracing inquiry

  3. As a scientist, I don't have much useful to say about your enjoyable posts.

    But today is an exception since the post was so great.

    When I was in college we had an English instructor who said something about "putting a finger into his coy mistress" by which he apparently meant to open the textbook to that poem. Needless to say there was laughter from anyone paying attention.

    All the best,


  4. I really like that final exam question -- at least in my experience, there's no better way to internalize something than figuring out how you would teach it. I've done something similar on a paper assignment and gotten some outstanding papers out of it.

    By the way, hi -- I've been reading your blog for a while, and I thought I'd say hello rather than continuing to lurk mysteriously.

  5. Great final question! I'm going to borrow it, if I may, the next time I have to give a final.

  6. I love the board pictures. Mine would be worse!

    About the essay question, i think that it's great. It gives your students a lot of ways to be successful. :)

  7. Aw, thanks, Jane :)

    Amanda, Wow, so I'm cutting edge or something? I think it's just that I'm a fairly visual thinker, so drawing imagery and stuff helps me get it.

    Mr. B, I guess you should be glad he didn't ask you to gloss his "Coy Mistress," eh?

    Fretful Porpentine, Hey, thanks for commenting and nice to meet you :) I think you're right about how teaching something can really bring it home for us. It works for me!

    Nik, Feel free! But if you give it for a calculus final, I guarantee they're gonna be cranky! :)

    MWWAK, thanks :) My bad board art is a running joke with my students, but I hope it helps them remember things. I hope the question really gives them an open chance to show off what they've learned. I love it when students really ace a final!

  8. That is a great final exam prompt.