Monday, November 21, 2016

Teaching a Friend's Poetry

In my Intro to Poetry course, I'm using a book of poetry by a friend; my colleagues and I tend to use one more recent book of poetry when we teach the course in order to help students get a feel for how to read a book of poetry as a collection.

This book is fantastic, and the students seem to be enjoying it.  They have lots to say, and what they say suggests they're reading pretty carefully.

That said, sometimes they're a bit off. 

In one of the poems, for example, the speaker talks about being at a funeral with her child.  At one point well into the poem, she hands the child to her husband so she can throw dirt onto the grave.

But several of my students missed that, and from the way the poem uses direct address, decided that the speaker must be a new widow, burying her husband.  So I've pointed them to the part where she says that she hands the child to her husband.

I'm pretty careful only to use evidence from within the poem.

When I started studying English, I took a course in theory and criticism.  In the course, we focused primarily on a book of poems by George Oppen and sort of on hermeneutics.  Sounds interesting, doesn't it?  Except it was pretty miserable because often, when someone would point to something in a poem and say, "this says X," the professor would say, basically, no, it isn't X, because I know George and that didn't happen.  And it always seemed to me very unfair to ask us to try to read poems if they only make sense if you know the writer. 

(Retrospectively, I realize that we were probably all pretty naïve readers, but the principle holds.)

And then, of course, I try to be careful to separate the speaker of a poem from the writer, even though with a lot of more confessional contemporary poetry, that separation feels difficult.

(The other thing that made the course miserable was the professor's unwillingness to define or explain "hermeneutics" except to say that "hermeneutics isn't [this]," or "hermeneutics isn't [that]."  As I said at the time, my car wasn't either of those things, either, but I was pretty sure it wasn't hermeneutics.  (This was in the days before the internet, or even email, and my dictionary didn't provide much help.  I SHOULD have gone to the library and asked a librarian for help, but I wasn't that sophisticated a student at that point.)

I've never understood why he didn't just take half an hour and give us a nice introduction to hermeneutics and interpretation; I hope he had a good pedagogical reason for spiraling around it instead, but I've never figured it out.

Anyway, my friend is skyping into my class from afar today, and I'm excited for them to get to talk to her!


  1. I wonder if your professor didn't exactly know what hermeneutics was either.

    This is probably very mean of me. Never mind.

  2. I hated this style of teaching in grad school in which the professors assumed that you knew what they were talking about. One time, I stopped the class and said, "I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you're talking about. Could someone please define liminality? It's not in the dictionary." People laughed, but the professor did grant my request. After class, two other students came up to me and said, "I'm glad you asked. I wasn't following anything she was saying either." So now, whenever I introduce a topic like liminality or subjectivity I always, always, always make a point of defining the concept thoroughly and talk about why it may or may not be useful to help our interpretation, etc. My undergrads end up being more prepared for grad school than I EVER was. Good for them.

    Anyway - about teaching your friend's work... I have a friend who is teaching a short story of mine in her class. I came to the class -- it was creative writing -- and talked to the students about that story and the writing process. Then, I gave them the first page of another story that I wrote and talked about how to create conflict in the first 300 words. It was a load of fun. Several of those students have me in Humanities, and some of them asked me about my stories and wanted to know what I was "trying to do" in them. I said, "What do you think the story is trying to do?" They gave me their interpretation, and then I said, "That's really fascinating. I was going for XYZ, but I don't actually believe in fixed meaning. Your interpretation is lots more interesting to me." (I'm a devotee to Barthes's Death of the Author.) But of course, if there's a detail that they missed, then that's something else entirely.

  3. Fie, those are wonderful teaching techniques, especially the creative writing example. I'm impressed!

  4. Thanks, delegar. Having some success with writing over the last year has taught me a lot about what's worked and what hasn't. It's made me a much better teacher. :)

  5. It does sound wonderful, Bardiac!
    My first experience with an undefined term was "purple passage" and "set piece"--never defined, just something you were supposed to magically intuit. My life got easier once I figured out that you could substitute "personhood" for "subjectivity" and get the sense of it.

  6. The visit was GREAT! My students were excited and engaged, and my guest was amazing. So good!

    (As for definitions, I try to get other students to help with definitions, write them on the board; if necessary, I look up the definition in an on line resource as a model that we need to look up and think about definitions if we don't know them.)

    1. Anonymous10:17 AM

      This is your guest. I had a fantastic time! It is amazing to see people you don't know giving serious, thoughtful attention to your work. Thank you!

    2. Thank you! It was GREAT having you virtually there!