Friday, July 15, 2016

Saving this...

Saving this for the next time I teach Alyssa Cole's "Let It Shine":

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Grading Standards: An Old Handout

Stumbled on this in an old syllabus, and thought I'd post it here, where I'll be able to find it easily, in case I want either to use it again or to have my Education students critique it!

ENG 286:  Popular Romance Fiction
Notes on My Grading of Student Papers

1. Everyone starts with a B.  That is, my working assumption is that your paper is “good,” which in this class is a B.  (In some classes you’ve taken, it may have been an A; in others, it may have been a C.)  In terms of points, everything you write starts with a “2.”

2. It takes something special to raise that grade, either in the quality of your ideas or in the elegance of your prose.  An insight that surprises and impresses me, a deft turn of phrase, will count in your favor.  Enough of these and your essay will go from a B to a B+, a 2 to a 3, or higher.

3. In this class, an “A” paper is exceptional work.  I love to read A papers, I love to give A grades on papers, but I don’t give them lightly.

4. If you have trouble writing an A paper, can you still raise your grade?  Yes, by speaking up in class and by doing well on the final “first thoughts / afterthoughts / final reflections” project.  I make no guarantees, but class participation and a strong final exam will help you do well, and I grade both of them differently than I do your papers.

5. What lowers your grade from a B to a B-, a C+, or a C?  Sometimes it’s a matter of your arguments and ideas.  Underdeveloped ideas, unclear arguments, points not fleshed out or fully considered:  all of these will bring down your grade.  So will a paper that simply repeats material from class, without showing that you can use those terms or course ideas to generate arguments or insights of your own.  Other problems may occur, and I’ll try to point them out to you in my comments on the paper itself.  In the shorter response paragraphs, I don’t expect every idea to be fully developed, but I do expect your ideas to be clear and interesting, not simply echoes of my lecture.

6. What else lowers your grade?  Poor writing.  You are all college students, and should be doing college level writing.  Sentences and paragraphs that are hard for me to follow, mistakes in grammar and syntax, prose that depends on clich├ęs or uses slang in an inappropriate context, awkward or missing transitions:  none of these should appear in your essay, and when they do, they’ll weigh it down.

7. The more your writing distracts me from your argument, the lower your final grade will be.  It makes me sad to see strong ideas decked out in clumsy prose.  Tuck in the shirt, polish the shoes, wipe the nose, check the posture.  Impress me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Robert Hayden's "Frederick Douglass": 3 Versions

My senior capstone seminar this quarter is spending 10 weeks on Robert Hayden's sonnet "Frederick Douglass."  Among the pleasures of the course so far has been my students' sleuthing out of two earlier versions of the poem.  The final version was published in 1966, but Hayden published an early draft in 1945, and a revision--close to the final, but not identical with it--in 1947.  I thought it might be helpful to other teachers to have the three versions posted all together here.

Here is the familiar final version, as published in 1966 and thereafter, via the Poetry Foundation:
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,  
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,  
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,  
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more  
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:  
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro  
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world  
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,  
this man, superb in love and logic, this man  
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,  
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives  
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
The 1947 version was published in the February, 1947 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.  It looks like this:
As you can see, this is almost the same as the final version of the poem, with a few small but resonant differences.  In line three, the "it" of the poem is imagined as belonging "at last to our children," rather than "at last to all," as Hayden has it in the final version; this version gives the whole poem as a single sentence broken by a dash, rather than as two separate sentences, the first one ending with "shall be remembered"; finally, this version closes with an invocation of "the needful, beautiful thing" rather than "the beautiful, needful thing."

The differences are more striking--much more striking--when you compare the 1947 version to the first published version of "Frederick Douglass," from 1945.  It's quoted in full in Robert Chrisman's essay "Robert Hayden: the Transition Years, 1946-1948."  Evidently it was originally published as part of "Five Americans: a Sequence from The Black Spear," which appeared in "Lewis B. Martin's short-lived monthly, Headlines and Pictures, in May, 1945" (Chrisman, 133); the other four sonnets in the sequence were about William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  As you'll see, this "Frederick Douglass" bears almost no resemblance to the ones which followed:
III.  Frederick Douglass 
Such men are timeless, and their lives are levers
that lift the crushing dark away like boulders.
Death cannot silence them, nor history,
suborned or purchased like the harlot’s crass
endearments, expatriate them.  Like negatives
held to the light, their weaknesses reveal
our possible strength.  Their power proves us godly,
and by their stripes are we made whole in purpose. 
Douglass, O colossus of our wish
and allegory of us all, one thinks
of you as shipwrecked voyagers think of
an island.  Breasting waters mined with doubt
and error, we struggle toward your dream of man
unchained, of man permitted to be man.
I'll leave discussion of the poem's evolution to you and your students.  You might also want to fold in some of the available audio of the poem:  Hayden's reading on the Poetry Foundation website (linked above); the Poetry Out Loud performances on YouTube, etc.  It's a fine poem for a 10-week class.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Course for Next Quarter

ENG 466:  Modern American Poetry

Personal and political, local and global, difficult and accessible, lyrical and experimental, polished and (ostensibly) improvised, sacred and secular, familiar and estranging:  these are some of the axes with which we can plot the trajectories of modern and postmodern American poetry.  This Winter Quarter, we will explore those trajectories through extensive readings in four contrasting African American poets:  Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Nathaniel Mackey, and Harryette Mullen.  We will situate their work in a range of literary and cultural contexts, including Eliotic and popular modernism, the Black Arts Movement, the New American Poetry (especially the work of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson), Language poetry, and the French group Oulipo.  We will read selections from the authors’ prose (essays, memoirs, fiction, criticism) as well as their verse, and when possible we will explore their on-line audio and video presences through PennSound, the Poetry Foundation, and other archives.

(We'll see how it goes.  Hayden and Clifton I've taught many times before; Mullen not in a decade, maybe; Mackey, never before.  All advice appreciated!)

Monday, September 29, 2014

More Handouts from Class

I'm not sure if this will be useful to anyone, but just in case--here's a handout I distributed today in my Reading Poetry class.  More to come, as they show up in the class.

4-Beat (Tetrameter) Worksheet

In English poetry, tetrameter starts as the prestige meter of the ruling class.  An unrhymed, highly alliterative tetrameter is the meter of Beowolf, Caedmon's Hymn, The Seafarer.  The meter thus carries with it some historical associations of archaic or primitive poetry, and of heroic and manly struggle.  Later poets who want to trigger those associations in the minds of their readers will often use the four-beat line, especially in that unrhymed way.

After Norman Conquest, the language of the Court & upper classes is French, not Old English.  The tetrameter line survives and still flourishes, mostly with rhyme added in, as the dominant form of popular or oral poetry, as in magic spells or charms or incantations (“Double, double, boil and bubble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble…”), nursery rhymes, hymns, ballads, folk songs, pop-songs, old-school rap, etc., as well as in later literary verse that wants to conjure up these associations, for straightforward or ironic reasons.

In both its Old English and popular varieties, tetrameter is a "strong-stress" meter.  That means, the poet generally counts the number of stresses per line, not the total number of syllables; it’s often hard to talk about metrical “feet” when we’re reading tetrameter verse. 

Frequently it falls into the 4 x 4 pattern, with four line stanzas marked by end-rhymes.  Another common variant is the 4-3-4-3 stanza with a "virtual beat" (that is, a little pause) at the end of the shorter lines.  This version was once so common that it earned the name “common meter.

Tetrameter is a powerful meter, which tends to overpower or shape the language you use, turning it into a hypnotic chant or sing-song rhythm, even if this means that you’re not putting an accent onto a word that carries meaning.  It is much more powerful in this way than pentameter (five-meter), which can sound more conversational and less chant-like.  Pentameter becomes the prestige meter for English poetry during the Renaissance. 

Scan as Four-Beat (Tetrameter) Lines, marking four heavily accented (“stressed”) syllables in each line.

Dr. Seuss

The sun did not shine.  It was too wet to play.

So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.

I sat there with Sally.  We sat there, we two,

And I said, “How I wish we had something to do!”

Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball,

So we sat in the house.  We did nothing at all.

And so all we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit.

And we did not like it.  Not one little bit.


"That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am!

I do not like that Sam-I-Am!”

"Do you like green eggs and ham?"

"I do not like them, Sam-I-Am."

"Would you like them here or there?"

"Would you like them in a house?

Would you like them with a mouse?"

"Would you like them in a box?

Would you like them with a fox?"

Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes

Star light, star bright

First star I see tonight

I wish I may, I wish I might

Have the wish I wish tonight

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again 

Hymn / Ballad / Song Stanzas  (4/3/4/3 and other common variations)

Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale,

The tale of a fateful trip (X)

That started from this tropic port

Aboard this tiny ship. (X)

Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found

Was blind, but now I see.

From LOTR: Return of the King

Riders of Rohan!  Oaths you have taken--

Arise, Arise, Riders of Theoden!

Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered.

A sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride to ruin and the world’s ending—

From Beowulf

Cunningly creeping,     a spectral stalker
slunk through the night.     The spearmen were sleeping
who ought to have held     the high-horned house,
all except one,     for the Lord's will
now became known:     no more would the murderer
drag under darkness     whomever he wished.
Wrath was wakeful,     watching in hatred;
hot-hearted Beowulf     was bent upon battle.

Here is a recent poem by Annie Finch, a contemporary formalist poet.  What features of this poem can you connect with features of Old English poetics, both in terms of sound and in terms of naming and renaming?   What features are more typical of later medieval poetry, either in terms of sound or of other kinds of language use?

Annie Finch, “A Blessing on the Poets”

Patient earth-digger, impatient fire-maker,

Hungry word-taker and roving sound-lover,

Sharer and saver, muser and acher,

You who are open to hide or uncover,

Time-keeper and hater, wake-sleeper, sleep-waker;

May language's language, the silence that lies

Under each word, move you over and over,

Turning you, wondering, back to surprise.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dear Students...

Dear Students,

By class-time on Wednesday I’d like you to write three paragraphs:  one paragraph each about three poems that you choose from the “sheaf of short poems” handed out on the first day of class.  If you weren’t in class, you can find them at the end of the syllabus, which I’ve uploaded to our D2L site.  The poems you choose should be at least three lines long; I suggest that you stick with poems of 3-12 lines for this first assignment.   Each paragraph should talk about how you can make this particular poem interesting by using one or more of the tools laid out in class and summarized later in this email.  You don’t need to give an exhaustive reading of the poem!  One or two tools per poem is fine, and three to five sentences is plenty for each paragraph. Upload your paragraphs--as a single document, preferably--to the appropriate dropbox folder on D2L.  

Your goals for this assignment are to practice some habits of attention, and to give me a taste of your writing.  I’d love to see you try using each of the four approaches spelled out below at least once; as you’ll discover, they overlap in what they discover, although they’re slightly different in primary focus and emphasis.  

In class we picked some two-line poems and considered how to make them interesting (or, if you prefer, how to find something interesting about them) using analytical tools I’d talked about and put on the board.  As a quick refresher, in case you didn’t write those down, here’s more or less what I put there:

There were three broad categories of inquiry—although in practice they will overlap somewhat:  the poem as contraption (a “machine made out of words”); the poem as a character (a script for you to say); and the poem as responding to or inhabiting in some particular context (a form, a genre, a particular historical moment, a particular publishing venue, like the wall of a men’s room stall, etc.)
There were also four specific things that sophisticated-sounding readers of poetry often say they spot a poem doing:

  1. Playing with language (wordplay, puns, musicality, formal patterns, attention to etymology [the roots of words in Latin or Greek or Anglo-Saxon, etc.] in order to make a thing rather than simply express an idea.
  2. Acting out / What it’s about:  that is, having the language of the poem somehow mimetically “act out” something that the poem talks about:  for example, through a change in form or rhythm or pacing, or through a change in the visual layout of the text (including, as we saw in Reznikoff, from the “stiff lines” of letters l and i to the “blurred” lines of b and d), or in any other way.
  3. Dividing into sections, with the emotional / idea drama of the poem (that is, the changes in mood or idea) playing out as linguistic drama (that is, changes in language or style).  This is different from move #2 in that the change doesn’t have to be acting out something that the poem is about; it’s more a matter of a change at one level of the poem, the mood or idea, triggering or showing up as a change at another level of the poem, that of style.* 
  4. Finally, I talked about how poems can be made interesting by dividing them into sections and spotting repetition and variation between the sections, as well as contrast and change between the sections.  Repetition and variation helps hold poems together, giving them the effect “complete centripetal coherence.”  Another way to think about this is that there are many systems at work in any given poem, with many threads of connection, potentially, between any one part of the poem or any one word in the poem and many others.  (There can be sound threads, meaning threads, word-root threads, level-of-diction threads, tone threads, etc.—lots of them, all at once!)  Tug on any one part of a poem, and another part will probably twitch.  Point out those connections, and you’ve made the poem more interesting, and given yourself some tools to talk about the poem as a contraption, as a character, and even perhaps as a response to some context, too!

*PLEASE NOTE:  I didn’t mention this in class, but as you’ll see in future class discussions, you can often use these “linguistic drama” changes as evidence of some kind of change in the mood or idea or psychological state of the character saying the poem.  Repeated sounds, for example, might be used as evidence that the character is hearkening back to or refusing to let go of some idea that was expressed the first time those sounds came into the poem.  These kinds of claims are very dependent on the specific contexts of individual poems, so we’ll spend some time learning how to make plausible ones and to avoid ones that sound forced or unlikely.   

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Noted Rather Crossly

I settled in to read Khaled Mattawa's Mahmoud Darwish: the Poet's Art and His Nation the other day, but found myself frowning at two small errors in wording early on.

The IDF is the Israel Defense Forces, not the "Israeli Defense Forces" (as they're named on p. 1); likewise the PLO is the Palestine Liberation Organization, not the "Palestinian" one, as the organization is repeatedly called, including in the index.

I'm a little puzzled by these errors.  Did they creep in unnoticed?  Are they deliberate?  (If so, a note would be nice.)  They're not big, substantive mistakes, like the ones that Mark sometimes notices in footnotes, but they do grate on me.  A pity.  More on the book anon.