The Ghost of Matthew Arnold

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Dec 182011

Many of my poet friends have been discussing, courtesy of Emerson alum Sarah Sweeney, Helen Vendler’s vitriolic recent review of the new issue of the Penguin Anthology of Poetry edited by Rita Dove.  Rita Dove issued an exasperated response (note Vendler’s dismissive reply at the bottom).  It is tempting to use the conversation that emerges between the two for a variety of reasons.  It offers a clear example of an attitude to responding to texts that goes against the approach Harris advocates for.  Moreover, I had a number of students this semester actually argue during the in-course evaluation that 101 needed more “L”iterature (whatever that means to them. . .I thought all of the texts we used were capital :)), so I think this offers a clear avenue for discussing the kinds of writing that we use in 101 and why.  Also, the discussion often exposes the means by which genre is regulated.

Here is an excerpt from Vendler:

Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?

And here is a bit of the response from Dove:

But as we know, every generation burrows into its own hard-earned defenses, and it is the prerogative of the young to challenge—yes, and shock—their elders. Vendler lets her guard down when she laments, rather condescendingly, that I am a poet, not an essayist, “writing in a genre not [my] own”—as if that alone disqualifies me from being capable of lucid prose as long as she, the master essayist, owns the genre lock, stock, and barrel.

Revision vs. Editing

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Oct 022011

My first semester as a freshman writing instructor, I jotted the word “redundant” several different places in the margins of a student’s paper, and gave her the opportunity to revise. She returned the paper, having faithfully inserted the word “redundant” wherever I had written it. (Clearly, I should have first taught this student about the purpose of revising a paper.) @

Tomorrow we start thinking about revision in my WR101 class, and I’ll be sharing this anecdote from Dennis Jerz (one of my favorite rhet/comp blogs for a long time now). I also think I’ll return to an idea I introduced my students to recently when we discussed Harris’ chapter on coming to terms: “exuberance and deficiency”, to get students thinking about why we’re more willing — and able — to revise our writing in some ways than in others.

Writing in the Age of Distraction

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Nov 142010

The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn’t help my writing. This advice was wrong creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally, but I know where the writer who doled it out was coming from. Every now and again, when I see a new website, game, or service, I sense the tug of an attention black hole: a time-sink that is just waiting to fill my every discretionary moment with distraction. As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.

Cory Doctorow @ Locus (via Jerz)

Some compelling ideas to consider as teachers, writers, and — for some of you — as graduate students, too. In a related vein, Emerson’s “Institute Forum” will host  Plugged In or Tuned Out? this week, which sounds well worth attending for us as well as our students.

And as long as I’ve mentioned Cory Doctorow, I’ll share that several years ago he was kind enough to engage in an online discussion with one of my classes as we read his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. So he’s a pretty good guy in my book.

Exuberance & Deficiency

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Jan 282009

I’ve been working my way through Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches (highly recommended), and in Randall Roorda’s essay “Great Divides: Rhetorics of Literacy and Orality” found an idea complementary to Harris’ “coming to terms”:

I’d like to invoke a pair of terms drawn from Jose Ortega y Gasset […] exuberance and deficiency. Remarking on translation, Ortega asserts that every account or interpretation of another’s utterance is at once both exuberant and deficient: it says or includes more than the original does, and it falls short of all that the original imparts to a native audience. It does both by differences in suggestions and reverberations implicit in the prior texts informing utterances in both languages. (Roorda 100-101)

Ortega y Gasset’s assertion offers, I think, a useful description of how we come to terms with a text by making it our own: we translate in a way that brings exuberance to the elements by which we are most stirred, and that selective attention or comprehension fosters deficiencies in our ability to replicate the original. It’s a lot like the Borges story Harris alludes to in Rewriting. But I also think the accessible language of “exuberance” and “deficiency” might be useful in explaining this to students, perhaps by asking them to watch a film clip then describe it in detail, presumably creating different results and students’ own sociocultural and personal exuberances and deficiencies come into play.

Though I may just be too exuberant about this idea to realize its deficiencies as a classroom exercise.

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