Joseph Cornell meets the commedia dell’arte

Because I’ve always been intrigued by miniature rooms, shadowboxes, and stage sets, I found Theaters of the 13th Dimension utterly fascinating. Better yet, they’re on display in my home town, Baltimore. Maybe I can coax my family into making a trip to the Senator Theatre when I go home to visit them next week. Maybe I won’t have to, if Return of the King is showing there and we all go see it like we did with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Anyway, the tiny theater boxes are nifty. Now I want to start making my own. (Via Metafilter.)

But what will I do with my Saturday afternoons?

After this season, ChevronTexaco will no longer be sponsoring the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, and it’s still uncertain whether other funding sources will come through. Which is a great pity. I’ve only recently started listening to the radio broadcasts, but I love being able to hear an entire performance from my living room, complete with descriptions of what the sets look like, intermission commentary, and the sounds of the audience. Especially since I live in a state where the opportunities to see live opera performances are few. (I do have a longer history of exposure to the Met’s TV broadcasts. When I was growing up, my mother and I would sometimes watch "Live from the Met" on PBS: I remember bits and pieces of The Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata, and I remember being allowed to stay up past my usual bedtime to watch all of The Magic Flute. I forget how old I was, but I do recall listening to the Queen of the Night‘s "Der Hölle Rache" in Act 2 and thinking "Whoa! How does she do that?")

Terry Teachout noticed the same article and has some interesting things to say about the future of the radio broadcasts; he thinks the Met should be "narrowcasting" on web-based radio instead. I see his point about how traditional radio may well be becoming an obsolete venue. But not everyone out there has a high-speed connection to the internet. I still use dial-up, and the connection can be terribly slow, so I still get my radio the old-fashioned way. Even if the Met broadcasts were to move to the web, I’d probably have to spring for a cable modem to be able to hear them. And ideally I’ll have a job that pays better than my current one, and live in a city with its own opera company, but right now I don’t.

This is the curse of having what one of my uncles calls "champagne tastes and a beer budget" (a syndrome I’ve had since childhood; these days my budget is closer to Sam Adams than Pabst Blue Ribbon, but it’s still very far from Dom Perignon.) What I like about the Met on the radio is that it’s a beer-budget option — and wouldn’t restricting the beer-budget options provide more ammunition for the people who like to dismiss opera as a snobby elitist art form for the very rich? This is what worries me — this, and what I’ll listen to on Saturdays this time next year.

Cross your fingers

I’ve applied for a job. A non-professorial job that would still allow me to do research — in my field, no less. It’s an administrative position at an independent, well-reputed research library, and they want a new Ph.D. who works in Renaissance studies, which I do. And it’s in a city where I’d actually quite like to live, at least for a few years, and where I know a few people already. I don’t want to post too much about it because I’m afraid I’ll jinx it.

I posted the letter today. Let’s hope I hear back from them!

Miss Congeniality

By one of those weird coincidences that seem to happen in the academic blogosphere, I read Naomi Chana’s post about rate-your-professors sites only hours after I’d stumbled upon one of those sites myself. The temptation to look up my own name was irresistible, and there it was, with a happy face next to it. Someone had given me a positive overall rating. First I was pleased: some of them like me, after all. Then I was cheek-burningly embarrassed: whoever it was said I’m an easy grader.

Well, that explains why I’ve been getting e-mails from students who want to know about the requirements for my composition classes next term…

End-of-term nightmare

Last night I had a worse-than-standard "teaching anxiety" dream: I dreamed I was reading my students’ course evaluations, and all their comments were not only negative, but horribly detailed. One said something like "We could tell she’d read a lot about Lacan [not that I’ve ever taught Lacan], but this class was, on the whole, not a very good idea." Another comment criticized my posture, my body language, the state of my teeth, and my smile, which was described as a "grimace."

Even worse, I was somehow reading these evaluations on the web, using my laptop, and I was in the classroom at the time with the students in question, which gave me a sudden flash of guilty panic: Oh my God, I shouldn’t be reading these yet, the course isn’t over!

It was awful. I’m knocking back coffee in a slightly frantic effort to wake all the way up. At the same time, though, I remember a certain feeling of grim triumph in the dream: here’s the proof, I thought to myself, looking at the evaluations, that I’ve got to change careers. If anyone asks why I want to leave teaching, I can just show them these comments, and they’ll have to agree with my decision.

All the same, I’d rather go back to dreaming my standard-issue bizarro dreams, like the one two nights ago in which I went to see the movie 28 Days Later at the movie theater (I’ve never seen it) and then somehow I was in the movie itself, plotting ways to flee from the killer zombies. Somehow, my unconscious grasps the distinction between fact and fiction, because the movie-zombie dream was much less scary than the evaluation dream.

Fun with referrer stats

Recent Google and Yahoo searches leading to this site:

found poetry
names of lace patterns
usage "empathize with"
stevens the poem must resist the intelligence
topic of wallace stevens poems
analyze "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

And here I thought I was the only person who went around googling lines from Stevens. But if you’re looking for me to help you write a paper about him (as the latter two queries seem to suggest), well, sorry, but no. Go somewhere else. Better yet, why not try sitting down with the poem again before you hit the search engines, eh?

Also found through the referrer logs: scribblingwoman. 18th-century literature, science fiction, academia, and even Valkyrie Barbies (Barbie sings Brünnhilde?). And an interesting use of blogs in the classroom, to boot. Nifty.

Now if only high schools taught this kind of writing…

All this talk about rhetoric reminded me of my favorite mock-oration ever, Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, and especially its conclusion:

I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the Nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poetry, no more to laugh at the name of "poets," as though they were next inheritors to fools, nor more to jest at the reverent title of a "rimer"; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecians’ divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were first bringers-in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosopher’s precepts can sooner make you an honest man than the reading of Vergil; … lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.

Thus doing, your name shall flourish in the printers’ shops; thus doing, you shall be of kin to many a poetical preface; thus doing, you shall be most fair, most rich, most wise, most all; you shall dwell upon superlatives. … But if (fie of such a but) you be born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a mome as to be a Momus of poetry; then, though I will not wish unto you the ass’s ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses (as Bubonax was) to hang himself, nor to be rhymed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse I must send you, in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet, and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.

(from Sir Philip Sidney: Prose and Poetry, ed. Robert Kimbrough, 2nd ed., 156-158)

You know, when I first read the Defence as an undergraduate, I found it dry. Now I wonder how I could have missed its pull-out-all-the-stops exuberance and the fascinating way it grapples with the ethics of a genre that Renaissance writers often considered false or "feigning." I think it was seeing that final paragraph excerpted as a literature GRE practice question that got me to return to Sidney; I didn’t recognize the passage, wondered who wrote it, and was surprised when I looked at the answer key. And seven years later, I have another passage from the Defence to thank for a big chunk of my dissertation.

Three reasons why the five-paragraph theme is a bad thing

There’s been a small flurry of interesting posts about the infamous five-paragraph essay recently. Body and Soul links to a New York Times article about the low standards in Texas high schools, which begins with an anecdote about a Texas high-schooler who was "trained to write five-paragraph ‘persuasive essays’ for the state exam" and was "stumped by her first writing assignment" in college. Calpundit replies with a parody of the five-paragraph form ("In conclusion, Texas schools are bad. They have lots of dropouts, low test scores, and five paragraph essays. Texas schools are bad."). Pennywit makes a case for why it’s not such a bad way to write an essay, if the student learns to use it flexibly, to which Calpundit replies. If you’re interested in writing pedagogy, go read them all — and don’t miss the comment threads.

If I had to state, five-paragraph-essay-style, my three "supporting reasons" for why I hate the five-paragraph form with a passion — even though I do think students need some kind of structure when they’re just learning to put together an essay — I would say this:

1. It’s supposed to be a tool for beginning writers to master and then move on. But it’s often very difficult for my college composition students to break out of the five-paragraph mode. They listen to my impassioned defense of less rigid formats and try to write essays that break the mold, but it’s as if it’s imprinted on their brains and they write in that format even when they’re trying not to. Some of them do manage to move on, but others get stuck.

2. It discourages students from making strong connections between the ideas presented in the body of the paper. In theory, you could use the five-paragraph template to come up with an essay whose body paragraphs go like this: "Let’s take Point A as a premise (and here’s why A is a reasonable starting point). Now, if we examine the assumptions behind A, we can see that B follows from it. However, we may not realize that we should also consider C (but here’s why we should)." But almost invariably, what students learn to write is some version of "We can see [thesis] through Example A, Example B, Example C," with the paragraphs about A, B, and C connected to each other with a string of "Also"s or "Moreover"s. What it generates is more a list than an essay.

3. It encourages students to write the dullest, most formulaic introductions and conclusions ever. Lots of them recognize how dreary it is to write a conclusion that restates everything that’s been said in the introduction, and lots of them worry about it, but since they’ve been taught over and over again to begin their last paragraphs with "In conclusion, this essay has shown that [insert slightly reshuffled sentences from introduction]," they’re not sure what else to do.

My officemate recently received a new composition reader that included a completely hilarious poem about the five-paragraph essay. I’ll post it if I can find the book.

(Update: Mike points out two more recent posts by John Jocalo, and his own in response. Thanks!)

Bibliotheca Abscondita

Via Maud Newton, I found the Invisible Library, "a collection of books that only appear in other books." At last there’s a library for The Murder of Gonzago (the play-within-a-play in Hamlet), the novels from Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the complete monographs of Sherlock Holmes, and all the imaginary books in Borges’ stories: The Garden of Forking Paths by T’sui Pen, Don Quixote by Pierre Menard, the novels of Herbert Quain, and the First Encyclopedia of Tlön.*

I especially like the fact that the site includes a an early example of the imaginary-book list, Sir Thomas Browne’s "Bibliotheca Abscondita" (1683). But the invented books also called to mind John Ashbery’s poem "Title Search," which is composed entirely of imaginary (plus a few real) titles. Here are the first two stanzas:

Voices of Spring. Vienna Bonbons.
Morning Papers. Visiting Firemen. Mourning Polka.

Symphonie en ut dièse majeur. Fog-soaked Extremities.
Agrippa. Agrippine. Nelly and All. The Day
the Coast Came to Our House.

Hocus Focus. Unnatural Dreams. The Book of Five-Dollar Poems.
Oaks and Craters. Robert, a Rhapsody. Cecilia Valdés.
The Jewish Child. Mandarin Sorcerers. The Reader’s Digest
Book of Posh Assignations. The Penguin Book of Thwarted Lovers.
The American Screwball Comedy.

(from And the Stars Were Shining)

I heard Terry Castle read this poem at an MLA session entitled "MLA Members Read Their Favorite Poems" in D.C. a few years ago. She said it reminded her of "orphaned books" sitting unread on guest-room bookshelves. (Would it be inappropriate for me to confess having a bit of a critic-crush on Ms. Castle? In the way that one can have crushes on people one only knows through their written work or their conference presentations? I just think her work on lesbian diva-worship** is the coolest thing ever. Or does that make me seem too much like a giggling schoolgirl?)

* Borges not only invented imaginary books, he reviewed them. And he’s inspired others to do likewise.
** On which topic, see this article for a general overview and bibliography.

The worst part of my job

I finished grading a round of papers only to discover a documentable plagiarism case. I hate having to deal with that kind of thing. I hate having to give the stern "You’re looking at an F on the assignment, a very unpleasant meeting with the dean of students, and academic probation" lecture. Even more than that, I hate it when these cases disrupt my usual working assumption that we’re all adults and I don’t have to yell at anyone for intellectual dishonesty.

I told them at the beginning of term that plagiarism is easier to detect than they might think, and that if they can find a paper on the web, so can I. Apparently, not everyone was listening.