Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Scrabble as a Game Changer in the Writing Classroom

Scrabble Game Changer

In October, after I read Jonathan Kay’s Wall Street Journal review “Scrabble is a Lousy Game,” I meditated on his criticism of Scrabble as a word game that deemphasizes semantics. I asked myself, if I want my students to play a board game that cultivates word power and critical thinking skills, is Scrabble the game to choose? Thus, Kay’s review became the starting point for my research on the cognitive benefits of Scrabble play. As I scrolled through search results, I found only a couple of articles that specifically addressed Scrabble in the college classroom, but many that focused on the value of the game, itself, for sharpening the mind.

Article and draft

The dearth of articles on Scrabble in the college classroom may be explained by the emphasis on classwork with assessable outcomes rather than activities that foster the habits of mind essential to lifelong learning. The bibliography that follows includes Kay’s review, the starting point for my research, along with three refereed research articles. Two offer windows into the classrooms of professors whose students play Scrabble: one an English professor at a two-year college in California, the other a professor of engineering at a polytechnic university in Russia. The third article addresses cognitive evaluations of competitive Scrabble players and what they reveal about how experience shapes word recognition.

How much does Scrabble play cultivate our word power? The answer to that question remains unclear, but the research of psychologists and educators points to the merits of team Scrabble for improving not only our language skills, but also our facility with critical thinking, team-building, and spatial skills.

As I review my research on Scrabble, I look forward to searching for additional studies and commentary on the game. Whether it will lead to a larger project of my own, I do not know. But the knowledge I have gained will inform my teaching as I continue to revise the curriculum and consider additional opportunities for wordplay in the classroom.

Annotated Bibliography

Fletcher, Jennifer. “Critical Habits of Mind: Exposing the Process of Development.” Liberal Education, Winter 2013, pp. 50-55. Association of American Colleges and Universities, Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

“Critical Habits of Mind” addresses the teaching practices of a group of college math and writing faculty who collaborated to develop lessons to foster intellectual capacities, such as motivation and self-efficacy. Developmental educational instructors from three California colleges, Cabrillo, California State University-Monterey Bay, and Hartnell College, partnered to pilot classroom activities, including clicker technology, peer writing review, improvisation, metacognitive writing activities (e.g. “Math Anxiety Essays”), and Scrabble Fridays. Reflecting on their collaboration, author Jennifer Fletcher, associate professor of English at CSUMB, observes that foregrounding procedural knowledge, as their pilot activities did, enabled them to couple their teaching of discipline-specific content with the set of behaviors essential to teaching and learning.

Fletcher’s account of Hartnell writing instructor Hetty Yelland’s Scrabble Fridays is of particular value to educators who are considering Scrabble play as a classroom activity. Fletcher notes that Yelland’s observes “the extra effort students have to make to overcome the boredom—and their passive word knowledge—that eventually leads to more active and internalized language practices” (54).

Hargreaves, Ian S., et al. “How a Hobby Can Shape Cognition: Visual Word Recognition in Competitive Scrabble Players.” Memory & Cognition, vol. 40, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-7. ProQuest,

“How a Hobby Can Shape Cognition” presents the findings of Canadian researchers in the Departments of Psychology and Medicine at Calgary University who investigated how the word recognition skills of competitive Scrabble players differed from those of age-matched nonexperts. The researchers’ cognitive evaluations revealed differences only in Scrabble-specific skills, such as anagramming. Also, the researchers observed that Scrabble expertise was associated with two specific effects: vertical fluency and semantic deemphasis. The study’s results indicate that experience shapes visual word recognition.

The research of Ian Hargreaves and his colleagues at the University of Calgary is pertinent to educators who seek to understand the cognitive benefits of frequent Scrabble play. Notably, the semantic deemphasis that the study identifies—and that Jonathan Kay addresses in his review—contrasts the gains in language skills that Hetty Yelland observes in her English students.

Kay, Jonathan. Review. “Scrabble is a Lousy Game.” The Wall Street Journal, 6-7 Oct. p. C. 5.

In “Scrabble is a Lousy Game,” writer and editor Jonathan Kay criticizes Scrabble for its lack of emphasis on semantics. In Kay’s words, the game “is like a math contest in which you are rewarded for reciting pi to the 1,000th decimal place but not knowing that it expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter” (C5). Kay asserts that the best board games for casual players involve a mix of luck and skill and recommends two other board games, Codenames and Paperback, as better options for wordplay.

While Kay’s review focuses on the competitive player’s approach to Scrabble, the concerns he raises about the game’s deemphasis of word meaning and the frustration that novice players can experience warrant the attention of educators who are considering introducing Scrabble play into their classrooms. And his recommendations of Codenames and Paperback offer teachers two word-game options to pursue as alternatives Scrabble.

Kobzeva, Nadezda. “Scrabble as a Tool for Engineering Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Development.” Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences, no. 182, 2015, pp. 369-74. ScienceDirect, Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

“Scrabble as a Tool for Engineering Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Development” presents research involving second-year engineering students and teachers of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at Tomsk Polytechnic University in Tomsk, Russia. The students—all non-native speakers of English—played Scrabble as an in-class and out-of-class-activity for one academic year. At the end of the year, the best six student players competed in teams in a tournament against two teams of the six EFL teachers. Throughout the tournament—which was conducted outside of the classroom to relieve students of the pressure to obtain a high score—the researcher, Nadezda Kobzeva, observed the contrast in the students’ and teachers’ practices as players. While the EFL instructors possessed an advanced knowledge of English language, they were newcomers to Scrabble. On the other hand, the engineering students with limited knowledge of English relied on the skills they developed throughout their year-long Scrabble program. In the feedback the students provided after the tournament, which they won, the majority of students rated the skills they developed as Scrabble players as excellent in all five fields assessed, including team-building, thinking, spatial skills, vocabulary, and spelling.

Kobzeva, a professor of engineering at Tomsk, focused his research on engineering students, but his findings are valuable to researchers and teachers in other fields who seek answers to the questions of how Scrabble can be used effectively as a learning tool, and what specific skills students may develop through frequent play.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Drawing Lessons from Words

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the narrator recalls how she and her childhood friend Tracey watched snippets of Top Hat over and over to study Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ dance routine for “Cheek to Cheek.” Recounting Tracey’s knack for forward-winding the video tape to the exact moment she sought, the narrator observes that “she [Tracey] began to read the dance, as I never could, she saw everything” (56). As I read those words, I realized that Tracey’s attention to detail and her ability to see “the lesson within the performance” (56), was the same practice of close study that I require of myself and my students.

Just as Tracey learned the steps of Astaire and Rogers’ dance by watching Top Hat, my students and I drew lessons from Swing Time this semester: learning how a writer can use a nonlinear narrative to underscore the role of music and emphasize the narrator’s “weird state of timelessness” (149), and how leaving a narrator unnamed reinforces her shadow identity.

Along with Swing Time, my students and I studied Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak, as part of my commitment to teaching texts that dovetail with campus cultural events and requiring myself to read different books each semester, as my students are required to do. Yet while the lessons that my students and I could learn from Swing Time were clear to me, I was uncertain initially of what we would glean from Beatty’s novel and how I would approach it in the classroom.

One of the challenges of teaching Serafina and the Black Cloak was that it would directly follow Swing Time, a sprawling literary novel that places considerable demands on readers, due in no small part to its nonlinear structure. After the experience of studying that novel, how would we approach one written primarily for middle schoolers? I pondered that question as I planned the course and decided that we would explore it in the context of YA fiction, examine Serafina as an archetypal heroine, and consider the various genres that it draws upon, including fairy tale, fantasy, gothic mystery, and historical fiction.

Though I anticipated discussions of the familiar themes and devices that Beatty employs, —in particular the tropes addressed in our supplemental readings on YA fiction and fairy tales—I did not foresee that the pairing alone of his novel and Smith’s would prove highly instructive, serving as a primer for narrative variety. Our back-to-back reading of Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak threw into sharp relief the differences between character- and plot-driven novels.

In addition to illustrating variations in the novel as a form, studying Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak back to back offered me and my students the opportunity to consider what our responses to those disparate novels revealed about our own inclinations as readers. For me, the act of reading Swing Time and other literary novels is an act of immersion. I do not feel as if I am reading a novel the way I do when I read a work of genre fiction, such as Serafina and the Black Cloak, so conscious am I of its formula. But for many other readers, familiar devices do not detract from a narrative and may in fact be part of its appeal. Reflecting now on the disparate novels that my students and I studied this semester, I recall Serafina’s own thoughts about reading as she and Braeden explored the Vanderbilt’s library: “She marveled at how this one room contained the thoughts and voices of thousands of writers, people who had lived in different countries and different times, people who had told stories of the heart and the mind . . .” (187-88).

Stories of the heart and the mind: that’s another way of thinking of our work over the course of the semester, both the texts that we have studied and the ones that we have written—all of which have offered lessons through their words.

Works Cited

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Annotated Bibliography

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.

Bettelheim, Bruno. Introduction: “The Struggle for Meaning.” The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Random, 1976. pp. 13-19.

In his introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, which examines fairy tales through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis, Bruno Bettelheim explores the importance of fairy tales in children’s’ moral development, focusing on how the form and structure of the unambiguous narratives of fairy tales provide images with which young children can structure the daydreams that help them make sense of their lives.

Collins, Billy. “Snow Day.” The Poetry Foundation,, Accessed, 17 Jan. 2018.

The speaker in Billy Collins’ poem “Snow Day” meditates on the “revolution of snow” (1) as he listens to the radio announcements of school closings, steeping himself in the pleasure of the sounds of the whimsical names of the preschools and the sights of the little girls playing outside in the “grandiose silence of snow” (37).

Makant, Jordan. “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright.” Impossible Angles. Main Street Rag, 2017. pp. 18.

One of the poems in his debut collection, Impossible Angles, Jordan Makant’s “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright” responds to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s 1963 folk song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” featured on his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The speaker in Makant’s poem observes that “Dylan was lying” but that his lie was “the measure of true love”(18).

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times,, 20 Jan. 2012, Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Matt Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days—in New York and West Africa—the novel swings in time as the narrator recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possess a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic,, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Jean M. Twenge’s article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” focuses on her research into the behaviors and emotional states of young people born between 1995 and 2012—a generation she calls “iGen”—who differ markedly from their predecessors who came of age before the advent of smartphones and Instagram accounts. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.


Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Another Semester of Stumbling and Serendipity

Designing a course that dovetails with campus cultural events not only means crafting new assignments every semester but also reading some books that I might not choose to read—much less teach—on my own. While those challenges could dissuade me from starting anew each semester, repeatedly reinventing English 131 has proven to have lasting benefits. Books whose authors we can see face to face when they visit campus and plays that come to life on the university stage give the course an immediacy it would not have otherwise. And though I cannot fully place myself in the role of my students, I can at least come closer to that by giving myself the task of studying different texts, as they do, every semester. As a writer, I avoid the cliché comfort zone, but as a teacher, I embrace the concept. I try not to get too comfortable. I allow myself to stumble, as Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, would say.

“Stumbling” is one of the words that Larson used to describe his writing process when he visited our campus in October, and in recent days—as I have struggled to organize my own thoughts on paper—I have been reminded of the essential role of stumbling in my own work and of the value of hearing such a masterful writer as Larson say that he stumbles, too.

Along with stumbling, “serendipity,” another word that Larson used to describe his writing process, has played a crucial part in my own work, both as a teacher and a writer, this semester. Through pure serendipity, back in August, just as I was compiling the readings for the course, I came across “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” in the September issue of The Atlantic. That article by Jean M. Twenge served as a valuable starting point for the course, providing both a model of research writing for a general audience and an example of the findings that inform the practice of process-based writing that I require of my students and of myself, writing that requires turning away from the screen and putting pen to paper, as well as writing for an online audience.

In addition to Twenge’s article, serendipity brought Jordan Makant’s poetry into the classroom this semester. The September publication of his debut collection, Impossible Angles, offered an unexpected opportunity for students to read published poetry by a Lenoir-Rhyne student, one who told the audience at his book launch that he didn’t even like poetry before he enrolled in a poetry workshop at LR. Makant’s account of his discovery—that poetry could become a vital form of expression for him—demonstrated how we may find inspiration where we least expect it. And studying his poem “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright,” a response to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” sparked the idea for a journal exercise that my students and I wrote after reading the poem: What song in your playlist stays on your brain? What truth or lie does it tell? Begin there.

Another piece of writing that unexpectedly found its way into the classroom this semester was borne of sorrow. In early October, just hours after my husband, Guy, and I said goodbye to our fifteen-year-old cat, Percy, my husband composed a memoir of our years with Percy, from Guy’s first glimpse of him as a stray kitten to our decision that his failing health meant that it was time to put him down. Though I did not know how my husband managed to write that blog post so soon after Percy’s death, I knew as soon as I read it that I would return to it with my students, to offer it both as a model of narrative nonfiction and as an example of the therapeutic value of writing.

Though all of the textual analyses that I have written this semester along with my students have been instructive for me as a teacher and a writer, the one that lingers in my mind now is my commentary on Our Town: “Through a Glass Darkly: Girl at the Mirror and Grover’s Corners.” While I know it remains on my mind in part because it’s my most recent analysis, I have also continued to reflect on the crucial role of seeing, really seeing, both for the subjects of my essay and for me as a writer. Emily’s observation that she “can’t look at everything hard enough” (105) reminds me of our need to look harder—often harder than we want to—to find the clarity and the answers that we seek in our writing and our lives.

In his introduction to Our Town, theatre professor Donald Margulies writes of the joy we feel as teachers when we introduce students to work that we admire:

Since you can never relive the experience of seeing or hearing or reading a work of art for the first time, you can do the next best thing: You can teach it. And, through the discoveries your students make, you can recapture, vicariously, some of the exhilaration that accompanied your own discovery of that work long ago. (xiii)

If teaching work that you admire rates second only to reading it for the first time, perhaps teaching a work that you last read decades ago (as was the case for me with Our Town) offers another second best. It enables us to see it anew—really see it—with our students, which is another reason for us as teachers to turn to works that we have not read before and discover them as our students do. I will not grow to admire all of the texts that I have studied for the first time with my students, and neither will they. But once again this semester I am reminded of how I have grown to admire the process of stumbling through them, posing questions of them, stumbling more through drafts of writing about them, and making unexpected discoveries, those moments of serendipity, that come when we trust the process.

Works Cited

Larson, Erik. Interview with Jeffrey Delbert. LR Visiting Writers Series. 27 Oct. 2017, Belk Centrum, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Margulies, Donald. Foreword. Our Town by Thornton Wilder. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003, xi-xx.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003.

Annotated Bibliography

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.

Erik Larson’s nonfiction narrative, a mix of true crime and popular history, intermingles two nineteenth-century Chicago stories: the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (the White City of the title) and the life and crimes of serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, whose World’s Fair Hotel served as the site of his gruesome murders.

Lucas, Guy. “Loss of Unwelcome Burden Devastates Me.” A Newsroom with a View: Thoughts on the Changing Media Landscape,, 5 Oct. 2017. Accessed 6 Oct. 2017.

In “Loss of Unwelcome Burden Devastates Me,” journalist Guy Lucas recounts the life and death of his pet cat Percy, focusing on two scenes: one in which he teaches the paper-trained kitten to use the litter box, and a second in which and he retrieves Percy from a neighbor’s yard after the cat is lost and too afraid to answer to his calls.

Makant, Jordan. “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright.” Impossible Angles. Main Street Rag, 2017. 18.

One of the poems in his debut collection, Impossible Angles, Jordan Makant’s “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright” responds to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s 1963 folk song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” featured on his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The speaker in Makant’s poem observes that “Dylan was lying” but that his lie was “the measure of true love” (18).

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times,, 20 Jan. 2012, Accessed 29 Sept. 2017.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Matt Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Schreck, Heidi. Creature. Samuel French, 2011.

Drawing on autobiography The Life of Margery Kempe—considered by many to be the first autobiography written in English–playwright Heidi Schreck’s comedy chronicles the spiritual journey of fifteenth-century Christian mystic Margery Kempe, as she struggles with her religious calling after she believes she experiences a vision of Jesus in purple robes.

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic,, Sept. 2017, Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.

Jean M. Twenge’s article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” focuses on her research into the behaviors and emotional states of young people born between 1995 and 2012—a generation she calls “iGen”—who differ markedly from their predecessors who came of age before the advent of smartphones and Instagram accounts. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, an alternative history of antebellum America, he creates an actual Underground Railroad, turning the metaphor into a series of subterranean tracks that lead his protagonist, Cora, a fugitive slave, from the cotton plantation she escapes in Georgia, onto South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and an unnamed route northward, where she continues to travel at the novel’s close.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003.

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play chronicles the daily life in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, from 1901-1913, focusing on two of the town’s prominent families, the Gibbses and the Webbs, whose son (George Gibbs) and daughter (Emily Webb) fall in love and marry, and whose wedding serves as the centerpiece for Act II. With its Stage Manager-character who functions as an omniscient narrator, the play—as theatre scholar Donald Margulies observes—conveys “[t]he simultaneity of life and death, past, present, and future” (xvii).

Posted in Reading, Teaching

“Dem Bones, Dem Bones,” or “This Sort of Thing Really Happened”: The Facts Behind the Farce “Incorruptible”

Bags of bone candy and bibliographies for the cast and crew
Bags of bone candy and bibliographies for the cast and crew

Back in February, when I first curled up with the script of Incorruptiblethe farce I’d just been cast in and recently performed in—I was struck by the author’s note: “This sort of thing really happened” (6). The “sort of thing” that playwright Michael Hollinger was referring to was the theft and sale of relics in the Middle Ages, not just the actual bones of saints, martyrs, and biblical figures but also random bones passed off as sacred.

It didn’t surprise me that such theft and fraud took place, but I’d never given much thought to medieval relics—or to the churches of the Middles Ages, for that matter. The thought of medieval monks stealing relics intrigued me though, and the more I turned the idea over in my mind, the more it made sense. If sacred bones were valuable centuries before the science of DNA extraction, then who could say that any given relics—from the Latin reliquiae, literally things left behind—weren’t the veritable bones of Saint Paul or Mary Magdalene?

My interest in the facts behind the farce along with my commitment to the practice of completing assignments with my students led me here. For their final paper of the semester, I asked my students to annotate sources, a minimum of three, on a subject of interest to them, and to introduce their bibliography with a short essay that addresses their interest in the subject. In other words: What drives your research? In my case, it’s “dem bones,” the relics of the Middle Ages (and the plastic versions that I’ve been circling on stage).

As I researched medieval relics, I was reminded over and over of lines from the play. I had always associated the medieval churches of Europe with cathedrals and palaces, but I learned from my research that in fact the “centers of religion and cultural life [in the Middle Ages] were not cathedrals or palaces but rather rural monasteries” (Geary 45). As I read those words, I recalled Brother Martin’s dismissal of the “second rate” convent in Bernay “run by a bunch of backwoods nuns” (16) and the words of my character, Agatha, Abbess of Bernay, echoing Martin with her dismissal of her brother’s monastery: “What’s in Priseaux, I said, but a second-rate monastery run by a bunch of backwoods monks?” (67).

Whether second-rate or backwoods, the monks of the rural monasteries at the heart of medieval life depended on the revenue generated by relics. And they “viewed theft as an appropriate means of relic acquisition” (Geary 108), rationalizing and justifying theft and fraud as Charles, the abbot, and Martin do when Felix reminds them that they didn’t renounce the world to become as corrupt as the merchant class, that they “are men of the noblest ideals” (36):

MARTIN. And if we fail in that mission, will it matter how noble we were? (To Charles). There’s a shoemaker’s family that won’t get supper tonight because of our high ideals. I turned away fourteen others today; is this the ideal of Christian charity?

CHARLES. Martin’s right. We’re on the precipice, Felix. The abyss opens at our feet. If, somehow, by . . . soiling our hands just a bit, we can make it to the other side, mightn’t that justify our compromise? (36-37)

The bone candy before I bagged it
The bone candy before I bagged it

The bibliography that follows includes three sources: Incorruptible, the play that prompted my research, Furta Sacra, a book-length study of relic theft in the central Middle Ages, and Holy Bones, Holy Dust, the first comprehensive history of relics in medieval Europe, which includes a chapter devoted to incorruptibles, the relics that give Hollinger’s play its name. An incorruptible, as Charles says, is “[a] saint so holy its body refuses to decay” (52).

If I were a historian, or an anthropologist, or a theologian, this work of mine might lead to an in-depth study of medieval relics. Since I’m none of those things, it’s unlikely that I’ll return to “dem bones” as a subject of writing or research. Still, it’s been a valuable journey, one that informed every trip back to Priseaux, as I stood onstage as Abbess Agatha, believing that I’d bought the bones of Saint Foy “out from under” my sibling rival (68).

Annotated Bibliography

Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 April 2016.

A history of relic veneration in medieval Europe, Holy Bones, Holy Dust chronicles the roles of saints’ cults and miraculous interventions from the fall of the Roman Empire to Reformation. Freeman traces the growth in the popularity of relics as they proliferated in various forms. The most sought after were intact bodies and body parts (severed head and limbs), and detritus (fingernails, blood, and hair). Some were placed in ornate reliquaries and processed through towns, drawing pilgrims seeking miracles and remission of sins.

Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton UP. Rev. ed. 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 April 2016.

To acquire the relics of saints, medieval monks ransacked tombs, greedy merchants raided churches, and relic-mongers dredged the Roman catacombs. Patrick Geary’s study of the medieval tradition of sacra furta (or holy theft) narratives, explores how hagiographers’ accounts of the thefts served to rationalize and justify them in a time, when as Geary observes, “the prosperity of a religious community was a fragile luxury” and “the acquisition of relics was a real necessity” (57).

Hollinger, Michael. Incorruptible. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2002. Print.

Set in thirteenth-century France, Hollinger’s farce centers on the financially-struggling monastery of Priseaux, whose patron saint hasn’t performed a miracle in a dozen years. After one of the young monks, Felix, returns from his travels to report that their own St. Foy has been sold to a rival convent in Bernay, the monks confront the one-eyed travelling minstrel who fits the description of the relic-monger. The minstrel, Jack, tells the monks that he did indeed sell bones to the convent, but they were not St. Foy—as he had told the abbess they were—but rather they were simply the bones of a pig farmer. Jack’s confession and subsequent observations about the potential value of fraudulent relics lead the monks of Priseaux to hatch their own money-making scheme.

Posted in Teaching, Writing

From One of the Pinheads Dancing ’round His Angel: Musings on the Elephant Man and the Secret Self

One-hundred and seventy-nine words (29 lines) and the thousands that inform them.

When I was fourteen years old and first saw Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man as a teleplay on ABC, the lack of makeup and prosthetics made no sense to me. If you could make Joseph Merrick look monstrous—as John Hurt did in David Lynch’s film—then why wouldn’t you? Only much later would I understand that Pomerance was more concerned with the grotesqueness of British imperialism and Victorian society, which is why his Merrick doesn’t look like Lynch’s.

Though I didn’t comprehend the playwright’s vision at the time, I kept watching because I had to know what happened next—what would transpire between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends him and whom Merrick asks to be his mistress? Mrs. Kendal wouldn’t consent; that I knew, but I also knew that she had grown to care for Merrick and was saddened by the knowledge that his hideous deformities would prevent him from experiencing physical intimacy of any kind, much less sexual intercourse. As I watched Mrs. Kendal speak to Merrick, I realized that no matter what I secretly thought of my awkward adolescent self, that I would never be perceived as the freak that Merrick was, that one day I would love and be loved. And when Mrs. Kendal tells Merrick that she has seen photographs of him—of his naked body, taken for display at lectures—and starts to undress so that he can see her breasts, I knew that I was witnessing something that was considered scandalous but that was, in fact, morally just.

Those moments between Merrick and Kendal that now replay so vividly in my mind mark a moment in my moral education. For decades they’d continued to dwell in some far corner of my imagination, waiting to rise to my consciousness again, as they did recently when I had the opportunity to act in a local production of The Elephant Man. When I was cast in the show, I seized the chance not only as an opportunity to perform but also as an occasion to research Joseph Merrick so that my work on stage would be informed by my study of his life.

The bibliography that follows includes the play, itself—which first stirred my interest in Merrick—the memoir of his doctor, Frederick Treves, and two book-length studies that revise and expand Merrick’s story: Ashley Montagu’s exploration of his psyche, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity; and the first comprehensive biography of Merrick, The True History of the Elephant Man.

Though Treves aimed to tell Merrick’s story as accurately as possible, as Montagu notes, “his attempt to reconstruct Merrick’s past was to a great extent erroneous” (69). Nevertheless, his memoir still offers readers what no other writing about Merrick can: a look at him through the eyes of his own doctor. And as Michael Howell and Peter Ford observe in their biography: “Of all of Treves’ writings, ‘The Elephant Man’ is undoubtedly the one that will continue to be read long after the others are forgotten” (164).

Whether these annotations will serve as preliminary writing for a larger project, I cannot say. But I can say that as I have stepped on stage to enter Merrick’s world, I have carried with me what I’ve learned.

Annotated Bibliography

Howell, Michael and Peter Ford. The True History of the Elephant Man. 1980. New York: Skyhorse, 2010. Print.

The first comprehensive biography of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, The True History of the Elephant Man, co-written by physician Michael Howell and editor and writer Peter Ford, chronicles the life of Merrick, beginning with his initial encounter with Frederick Treves, at the storefront across from the London Hospital in 1884, then turning back to his birth in Leicester in 1862. Howell and Ford document the death of Merrick’s mother, Mary Jane Merrick, née Potterton, from pneumonia in 1873, his years of labor at the Leicester Union Workhouse, his exhibition—by showmen Sam Torr, Tom Noonan, and Sam Roper—and his final years in residence at the London Hospital under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves.

Howell and Ford’s research reveals that Merrick chose not to disclose to Treves essential details about his family background, namely that his mother and his sister, Marion Eliza, were both “crippled” (42, 46), and they clarify that Treves’ error regarding Merrick’s first name was intentional, citing the manuscript of Treves’ memoir in which he crossed out “Joseph” and replaced it with “John.”

The True History of the Elephant Man also addresses the question of Merrick’s condition—with neurofibromatosis and Proteus syndrome as the prevailing diagnoses—noting that to the frustration of future researchers, the skin samples of Merrick’s preserved at the London Hospital dried out when the hospital staff was evacuated during World War II. Dry rot in the hospital, a consequence of damage from the bombings, affected the specimens, which were subsequently burned.

Montagu, Ashley. The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. 1971. Lafayette: Acadian, 2001. Print.

In The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, anthropologist Ashley Montagu explores how Joseph Merrick developed a healthy personality despite the “reality of his physical hideousness” and the “cruelly lacerating expressions of horror and revulsion by all who beheld him” (100). With chapters devoted to Merrick’s doctor, Frederick Treves, and the London Hospital, as well as chapters on maternal love and personality development, Montagu’s study provides both historical and psychological context for Merrick’s story.

Observing that Treve’s two-paragraph account of Merrick’s early years seems “utterly incompatible with [his] loveable personality” (85), Montagu asserts that Merrick was not abandoned by his mother as Treves suggests in his memoir. In the third edition, published in 1996, Montagu notes that his views on Merrick’s mother were confirmed by Michael Howard and Peter Ford in The True History of the Elephant Man.

Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. New York: Grove, 1979. Print.

Though its time frame corresponds with that of Frederick Treves’ memoir of Joseph “John” Merrick, Bernard Pomerance’s play departs from Treves’ account, reimagining the last four years of Merrick’s life in twenty-one short scenes. Throughout the play, the actor portraying Merrick wears no makeup or prosthetics to alter his appearance, a stipulation of Pomerance’s introductory note, where he asserts that any attempt to reproduce the Elephant Man’s grotesque physical deformities would be both “counterproductive” and “distracting” (v).  Pomerance fashions a fictional relationship between Merrick and the actress Madge Kendal (who raised funds for Merrick’s care and arranged for him to attend the theatre but never met him), employs dream sequences to explore the unconscious of Merrick and Treves, and uses as a central metaphor Merrick’s building of a cardboard model of St. Philip’s Church, a model he did in fact construct with his one good hand during his stay at the London Hospital.

Treves, Frederick. “The Elephant Man.” The Elephant Man and Other Reminisces. London: Cassel, 1923. 1-37. Print.

Frederick Treves’ memoir “The Elephant Man” chronicles the final years in the life of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, the grotesquely deformed man who came under the care of Treves two years after the doctor examined Merrick at the London Hospital.

Beginning in 1884 with Treves first encounter with Merrick as a freak-show attraction at a storefront across from the hospital, the narrative details Treves’ plan for Merrick to be transported across the street for examination—under his cloak and hat, lest he be mobbed or beaten—Treves’ reunion with Merrick after his dismissal from a traveling show in Belgium, and Merrick’s subsequent residence at the London Hospital, where he lived until his death in April 1890.

Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

Learning Lines: An Annotated Bibliography

When I began work on the paper that I’m writing as a model for my students’ Unit III essay, I didn’t plan to compile an annotated bibliography of potential sources. I did, however, write one bibliographic entry as part of the preliminary work that I shared with them. When we looked at the sample entry in class, I told them that I wrote it because all of its elements would appear in some form in my paper. In other words, I told them, if you know you will need to write a works cited entry for your source, why not go ahead and write it? If you know you will need to summarize your source, why not go ahead and write a summary? And so on.

Still, I wrote the one bibliographic entry, thinking I would move on to more general note-taking afterward. But I found myself returning to the process of summarizing each source. I realized that what I recommended to my students as a useful but optional step was essential to my own process, at least in the case of this paper.

A couple of the summaries are the welcome result of a problem I encountered with two of the books, namely no index. Without an index, I couldn’t simply turn to the pages where the authors, both acting teachers, specifically address the subject of learning lines. Instead I was forced to engage in a form of concentrated skimming, reading portions of every paragraph for mentions of line-learning or memorization. My careful study of those two books—and of a third that did include an index—enabled me to produce general summaries as well as notes specific to my subject: learning lines.

The bibliography that follows brings together the insights of four of the most influential acting teachers of the twentieth century, in books by Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Lee Strasberg; and in a documentary film on the life and career of Sanford Meisner. It also includes an academic article chronicling research on line-learning and cognitive function.

Adler, Stella. The Art of Acting. Ed. Howard Kissel. New York: Applause, 2000. Print.

The Art of Acting (2000)
The Art of Acting (2000)

From audiotapes and notes on Stella Adler’s lectures, Howard Kissel produced The Art of Acting, a book whose twenty-two chapters, or classes, emphasize a technique informed by the work of Adler’s father, stage actor Jacob P. Adler; Harold Clurman, a co-founder of the Group Theatre (and one of Adler’s husbands); and Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian actor and director who developed the Stanislavski method, or “method acting.” Rather than instructing her students to memorize their lines, Adler taught them to build a relationship with the words. In her first lecture to her students (“First Steps on Stage”), she tells them to read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and select one idea from it to paraphrase and perform on stage (25). Later, when she returns to that exercise in her fourteenth lecture (“Understanding the Text’), she refers to the process as something “we must do with every text” (162). According to Adler:

Paraphrasing allows the ideas to become part of you. By putting the text into your own words you build a relationship. It becomes part of your heart as well as your head, which is essential before you can communicate the words to an audience. If the ideas are clear to you, they will be clear to them. (162)

Founder of the Stella Adler Studios in New York City and Los Angeles, Adler—considered one of the most influential teachers of acting—taught both Marlon Brando and Robert Deniro. Her writing on the craft includes The Technique of Acting (1988) and Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (2001).

Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. New York: Scribner’s, 1991. Print.

A Challenge for the Actor (1991)
A Challenge for the Actor (1991)

In A Challenge for the Actor, Uta Hagen expands on the ideas she presented in Respect for Acting (1973), addressing both the goals of the actor and the particulars of technique. When Hagen discusses learning lines, she refers to it as a “by-product of the work” (117). Instead of coaching her students to focus on memorization, she instructs them to make every element of the play real to them, “every person, thing, event, and landscape, even the weather” (117). Hagen asserts that creating those particulars will the lead the actor to the lines:

As you make your particularizations, much of what you have to say will become inevitable, and, when followed up in rehearsals by the discovery of your verbal intents and expectations, the words will be further validated until ‘learning the lines’ has become a by-product of the work, replacing the outmoded method of mechanical memorization. (117)

Uta Hagen originated the role of Martha in the Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and later became of the most distinguished acting teachers of the twentieth century. At the Herbert Berghof Studio, she taught, among others, Al Pacino, Jason Robards, and Jack Lemon. Her books on acting include Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991).

Noice, Helga, and Tony Noice. “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.1 (2006):14-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

In “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning,” Helga and Tony Noice address the process of learning lines—specifically memorizing large amounts of dialogue in a short period of time—and how actors reproduce those lines verbatim with spontaneity. Applying that process to other activities, including learning techniques for undergraduates and memory improvement in older adults, they conclude that the essence of acting—what the Noices term active experiencing or AE—may enhance memory.

Helga Noice, a Professor of Psychology at Elmhurst College, researches acting and memory. Her current study of memory training in older adults receives funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Tony Noice, an adjunct member of the theater faculty at Elmhurst College, co-authored with his wife, Helga Noice, The Nature of Expertise in Professional Acting: A Cognitive View (1997).

Sanford Meisner (left) teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1957 /
Sanford Meisner (left) teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1957 /

Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

An episode from the fifth season of PBS’s American Masters Series, Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret (1990) documents the life and career of actor and teacher Sanford Meisner, founding member of the Group Theatre and master teacher of acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he developed the Meisner technique, based on Constantin Stanislavski’s method system. In his interview, director Sydney Pollack—one of many students of Meisner’s featured in the film—discusses how Meisner downplayed the role of dialogue:

What Sandy did is begin to examine the fact that dialogue is the last thing that happens, at any time, between two people. It’s all supported by behavior and attitudes. You say something. You mean a certain thing to me when I see you because of whatever relationship we may have. You say something. I hear it. Depending on the state I’m in when I came into the room, it means something to me. It produces a reaction in me emotionally, and the last thing that happens is that I respond with dialogue.

Hailed as one of the American theatre’s most influential teachers (along with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg), Sanford Meisner joined the faculty of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1935 and later served as the Director of its Acting Department. His students at the Neighborhood school include actors Robert Duvall, Tony Randall, and Joanne Woodward, as well as director Sydney Pollack and playwright David Mamet.

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Print.

A Dream of Passion (1987)
A Dream of Passion (1987)

A Dream of Passion chronicles Lee Strasberg’s training with Richard Boleslavsky, a student of Constantin Stanislavsky’s, and details Strasberg’s application of Stanislavski’s system to his work in both the Group Theatre (which Strasberg co-founded) and in the Actor’s Studio (for which he served as Artistic Director). Strasberg observes that the actor’s central problem lies in the fact that he knows what his character does not and cannot know: “Regardless of the skills with which the actor may pretend not to know what will occur next on stage, his normal scenic activity is actuated by his memory—by his carefully prepared and memorized words and motions” (107). The challenge for the actor then, Strasberg notes, is to recreate that experience believably not once but over and over for every performance, and “yet include what Stanislavski called ‘the illusion of the first time’” (35).

To help his students understand the meaning of scenes—rather than simply memorizing their words—Strasberg required them to read short stories. He chose short stories over scenes from plays because the conversations are often more realistic than the dialogue of plays, which, as Strasberg remarks, include “elements that characters would never say but convey necessary information to the audience” (161). Strasberg also found short stories useful teaching tools because “the short-story material forces the actor to really find out what he is talking about, not just what he is saying, and to find out how that relates to what the scene is all about” (161).

Considered the father of method acting in the United States—a system that revolutionized acting on the stage and screen—Lee Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre (with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford), served as Artistic Director for the Actors Studio, and founded the Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute in New York City and Hollywood. His students include actors James Dean, Robert DeNiro, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and director Elia Kazan.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third”

Wendy Wasserstein's "Third," the acting edition (2008)
Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third,” the acting edition (2008)

For their first paper of the semester, an annotated bibliography, my students have the option of choosing as their subject something they’re studying formally (for a class) or informally (on their own). As a model for them, I’ve composed a bibliography on Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, a play I’m studying—both formally and informally, in a sense—as I rehearse for the upcoming production at the Foothills Performing Arts Theatre.

The bibliography that follows includes the play itself, as well as two secondary sources: a review of the original Off Broadway production at the Lincoln Center Theater, and an academic essay by a professor of theater and literature, a harsh critic of Wasserstein’s who reexamined and reevaluated the playwright’s work after her death.

For me, as I rehearse for Third, Wasserstein’s words are far more important than what any drama critic or theatre scholar has written about the play, but I value what I’ve learned from Ben Brantley’s review and Jill Dolan’s essay, regarding both the critical reception of Wasserstein’s final play and the differences among the productions at the Lincoln Center, the Geffen Playhouse, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Annotated Bibliography

Brantley, Ben. “As Feminism Ages, Uncertainty Still Wins.” New York Times, 25 Oct. 2005. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.

Ben Brantley’s “As Feminism Ages, Uncertainty Still Wins” reviews the original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, which opened Off Broadway at the Lincoln Center Theater on October 24, 2005. Observing the similarities between the play’s main character, Laurie Jameson (Dianne Weist), and title character of Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles, Brantley asserts that Third shares the shortcomings of her other plays: “an overly schematic structure, a sometimes artificial-feeling topicality and a reliance on famous names and titles as a shorthand for establishing character.” Brantley also notes that the supporting characters are more convincing than Laurie Jameson, both as written and performed. Nevertheless, Brantley commends the play as an affecting portrait of a woman confronting the “certainty of the uncertainty in life.”

Brantley, chief theatre critic for The New York Times, is the editor of The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century (2001).

Dolan, Jill. “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein.” Theatre Journal 60.3 (2008): 433-457. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.

In “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein,” Jill Dolan cites the death of Wendy Wasserstein as the impetus for rethinking her harsh criticism of the playwright’s work and the mainstream feminist playwriting that it represents. Dolan asserts that a close examination of Wasserstein’s last play, Third, demonstrates the impact of her work as well as its importance in raising public awareness of the debates within and about American feminism. Along with her analysis of the play’s text, Dolan presents a study of two divergent productions: one at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (2007), and a second at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (2008).

Jill Dolan is the Annan Professor in English, Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Feminist Spectator in Action: Feminist Criticism on Stage and Screen (2013).

Wasserstein, Wendy. Third. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2008. Print.

Wendy Wasserstein’s Third spans one academic year at a prestigious liberal arts college in New England. The play focuses on Professor Laurie Jameson, an acclaimed feminist literary scholar, coping in midlife with her father’s advancing Alzheimer’s, her daughter’s departure for college, her husband’s detachment, and her best friend’s recurring cancer—all amid the onset of her own menopause, replete with hot flashes. On the first day of class, when Laurie encourages her students to contradict her, she has no idea what challenges she’ll face when one of them—the title character, Woodson Bull, III—takes her up on the offer. Angered by what she perceives as the Bush administration’s rush to war, she sees Third as a “walking red state” (27). When she accuses him of plagiarizing a paper she believes he’s incapable of writing, Third claims he’s a victim of “socio-economic profiling” (22).

Wendy Wasserstein’s other plays include An American Daughter (1997), The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), and Uncommon Women and Others (1977). Her most critically-acclaimed play, The Heidi Chronicles, won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989. Third opened Off Broadway in late September 2005, four months before Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma.

Posted in Reading, Social Media, Teaching, Writing

Old-School (and New-School) Writing in the Digital Age

Essays on Writing (2009)
Essays on Writing (2009)

When my students and I read Wendy Leibowitz’s article “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” I found myself drawn less to the details about blogs, word processing, and email that dominate the article and more to a single observation about composing longhand: “I encourage students not to write their first drafts on a computer, so they might actually think before putting words on the page” (Bernard qtd. in Leibowitz). That sentence led me to reflect on the continuing role of old-school writing in my own classes. Although my students use new technology (posting blog entries and submitting papers to the university’s Learning Management System, or LMS), they frequently put pen to paper as well. I have persisted in requiring them to write longhand as a way of cultivating focus and depth in their prose. But is writing by hand still relevant in the digital age? That question—one that’s frequently raised now in response to the new Common Core Standards—prompted me to explore the science of handwriting and to consider what new technologies teachers are using with, or in place of, the old.

The bibliography that follows consists of Leibowitz’s article, which spearheaded my research, and two additional articles: one that examines the role of handwriting in cognitive development and a second that investigates how blogs have become a fixture in many college courses, in some cases replacing the traditional term paper. Together, the three articles create a strong case for preserving the tactile custom of putting pen to paper while embracing the new technologies that will inspire the best writing.

Whether these annotations (all drafted by hand) will serve as preliminary writing for an essay of my own, I cannot say. Either way, the insights I have gained through this research will inform the choices I make as my teaching—itself, a work in progress—continues to evolve.

Annotated Bibliography

Leibowitz, Wendy. “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. Boston: Longman, 2009. 137-142. Print.

In “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” Wendy Leibowitz reports that writing in the digital age presents both “perils and possibilities” for students (138). Her conversations with professors reveal that their attitudes and approaches vary considerably. While some require students to use digital technology throughout the writing process, others advocate limiting screen time, correlating online reading and writing with diminished critical thinking and writing skills. Whether they adhere to April Bernard’s view of Web writing as “adjunct to traditional forms” (140), or to  Robert Coover’s belief that it’s a “fundamental element of literacy” (141), professors find themselves rethinking the tactile experience of putting pen to paper and seeking effective strategies for using the newest technologies to improve writing instruction.

Leibowitz’s interviews with eleven professors do not constitute comprehensive research, but her article presents an informative overview of the variety of ways professors teach writing in the digital age. Though she writes for academics—specifically readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education—her straightforward prose speaks to a general audience as well. Readers who encounter her article now, more than a decade after its initial publication, may wonder how the professors she interviewed have since adapted their teaching to address the prevalence of social media and texting in students’ lives.

In addition to publishing articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Leibowitz, an attorney turned journalist, has written on technology and the law for The National Law Review and The American Lawyer.

Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind 24.4 (2013): 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second, third, and fourth graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.

Writing for readers of Scientific American Mind, Keim addresses a general audience of readers interested in psychology and neuroscience. His reporting of Beringer’s and James’ studies points to the critical role of handwriting in cognitive development, a subject of particular concern to many parents and educators as the Common Core Standards Initiative—which deemphasizes handwriting in favor of keyboarding—has prompted a national conversation about the future of cursive in the classroom.

Brandon Keim, a freelance science journalist, has written articles for Wired and Psychology Today, as well as Scientific American Mind, and has been featured on broadcasts of National Public Radio’s Science Friday and Talk of the Nation.

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times Co., 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Mat Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Richtel’s article offers New York Times readers a glimpse of the contrasting teaching approaches adopted by writing professors who find themselves at a critical juncture, illustrating for a general audience how, as Andrea Lunsford says, professors are “trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Matt Richtel writes for The New York Times about technology and its impact of society and culture. His series of articles “Our Brain on Computers” (2010) explores how our constant use of digital devices affects not only our behavior but also our thought processes. His 2009 series about the dangers of distracted driving won the Pulitzer for national reporting.


Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Flying Without a Map

Movies and the Meaning of Life (2005), which includes the essay “Flying Without a Map: Chasing Amy and the Quest for Satisfying Relationships”

I don’t want my students to feel as if they’re flying without a map.

So, as a model for them—many of whom are currently writing annotated bibliographies–I spent the better part of the morning composing the sample annotation that follows. The process awakened in me an interest in writing about Chasing Amy and Jerry L. Walls’ study of the film. Perhaps that’s a project for the summer.

Walls, Jerry L. “Flying Without a Map: Chasing Amy and the Quest for Satisfying Relationships.” Movies and the Meaning of Life. Ed. Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul J. Tudico. Chicago: Open Court, 2005. 137-149.

“Flying without a Map: Chasing Amy and the Quest for Satisfying Relationships” considers Kevin Smith’s film Chasing Amy (1997) as a reflection of our moral ambiguity. In the words of the essay’s author, Jerry L. Walls, Chasing Amy offers “a vivid picture of what happens to us emotionally, morally, and relationally when we try to revise morality in some fairly radical ways, while still holding onto selected parts of our traditional morality” (140).

In his analysis of the film’s principle characters, Walls cites Edward O. Wilson’s article “The Biological Basis of Morality,” highlighting the two options Wilson identifies as the ones that determine and divide our worldviews: (1) that moral and ethical principles “exist outside of the human mind,” or (2) “they are inventions of human minds” (141). Subsequently, Walls’ examination of Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck), who holds the former view, and Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), who holds the latter view, illustrates how Alyssa challenges Holden to rethink his beliefs. While Holden tells Alyssa that he likes girls “Because that is the standard,” he cannot explain to her why he believes what he believes or why he should believe it.

Walls chronicles Holden’s and Alyssa’s moral evolution, noting the irony of Holden’s 180-degree shift, marked by the solution he proposes to Alyssa and Banky (Jason Lee), and concludes his essay by suggesting that Chasing Amy depicts “an even larger quest,” one for God (149).

Though I agree with Walls’ central thesis (that the film offers “a vivid picture of what happens to us emotionally, morally, and relationally when we try to revise morality. .  .”), I disagree with his conclusion, which rests on the questionable assumption that religion offers a map that other foundations for ethics and morals cannot. It comes as no surprise that Walls as a professor of the philosophy of religion turns to faith in the final pages of his essay. But by choosing that path, he overlooks how the film’s characters—all comic-book artists—turn to art as a way of making sense of their lives.