Posts Tagged ‘Lenoir-Rhyne’

Cantos cover

Lenoir-Rhyne’s literary magazine, featuring a cover photo by Erin Illich

Once again at the semester’s close, I am pleased to turn the pages of Cantos and see the poetry, prose, and photography of my students, some who just completed English 131, others of whom I taught in English 131, 231, or 281 in previous semesters:

  • “Archetype, Embodied” and “A Smile as Bright as Myth,” poems by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231, Fall 2014; ENG 281, Spring 2015), Editor in Chief of Cantos
  • “Blackberries, a poem by Ghia Smith (ENG 131, Fall 2013)
  • “Used,” a poem by Haylee Carpenter (ENG 131, Spring 2016)
  • “Voting for Dummies—a Satire” by Claire Grulick (ENG 131, Spring 2016)
  • Photographs by Katelyn Barker, Jordan Puckett, Autumn Stewart, and Taylor Welch (ENG 131, Spring 2016)

I am also very pleased to see the short story “Cookie Jar” by my dear friend Carla Robinson.

I am proud of all of you—not just those of you whose work was selected but all of you who submitted your work for consideration.

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The large banner that hangs beside the entrance to P. E. Monroe auditorium suggests that The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace figures prominently on campus as this year’s common reading selection at Lenoir-Rhyne. But unlike the books that many other colleges and universities choose for their incoming freshman class, Jeff Hobbs’ biography of his Yale roommate wasn’t theSTLRP Banner subject of orientation-week discussion groups and isn’t required reading for all sections of FYE (First-Year Experience) or English 131 (Critical Thinking and Writing). Even so, I included a study of it in my English 131 classes to give Hobbs’ book its due as the campus common reading. For my students and me, the biography served not only as a subject of textual analysis but also as a starting point for a conversation about the common reading programs that so many colleges have adopted in recent years.

Last semester and again this semester, I wrote an essay on the book along with my students. Unlike the one that I posted to my blog last semester, the one that follows isn’t a revised and expanded version of what I wrote longhand while my students wrote. Instead, it’s simply a typed version of what I wrote when I put pen to paper in class on March 9.

The Unstoppable Drive of Robert Peace

In Part Four of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs recounts the hours Rob spent mentoring Truman Fox, one of the water polo players he coached at St. Benedict’s when he returned to his alma mater to teach biology. After observing Truman’s laziness, evidenced in the way he “tiptoed along the bottom during laps” (267), Rob says to Truman: “You’re not making it hard” (268). Those words of Rob’s inspire Truman to take more initiative, and the following Saturday when Rob heads to the weight room to open it for a voluntary training session, he finds Truman in the hall waiting for him. Hobbs writes of Truman that “[h]e felt that if Rob saw a spark in him, even if Truman himself did not, then it was his responsibility to stoke it” (268).

Rob’s time with Truman echoes his tutoring of his high school friend Tavarus Hester. And later after Rob leaves his teaching position at St. Benedict’s, he reprises that tutoring role, helping Dawn—the daughter of his airline co-worker Lisa Wingo—“guid[ing] her through fifth-grade reading lists and simple division” (314). With Tavarus, Truman, and Dawn, Rob models the same self-discipline, but the passage that chronicles his conversations with Truman differs from the others, revealing the dark side of Rob’s determination, a side that remains unseen to Truman: “[W]hile he and his teammates were changing back into dry clothes, his coach was mentally preparing to spend the night dealing drugs” (268).

The stress of Rob’s post-Yale days, Newark-proofing himself and negotiating and compartmentalizing his identities, explains how the same Rob Peace who aced his molecular biophysics and biochemistry courses at Yale failed the Realtor’s exam, not once but twice. If he had pored over his notes for that exam with the same focus that he gave to perfecting Sour Diesel, his hybrid strain of marijuana, he probably would have passed the Realtor’s exam on his first try. The fact that he didn’t underscores what his friends saw with clarity but Rob himself could not.

What ultimately stopped Robert Peace wasn’t a weakness plain and simple but a more complicated trait, one that could be a strength—and usually was—but that became a weakness when he found himself “focusing that unstoppable drive on the very thing that could stop him” (311).

Work Cited

Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.

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

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.

 

Chuck Klosterman / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Chuck Klosterman / visitingwriters.lr.edu

To introduce my students to the writing of pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman—last night’s featured writer in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—I assigned “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” Of the dozens of columns and essays of Klosterman’s I could have assigned, I chose his commentary on zombies in part because of the continuing popularity of zombies in general, and in particular the comic-book-turned-TV series The Walking Dead, now joined on AMC by its prequel, Fear the Walking Dead. I also chose “My Zombie, Myself” because it’s a well-constructed argument, one that makes the same moves that we make in academic writing.

In class on Wednesday, my students collaboratively examined “My Zombie, Myself,” identified its components, and summarized the essay’s argument with their answers to these questions:

  1. What is the standard view of zombies?
  2. What is Klosterman’s claim about them?
  3. What is Klosterman’s support for his claim?
  4. What naysayers or counterargument does Klosterman address?
  5. What does Klosterman write to convey why it matters? (Who cares why zombies are the monster of the moment?)

As the students in my 8 a.m. class collaboratively composed their summaries, I drafted this one of my own:

In ‘My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead,’ Chuck Klosterman challenges the standard view that the monster of the moment personifies our unconscious fears, claiming instead that battling the undead provides us with an allegory for our daily lives. In Klosterman’s words, ‘[t]he principal downside to any zombie  attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will never be finished with whatever it is that you do.’ To those who contend that zombies have merely replaced vampires as the current it-monster, Klosterman says their argument is deceptive.  He maintains that the Twilight series isn’t about vampires but about ‘nostalgia for teenage chastity, the attractiveness of its film cast and the fact that contemporary fiction consumers tend to prefer long serialized novels that can be read rapidly.’ Klosterman reminds us that our zombie fixation matters because they “come at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly),” like all of the annoyances of life, but we can manage them.

Last night I was reminded of Klosterman’s claim about the popularity of zombies—how they’re an allegory for our daily lives—when interviewer Mike Collins, host of WFAE’s Charlotte Talks, asked him about the continuing popularity of the reality show Survivor. In response to Collins’ question—why is it still so popular after so many years?—Klosterman said that what you see over and over in Survivor is the elimination of the oldest and the weakest first, then you see the elimination of the strongest, the contestants who are perceived as the biggest threats. What Survivor really rewards is mediocrity, Klosterman said, and that’s something that we see in our own lives.

Near the end of the interview—which covered topics ranging from Klosterman’s childhood in North Dakota, to his work at ESPN and Spin, to his interviews with Taylor Swift and Tom Brady, to the presidential candidates—Klosterman spoke about his writing process. I think that most writers come up with a thesis and then write about it, he said. What I do is write about what interests me and then look for a thesis.

Klosterman’s method is far more common than he realizes. It’s the one I use, and the one I encourage my students to use when their assignments give them the opportunity to see their interests “through academic eyes” (Laff qtd. in Graff 250).

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Eds. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 244-51. Print.

Klosterman, Chuck. “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Dec. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

Yesterday afternoon, Jeff Hobbs—one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers SeriesSTLRP Bannerconducted a Q&A session with an audience primarily of students, mostly freshman who are reading his book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace for their FYE (First-Year Experience) classes. As Hobbs began to speak, I was reminded of the phone conversation that he recounts in Chapter 12: “You sound like a mouse,” Rob says, “same as you did in college” (295). Though I thought his voice was too low-pitched to be mouse-like, I could see how Rob had found it mousy—and admittedly it was, as Hobbs describes in Chapter 12, “soft-spoken” and “halting” (295).

Yet despite the “soft-spoken” and “halting” quality of Hobbs’ voice, he delivered powerful responses to students’ questions. When someone asked, what made you want to write the book? Hobbs answered with remarks about the vast array of mourners—evidence of the variety of people whose lives had been touched by Rob—echoing Hobbs’ words in Chapter 17:

The line for the viewing was two blocks long and one of the most diverse collections of people I’d ever seen: Yale students and professors, people conversing in Portuguese, Croatian, and Spanish, young and old residents of all of the boroughs of New York City and all the townships surrounding Newark. (388)

Near the end of Hobbs’ Q&A, my thoughts returned to Chapter 12, when in response to a question regarding how the process of writing the book had affected him, Hobbs answered that it made him “lament the nature of male friendship,” which he illustrates in his reflections on his conversation with Rob:

Jeff Hobbs / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Jeff Hobbs / visitingwriters.lr.edu

The distance between us and the maleness of our friendship precluded revealing anything that truly mattered, and at the time I was too naïve to know that if you were friends with someone—truly friends—then you told him what was going on (“It’s called ‘catching up,’” my wife informed me when I asked how it was possible for her to yap with her girlfriends for as long as she did and share every innocuous detail of her life). Instead, I thought that by concisely presenting the most easygoing and put-together version of myself, I was being ‘all good.’ (295-96)

Hobbs did not address his writing process—something he may have spoken about at one of his other two appearances at L-R, Thursday evening and Friday morning—but he did convey what he hoped his biography of Rob would give to readers: a narrative that challenges the “predictable media spin of potential squandered” (386). The questions that audience members asked—as if they, too, had been acquainted with Rob—indicated that Hobbs did achieve that goal, one that any of us writing a book-length narrative would hope for: breathing life into our subjects, whether fictional or real, and enabling readers to see them as three-dimensional human beings, with all of their consistent inconsistencies.

Work Cited

Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.

Last Thursday, when Jaki Shelton Green appeared at Lenoir-Rhyne as the first featured author in this year’s Visiting Writers Series, she spoke as both a poet and a storyteller, noting that her poems live inside her stories.

Jaki Shelton Green / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Jaki Shelton Green / visitingwriters.lr.edu

I found myself drawn more to her stories than the poems they linked, but my ears welcomed the sound of Green’s own voice reading her poem “i know the grandmother one had hands,” just a day after my students and I studied the poem and read it aloud ourselves in class. As she introduced the poem, Green recounted her stint teaching poetry writing to women on death row, giving them the assignment of writing about hands because of the acts that they had committed with their own hands. She didn’t say that the poem was her answer to the assignment, but it may have been, just as this blog entry and the earlier one on the poem, itself, are my answers to the blog assignment that I have given to my students.

Through her poems and stories, Green spoke of painful subjects on the eve of 9/11: the imminent anniversary, her great-great grandmother’s life in slavery, and the death of her own daughter. But her words offered hope rather than sadness. As I reflect on those words, I hope that the ones that my students and I write this semester will show us what Green’s showed us Thursday night: that writing gives us a way of making sense of the world.

The film with a draft of this blog post

Ten years ago, PBS first aired the documentary Declining by Degrees, transporting viewers to the campuses of the University of Arizona, Western Kentucky, the Community College of Denver, and Amherst College to see through the eyes of students, faculty, and administrators there the challenges facing higher education in the twenty-first century. I first showed the film to my students in 2006 as a professor piloting one of the many First-Year Experience programs created in the aughts to remedy some of problems that the film addresses, namely the lack of community and continuity students need as they transition from high school to college. As students watch the film, they witness how that lack of vital support can lead some freshmen to leave college altogether, as Keith Caywood did, dropping out of the University of Arizona because, in his words: “When I started hearing about these [academic counseling] programs, I was already too deep in it, already failing my classes. So at that point I decided to leave college.”

Though I could stand at the lectern and compare my students’ first days at Lenoir-Rhyne with those of freshmen beginning college at a flagship state university, or a regional state university, or a community college, or an elite liberal arts college, Declining by Degrees sends them to classrooms at schools different from their own. That alone serves as one practical reason to continue showing it: I cannot put my students in other students’ shoes, but the film can.

Nevertheless, the naysayer in me utters, it’s ten years old now. It’s dated. I have chosen to quiet that voice in my head that tells me no, because the problems that the film addresses persist as college costs continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation (Lorin). And as more and more students find themselves burdened by debt, it’s critical for them to be able to place their college experience in a broader context and consider not only the financial costs, but the educational and social ones as well in a system that enables students to tread water, as one of the students in the film, Robin Bhalla, does.

Bhalla, in his own words, was a student who was “working with” or “manipulating” the system. Even though he partied four or five nights a week and his course work was only an afterthought, he still maintained a B average. The students who concern many faculty and administrators the most are ones like Bhalla who tread water, fulfilling course requirements and graduating without the intellectual development their diplomas should represent. Yet despite the film’s focus on treading water as a problem, many students who view the film don’t see it as one. In fact, they don’t even see it as treading water. Bhalla did move forward, some of my students have pointed out. In one of the class discussions following a viewing, a student referred to the “good job” that Bhalla obtained after graduation, though the film’s narrator, John Merrow, didn’t mention any specifics about Bhalla’s job at a pharmaceutical company. For some students, Bhalla’s job translated as good because they believe that people who obtain Bachelor’s degrees will eventually find good jobs and people who don’t, won’t. Thus, they conclude that Bhalla’s approach to his college years wasn’t a problem because he did graduate with a B average and did get a “good” job. Understandably, many students entering college don’t recognize such flaws in reasoning, but instead focus on the flaws in a system that requires them to pay ever-increasing sums of tuition for courses they perceive as irrelevant to their careers.

Yet even students with tunnel vision can see much of what’s wrong. Why should they devote time to courses that we tell them they need, if what they see is lecture halls where the professors don’t know their names, where it doesn’t matter if they don’t show up for class, where the professors don’t encourage questions from students?

One such professor, Paulette Kurzer, at the University of Arizona, claims she cannot answer students’ questions in a large lecture class, maintaining with students an unspoken contract that she calls “You-don’t-bother-me-and-I-don’t-bother-you.” Throughout the segment of the film devoted to her political science classes, she expresses her concern about students’ lack of engagement without recognizing how her own approach to teaching may encourage the very apathy that’s the source of her complaint. When the film’s narrator John Merrow suggests to Kurzer that students aren’t interested in classes like hers because the professors are boring, some students in my classes have laughed at Merrow’s blunt honesty, perhaps wishing they could similarly act on instinct in their classes without the risk of negative repercussions. In class discussions of Kurzer, my students have acknowledged her shortcomings and those of her students’ alike, but often haven’t seen the disconnect between Merrow’s assertion: “You’re boring,” and Kurzer’s response: “The students know how hard I work on my lectures.” Just as devoting hours to planning a lecture doesn’t guarantee its success, devoting hours to writing a paper or studying for an exam doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome. Kurzer’s staunch belief in her unacknowledged success in the classroom isn’t very different from many students’ self-perceptions. If she mistakenly believes that she has earned an A, why shouldn’t they believe that they have earned A’s, too?

Paulette Kurzer’s and Robin Bhalla’s stories, along with those of the other professors, students, and administrators on screen, reveal that the problems in higher education aren’t limited to one facet of the university; they’re systemic. But the message that some of my students at Lenoir-Rhyne glean may be quite different. They may see the treading-water approach as a big-school problem, one they have now seen on screen at the University of Arizona, and Western Kentucky, and the Community College of Denver but will not witness in their own classrooms. But Robin Bhallas and Paulette Kurzers are here as well; small classes alone don’t insure that students and professors are engaged and accountable.

On the first days of class we could have viewed any documentary and subjected it to the analysis that’s integral to our course. But Declining by Degrees, though now a decade old, claims us in a way that few other films can. Watching scenes that reveal problems that persist in higher education means watching ourselves, not mirror images but traces, and the challenges and risks that we as students and professors continue to face.

Works Cited

Declining by Degrees. Dir. Robert Frye. Narr. John Merrow. PBS Video, 2005. DVD.

Lorin, Janet. “College Tuition in the U.S. Again Rises Faster Than the Rate of Inflation.” Bloomberg Business.               Bloomberg, 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 12 Sept. 2015.