This Week in My Classes: Grafton, Paretsky, Auden, Heaney, Rushdie!

I think the only unifying theme to this week’s readings is (a slight variant on) Cliff Clavin’s immortal Jeopardy question.

And, speaking of Jeopardy, Monday’s class was our final session on Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi, which means it was time for a student presentation. What is the connection? Thanks for asking! Years ago I decided I couldn’t allow students to drone on from notes for these events so I instituted some rules: no more than 10 minutes just talking at the class, and the rest of the time must be used for some balance of audio-visual materials, group discussion, and activities. Lots of different activities are allowed, from splinter groups to take up particular passages or problems, to hands-on activities, role-playing, or games. Probably because it’s the most fun, many groups choose to devise a game. My rule is that the game (or other activity) must be thematically relevant and somehow move us closer to understanding some substantial issue from the course or reading. Students usually prove ingenious at accomplishing these goals! With An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, for instance, we played Hangman (!): each challenge was a key quotation from the text, and if we killed off our victim we had to tackle a discussion question. Monday, then, we played Sue Grafton Jeopardy. Categories included ‘Biography,’ ‘Plot,’ ‘Characters,’ and ‘Weapons,’ which certainly tested our familiarity with the details of the novel,and the “daily doubles” were (again) discussion questions. They let me play! Often I am assigned an impartial role (I was the presiding judge, for instance, in “Law and Order: Gaudy Night edition”). But I’m sure my team would have won without my participation. (Hee.) It’s amusing to see how competitive everyone gets–and the discussion questions give us a chance to put that more trivial knowledge into wider contexts, so don’t worry: it’s not all about the cookies. Tomorrow we start work on Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. I lectured on this novel in my detective fiction survey course last winter term (see here, for instance) but I think it will be especially productive to come to it right after Grafton, because the two novelists are often discussed together and they do, structurally, some similar things–revising hard-boiled detective conventions, for instance. But both the personalities and the styles of feminism are quite different in the books. The two series are still going strong and they have developed in quite different ways, too, though I think in ways that you can see from the beginning, Grafton more of a quirky individualist, Paretsky with a more ambitious social and political reach. My students responded quite positively to Kinsey Millhone, though not for the kinds of reasons I necessarily hope for (they found her very “relatable”).

I got sort of inspired, as I prepped for Monday’s session on Auden for my Brit Lit survey class, and thought that if I couldn’t necessarily bring my students to the cathedral, I could perhaps bring the cathedral to them. So I planned to take a few minutes of class to dim the lights and play them this clip (which sadly I’m not able to embed), even though “Funeral Blues” is not in our anthology. I think John Hannah does such a beautiful job, and of course the poem itself is beautiful, mournful, but unsentimental. That it’s a clip from a mainstream film seemed right for my purposes, which include making sure we think about literature as something not meant to be confined in homogenizing anthologies. Luckily, I’m teaching in a classroom that, though it’s terrible for discussion, is all set up with computers and projectors. Well, of course, when I got to class the computer in the podium was not on, and no combination of buttons on the console brought it to life–and the machine itself is completely secured inside various locked panels. So much for that. I may bring my laptop on Wednesday and try again (although it occurs to me that when I showed them a video clip, I also could not locate a volume control, so who knows how well they’d be able to hear it). Dear People Who Preach The Importance of Teaching With Technology: You have to support us well or we just can’t do it. A/V support is in a different building (ironic, since I’m teaching in the computer science building).

Ah well. Back to basics on Wednesday, then, with Seamus Heaney–though I’d like to be able to show some graphics of the bog people. I moved Heaney from the tutorial session into the lecture session because things went so splendidly last year when we talked about “Digging.” Probably it will fall completely flat as a result. And I moved Rushdie into the tutorial spot, thinking “The Prophet’s Hair” was just the kind of story to stimulate lively discussion around the seminar table.  (That, and the excellent colleague who lectured on Rushdie last year is on sabbatical this year and could not be corralled into making her guest appearance again.) We’ll see.

In lieu of the Auden clip, here’s Seamus Heaney reading “Digging” himself. I’m interested in the emphasis he places on the two instances of “my” in the last bit. I hadn’t heard it that way, in my mind.

This Afternoon in My Class (March 19, 2010): Seamus Heaney

As a brief follow-up to my previous post, which discussed a certain flagging of enthusiasm for one of my classes, I’ll just report that I thoroughly enjoyed this afternoon’s tutorial meeting on Seamus Heaney. The best thing about it was that it was the first time I can remember this term that a significant number of students were genuinely enthusiastic about a poem: that is, often students will contribute, thoughtfully, to discussion, but today even the body language was different, with people leaning forward into the discussion and smiling and nodding at each other as they talked. The poem that got this reaction was Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awakens in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

I opened by asking about the pen as a gun: why make that particular comparison? What is the risk or the threat of his pen? Pretty quickly we were talking about the difficulty of the poet son, who has broken from the tradition of his father and grandfather, writing about them and their work without condescending to them or, at the other extreme, sentimentalizing them. It turned out (and I think that this is why the discussion became so animated) that many of them understood the anxiety, or perhaps just self-consciousness, of that kind of break from tradition because they have been through it themselves, coming from mining or farming or military backgrounds, sometimes themselves among the first in their families to go to university, or to study something like English, or to want to be writers. One student also pointed to the “sloppily” corked milk bottle, a sign, he suggested (and many agreed) that it speaks to an anxiety also about the manliness or practical value of choosing poetry: there’s an ideal of the “man of the house,” good with his hands, tough, physical, that the speaker can’t reach (“I’ve no spade to follow men like them”). Though he looks down on his father from his window, he isn’t looking down on him otherwise, we thought, but rather seeing him clearly, seeing the dignity of his skill and hard work. He puts his pen to work, in turn, digging up memories (which “awaken in [his] head”) and making something himself that (as another student suggested) his father would understand–it’s not difficult poetry, there are no unusual words in it, it’s hardly “poetic” at all, but direct, colloquial, even (sorry) earthy. And yet for all its seeming simplicity, as we dug into it, we found more and more of interest, even before we moved into the more abstract idea of poetry and/as archeology (another of our poems was “The Grauballe Man”).

Though we all hate the reduction of literary value to what is ” relatable” (a coinage many students seem unable to resist), and though I’m a big believer in stretching ourselves and our students into what is unfamiliar, there was a great energy today that came from this poem having meaning for them–meaning of its own, that they could appreciate, but also meaning for their own lives.