The Seminar

A Short History

As it appears in Selected Essays about a Bibliography: Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking, my short essay "Seminar": [PDF]

Right Blames Left for the Failure of Holocaust Education

Weekly Standard holocaust storyDated January 3, 2011 - a conservative's view of holocaust education - not very positive. "Genocide Studies has become an academic specialty and a fundraising bonanza, with professional organizations and prizes. Great books have been written and beautiful museums have been built​—​all in the conviction that they will prevent the production of future mass murderers and their willing executioners." But the conviction is hollow. We give students (starting quite young) ideas about preventing genocide but no sense of what to do. Further on you realize that the failure is largely owing to the left, because, in part, they are too much on guard against scholarly and other presentations of the equivalence of Stalin's regime and Hitlers, of communism and fascism. The issue becomes a matter of "minimizers" of communist mass murder. By this point we've come a long way from the quite reasonable concern that educators are teaching their students about the holocaust in the wrong place, the wrong site - the classroom. That's, for me at least, the value of these doubts. I don't know how to get past this very real irony.

Six Poets Each Teach a Poem to High-School Students

Video and Audio Recordings Avaiable

In May we hosted a visit by a class of high school students from Friends' Central School, a second annual gathering co-organized by me and Liza Ewen of the FCS English department. (Liza teaches an elective quarter-long course each spring on poetry.) I invited six poets each to teach a single poem in just 20 minutes. Rivka Fogel taught "This Room" by John Ashbery, a beautiful indirect memorial to Pierre Martory and non-narrative meditation on absence as presence. Sarah Dowling then came in and taught a section of "A Frame of the Book" by Erin Moure. Jessica Lowenthal then taught Harryette Mullen's "Trimmings." Randall Couch taught a very early poem by John Keats before revealing that it was Keats. John Timpane taught an Yvor Winters poem about the emotional complication of saying farewell to an adult child at an airport; Wintersean restraint and emotional distance abound here and strike one (strike me, at least) as a refreshing sort of illiberalism in an age of gobs of conventionally sentimental parent-child verse. Tom Devaney may have taken the pedagogical prize on this day, presenting William Carlos Williams' "The Last Words of My English Grandmother"--a seemingly easy poem for h.s. students to grasp. Yet it also does everything a modern poem does, and makes a remarkably good scene of instruction.

Each of the six 20-minute presentation is now being made available in PennSound as downloadable audio, streaming QuickTime video, and the texts of the poems are available as PDF's (digital copies of photocopies handed out to the students).

It's our hope that by presenting such materials, grouped together and well organized, PennSound will be useful to teachers and others looking for an introduction to poetry and poetics - and also to the phenomenon of the poet teaching poetry.

Here is your link to the PennSound page. It includes the six presentations from 2009 as well.

How Reading Is Taught In School

Juliana Spahr

"Reading is usually taught in school so as to walk hand in hand with assimilation. And it is at its most oppressive when taught through principles of absolute meaning. Beginning reading exercises tend to emphasize meaning as unambiguous and singular; the word 'duck' in the primer means the bird, not the verb. Further, as a learned and regulated act, reading socializes readers not only into the process of translating symbol into word with a one-to-one directness, but also into specific social relationships. Dick and Jane, to use the most cliched example of a primer, teach how to live the normalized lives of the nuclear family as much as they teach how to read. Further, much of what is read does not fully engage the resistant possibilities within reading, and as a result it tends to perpetuate reading's conventions."--Juliana Spahr, Everybody's Autonomy (2001), pp. 11-12

Haunted education

John Reed, from a blog entry titled 'UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION, AND UPDIKE’S “HAUNTED QUALITY,'" dated March 30, 2009:

Seminar vs. lecture redux

More on the end of the lecture as we know it

John Gee has responded to my recent writings about higher education — for the blog called Penn Political Review. Here is the link. Gee’s piece is titled “In Which I Take a Thought by Al Filreis and Run With It.” “We will continue to evaluate students on their retention of information in addition to their analytical skills. But we might, however, stop gathering students together for the purpose of taking in that information.”

I feel like I'm being pitched a product in a cheesy office sitcom

Hillary Reinsberg, one of my advisees here at Penn and a fabulously snarky blogger and twitterer, is writing pieces now for The Huffington Post. Her first piece is about technology in the classroom. The power-point-aided lecture of today puts her to sleep.

Teaching in the 'New Media' classroom

In the 'is it worth it?' department

Despite great claims made for the introduction of computer and other new-media hardware and software into the classroom, and huge expenditures made by colleges and universities, 60% of the undergraduate students surveyed for a 2007 report by the Educause Center for Applied Research said that they disagreed with the statement, “I am more engaged in courses that use technology.”* The issue, of course, is not whether we should be equipping our classrooms with the necessary current tools; we should. No the issue is whether teachers feel that in such a setting the box marked “learners’ engagement’ has been checked.

“The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2007,” September 12, 2007,

A note on distance learning

When the medium is finally the message, I say the message is the message.

I jotted this note in 2002: 'For people who run universities, especially those hard pressed to claim innovation and to respond somehow to the "information age," the allure of cliche postmodernity is great. The medium, to them, is the message. (Finally.) "Distance learning" is a fat pipeline, a delivery mechanism for content, the content being secondary ("x," a curricular blank to be filled out of material already in the course catalogue). But content, roughly speaking, has been the means by which intellectual communities have formed, and in the politics of the supposed coming cyber-university, real virtual communities are labor-intensive and expensive. And they have all the down sides that any communal activity does when it functions freely within a centrally organized organization. To resist, we assert that the medium is not the message. If the message has been experimental, either pedagogically or aesthetically (or both), then we can say that the message is (and has long been) the message. The phrase "distance learning" is replaced by "distributed learning." The community is enriched rather than dispersed by the introduction of e-media to teaching and learning.'

While I'm thinking of higher-ed pedagogy...

Forcing our students to write conventional literary-critical essays is no less a form of pre-professionalism than the assignment given by a marketing professor who tells his students to create a new ad for Coke.

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