Commentaries - August 2007

PennSound pedagogy podcast

I produced a new PennSound podcast, the sixth in the series; it presents an overview of PennSound, its mission and its pedagogical assumptions and implications. In discussing how students, teachers and readers can use PennSound's materials, I use as an example Rae Armatrout's poem "The Way," about which I've written in an earlier entry here.

After we put up the Ezra Pound recordings, we got a raving fan note from poet Peter Gizzi (who has his own PennSound author page), and here is what Peter wrote:

I LOVE, I mean LOVE that Pennsound has put up all the Pound material. I have it all in bootlegs and tapes of course but it is wonderful to have it there, finally, I mean it is THE MOST OUT there of anything on that site or ubu web! EP is the best. I used to listen to those tapes over and over in my car in the late 70’s when I was a teenager. To me it was Punk. And hearing it now it brings back summer and my youth! Listening to the Spoleto recording, maybe my fav for its restrained intensity, I am taken aback just how his late syntax has totally effected me. Liz and I were listening and we could hear my poem Homer’s Anger loud and clear for instance. Amazing. And Richard’s head note makes me want to listen further.

There's plenty more praise where that came from.

remembering Jerre Mangione

In 1998 Jerre Mangione passed away. Jerre had been on the faculty of English at Penn since the early sixties, and retired perhaps a year or two after I arrived in '85. Because of his involvement in the 1930s as a young administrator in the Federal Writers' Project, I sought him out, lunched with him, interviewed him, and came to admire him. I read his novels and of course studied his history of the FWP, The Dream and the Deal. Soon after his passing the Pennsylvania Gazette asked me to write a short piece memorializing him. The whole essay is here. Here is a paragraph toward the end:

One afternoon in 1987 I interviewed my emeritus colleague at length. I asked him what things might have been like, for him and other FWP writers, had Congress not cut short the life of New Deal-era federal support of public arts projects. Jerre joked modestly that The Dream and the Deal would have been a longer book. But then as my tape ran he went silent for a long time, and bore a pained look. He might have been remembering, for instance, that at the height of the Cold War, when the New England American Studies Association gathered at Amherst College to discuss the New Deal arts projects, an academic critic of American literature named Barry Marks read a paper in which he argued that "the most impressive single feature of the WPA Arts Program was its lack of respect for creativity." For Jerre, on the contrary, "the writers and nonwriters on the project somehow managed to play their role well, so that in spite of all the administrative blunders, the political imbroglios, and the Congressional salvos, [we] produced more good books than anyone dreamed [we] could." I remember Jerre Mangione as a writer who wrote his own "good books," yes, but also as one who made others' literally possible -- which, contra Barry Marks, was and is the highest praise.

Readers of this blog who have trouble finding copies of The Dream and the Deal should feel free to contact me (use the little envelope icon below). I have a box of copies Jerre himself gave me and would be delighted to mail you one.

Electronic Pedagogy

The "Philadelphia Inquirer" Ran a Sunday Magazine Story about My Poetry Course

In late spring/summer 2001 Jim O'Neil, then the higher education beat reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, interviewed me at length for a story about my electronic pedagogy. The essay would appear in the (now defunct) Inquirer Sunday Magazine in August of '01. In '99 and '00 I had taught three all-online versions of my modern & contemporary American poetry course, English 88. And I had for years been using chat rooms (the earliest was a MOO called PennMOO) and listservs to enable the students' discussion to be the central activity of the course. The six-year-old piece seems a bit quaint to me now, and Jim's focus (in several middle paragraphs) on my life and "development" as a teacher is a bit embarrassing, but the narrative is more or less right. Here's a passage from the essay, starting with the end of the biographical stuff:

In the early 1980s, while pursuing his doctorate in English at the University of Virginia, Filreis began to teach. At the time, the university purchased early-version desktop computers. "They were big white machines, in the shape of a huge space helmet," Filreis said. "They ran a word processor program called Magic Wand."

Filreis stored set pieces on computer, each describing a common student writing mistake. He gave each set piece a number. Then, marking student papers by hand, he put a number in the margin near each mistake, and attached the appropriate computer-generated commentary.

"This changed my relationship with the students," Filreis said. "I wanted to engage the students in a conversation." In effect, he had created a low-tech prototype of the teaching style he would later refine. He calls it "dialogic pedagogy."

When e-mail and the Internet appeared, Filreis, who arrived at Penn in 1985, easily integrated these new tools. The core of that teaching philosophy mirrors the course material of English 88.

Postmodernist poets focused on the process of their poetry, rather than on what the words in their poems actually said. The purpose was to make poetry and language new again.

There's no better way to describe Filreis' teaching style. He uses technology to free class time for discussion, which to Filreis is more important than the course material itself. The point is to develop his students' ability to think critically, not to have memorized every last fact about Gertrude Stein. And yet, he said, through that active engagement with the material, students end up remembering more of the content.

Here's Filreis' teaching style in action: By late April, the students in English 88 are studying the postmodern poets.

Shortly after class gets out one day, the English 88 listserv starts to hum. Some students like the postmodernist message. Others think a poem whose words made no conventional sense was ridiculous. At one point during the raging debate, Filreis e-mails everyone a brief message to guide the discussion along. He cites a quote from one student, who chafed at the postmodernist experiment: "I disagree with the idea that effective poetry can consistently be made by imposing an arbitrary set of rules on some subject and following them rigorously," wrote the student, Jacob Kraft.

Filreis' seven-word reply reads: "Is this not what a sonnet is?"The online jousting plants the seeds for an equally charged debate in class a few days later over an elegy performed in 1975 by postmodernist Jackson Mac Low, called "A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore". Mac Low took his friend's name, used a computer to churn out every word that could be constructed from reshuffling the letters of the name, and then got friends to read those 960 words aloud in a staged performance. The work generates intense give-and-take among the students on whether old-fashioned elegies did justice to the dead.

"Who's to say words can capture the essence of a human being?" says Laine McDonnell. "Who's to say these words of Mac Low's don't capture his friend more?" "Aesthetically, it leaves a lot to be desired," pipes up Jake Kraft. "The postmodernists are only interested in the process. They throw aesthetics out the window."

Now that Filreis has broken down the walls of the classroom, he wants to break through all other confines of the university setting. "I want to start recruiting 'teachers' from the extended Penn community," he said, clearly thinking back to Carl Peterson's influence on him at Colgate. "I want more electronic mentoring. I want to deepen the experiment. I'd love to be liberated from the semester so I could teach whomever, wherever, whenever."

Thanks to technology, he has already liberated himself. He has created a program through which faculty can mentor incoming freshmen over the Internet before they even get to campus. He has cajoled some faculty to participate in online book groups for Penn alumni. And his own Web site - which registered more than 2.6 million hits in the last six months and includes extensive resources on modern poetry, the 1950s and the Holocaust - has become a helpful tool for high-school teachers nationwide.

Filreis is one of a small but growing cadre of professors across the country who are changing classroom pedagogy - and not merely by turning the old-fashioned lecture into a glitzy PowerPoint presentation. Many colleges provide grants and training for professors interested in using the new technology, and on every college campus there's at least one professor harnessing the basic technology of the Internet to free class time for richer, student-driven discussion.

The whole essay can be found here.

For my all online poetry course I prepared a series of short video clips (in RealVideo format). I put links to all the clips into a simple introductory web page with a paragraph-long statement that begins: "It's my view that simple email (asynchronous communication as a forum for group discussion) works well in combination with real-time ("live") formats such as 'chat rooms' and 'webcasts.'" And here's the link to the video clip about my preference for ascynchronous discussion.

Commies Taking over Tomorrow

Cold-War Sci Fi

The first postwar "Imagine if..." dramatizations of the Russians conquering and enslaving America, Is This Tomorrow? was published in 1947 by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society of St. Paul, Minnesota. At ten cents a copy, this fifty-two page, full-color comic book was a smashing success. It enjoyed several reprintings, and was used as a giveaway, presumably distributed to church groups. Some four million copies were printed.

Feverish Commie-takeover scenarios emerged in the mass media in the years to come, including Life magazine's "The Reds Have a Standard Plan for Taking over a New Country" (1948), the M-G-M cartoon "Make Mine Freedom" (1948), Columbia Pictures' 1952 film Invasion USA, the 1962 TV special Red Nightmare ("presented by the Department of Defense"), and such comic books as "The Sneak Attack" in the first issue of Atomic War (1952). But none of them could quite match Is This Tomorrow? for pure holy terror.

For more materials of this sort, see my 1950s site.

The End of the Lecture as We Know It

At a conference sponsored by the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management on "The Virtual University" (January 12, 1995), Martin Meyerson said:

The best lectures have always been those that deal with "tentative materials" that result from the professor's research. If they cease to be tentative, don't include them in the lecture; print them. The main teaching function has to be interactive.

Imagine a university in which all teaching is based on "tentative materials" in this sense, and all the informational and conceptual fixities to be taught are available to students outside of class, any hour of the day or night.

According to Boswell, Sam Johnson said this:

Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book... People have nowadays got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chymistry by lectures. You might teach making shoes by lectures!

Here again is a link to my 60-second lecture on the end of the lecture (1999).

Thanks to Jack Lynch, here's the bibliography on Sam Johnson's remarks about the lecture. First, this from Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64), vol. 4, p. 92: "We talked of the difference between the mode of education at Oxford, and that in those Colleges where instruction is chiefly conveyed by lectures. JOHNSON. 'Lectures were once useful; but not, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss part of the lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book.' Dr. Scott agreed with him. 'But yet (said I) Dr. Scott, you yourself gave lectures at Oxford.' He smiled. 'You laughed (then said I) at those who came to you.'" Then in the same book, volume 2, pages 7-8: "Talking of education, 'People have now a-days, (said he,) got a strange opinion that every thing should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments [p. 8] are to be shewn. You may teach chymistry by lectures. -- You might teach making of shoes by lectures!"