Ending the Semester With Art, Not Politics

Art

My Composition 101 class, focused on the US Presidential election, has been a great experience. I’ve learned a lot from my students; there have been fun days, tense days. Teaching the morning after the election was hard, bleak.

As always, I feel like I could have done a better job. In this course in particular, at the end, reading the students’ final essays, I find myself wishing I could have built up a better environment for discussions, so that we could have all got to know each other, and our political views, a lot better.

I adopted a policy of non-self-disclosure, so that students would not have to reveal their own political views, in order to ensure a safe, non-threatening classroom environment: I wonder if, in the end, that was a mistake, or at least a limiting factor. Perhaps a better teacher would have been able to create a space in which difference and disagreement could be open, part of the structure of the course, but without being confrontational.

For the final exam session, I decided to change the pace. I gave the students two writing questions, using the text of famous novels as the source material. (Both exercises have appeared in different forms on this blog in the past.)

One question asked them to use a technique we had practised many times in class; one question threw them into wholly new waters.

See what you think. What answers would you give?

Composition 101 Fall 2016 Final Exam Session

  1. Look at this paragraph from the novel Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. It comes early in the novel: the main character, Clarissa Dalloway, is walking in London, in St James Park, remembering her old friend Peter. Peter, she remembers, always made fun of her for being too conventional, too practical. She, in turn, made fun of him for never caring about the real world, about real people and pretty moments – he only thought about the operas of Wagner, the poems of Pope… This book is written in a challenging style, with much of the narration written in a seemingly random stream of consciousness. The writer was trying to capture the way that people really think – all over the place, with one thought popping up after another.

For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter and his were dry sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?–some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people; they came back in the middle of St. James Park on a fine morning–indeed they did. But Peter–however beautiful the day might be, and the trees and the grass, and the little girl in pink–Peter never saw a thing of that. He would put on his spectacles, if she told him to; he would look. It was the state of the world that interested him; Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul. How he scolded her! How they argued! She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.

However, if you try to insert questions between the sentences, as we have practiced in class, you’ll see that actually, the paragraph is quite orderly. Despite the apparent chaos, each sentence (or even each individual part of the longer sentences) answers a question posed by the previous sentence. Add a question between each sentence to show how the paragraph develops its (many) ideas.

I offer the first two here:

For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; (parted? Did they not speak at all?) she never wrote a letter and his were dry sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?–some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people; they came back in the middle of St. James Park on a fine morning–indeed they did. (What would Peter say about this fine morning in St James Park? Would he be moved by it, or not interested?) But Peter–however beautiful the day might be, and the trees and the grass, and the little girl in pink–Peter never saw a thing of that. He would put on his spectacles, if she told him to; he would look. It was the state of the world that interested him; Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul. How he scolded her! How they argued! She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.

  1. This is the more advanced question. Here is the novelist Don Delillo describing how he constructs sentences, in an interview in The Paris Review:

This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There’s always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn’t then I’ll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence—these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger—I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.

“They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look.”

Now read this paragraph from Delillo’s novel White Noise. The narrator is a family man, a professor at a small university with several children – both he and his wife have been married before. Read it once for meaning, then a second time for sound. What sounds do you hear repeated within the sentences? (Perhaps the o sound in “possessions” is repeated, to your ears, in “sorrowful”, for example.) Are there any surprising rhythms that you hear? Any interesting word choices. Give at least three examples and explain what you hear.

Babette and I do our talking in the kitchen. The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources. She and I are alike in this, that we regard the rest of the house as storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.

Gatlinburg Fires

Forest fire

For much of November, the air here in Knoxville smelled of smoke. Election day in particular had a sour, tobacco-y aroma, a stench with none of the kindness of the familiar scent of wood-burning fireplaces.

 It’s common to smell smoke here: the sausages sizzling in the big grill, on the second floor of a nearby apartment block, the smoker that a Latin family sometimes lights, the smell of the food crossing the street where I walk the dogs in the evenings. Or the gas flames cooking the burgers and vegetables in many homes’ outdoor grills, the sound of talk behind fences; the warm drift of smoke on cold crisp days from indeterminate chimneys.

The smoke of a burning forest, however, is different. A forty-five minute drive away, the mountains were ablaze, a combination of an arsonist’s work and a horridly dry season. That fire reeks like a gigantic, pluming cigarette, bitter, sharp. 

Some days in November, the distant hills and ridges disappeared into the haze, even off to the north, miles and miles distant from the mountains themselves. 

Fortunately, at the very end of November, a storm passed through my town, the first rain in ages, striking down dead tree branches into our back lawn. The air, here in Knoxville, cleared after that, refreshed, but the fires in the mountains continued to burn.

In the middle of that month, November, my parents visited, coming from London to meet my son for the first time. It was a lovely time. We all drove to Gatlinburg, a pretty town in the foothills, bright with winter sun. We ate catfish and bbq for lunch. 

We weighed up taking the ski-lift up into the hills above the town, for the view, but decided against it because of the baby’s heavy pram, and the crush of the tourists in the lift. 

I vaguely assumed, as I often do, that there would be time to come back and so on.

Now, that lift is destroyed. The town has had to flee the town. Friends have lost businesses and homes.

I keep hoping for more rain, but so far, the week continues to be dry.