Monday, June 27, 2011

Bookmarks – St. John of the Cross: The Poems

I have often been drawn to the poetry of mystics, and my first foray into the world of St. John of the Cross came when I was writing about T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” in my long ago undergraduate days. Then I found a handful of poems which were beautiful and nice, but was focused on the “teaching” and “theology” parts, as I was trying to get a paper done.
A few years later, I came across John Michael Talbot’s stark and moving The Lover and the Beloved album. As I was working late shifts during this time, and facing my own “dark nights,” the album and the words brought great comfort and a measure of peace, or at least helped me to focus on the source of that peace.
Recently, I found this book in my local Half Price Books,  and felt it needed to be in my library. I am glad I did.
I know so little Spanish, I feel quite unqualified to speak on the accuracy of Roy Campbell’s translation. I like that this edition is bilingual, so when I do learn more of the poet/mystic’s language, I can read his words as he wrote them.
That said, readers are likely to find the poems speak to the desire for connection with God (or God as one might think of Him, for non-believers) in a way that is accessible and, mostly, artful. Even if the reader is not Catholic, the verses communicate that one’s most significant actions are those in search of and union with the Beloved Lord. The verses, however, are not didactic. We are looking, most often, at what seems deeply personal and universal at the same time.
I do have two criticisms. First, the nine “Romances",” did not do much for me. Perhaps the translation is a bit stale (or too formal). Maybe the poems are too sing-songy. Maybe I didn’t get to these at the right time of my life or in the right frame of mind. But I did not find these nearly as poignant as the other poems. I do think, however, many readers have enjoyed and are going to enjoy these more than I did.
Second, I am not too keen on the titles. P.J. Kavanagh, in his fine and enlightening introduction, notes that one “beautiful poem” is “entitled, unfortunately ‘Verses written after an ecstasy of high exaltation.’ How unlike the humility of the poem is the claim of the title.” I think this might be said for several pieces in the volume.
However, this should not distract from what is, largely, a meaningful collection. It was, and shall be, a stirring read.
Though not from Mr. Campbell’s translation, this link will take you to several of the poet’s best and well known verses.

Music Notes – What’s It All About

Pat Metheny’s One Quiet Night won the Grammy Award for Best New Age album the year it was released. While most people who listen to Metheny’s music, heck, most people who listen to music, would not see him as a New Age performer, I can see why the disc was classified there. The songs were, as many extended extemporary improvisations are, mostly reflective, meditative in mood.
I say this to contrast that project with Metheny’s latest: What’s It All About, the great guitarist and composer’s first album of all “cover tunes.” Here, while the mood and tone may seem to the same to some listeners, this sucker is pure jazz.
Most of the tunes are played with the baritone guitar used on One Quiet Night, but a handful are not. The opening track, Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence,” is performed with Metheny’s 42-string Pikkaso, and sounds so good, I keep wanting a whole album of songs devoted just to that instrument. A nylon string guitar is used on what is probably my favorite piece on the album, the Beatles’ classic “And I Love Her.”
What makes this disc so interesting, listen after delicious listen, is that we actually have Metheny’s voice, for lack of a better word, on these classic, mostly pop songs. Tunes like “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be” retain the longing and angst of the original melodies, but seem brighter, warmer, like that second cup of coffee. And with songs like “Cherish,” “Alfie,” and “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” Metheny solos so well around the main melody that the listener gets more than the same old sandwich with garnish on the plate to make it seem pretty. These are seasoned tunes made fresh with ingredients that could only be found in Pat Metheny’s musical kitchen.
One disappointment for me is Metheny’s treatment of “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”). I like the idea of taking it out of its traditional bossa nova setting, and I don’t mind putting some space between phrases, but this version is so slow that I barely recognized the tune. That doesn’t keep the result from being pretty and listenable, however.
Those who download the album from iTunes get a couple of bonuses worth noting. First, there is the digital booklet providing some information about the album. Second and more important, one gets two extra songs: “’Round Midnight” and “This Was Nearly Mine.” I was not familiar with the latter, but Metheny’s rendition of the Thelonious Monk classic is one of the most interesting and haunting I have heard in a very long time.
If you come to What’s It All About looking for elevator music or new age versions of some familiar old songs, expect to be pleasantly disappointed. If you are looking for something tasty and cool for your summer listening, this is perhaps the best album for your needs.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why does it take so long for you to grade my paper, Mr. Morris?

From time to time, I have to answer this question from a student. It isn’t always worded this way. Sometimes the student is more polite; sometimes the student is not. And I do understand the oftentimes crippling desire to know, not whether one has done well or poorly, but just to know the results of a test or a paper.
Few students really want my feedback. Many say they do, but most don’t. They want the score. For some, it is as if they cannot move on with life until they get it.
I say this also knowing that each semester I have a larger percentage of students who do not even bother to look at their scores, much less feedback. But for now, I want to focus on those that want that number. A number that they often read as having some sort of meaning I did not intend. But that problem also is for another time.
Some students are rather, shall we say, self-absorbed, and some students have very little willingness to use actual reasoning. They argue that since I put deadlines on them, I should have a deadline for returning their work. Some of these students, when reminded that I may have as many as 150 students to grade work from, fail to see the relevance to their lives. Again, that feeling that they need to know the score is so strong, that they are blind to rational argument. And math.
I could list the usual reasons that I rarely can return a set of papers the very next class period. But I won’t. It would not be helpful. However, I thought I should list, in no particular order, a few answers to the question that seem to have been added recently.
  • Plagiarism, part I. While I have more tools at my disposal to catch cheaters, I have more people cheating, and I cannot just check the papers of those I suspect of getting unauthorized help. In addition, depending on the course and the circumstances, I need to take different actions with plagiarism, so that I am not just some sort of academic policeman, but still teaching. That means I have to spend time not only checking for plagiarism, but determining whether the incident is a matter of real dishonesty, or a matter of ignorance, or somewhere in between.  Wilful ignorance is a very strong force.
  • Plagiarism, part II. As noted before, I have more students cheating. For some assignments, I now need to check every single student in the class, not just those papers that look hinky. At least once a year now, I find a student who has plagiarized that no one would suspect of wrongdoing. In addition, I have found students who cheat on minor assignments as well as major ones. For example, in my American Literature class, I routinely find answers on reading quizzes have been taken from some site on the web, when reading the story might well have been easier. In the past couple of days, I have caught two students who submitted plagiarized posts to online discussion boards, an assignment that requires very little work to pass.
  • I have a life too. While many a teacher, years ago, would eat a quick bite at dinner and disappear to a quiet room to grade stacks of papers while the rest of the family relaxed, or would bring a sheaf of tests to soccer practices and ballet rehearsals, many of us teachers have decided to actually be more involved in the lives of our children, and spend a few minutes each day with our spouses. So call me a hypocrite when I lament that the world spends too much time watching television. Some days, the only time I am going to get to sit next to my wife is during an episode of Law and Order, Criminal Intent. And guess what? Many of us go to church, join clubs, play sports, and even hassle our siblings on Facebook.
  • We did not go to school to learn how to write numbers in boxes. That means our jobs require more of us than looking through the paper than marking or typing a couple of digits that will inflate your self-esteem (another topic for another time). Especially that paper you spent a whole two hours writing. Most of us do more than ramble stuff you don’t plan to remember for three hours a week. We go to meetings, workshops, and sometimes classes of our own. We talk to others in the profession. We make plans and tweak them so that we can do our jobs even better.
  • Plagiarism, part III. When I catch someone cheating, I have to do something about it. Call it an odd tick in my nervous personality. But I actually have to write something to the student involved. I can’t just say, “Here’s an F for cheating. See ya next semester!” For legal reasons, I have to show how I know the material doesn’t belong to the student. I also may have to provide my own boss with something in writing in case that student wishes to take his or her cheating to a high level and go over my head. All that takes time, so the one student who doesn’t write his own paper or who gets her test answers from sources outside the proper channels of study is taking that time from the rest of the class who chose to suck it up and do the best they could with whatever they managed to learn.
  • Email. Sometimes I try to convince myself to schedule email reading times, so that it doesn’t interrupt other parts of my job. But since many of my classes are online, and all my courses have some sort of online component, and since it is 2011, not 1911, I feel I must read and answer every email sent to me by every student. That is how we communicate. And I’d say that nine times out of ten it is what I would call “reasonable communication.” A student asks a question or makes a simple request, and I respond, hopefully with something that helps that student. After all, that is what I am here for, right? But that tenth person uses email for a multitude of personal attacks, complaints about the reading or the due dates, arguments about how I can’t really grade an opinion because an opinion can’t be wrong, arguments about how lifting something from Wikipedia is not plagiarism, and so forth and such forth. Some students carry on lengthy, days long conversations with me. And heaven forbid I fail to answer the tenth student quickly enough to suit them.
  • Bad writing. Sometimes, even though I do not mark every single error in a paper, the writing is so devastatingly poor that I have to work very hard and long to decipher what is being said. I’ve instituted a five error rule where I stop reading papers with more than five sentence-level mistakes that a student (depending on level) should not make, and then return the essay to be revised before I will grade it. But that has only helped me a little bit (and actually requires a rather long set of instructions to be sent to the student). Much of the poor writing comes in emails. And those cheeky monkeys really want me to respond. Apparently, a note that says, “Your email is incomprehensible. Please rewrite it so that I’ll understand what you mean” is a blow to their self-esteem (another topic for another time).
Okay.  I haven’t listed everything, but enough for now. And sure, I could probably save myself a lot of time (and grief!) if I didn’t have the apparently silly notion that academic dishonesty is bad or if I just read papers and put grades on them (since most students don’t ever read what their teachers write anyway) or if I didn’t take my kids to soccer practice or if I didn’t kiss my wife. I could do that.
But then my students would be out in the workplace, and making babies, and running for office without at least one person telling them that despite their sterling qualities, there is room for improvement. And I’d have to get a job doing something that paid more and gave me time to really help the community: like serving on the school board.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Reading Response – Of Kings, Villains, and Haters

I must take issue with Robert Weintraub and his article “Heat Sensitive: Why I’m rooting for LeBron James – and you should too,” published today at Slate. Mr. Weintraub seems to think he is going against most in America in trying to build a case for liking the Heat and the man most demonized during their run of success. But he’s not. He’s echoing what almost every broadcaster on the ESPN/Disney/ABC network (outside of those in Dallas and possibly Cleveland) says and his argument misses some very key facts.
Weintraub states that he “winced” at James’ The Decision program. Most of us didn’t wince. Real sports fans shuddered that sports had sunk to such a low level as to market and endorse (even after the fact, Mr. Wilbon!) a television show where a single player lifts himself above the sport (with the support of ESPN), and holds the basketball world hostage, all the while trying to portray himself as not merely a great basketball player, but the essence of the game itself. Repeat: we did not wince; we shuddered.
Michael Wilbon and others claim that people either have or will forget The Decision. Some will. I won’t. For me, though, it has been about how Mr. James (a player I very much supported in the past) has handled himself since that point. He calls people who criticized him “haters,” and refuses to admit that the show was childish and self-serving. So LeBron, what is it when you criticize someone’s actions? Loving? Grow up.
But what really gets me riled is when people like Weintraub assume that the criticism LeBron James has received is because of his actual decision to leave the Cavaliers and play in Miami. Weintraub writes, “LeBron put in his time in Cleveland, played out his contract, and chose to go elsewhere, just like millions of other careerists out there. End of story.”
But it isn’t the end of the story. I didn’t hear a lot of noise when Chris Bosh left Toronto. Sure, he’s not the caliber of player of James, but he did it for the same reason: the opportunity to play on a high caliber team and win a championship. The issue, Weintraub and so many miss, is not just in the way James left, but what he has done with himself since then. Had he made the move to Miami, most likely the only people on James’ little “list” would be the people of Cleveland.
Had all this happened when James was still 18 or 19, I think many people would give the guy a pass. Maybe we’d all think, “Hey, he’s just a kid.” But LeBron James isn’t a child star anymore. He’s a grown man, an adult punk.
In a recent column, Rick Reilly gives several reasons fans should root for the Mavericks in these Finals. One of my favorites is this: “Pull for Dallas because Nowitzki stayed with his team, never took his talents anywhere but to the damn gym every day.” Amen to that and Go MAVS!