Archive for January, 2012

BARBECUED HAMLET

January 2, 2012

I have my own theory on HAMLET which has not been adumbrated anywhere that I know of, but I haven’t made a dissertation type search. My notion is that Hamlet’s hamartia is an excess of religiosity. It accounts for his purity of soul as well as his cosmic vengefulness in that by not killing Claudius in the chapel he presumes he can exploit God’s laws of condemnation and forgiveness to damn Claudius. Of course, his “blindness” is that he cannot see inside Claudius’s mind and judge whether the external act of prayer represents an internal repentance. Claudius’s two line soliloquy at the end of the chapel scene shows that he was not repentant, and thus if Hamlet had skewered him then Hamlet would have accomplished his objective. Classic irony. The first Shakespeare I ever directed was with students and was HAMLET. We had no budget. The boy playing Hamlet brought in the shishkebob skewers from his family’s barbecue outfit to serve as swords in the play. Claudius would have been skewered indeed.

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A LANGUAGE, EXPOS AT GREENHILLS, AND FRESHMAN ENGLISH AT AMHERST

January 1, 2012

I have never taught an AP Lang. course per-se, though I did do a highly popular, and I think effective, elective, Expository Writing (i.e. Creative Non-Fiction) course with seniors. My two texts were Ken McCrorie’s TELLING WRITING and Orwell’s SELECTED ESSAYS. Although I didn’t emphasize argument I did start with “Shooting an Elephant,” went on to “Marrakech” and then “Those, Those Were The Days,” as examples of what could be done. They were my models. I said, “That’s the kind of writing we’re aiming for by the end of the course.”

The core of the course was daily free writing, unfocused to start, followed by focused free writing, followed by a series of focused writings on the several topics suggested by McCrorie. I required a weekly piece of writing, and spent class reading each student’s piece, anonymously, out loud, and allowing only two kinds of comments: appreciations, and clarifications. I made my comment only at the end of comments from the class. The writer was not supposed to say anything, explain anything, but just be a ‘fly on the wall.’

Some years, if the group was good enough I added toward the middle of the course permission for a “what if.” That meant a student could make a suggestion IF the suggestion was specific. E.g. “What if the word ‘impacted’ were changed to ‘affected’?” That is what in AP Lang would be called rhetorical critique, but without using any, any, any device names. My instruction never went beyond that sort of seat of the pants close reading (mainly because of my own ignorance, I suppose). However, it developed their ear, and didn’t over abstract. All of those in that course had taken the AP Lang. exam in their Junior year at the end of a year of American Literature in which rhetorical analysis of an informal sort was a means to the end of determining what a particular author was saying. Whether there was carry over from their Junior year to my course, I don’t know, but by the fourth or fifth week many of the class members were getting to quite moving essays of personal experience.

My provisional hypothesis is that if students can be supported in determining exactly what an author is saying without reductionism, they will be able to reexpress their observations without a lot of technical rhetorical terms. That my students were able to write powerfully, i.e. use language to connect to a reader, without a formal technical framework suggests to me that perception of ‘meaning’ through reacting to the manifold details of language is the essential skill and that naming the causes of what moves is a secondary skill.

I hope I may eventually be able to teach an AP LANGUAGE course and get to rethink how to do it from first principles. The questions you raise help me greatly in anticipatory rumination. I had Freshman English in 1953-54. It is still the most important course (for me) I ever took.