Category Archives: English literature

Complimenting the Learning

Just to follow on this post somewhat . . .

I was twiddling with Tinderbox in the office yesterday, beginning some notes on medieval literature, when Carolyn arrived and she asked a series of questions about the tool. This took us into some play with prototypes and adornments as a means of organizing materials.

Of course, when write ups come on educational tools, such as in the two posts below, the talk often attracts around web logs, wikis, social/collaboration tools, and courseware. I think Carolyn liked where the work went with the note tool as software for students to use in the classroom and afterwards as a means of study.

My students don’t think about this, but I monitor how they work and manage things. This past week many have lost out because they forgot, lost, or misplaced their evaluation sheets. I hand the sheets out and the students return the sheets with their papers so that I don’t have to print or otherwise produce more copies. If they don’t turn the sheet in, I wait for them to produce the sheet and then I evaluate. The point is, my students, or most of them, not all, are horrible organizers of their own learning narrative. IThis is a neglected aspect of Secondary schooling. don’t know what they do with all the things they take from the classroom, how they manipulate their materials, save to their harddrives, or tab their progress through reading and notes. They lose syllabi, ask for page numbers (really!), forget definitions, disremember dates, and neglect the relations between material and reality. They need, in three words, awareness of organization. Tools like Backpack are made for organizing, but my students typically don’t know about them and don’t think enough about digital tools for this self-service. The ability to search for an object is hard to do with a notebook, but if done well, and with some forethought, it can be an interesting journey. But self-evaluation with the use of tools is a key idea in learning (a quiz is just such a tool). Learning anything. “Where are the directions?”

Courseware can be used for ordering, but students must take the time to figure them out. (Here’s a note: we don’t really need courses to teach students how to use RSS. We need courses that teach people how to teach themselves and look for the potentiality of woodblock.) Library databases also offer means of keeping track of required items and services, such as topic/subject alerts, and even the browsers on their computers can serve track-keeping of the self in an instructional or life context. But this calls for an awareness and inquisitiveness on the part of the student into “how” and “why.”

Carolyn and I ran into a wall when we got to the adornment part of Tinderbox. I’ve subsequently figured the idea out and it is sort of neat. For British Literature, our oddly named course sequence for the learning of “English” Literature, I want to organize my thinking about the ideas I work with and the readings we cover in the course, creating associations, and keeping track of examples, because I feel that more is there to be had for myself. One of the ideas is Leadership, another Fealty, still another Christianity and Languages. Ideas is the adornment at the moment, although but could be abstracted even further, which may come soon enough. At the moment, the adornment Ideas, currently in color gray, is the region where notes on Leadership and Fealty are “stuck.” I’ve created containers for Beowulf and Marie at the moment and will be racking my own reading through Lanval and Beowulf, linking off to ideas and other text snippets as they come to me or are found.

It seems to me that students could also do this, working with their laptops, if they have them, in class and then reorganizing as they evaluate what they learn on their own time, (on laptops or desktops), generating their own systems of classification and application.

Why does Beowulf sail to the aide of his kinsmen? When a student thinks they’ve figured this out, in addition to wondering at the significance, any number of tools can be used to help develop the analysis and make it relevant to the relationship between Lear and Cordelia. The relationship can be a link away or somewhere buried in that notebook in the trunk of the car.

I’m tired of the “we can sell a lot of shit to Colleges and Universities because they really don’t know any better” attitude. Tinderbox sold itself.


Thus made their mourning the men of Geatland,
for their hero’s passing his hearth-companions:
quoth that of all the kings of earth,
of men he was mildest and most beloved,
to his kin the kindest, keenest for praise.

Swa begnornodon Geata leode
hlafordes hryre, heorðgeneatas,
cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyninga
manna mildust ond monðwærust,
leodum liðost ond lofgeornost.

Beowulf ends with a bitter sweet taste. We’ve been through monsters; we’ve watched the Geats rise and sense that they will fall, change, suffer. There’s something about ends here, transitions, a sensibility about passage through time and space. We doubt our abilities and are anxious about having to face the world without the aide of the elves. It could be argued that we capture the proportions of time through story in this way and objectify the feel of transitions. Existentially, change itself “passes” because we mark it as a point. We don’t really experience extended periods of change. We celebrate moments, such as the death of a great leader, and then wake up to a new day and move into life as usual. Alternatively, we often measure periods of change by the moments that close them. A couple looks forward, for example, to the birth of their child.

There is a mental or cognitive topography to this mediation. One style of ethic may prioritize change, another may see to the clocking of moments in between as a way of managing or mediating well being. We can map the seasons as a way of measuring ourselves. Winter is a time of sleep or death or pause, Spring is an awakening, signaling the approach of a new Beowulf or Aragorn, who will rise and lead us to safety. Persistent anxiety disrupts the mental topography of the seasons. Constancy is ahistorical. “This never ends” means “this never began.”

Macbeth in Red Tartan

Katherine Nowakowski on CT Repertory’s Macbeth:

The first appearance of Macbeth himself in Act 1, Scene 3 as he and Banquo are returning from their recent battle, our “hero” dons a red colored tartan. Banquo pales in comparison in his earthy browns. Lady Macbeth’s first appearance is even more impressive. Her brilliant blood red dress is simple in style, but slaps you in the face with impact. With huge bell sleeves and a trail behind her about two feet she appears to be dripping wet with blood as she reads the letter from her husband. Moving into Act III, as Macbeth and his Lady appear as King and Queen, both are carrying even more layers representing this color of extreme passion. Our lady now wears the same red tartan as her husband’s over her drippy dress while her King now wears an exquisite regal bloody red robe over his. The only time these two do not appear wearing red is the scene when Duncan’s dead body is found. Both Macbeth and his Lady have changed their garments to hide the bloody evidence. They both almost look like they’re in disquise. It’s easy to lose them among the chaos without their trademark color.

Susan Gibb on 3-D thinking:

I’m thinking that the multilayers of story within a hyperfiction piece lend themselves easily to 3-D, (I’m not talking 3-D animation here, but rather still on the storyboard layout and the eventual finished piece) and I can imagine it as similar to a universe where the objects (textboxes, or images, sounds, etc) are self-contained within an object, let’s say a cube–connected to appropriate other cubes that follow a story line–that can be clicked on, would come forward and open up to be read/viewed/enjoyed. Another click would send it back into the background so that another choice can be made.

Evaluation Issues

I’m currently writing up and editing standards of evaluation for the Shakespeare course. As I think about symmetry in the lines and how observing and analyzing the plays at this level provides insight into performance, I’m reminded of the importance of the ability to read beyond the text, especially for readers so immersed in their present. So many things are key–intoning diction, playing with the metrics, imagining gesture and image, and considering the consequence of characters in their context.

How would I speak to some gray shade parked in my chair? What if the sun went dark or the night kept spinning over where the sun once shined?

Lear where are you when I need you.

Macbeth and Plot

Francena tells me that some of the students today addressed Macbeth’s plot. This could be interesting. We could deal with plot at several levels–the typical events of a tragedy which call for the fall of a great man, a formula which lays down the pearls of the “plot line.” Tragedy gives us a sense of what “should” happen (1.1 is already significant in this regard). Although, by doing so, it might set a tension between what should happen versus what we wish would not happen. Or we could deal with significant events as they arise as we read. For example, we meet the witches in Act 1 and Duncan getting the story of Macbeth’s military accomplishments just after in scene 2. Which of these scenes is more important in terms of plot? And why should we care? Does the news provided Duncan “propel” MacBeth into his meeting with the witches? Does Scene 2 accomplish something else?

For the Shakespeare Students

Those fine folks coming to the weblog looking for notes on Shakespeare will find matter here soon. And I want to thank Professor Dwyer for taking time away from her own schedule to help get people started. Shakespeare isn’t easy to get into on such short notice and so she deserves lots of thank yous. I think she has plans to open up Macbeth on Wednesday, which is a fine idea.

One of the first things you want to do when coming here is to understand that the link above is not a departure to the BBC for laughs. There’s a reason for it. It’s a first lesson in context, which partly has to with your understanding of what Shakespeare himself knew. Between ours and Shakespeare’s time is vast amount of time and historical happening.

More soon to come, as soon as I get out of this painkiller cloud.

Joseph Conrad

I don’t know how long this has been up but a hyper-concordance to Joseph Conrad and many other writers can be found here. If you’re unfamiliar with such a thing, the concordance is a searchable text. I typed in the word “unreal” in the query field for Heart of Darkness to nice results. Type in “Kurtz” or “hollow” and see what happens.

More on Unity

In the Winter 2004 Explicator, Tenrence Bowers writes

Similarly, Heart of Darkness invites us to contemplate the moral
structure of the world created by European imperialism. First, we
quickly perceive that world to be a moral sham. European imperialism is
supposed to bring technology, the rule of law, enlightened forms of
government, and other fruits of Western civilization to Africa, but as
the products of Western know-how that Marlow finds in Africa
indicate–the “vast artificial hole” that has no purpose, the “broken”
drainage–pipes, the overturned railway-truck without a railway, the
sunken steamboat-the imperial project has simply created a junkyard
while robbing Africa of its riches. As Marlow says in reference to
Roman imperialism, but which, we learn, also applies to European
imperialism, “it was just robbery […] on a great scale […]” (9).


How deep does the concept of unity go in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Since Marlow tells a story of crossing, of penetration, then he also tells a story of bordered spatial conditions as movement from place to place, distinct space to distinct space, time to time. Even the text has borders

The land is made to speak. To whisper, to entice. Is this the sublime? “‘This one,’” Marlow says, “‘was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness.’” All maps have borders, as does experience, edges that give contour to perceived space. But borders also have to be crossed, the expansive space they mark off penetrated. Recall that earlier the narrator has already indicated that Marlow’s stories are “inconclusive” (1961), their edges difficult to determine.

The spaces, of course, can be conceived as concepts: light and dark, old and new, youth and age, forest and city.

Marlow maps his experiences into the heart of darkness and with Kurtz with story, inviting these unified images as aspects of passage. But can light and dark also be seen in terms of a continuum, like time or duration or change, in the story? One, in other words, doesn’t work well without the other in Heart of Darkness. Light is dependent on darkness, just as change is required to mark the passage of time.

If I saw the world as the same always, as a seamless set of experiences (which is impossible), then could I learn anything or grow as a human being, that is acquire a sense of personal history and future projection: Blake’s bard? This may be too much of a rhetorical question. But the notion recalls what was brought up in class: a multidimensional space whose x axis describes the present geographical moment, the y axis telling the story of change over time. A z axis would simply result from tilting the space such that any time or any cooresponding point on the graph could be presented either as time or as space or both: i.e., spime. Rather than present the past as a circle, the present as another, each overlapping, the axis graph allows for links to specific events in time and compared with others.

Somewhere lower on the y axis live the ancient Romans who rode the Thames just as modern sailors do. The new Romans can be pointed to a little higher, space intersecting with time. With a slight tilt, one replaces the space of the other. Historical unification.