Squirming, reading Stoner

John WilliamsIt snowed enough to cancel school today. In lieu of teaching, I spent the day reading Stoner, a novel about a lifer teacher, from cover to cover. John Williams’s 1965 book is scary close.

So close that I think I learned something about myself. I’ve often wondered why I had came so close to pursuing English through grad school before deciding instead to become a lawyer. Certainly, close to half of my college credit hours were in English. Looking back on it, though, I had been fairly inarticulate in class discussions, and sometimes I had loved books that I later realized I had hardly understood.

So why have I been rereading my college books for the past few years? Why have I thought I might have pursued graduate studies in English?

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher. . . .”

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” (Page 20)

I didn’t have a Professor Sloane who understood that my inarticulateness was a matter of love, not did I have a Bill Knight, at least back then, who understood that my never wanting to leave college may have had some bearing on my eventual profession. (Bill also introduced me to this wonderful novel, quoting one of the above lines.) No one had described to me the possibility of having, as the narrator puts it, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words” (page 98).

(I can’t really blame my college’s English department. I did have one of my professors pick me out of his giant English lit survey to take to lunch one day freshman year. I remember his pleasant patter at the University Cafeteria, but I never remembered anything he said. Like Stoner with his professor and, later, Stoner’s students with theirs, I must have been staring at my hands for most of the meal.)

But the novel’s scary closeness isn’t just from Stoner’s profession. Stoner has my view of learning, my view of the ideal college – indeed, my view of the ideal:

“Stoner, here, I imagine, sees [the university] as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get to it someday. And when you do— when you do—” (page 29)

Stoner’s buddy Dave Masters then settles in on William Stoner himself:

“ . . . you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. . . . You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong” (page 31).

Is it necessary that I have my faults thrown in my face like this? My lack of ambition, followed by my frustration over my lack of influence in an organization? My willingness to concede in battles I think are rooted in people’s insecurities, but my stubborn refusal to back down when one of my core principles is threatened? My desire (witness my political science writings) to change the world?

Stoner spends the novel, which serves as Stoner’s cradle-to-grave biography, reconciling his quixotic tendencies with Masters’s message: it doesn’t matter in the long run. The reconciliation is sad and satisfying. The novel also has something to do with hard work, as Williams is quoted as saying in the current edition’s introduction. Whether he’s 24, 34, 44, 54, or 64, Stoner always seems to be grading papers and preparing lectures.

The reconciliation and hard work are not enough for me to live by, however. Even as a confirmed idealist, I wouldn’t mention this except that Williams gets more strident about his take on life the older Stoner gets. Sometimes, for instance, Stoner, Stoner’s lover, and the third-person narrator all hammer home the same viewpoints in much the same way. In fact, Stoner’s lover always sounds like Stoner. The two of them spend much of their relationship repeating each other’s reactions and realizations, thereby affirming each other’s feelings they seem to experience and life lessons they seem to learn at the same moments.

Though, except for the stridency of the themes’ treatment in the second half of the novel, the book’s right real. It feels like a cross between Thomas Wolfe’s earnest and autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel and James Salter’s realistic and conjugal Light Years. All three novels take in great swaths of the life of a misfit idealist (well, Light Years’s Viri Berland is at least an innocent of sorts), more content to show the outcome of certain personalities over time than to hew to a tight narrative. Not that Williams spares a single word. In that regard, he’s a lot more like Salter and Raymond Chandler than like Thomas Wolfe. And as far as turning a phrase just enough to improve on the English language, well, think of Salter again.

And think of Cervantes. Both Stoner and Don Quixote end with long death scenes in which the books’ namesakes discover who they really are beneath their strident idealism. Is this also really necessary?

Photo of John Williams.

Riposte 5 (class)

“I believe my dear sir, that a class is the greatest drawback in the world. You must do everything which the class does and nothing else.”

– John Randolph of Roanoke, while at Columbia University, to his stepfather St. George Tucker in 1788 (from David Johnson’s John Randolph of Roanoke, pages 21 – 22)

“[Woodrow] Wilson, though an excellent teacher, was not a very good student, in the sense that he had no real knack for learning from other people. ‘Everything of progress comes from one’s private reading,’ he said. He stopped attending class [at Johns Hopkins] and arranged to complete his [Ph. D. there] by studying on his own.”

– Jill Lepore’s book review in this week’s New Yorker.

Creating taste

The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.

So ends Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade” (from Mystery and Manners (1970), her posthumous essay collection). Allan Bloom starts his volume Shakespeare’s Politics (1964) where O’Connor leaves off:

The most striking fact about contemporary university students is that there is no longer any canon of books which forms their taste and their imagination.

Emotional narratives

A lyric poem progresses, but how? The concept of emotional narratives has helped my students enjoy poems, recite poems, write poems, and write about poems.

Our ninth-grade curriculum reinforces the stages of narrative: exposition, initiating event, rising action, etc. My students get that. And plot progression is a nice, concrete set of stairs for students to climb to something more abstract, or at least more subtle. Lyric poems feel like they move, but the shifts often involve tone instead of time or place.

Check out “Lesson Plan: The Tone Map” starting on page 20 of this year’s Poetry Out Loud teacher’s guide. The referenced CD is free, but you don’t need it to learn the lesson yourself.

Once you get through “Jenny Kissed Me,” try your new skills on another lyric poem in which, roughly speaking, nothing happens. Maybe keep it seasonal: here’s my favorite snow poem — Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.”


On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.

Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.

Continue reading

The right to call someplace home

A federal trial court judge’s clerk usually handles the prisoner petitions.  When I clerked, I would read the petitions, research them, and write an order for my judge to sign deciding the case.  Most of the research was in constitutional law because prison administrators have a lot of leeway in running their prisons with only their prisoners’ constitutional rights circumscribing their policies.

One day my judge refused to sign one of my drafts.  The inmate in question had petitioned the court for damages after debris had allegedly hit him in the head and injured him on a work site.  The prison administration was at fault, he said, because it hadn’t issued him a hard hat.  My order would have permitted the case to proceed to a hearing.

My judge smiled. “There’s no constitutional right to a hard hat,” he said.

One of my students earlier this month came up with a new inalienable right.  When I asked the class what rights he would add to (or specifically enumerate in) the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, he included “the right to call someplace home.”

Consider the virtues of a right to call someplace home.  It’s vague, like due process or equal protection.  Everyone can pay it lip service.  A faction could read it as requiring the government to find housing for everyone.  Another faction could hold “English only” legislation unconstitutional since it infringes on a penumbral right to speak only the language of an immigrant’s homeland.  Others could weaken it, or perhaps use it in a way my student may not have intended, by discovering in it only the right to call the United States home, first holding that the government decides what “someplace” is for everyone.  Some may find the right only aspirational: we are a rather nomadic people as well as a melting pot, and perhaps we feel the need for place more acutely for our relative rootlessness.  And some may find it merely tautological.  After all, calling someplace home sounds quintessentially unalienable.

Anyway, it’s a step up from a constitutional amendment delineating the right to a hard hat.

Propriety & usage

An irate parent called the school office this week. In her most recent newsletter, his daughter’s teacher had ended a sentence with a preposition. He told the office he was going to take the matter up with the school board.

The young teacher’s principal confirmed to her that she had erred. The teacher was pretty upset about it, Victoria said.

I was indignant. I asked Victoria to write an email to her teacher friend for her to share with her principal, her school board, and any other inquisiting body this parent and I could imagine. When Victoria wasn’t writing the email to my liking, I took the laptop from her and included this quote from Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

. . . recent commentators – at least since Fowler 1926 – are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety. Fowler terms the idea a ‘cherished superstition.’ And not only do the commentators reject the notion, but actual usage supports their rejection. (763)

Acknowledging her email’s sudden shifts in tone, Victoria explained at the email’s end that I had written its middle portion.

The teacher told Victoria the next day that the email had made her feel a lot better.

Are these the moments I live for? As a former quasi-fundamentalist, I’m pretty sensitive to the bad effects of a rules-oriented approach to spirituality. Maybe someone who equates a mastery of the often-whimsical rules of grammar with propriety pushes my buttons, too.

Webster thinks that Dryden first came up with the no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-clause rule. Dryden described it as a modern rule superior to what had come before – preposition-trailing clauses and sentences stretching from Old English clear through Shakespeare. Dryden’s rule eventually infested three of those popular, powerful, nineteenth century American textbooks. “The topic entered the general consciousness through schoolteachers, and, as we have seen, it persists there still” (764).

What did the teacher’s impropriety signify to the parent? Evidence of moral relativism? A lack of rigor in today’s public education?

This year, I feel the strongest tug ever between good writing instruction and the strictures of public education. The stakeholders – the parents, the administration, the government, the kids, the teachers – all expect certain things, and it is impossible for a teacher to change that. Good teaching is a subversive act, I’ve heard, but can’t we refabricate all of society to make it somewhat less so?

The night after our email, I attended Warren’s back-to-school program. His civics teacher handed us a short introduction, each paragraph of which included a different species of punctuation error. “God,” I thought. “American public education.”

Posted October 3, 2010.


“But pray, sir, why must I not teach the young gentlemen?”

“Because, sir, teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect upon the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority. The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly he loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings. He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater. He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain. Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men? The Dear knows I never have. They are most horribly warped indeed. Yet curiously enough this does not seem to apply to tutors: perhaps it is scarcely possible to lay the prima donna to an audience of one. Fathers, on the other hand -“

— Dialog between Mr. Martin and Stephen Maturin on page 92 of The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian

I’ve logged hundreds of hours over twenty novels (most of them two times over) enjoying your company, Dr. Maturin. It is difficult to accept that, all the while, you have seen me as unfit to associate with grown men. I appear to myself now like one of the bores in the wardroom with whom you are trapped for months on end.

I wasn’t always a schoolteacher, Stephen; is there anything to be said for that? In fact, I held your opinion of schoolteachers for years until I was brought by the lee fifteen minutes into my teaching career.

I made a grammatical error in front of my first class. Some verb I used didn’t agree in number with one of those indefinite pronouns that can go either way; I don’t remember the exact details.

Some smart girl called me on it in front of the whole class, and I thought it was a good time to introduce my teaching philosophy.

“Hey, I’m new to teaching this. I’m going to make some mistakes. I want you to feel free to point them out to me, but I expect you to take it well when I may have to correct your grammar on occasion. In other words, I’m going to model the humility and the excitement about learning that I hope I’ll find in you guys.”

You get the idea, Stephen. I deliberately shed the image of the all-knowing and infallible teacher, and I was up there modeling learning. You probably would have approved.

Anyway, a few kids on that first class of that first day exchanged sneers, and, if I had had more than fifteen minutes’ teaching experience, I’d have known that I was in deep trouble.

For the rest of the year, that class refused to believe me when I taught grammar. They called out objections when I told them that the past participle of “drink” is “drunk.” They looked at me with exaggerated incredulity when I explained that one might end a sentence with a preposition with impunity. They didn’t even believe me when I insisted that “grammar” ends with “ar” and not “er.” Everything I taught in the grammar line was suspect.

During that year, I read an entire book on grammar and scoured two grammar textbooks I happened to have around. I tried to explain to my students that rudimentary English grammar isn’t rocket science. I’ve got a doctorate, admittedly not in English grammar. Kids, I can learn this in a few weeks!

It was no good, Stephen. Kids – especially kids in that unforgiving stage of life known as ninth grade – want infallible teachers.

I finally picked up the signals. The following year, I admitted to no mistakes until Christmas. I learned how to deflect unwanted challenges with a slight smile, with a turn of the lip, or by just moving on. I learned to answer a hard question with, “What do you think?” delivered with a knowing look. I sent kids to the grammar text or the dictionary to answer their own questions. I’m not at the point where I can make up answers to questions I don’t know and then insist on my answers long after some smarty-pants proves me wrong. But I could get there. I could become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous. I could become “horribly warped indeed.” Sure, I could become the pedagogue of the world, Stephen.

But come to think of it, doctor, you never commanded anything except your sick ward and an occasional surgeon’s mate. What do you know about classroom management? You are to consider how you react given the slightest authority – how imperiously you often treat your patients.

Consider Jack, for all love. Jack’s crew doesn’t want him to be just another mate, someone to learn the ropes with them. Despite his never admitting mistakes, Jack almost always commands happy ships with only occasional floggings. It’s lonely at the top, Jack and I can tell you.

Face it, doctor. Infallibility may be part of good classroom management until kids reach the age of understanding, which I now think is sometime after ninth grade.

“He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater.” What a fellow you are, Stephen!

Posted August 2006

My unit assessment

Each summer I organize the new academic year in units.  Until this summer, I did the job in three to five hours.  This summer I have spent weeks at the task.  After learning more about writing instruction at a summer institute, I want to tie most of my ninth-grade English curriculum – literature, grammar, oral expression, and vocabulary – to writing.  I thought I was struggling simply because of this major refocusing.  I don’t think so anymore.

Here’s my problem.  No one really learns writing in units.

Why teach in units?

Do I teach in units because everyone else does it?  Because some parents may freak when they learn that I teach without them?

Do I teach in units because many people, if the thought of teaching without units were to occur to them, would insist on a false dilemma: units or chaos?

Do I teach in units to pretend that something has been mastered?

Do I teach in units to validate my subject?  Do I imply that writing is complicated enough (and therefore important enough) for units?

Units say my subject is too complicated to understand as a whole.  But what puts the pieces back together after we break the writing down into units? A final exam?  Who sews up the patient after the anatomy lesson? The writing is dead; just wheel it away. Leaning parts of a thing is not the same as learning a thing.

Units say you can master a thing and move on to what’s next.  It works pretty well in math, I think.  You can teach one thing at a time in writing, too, but the next thing sheds new light on the first thing and teaches it all over again.  Or it might, without units.

Units say that strategies are good for only one aspect of writing – one genre (if each unit is a genre) or one part of the writing process (if each unit is a writing stage).  Writing breaks down into strategies, but locking the strategies away into parts of some pedagogue’s idea of the writing process keeps students from using the strategies when they need them.  Why, for instance, should I outline before I start writing?  (Why do I have to even think before I write?)  Why can’t I write my first (and perhaps only) outline for just part of an involved revision?

I’ve read books on writing instruction in which the authors describe the struggle they had with deciding where to place certain material in the books.  (“I wanted to put this in the first-draft unit, but it seemed so important to revision . . .”)  Good writing instructors feel that struggle.

Good writing instructors know that writing is recursive, but it’s worse than that, I think.  “Recursive” suggests a nice spiral – maybe a falcon’s widening gyre – to replace the linear writing process usually taught in American primary and secondary schools.  After the end, we go back to the beginning, better informed.

But writing isn’t even that tidy.  In fact, what serious writer follows any deliberate writing process?  Any such center cannot hold.  A different writing sometimes requires a different process.  A good writer experiments, learns from other writers, and lets her writing teach her.

But I believe – maybe for the first time – that writing can be taught.

I’m putting together a writing toolbox modeled, in a way, after Stunk and White’s The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style serves as a textbook, a reference book, and an inspiration.  White arranges the rules and suggestions (the equivalent of my tools) in categories – usage, composition, form, misused words, and style – but there is no suggestion that usage must be mastered before composition, composition before form, etc.  And, within most categories, the book’s rules and suggestions come at the reader in no apparent order.  I think it’s best that way.

I’ll introduce the tools in the order the class writing generally needs them.  I’ll mix up literary terms with stylistic notions and writing strategies.  Some sample tools (all of them lifted from books I’ve read in the past few years): question showers, implied metaphors, great first lines, misplace your modifiers (i.e., replace your modifiers with action), show (don’t tell), detail discovery, sonnets, exploding a moment, snapshots, “thoughtshots,” freewrites, and “golden lines.”

Some of these tools are learned most easily when studying and writing narratives, and some when studying and writing poetry, say.  But I have to be careful: my poetry should inform my research writing.  I don’t want students to use their imagination – and their tools for imaginative expression – for only what we’ve called “creative writing.”  (Research papers aren’t creative writing?  No wonder they’re so awful.)

Students need it broken down.  But if all we do is break it down, we’ll get broken-down writing.

Some of our students’ dislike for writing is natural: writing is, after all, hard work.  Some of their dislike comes from the artificial writing taught at most schools.  Some of it comes from the critical way in which we assess writing.  Some of it comes from writing to a bored, artificial audience (the teacher).  Some of it comes from having teachers who have no interest in, or time for, their own writing: students have no model, no writer in the classroom.  But some of our students’ dislike for writing comes from the way we pretend writing develops.  Some of that pretension – that artificial tidiness – shows up in our course organization – our units.

Right now, at least, I count units as extremities of dead, pedagogic writing.  Do we really have to teach writing in units?

Did your parents raise you in units? Do masters and mentors teach in units?  Did Buddha?  What did Jesus do?