30 June 2011

Literary Elitists: Updated

Recently I had a friend ask me to write an article about "reading and writing". This hugely vague and broad topic in mind, I scoured past blog posts for something I might be able to revise into something worth reading. I came across a post I wrote in April of 2009 and sent it off, thinking that if the bare bones of what I wrote two years ago was worth reading then I'd take the time to update it.

Apparently it was really well worth my time as about a day and a half later I had an email from Orson Scott Card in my inbox asking if he could reference my post in a few places. Being the slightly obsessive person I am, I said yes - and then desperately wished that my revised version was available, because it's better, not written out of frustration, and includes two more years' experience.

So I am including that version here. You will also be able to find this version on author Kristen Randle's Website.

A few years ago as an undergrad I took a literature class that very nearly sucked all the life out of me. The class included a plethora of post-modern literature. It meant a semester with authors like Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison - authors that other people (re: not me) found genius because of their innovative writing techniques and mystical storytelling. It also included spending a huge amount of time with a professor who, while certainly very qualified in her field, drove me absolutely batty with her elitist views on literature. The books that I was even tempted to enjoy were so destroyed by class discussion that I started a countdown to the end of class.

Now, for you to appreciate any of this, you must understand that my favorite thing in the entire world to do is to talk about what I’m reading. As a student I was an overactive participant in every class discussion (including this professor’s.) As a teacher in my own class, my primary method of inspiring life-long reading in my students revolves around discussion. I still believe that talking about books is a fun and productive way for people to enter into the world conversation. For a teacher to out-discuss a book to me takes a huge amount of work. Somehow, by her focusing more on commentaries on the book rather than the book itself, I managed to leave her class every day with the mad desire to never touch another book again.

But then, at the end of the semester, we were assigned the book Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones. It was one of those “kindred spirit” reads that so resonated with me that I simply could not bring myself to write what I had been writing all term to please my professor. Before, I had played the game and written exactly what I knew she would like. It was the kind of high brow writing I could do well, but didn’t enjoy. This time, this one last time, I wanted to write for myself just as I had read for myself. So I presented a plan to my professor. I reminded her that I had done spectacularly on all her other assignments and suggested that perhaps I could try a different style this time? Specifically a personal essay instead? My professor nodded, said that would be a fine idea, and I tripped off home to write.

I wrote about how the story of Mr. Pip had resonated so closely with my dearest reading experiences. Those times when you read a book that takes you away to the point where, upon returning “home”, you feel as though you’ve left it and aren’t quite sure what to do with yourself. I wrote particularly of my time with Anne of Green Gables, the dearest and most personal of my reading experiences. I wrote about how, like the main character in Pip who had grown obsessed with Great Expectations, I felt closer to Anne than nearly any “real” person. The resulting essay was a fairly sentimental tribute, perhaps, but I meant it. Throughout my college experience I had enjoyed analyzing the symbolic and historical significance of great works of fiction very much, but this time I wanted to honor it.

Knowing that my professor was often rather forgetful and was likely to need some reminding that she had, in fact, approved my experiment, I included a cover page to my essay. I thanked her for assigning the book and let her know how much I enjoyed it. Then, feeling more than a little cheeky and daring and fed-up after a long semester, I included the following quote:

The elitists are such boneheads they think literature exists to be admired. Wrong. Literature exists to create memories so true and important that we allow them to become part of ourselves, shaping our future actions because we remember that once someone we admired did this, and someone we hated and feared did that.

Literature matters only to the degree that it shapes and changes human behavior by making the audience wish to be better because they read it.

It becomes importantly bad only to the degree that it entices the audience to revel in actions and memories that debase the culture that embraces it.

Next to that, questions of how one literary work influences other literary works, or how the manner of writing measures up to the tastes of some elite group are so trivial that you marvel that someone who went to college could ever think they mattered more.

(Orson Scott Card, July 29, 2007, “Uncle Orson Reviews Everything”)

This was, admittedly, a very foolish and risky thing to do. My professor, after all, was a bonehead literary elitist. But given the subject matter of Mr. Pip I figured that, in spite of the jab, she had to be fair enough to see that the quote was actually supporting the lesson taught by the book she’d assigned me to read. If she had a soul at all - she had to see reason, right?


On the last day of class when my portfolio was returned, I pulled out my essay to see that it didn’t appear to even have been touched. There was no crease by the staple, at least. Only the cover page had any response to it. Next to the quote by Orson Scott Card was written, “Not true. This is a very silly remark. See if you can figure out why?”

I left class that day absolutely fuming. Even now, two years later and well out of this woman’s grasp, I still get frustrated thinking about it. I hated her for being such an elitist that she’d forgotten why people should read to begin with.

If you ask people why they read, I would imagine that very few people would tell you that they enjoy reading because they enjoy high faluting literary commentaries. That may be part of the reason. This essay, after all, is a commentary on literature. I don’t think literary analysis is bad at all - I think it’s what helps to keep a book alive and relevant. But if you talk to most readers about their favorite books, the analysis will only matter to them if they have connected to the book individually as well. If that book, as Card says, “shapes and changes human behavior by making the audience wish to be better because they read it.”

I’ve realized this even more now that I’m on the other side as a teacher myself. For the past two years I have been the one to present students with books they will be forced to read and then graded on. I’ve fought to make sure that I find books and plays that I love and have tried to pass that on to my students. Because I teach a combined English and History class, I also try to find books that will make particular connections that can link to their immediate reality. Studying To Kill a Mockingbird and Asian philosophy together, for example, provides a nice discussion on how to live your life in a way that is at peace with difficult decisions. It is rewarding to have class discussions where students do what the state educational system wants them to do - demonstrate understanding of important themes and symbols in literature. But the greatest compliment I receive as a teacher is something that could never be measured - it’s when I hear a student say they love a book I’ve assigned them to read. To hear a class refer to Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Reuven Malter (The Chosen), Jonas (The Giver) or Napoleon (Animal Farm) as examples of people they do or don’t want to be like. And these are all people (and a pig) who never technically walked the earth.

I remember being in second grade and coming to class every day with a pile of books as tall as I could carry. I would read one chapter from the book on the top of the pile and then put that book on the bottom and take the next one down and so on to maximize the number of books I could read at a time. I remember falling asleep with my mother’s copy of Anne of Green Gables when I was young, flipping through the pages long before I could read the words on them, aching to be old enough to read it. I remember getting my drivers license and going to the library for my first drive alone. I remember staying up until way past my bedtime reading books by flashlight. I remember the first time I read Jane Eyre. I remember finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and immediately starting the book again because I wasn’t ready to say good-bye yet. The first piece of furniture I ever bought for myself was - what else? - a bookshelf. I remember packing my emergency kit when I was young and agonizing over which book I loved most to save if I had no time to save them all.

That is why we read, isn’t it? Because we want to fall in love. Because stories matter. They take us away, they bring us back, they touch our souls and enlighten our minds. At their best, stories inspire us to be better than we could have been on our own steam.

I look across my bedroom and see Mr. Pip on one of my bookshelves now, situated in alphabetical order between The Turn of the Screw and Ella Enchanted, two completely different works of fiction. One I read to work out my brain and for the pleasure of words perfectly formed, one I read for the pleasure of a simple story well told. I wonder where Mr. Pip sits on the shelves of the office of this old professor of mine. I wonder - hope, really - that she has a book that she reads every year just because she wouldn’t feel complete if she didn’t. I hope, too, that she read a book this year not as a teacher preparing for students but as a human being that needs to be connected to other human beings - even if they are fictional.

27 June 2011

The Paradox of Self Reliance

I taught a lesson in church last week on the principles of self reliance. It was a lesson I spent the better part of the week preparing for because I was slightly afraid that I'd get on too big a soap box and offend everyone in the room. See, self reliance is one of my pet topics. And my ward, being where it is, consists primarily of people still living with their mommies. In fact, I think I'm one of the great minority in that I am 100% financially independent from my parents, a college grad, and have a career instead of a "job". I was afraid that, being me, I'd go off on a tangent that would throw off the spiritual groove. So I prepped extra.

And I found some things about self reliance this week that I hadn't quite put into words before that I think are pretty glorious. Let me share:

One of the biggest reasons people say self reliance is important in lessons like that one is that when you are self reliant you have more time to develop spiritually because you are not so worried about temporal things. There is some definite validity to this. When you're hungry on a regular basis or stressed about finding a job, or not sure where you're going to sleep for the night, there's not much time (I'm assuming - I've never been in a position like that before), for studying gospel principles. Or at least not much time. And that's fine. President McKay and President Grant have both spoken on that idea more than once. It's why the LDS church has a welfare program structured the way that it is.

But this idea doesn't quite account for the great Christlike demonstrations of charity you hear about from those who live in third world countries or in poverty. Study of the gospel by sitting down with the bible in your hands is not the only way to learn to follow Christ, after all. What I found so interesting as I studied the reasons why self reliance is so important is because of its relationship to agency.

When a fully capable individual decides not to take care of himself or herself temporally or spiritually, they are handing their agency over to someone or something else. They are choosing not to choose - which is a passive slap in the face to the principles of agency that Latter Day Saints believe were bought with a huge price. When a person chooses to act for themselves, however, they grow in more than one way. They grow in confidence and ability, but they also gain more appreciation for how much they really do rely on the Lord in all things. The more self reliant you are, the more you realize how reliant you are - and the less self reliant you are the more you attach yourself to sources that will crush your freedom rather than preserve it.

25 June 2011

The Problem with Ariel

My grandparents have a rock outside their house that is slightly slanted. When I was about two feet tall it seemed enormous and exactly perfect for playing Ariel on. You know the part. The end of the "Part of Your World" reprise with the water splashing up at just the right time for dramatic emphasis. I'd crawl up there and pretend that I was by the ocean and not the road and getting sprayed in the face with water and not occasional gas fumes.

As I grew older and the rock grew smaller, my love of Ariel waned a bit. She seemed selfish instead of admirable (and it was easy to get distracted by her gravity defying 80s hair.) Her catch phrase of "I WANT MORE!" made me want to smack her upside the head. "You have gadgets and gizmos and whosits and whatsits and thingamabobs and you want more?!" What kind of role model is that for a girl?

But I've started to re-examine Ariel recently. You can certainly look at her story as being somewhat selfish and obnoxiously teenaged where a father doesn't stand up to his daughter and instead indulges her whims, but this year I've gained new appreciation for what happens when parents actually hold their children back from progressing and achieving and becoming the best version of themselves that they can.

For instance, I've worked with students who have been pulled out of normal classes because their parents are afraid they are spending too much time out of home. I've had students pulled out of classes because they are too stressed. I've had students who are very talented in certain areas express frustration when their parents don't understand the talent they possess, and, as a result, criticize their hard work.

Now, I'm not a parent. I'm very well aware of this. I also recognize that I am not an insider to either families of my students and am not the best qualified to make decisions for them. So I'm going to go back to Ariel. If you look at Ariel another way, she's not wanting more for the sake of wanting more - what she wants is experience. She wants the chance to try something new. Her father's insistence on keeping her where she is and holding her back in her case only magnifies the problem and forces her into the rebellion he was hoping to prevent. She goes to drastic measures (re: selling her voice to Ursula) to get what she wants and nearly ruins herself as a result. Fortunately, it turns out well for her in the end, but the real application of this story is that parents who shelter their children run the risk of creating exactly what they try to avoid: rebellion.

One thing Ken Robinson discusses in his book Out of Our Minds is that one of the quickest ways to stifle creativity and progress out of people is to force them or encourage them to avoid something they are passionate about. He argues that if a person is interested in something, they are much more likely to do a better job with what they are given, even if it is hard. This is all fine and great on electronic or physical paper. Yay for people pursuing their dreams! But what if said person's dream is to become the world's greatest mass murderer? What do you do then? Obviously that's a bit of an extreme example - so what about something smaller and less destructive: what if this person's dream is to travel the world as a nomad selling homemade trinkets to pay the way and to get to know the cultures of the world by experience instead of by book? What is a parent to do then?

Well. . . I'm not a parent. I don't know. But I do know that God values agency so much that He was willing to let us fail and take chances and make fools of ourselves. I also remember a conversation I had with my mother once about a family friend whose child had struggled for many years but had recently pulled her life back together. Our family friend had a conversation once when her daughter was young where a well meaning person had told her that she would struggle with her daughter because she was so stubborn. Our very wise family friend responded correctly that she couldn't control her daughter's agency and wouldn't try. What she would do is teach correct principles and know that, because the principles are true, they would win out in the end. And she was right.

Moral of the story?: We should have a little more faith in our children and in our faith. Also, Ariel was on to something.

24 June 2011

Today. . .

I want to be here:

Or here:

Or here. . .

(Last two photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Or with this beautiful girl. . .

(Who turns twelve today, by the way.)

But instead I am here. . .

(The "Bat Cave")

Up to my ears in . . .

So that I can do this. . .

(Last three photos from Wikimedia Commons)

In the fall.

It's a really good thing I love my job.

17 June 2011

"Mindless" Entertainment

Being the theater lover that I am, I look forward to the Tonys every year. I love the opportunity to watch snippets of shows that I rarely get to see and enjoy the chance to scope out new musicals and audition songs.

This year, though, I didn't tune in. Partly because there weren't any shows that I was in any way interested in, and partly because - liberal in the arts as I can be - I didn't really have much of a desire to watch The Book of Mormon musical writers crow over what they've done. It felt like a little much. I have a hard time stomaching theater of any kind that, as was put so well by John Mark Reynolds of the Post, debases or mocks an already debased or mocked group. Artistically it's just a cheap laugh; religiously it makes me sick.

The reaction to this musical has interested me on both sides. Predictably, people outside of my faith call the musical funny or use this as an opportunity to bring up more reasons why my church is hard to understand. Inside the faith there are generally two responses: scripture quoting about the last days and a symbolic "turn up the nose", or excuse the musical as "mindless" entertainment and move on with life.

For many people, either response is good enough. The leaders of the church have asked us not to engage in debates but to kindly abstain from patronizing the musical and to move on with life. Recently, in fact, the church has launched a kind of advertising blitz on the city of New York with their "I'm a Mormon" campaign - commercials designed to introduce you to the everyday Mormon involved in many different things. It's a nice, user friendly way of getting rid of some stereotypes.

When I start getting a bit frustrated, though, is when those who patronize the arts or produce it (or claim to) in our church do nothing but bash the corruption in Broadway/Hollywood/Literature or turn away from it but do nothing to fill the void. It's all fine and great to say that Hollywood is a mess of political, sexual, provocative trash, but the fact of the matter is: they have better writers and better producers than we do, so we can't complain. Same with Broadway. Same with literature. Until members of the church can fill the void with something worth seeing/reading/listening to, we can't sit back and whine about the trash and expect it to suddenly go away. From where I stand, right now we are mostly combating one form of "mindless" entertainment with another form of "mindless" entertainment.

Think about it: what do members of the church really have that speaks to those outside of the group? More specifically, out of the Utah Valley group. Single's Ward is, perhaps, the best known LDS comedy and likely isn't nearly as entertaining to those outside of the culture of a Utah Valley Single's Ward. The best known drama may be The Other Side of Heaven, which wasn't even produced/primarily acted in by members of the church - it was Disney. And if Saturday's Warrior is the best musical we have to offer . . . well. . . Even the music of the church - while the Tabernacle Choir is certainly a notable exception to this rule, LDS pop music is generally quite sentimental. (I should add that I would definitely also make Orson Scott Card an exceptions to this rule - Ender's Game, for example, is both broad in audience and smart, unlike Stephanie Meyer who manages one for two - and not the better one of the two.)

Maybe I'm just a snob. But where are the LDS artists capable of writing something as powerful as The King's Speech? Or writing books as powerful as To Kill a Mockingbird? Or music as moving as The Rite of Spring? We complain about the bad culture of the world - but the most beautiful, revered, and touching forms of art that reach people are ALSO produced outside of the church. Does it have to be this way?

My point is this: there is no such thing as "mindless entertainment". Whether we are watching and interacting with the arts actively or not, they are changing the make up of who we are by influencing the culture to which we relate. If we as members of the church intend to help promote goodness in the arts, we have some re-examination to do. We must build and refine our culture beyond the trite, vinyl lettered world we love. We need to look into expanding and refining our own culture so that we are capable of influencing others better. (I have many ideas on this, most of which probably should not be written about until I've got them organized. For now, though, read Douglas Callister's "Your Refined Heavenly Home", a speech given at BYU in 2006. It's completely genius.)

I'll end with two thoughts. The first is this: I wish that members of the church could find a way to write about our faith the way Chaim Potok writes about Judaism. His books are deeply religious while still being very universal.

My second is this: it is not enough for us to stand by and watch the arts of the world be corrupted. Music, dance, theater and literature are and always have been powerful tools in touching the lives of people. If we are to make a difference instead of just making a fuss, we need to remember the words of Handel who stated after the first performance of the Messiah, "My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wish to make them better." Them, in this case, I believe - can apply to the individual, and to the art form itself.

08 June 2011

Wait. . . I thought you were a cooking show . . .

I listen to the news when I get ready in the morning. I like having at least a general idea of what's going on in the world and like to get different views on the world that sometimes the Deseret News doesn't quite provide in the middle of its Osmond obsessed super right-wing conservatism. This means a daily dose of the Today Show, which is wonderful for the most part - or, at the very least, something to listen to.

During the school year I never hear more than the first half hour before I'm off to work, but now that I'm working more in the afternoon than the morning I occasionally hear some of the more petty or strange lifestyle reports. Today, for example, boasted a vest with a lining like a fishing vest in which your father could store his iPad, a thing of Tic Tacs (people still eat those?) and other assorted oddities.

It wasn't until after the news that things got particularly disturbing.

I've never watched Rachel Ray before and I've never really had much of a desire to. I know she is primarily meant to be a cooking show, but I've never seen her actually cooking on her show - every time I flip past it she's got some kind of talk show going, which is odd, but what do I know? I don't watch talk/cooking shows.

Until this morning when I was in the middle of doing my hair and didn't take the time to change the channel. Her show featured a section today on sexual compatibility. From what I heard, the show had taken two people who had been dating for two months but had not yet had sex and gave them a sexual compatibility quiz to determine whether or not they were sexually compatible. Fortunately (?) the maker/distributor of this quiz determined that they were and, yay for standardized testing, they were encouraged to continue their relationship.

Now, to the credit of the young woman in this couple, she said more than once that she did not intend to sleep with her boyfriend until they were 100% sure they were "ready". They also said they were glad they took the quiz because it helped them see how much they really did need to talk with each other about sex first, which is also good. But Rachel and her fellow commentator (I believe the person who gave the quiz?) seemed to think that the waiting thing was a bit insane, suggesting that the most important aspect of a relationship is sexual compatibility and promoting the idea that all this can be determined by a quiz.

I am fully supportive of the idea of couples talking openly about their physical relationship, particularly when their relationship is more serious. A physical relationship is an important part of a full relationship and, lest either party wonder about whether or not the other person is happy, important to be open about.

What I do take umbrage with is the idea that a couple should base the future of their entire relationship off of sexual compatibility, whether it's determined by a quiz or not. This, I think, is a symptom of what Ken Robinson (and holistic medicine) calls in his book Out of Our Minds the "septic focus". A "septic focus" is when a problem is examined in isolation from its context. My suspicion is that many couples who are frustrated (sexually or otherwise) in a relationship are happy to find a scape-goat for the real problems at hand. My other suspicion is that couples who complain of not being "sexually compatible" with one another are almost always thinking of themselves before their partners - not just physically, but in other ways as well.

Now, this is not to say that I'm coming at this problem with a world of personal experience (obviously.) This is also not to say that physical attraction isn't important (because it totally is.) What it is trying to say is that standardized tests are crap at predicting job aptitude or emotional aptitude or sexual compatibility, and that there are no shortcuts to any place worth going, and that people really should just TALK MORE.

05 June 2011

Changing Education Paradigms

Over the summer, as mentioned before, I am mad at work taking over the world. Part of this plan involves working on how to better encourage students to get out of the box. The world is changing at a rate that it never has before - the last ten years have been particularly fast paced, and many of the systems that worked for many years are now either irrelevant or on their way there. Education in particular is caught in this trap.

The modern system of education is primarily designed on the factory model created at the turn of the 20th Century. With so many children in cities like New York in need of education, it was a practical choice for the time. Now, though, the system of factory-like education becomes a crippling force for creativity because everything is taught to standardized tests and imposed state (soon to be national) standards of what it means to be "educated". The system does not encourage students to think outside the box and there is rarely a mechanism for them to do so, and teachers who think outside the box have little motivation or reward. (And don't even get me started on the teachers union.)

This in mind, I've recently picked up the book Out of Our Minds by Ken Robinson. I'm sure there will be many essays in the making as I read more of the book, but for now, feast your eyes on this RSA Animate called "Changing Education Paradigms" that gives you a small piece of the informational pie Robinson has to offer. I find his points very interesting and thought provoking.

NOTE: The first clip has lots of cool animation and is nice and short but mostly discusses the problems without posing solutions. You can find the solutions he suggests in the book, or by watching the full version of the original speech.

03 June 2011

. . . you want me to do what?

I realized in the last few years that of all the many gifts and talents I have, dating is not one of them. I don't enjoy it. I never did. I find it embarrassing and inconvenient and frustrating to spend so much time with people I'm not interested in.

(Yes, I know. This is the part where you want to tell me that you just have to put time into it and work a little harder and some people aren't interesting right off the bat and to be patient and that life isn't always convenient and I will smile and nod and say, "Yes, I know. I'm imperfect. I just said about five sentences ago that I'm not good at this. If I were, this post would likely be irrelevant.")

But let's be serious for a moment here - I want the chance to be fair to myself. Because being a single adult outside of college is not nearly so easy as it is in college, and it's not a piece of cake for everyone in school either. Suddenly I don't just have a job, I have a career. I have responsibilities. And I have to have them - I can't sit around twiddling my thumbs, waiting for my life to start. My life has started, it just doesn't include any significant other in it. And you know what? I like my life. I love it, actually. I don't regret for a second the way things have turned out for me.

Not that this means I've given up on the idea of meeting some man to sweep me off my feet. I'm not in the least opposed to marriage. I just recognize - unlike some people around me - that if dating was complicated before, it's much more complicated for me now. As a student dating a student, neither person is tied down to a particular path. As a non student, my life is bound by commitments and obligations. Suddenly there are things in my life that make some aspects of dating not just inconvenient but prohibitive and a bit of a waste of time.

Ok, you say. So what? Why are you telling me this?

I'm telling you this because tomorrow I will have the "pleasure" of driving an hour to meet someone I'm being set up with. This individual will also drive close to an hour from the other direction. And were it not for the extreme love and respect I have for the person who has set me up on this experience, I would laugh and say "NO WAY" and have a perfectly good blind date free Saturday.

I suppose this is the place where I should be gracious and kind and stop whining (which I should) and acknowledge the fact that even if this date were across the street I would probably not want to go (which I wouldn't) and that I should have a better attitude about all this (which is definitely true.) I suppose this is also the place where I should acknowledge, again, that this is something I should put more optimistic effort in and not be so picky and to stop hoping that life will convenience itself in my direction.

But then, this is also the place where I should be fair to myself and look back to last year when I was trying desperately to get OUT of Utah for the sake of being in a better single's scene, and remember that not only did the Lord direct me NOT to do that, but also directed me to move to a decently small area away from most people my age and in my situation in life; at which point I told the Lord that if any of this was ever going to work out I was going to need a little bit of help, because it just does. not. make. sense.

But that may have to wait until tomorrow when I've cooled down after spending $10 on gas and two or three hours of my life on something frustrating and put it all behind me.