Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Rumpus Poetry Book Club First Impressions

When Stephen hit me with the email suggesting we do a poetry version of the wildly successful Rumpus Book Club, I didn’t know quite how to react. I’m a relatively busy guy, especially now that the semester has kicked back in, and it sounded like a lot of work. But we recruited some great people to do it with us, and here we are.

For the last month, we’ve been talking about Shane Book’s Ceiling of Sticks in the google group we set up for the book club. I say “we” even though I didn’t contribute to the conversation–I just lurked, mostly because I didn’t want to intrude on the club members, and because Shane and I are friends and I didn’t want that to mess with the dynamic of the conversation. (Aside: I didn’t have anything to do with the selection–Camille Dungy suggested the book independently, though I wholeheartedly agreed when she did so.)

It all culminated with the chat last night. All the advisory board was there, along with Stephen and Isaac and Shane and a handful of book club members, and I thought it went really well. Shane tried gamely to keep up with all the questions that were being thrown at him, even though that’s impossible during a chat like this, and the rest of us chimed in with occasional observations and non-sequiturs. As first times go, it went pretty well–not too many technical challenges so far as I could tell, and not too many lags or dead spots in the conversation. We had good questions from perceptive readers and solid answers from a poet who was engaged with them. I’ll post a link when we run the chat later (I assume we’re doing that) and you can get a taste of what I’m talking about.

Next up: Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation, which I haven’t finished reading yet, and then after that, my selection, Jena Osman’s The Network, which is one of the wilder books I’ve ever seen.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Poetic Lives Online

Last week, I made a snarky comparison of Kent Johnson’s theory about the authorship of a Frank O’Hara poem to Andrew Sullivan’s continual questions about who exactly Trig Palin’s mother is. Johnson responded to Tony Towle’s challenges <a href="here, and I have to say that I think my comparison was apt. Johnson’s refutation seems to hinge on the notion that it’s just too large a coincidence for O’Hara to have written that poem in that way with those details, and so there has to be another explanation for it. But we live in a world of coincidence–that’s why we say truth is stranger than fiction, and why people often ascribe actions to the workings of gods–and given the choice between accepting happenstance or an elaborate theory of what might have happened with precious little evidence to even suggest it, I’ll take the former every time.

Remember when issue 2 of We Are Champion and there was a bit of a dust-up over its overwhelming maleness? We Are Champion is talking about it with a couple of people who were critical about the issue, Elisa Gabbert and Amy King. <a href="Here’s Gabbert’s interview, and Here’s King’s.

An interview with Montgomery Maxton at Almost Dorothy.

I’m glad to see that more poetry publishers are going ahead into the e-book business, even if the technical issues surrounding the faithfulness of line breaks on different sized screens hasn’t been fully worked out yet. I think the pressure to solve the problem will come from demand for the books in those formats.

Should this be called The Time Traveler’s Book Award?

August 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Teaching and Tech

Everyone who knows me knows I’m not afraid of tech, and yet I don’t use it much in my classroom. No clickers, few Powerpoint presentations, and I still grade by marking comments on papers (though I tried electronic comments for a couple of years and may go back to it). I’m thinking about this because classes start in a week (and so I have to find some way to delay working on my syllabi) and because of this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education which casts the argument over classroom tech as some sort of epic battle between codgers who refuse to update and tech geeks who think more tech always equals better teaching. Okay, I’m overstating the vehemence of the article a bit, but doing that allows me to come down firmly in the middle. Is that cheating?

I’m also thinking about this issue because of yet another piece on how communication technology affects our brains, for instance, even the anticipation of receiving an email can take up our attention and leave us distracted from other matters that require our immediate attention. Part of the reason I don’t use a lot of technology in my classes is because I don’t want to remind my students that it’s available to them (which I guess means I need to get my watch fixed rather than using my phone as a clock). The real damage to a class’s attention on the subject when a phone rings isn’t so much the noise as it is the reminder to everyone that they have phones that can be checked for information. I haven’t banned phones from the class completely as some of my colleagues have, but I do have a policy (on my syllabus) which allows me to count as absent anyone caught texting or using their phones in class.

But the fact that I only use Powerpoint (for example) for giving quizzes shouldn’t be taken as an indication that I think its use is harmful to education. It just means that I prefer to have a more free-flowing class structure. I writing and poetry for the most part, and I teach how to form an argument. One of the main points of my class is that there are multiple ways to enter a poem, and I worry that putting together a Powerpoint lecture on a poem would undercut that approach, because it would limit my flexibility in the class.

See, I don’t really lecture, not often anyway, because it’s impossible for me to hold on to my students’ attention for 80 minutes if I’m doing all the talking. Hell, it’s impossible for most stand-up comics to do 80 minutes and kill the whole time even if they’ve had months to prepare a single performance. I have to do this twice a week for 16 weeks. So I turn a lot of the talking over to my students either by asking questions or by moving them into groups and having them argue out the answers to questions or the meanings in poems with each other. I move from group to group and answer questions or clarify facts or context and then lead a class discussion afterward. But while I’ve chosen the poems for the week in advance, I rarely know which poems I’ll be talking about when the class meeting begins, because the next poem we talk about will often depend on where the discussion on the last one went. How do you do a Powerpoint for that?

Which isn’t to say I don’t find technology useful on the occasions when I do have to lecture–I do, and I make the best use of it I can. I use it a great deal when I’m focusing on grammar or the basics of argument with my composition classes, for example. And I’ll be watching Amy as she uses MacSpeech to grade papers this fall to see if that’s something I can integrate into my own work. But I’m not going to jump to the next gadget just because it’s the next gadget.

And I think that’s really the way educators should approach this issue. Be open, be willing to experiment, but also be able to recognize when something isn’t working. Sometimes there’s value in the tried and tested ways of doing things.

August 16, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Was my MFA worth it?

On Facebook, Seth Abramson pointed to this HuffPo piece by Lev Raphael defending his MFA, and then wrote “as time goes on hopefully we’ll hear more and more MFA graduates speak out.” Raphael doesn’t say how long ago he did his MFA, but I suspect, given his output, it’s more than the seven years since I finished mine. At any rate, my addition to the conversation can’t hurt, right?

I did my MFA at the University of Arkansas from 1999-2003, and yeah, it was worth it. That’s not to suggest that everything was unicorns and daffodils or that I joined a community of writers I still lean on to this day. I made friends I’m still in varying degrees of contact with but we rarely talk about our work now. But that’s not a statement about Arkansas so much as it’s a statement about me. I had a much more congenial workshop atmosphere and closer relationships with the people I was a Stegner Fellow with and we don’t talk much about our work either. That’s just not me.

But the program as a whole was worth it for a few important reasons. The first is that the Arkansas program is a long program–60 hours if you come in with a Bachelor’s degree. That’s four years, fully-supported if you want to teach. That’s a lot of time to develop as a writer, and man did I need it. I don’t think I started doing anything approaching marginal work until my third year; I exploded in my fourth.

But it’s more than just time (though you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that); the program there was flexible. Did you want to take classes in art history? They’d fit them in. Translation? No problem. (Arkansas boasts one of the two translation MFAs in the US–Iowa has the other.) The program was willing to let you explore possibilities outside the English department if you wanted. Not everyone I went to school with wanted to do this–some people took the same class two or three times, getting credit for it as a “readings course”–but others (myself included) used that flexibility to widen our educations. Most of my dabbling was in the translation program–perhaps the best lesson I learned was one of humility–and it gave me an appreciation of Dante and French Romantic poetry that lasts to this day.

The last thing that Arkansas gave me was teaching experience. Like I said, they funded me for four years, teaching two classes a term, but we weren’t stuck teaching comp the whole time (at least, not if you were an able teacher). In four years, I taught seven different classes, from freshman comp to tech writing to creative writing to World Lit to essay writing. That came in handy when I applied for the job I currently hold. That’s more teaching experience than a lot of PhD candidates have. Now, not every MFA program provides that opportunity, but this is about whether my MFA was worth it, after all.

Not all MFA programs are created equally, and I’ll admit that some of my non-Arkansas friends have expressed shock at the length of the program there. It worked for me. It didn’t work for everyone I was there with. And I’ll admit that sometimes I bristle when I think of my MFA being lumped in with some other programs that I consider (at a remove) to be less strenuous, as though my degree has been cheapened somehow. But even if it has been cheapened, the fact is that I wouldn’t be the writer I am now without it.

One last thing: I met Amy there, and we’ve been together nearly ten years. Damn right it was worth it.

August 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 9 Comments

12th and Delaware

We just finished watching the documentary 12th and Delaware. It’s about a corner in Fort Pierce Florida which has an abortion clinic on one corner and a “pregnancy care center” (i.e. an anti-abortion clinic) across the street. It’s an interesting film, no question, and it’s certainly worth watching, but there’s one major drawback to it from my perspective, and it didn’t really hit me what it was until Amy and I talked about it a little after it was over.

The filmmakers decided not to impose a narrative on the story outside of the editing process. There’s no voiceovers, no interviews–there’s just cameras recording what’s going on. I don’t mean to demean the power of good editing, but what happened in this film is that because there was no outside narrative, there was also no one calling bullshit on the lies the people in the anti-abortion clinic were telling, and there was no one to point out how rarely these groups keep their promises to the women they convince to take these pregnancies to term.

The reason I felt that was a problem is because for every time Amy and I shook our heads in disgust or gesticulated at the dishonest actions of the anti-choice people, someone who feels the opposite about abortion might easily feel joy or justification, or worse, use the film as a way to get tips to deceive women who are looking to exercise their Constitutionally-protected right to choose their medical care.

Which isn’t to say that the film was an example of on-the-one-handism. For example, the scene with the bald, goateed protester who stalks the owner of the abortion clinic as he ferries the doctors to and from the clinic is beyond creepy. Watching it you wouldn’t be surprised to find an end note on the film saying that the doctor had been shot outside his home–there is no such note, just to be clear; that’s just the vibe the guy gives off.

But none of the misinformation the anti-choice people provide to women in their clinics is ever challenged by the filmmakers, and so the audience is left to either be disgusted by the falsehoods (like we were) or nod along approvingly (like anti-choicers would). That’s not a big deal if the subject is less important to peoples’ lives, but lots of women are fooled by these lies and deceptive practices, and their lives will forever be changed as a result and few if any of them will get long-term aid from the people who run these “pregnancy care centers.”

One moment that could have been played up a little more in my opinion is when it becomes clear that the anti-choicers are lying to women about how far along they are in their pregnancies. Here’s how it works: the “pregnancy care center” offers a free ultrasound to the women who come in (some of whom, it should be noted, have gone to the wrong building), and the center underestimates the age of the fetus by a couple of weeks. In the film, one woman has been told she’s seven weeks pregnant when she’s really ten. This matters, of course, because once she’s out of the third trimester, it’s a whole lot harder for her to terminate the pregnancy. And the anti-choicers can celebrate because they’ve “saved another baby.” But because there’s no outside voice to point that out, the viewer has to come to it on their own. The woman who runs the clinic tries to articulate it, but she’s not as clear as she could be.

Part of my disappointment, no doubt, comes from the fact that I really despise the anti-choice movement and their hypocrisy and their hatred of women and feminism in general, and it’s not really the filmmakers’ fault that they didn’t make the movie I wanted them to make. They made the movie they wanted to make, and it’s worth seeing. It’s just that there were so many opportunities to call bullshit on the anti-choice movement, moments that anti-choicers will hold up as proof of how wonderful they are, that I got a little frustrated at times.

I’m going to end this with a short interview from YouTube with the two directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. They’re the people who made the truly excellent documentary “Jesus Camp,” and they talk a little about how this film came into being.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

We’re not really looking for originality

There was a period over at Incertus where I wrote long, blistering posts on Stanley Fish’s columns. I put in work, took them apart (to one degree or another) and got fairly worked up over them. I stopped when it became clear that it wasn’t worth it–I was getting way too agitated–and since then I’ve had a mostly hands-off policy towards him.

I’m responding to today’s piece mostly because it’s about plagiarism in the classroom, and because I think Fish is missing the point when he compares the rules of originality to the rules of golf as arcane and known to only a small group of people, unimportant to the world at large. And I think he misses it because he’s working under a different definition of “originality” than most people in my position–that is, lower level faculty who teach first and second year students–work with.

I think it’s best (I say this after having deleted a half-dozen beginnings to this paragraph) if I talk a little about what my job actually is. At this level of teaching, my job is to get my students to produce arguments and back those arguments up with evidence. I’m not asking for brilliant insight at this point, though if I get it, I’m excited. I’m asking for them to show they can think logically, that they understand the basics of argument, that they can show how they came to a position on an essay or poem or play. I’m asking them to show their work, in short.

Now, does this mean that the work they show is going to be original in some larger sense? Of course not. Very often I get multiple papers which follow the same basic thought patterns, the same arguments, the same points of evidence and analysis that I covered in class discussion. But those papers are original in the sense that the student put them together rather than cutting and pasting them from another source.

In a way, it’s like being in algebra or trig class. Getting the correct answer isn’t enough–you have to show how you got there. The difference in analyzing literature is that there are often multiple “correct answers,” but showing how you got to that answer is just as important, and a student who’s googled the subject and cut & pasted their “answer” hasn’t shown their work because they haven’t done the work. They can’t get to the point where they can argue over issues originality in authorship like Fish and others do if they don’t learn how to make an argument first.

I was talking to Amy about this a couple of minutes ago and she pointed out another aspect to this. Very often–the majority of times in both our experiences–students cheat to cover up illiteracy or sub-literacy. We make our students read aloud in class, and it becomes very clear very quickly who’s having problems. And it’s unlikely that a student who reads poorly can write well, so when said student turns in a paper which uses “affect” and “effect” in the same sentence and uses them correctly, alarm bells go off. (Amy had one of those.) And when it’s not a cover for sub-literacy, then it’s pretty clear there’s an intent to deceive, to pass off someone else’s work as their own. Sometimes it’s laziness, sometimes it’s arrogance–the latter are the most fun to bust–but the reason we do it is still the same. We’re teaching our students to make arguments, and if they don’t, they fail.

The rules really aren’t arcane, nor is plagiarism “an insider’s obsession,” at least not at this level of education. They’re a gate, and we’re the gatekeepers. (Does that make us all into Sigourney Weaver?)

August 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Dear Jeff Greene

Stop calling my mobile phone. I’m not voting for you. I’m voting for Kendrick Meek in the primary, and if by some chance you defeat him and make it to the general election, I’m voting for Charlie Crist. I’d be embarrassed to have you in the Senate as a Democrat.

August 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment