Honoring a Lost Poetic Voice

The recent death of the former Cornell University poet Reginald Shepherd to cancer at the age of 45 affected me personally, although I never met him. We had corresponded a fair bit by e-mail and I had recently donated the funds to bring him to speak and read out this way, at the University of Oregon. That cannot happen now, but arrangements are under way to use those funds and additional donations to establish a student poetry prize in his memory at Oregon.

Those of us who are working on the Reginald Shepherd Prize are starting to ask the questions that inevitably arise: What does it mean to honor a poet, and how can that unique gift, poetic voice, be properly set forth for purposes of establishing criteria for a student prize?

It is easy enough to honor a historian with a prize celebrating new work in that field, or a particle physicist by establishing the Quark Jockey of the Year or some similar clearly related award. But how should we set the criteria for a prize honoring the life and work of a poet? Unless that poet writes about one thing or only in a single form, the life, the work and the “voice” are all quite varied. We’re moving words around to come up with something like “poetry that honors the classical and modern traditions with precision and beauty.” It’s still a work in progress.

Reginald’s work -- though we never met, he always signed with his first name -- was certainly borne aloft on the great wings of candor, so we can’t have any winners who waffle, fudge or hide the toys. Nor can we have mere diction-divers who, upon surfacing, scatter words here and there to see what happens -- one of Reginald’s mentors, the great science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, would eat us alive if we honored something sloppy. Yet if we offered the prize to a student poet whose work displayed, say, “infrared fire burning through visible passion,” who is to say what the winner’s work looks like?

I once described Reginald’s work in a review as having “intense volcanic roiling,” but I’m not sure that helps guide a student writer. There are similarities between describing poetry and describing wine: “the poems displayed a rich essence of marinated cedar overlaid with fresh Wensleydale, with thistles of filbert and turpentine sparkling through a haze of windblown borax.”

Should we honor his breadth of emotion, which in turn reflected the life of a black gay man growing up in the Bronx and eventually passing through Bennington, Brown, the University of Iowa and Cornell? Sure, but emotion is a genus, not a species. We all see and feel differently. Poetic emotion can appear in the urbane scrollwork of J. D. McClatchy, the high church pointillism of Carl Phillips, the mythic immersions of Cameron La Follette, the whisper-forest of W. S. Merwin.

It is sometimes easier to describe what a poet didn’t do and didn’t like rather than to classify his work into a poetic taxonomy. There were no pallid stones in Reginald’s work, he never attempted to leap chasms on melting wings of assumption, he had no time for the poetry of pathological personalism, he recognized that after a certain point economy of expression becomes chastity of imagination, he had no allergy to facts and he wasn’t about to geld any lilies merely because critics preferred parsnips -- let the lilies show their stuff.

Reginald was a remarkable correspondent. He is the only person with whom I intentionally saved an entire e-correspondence (will there be collections of letters published, ever again?). Perhaps that was a premonition that it would end too soon. One example of how many subjects could gracefully occupy a small space in his writing is:

“If I ever find out what ‘emo’ means, I will let you know. I did a reading at Columbia

University week before last and asked some of the students there, but didn't get a clear answer. I think it's music by “sensitive” but definitely straight boys who play guitar and may or may not wear eyeliner. Fall Out Boy seems to have something to do with it.

I too came across Aqualung by accident, having seen "Pressure Suit" (from his second U.S. album) on TV and then backtracked to his first U.S. album (which is a compilation of two UK albums, which I might try to track down). I adore "Strange and Beautiful" and also "Falling Out of Love," as well as "Good Times Gonna Come" and "Another Little Hole."

That's a good point about my colonization being the problem to begin with. Damned imperialist cancer! And now I'm partially decolonized. Does that mean I'm a dominion or a commonwealth or something, like Puerto Rico?”

Ultimately, his published work demonstrated with sometimes painful clarity the great canyon between those who play the instrument and those who play the music. Reginald Shepherd played the music as well as anyone, and that’s what we’d like our prize winners to do as well.

Reginald has now gone on what Theodore Roethke called “the long and terrible way,” and we who remain can honor him best by never forgetting what he really stood for: no halfway house for the intellect, no auto-referential academic priapism. The best, always, or why bother? In Orpheus in the Bronx he noted that there is a mainstream of American poetry, “broad, sluggish and muddy” that offered “convenient epiphanies in prosaic anecdotes not interesting or shapely enough to be short stories.”

His own work, issued to date in five collections, is never sluggish or muddy, and we will expressly forbid glutinous turbidity when the prize is first awarded in 2009. Instead we will require purity, light, joy and truth of the kind that he displayed in one of his masterpieces, "You, Therefore," included in his 2007 collection Fata Morgana (Pittsburgh) and dedicated to his partner, Robert Philen of the University of Western Florida, which begins:

You are like me, you will die, too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine…

and ends:

… home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name.

Let us recall Elliott Coues’s definition of genius as “that union of passion and patience which bears fruit unknown to passion alone; to patience alone impossible.” Reginald’s passionate genius outraced his patience as his illness progressed, and we are fortunate in that at least one posthumous collection will appear.

In the final essay in Orpheus, he answered the question “Why I Write” by saying “I write because I want to live forever.” The blooms of his genius are exsanguinated, but we can honor their living colors forever with as many Reginald Shepherd Prizes and other joys as those of us who knew him can imagine. Reginald once sent me an e-mail addressed to “Sunshine” and concluded with “Goodnight, sweet prince,” but even that one ended with his unique good-bye, so with his words I must say my good-bye: “peace and poetry” forever, my unmet friend.

Alan Contreras
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Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.


On the first page just after the required novels
And before the list of learning outcomes
I'd paste a photo of me from '73
Scraggly hair and wire-rimmed glasses
And then torn from my long gone journal
Some half poem or worry on the day
So they might see me and not me
Who could be their dad or worse
With these handouts and so much to read
How jealous I am I am almost crying
How much I love them.

Laurence Musgrove
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Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.

Dada in the Classroom

My assignment didn’t cause consternation, but it presented challenges. I told them to write a poem on their favorite fruit, bring it to next week’s class, read (perform) it, and then share the fruit with the class. By way of preparation, we studied a badly copied (by me) art-book reproduction of a painting by Zurbaran and lingered at length over Pablo Neruda’s blurb on the back cover of Julio Cortazar’s book, Hopscotch, where (I paraphrase), Neruda claims that having never read Cortazar is like never having tasted a peach; a man like that, who never tasted a peach, would become sadder and sadder until one day he’d die of sadness. I dwelt briefly on that ever-bothersome noun “man,” as being generic for Reader, but faintly scented in this case by Neruda’s well-known erotic appetite that set up a suspect dynamic between Man-Reader, Untasted Peach, and Terminal Sadness. The women snickered.

We discussed fruit in poetry throughout the ages, beginning with the plum flowers and, eventually, plums of the Japanese haiku poets, through the modernists, particularly W.C. Williams, whose refrigerated and missing plums are on the lips of every poetry student in America. We then went around the room to see what was everyone’s favorite fruit. Grapes came up first, plums in a close second, melons third, apples fourth, and oranges sixth. Peaches came in a distant tenth, a fact due possibly to our location in southern Louisiana, where peaches don’t grow. I ascertained also that cumquats, fresh figs, persimmons, guava, and star-fruit were unknown to students in Poetry Writing 4000, an intermediate poetry class.

An “intermediate poetry class” is the product of decades-long elaboration of an absurdity that once ensconced within the English Department and the Humanities could only be dislodged by a major thought earthquake, equal in potency to the Dada revolution. No such earthquake-revolution has occured in the teaching of the humanities since Dada itself became the predominant pedagogy of our “higher education” system in the post-modern Sixties.

Some scholars would trace the introduction of Dada teaching in the humanities to the beginning of American education, with its menu of “electives.” “Electives” are Dada by nature, a quality that did not escape Ezra Pound, who credited “electives” for the opening in his poetry to other languages, quotation, parody, ironies, essaying, verse free to dance on the page and out of prosodic strictures, and the introduction of elements hitherto alien to poetry, such as economic opinions.

Still, it was not until the mid-Sixties that the “teaching” of the creative arts became institutionalized. Not coincidentally, the Dada method became “natural” to working artists first, then to poets. After the Dada presence in New York facilitated abstract-expressionism and the poetry of Frank O’Hara, American artists and poets no longer felt provincial when they compared themselves to the Europeans. By the second generation of New York artists and poets, the Dada roots of the new art were starting to be forgotten, to make room by the third, fourth, and fifth generation to the “natural” sense of art-making and “poetry-writing” that then could, through such “normality,” become pedagogy.

Even the description of such an evolution can seem “normal, if it were not for the stubborness of Dada itself, a movement born during World War I out of disgust with all Western “civilized” institutions, including universities, especially the humanities, which the Dadas saw as particularly pernicious. The Dada generation of 1915-1927, led by the brilliant and insufficiently understood poets Tristan Tzara and Hugo Ball, and artists Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Janco Jean Arp, and George Grosz, called for an artist-led revolution in society, a revolution conducted by means of chance, randomness (“electives”), denial of previous esthetic pieties, and the shakeup of traditional institutions, including private property and the family.

The Dada arsenal was vast: laughter, joy, absurdity, unpredictability; in other words, an entirely different sense of existence than that of Unamuno’s “tragic” sense, or the Russian Constructivists’ and Italian Futurists’ aggressive mechanical utopias. Dada made use of everything for the sole purpose of undoing the ideas of everything. It’s not hard to see the dubious, if not downright dangerous, consequences of the Dada method, especially in universities, where rebellion, hormones, and questioning are the very things the institution is charged with controlling.

The students were seated at the seminar table with a fruit or a bowl of fruit in front of them when I walked in the following week. I sat at the head of the table. On my left was Amy, with a large cluster of white grapes in a blue bowl before her; at my right was Melanie, facing a Cassaba melon with several circles of words magic-markered around it; Matt faced a grapefruit; Martin an apple. The 12 students in “intermediate poetry” stood before their inscribed fruits like figures in a tableau-vivant, waiting for the signal to begin the performance. Amy distributed one grape to each of us and asked us to write a word on it. I wrote “peach” on mine; Melanie wrote “love,” and others wrote whatever they wrote, and then some of them ate it, and some of them threw their grape back at Amy who ate them all; six students ate their own word written on Amy’s grape, and Amy ate six words others had written on her grapes, including “peach” and “love.”

Melanie stood holding her Cassaba melon like a globe or Yorick’s skull in her left hand and read it slowly rotating it to see all the lines; she then passed the Cassaba around and everyone read a line; amazingly, there were exactly 13 circular lines on the melon; she then cut it open with a sharp folding knife of illegal dimensions (on an airplane, certainly) and passed slices that everyone ate like communion, there being present also an eerie, nearly sacerdotal silence. And so it went, fruit after fruit, read, performed, eaten, in an order that could have not been more perfect if Noah’s monitors had been there. We thus learned that: a) poetry can be edible (and perhaps it should be); b) fruit is a sexier medium than paper or pixels; c) school could be fun, d) “intermediate” could mean that even though the medium had not been quite reached (advanced), the closeness to experience itself (beginning), made it worthwhile, e) it’s not so easy to write on fruit without good magic markers, and f) T.S. Eliot need not be memorized.

Was Dada domesticated by this pedagogical demonstration? The Dadaists were prolific generators of forms: assemblage, collage, decoupage, simultaneous readings, collaoration (cadavre-exquis), noise making, tattooing innocents, placing people on bookshelves and books in spectators’ seats, wearing hats made from bird cages. Their fertility gave birth to the styles, looks, attitudes, and objects of the 20th century, but the best results were not the objects, but the process of making them.

The current thinking in the humanities is that creativity and artistic production are good things, so good, in fact, that their subversive qualities could be overlooked. After all, Dada, like other modern movements, has been studied to death; nothing alive could survive such exegesis. I am willing to bet, however, that 10 years hence, my fruit-writing students, now in advertising and new media, will look back on their school years and remember nothing except the Dada moment in their “intermediate” poetry class. Is Dada pedagogy useful in today’s clasroom? There isn’t any other worth the absurd price of “higher education.” More Dada!

Andrei Codrescu
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Andrei Codrescu is the author of The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess, forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

Cookie-Cutter Monsters, One-Size Methodologies and the Humanities

I know what you’re thinking: Why is a poet writing about assessment in higher education? Honestly, I wonder that myself. One day, when assessment came up in conversation, I commented that it could be useful to programs as they make curricular decisions. Within 48 hours, the dean placed me on the institution’s assessment committee. Suddenly, assessment is a hot topic and, of all people, I have some expertise.

My years on that committee convinced me that we must pay attention to the rise of assessment because it is required for accreditation, because demands have increased significantly, and because it might be useful in our professional lives. Accrediting bodies are rightly trying to stave off the No Child Left Behind accountability that the Spellings Commission proposes. Maybe the incoming secretary of education will consider how we might be better -- not more -- accountable. Perhaps, too, Wall Street should be held accountable before the Ivory Tower. But assessment for higher education will likely become more pressing in a weak economy.

One tool to which many institutions have turned is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE, pronounced Nessie). NSSE was piloted in 1999 in approximately 70 institutions, and more institutions participate each year. This survey appeals especially to college and university presidents and trustees, perhaps because it’s one-stop, fixed-price assessment shopping. NSSE presents itself as an outside -- seemingly objective -- tool to glean inside information. Even more appealing, it provides feedback on a wide array of institutional issues, from course assignments to interpersonal relationships, in one well-organized document. Additionally, the report places an institution in a context, so that a college can compare itself both with its previous performance and with other colleges generally or those that share characteristics. And it doesn’t require extra work from faculty. NSSE seems a great answer.

Yet, NSSE does not directly measure student learning; the survey tracks students’ perceptions or satisfaction, not performance. Moreover, respondents appraise their perceptions very quickly. In the 2007 NSSE, students were informed, “Filling out the questionnaire takes about 15 minutes” to complete 28 pages, some of which included seven items to rate. So, as with its Scottish homonym, NSSE presents a snapshot of indicators, not the beast itself.

Importantly, NSSE is voluntary. A college or university can participate annually, intermittently, or never. If a college performs poorly, why would that college continue? If a university uses the report to, as they say in assessment lingo, close the loop, wouldn’t that university stagger participation to measure long-term improvements? Over its 10-year existence, more than 1,200 schools have participated in NSSE, and participation has increased every year, but only 774 schools were involved in 2008, which suggests intermittent use. In addition, some institutions use the paper version, while others use the Web version; each mode involves a different sample size based on total institutional enrollment. NSSE determines sample size and randomly selects respondents from the population file of first-years and seniors that an institution submits.

Perhaps, all these factors lead NSSE to make the following statement on its Web site: "Most year-to-year changes in benchmark scores are likely attributable to subtle changes in the characteristics of an institution’s respondents or are simply random fluctuations and should not be used to judge the effectiveness of the institution. The assessment of whether or not benchmark scores are increasing is best done over several years. If specific efforts were taken on a campus in a given year to increase student-faculty interaction, for example, then changes in a benchmark score can be an assessment of the effectiveness of those efforts."

This statement seems to claim that an increase in a score from one year to the next is random unless the institution was intentionally striving to improve, in which case, kudos. Yet, NSSE encourages parents to “interpret the results of the survey as standards for comparing how effectively colleges are contributing to learning” in five benchmark areas, including how academically challenging the institution is.

I have larger concerns, however, about assessment tools like NSSE, which are used for sociological research on human subjects. The humanities and arts are asked to use a methodology in which we have not been trained and for which our disciplines might not be an appropriate fit. NSSE is just one example of current practices that employ outcomes-based sociological research, rubric-dominated methodology, and other approaches unfamiliar in many disciplines.

Such assessment announces , anyone can do it. I’ve seen drafts of outcomes and rubrics, and that’s not true. Programs like education and psychology develop well-honed, measurable outcomes and rubrics that break those outcomes down into discernable criteria. Programs in the sciences do a less effective job; some science faculty assert that the endeavor is invalid without a control group, while admitting that a control group that denies students the environment in which they most likely learn would be unethical.

Those of us in the arts and the humanities want wide, lofty outcomes; we resist listing criteria because we disagree, often slightly or semantically, about what’s most important; we fear omission; and we want contingencies in our rubrics to account for unexpected — individual, creative, original — possibilities. Writing and visual art cannot easily be teased apart and measured. Critical thinking and creative thinking are habits of mind. How can NSSE or rubrics capture such characteristics?

Moreover, by practicing social science, often without reading a single text about those methods, arts and humanities faculty diminish the discipline we poach as well as lessen the value and integrity of our conclusions. If we don’t know what we’re doing — how many of us really understand the difference between direct and indirect measures or between outcomes, objectives, goals, and competencies — the results are questionable. To pretend otherwise is to thumb our noses at our social science colleagues.

Further, this one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter mentality ignores that different disciplines have different priorities. Included in Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross’s Classroom Assessment Techniques is a table of top-priority teaching goals by discipline. Priorities for English are Writing skills, Think for oneself, and Analytic skills, in that order. Arts, Humanities, and English have just one goal in common: Think for oneself. We can survey student perceptions of their thinking — an indirect measure — or maybe we know independent thinking when we see it, but how do we determine thinking for oneself in a data set? These priorities aren’t even grammatically parallel, which may not matter to social scientists, but it matters to this poet!

Other priorities for Arts — Aesthetic appreciation and Creativity — and Humanities — Value of subject and Openness to ideas — are difficult, if not impossible, to measure directly. The priorities of Business and Sciences are more easily measured: Apply principles, Terms and facts, Problem solving, and Concepts and theories. So, a key issue is to determine whether the arts and humanities can develop ways to assess characteristics that aren’t really measurable by current assessment methodology or whether we must relinquish the desire to assess important characteristics, instead focusing on easily measured outcomes.

Another table in Classroom Assessment Techniques lists perceived teaching roles. Humanities, English, and Social Sciences see Higher-order thinking skills as our most essential role, whereas Business and Medicine view Jobs/careers as most essential, Science and Math rank Facts and principles most highly, and Arts see Student development as primary. Both knowledge of Facts and principles and job placement can be directly measured more easily than Student development. For English, all other roles pale in comparison to Higher-order thinking skills, which 47 percent of respondents rated most essential; the next most important teaching role is Student development at 19 percent. No other discipline is close to this wide a gap between its first- and second-ranked roles. Surely, that’s what we should assess. If each discipline has different values and also differently weighted values, do we not deserve a variety of assessment methodologies?

Lest I bash assessment altogether, I do advocate documenting what we do in the arts and humanities. Knowing what and how our students are learning can help us make wise curricular and pedagogical decisions. So, let’s see what we might glean from NSSE.

Here are items from the first page of the 2007 NSSE:

  • Asked questions in class or contributed to class discussions
  • Made a class presentation
  • Prepared two or more drafts of a paper or assignment before turning it in
  • Worked on a paper or project that required integrating ideas or information from various sources
  • Included diverse perspectives (different races, religions, genders, political beliefs, etc.) in class discussions or writing assignments

Students were asked to rate these and other items as Very often, Often, Sometimes, or Never, based on experience at that institution during the current year. These intellectual tasks are common in humanities courses.

In another section, students were questioned about the number of books they had been assigned and the number they had read that weren’t assigned. They also reported how many 20+-page papers they’d written, as well as how many of 5-19 pages and how many of fewer than five pages. We can quibble about these lengths, but, as an English professor, I agree with NSSE that putting their ideas into writing engages students and that longer papers allow for research that integrates texts, synthesizes ideas, and encourages application of concepts. And reading books is good, too.

Another relevant NSSE question is “To what extent has your experience at this institution contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in the following areas?” Included in the areas rated are the following:

  • Acquiring a broad general education
  • Writing clearly and effectively
  • Speaking clearly and effectively
  • Thinking critically and analytically
  • Working effectively with others

The English curriculum contributes to these areas, and we are often blamed for perceived shortcomings here. While NSSE measures perceptions, not learning, this list offers a simple overview of some established values for higher education. If we are at a loss for learning outcomes or struggle to be clear and concise, we have existing expectations from NSSE that we could adapt as outcomes.

In fact, we can reap rewards both in assessment and in our classrooms when students become more aware of their learning. To do this, we need some common language — perhaps phrases like writing clearly and effectively or integrating ideas or information from various sources — to talk about our courses and assignments. Professional organizations, such as the Modern Language Association in English or the College Art Association in the visual arts, could take the lead. Indeed, this article is adapted from a paper delivered at an MLA convention session on assessment, and the Education Committee of CAA has a session entitled “Pedagogy Not Politics: Faculty-Driven Assessment Strategies and Tools” at their 2009 conference.

We needn’t reorganize our classes through meta-teaching. Using some student-learning lingo, however, helps students connect their efforts across texts, assignments, and courses. Increasingly, my students reveal, for instance, that they use the writerly reading they develop in my creative writing courses to improve their critical writing in other courses. I have not much altered my assignments, but I now talk about assignments, including the reflective essay in their portfolios, so that students understand the skills they hone through practice and what they’ve accomplished. Perhaps, I’m teaching to the test — to NSSE — because I attempt to shift student perceptions as well as the work they produce. But awareness makes for ambitious, engaged, thoughtful writers and readers.

Good teachers appraise their courses, adapt to new situations and information, and strive to improve. As Ken Bain points out in What the Best College Teachers Do, “a teacher should think about teaching (in a single session or an entire course) as a serious intellectual act, a kind of scholarship, a creation.” We are committed to teaching and learning, to developing appropriate programs and courses, and to expectations for student achievement that the Western Association of Colleges and Schools asks of us. We can’t reasonably fight the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools mandate: “The organization provides evidence of student learning and teaching effectiveness that demonstrates it is fulfilling its educational mission.” Assessment is about providing evidence of what we do and its effects on our students. Our task in the arts and humanities is to determine what concepts like evidence, effects, and student learning mean for us. If NSSE helps us achieve that on the individual, program, or institution levels, great. But NSSE is best used, not as an answer, but as one way to frame our questions.

Anna Leahy
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Anna Leahy teaches in the English M.F.A. and B.F.A. programs at Chapman University. Her poetry collection Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and she is the editor of Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom.

Speaking Through Verse

About a month after beginning my presidency here, I addressed a gathering of alumni at a site on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, for which our University is named. It is a beautiful sight, and on that magnificent evening, I abandoned for a few moments my talking points. The Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which I knew by heart, came to mind, so I recited it, thinking it would connect me with my fellow Laurentians, and connect us all to the location. An excerpt:

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I was pleased at the positive reception my impromptu recitation received on that summer night, so I decided to carry with me poems appropriate for other, similar occasions, poems that would help alumni and others connect with the University in a new way. I rediscovered poetry as an undergraduate, and am at the tail end of a generation that memorized certain poems, like “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “O Captain! My Captain!” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

So it was gratifying to find the audience so receptive. I enjoy weaving the selection into thoughts about the university today. It brings back a time when poetry was a larger part of life. It’s a way for people to hear something they don’t hear during their work day, something different from the press of business or the political swirl of the moment.

And for me, it’s a way to keep St. Lawrence centered in the lives of alumni, as verse paints a more vivid picture of their days in college.

For example, I like poems like “Chapter 1,” by Mark Aiello, or “Student” by the American Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, because they speak to what it’s like to be young and a college student. I have used both at alumni gatherings and at events where parents are present. Here is the latter poem:

The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,
paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to its full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the surf. He's got his baseball cap on
backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library

We want alumni to identify with the university today, so I look for poems that highlight traditions or things generations of students have in common. Certainly, winters in Canton, N.Y., have changed little over the years, so there is no better way to help alumni bring back that experience than by reciting “January," by the Maine native Baron Wormser, whose verses, such as, “The two best things in this world, were hot coffee and winter sunrises,” certainly evoke memories of our North Country.

I am always articulating the value of the liberal arts, and alumni today need to be reminded why we remain so deeply committed to this form of learning. “The Three Goals,” by David Budbill, speaks to this brilliantly:

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.

My readings also bring out suggestions from alumni with literary interests. One alumnus recommended I use the poem “The Lanyard” for commencement, but I think it would resonate at other times, too. Not only is it about a boy making a lanyard at a summer camp in the Adirondacks, but it also offers the perfect tribute to parents -- in this case to mothers -- for all they have done for their children. Every commencement speaker urges graduates to thank their parents for their sacrifices, but none do so as eloquently as this Billy Collins poem. Again, an excerpt:

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift -- not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

I think that reading a poem when speaking for the university works well because audiences listen differently to verse; they may even pay closer attention. But it also is, I believe, because poetry goes to the heart more than the head, and that, after all, is where one’s alma mater lives.

William L. Fox
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William L. Fox is president of St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y.

As Others See Us

A genome biologist, Gregory Petsko, has gone to bat for the humanities, in an open letter to the State University of New York at Albany president who recently (and underhandedly) announced significant cuts. (For those who haven’t been paying attention: the departments of theater, Italian, Russian, classics, and French at SUNY-Albany are all going to be eliminated).

If you are in academia, and Petsko’s missive (which appeared on this site Monday) hasn’t appeared on your Facebook wall, it will soon. And here’s the passage that everyone seizes on, evidence that Petsko understands us and has our back (that is, we in the humanities): "The real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained."

He's right. And if scientists want to speak up for the humanities, I’m all for it. But Petsko understands us differently than we understand ourselves. Why fund the humanities, even if they don’t bring in grant money or produce patents? Petsko points out "universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment."

How many us willingly embrace that interpretation of what we do? "My interest is not merely antiquarian...." is how we frame the justification for our cutting edge research. Even as we express our dismay when crucial texts go out of print, any sacred flame that we were tending was blown out when the canon wars were fought to a draw. Why should we resurrect it? Because, says Petsko, "what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future." His examples are virology and Middle Eastern studies. Mine is 18th-century literature — and with all the imaginative vigor at my disposal, I have trouble discerning the variation on the AIDS scare or 9/11 that would revive interest in my field. That’s OK, though: Petsko has other reasons why the humanities matter:

"Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including -- especially including -- the humanities and arts... If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future."

Well, that would be great. I have no confidence, though, that we in the humanities are positioned to take advantage of this dawning world, even if our departments escape SUNY-style cost-cutting. How many of us can meaningfully apply what we do to "the question of just what it means to be human" without cringing, or adopting an ironic pose, or immediately distancing ourselves from that very question? How many of us see our real purpose as teaching students to draw the kinds of connections between literature and life that Petsko uses to such clever effect in his diatribe?

Petsko is not necessarily right in his perception of what the humanities are good for, nor are professionals in the humanities necessarily wrong to pursue another vision of what our fields are about. But there is a profound disconnect between how we see ourselves (and how our work is valued and remunerated in the university and how we organize our professional lives to respond to those expectations) and how others see us. If we're going to take comfort in the affirmations of Petsko and those outside of the humanities whom he speaks for, perhaps we need to take seriously how he understands what we do. Perhaps the future is asking something of us that we are not providing — or perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining why anyone other than us should care about what we do.

Kirstin Wilcox
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Kirstin Wilcox is senior lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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