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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »

When David Foster Wallace Taught Paul Thomas Anderson

January 6, 2015 | by

Paul Thomas Anderson and Dainel Day-Lewis

Anderson in 2007. Photo: Jürgen Fauth, via Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1990, years before he published Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace came on as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, in Boston. As D. T. Max writes in his biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, this wasn’t such a hot time for Wallace. He was mentally unstable in those years, and actively ashamed of his latest collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair; when the Emerson English department posted an advertisement for it, he tore it down. And teaching offered no reprieve from the problems he had with his writing and the culture at large. In a letter to Jonathan Franzen, he called his students “infants”: “you almost have to cradle their heads to help their necks support the skull’s weight.” Were the youth simply too enamored of TV’s easy charms? Max writes,

The students he was teaching made him feel the problem was worse than he had known. They were the Letterman generation he had imagined in [his short story] “My Appearance,” proud of their knowingness. “They’re all ‘television’ majors, whatever that means,” he complained to [David] Markson, adding that he’d had his wrist slapped by his department for “ ‘frustrating’ the students” with a DeLillo novel (he does not say which) by which he meant to wake them up … Wallace knew he did not want to stay at Emerson long.

Still, because he was fluent in TV, Wallace found himself popular with the students. And at least one of them came away emboldened by that “frustrating” experience with DeLillo: Paul Thomas Anderson, whose latest film, Inherent Vice, is in wide release this week. Read More »

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Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

Why are there so few courses in Soviet literature at American universities?

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A Soviet poster from Albert Rhys Williams’s Through the Russian Revolution, 1920.

When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature.

This absence struck me as odd, especially given the literary tastes of the Russian reading public. The Russian literati ostensibly admire and cherish the greats—your Tolstoys and Chekhovs, your Dostoevskys—but ask them to name their favorite writers and most will cite someone from this isolated literary isle. They might mention Mayakovsky, the macho darling of the Futurist movement, whose thundering poetry shook his listeners into an acute state of consciousness; or Akhmatova, an Acmeist poet who explored suffering, humanity’s great equalizer, with minimal words and explicit emotion. They could invoke Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago many Americans assume to be a tragic love story between a man and a woman, when really it’s a tragic love story between a man and a revolution, although in Russia Pasternak is celebrated even more for his poetry, especially his wildly experimental collection My Sister, Life. Then there’s the lyrical sentiment of Platonov, or the satire of Solzhenitsyn. There’s Bunin, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Zoschenko, Babel, Bergholz, Zamyatin, Bely, Bulgakov, and a litany of other luminaries whose surnames have all but disappeared from university syllabi.

Is this a lingering effect of the Cold War, a symptom of our culture’s tendency to seal off what we fear or don’t understand? I’m reminded of the horrific looks I got from people the summer I was nineteen, when I decided to read Mein Kampf. They worried that it would negatively influence my nubile and malleable young mind—a concern I found irritating, since I’ve long believed it’s our moral obligation to dissect the most heinous events in history, to use literature as a scalpel of sorts. Was the fear and scorn of Soviet oppression, I thought, part of the reason its literature was kept behind closed doors, even all these years later? Read More »

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French in Action

June 5, 2014 | by

Mourning Pierre Capretz.

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“Robert,” in his ubiquitous Yale T-shirt, with the fetching “Mireille” in a still from French in Action.

I carry vivid memories of a boy named Robert, who insisted on wearing his horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere—to Chartres, to La Closerie des Lilas, to that seedy little rental-car hub on the Boulevard Périphérique, even (sacré bleu!) under a white blazer. What tone-deaf Ivy League foolishness, I remember thinking. The corollary bummer was that Robert wasn’t a caricature of the average American exchange student; he was more or less the ideal version thereof. He bopped through France, always encountering the lovely Mireille, who seemed to appear—without explanation or apology, and often without a bra—around the country’s every corner. And most important, he took every conceivable opportunity to improve his French. Robert was in Paris not to chase tail but to learn the language, to become a citoyen du monde. And yet he insisted on wearing that horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere

Such were my first high school impressions, in 1999 and 2000, of the video pedagogy of French in Action, the language course cum TV series that taught me (and millions of other Americans) the rudiments of the Francophone lifestyle.

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Pierre Capretz

French’s wild-haired emcee, Pierre Capretz, died earlier this year, in Aix-en-Provence, at eighty-nine. Capretz’s eyes always brimmed with mischievous possibility. He struck me as Henry Kissinger’s magnanimous French cousin, a man whom the world had weathered in the best possible way, imbuing him with wisdom and a philosophical cheer without which no one who teaches French in America can stay sane.

As I learned more about Capretz, I started to get the jokes, which, of course, included the Yale T-shirt that Robert seemed never to wash. My teacher-guru, Madame Demaray—a sanitization of de marais, “from the swamp”—had helped Capretz beta-test the program at Hotchkiss, a very swish prep school that had taken me in; it wasn’t terribly far from Yale, for which Hotchkiss’s founders hoped to groom their young men and eventually (thank God) their young women. Relations between the two schools were still cozy in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and Mme. Demaray worked closely with Capretz as he developed his legendary regimen for the oral and aural teaching of French, imparting knowledge through a long-form video narrative that moved with the rhythms of a mystery novel. My teacher, with whom I was in half in love as one is with a glamorous great-aunt, told me in private about the million-plus dollars Capretz had gambled in making French in Action: about securing funding from the CPB and from WGBH in 1985, about the multiple heart attacks he suffered during the scripting, filming, and editing of part two. I saw my hispanoparlantes classmates toting Destinos and realized that the workbook/video/language-lab triad owed its current pedagogical vogue to Capretz, who believed, correctly, that the musical tools of language might succeed where 501 French Verbs had failed. Read More »

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The Hypnotic Act

April 28, 2014 | by

gabo class

Silvana Paternostro (front row, second from right) poses for a photo with her journalism class, taught by Gabriel García Márquez (third row from front, center, in glasses).

Last week, we had the pleasure of featuring Silvana Paternostro’s “Solitude & Company,” an oral biography of Gabriel García Márquez from our Summer 2003 issue. But Silvana also wrote, for our Winter 1996 issue, “Three Days with Gabo,” an essay about the time she spent at a small journalism workshop hosted by García Márquez in Cartagena that spring. As Silvana writes: “For us, Latin American journalists in the early stages of our careers, he is a role model. We like to say that before he was a novelist he was a reporter. He says he has never stopped being one.” The essay provides a charming account of García Márquez’s professorial style—somehow both whimsical and practical—and it serves a reminder of his formidable talents as a journalist and an observer:

It has been said that Gabo is too creative to be a good journalist. After all, he is the same writer who in his novels, with a straight face, had Remedios the Beauty levitating to the skies and the smell of Santiago Nasar after his well-announced death penetrating the entire town.

As if reading my mind he says, “The strange episodes in my novels are all real, or they have a starting point, a basis in reality. Real life is always much more interesting than what we can invent.” He says that the ascension of Remedios the Beauty was inspired by a woman he saw spreading clean white sheets with her arms stretched out to the sun. He has also said that “to move between the magical and the incredible, one has to become a journalist” … He begins to read paragraphs out loud from some of our articles; he offers light copyediting. Some of the sentences are too long and Gabo pretends to be choking as he reads along. “We have to use breathing commas,” he says. “If not, the hypnotic act does not work. Remember, wherever there is a stumble, the reader wakes up and escapes. And one of the things that will make the reader wake up from hypnosis is to feel out of breath.”

We’ve made Silvana’s essay available online for free; you can read it here. It’s a fitting conclusion to our tribute to García Márquez—he will be missed.

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Scotty

March 13, 2014 | by

The fourth of five vignettes.

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Photo: M. O. Stevens, via Wikimedia Commons

M. F. K. Fisher had a magic gardener. This fellow, she wrote, understood the daily weather, the seasons and the various planting cycles, the necessity of encouraging or discouraging bird and insect life, landscape arrangement, grafting, and everything associated with the garden. He was an old Scotsman who, she discovered, in an earlier life, had written extensively on horticulture; and here he was, in his retirement, working for her, and quietly teaching her to tend her garden. He was the Platonic ideal of the gardener. And, of course, she wrote, he did not actually exist.

But I did not believe her.

I knew not only that he somewhere existed, but that I might be lucky enough to meet him face to face. Those besotted by an interest long for the perfect teacher. He who would be not only the complete master of his craft, but of himself: capable of leading the student, through a brilliant mixture of silence and misdirection, to reach his own, practicable conclusions. Read More »