"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, September 14, 2012

Back to School:
A Scent of Knowledge

Thanks to my husband Gerry McCartney for this slide,
which he uses in his presentations to illustrate the challenges
of classroom instruction -- chatters, sleepers, daydreamers!
It was ever thus!
Henricus de Alemannia Lecturing his Students
from Laurentius de Voltolina, 1350s

Back to School! Always such a heady time of year! That could be a pun, as in Oliver Goldsmith's 18th century characterization of the "Village Schoolmaster": "and still the wonder grew, / That one small head could carry all he knew." But, seriously, it's an energizing, optimistic time, a new season, especially with the weather changing from summer to fall. Breathe deep!

British novelist Andrea Levy captures the exhilaration of a new school year in a sensory passage I recently quoted on my book blog: "My favourite task was to hand out the books at the beginning of term. Those children all had new books, whose turning pages wafted a fragrance of sun on sweet wood; a scent of knowledge" (emphasis added). I remember that scent -- and everything that went with it! Notebooks, pencils, index cards and graph paper; chalkboards, lockers, desks, the library, and best of all -- a cigar box! All those promising, familiar smells that go with education! All that back - to - school shopping; or as Ben and Sam -- raised in the age of Harry Potter -- called it, our annual trip to Diagon Alley. No matter where you get them, there's just something about those school supplies that signifies knowledge itself. Even for college kids.

Contemporary American poet Barry Spacks offers a collegiate version of the first day of school in his poem about Freshman Composition as a rite of passage. I have always loved Spacks' image of the English Composition teacher as a "thought-salesman" with a sample case; and I began to love it even more a couple of years ago when a friend, in reference to my enthusiastic endorsement of a few recent works of new fiction, referred to me as a salesperson -- not a teacher in search of an audience, but a salesperson! Come to think of it, perhaps the two roles go hand in hand, as Spacks suggests:

My freshmen
settle in. Achilles
sulks; Pascal consults
his watch; and true
Cordelia -- with her just - washed hair,

Stern - hearted princess, ready to defend
the meticulous garden of truths in her highschool notebook--
uncaps her ball point pen.
And the corridors drum:
give us a flourish,
flourescence of light, for the teachers come,

green and seasoned, bearers
of the Word, who differ
like its letters; there are some
so wise their eyes
are birdbites; one

a mad grinning gent with a golden tooth, God knows
he might be Pan, or the sub-
custodian; another
is a walking podium, dense
with his mystery -- high

priests and attaches
of the ministry; kindly
old women, like unfashionable watering places;
and the assuming young, rolled tight as a City

thought-salesmen with samples cases,
and saints upon whom
merely to gaze is like Sunday --
their rapt, bright,
cat-licked faces!

And the freshmen wait;
wait bristling, acned, glowing like a brand,
or easy, chatting, munching, muscles lax,
each in his chosen corner, and in each
a chosen corner.

Full of certainties and reasons,
or uncertainties and reasons,
full of reasons as a conch contains the sea,
they wait; for the term's first bell;
for another mismatched wrestle through the year;

for a teacher who's religious in his art,
a wizard of a sort, to call the role
and from mere names
cause people
to appear.

The best look like the swinging door
to the Opera just before
the Marx Brothers break through.
The worst -- debased,
on the back row,

as far as one can go
from speech --
are walls where childish scribbling's been erased;
are stones
to teach.

And I am paid to ask them questions:
Dare man proceed by need alone?
Did Esau like
his pottage?
Is any heart in order after Belsen?

And when one stops to think, I'll catch his heel,
put scissors to him, excavate his chest!
Watch, freshmen, for my words about the past
can make you turn your back. I wait to throw,
most foul, most foul, the future in your face.

by American Poet Barry Spacks (b. 1931)

What a cast of characters! I recognize them all, from both sides of desk. As a student (back in the day before all the smart kids were shown how to test out of Freshman Comp), I was one of those fair Cordelias, my heart an open book. A few years later, there I was, a beginning instructor, rolled tight as a city umbrella, religious in my art, requiring answers to the soul - searching questions: Is carelessness as bad as dishonesty? Worse than? Can Gatsby change the past? What comes after dark vapours have oppress'd our plains? How can a verb be infinite?

Office Hours: In my cubicle awaiting the Freshman

In the following short poem, Ernest Sandeen's recollection of undergraduate days is similar to that of Spacks, who points out that the Freshman Comp instructors are "paid to ask" students troubling existential questions. In turn, Sandeen's poem is a brief speculation of where all that moral questioning has led:

College Yearbook, 1931
How can we forget how eager
these professors were to disturb
our young, unexamined lives
with their own ardent doubts and beliefs?

And now here they lie as if
snugly tucked into their graves.
Did they find no further place
to go than here into our mortal memories?

from the Collected Poems
of Ernest Sandeen (1908 - 1997)
Notre Dame Professor and Poet

I like the way these two poems are connected. Spacks sees the freshmen as "Full of certainties and reasons, / or uncertainties and reasons." Sandeen notices that not only the students but also the professors are filled "with their own ardent doubts and beliefs." Plenty of doubt and uncertainty to go around! Sandeen can't forget how determined, how eager his professors were to disturb the youthful freshmen. Spacks remembers the tightly wound, earnest "assuming young" professors, equally keen to upset the students by throwing "most foul" the future in their faces. As I recall, not only was the future thrown in our face, so was the past, so was the present. Sometimes that scent of knowledge can take your breath away. Other times you have to swallow hard, without breathing.

The Good Old Days?

To conclude with a bit of fun, how about the whimsical college curriculum described by Robert Benchley in his hilarious essay, "What College Did to Me." I am never able to read his course list without laughing out loud, in part because it sounds rather similar to a few of the classes that I really took -- no joke!

The History of Flowers and Their Meanings
The Social Life of the Minor Sixteenth-Century Poets
History and Appreciation of the Clavichord
Early Minnesingers: Their Songs and Times
Doric Columns: Their Uses, History, and Various Heights
French 1C: Exceptions to the verb etre

The History of Lacemaking
Russian taxation systems before Catherine the Great
North American Glacial Deposits
Early Renaissance Etchers
Early English Tradewinds

says "This gave me a general idea of the progress of civilization and a certain practical knowledge which has stood me in good stead in a thousand ways since graduation."

Still, knowing that his degree program might sound on the frivolous side to some, he appends a disclaimer, which, as you'll soon see, he then turns right around and retracts:

"The foregoing outline of my education
is true enough in its way and is what people
like to think about a college course.
It has become quite the cynical thing to admit
laughingly that college did one no good. . . .
I had to write something like that to satisfy the editors.
As a matter of fact, I learned a great deal in college
and have those four years to thank for whatever I know today.
(This note was written to satisfy those of my instructors and
financial backers who may read this.
As a matter of fact, the original outline is true . . . .)"

Haha! ~ Thanks Robert Benchley & Ned Stuckey - French!

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, September 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading


  1. Had to laugh: http://redlipsandacademics.com/2012/09/10/teaching-freshmen-composition-presented-to-you-in-gifs/

  2. I begin teaching tomorrow--one class of comp included. Argh! Thanks for this.

  3. https://theconversation.com/the-internet-of-things-is-sending-us-back-to-the-middle-ages-81435