Gabe Dybing

July 13, 2010

Monsters and Morphemes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Gabe Dybing @ 8:29 pm

We never got to the rest of the slide show, and we probably won’t, so for posterity and the edification of the Internet academic community, here’s the rest.

Today, I took my class over to Nick Ozment‘s “Monsters in Fact and Fiction” in order to discuss Monsters in Fairy Tales. It went well. My poor students had brought their favorite books and fairy tales with them, so they were fairly heavy laden. I had an opportunity to point out that one of our vocabulary words from the day before had been used in the general gathering before students break out into their separate classes – “allude” from “allusion.” The word had created a lot of interest the day before because it was so close to “illusion.” A new word that came up today in the Monsters class was “archetype.”

Interestingly, we discovered that there doesn’t seem to be a wide range of “real” monsters in fairy tales. We quickly covered the trolls and giants and ogres that frequently make their appearance, noted that the Wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” has a tendency towards werewolfishness, mentioned the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast,” and discovered that Witches appear in many of the stories.

After half an hour of discussion my students were visibly inspired and eager to get back to our own classroom to start writing. So here’s where the “morphemes” come into play. Each of the students has a pack of index cards. The idea, and why they brought their favorite stories today, was to brainstorm all sorts of things that are found in fairy tales, to write these “elements” or “morphemes” or “building blocks of story” onto these individual cards, make illustrations of them if it’s desired, and then to choose or randomly draw the cards and work whatever element that comes up into the story.

We have a long list of things from both yesterday and today, things like “poverty” and “cow” and “tree” and “seven” and “wishes.” You get the idea. When we were generating these elements I was surprised to find how two of the students in particular had had their imaginations “colonized” by Harry Potter. They not only wanted universal elements from the books in their cache of tools at their disposal, but the very trademarks themselves. It took some cajoling to get them to accept, instead of “Dementor,” “Dark Wraith,” instead of “Voldemort,” “Dark Lord,” instead of Dumbledore, “Wise Wizard.” I had a moment to explain that Harry Potter himself is an archetype, the hero, the Cinderella or Ash Lad of the story.

After brainstorming morphemes and spending some time drawing or writing them on our cards, we started composing a story altogether. The only way to describe it is “random.” They told me they wanted to work on it some more tomorrow, as well as continue to build their decks of morphemes, and they also want some time to work on stories individually. Things are going well.

Without further comment, here’s the “tale” we produced today:

Once there was an elf with crazy eyes and lots of sharp teeth. And his best friend was a fluffy bunny named Jorge. The mother of the elf with the crazy eyes was named Candy. They lived on a big rock in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean. Under the rock lived Ponyo [I couldn’t convince the contributor at this point to give up Miyazaki’s specific character] and all of her little sisters. On the other side of the rock lived a fire-breathing centipede. He had enormous teeth, millions and millions of legs, there were eyes on his antennae, and he was rainbow-colored. One day he discovered a letter that his grandfather wrote to the elf with crazy eyes. The letter reported that his grandfather disliked that elf extremely. So the centipede considered it his ancestral duty to go destroy the elf and all that was dear to him. He tried to set the elves and bunny on fire by means of his fire-breath. At this juncture it was revealed that Jorge was a martial arts expert. He also had telepathy and taught the elves instantly the skills they needed to chop the centipede in half. TO BE CONTINUED…

Again, I’m impressed at how enthusiastic these students are. The highlight of the day was at the end. They wanted me to read the story aloud with a strange voice, but then they spontaneously started reading it IN UNISON and in English accents! They definitely attracted the attention of passersby in the hall outside! I wish I had a recording of it.

Just imagine that utterly bizarre “story” being recited in stereophonic English girl voices.

WSU’s College for Kids – Writing Fairy Tales

Filed under: Uncategorized — Gabe Dybing @ 5:14 pm

I just might be teaching at the wrong level.

A friend says that the reason why my four young students were so responsive to discussion is because they have not yet gotten to the age where they learn that it’s uncool to have ideas and opinions of one’s own and to share them.

Another friend had been warning me that even just touching on the topic of Vladimir Propp’s concept of “morphemes” in fairy tales might be too much for them, but they handled it JUST FINE, and when I wrote the word “genre” on the board one student impulsively voiced it – correctly – and another student helpfully pointed out that it’s actually a “French” word.

The class is open to grades 3 through 8. I think at least one student is in 3rd grade. No student seems to be higher than 6th grade.

We began with names, of course, and a brief discussion how, in stories, names are very important and so it’s equally important, in experiencing one’s own, living story, to know what one’s own name means. Three out of the four students could tell me all sorts of things about their names. One new that her name had been changed from something different – and how the new name had been formed – because her ancestors had been living in a “valley” in which everyone had the same name. Another student knew that her last name once had been pronounced a different way; the pronunciation had been consciously changed in response to German-phobia occasioned by Nazi Germany.

The students were so excited to discuss their favorite books and movies and how they had come to be writers that I only got halfway through my PowerPoint presentation. And I only got to the presentation at all through a sheer resolution to at least get to it as I had planned!

They are all avid readers. Popular texts that had been read and reread are The Warriors series, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Twilight. They also all were familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia and were very interested in my explanation of how the order of the books had come to be changed.

We’re off to a good week!

Following are the slides I was able to get to yesterday, some with some explanation.

After this slide I pushed them into considering the variant spelling “Faerie” and told them that, in Old English tradition, “Faerie” is a place and all sorts of supernormal beings can be considered “Faeries.” I told the first part of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” suggesting that the Green Knight was a fairy, and intentionally didn’t tell them the end, despite protests. Ha ha! Grin, grin.

We had already had an extensive discussion about their favorite books and whether they qualified as fairy tales or not, so we moved right along.

As far as “traditional” fairy tales go, “Rapunzel” was a favorite among three of the four girls. Very interesting. I wonder why.

After a lot of spontaneous discussion, the students concluded that the giant in this picture was a “girl.” Me pointing out the prominent Adam’s apple failed to convince them.

Later I will get more specific about why I brought up “morphemes.” We’re going to use this concept in constructing our own fairy tales.

As I hoped, the photo of the child elicited a laugh.

Even though there’s more, and I’ll get to them later, this was the last slide I was able to get to yesterday. The students have been properly conditioned. As soon as this one came up, the collective knee-jerk response was, “Hey, that guy’s smoking!”

Let’s see what today has in store for us!

June 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Gabe Dybing @ 8:14 pm

All right. I realize I’ve been away for a while, but I am now ready to report that I have my curriculum pretty much determined for fall semester. Writing it all down here will help me to organize my thoughts once school really starts – and it will be starting soon, I know!

Here’s what I’m going to use:

I’m doing a “themed” composition course that I notice has been titled “Curiosity” in the course catalog, whereas I thought I had signed up for one titled “Science.” Oh, well. I’ll make it work. For this one I’ll be using:

  • How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Place by Janna Levin
  • Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit collected by Krista Tippett
  • Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers
  • The Best American Science Writing 2009 collected by Natalie Angier and Jesse Cohen

Thinking deeply about the theme “Curiosity,” I may also or instead use the novel The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford. The novel exemplifies how one can be curious about “people” by writing little vignettes or profiles about them.

I also will be making frequent recourse to essays of topical interest gathered in Arts & Letters Daily.

Oh, yeah. I also will be using many, many documentaries this semester, treating them as “texts.” I have yet to preview all that I have in mind, so the following list may change. But they are:

Here’s how I’ll organize my “units,” with my rationale for doing so and the various assignments that will go along with each one.

Unit One:

The class will watch Frontline: digital_nation with a concern for how technology is impacting our culture, particularly our educational system. Winona State University is one of the many “laptop universities” in the U.S. This will give the class an opportunity to consider whether technology in the classroom ultimately aids or detracts from the educational process. Not only will this be the first foray into reason, debate, and argument, but it also will allow students to participate in the formation of classroom policy. By the end of this unit, by making direct recourse to online articles that argue on either side of the issue of whether laptops should be allowed in the classroom, students will have determined for themselves what the class policy shall be. I’m imagining dividing the classes into two camps. Each camp will compose, collectively, arguments for one side or the other. Counterarguments also will be written. I think I’ll have to lead both groups in the composition of the pieces. A lot of modeling will be necessary.

Unit Two:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? coupled with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. This is the text I’ve chosen for my book-to-film comparison of genre I wrote about at length two posts back. I have chosen this generic situation not only because there is a wealth of scholarly material that students may have recourse to concerning both productions, but also because Dick’s novel expertly foregrounds many of the issues concerning religion and the environment that will surface in Einstein’s God, Gone Tomorrow, and The Year of the Flood. The themes this semester are so intertwined that students shouldn’t have much trouble writing a large paper that references all of our major texts at the end of the semester.

Unit Three:

I think we’ll read Einstein’s God and Gone Tomorrow more or less simultaneously. Since both religion and environmental degradation are strong themes in The Year of the Flood, this unit may also overlap with the fourth, thereby demonstrating how texts with similar content may “speak to one another.” I believe that Krista Tippett will be visiting WSU as part of this year’s Lyceum Series. That’s why I’ve chosen this book, without ample chance yet to preview it. Gone Tomorrow is this year’s Common Book. The paper generated for this unit most likely will demonstrate how well the students have learned to do quality outside research.

Unit Four:

Following my tradition of slowing things down at the end of the semester while students, in theory, are losing their minds and sleep studying for their final exams in other classes, we will read The Year of the Flood and examine how issues raised earlier in the class relate to this novel. We will probably write one last paper in which students may borrow from their earlier work, taking a position on an issue represented in the novel and showing how other reading/research illuminates that issue.


I have used Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots in the past, and students hated it on the grounds that it was too difficult a read. I love the book, however, and believe that it will work perfectly with a science/curiosity-themed class. So I believe that if students have difficulty with it again this time around, it’s their own fault for signing up for this particular class. I’m really not sure yet how my writing assignments in this class are going to differentiate from the others, since, in theory, I still need to teach to many of the same concerns: proper ways of reasoning and arguing, an understanding of genre, etc. Of course I’ll keep you posted!

You may notice that I don’t have any text that teaches about writing itself. That’s right! This semester I’ve opted to go without any kind of writing manual. I’m going to simply teach the students what I want them to know. I’ve found in the past that I’m generating my own documents along these lines anyway, so I might as well save the students some money, since it’s textbooks like these that are almost always overpriced.

June 2, 2010

Questions of Audience and Purpose surrounding Bill Maher’s “Religulous”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Gabe Dybing @ 6:45 pm

A couple days ago I had the opportunity to see a portion of Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008). Now, I recognize by this juncture I’m quite behind in the discussion surrounding this film, but the topic still has plenty of currency, and the lens with which I am approaching this film has some bearing on the overall theme of this blog. Before I give my impressions, however, I think it’s important to approach it the way I would approach any object of media in any of my classes. What is its genre? What is its purpose? What is its intended audience?

The answer, for me, isn’t simple. Bill Maher of course is a comedian, so it would follow that the film is comedy, with no other pretensions than to entertain in the lightest vein possible. However, the people Maher interviews don’t seem to find the subject matter very funny, which leaves me, the audience, in the very uncomfortable situation of being expected to laugh at people who feel quite deeply and reverently about the topic under discussion. So now we have another breed of comedy, the kind that I suppose most people mean when they refer to “irreverent humor” or… I don’t know. I guess this is the kind of spectacle-based humor wherein normal people are just set loose in front of a camera to act stupidly and speak stupidly. The film also could be a species of humor that provides catharsis for a very specific audience: instead of posing itself as a fair-minded attempt to either understand religion or persuade those who are irrationally invested in it to move away from it, it may just be a pressure release for like-minded people who simply are frustrated with how religion has confounded and unnecessarily complicated politics and education. I can understand this.

But the film doesn’t present itself in such unequivocal terms. In the beginning of the film Maher says that he “has to find out,” and, because of The Who’s “The Seeker” playing in the soundtrack, I was led to believe that Maher was making an honest attempt to find out why people believe what they do, however irrational, to some, their beliefs appear to be. This didn’t seem to be the case, however. Through careful editing, Maher seemed to misrepresent the views of the people he interviewed. Furthermore, if he indeed was looking for some credible reason to consider religion, he seemed to be interviewing the wrong people.

So I felt unsettled. Not because I am religious. Oh, no! Far from it! I have gone through varying stages of religiosity and fanaticism to find myself today in a place where I whole-heartedly, emphatically agree with Maher when he says, “I certainly, honestly believe religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.” Amen! This is the message that I want to come out clear, and I felt like Maher’s method and style, however amusing it might be to some, was getting in the way of that message. I didn’t find Maher’s provocative, belittling style to be much more effective or enlightened than the religionists he was critiquing (again, the while posturing that he was seeking after real understanding).

Perhaps I should pause and point out two criticisms in order to defend my position. First, Jesus was a real person. No, I’m not saying that everything recorded about Jesus in the gospels was true nor that there is real physical evidence that Jesus ever existed. But the textual evidence points to every probability that once upon a time there was a real guy wandering around and preaching throughout a specific occupied Roman territory and that his name was Jesus or something like it – Jeshua, perhaps – just as there is every probability that there was once someone named Socrates, even though clearly the character we meet in Plato’s writings isn’t the “real” Socrates. Clearly not every word or dialogic situation that Plato attributes to him is really his. I kind of suspect that this qualification was edited out of the movie. I very much suspect that this is what Dr. Francis Collins, the Head of the Human Genome Research Project, meant when he said that Jesus was a real, historical person. Even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t take much more than some cursory reading on Maher’s part to become aware of and highlight this distinction. Secondly, Maher seems to intentionally alienate the live audience that he encounters throughout his journey. Perhaps this is part of the “soul” of comedy, but it certainly can’t go well when, before a group of motley, male Evangelicals, he characterizes God as one who will call unbelievers “assholes” and cast them straight down to Hell for believing the wrong religion. To Maher’s credit, however, he received prayers from these nutters (I used to be those guys!) and actually thanked them for being Christ-like. Still… Father Barron (I have never watched this guy; I never knew of his existence until Youtube alerted me to this related video) points out greater misunderstandings in Maher’s approach here: Pointing to Father Barron underscores a further complication of Religulous. For me, the most provocative misrepresentations were those that had to do with Christianity, and I think it’s fair to say that there are many “Christianities.” Some religions shouldn’t even be called “religions.” The day after encountering this film, I found myself drawn back to two formative texts. These are G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Though The Everlasting Man is outdated (1925, but then so would be Paine’s – 1794!), though, even considering the time, in places it strikes one as sexist and racist, it still gets at the essentials of the “matter of religion” that it seems many discussions ignore entirely or rehash improperly. Chesterton believes that many of the world’s so-called “religions” should be more carefully put into the categories of “gods, demons, and philosophers.” Most notably, Chesterton would argue, there is a great difference between Confucianism and the Hindi and Buddhist religions, and yet another difference between these religions and those practiced by the “People of the Book” (or “Books”): the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. When one considers these many differences of religion and philosophy, it is not surprising that Maher isn’t able to effectively engage with “religulous” people as a whole. Furthermore, Father Barron’s comments about “super-rationality” seem to echo Chesterton quite well. Humans are not fundamentally rational creatures. It is unlikely that they’ll ever be. Ironically, the “irrationality” of humanity is championed as a good thing, something unique and valuable, in popular culture, in the science fiction franchise Star Trek, for instance, where the extreme rationalism of Spock is contrasted with Kirk’s “manly” instinct. Basically, it seems unnecessary to say that there is something more at work than “human reason” and what we often too generally refer to as “science,” but there is. There is a rationalism that is beyond rationalism. Chesterton illustrates this with a fable: “Pluck this flower and a princess will die in a castle beyond the sea.” Chesterton argues that “we do not know why something stirs in the subconscious, or why what is impossible seems almost inevitable.” He provides another fable: “Suppose we read ‘And in the hour when the king extinguished the candle his ships were wrecked far away on the coast of Hebrides.’ We do not know why the imagination has accepted that image before the reason can reject it; or why such correspondences seem really to correspond to something in the soul.” It seems natural to point out that this is archetypal psychology. Well, fine, but this is simply giving a name to what is still little understood – beyond understanding – and considering this is a great first step to understanding “why” religion, the goal that Maher ostensibly set out to accomplish.

I brought up Paine. He is another great influence, but he relates to Father Barron’s words, as well, in that the majority of his book attacks fundamentalism and a belief in the literalism of the Bible rather than an attack on religion itself. The Age of Reason begins with a creed of sorts. In fact, Paine believes in “one God, and no more,” and he hopes “for happyness beyond this life.”

And I believe, with him (and I believe Maher does, as well) that “national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish [Muslim], appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Paine adds, “I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise. They have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself.” Although he doesn’t mean precisely what Maher means when he says that the belief in religion impedes progress and is a detriment to society, which I would like to add to this creed here, Paine goes on to say, “It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared to himself for the commission of every other crime.” I think it’s fair to say that it’s hard to trust any politician who, whether because of genuine belief or the necessity of public image, believes in the literal interpretation of the Bible.


So what does all this have to do with freshman composition? Plenty. Perhaps I shall expand this line in later posts, but for the moment I am struck by two things:

1. Genre again. Look at what I have done here. I have encountered and engaged with a video text. I have found another video text that, in some measure, responds to it. This would be a great exercise for the class at large. It would be conducive for the discussion, and most importantly because…

2. I’ve noticed that many, many of the students who attend Winona State University are surprisingly religious. Conservative. Many of them Evangelical and fundamentalist. Religion in the classroom, even moreso than politics, is incredibly polarizing and divisive to the point where one doesn’t even want to go there. In the past, despite my considerable knowledge of religion, I have avoided the discussion precisely because considering Biblical texts as authority has seemed like lunacy. And it is! But obviously religion in America is becoming more alarming than it has been for some time. If our students are buying into the lie, it almost becomes the moral duty of educators to help them out of it. Fanatical students are likely to be offended and turn away from a film like Maher’s Religulous. However, critically encountering this film under the direction of a moderating influence like my own may help them into a more sane and liberated way of engaging with their society.

I still haven’t determined precisely what to make of Religulous, however. Is it comedy? Is it investigative journalism? Is it ambush politics? And if it is any or all of these, how is one supposed to react to it?

Perhaps one can only respond in kind. Or perhaps one can one-up Maher with a kind of satire so dry it is mystifying. Enjoy!

May 20, 2010

Genre and the Composition Course and Millay’s Valkyric Sonnet

Filed under: Uncategorized — Gabe Dybing @ 8:50 pm

Lately I’ve been thinking about a certain writing assignment for my composition course. Last year I learned that I must not assume that the students and I have much shared knowledge – if any – when it comes to writing and reading. I have become increasingly alarmed that many of my students do not even know what it is that they are looking at when I assign them texts. What I mean is, students don’t know genre. Here are two illuminating and perhaps sadly humorous anecdotes: many times I receive a student paper that refers to an essay or an article as a “short story.” On one paper in particular, one that had to do with a novel, I wrote, “Don’t continuously refer to ‘the book, the book, the book.’ It’s a ‘novel.’ Call it so once in a while.” Then, on the next paper, which concerned a memoir, this student, attempting to perform to expectations, had properly stopped referring to “the book” but now referred to the memoir as a novel. Consequently, last semester I spent an entire two weeks talking about nothing but genre.

And genre has proven to be an interesting topic. Last semester I found it beneficial to use a formula that I pulled from Janet Giltrow’s Academic Writing: An Introduction. Basically, she writes, “Situation + Form = Genre.” I like to add to this by formulating “Situation” even further as “Situation = Audience + Purpose.” I like how, in theory, this formula can be applied to any situation. It also encourages one to recognize the multiplicity of genres. Let’s take something really simplistic, the “grocery list,” and break down its generic components. The “Situation,” comprised of “Audience” and “Purpose,” specifies that the “Audience” is the writer oneself, and the “Purpose” is to remember what one wants to purchase at the grocery store. The “Form” is a variety of single-item entries, usually on a slip of paper, usually as a column, whether they’re in a certain order or not. All of this adds up to the “Genre” of the “grocery list.” This can be applied to any piece of writing or communication. The “Facebook update,” for instance, has an audience of “Friends,” usually both “Public” and “Private.” The “Purpose” is to communicate one’s feelings, to get attention, to announce something about oneself. The “Form” is online, electronic, and short, easily digestible, a “wordbyte,” and for most of us it need not be excessively proofread or even grammatically correct.

The value of this kind of approach to genre, in theory, encourages students to outline political and social considerations that may potentially influence any kind of communication. If a student’s Facebook Friends include Family, for instance, the student would be wise not to include anything incriminating or offensive in his or her update. To touch on some more classic or conventional genres, the purpose of the novel is to entertain, though there may be some latent ideologies in the text, some “passive persuasion,” if you will. Dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World, for instance, complicate the ostensible purpose “to entertain.” (Graham Greene, incidentally, must have thought that “literature” had a greater purpose than mere entertainment, since he differentiated his “detective novels” from his other works by referring to them as “entertainments.”) Even the apparently easily accessible, fast-paced Water for Elephants, which has been a surprising favorite among my students, has a lot to say about class inequality and issues concerning so-called “meritocracy.” To look briefly at another common genre, the purpose of an essay or editorial usually is “to persuade.”

So, in my past classes, and what I intend to do to an even greater degree in my future classes, is to take a moment with each new form of communication that is introduced in class and to break it down according to this formula for genre. Hopefully students will also begin to see how ideology begins to influence genre, as well, and perhaps a good way to really make that clear is to make their first really large writing assignment about genre.

And it seems to me that a good way to get them thinking about genre is to have them analyze two genres that contain the same material, or content, and then see how that content changes or is repurposed according to the demands of the situation. A great way to look at this is to compare how a novel functions in comparison to a film that is based on it.

Last semester I tried to do this with Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A and Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire. It’s not enough for students to write things like, “This was the same, this was different.” It’s important to try to push them to the oftentimes very difficult next level and examine why this is the same. Why this is different. I find it interesting that Q & A is an international bestseller, written by an Indian diplomat, that, though it contains a love story, even more than one, by no means makes it its center, the focus that the film Slumdog Millionaire seems to make of it. These are the questions I want my students to attempt to answer: When material in the book is left out of the film, why is this? Is it simply because it doesn’t properly function in the much different genre of film, or did the producers leave it out because it undermines an overt or latent political agenda? Is it because of audience? Do the producers believe that most people in the world want to go to a movie that is mostly a love story? Do they believe that some material will not resonate with their viewers?

I would like to try this again with a different book-to-text event. Does anyone have any suggestions? Recently I saw Peter Jackson’s very disappointing The Lovely Bones, and, though I read the novel years ago, I feel like the novel had a lot more going for it. I’m a bit reticent about using something so violent and disturbing in a composition class, however. I did consider using Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky and the 1990 film of the same name, since the Winona Symphony Orchestra will be performing some of Bowles’s music next year, but I have been learning that works that I’m increasingly thinking of as “literature” are nearly opaque to my average student. I’d rather have something that is more accessible. (This, of course, raises a topic that should be addressed in a later post: is it important to expose our composition students to so-called “literature” – potentially difficult, classic texts – or is it enough to have them read contemporary novels and memoirs that employ fairly unelevated writing styles?)


Speaking of genre, I have begun my grand summer project by successfully memorizing the first sonnet in Millay’s Fatal Interview. Here it is:

What is this thing that, built of salt and lime and such dry motes as in the sunbeam show, has power on me that do daily climb the dustless air, for whom those peaks of snow, whereup the lungs of man with borrowed breath go labouring to a doom I may not feel, are but a pearled and roseate plain beneath my winged helmet and my winged heel? What sweet emotions, neither foe nor friend, are these that clog my flight? What thing is this, that hastening headlong to a dusty end dare turn upon me these proud eyes of bliss? Up, up my feathers, ere I lay you by to wander barefoot with a mortal joy?

This is from memory, so the punctuation may not be Millay’s, and of course I didn’t reproduce the original form since I don’t know how to make this site not insert a blank line every time I hit “Enter” (another feature of genre!). I’m convinced that in this sonnet Millay is constructing her speaker as a valkyrie, one of the Norse god Odin’s winged attendants from the battlefield. Consequently I am refreshing my memory of the most famous of valkyries – Brynhild – and her love affair with Sigurd by rereading The Saga of the Volsungs. How do you think I’m going to respond to Millay? Well, to give you a preview, I intend to point out that Millay’s speaker is not really giving up anything. Valkyries may put aside their wings for a while to be with a mortal lover, but their first and last loyalty is always to Odin, and off they go at his slightest whim. Furthermore, I’m going to point out that the most famous of love affairs with a valkyrie ends in tragedy, tragedy for all, but particularly it means the death of Sigurd because of jealousy between Brynhild and the enchanter Gudrun.

Wish me luck! Keep posted!

In other news, I’ve been reading some of Philip Roth’s works. I’m about to finish Goodbye, Columbus and Other Stories. I also recently finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and am very much looking forward to seeing the film. I also read Neil Gaiman’s Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader.


May 13, 2010

The Weekly Musings of a College Reading and Writing Instructor

Filed under: Uncategorized — Gabe Dybing @ 5:09 pm

My grades are handed in. Another school year is over. The summer is before me. I think I’ll start a blog.

I intend for this to be a record of the thoughts, feelings, and efforts of a college reading and writing instructor. Of course I have other aspects of my life that inform this practice: I’m a poet, a scholar, a writer of prose fiction (mostly of the speculative variety). My summer is already filling up with work of this nature. In the upcoming fall semester, I will present on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s long sonnet sequence Fatal Interview. In preparation for it, of course I will research it, but I also will try my hand at responding personally, in sonnet form, to each of Millay’s. This project strikes me as what someone in an MFA program would do for one’s creative thesis. A colleague suggested that, in the future, I might want to pursue a creative PhD, so this would be good practice.

I also joined a local writing group. I have already begun to write, in longhand, a strange fairy-tale-esque piece about protagonists “Scratch” and “Hairy Mary.” Goblins and witches are involved. It should be fun.

And this may inform a class I will be teaching for children grades 3-8 for two weeks in July called “Writing Fairy Tales.” There was this game I played once in which common symbols/tropes of fairy tales were printed on cards. Whatever was on the played cards had to be worked into a fairy tale that was being created vocally and communally. I intend to try something like this with the children. Of course we’ll isolate favorite fairy tale elements on our own, and make up our own cards. Hopefully I’ll have the resources to collect all of the tales that get generated into a story book that each student may take home at the end of the class.

And of course I will be reading/evaluating texts for possible use when regular classes resume in the fall. Those interested will see a sketch of what I plan to do complete with reports on how well it works out.

I imagine I’ll update this blog weekly, perhaps on Thursdays, perhaps more than once a week.

Let the summer break begin!

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