31 ene 2011

Teaching and Research (II)

If teaching and research are diametrically opposed in our minds, then we will tend to have impoverished, caricatured views of both.

*Research becomes even more "esoteric," if we believe that it could not possibly be of interest to our students. (See Cordon Sanitaire below). The more removed research is from the subject of instruction, the better, according to this mentality.

*Teaching becomes more and more a matter of transmitting very basic knowledge. No intellectual curiosity enters. So you might as well have an M.A. level instructor as a PhD. Customer satisfaction becomes the model and for-profit universities step in to train students vocationally.

We don't offer our students the very best of our research, our best ideas, because those ideas are too highly specialized.

My proposal is to involve undergraduates in research and to start thinking about research differently. I don't mean that we would not allow for more specialized projects, but that we would start to think of an expanded audience.

Are Teaching and Research Opposites?

What makes teaching and research opposite things? Let's examine those presuppositions and refute them.

(1) In terms of sheer time and energy, resources devoted to one will not be devoted to the other.

(2) Some people have particular gifts in one area, but not the other. In other words, if you are good in one, you aren't likely to be good in the other.

(3) Teaching involves the repetition of very basic material; research is about finding new knowledge. They pull us in opposite directions.

#1 is a quantitative argument. A heavy researcher at an institution with a lighter load, who is teaching fewer courses, is teaching less, devoting fewer hours to the classroom. That says nothing about the quality of teaching per se. Is the professor with a 4/4 load (four courses a semester) teaching each of these courses better than the research professor with a 2/2 load? Not necessarily. We could say that the teacher with the heavier load is devoting less to each class. After all, we wouldn't say that the teacher with 6 courses a semester is automatically better!

#2 might be true in an extremely limited way. I am sure I am a worse teacher than some who have less prominent research profiles. I'm sure there are those at either extreme, but are those the norm? I know Distinguished Professors who have also won teaching awards. Many of my colleagues who have published widely are very good in the classroom. Some who struggle in the classroom, frankly, also struggle in research. The distribution of "gifts" is uneven, and most people who want to excel in both areas can do so. I do not believe there is a natural tendency for excellence in one area to come at the expense of the other. I'd say, in fact, that excellent colleagues tend to be excellent in more than one way.

#3 is based on a false conception of knowledge. There is no knowledge so basic that it is trivial. Look at Feynman's lectures on physics.

Do you want a professor who has an active mind or not? Do you care more about that than raw pedagogical technique? I've learned from professors who aren't impeccable teachers in all respects, and been bored by those who do nothing wrong in the classroom (except not being interesting in their own field).

We judge teaching by student satisfaction. I prefer to judge my own performance by how much I can get out of the students.

28 ene 2011


I have a new epigraph for my blog:
Pour quelle autre vie réservait-il de dire enfin sérieusement ce qu'il pensait des choses, de formuler des jugements qu'il pût ne pas mettre entre guillemets, et de ne plus se livrer avec une politesse pointilleuse à des occupations dont il professait en même temps qu'elles sont ridicules.

The narrator, Marcel, is reflecting on Swann, who speaks in a snobby, dismissive tone about the high-society activities to which he devotes all of his time. The narrator finds this attitude contradictory. For what other life is Swann reserving his seriousness? All his judgments come in invisible quotation marks, since there is no authenticity in his life.

This epigraph in now way contradicts my other epigraph, the statement of Kenneth Koch that the very existence of poetry should make us laugh. This is a deep laughter, not a frivolous one.

It's all very good to have an appropriately modest sense of our mission as professors of humanities, or poets. We should never reserve our seriousness for another life, though.

27 ene 2011

Cordon Sanitaire

We isolate our undergraduates from our research: this is the mentality that puts research and teaching in opposition to each other. Our research is "esoteric" and presumably of interest only to graduate students and colleagues. Except that it's not. I love getting ideas in the classroom for my research and teaching ideas from my research in the classroom. I'm incapable of erecting a cordon sanitaire between the two main aspects of my job.

Today, for example, I have had to tell two students from last semester to be inconspicuous if they come to my talk in the Humanities Center, since technically undergrads are not welcome there. In my view, the advantage of studying at a research university, even as an undergraduate, is having intellectually engaged professors. God forbid a student should see me in action discussing ideas with my colleagues. The student might actually see that my research is half-way interesting. Or not. But at least that judgment becomes possible.


I know a lot about jazz. I know hundreds of songs, scores of major musicians and a dozen significant subgenres from stride to the young lions. I know that nobody got more out of a song lyric than Sinatra, but that the meaning of Billie Holiday's singing is in the voice itself, not the lyric. I could tell you the difference between Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins, or between Elvin and Tony. I have taught a class on jazz where I held my own.

When I turn to flamenco I fjnd I know very little. I have guitarists and cantaores that I like, of course, but I cannot identify one palo (subgenre) from the next, or explain the evolution of the music except in the most superficial way. I could not explain why one guitarist is different from another. I've taught flamenco in a very limited way, with guest speakers or audio selections, but I don't have enough expertise to teach an entire class on it.


You can attend my talk tomorrow at the modernities seminar, if you are in town. If not, you can read it here. If it asks you for a password to download my paper, the top-secret password is "modernities."

26 ene 2011

Stupid Pedagogical Tricks

I really need some stupid pedagogical tricks, very fast. I can be very good in the classroom, but I need the trick to be consistently excellent. One thing I thought of is to hand out "A for the Day" cards. They are index cards in which I write A for the Day and hand out to students who have contributed exceptionally to the discussion.

The other trick I have is to make sure the classroom is really where I want to be, and that whatever I happen to be teaching is the thing that interests me the most in that particular moment, even if it is not what I'm most interested in more generally. It never works for me if I wish I were somewhere else teaching something else to somebody else, because the students somehow catch on to that. I don't know how, but they do.

Finally, since I dominate classroom discussions when I'm not careful, I am going to make sure that at least 3 students speak between my interventions: profe, estudiante, estudiante, estudiante, profe, estudiante, estudiante, estudiante, estudiante, estudiante, profe....

25 ene 2011

Analog Humanities, Anyone?

Analog technology is underused in today's environment. You couldn't get a grant to give undergraduates $50 fountain pens and make them write everything with those.

Analog humanities means books, paper, and pens. The real human voice in a class full of other human beings. Sound waves through the air.

The digital element won't disappear. I like blogging, writing on the computer, and even converting my analog technology vinyl record albums to digital mp3 format. Digital technology is wonderful for storing huge amounts of information in tiny little objects and sending information rapidly from place to place. It's convenient and fast. I have 50 hours of flamenco podcasts to listen to.

Is the medium the message? Then the podcast of "Enduendando" would have no duende. If the medium is simply the mode of transmission, with no effect on the content transmitted, then it becomes trivial. There is no value added in being digital, except for its convenience.

But convenience is not trivial.

24 ene 2011


Poetry seems to be belong to a genteel sphere of life, sociologically speaking. Yet it is elemental, passionate, basic.

Every genre of music contains everything, potentially at least. Humor, passion, tenderness, bombast, despair, cloying sweetness, cliché.

So one view would be that poetry is classical music. It contains all of that, but to people who don't belong sociologically to the group that listens, it all gets collapsed into the category of the genteel.

23 ene 2011

Raw Meat for the Watch-Dog

Tomorrow starts my class on violence, sexuality, drugs, alcohol, and music in modern Spanish poetry.

I don't like thinking in themes, usually, but I've decided on this multi-thematic focus for the graduate course. The "theme" is like the raw meat for the watch-dog. In other words, it is the attractive nuisance that overcomes resistance to reading poetry. Once the thief is in the store, anything can happen. The insights that come out of the course may or may not have anything to do directly with those particular subject matter.

The idea of a "pure poetry" emerged out of French symbolism. Yet out this same movement there came also a new sense of the urban landscape, the idea of "artificial paradises" induced by absinthe or hashish, new forms of sexual imagination (Rimbaud; Wilde). So the purity of poetry doesn't mean turning away from these things. Aestheticism itself is a kind of mind-altering intoxication.

Music, too, affects the brain like a drug.

Here's a poem by Miguel Hernández for you to start with:
Déjame que me vaya,
madre, a la guerra.
Déjame, blanca hermana,
novia morena.

Y después de dejarme
junto a las balas,
mándame a la trinchera
besos y cartas.

(Let me go to the war, mother. Let me, white sister, dark girlfriend Let me. And after leaving me next to the bullets send me in the trenches kisses and letters. Send me.)

22 ene 2011

Blakey's Bass Drum

I remember several years ago listening to something on the radio and thinking to myself. Hmm, Art Blakey on drums and Paul Chambers on bass. I have never heard that particular combination before. My next thought was that I had become a half-way decent listener. Sure, Blakey and Chambers are pretty distinctive sounds, but still...


There's a 1951 recording of Blakey with Miles Davis, with kind of bad recording quality, where Blakey's right foot really has a powerful impact, like being punched in the gut. He tuned his drums to a looser tension than most other drummers of his generation, getting a distinctive sound not as genteel as that of others. That overall sound, together with his signature crescendo press roll on the snare, give him away.


He's the drummer, too, on Monk's Blue Note recordings. He seems to have a natural affinity with Monk and Powell. I like various versions of his Messengers too, but there's something tiring about Hard Bop after a while.

The 30s

The 30s are becoming a point of convergence for this (k)new book I'm writing. Lorca's duende lecture, his Diván del Tamarit, the earliest writing of María Zambrano, date from this decade, when modernism in its historic phase was ending and something else was taking its place. This something else is what I call late modernism, the long aftermath of the modernist movement. I'd say we are still in this aftermath.

21 ene 2011

The Great Rectangle

Who would my rectangle be?

Lorca / Monk / Frank O'Hara would be the three sides of my triangle.

19 ene 2011

1st two paragraphs of What Lorca Knew

In my reflections about Spanish poetry over the past decade or so, I have been increasingly interested in two paradoxical developments. The first is the predominance of modernism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Why should a movement that reached its historical apogee in the first decades of the twenty-first century enjoy a second flowering almost a hundred years later? The second paradox is that the most intellectually developed form of late Spanish modernism, that of José Ángel Valente, has its roots in Spanish mysticism of the counter-reformation period, and in other intellectual developments that seem decidedly unmodern, or, at the very least, ambivalent toward modernity. The common element in these two developments is the historical anachronism by which Spanish modernity gets displaced—deferred until the close of the twentieth century or superimposed on the sixteenth.

This persistent anachronism gives the late modern movement in Spanish poetry an uncertain and problematic identity. I have dealt with this problem previously, in a book published in 2009, The Twlight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry 1980-2000, but there my emphasis was on the rivalry between Valente’s school and the resolutely anti-modern school of Luis García Montero and the “poetry of experience.” This polemic, which dominated discussions of Spanish poetry in the 1990s and the first few years of the twenty-first century, no longer seems as relevant to me as it once did. Late modernism has not only survived but flourished since 2000. Signs of this ascendency include the canonization of Antonio Gamoneda, the publication of Las ínsulas extrañas, and the increasing amount of first-rate scholarship on the philosophy of María Zambrano.

18 ene 2011


I have a new title for book #5:

What Lorca (K)new: Spanish Poetry and Intellectual History

Quel est votre avis?

16 ene 2011

Seances and Confucianism

Do we have to take Yeats séances and Pound's Confucianism at the same level of seriousness? To me they are both symptoms of modernist weirdness, eccentricity.

12 ene 2011

Classic Prose

2011 will be the year I finish my fifth book on Spanish poetry, What Lorca Knew. I have five chapters to write, but I am confident I will be able to write this much. I have a new approach to writing, based on a combination of my previous approach and the idea of "classic prose" developed by Mark Turner and his collaborator. For more about that approach you can follow my posts on Stupid Motivational Tricks.


All writing styles are based on enabling fictions. The romantic poet has certain beliefs about language that enables him to write an ode on a Grecian Urn. Those beliefs might be unfounded ones, but they make the ode possible. It makes no sense to argue with the fiction.

9 ene 2011

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday to the lovely Akiko Tsuchiya.

8 ene 2011


I make a few soups quite well:

A Boatman's stew: cod, various vegetables (onion, garlic, tomatoes, celery, potatoes), parsley, white wine, olive oil, salt, a dash of cayenne.

Caldo Gallego: a beef soup bone, a smoked ham hock, potatoes, turnip greens.

Polenta and spinach: Chicken broth, polenta, garlic, spinach.

Squash: butternut or acorn, pureed with potatoes, salt and pepper and a few other things.

Once you know how to make a soup, there is no recipe. There is just soup.

6 ene 2011

The Family Business

My dad was a college professor. Two out of three of my mom's brothers have the PhD, as does my brother, my wife, and her late father. Another uncle on my father's side, married to his oldest sister, was also a professor with a PhD (my late uncle Frank). Some of these people are professors, some have entered other areas of life (research, consulting).

In short, the fact that I am what I am is a fairly predictable for the men in my family. Since I was bookish even as a small child, it wasn't that difficult for me to excel once I entered the university. It was like going into the family business.

4 ene 2011


We recently lost two members of our family to complications from Parkinson's Disease. My father-in-law, Mizuki, died on December 24. He was a prominent oceanographer with a great sense of humor. I never knew him to complain about his health, even when he was very ill. He loved opera, but his real loves were his family and the sea.

My uncle Frank Laycock passed away shortly after the New Year. He had been a professor of psychology at Oberlin College before his retirement. He was a sweet and gentle man, so slow to anger that I never actually witnessed him become angry. Speaking in a quiet voice, he commanded immense respect. Frank exemplified the word avuncular as few uncles do.

The world is poorer with these losses, my world in particular.

3 ene 2011


Anachronism is always interesting because it triggers a displacement or superimposition of temporal planes. I dislike it when it suggests a false parallelism. Street gangs in 1950s New York are not equivalent to Italian clans of the 16th century.

We are always anachronistic when thinking about the past--by definition. We belong to a different time. The language of Li Po and Tu Fu doesn't have native speakers anymore.

2 ene 2011


I vow not to write bad prose this year. I am going to raise my standards even higher.

1 ene 2011

Happy New Year

Converting some vinyl to mp3s, hearing some music for the first time, records I bought just before my record player was destroyed in the fire; Herb Levy sent me mix-cd of good stuff, and I bought a lot of itunes stuff with gift certificates I got from Christmas. I'm overwhelmed with new music, which is a good way to begin the year.