#WYOA: week five

To be or not to be … that is the adventure!

Monday was devoted to an in-class read-through of Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be. A read-through and a half, actually: after successfully killing Claudius as the ghost of Hamlet Sr., we played a bit as Ophelia (stopping somewhere around Hamlet’s fouling of his stockings). It was fun, and interesting to see what choices the students made—and their choices were often nearly unanimous, which surprised me.

Also on Monday, I gave them a post-paper cool-down assignment, due Friday: find a picture, and describe it in a thousand five hundred words. I haven’t read these yet, but most of them said on Friday that it was fairly difficult—perhaps because they didn’t choose images based on how easy it would be to write about them.

Wednesday was a bad day. I was being observed by one of the writing program’s senior faculty, who’s tasked with overseeing the grad students teaching writing. (She’s very nice, and this is the fifth semester we’ve worked together in this capacity. She’s a bit unsure about the CYOA approach I’m taking, but still very supportive.) The students came unprepared—all but one or two forgot the book I’d asked them to bring, which we needed for the paragraph-coherence exercise I had planned. I improvised, using Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” instead of student writing, and it did not work. They were completely disengaged—several students were reading for other classes, one was surfing the internet, several were about to fall asleep… it was a bad day, and I’m done talking about it.

…except to say that the students played a few rounds of Five Card Flickr, except with cards from the first Cards Against Humanity set.

Friday went pretty well, I guess. I assigned their second paper—an analysis of a contemporary cultural phenomenon, written as an outline (to emphasize structure and organization)—and we talked about it, briefly. We talked about the “worth a thousand words” assignment, and I had them describe a few of the images in far fewer words (15; 10; 5).

Then we returned to To Be Or Not To Be, and I had them spend fifteen or twenty minutes, in groups, mapping part of the book. I started them, as Ophelia, at the moment when she and Hamlet are trying to decide how to kill Claudius: stabbing, drowning, blasting into space (they settle for a hot air balloon, and he first suffocates and then plummets to earth), and a CYOA-book-within-a-CYOA-book. Each of the four groups had a different branch—Hamlet and Ophelia have different, diverging plans for drowning, so nobody got “blast him into space.”

I’m planning to map, as a class, a different section of the book on Monday—Ophelia and Gertrude’s “to the death” chess match, probably—and that will probably be the end of that. My hope is that these exercises are helping them think about structure and organization in a slightly different way, and that this will result in better outline-papers. We’ll see.

Now, I have to finish grading their first papers, so that I can hand back at least part of the growing pile of student work on my desk.

#WYOA: week four

Most of this week was devoted to the first paper, which was due today. The students brought rough drafts on Wednesday for peer review—which actually worked pretty well, for once—and Friday’s class was cancelled so that I could hold individual conferences.

Monday was our only “fun” day; I introduced the students to the “choose your own adventure” genre—only one of the fifteen had read them as a child, which sort of surprised me. I gave them a brief lecture on the history of the genre (Edward PackardSugarcane Island, RA Montgomery, Bantam’s CYOA series and spinoffs, Scholastic’s short-lived knockoff, French experimental literature from the early 1960s, &c). I showed off my recently-acquired ex-library book-club edition of The Third Planet From Altair (from 1979, before it was re-issued as CYOA #7).

Then I had the students form groups of three—which required more prodding than I expected, especially considering it’s not the first time I’ve done it—and gave each group a CYOA novel out of my private library (which sounds pretentious as hell, for some reason) (the novels were The Abominable SnowmanThe Perfect PlanetThe Island of TimeJourney Under the Sea, and Twistaplot’s Secrets of the Lost Island, if you were curious). The students spent most of class mapping the texts; they noticed the preponderance of unhappy endings, the outsize consequences of minor decisions, and the relatively simple branching structure that defines the genre (or these examples of it, anyway).

To end the class, I showed them this map of The Third Planet From Altair (which I found by googling the name of the book)—I could have given it to them as a guide, since it’s what I wanted them to do, but I think/hope they learned a bit more by fumbling with the task for a bit. Then, to give them a sense of the complexity of To Be Or Not To Be—which we started today!—I showed them this:

the poster of the book, which I wished I'd bought during the kickstarter campaign

…which is totally nuts.


“Write your own adventure”

I’ve been trying to write this post all summer; this is my third or fourth fresh attempt, and I’ve thrown away thousands of words. Like Tristram Shandy, I kept getting sidetracked by digressions from the first word, writing about this or that bit of unnecessary background, never getting to the point: the class I’m teaching this semester.

It’s called “Write your own adventure” [#WYOA]—I don’t really like the name, but I had very little time to come up with a title and description: nobody really knew I was teaching a section of first-year writing until after the Fall catalog went live in, like, February. I’d been thinking, in a hypothetical way, about how I might do things differently if/when I taught an introductory writing course again, so I wasn’t scrambling as much as I might have been. Still didn’t keep me from picking a goofy name, though.

#WYOA is based on choose-your-own-adventure stories in two ways. First, we’ll actually be reading some: I have a half-dozen or so “classic” CYOA books, including a “Super CYOA” and a “Twistaplot“; I’ll use these to (re)introduce the students to the genre, and we’ll probably do rudimentary plot-maps of them. We’ll probably also read The Most Boring Book Ever Written, which is a pretty clever take on the genre (as well as an uncomfortably accurate commentary on contemporary American middle-class life).

The centerpiece of this part of the class, though, is Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be, a choosable-path reinterpretation of Hamlet. (Read reviews at Slate, at NPR, at Comics Alliance.) I’ll write a separate post about this book, but right now I want to say that I’m really excited about teaching it; in fact, a big reason that #WYOA even exists is because I wanted an excuse to teach To Be Or Not To Be.

#WYOA is also structured like a CYOA story—the students and I are going to be making it up as we go along. I have the first week pretty carefully plotted out, and the next three or four loosely sketched, but October and November are basically empty at this point (their paper due dates are already set, however). I have a number of assignments planned (a few are even written!), but the order in which I assign them will depend on the way the class unfolds. And while I will constrain and guide their choices to some extent—I can’t let them spend every class meeting watching YouTube videos or something—it’s my hope that they’ll take an active role in what we read, watch, discuss, and write.

This way of doing things would probably terrify some people, but I think it’s going to work well for me: even when I “carefully plan” an entire syllabus, I still go into most class meetings with just a few bullet points and wing it. I think this approach will work well with this type of course, as well: my job is to help the students become better writers, and I think the best way to do that is to show them that writing can be exciting, liberating, empowering—and fun. Doing that requires, among other things, a kind of responsiveness and flexibility that a carefully planned syllabus hinders.

I’ll post updates periodically (ideally after most classes, but I’ll consider once-a-week a success), documenting what works and what doesn’t. Here’s hoping this adventure ends well.

Some books I’ve read recently…

I miss writing full-length blog posts for each book I read—and, maybe, I’ll get back in the habit when I start reading for my qualifying exams, since I need to take some sort of notes on those books anyway——but I have a huge backlog of books that will never get full posts. Here, then, are short (and pithy?) post-lets on the books I read in my “Race as Text” seminar (led by the inimitable Steve Weisenberger).

William Faulkner, Light in August (1932): Dude named Joe Christmas (seriously) rolls into a Mississippi town in the 1930s, takes a job shoveling sawdust at a mill. That shit job is cover for his lucrative bootlegging operation. Nobody—not even him, because he’s an orphan—knows if he’s black or white. Lots of flashbacks: turns out his dad was a carnie, and either black or Mexican, which makes Joe black, at least in the South, especially in the 1930s. He kills a white woman (they’d been having lots of sex, by the way, and everyone hated her because she was a Yankee), and then he gets shot—but he deserved it, because he was black. (Just to be clear: the novel and its characters are racist, but I’m not. Really.)

William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1610): An exiled duke (Prospero), his marriageable daughter (Miranda), and their not-exactly-human servant (Caliban): they live on an island. The duke, who’s also a magician, shipwrecks his brother (who betrayed him) and some other folks (who were also involved in said betrayal) on the island with them. Some stuff happens. The villains eventually repent, Prospero forgives them, Miranda marries the son of the King of Naples, and everybody goes home to Italy—except Caliban, who stays on the island, because nobody wants him. Nobody dies, which is disappointing.

Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines (1668): One white (English) dude, three white women, one black woman: shipwrecked on an Edenic island in the Indian Ocean. They don’t have to work for their food, so they have lots of sex. Their kids have sex. They get divided into clans. Eventually there’s clan-on-clan violence, because the descendants of the black woman just can’t behave in a civilized manner. A Dutch merchant ship happens across the island, helps the three nice clans put down a revolt by the “bad” clan, and then leaves, taking the story (scandal! sex! incest!) back to Europe. Also: “pines” and “penis” are anagrams. Because, you know, penises.

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688): An African prince and his true love are separated—as all true loves are—sold, separately, into slavery in Surinam, where they’re reunited—as all true loves are. The prince (Oroonoko, who gets renamed “Caesar”) eventually leads a slave rebellion, but the rest of the slaves decide they’d rather not. Oroonoko beheads his very pregnant wife, and is going to then go on a killing spree, but instead spends several days on the ground, in the woods, next to the body of his dead wife. He’s eventually captured, at which point he disembowels himself—which is pretty awesome—and the colonial governor has him sewn back up and nursed back to health so that he can be executed properly (castrated, dis-armed, burned).

Mary Hassal, Secret History, or the Horrors of St. Domingo (1808): Letters from an American woman in Haiti to Aaron Burr—written during the brief period (1802-1803) in which the French attempted to retake control of the island following the 1791 revolution. Mostly the letters are about the narrator’s sister’s unhappy marriage to some French dude (the letters are vaguely fictional, but not far removed from “what really happened”: the author, whose real name was Leonora Sansay, was married to an unpleasant Frenchman, and was probably having an affair with Burr, who was—and I’m quoting Weisenberger here—”a notorious womanizer”). Not nearly enough horrors: somewhat disappointing.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787): Lots of stuff about forests and rivers and ports and census data and blah blah blah—I skimmed a lot of this book—with some fairly vitriolic anti-black rhetoric in the middle of a chapter on “Laws.” An example: black people smell bad, because their kidneys don’t work as well as white folk’s kidneys, and so they secrete from the skin what white people piss out. Seriously. In his defense, I guess, he wanted to abolish slavery—but he also wanted to send all freed slaves back to Africa, because he thought whites and blacks couldn’t coexist without killing each other in a war of total extermination. Our third president, ladies and gentlemen!

David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829): “Fuck you, white people. God is going to punish you for making us slaves, and—in His great mercy and justice—he’s going to punish you by letting us kill you all. Get yourselves ready.” (This is an eloquent and passionate pamphlet, despite the fact that it’s also fairly violent in places—lots of “God’s going to let you fill your cups to the brim with wickedness and then pour out His fiery wrath on you.” Good stuff.)

Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly (1799): A tale of two sleepwalkers: the Irish Clithero (such an unfortunate name) and the American Edgar. Things get really interesting when Edgar wakes up in a cave, with no memory of how he got there. He proceeds to kill a panther with his “tom-hawk,” eat it (or part of it) raw—in the dark—and then he kills a bunch of Indians on his way home. Spoiler: Clithero drowns at the end (he is, after all, Irish, and therefore unfit to survive).

Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (1856): Impossibly, stubbornly unperceptive American (merchant) ship captain encounters Spanish ship at a watering-hole in the South Pacific. Spends almost the entire novella thinking that the Spanish captain is both rude and mentally unstable—finally realizes that the slaves have taken over the ship and killed the real captain, and are planning to murder him and his crew, and take their ship, too. Lots of killing, at the end—and based on a true story!

George Schuyler, Black No More (1931): A satire: A black doctor (Dr Crookman) invents a cheap, quick, painless process to turn blacks white (by giving them accelerated vitiligo): no blacks means no racism, right? No, not really. Follows the exploits of Matthew Fisher, a whitened black, who goes to work for the Knights of Nordica (the new Ku Klux Klan), stoking white fears of blacks who don’t look black anymore but are still really black underneath—making lots of money in the process. In the end, white is the new black, and everybody’s still racist.

Day 161: Compose a poem and leave it in a public place.

I am not so good at making poems. Remember this one?

That’s why I started on today’s task months ago, as soon as I’d gotten over the shock of Day 20: I wanted a good poem to leave in a public place, so that I could feel pride and not shame. So I surrounded myself with good poetry: Shakespeare’s sonnets, Paradise Lost, Donne, Blake, Eliot, Silverstein. I wrote, I re-wrote, I revised, I started over; I wrote until I looked like Pig:

I finally came up with something I was happy with: something moving, something deep and meaningful, but also something that would resonate with the people, that would embed itself into people’s minds and take root there.

It is a poem for our time, and I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that, centuries from now, it will still be read and taught. It is the best poem of the century, and I’m aware that we’re only eleven years in. My poem is easily better than anything you were forced to read in school.

This is not a poem I could staple to telephone poles and post on bulletin boards and leave on the windshields of cars, like it was a lost dog flyer. It needs a broader audience, a global audience. I had to get it on to the internet, obviously, and into the browsers of millions. But where do people go for poetry on the internet?

They don’t, of course, or not in the sorts of numbers my poem deserves. This was an obstacle, and I won’t deny that I lost sleep trying to figure out how to overcome it. It finally came to me when I was in the middle of something else — mowing the lawn, maybe, or urinating on my compost — make it a goddamned song.

So I set it to music. I found someone to sing it. I made a video. I posted it to YouTube four months ago, and since then, it’s been viewed over one hundred and sixty million times. That’s right: one hundred and sixty million times. Maybe you’ve seen it already, and didn’t realize I was behind it: I’ve tried to cover my tracks. Today, though, this second Friday in June, I’m ready to claim responsibility.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and rejoice.

Day 142: Sense-less day.

“Go through today with out your sense of taste.”

Ah, yes. This came sooner than I expected.

Obviously I didn’t go through today without tasting things in the physical sense: that would have required permanent mutilation, or coating my tongue with lidocaine, or not eating, and none of those are things that I would have done. I had, rather, to be ‘tasteless’ in the more informal sense.

There are different kinds of tastelessness, though. There’s an ignorant sort of tastelessness, where one thinks that a velvet Elvis and the Mona Lisa are about on par as works of art, and how many hits did that Lisa lady have, anyway? She was Judy Garland’s daughter, that’s all. Elvis was the fucking King.

There’s a more aggressive tastelessness, though, which knows the rules – knows which fork to use, and when, and for what – and which breaks them just for the sake of breaking them. Even here, though, there are different styles or degrees of tastelessness. One could use the wrong fork to eat one’s salad, and leave it at that; or one could draw attention to the fact that one was using the wrong fork by keeping up a running dialogue about how stupid forks are. Hamlet was tasteless in this way, and it’s often fun to watch.

One could, to take things further, use the wrong fork for one’s salad, and talk about sexually transmitted diseases and dismemberment and various bodily fluids and rotting animals while doing so. This is advanced tastelessness, I guess, but also the sort of dinner conversation that seems normal when you’ve been raised by a biologist (not that I want to blame my parents for my tastelessness).

The height of tastelessness, though, is just to shit in one’s salad. At the table. In front of everyone. Which is what I did at dinner tonight. Then I called the waiter over, and said, “Excuse me, but there’s a turd in my salad.”

…this didn’t go over well, as the ‘waiter’ was my wife, and she’d watched me – dumbfounded – while I took the shit in the first place.

Day 93: Humility day.

This is, really, an impossible post.

If I had been humble today – and that’s not a negligible if – I would completely negate that humility by writing about it here. An act done humbly has, as a necessary component, the element of not-drawing-attention-to-the-fact-that-you’re-doing-it. Can’t have trumpeters walk in front of you to draw attention to your humility, or something like that.

What options am I left with? I could attempt to be funny, and talk about all of the outlandishly humble things I did today – and in such a way as to make it obvious that I didn’t realize what an ass that made me. Something like this:

Yeah, I woke up at 4 a.m. this morning to make waffles and bacon and scrambled eggs and coffee, which I loaded up on my xtracycle and delivered to local homeless people – and I gave them massages while they ate, because I’m just such a nice guy. I painted an orphanage, repaired the playground equipment at a park in the poor part of town, and saved a few kittens on my way to volunteering at the food bank. I had to postpone visiting sick children in the hospital, because I hadn’t finished making the teddy bears I take them – I make them by hand, from sustainable, fair-trade, ethically-sourced materials – and I hadn’t gotten those done because I spent the early afternoon reading to the blind at the local library. Oh, and I built four houses for underprivileged families.

That’s not particularly funny, though, and it made me feel dirty to write it – and not in a good way, either.

Fortunately, the Book’s secondary instructions gave me a way out of this dilemma: I was directed to meditate on the enormous odds against the existence of human life in general, and my life in particular – sort of the secular version of “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” – a sentiment best expressed (as are so many things) by Bill Watterson:

This sort of cosmic humility is a slightly different animal than the humility-as-action-or-service model that I think is the more common understanding of the word, at least here in the West – and our unmeasurable smallness relative to the universe at large is a good thing to keep in mind, certainly. I’m not sure it’s much easier to write about, though. How would that go? “My life is an unimportant cosmic accident, nothing I do matters, might as well drink all the time and throw golf balls at little kids during recess and wander around the grocery store in my pajamas muttering curse words and bits of the periodic table.”

Maybe. That’s funnier than the smug asshole above, at least a little bit, and more fun to write. Not sure I could do a whole post without talking myself into it, though, and I’m not sure drunken harassment of elementary-school children is a wise career move.

Look. I did some stuff today that benefitted people who weren’t me, and I’ll do more stuff that benefits people who aren’t me tomorrow. Other people have done the same for me, and will continue to do so. That’s how life is supposed to work, right? We all depend on each other, and politeness – if nothing else – dictates that we don’t make a big deal out of the things we do to help others, because it ought not be a big deal; common decency ought to be unremarkable, because it ought to be common.

I really did build four houses today, though, which is pretty awesome, and you should all admire how humble and self-sacrificial I am – because, seriously, nobody’s more humble than I am.