A Man Learning to Walk is Comic

What is teaching and why is it comic? The answer includes many things depending on whether you think of the teacher, the pupil, the means used, or the thing taught. But the type situation is simple and familiar. Think of a human pair teaching their child how to walk. There is, on the child’s side, strong desire and latent powers: he has legs and means to use them. He walks and smiles; he totters and looks alarmed; he falls and cries. The parents smile throughout, showering advice, warning, encouragement, and praise. The whole story, not only of teaching, but of man and civilization, is wrapped up in this first academic performance. It is funny because clumsiness makes us laugh, and touching because undaunted effort strikes a chord of gallantry, and finally comic because it has all been done before and is forever to do again.

Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America

I love Barzun’s description of this scene. That last sentence especially has a definite Chestertonian twang.

Barzun wasn’t the first to capture the poignancy of a child’s first steps. Rembrandt did it, too, in a simple sketch that artist David Hockney called “a perfect drawing.”

Rembrandt did several of these sketches, but Hockney is particularly taken with the one above. Here’s his explanation of its genius:

The child is being held by her mother and older sister. The mother grips the child firmly, the sister more hesitantly, and Rembrandt observes her looking at the child’s face to see how anxious she is. The lines of her shoulders beautifully indicate this; Rembrandt even turned his pen round and scratched through the ink to emphasise it. It makes me see the child’s face, a hint of worry in it, indicated only by one or two faint marks. One then begins to look at ink, not mothers and sisters, and marks made by a hand, speedily.

The trace of Rembrandt’s hand is still alive. Your eye can go back and forth between brown ink: sister; fast mark: mother. How rewarding this is, to move from the physical surface of the paper to its disappearance when you read the “subject”, and then back again. How many marvellous layers does this drawing have?

The mother has a double profile, Picassoesque. Was it an accident with the pen that he then used as a master would? Both profiles are fascinating about her character. Her skirt is a bit ragged, without any real detail; one seems to know this, and then marvels at how these few lines suggest it. Then, there’s a passing milkmaid, perhaps glancing at a very common scene, and we know the milk pail is full. You can sense the weight. Rembrandt perfectly and economically indicates this with – what? Six marks, the ones indicating her outstretched arm. Very few people could get near this. It is a perfect drawing.

A Man Made Sunshine of a Shady Place

The late Thomas Roche, Jr. was a professor of English at Princeton. I know of him through his book The Kindly Flame, a commentary on Book III of The Faerie Queene. When he died a few months ago, several Princeton scholars assembled their memories of him, and I particularly love this one from Sarah Anderson:

On the day and at the hour, Tom entered the classroom and claimed the students’ attention: he bowed slightly, and he did not so much shrug his cloak from his shoulders, as twirl it slightly, so it reposed perfectly upon a chair. As he read, Spenser’s Merlin gleamed before us. The ligature between all that Tom knew — of Spenser, epic, Neoplatonism, a medieval and a newer world — was simply in Tom’s voice.

Homo docens

Why, you ask, have you been posting pictures instead of that sweet, sweet written content I patronize this site for? Aren’t you a writer? Hey, man, I reply, I have been writing, just not for this venue. Chill.

The real reason is that I’ve been too busy teaching to think about the things I usually blog about. Since my place of employment has, like every high school in the country, gone virtual, I’ve been using Youtube to teach Latin.

Watch this video to learn to use the optative subjunctive, since I know you have wishes you can only express in Latin.

You can watch more Latin vids here, if you wish. Meanwhile, all I can say is, “Utinam iterum in schola doceam!”

A Man is Easily Distracted

John Milton Gregory, discussing the “law of the learner,” describes two kinds of attention: active, “effortful” attention and what he calls secondary passive attention. You might think that he’d advocate the first kind. After all, students need to exert themselves if they’re going to learn, right? But, no, he says that the second kind, secondary passive attention, is what makes for the best kind of learning. To grasp this, you have to understand what exactly he’s describing.

Generally speaking we learn most easily and most economically when we are “absorbed” in our work, when the objects that we are trying to fix in mind and remember permanently really attract us in their own right, so to speak—when our learning is so fascinating that it simply “carries us with it.”

This secondary passive attention is powerful because it generates its own steam. The student who is attracted to and absorbed in the lesson is going to make the most progress in learning. Students can only sustain so much active attention; at some point, the teacher must take over the heavy lifting and “pull” the students along. That said, active attention does have its place:

Attention of this sort [secondary passive] frequently grows out of persistent effort—out of what we have just termed “active” attention. This attention resembles passive attention in that its object is always attractive in itself and demands little or not effort to be brought into the focus of consciousness; but it also grows out of active attention, out of effort and perseverance…

In other words, the student makes progress through hard work, but can only sustain hard work through something attractive—we might call this curiosity or inspiration or imagination. To guide the body, the head and the heart must work together. (If you’re thinking of The Abolition of Man, you’re not alone…)

A couple of practical applications spring to mind. First, if the student (reader, audience, etc.) is bored, it is at least partly the fault of the teacher (author, artist, etc.). Second, active attention is a skill that can be developed. So you might not like classical music, but if you do the hard work of listening to Beethoven, you may find that, at some point, you become absorbed in the music. But you have to actively listen to even have a chance of being absorbed. Third, so much of our computer technology is designed to eliminate that first step of active attention. The barrier to entry is so low it’s part of the floor. Without that active engagement, there’s no chance of secondary passive attention, only of passivity. Growing pains are good. Without them, technology becomes a crutch.

A Man is Back, With Updates

Ah, fall. School starts, routines begin, school continues, routines falter, school continues to continue, routines somehow straggle on. Few updates of late because I’ve been busy. My drafts folder has gotten full, however, so here’s everything in one big post. Think of it as a newsletter.

One. During Art Walk the other weekend, we wandered through downtown Birmingham, mostly 1st and 2nd Avenues (North) between 23rd and 25th, with a short, bouncy jaunt down the cobblestones on Morris. Birmingham isn’t a big city, which we like very much. We get a bit of city culture and architecture (see photos) but it feels comprehensible in a way that Philadelphia never did. We didn’t run into anyone that we knew at Art Walk, but if we had, I wouldn’t have been too surprised.

Two. Jesse Thorn’s Put This On web series is pretty good. Thanks to limits of budget and subject (men’s clothing) it doesn’t have the scope of, say, Chef’s Table, but it’s informative and entertaining. What more could you ask of a web series? More than the content, I was interested in watching Adam Lisagor develop his style. Lisagor is the creator and director (creative director?) of my favorite explainer video company, the unique — though much-imitated — Sandwich Video. There’s one moment in the first Put This On video when the video cuts to Adam’s face a little “too” early and he stares at the camera for a few awkward seconds before he starts talking. I think Lisagor finds awkwardness funny, which makes his commercials really interesting. You feel like he’s on your side, sharing a joke, almost poking fun at the products he’s selling. Irony as a marketing tactic.

Three. This brings up something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: does faithful living mean cutting with or against the grain of “how the world works?” Ought Christians have the best websites on the web, or ought we spend our energies on more important things?

Four. I somehow landed a job at the local baptist university, teaching two sections of something called Communication Arts. My beat-up standard-issue metal adjunct desk is three decades old and contained one thing when it was delivered to my office: a rusty razor blade. Hint, hint?

Jokes aside, Samford has a beautiful campus (see photo) and has been a great place to work so far. My one-year-old daughter and I spend lots of time sweating our way past the buildings on our daily walks.


Five. The problem with stuff like this is that debunking is the easiest form of argument. You can always say, “My opponent hasn’t read thus and such,” and pretend that you’ve excoriated him when all you’ve really done is list book titles. I haven’t read anything by Jordan Peterson, but I doubt I’d find him as maddening as this dude seems to.

A Man Hates Tweet-Threads So Much He Copied This One Into a Blog Post Where It Can Actually Do Some Good in the World (pace E. J. Hutchinson)

I changed the formatting slightly to make it fit here, all credit to Professor Hutchinson. (And hat-tip to David H., who brought it to my attention.)

In 1941-42, W. H. Auden taught two courses at the University of Michigan. His final in one and his research project for the other are both pedagogically astute. A student reports, first about his fall course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature”: “When he finished this, he explained what we should expect in the way of a final exam, four or five weeks down the road, after Christmas vacation. Pens, pencils, papers for the first time in the semester suddenly materialized and flashed into view. [He had forbidden note-taking on the first day of class — ed.] It would be a three-hour written exam. We would write from memory seven cantos of The Divine Comedy, in the Carlyle/Wicksteed prose version — ‘the one used by Eliot in The Waste Land,’ he confided — beginning with Inferno III, and V, then certain Purgatorio cantos (e.g. XXVIII) and finishing with Paradiso XXXIII. The consternation of the class on hearing this was what one might expect: frozen silence. In a few minutes grumblings began to be heard, mutterings. A group of students, forming themselves into a ‘committee,’ declared the exam impossible and inhumane. Auden, surprised, replied that he did not think it was either, but offered to reduce the number of cantos from seven to five. Resistance, nevertheless, continued. ‘Very well. I am going to be driving to California over the Christmas vacation. If I find I can’t memorize these five cantos by the time I reach Los Angeles, I’ll phone your representative and cancel the assignment.’ It was a deal–rather a reluctant one, on both sides. The ‘phone call never came, so the Dante exam was on.”

The student found that with each successive canto the memorization got easier, until he could memorize an entire one in one afternoon. He later said, “This was possibly the most valuable thing I learned from W. H. Auden, and I have never ceased to be grateful for it.”

In the second semester [Auden] taught a class on the analysis of poetry. Here was the project he assigned: “…Auden gave the class its research project for the semester, which was to compile a list, drawn from the O.E.D., of all the variant meanings, including the etymologies, of each word in Milton’s ‘Lycidas,’ from the earliest recorded usages down to those that were current in the year Milton wrote it.”

This is particularly brilliant. It’s the kind of assignment I never considered giving, but, now that I see that someone else did it, I’m struck by the patent obviousness of what a valuable exercise this would be. The former student comments, “Not being enrolled in the class, I never did the assignment; but one of the students who did once said to me that ‘Lycidas’ was the only poem in the English language he really felt he knew very much about.”

~ E. J. Hutchinson on Twitter

Tweet-threads are the worst.