Rights & responsibilities

I recently assigned a short reflection essay to my freshman college students. The topic was the rights and responsibilities of voting; I asked which mattered more to the student: the right to vote, or the responsibility to vote (or if they were equal in importance). I then requested that they explain their reasoning.

Let’s just say that I didn’t get too many deeply-considered responses, and I could mention that more than one student wrote about ballets instead of ballots.

But before I sigh too deeply or launch into a rant about the lack of interest young people show about governing the country, I must stop myself. After all, these students are 17 and 18 years old. They have not felt engaged in the process of self-governance of any kind–with a few exceptions–including the responsibilities of adulthood in most of its forms. They are still being financially supported by their families. They have meal plans, so they seldom have to go food shopping, budget their dollars and their nutritional needs, or worry about going hungry. They are emerging from the narcissistic and peer-driven teen years and haven’t had much reason to examine public policy or how it affects them. They haven’t learned yet about fallacies, straw men, slippery slope reasoning, ad hominem attacks, circular arguments, and the ways certain uses of rhetoric can persuade us from rational paths.

They do not usually even understand rationality. They are all emotion and denial, but there is an underlying current of curiosity beginning to stir in their souls. Usually.

At least a few of my students, all of whom are “beginning” writers who lack confidence in written expression, produced brief reflections on what rights are and how they differ from personal, cultural, community, or social responsibilities. Even the least reflective students recognized that the Constitutional right to vote is crucial to a democracy; the more adventurous students argued with themselves about how important it is to “vote well” (ie, to be an informed citizen when one casts a vote). A few decided that if a person votes based on looks or culture or without an understanding of the issues or of how our government operates, that citizen is irresponsible, and it would be better if such citizens refrained from voting.

Then, most of these students added that they would not be voting this November, because they are uninformed.

If my classroom is representative, the US presidential candidates have not been effective among the youth vote. There were a number of students, however, who felt that the privilege of voting is so significant that they fully intend to vote in this election (their first ever); and they say they intend to inform themselves of the issues that matter both to themselves individually and to the nation as a whole.

One-fifth of my class plans to vote. Voting turnout usually runs from 36% to 55% nationally–I have looked at several sites and gotten conflicting numbers–so my students indicate a lower-than-average turnout rate. I hope that after they’ve spent four years in college and taken philosophy and marketing and communication and history and criminal justice courses, they will be more likely to participate in the “responsible” part of being a citizen who has the right to vote.

Here’s an amusing interactive site where anyone can learn a thumbnail definition of logical fallacies: http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

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Philosophy & English are friends

At my day job, I do a great deal of tutoring in writing at the college level. Most students who sit down to work with me expect that I will help them learn to use commas and apostrophes, to write thesis statements and to unclutter their sentences. I do that, but the most important part of tutoring writing at the college level is actually rhetoric. One of the things I constantly tell my students is that Philosophy and English are friends.

Many freshmen have no idea why either course is required for a bachelor’s degree. I hope that the ones who find their way to my office for writing help finally understand–however reluctantly–that composing essays and learning critical thinking skills do merit their attention and do, in fact, transfer to whatever set of skills their majors may require of them.

This past week, my sessions featured the “Analysis for Rhetoric” paper and papers for several different Philosophy professors, including essays based upon readings of Garrett Hardin (the famous “Lifeboat Ethics” essay) and Mortimer Adler. Most of the time, I helped my students read rather than write. It isn’t possible to write effectively about a text one does not understand, and rhetorical analysis is new to most college freshmen. Between the not-knowing-how and the not-understanding, most of the student attempts at paper-writing end up weak and wordy.

With no foundation in rhetoric, essay structure disintegrates. Even sentences often operate with a rhetorical function that few 18-year-olds understand until it is pointed out to them: sentences that offer parallels, for example, or if/then speculative structures, or the this-therefore-that causative rhetoric. If the student hasn’t yet figured out how to analyze a text for rhetorical strategies, he or she certainly cannot structure a credible paper about it. What I have learned is that many people know what they want to say but cannot relay it to a reader who isn’t psychic. I have to keep reminding narcissistic young people that, amazingly, the professor does not share their assumptions or “know what they mean.” Sometimes I use Lego blocks to give a visual, concrete example of linking, scaffolding, and therefore building an essay in a fashion the reader can follow.

After years of tutoring, I often do know what the student is trying to say; but I pretend I don’t. If I say it for them, they don’t learn how to say it themselves–and that isn’t teaching.

~

Two excellent books to study regarding how grammar structure relates to elegant writing are Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences and Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic work The Trivium.

Arts festival

Early autumn is a lovely time for festivals. The city of Easton, PA–situated on the Delaware River–is hosting its 15 annual Riverside Festival of the Arts. There will be music, art shows, food, etc. on September 22 and 23.

 

At noon on the 23rd, I will be reading poetry with Diane Lockward at the amphitheater. Next to the river: a perfect site to read from my book Water-Rites.

~

The link is here. Or check the Events tab above.

 

 

Poetry, art, & a little bit more about libraries

After writing about some memorable libraries lately, I realize that I have been able to pursue my passions–indeed, discover my passions–largely through the help of these marvelous civic institutions. It is time I brought my posts back to those passions, however, particularly to my love of poetry.

My family introduced me to poetry through nursery rhymes and hymns and taught me to love narratives through story-telling of several kinds, so the foundation for my lifelong love of stories and poems existed before I ever set foot in a library; but books solidified and focused my various enthusiasms, and libraries offered more books than I could hope to read (though I tried!). Libraries led me not only to novels and poems but to books on visual art, art museums, artists, art history, and art criticism. If I couldn’t get to the Louvre or Rijksmuseum, to Venice or to Rome, I could borrow an art book from the library and be on my way via imagination.

When I got to college, I spent many hours in the library on campus borrowing books I couldn’t afford to buy. Few of those books were required for my academic studies; in fact, I don’t recall doing much research for term papers. I was reading up on and diversifying my own interests, often unrelated to coursework. A look back at my undergraduate transcripts reveals only two classes specifically devoted to poetry, but I recall reading many poetry collections in the campus library. As a junior, I had a work-study job in an office in the library basement. When my hours were up, I’d walk upstairs to the stacks.

I was finding my own way to what I loved.

~

Needless to say, once I had children of my own, we visited the library often. Years ago, I wrote to the poet Richard Wilbur to tell him about my 2nd-grade daughter’s encounter with Digging for China and how, nearly 30 years earlier, I had been fascinated by the book too. He replied with this modest note. June 2009, I saw Wilbur at the West Chester Poetry Conference. What a talented writer, and what a sweet man.

~

Richard Wilbur

Libraries & book love

In my last post, I drifted onto the topic of libraries–and stirred up images of favorite places. Libraries have certainly been among my favorite places and loom large in my childhood memories. Two of those libraries were new when I entered their doors: the Grinton I. Will Library in Yonkers, NY, which opened in 1962 (I first visited in 1964) and the W. Leslie Rogers Library in Pennsauken, NJ, which opened its doors in 1971. I recall a few distinct discoveries even from my first-grade forays to the Yonkers library. It was there I discovered Richard Wilbur’s Digging for China, a book I adored.

Free public libraries represent one of the best uses and most noble purposes of the tax dollars and philanthropic gestures of citizens in a democratic society. These buildings, some grand and some exceedingly modest, harbor banned books and out-of-print books and sections devoted especially to children’s books; a library admits of free speech and liberated thinking for people of all ages. A library, by its very existence, reminds citizens that education matters and that information can be free, can be borrowed, can be disseminated and shared.

When I was a child, libraries were safe places to hide, to explore, and to pursue my own interests–which often varied quite a bit from the interests of my peers. The library in Pennsauken offered me an early education on visual art. I probably borrowed every book in the place that had anything to do with art or artists, from Aesthetic Inquiry; Essays on Art Criticism and the Philosophy of Art to The Agony and the Ecstasy. The library stocked a book chronicling  the letters of Theo and Vincent van Gogh as well as huge, heavy, hard-cover museum books with color plates of famous artwork. Some of these were stamped more than a few times with my library card’s number.

I also borrowed, and read–enthusiastically and, occasionally, dutifully–classic novels that I had somehow learned I “ought” to read. I read a fair number of junky novels, too, and young adult fiction, and children’s books. Even though I was nearly ten when Leo Lionni’s Frederick was published, I loved it and never considered it a “little kid’s book.” Interestingly, Frederick the mouse gathers images and turns them into words. He is a poet. (A word-artist).

Books: Anything, everything, as bibliophile overlaps with autodidact.

Books were my first and often my best teachers, though I have been fortunate enough to have had some wonderful teachers (formal and informal) in my life. One of them, my grandmother Edna Michael, will always be closely associated with libraries in my heart and memory. She was the Story Lady at her small-town library in South Whitley, IN; and my siblings and I spent many hours in the small white building that housed South Whitley’s free circulating books. We read, and we listened to her read. She would don “an olden-times dress” she’d designed and sewn herself, tie on a large matching bonnet, and gather the town’s youngsters in a circle on the library floor for story time.

She always left the library with at least a couple of grownup books for her own reading material. I was proud to be like her.

A few years ago, the town enlarged its library, added a new children’s wing, and dedicated it in my grandmother’s name. Edna Michael, the Story Lady.

I’m pretty proud of that, too.

ann e michael

The South Whitley Library as it was in 1967, with my grandmother in her Story Lady attire.

Autodidacts & higher education

An early-morning drive to work, low sun gleaming through the remnants of fog, Vivaldi on the radio: Concerto for Two Cellos, a deeply mellow, haunting work of music…and I tried to recall my first encounter with Vivaldi’s music. I am quite sure it was an old Angel Records LP of The Four Seasons in my parents’ modest record collection. When I was old enough to read, I was curious enough about the music to study the record cover, where I learned that Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Italy and had red hair. Our ancient set of encyclopedias (The Book of Knowledge) said he taught music to little girls in convent school. These details, which taught me little about baroque music itself, nonetheless appealed to me as a child who wanted stories. The music seemed to tell me stories, as well–thunderstorms, blizzards, birds at daybreak, mountain streams, slow rivers in the summer sun.

Because I wanted stories, because I sought information and details, I turned to what seemed to me the most obvious place: the library. For three years of my early reading life, that was the Yonkers Public Library’s “new” branch, which seemed impressively modern at the time and which had a fabulous children’s area.

Why I associate Vivaldi with colored light filtering through the clerestories of the library, I don’t know. That’s just how memory works. I also associate my visits to the children’s room at the library with the beginnings of a lifetime of self-teaching through books, music, museum-going, travel, art, conversation, observation, research, and writing. That connection is a little easier to make. Because I was an introverted child, I watched more than participated in the events going on around me. When I wanted to know more, I was often too shy to ask–so I tried to find the answers myself in the place I imagined to be the best repository of stories and information. It was also the only place I knew that could offer such knowledge.

This brief explanation suggests that I became an autodidact because I was socially maladaptive. Or maybe because I was passionately curious about the world. Or because the library room was so magical.

Any of which may be at least partially true. But what I want to say in this post–far too briefly because the idea deserves further reflection–is that while I work in an institution of higher learning and while I believe in the value of higher education, I also believe we can educate ourselves exceedingly well without college degrees. Lack of a degree can limit people in the job market, no doubt; yet some of the most intelligent, interesting, best-educated people I know happen to be largely self-educated. The autodidact has the motivation of personal passion and the ability to be directed by chance and interest, not just to be guided through coursework considered culturally or economically valuable. Most of my older friends have become wise and clever by attending the school of hard knocks and through their personal curiosity and inventiveness; they are true autodidacts, even the ones who actually do have PhDs…but especially the ones who don’t.

Can I go so far as to suggest that we need our libraries more than we need our universities? Why not? I think I started my “college education” when I was six or seven years old because I had the desire to know, the curiosity, the interest. My parents encouraged me, which helped. (For one thing, I could not have gotten to the library if my mother hadn’t taken me there!) Some of my school teachers were also encouraging, but their encouragement mattered surprisingly little. What made the difference was the reward of finding something new, learning a new story, adding details to a foundation of things that interested me.

One of my tasks as a teacher, a poet, and as a mother is to foster that element of excitement when I sense it in someone and to encourage self-directness in each person’s education. Delight: a crucial ingredient in learning that can take awhile to locate but that will motivate a lifetime of knowledge-gathering. Maybe you can find it at the library, too.

A moment of self-promotion

It’s a busy week. I am glad to note that my local newspaper (yes, our area still has a local newspaper) published the following article about my new book, Water-Rites. Many thanks to Collin Roche and Jodi Duckett at the Call.

Profile of Ann E. Michael in Allentown Morning Call.

Thanks for reading, and for everyone’s support for poetry.