Wednesday, December 30, 2020

What I Learned from Teaching What I Don’t Know


My most often used phrase on this blog: It’s been a while.

I’ve been busy.

For the first time, I’ve taught what can be considered a “full load” for a working college teacher. Nine semester hours, three courses. In total, just under seventy students. And none of these courses were anything with which I am intimately familiar: Tolkien, Fantasy Writing, Foundations in Creative Writing.

Let me amend that. I’m not familiar with teaching those classes, though I have some familiarity with the basics in each case.

But I had to put each course together by scratch, no matter who had taught it before or under whatever circumstances. I can’t teach someone else’s course any more than I  can wear someone else’s clothes.

And I had to put each course together as online classes.

Thank you, Covid-19. Teaching online is never my first choice, though I’ve considered creating online courses before. Considered.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Be assured, it’s more work than you would bargain for.

Never in my wildest dreams (and my dreams can get pretty wild) would I have imagined myself teaching a course on Tolkien. I mentioned that before, when I was dragooned into finishing Jana Tuzar’s course for the spring semester.

But here’s what I learned (other than that I know little or nothing about Tolkien): when you teach in an arts college, allow your students to make their final projects art projects. Let them paint their final exams, or design them for the stage, or interpret them musically, or through oral interpretation, or re-stage scenes from The Lord of the Rings as comedy sketches. These students won’t let you down.

The course Foundations in Creative Writing is supposed to acquaint students with many aspects of the creative writing world. Apparently, it’s also supposed to acquaint them with the lingo that will make them sound like grad students in an MFA program.

Forget that.

Find some interesting exercises and let them go to town. They won’t do what you think they’re going to do, but you’ll be surprised with what they come up with.

And give them interesting things to read. My students ended up reading a lot of science fiction because, since I’m not teaching any science fiction courses this term, I had no one else to give them to. Chances are they’ve never read anything like it before, and the stories present the notion that they can write in ways that they hadn’t imagined they could try before. Not always, but it’s worth a shot. In many ways, my Foundations students were the best ones I’ve had in a long time.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from teaching all these courses this term has to do with the inclusion and/or intrusion of some critical language in the creative process.

You can’t go far into reading Tolkien studies without running into the term “secondary world.” That, according to critics, is where the fantasy world is. The primary world is “our” world, which runs by the rules Nature set out for us. The secondary world is Wonderland, or Oz, or Narnia, or Neverland – the place that follows its own rules and can contain magic, dragons, elves, fairies, giants, shape-shifters, and whatever else you can come up with.

One of the students in my Fantasy Writing Workshop is very interested in writing fantasy set in current times. In the bookstore, you’ll find all sorts of books shelved together or labeled as “urban fantasy.” We’d hit upon a quote from Flannery O’Connor: “I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein – because the greater the story's strain on the credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.” (from “Writing Short Stories” in Mystery and Manners).

Suddenly it occurred to me: what you need to do is take these convenient labels, primary world and secondary world, and turn them around. What we think of as the primary world is actually the secondary world, and it is contained in the world of fantasy. The “real” world, of magic and dragons and all the rest, is all around us, in hiding, in disguise. What the author, through the characters, has to do is see through the veil that the “mundane” magic-less world throws around us.

I’d given the class an exercise, “Magic All Around You,” based on that premise. I wanted them to come up with a fantasy story based on what they could see out a window. A closed-up doorway to an abandoned warehouse might just be a “portal” to another world (“portal” is another word you’ll find is popular with critics). The woman at the window in the building across may be a sorceress. Statues may come to life at three a.m. A box of candy may contain the souls of the damned. What we see may not be all there is to see in any given place at any given time.

We played around with this a little in my Tolkien class, too. So much is made of Tolkien’s secondary world of Middle-earth. So I brought in the work of “outsider” sculptor Tom Every, AKA Dr. Evermor, and the music of Sun Ra, and how these artists assert their secondary worlds into our primary world.

Most of us, in fact, have lived with secondary worlds in our imaginations most of our lives. It is a survival skill in a universe that demands our sublimation into a conformity we’re told is necessary but really is no such thing.

To quote Luis Buñuel: Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether.

The important thing is to get past the labels. Or reverse them. Or stretch them out of shape. I used to quote Damon Knight about science fiction not being a literary category but a point of view – a way of looking at the world. The same is true of fantasy. And it may as well be said that it’s true of “realistic” fiction too.

And if I ever get the chance to teach this course again, I have a better handle now on where I should take it.


Sunday, June 7, 2020

What I Learned Teaching Tolkien -- Part One

Well, six months without posting, where have I been all this time?
Well may you ask.
I’ve written some posts, but couldn't finish them to my satisfaction. I have about a half dozen sitting in one state of incompletion or another.
Things got busy.
Even though I was scheduled to teach one course for spring term, I was asked to sub for another for two weeks – a course on the Harry Potter series, which I never finished reading, and the books I had finished reading have been on the shelf untouched for years. But hey, can I sub? Of course I can sub. Any kind of literature, any kind – I can work something out.
So what happens next?
All the school’s courses have to be switched online. And the instructor for the Tolkien course, who is not too big on technology anyway, and is a high-risk, category, and has been itching to sneak away and write a book about ... about what? Teaching Tolkien, of course. Anyway, the heads of the English/Creative Writing department ask me to take over for her. She askes me take over for her. Her students think the course is being taken away from her, so they contact me. 
“Help! The English Department is trying to turn over the Tolkien class to some other teacher!”
“I know. I’m ‘the other teacher.’”
So this bounces back and forth, and I bring in the Part Time Faculty Union, because the department can’t really negotiate these sorts of changes without them, and the thing goes crazy for a few weeks, and the next thing I know I'm teaching Tolkien.
How did that work out for me?
The short version: not so bad.
I went into this thinking I was the least qualified person to teach Tolkien anywhere at any time. 
It then occurred to me that when I started out teaching Science Fiction Writing I believed I was the least qualified person to teach that class, ever. 
I’d met some of the students beforehand. Some of them had been students in my other classes. It was a big class, too. Almost thirty on the roster. twice as big as almost any other class I ever taught except for Freshman Rhetoric and Composition thirty years ago. But one thing about this class: they all loved Tolkien and they all knew ten times more about him than I ever knew.
What do I need to know about Tolkien? I thought. I have students. Just come up with some interesting discussion topics and let them teach you.
So I did.
The next few posts will comprise of some of the discussion topics I came up with for my online classes. I won’t reprint their responses, because that’s their work and they are entitled to their privacy. But I want to share with you some of my responses, because they surprise me even now. They make me sound as if I know what I’m talking about. In some cases, that’s the hardest thing for any teacher to do. And in this case in particular, it means that I actually learned something in the process of teaching the class. You may not think it’s true, but for any teacher, of any subject, that’s the most important part of the process.
Below, was the first discussion topic I gave them. We’d been away from class for three weeks and suddenly we were going to have to go about this subject in a different way, to students who were now scattered two-thirds of the way across the globe.
If you’re trying to make sense of a pandemic, there are worse writers to be sequestered with than J. R. R. Tolkien.

Tolkien in the Post-Covid-19 Age
"I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it."
-- J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 1939
To inaugurate our "return" to class (online, at least), I'd like to pose a general question, or questions, in regard to Tolkien and what has been happening to us these past few weeks.

The question: has your reading of Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings, seemed more or less relevant in light of what the world has been going through with the Coronavirus crisis? If so, in what ways? What parts speak to you more clearly now than before? Or, is it harder now to concentrate on a work of fiction, of fantasy, in a world that seems more unreal than ever?

Does TLOTR help you keep your mind off of what is happening, or does it in some way help you comprehend, realistically or metaphorically, a dangerous and mostly incomprehensible world?

Your response is meant to be more personal than critical or scholarly. You can speak from your own experience as you can speak from which parts of the novel, or sections of Tolkien's other works, speak to you most personally (or don't).
It's okay to veer off topic and tell us about your own experiences this past month or so, where you are, what you've been doing, what you has changed, and maybe what hasn't.
I've only met a few of you, so it would also be helpful if you could go a little way in introducing yourself to me.
The ground rules: every comment is valid. Every reading is valid, even when, or especially when, it disagrees with your own. In other words, be nice. You can rail against politicians, administrators, executives, etc., all you want. But amongst ourselves we shall be generous and empathetic.

The important matter is that every voice be heard. We have all lived through the past few months. We all have something to say.

Also, it occurs to me that I haven't introduced myself to you. 
I'm mostly known as a writer, but I've been teaching at Columbia since 2009, mostly the science fiction writing courses, but circumstances have forced me to branch out a bit. I got my Master's in English at Northwestern, and my thesis focused on Chaucer (why doesn't this school have a Chaucer class?) I refer to myself as a "recovering academic." My fiction and poetry have been nominated for a few awards and a long while ago I was fortunate enough to have won a Nebula, which is the award members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) give out every year to works they deem worthy. 
What fascinates me about Tolkien I'll explain as we complete this course, but in brief it is this: there are scholars and then there are writers. Few can be both. Tolkien did it, and did it brilliantly, in that he managed two great works that have captured the imaginations of millions. No meager accomplishment. How he managed it we will never know authoritatively, but the endless speculations unearth truths we could not have anticipated when we first embarked upon them.

Okay, now it's your turn . . . 

Here are my responses to their comments, which have been edited out for reasons stated above, and to protect the smart (them) for the innocently dimwitted (me):
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Sorry to hear about your layoff. Hope your dad and the rest of the family stays safe and stays well.
      The Hobbit is a great book to have read to you. I think it's where Tolkien perfected his storyteller's voice. It's slightly different in LotR, but it's because he knows he's addressing a different, older audience. Nevertheless, he always seems to be aware that he's telling his story to an audience, to readers. 
      I think you're taking a good approach. You can appreciate the book more when you take it a relaxed pace. No spoilers, but depending where you are, things are about to get a little rougher for Frodo and company.
      Stay well. Stay safe.
      Reply to Commen

    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Greetings, ___,
      I think you've picked up on one of the most important themes at the heart of TLOTR: change, and how we respond to it. Something I hope we can get into later is the view in certain scholarly circles that literary fantasy is fundamentally conservative, as opposed to science fiction, which is seen as fundamentally progressive. It's obviously an oversimplification, but it's affected some folks' reading of Tolkien and other contemporary fantasists. The attitudes toward change expressed by the array of characters in TLOTR demonstrates Tolkien's understanding of the complexity and multi-facetedness of change. That may be why so many science fiction writers have admire and have been inspired by Tolkien's work. The differences between one work of fiction and another has less to do with content (magic, technology, "realism" (however one defines that term) and more to do with point of view.  
      While looking for something else, I recently ran into this quote from Ray Bradbury: “…fantasy, and its robot child science fiction, is not escape at all. But a circling around of reality to enchant it and make it behave. …all science fiction is an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.” I think that ties into what Tolkien was expressing in "On Fairy-tales" and "Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics." While so many of us are looking for "escape" in this Covid-19 world of self-sequestration,  we're not necessarily escaping from something as escaping to something. In that way, one can see TLOTR as speaking to us more directly now than many other works from the twentieth century.

      Stay well and stay in touch.
      Reply to Commen

    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi ____,

      Good to hear from you. I'm looking forward to getting back to something that at least virtually resembles the swing of school as well. In some ways what's happened has been overwhelming but, for better or worse, the best way to keep going is one step at a time. Not that every college course is logical and comprehensive, but in comparison to a lot of what's happening "out there," we make a hell of a lot more sense. 

      Stay well.
      Reply to Commen

    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi ____,

      I guess we're consuming so much media because the minute we step away from our books, movies, shows, game, we're assaulted with more statistics and scary news. And . . . cabin fever! Good art of any sort seems to give us another place to go to when we quite literally have nowhere else to go -- except for short walks or a run for groceries. The incredible thing about Tolkien, at least to me, is the deepness -- the dimensionality -- of Middle-Earth. He doesn't just suggest an entire universe, he presents it, every significant little scrap and grain.

      More later. Stay well until then.

    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi _______,
      Good to hear from and best of luck with the grad school offers, however you decide which way to go.
      I think your attitude toward the arts is perfectly sensible, or at least it's one that's more dear to me. It boils down to this: you can't use a piccolo to play a tuba solo. You can't paint details in a canvas with a house painter's brush (at least not comfortably). Every art, every form, defines its own limitations -- not that one can't explore those limitations, but very often there's much more space in defined area of one art or another than we first imagine. Another approach is that if you find yourself coloring outside the box, you're not necessarily redefining the form, it's just that you've discovered the lines that make up the box are in the wrong place.
      There's more room than a lot of folks tell us there is. I remember all the hemming and hawing when "Free Jazz" came in back in the Sixties. Just because you're doing one thing doesn't mean it replaces the other.  Bop didn't replace Swings, Cool didn't replace Bop, Free and Progressive jazz didn't replace Cool, and all the little movements and forms that filled in the spaces around them.
      I ended up teaching creative writing because that's primarily what I do, and it defines the way I look at literature. It's an active engagement between author and reader, between performer and audience. It's a living thing. Lit classes -- not all lit classes, and certainly not this lit class -- doesn't get to "examine the body" until it's been brought from the morgue. Artists are primary care physicians. Scholars are pathologists. and coroners. Exceptions granted -- gratefully.  And some can be both. Tolkien, for example, is an exceptional scholar and an enormously talented author. 
      And I guess that's why we have this class.
      All the best, Michael. I hope that must of the venues can open and provide remunerative gigs within the next few months. I tend to agree with this quote from my "sorta" mentor, Algis Budrys, who taught at Columbia way back when I was an undergrad: "I think that all forms of fiction and art are actually survival mechanisms. Far from being frills and decorations on the face of some kind of practical world, they are just about the most practical thing there is. They consist of a series of affirmations or denials of conventional reality, and of tests of various facets of reality."

      Stay well. Stay safe.
      Reply to Comment
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi _____,

      Good to hear from you. I understand how difficult it is to feel motivated to do anything. The whole thing has been overwhelming. The way the college has handled the dorm situation is at best haphazard, at worst incompetent. If they had spent as much time developing a respomse to a pandemic emergency as they did to monetize every aspect of college operations, things might have gone a little smoother. I could get atop a soapbox and rail against their idiocy, but I'll save that for another time and venue.
      I saw a meme the other day that said something like (can't remember the exact wording) that we all have to become Frodo now, or "We are all Frodo now" (unless of course we're not). I didn't ask for the TLOTR plug, so it's in the air. The magnitude of the threat put it there. Along with the knowledge of change -- even if we win the battle, nothing will ever be the same. And another meme with the bit of dialogue between Sam and Frodo, where Same says, "There's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for." Sam, of course, is the secret hero if the novel -- and somehow we knew that from his very first mention, though we were not at all conscious of it until much later. That's what great novelists can do, and it's no easy trick.
      Hang in there and stay well.

    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi ____,
      In the last few weeks, I think we've all been a bit guilty of having trouble getting out to adventure a little bit (within safe parameters, of course). If it weren't for foraging for food and the inevitable quest for toilet paper, etc., looking out the window might be about as adventurous as I would get.
      The marvelous thing about LotR is that Tolkien knew that we readers didn't know what Middle-Earth was like (before Peter Jackson, that is, and from my perspective Peter Jackson in one thing, Tolkien is another) -- it's a creation of his imagination that we can' see, can't know, until he presents it to us. So, within the framework of carefully telling us his story, he just as carefully gives us a tour of this extraordinary world. The tale unfolds in such a way that it's not just a bunch of side trips, but a journey into the heart of this world which, at least at first reading, is wholly new to us.
      Very few novels from the twentieth century do as good a job of presenting a whole new world as vividly.

      Stay well.
      Reply to Commen

    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi _____,
      Good to hear from you. Sorry about all the dislocations this Corvid-19 crisis is calling. I grew up in Chicago, so at times I take it for granted, but it is a splendid place and frankly, if I were stuck in Indiana, I'd feel a little exiled too.
      We'll do our best to relieve the boredom for a while.  I hope the Lord of the Rings as a novel lives up to you expectations.
      Hoping you and yours will stay well and stay healthy.
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk

      Any name is good (though I kinda like ____). But I'll do my best to get it right.
      The animated version of the The Hobbit was certainly more in the spirit of the novel than the multi-movie Peter Jackson thing.
      Tolkien was nothing if not a great world-builder (and a lot more than that). What impresses me most about What impresses me most about Middle-Earth and everything that comes with it is that, in spite of his incredible learning and reading, Middle-Earth is a place born from his own imagination. And as a storyteller, he understood that what came from his imagination did not yet exist in the minds of his readers. He had to put it there. Many writers who try to follow in his tradition are too lazy to do that, and so they pull all these fantasy conventions from off the shelf and they just don't have the same feel.
      Good to hear from you. Stay well and stay safe. 
      Reply to Comment
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi ______,
      Glad to hear you're coping with all the madness. 
      Yeah, I can't help feeling Tolkien is more relevant now than he was when his works first became phenomenally popular a half century ago. Back then, both his fans and his detractors tried to re-shape him into what they wanted him to be. What survives, and will continue to survive, are the stories themselves. He was a great world-builder, but what makes his worlds relevant are his stories, especially LotR.
      Stay well and stay safe.
      Reply to Comment
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Greetings, ______,
      Glad you made it home okay. It's been very difficult for some international students, I understand. For example, I've heard German residents, once they arrive, have to go into a two-week quarantine. Although they're home, they can only see family members from a distance, which can be very frustrating.
      Tolkien brings very basic human concerns -- virtues and failings alike -- into a different context and allows us to evaluate them in ways we wouldn't ordinarily anticipate. Ray Bradbury says that fantasy and SF are a way to solve problems by pretending to look the other way. It doesn't hurt that, in the process, the work can also be vividly entertaining.
      Stay well and stay safe.
      Reply to Commen

    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi ____,
      Good to hear from you.
      Completely understandable to want to leave thoughts of school behind at the moment, especially after the devastation Nashville's been through recently. And . . . it's that time of year. Here in Chicago, we've had storms passing through and this afternoon the wind gusts have gotten up to 50 mph. Luckily, no tornadoes -- so far. Just Covid-19. You lose some and then you lose some. :-)
      Hope you get back into LotR soon. I'm biting my tongue not to say anything about Robert Jordan, except -- had there been no LotR there would not be a Wheel of Time. 'Nuff said. :-)
      All the best, and stay well. 
      Reply to Comment
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Greetings, ______,

      Tolkien is a fascinating guy. In one sense, he should have been an Oxford don, and done what dons do. That is, he should have become an inspiring teacher and scholar, who stuck to his scholarship. Instead, along with being a teacher and scholar, he becomes a teller of tales and, with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he becomes a novelist. But does he follow the path of E. M. Forster, or Evelyn Waugh, or Virginia Woolf? Or, in another direction, does he become a P. G. Wodehouse? As a writer of fantasy, does he become a Lord Dunsany, or a William Morris, or James Branch Cabell, or E. R. Eddison? Or Maybe a Mervyn Peake? No. He doesn't even write like his fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis. He builds a world called Middle-earth, of his own making, and sets a long tale there, with a hobbit named Frodo at its heart. The literati and his academic colleagues consider his work eccentric; some even look upon it with disdain. Why . . . why write such a fanciful piece in such a traditional fashion? Why not write like the other modernists?

      But Tolkien sticks to his guns, so to speak. Three quarters of a century later, Tolkien has millions -- MILLIONS of readers. All the others have their adherents, but none have had their work enter into the public consciousness like Tolkien.

      Opinions? I don't have many, but one I do have is that what separates LotR from all the rest is the STORY. It's the STORY we love. The STORY at the heart of all the world building, and magic, and adventure.
      To pursue a career in comics or any other medium -- go forth! :-) But never forget the story. The one thing we want, even when we don't recognize it, even when we deny it, is . . . we want a story.
      Remember that, and you'll go far. :-) 
      Stay well.
      Reply to Comment
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi ___,
      Writing through observation is a big thing with me as well -- at least I try.  It's one of things that I discovered I admire even more about JRRT, coming back to reading him after a number of years. All his senses are at work. Not only does he have an eye, but an ear, and a nose, and a hand. And what gets me after all these years is that within something like a thousand pages, there isn't a sense image that seems superfluous. It all belongs to the story.
      Good luck getting through all the work that's due in your other classes.
      Yes. We should be the eyes of history. The witnesses. The reporters. We should keep our eyes open, even in our isolation (well, when we wander out in search of food and toilet paper). Otherwise, explaining these times to the generations ahead of us will be reeeeally difficult.

      Stay well.
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi ______.
      Glad to hear you're dealing with the social-distancing aspect of this pandemic fairly well. I've known artists and writers all my life (my adult life, at least), and when the calls came out for social-distancing from the pandemic experts and governors and mayors, etc., my first response was, "Hey, we have experience with this." We need distance just to our work most of the time. The tough part, for me, was having all the cafes and libraries close. 
      Covid-19 is sort of like a shadow falling over the land. In that respect it reminds me of LotR a lot. Unfortunately, we have a really lousy Saruman. The good part is that everyone -- well, not everyone, but a lot of folks -- are uniting to defeat the evil. One might wish for a Gandalf (submit resume here), but we have no shortage of brave Frodos out there.
      Best regards and stay well.
      Reply to Comment
    • Collapse SubdiscussionRichard Chwedyk
      Hi ______,
      Don't feel too bad about taking your time replying. I've been pretty late keeping track of replies myself. I'm in a constant state of catch-up.
      Illustrating children's books sounds like a great way to go. The way publishing works these days, it's one the last places for creative, innovative artists with a gift for illustration and innovation. Children's lit has a great variety of styles, approaches and media. Good luck.
      And say hi to all our friends in Hobbiton. :-)