Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Pedagogy, Bias, and an Entirely Unrelated Amusing Internet Video

Last week, I had my students read a 1988 article by Peggy McIntosh called "The Invisible Knapsack", an abridged version of which can be found here.

For those of you who haven't read it, it's on the subject of privilege, especially unseen privilege, as it pertained to the white majority in the United States in the late 1980s. I use the past tense there (with reservation) because of the conversation that took place in my class.

Given that it is, primarily, a composition and rhetoric class, we spent much of our time on how McIntosh presents her argument, and the effect it has on the reader. But we spent more time than I expected grappling with the relevance of the article to modern readers.

My students' first reaction was "how old is this, anyway?"

Back up: The majority of my students are 18 years of age. This means that they were born, by and large, between the first day of January and the last day of December in 1994, and for whom, as Beloit's Minset List for this year tells us (among other things) "Slavery has always been unconstitutional in Mississippi, and Southern Baptists have always been apologizing for supporting it in the first place" (that state ratified the 13th amendment on 16 March 1995 -- Kentucky beat them to it by just under 19 years). Since they were young enough to be even aware of politics, there have been prominent black figures in the upper echelons of American governance, with Condoleezza Rice serving as National Security Advisor from 2001-5, later replacing Colin Powell as Secretary of State from 2005-9. (And, as the list also notes, since they were eleven, the job of Secretary of State has been a woman's job).

So it's with a great degree of skepticism that my students came to a list meant to highlight white privilege, with items on it like:

I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can deal with my hair. 


I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of my race. 


I can be sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge" I will be facing a person of my race. 

Which, I suppose, fair enough, right? It's easier than ever before to see, especially in cities, the growing cosmopolitanism of America. All colours of culture have been, to a large extent, equally commodified (and so what if that's just because there was a profit to be made and a market to be explored, right?). And the "person in charge" has been a black man for the past four years (long may he reign). But the real challenge was in getting them to recognize that there are still items on the list that continue to be relevant. Especially in places like Arizona, items like this:

If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race. 

The number of people who get pulled over for "driving while black", "flying while brown", and so on in this country is, in the words of a prominent internet meme, still too damn high. Profiling, I tried to tell them, was a form of racism. And they largely seemed to agree.

But they also seemed to think that the lion's share of racism in this country was due to economic conditions, ones that, at one point in history were due to racism, but now are due to a repeating cycle of poverty only tangentially and historically related to race. Because if everyone is equal, like they've been brought up to believe, then the problem isn't racism. The problem is money.

Well, I'm still working on them with that one. We had to get to compositional matters.

This week I'm having them read an article from Scientific American. "Study Shows Gender Bias in Science is Real. Here's Why It Matters." It's part of my ongoing quest to teach them to analyze rhetorical situations, understand bias, and, this week, how genres produce expectations. I'll let you know how it goes.

Oh, and because I promised in the title, here's a silly video treating the story of Hengest and Horsa as though it were a) historically accurate and b) a first-time home-buyers' TV show. Enjoy?

Monday, 17 September 2012

Thomas Meyer's Beowulf

So it's been a while since I last wrote something on here, but I'm turning over a new leaf with the beginning of the semester. Expect to see more posts on teaching now that I officially have a composition and rhetoric class all of my very own. There will still be plenty of medieval here to see too -- starting today with a discussion of Thomas Meyer's Beowulf, newly published by Punctum Press.

Many of you have probably heard the news: there's a new Beowulf in town. What do I think? I think it's better than Heaney's. Let me repeat that: I think this version is better than the one by the Nobel laureate. I'll explain.

As far as I'm concerned, there are two kinds of Beowulf out there. On the one hand you have hyper-accurate scholarly translations and editions. Of these the generally accepted king is the one that has come to bear the name of its originator: Klaeber's Beowulf, which I believe is now in its fourth edition. There are others, more or less useful for other specific purposes. I prefer Liuzza's prose  verse translation (1) for beginners, because it's accurate enough to be useful for scholarly purposes without weighing ten pounds and being very intimidating, but there are others to be sure. The first type are necessarily prose translations: as Bede said when paraphrasing Cædmon's hymn, "verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness."

The other type are the poetic translations. These aren't ever going to be accurate enough for scholarship, but have other merits, chief among which is their ability to convey (if done well) something of the artistry of the original that escapes prose translations.

For this type judging the best edition is a matter of taste -- who can say what makes a poem more amenable to one person than another. Each poet -- for this type of translation requires a poet -- makes choices. What meaning will be sacrificed in order to meet the requirements of meter, alliteration, etc.? To be sure, even prose translators must make some of these decisions, but for the poet there are many many more.

Meyer's poem, for me, captures something visceral about the original that escapes even the best prose editions. It occupies a peculiar meeting place between the wild lunacy of Ginsberg's "Howl", the impassioned restraint of one of Thomas's villanelles, and the original "Geat epic" in Old English. It also, in its formatting, captures something of the performance, of the way we think perhaps it would have been, could have been performed in Old English. Look:

Especially for the last part of the passage, some comparison is in order. 

Here's Heaney's:

Then as dawn brightened and the day broke
Grendel's powers of destruction were plain:
their wassail was over, they wept to heaven
and mourned under morning...

The Old English:

Ða wæs on uhtan     mid ær-dæge
Grendles guð-cræft     gumum undyrne;
þa wæs æfter wiste     wop up ahafen,
micel morgen-sweg.     (ll.126-129a)

And Liuzza's prose:

When in the dim twilight just before dawn
Grendel's warfare was made known to men,
then lamentation was lifted up after the feasting,
a great morning-sound...

Of course Liuzza's is the most accurate rendition, followed by Heaney, and at a distance Meyer -- but which do I *like* better? Which do you? Heaney is trying to straddle the line, I think, between accuracy and artistry, and I think Meyer has somewhat heroically decided to throw his hands in the air. He's given up the cause of literal accuracy and gone for something else, accuracy of the soul maybe. In the end, it's all up to a matter of taste, but in my opinion, we don't need another accurate translation. We have those. 

Meyer's version fills another need.

(1) It has been pointed out to me that Liuzza's translation, though it stresses accuracy over many formal concerns (like alliteration) is in fact a verse translation with an admittedly quiet four-stress line and medial pause.