Saturday 29 November 2014

So Exam Time Has Rolled Around Again

Recent readers of this blog--a dark evening to you, Uncle Buster and Aunt Pete--have been clamouring to hear my ideas for the final exams. Hush-hush about exams of course but I'll give you a hint, as soon as I get one.
It's tough to overestimate the power of final exam. I like to tease my students, telling them to take care of my class first, the others later. I'd love to see engagement with their last assignment, in one class, which asks them to revise their work from an earlier assignment.
But let's see. On the exams they will have to produce writing; it has to be about writing, more than answers.
I want them to put their language to work at the levels of word, sentence, punctuation.
I want them to stop themselves long enough to think about their choices.
I'll differentiate types of questions by the writing tasks they evoke.
I'll try to, anyway.

Tuesday 25 November 2014


I prefer entries in this blog to those on T or F because here the place is mine, which is not the reason I begin this way.
I was going to write about a slab of concrete I had to pull around with synthetic yellow rope that kept snapping--my class today, I mean. Everybody's tired, but so what. All that drove them was sheer bull-headedness, to do that last assignment and get that grade. I think they could do more. 
So, I'll try this:
I ask them to write a simple sentence, simple as can be. Then we add a word or two between subject and verb, a word or to before. We build story and sentence at the same time.
Or this:
They design a class for Friday. General parameters: something useful on language grounds. Make it happen.
They might have to step out of their skin.

Thursday 20 November 2014

To Dark

It's time to ask whether they believe the characters in On the Road. If (see Part Three, Chapter 7) we say The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn leans its sunny shadows onto every page of Kerouac's novel, the mawkish bits borrow from Tom Sawyer. The blend doesn't work. The cost is that Sal and Dean turn into Hardy Boys. Spontaneous bop prosody--where are you now.
Over at the second class, "Planet Earth" by PK Page didn't settle any more deeply than other poems. We need to take care of the planet, so what.
That leaves the third class. They handed in letters for our class anthology called, but can't we do better, To Whom It May Concern: (though I haven't checked with the class about that colon). I'm to edit and return for 2nd draft. I've got to finish my letter, but what's the hurry. I need dark to do it.

Monday 17 November 2014

Damn, I Hate When a Post I Wrote Vanished

You fans of this blog, I was saying--snowy hello to you, Uncle Pete and Aunt Daisy--yearn after my Loco Log, the story of shinny I played on winter streets in Herbert, some poem I'd killed and brought back to life. My usual topics, in other words.
Instead I carry on this way: re my job, and when I might quit, if I do. To help you understand my predicament, here's the roster for tonight: go over notes of talks students gave on Part Two of On the Road; compile decisions about word, sentence, punctuation made in a set of lovely essays; figure out what to do with "It Wasn't a Major Operation" by Anne Szumigalski (whatever it takes to convey that poems do things). These classes in 40 hours coming up, they're all a good time.
What's tougher is the task of getting to it.
Hate to end on such an ominous note, though. This morning a student stopped by the office for a bit of business then said he'd like to stay a little longer to talk about On the Road. He was digging the book, and he asked me when I first encountered it.
(I couldn't remember. When I was 17, I'm going to say. The Beats, especially Kerouac, took me deep.)
And here's maybe the best part: he's a Science major, near the end of his program, but he'd like to try my creative writing intro class next semester. I asked him if he'd ever written anything and he said no! But he'll be good in the class, because he's ready.

Saturday 15 November 2014


Reading On the Road, my students tend to judge Dean Moriarty as insane, Carlo Marx as weird, Sal Paradise as sad. They're all (the characters, not the students) drug addicts and problem drinkers. These categories tend to become fixed, un-nuanced.
If so, here I am again claiming that students don't want to move or be moved. They don't want to submit or explore. They don't to be challenged or renewed.
Such a claim is unfair to individual students and maybe to all students. I'm not sure anymore. I'm not sure if such a claim is the reason for or the result of my thoughts of quitting my day job.
It's easy to read pointlessness in how the characters in On the Road live their lives. It's easy--as their language, behaviour, morals, decisions, etc., sail past, like lost comets, to deep space beyond us--not to go with them.
Watching North by Northwest last night for the 34th time, I dug again the 50s cars and that long, virtually wordless, cropduster scene set along a road in the flattest of prairies west of Chicago (not far, I imagine, from Sal's Route 66, Chicago to LA). I thought of Dean and Sal and the '49 Hudson. I'm thinking now that more than ever we need, as we always have, to drop out--to go down that "holy road," as Sal says, and get the hell out of who we think we are. 

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Love, I Think

When, in On the Road, Sal meets his Mexican "soulgirl" at the Bakersfield bus depot, he falls, in his way, in love. Love in the Beat sense. None of my students (who spoke) thought so, however. They saw lust, a guy with a drinking problem, just another one-nighter--though it lasts for 15 days, a Beaternity. I've noticed before that I'm less cynical about love than my students are. Like Sal, and maybe like Kerouac, maybe I'm willing to accept love in a moment, willing to get to it. Poor Sal, always "shambl[ing] after" holiness.

Monday 3 November 2014

On the Road

I've said for years my literary hero is Jack Kerouac. I said it again this morning, warning my American Classics students that my bias need not sway their own take on On the Road. I told them the legend of the scroll, the legend of the Pranksters who rode the bus (Neal Cassady at the wheel) across country in the mid-1960s to pay their respects to Kerouac and have him slam the door in their faces, the legend of spontaneous bop prosody inspired by Cassady's mad letters circa 1946, the legend (according to me) of my blast down to Kerouac's grave in Lowell on the 40th anniversary of his death in 2009. The telling of such legends went well, but essay and "chapter talks" assignments spoiled the fun for the students.
Eventually I arrived at the claim that the thematic territory travelled, as it were, by On the Road is the source of its greatness. What is it that people want in this life, I asked. The students wrote on this query a few minutes. And what might "the road" mean? Something straight or crooked, said one student. A way out, said another. And speed.
It will sadden me some day soon to think I'll never again talk On the Road like this.