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Teaching Lit by Any Means Necessary - How I Became a Bloglodyte

Written by By Robin Bates, Professor of English

Teaching Lit by Any Means Necessary - How I Became a Bloglodyte

Stories are about more than entertainment, Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko writes in her 1976 masterpiece Ceremony. They are “all we have to fight off illness and death.”

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut puts it another way. Without books, he says (only partly tongue in cheek) people would die like mad dogs, “snarling and snapping at each other and biting their own tails.”

My entire life has been devoted to understanding and communicating the potential of literature to heal. For 30 years the communicating has occurred mostly through classroom teaching. In the past two years, to my infinite surprise, it has expanded to blogging.

My incursion into the blogosphere comes as a shock because normally I am rather technophobic. While I am grateful to Guttenberg for having invented movable type, I grew up without a television and live comfortably without either a cell phone or a Blackberry. I have discovered that blogging about literature, however, is the kind of writing I was born to do.

That’s because it allows me to show how centuries-old books are relevant to what is happening in the immediate present. Too many people see the classics as items in a dusty museum case with literature professors functioning as the curators. I am not against museums (far from it) and I benefit from the work of my research colleagues. But as I see it, my own job is to be a dating service, setting people up with the literary partners they need to negotiate life’s thorny pathways. Blogs are ideal for that.

Each day, I post an essay on some intersection between literature and life. An average of 300 people visit each post, from all around the United States and from as far away as Uganda, Slovenia, and China. Some provide thoughtful responses that help shape future columns. On Monday through Thursday the topics are open. On Friday I write about film, on Saturday sports, and on Sunday spirituality. Sometimes I run guest posts written by colleagues and former students.

Here are some of the topics I’ve addressed:

When the debate over expanded healthcare was underway, I imagined President Obama as Lydgate, the idealistic young doctor in George Eliot’s Middlemarch who finds his ambitious plans for a new hospital checked by local political infighting. In another post, I imagined a debate between supporters and opponents, with each talking about how Tiny Tim would be affected.

When Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 soldiers at Ford Hood, I compared him to Grendel, a monster that has been unleashed in our midst. Could we stand firm in the face of such violence, as Beowulf does with his mighty grip? Can we talk down our violent impulses, as Wealtheow, wife of Danish King Hrothgar, does in the epic? Or will we lash out impotently with our swords and with our anger, as Beowulf’s men try to do? Sadly, I have had more than one occasion to talk about Grendel eruptions over the past 18 months.

I’ve used literature to explore anger in the electorate. I cited Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” as a warning to those activists, especially in the Tea Party movement, who want to drive out anyone who doesn’t pass a political purity test. (The scientist in the story removes his wife’s one blemish but ends up killing her in the process.) I suggested that true believers in both parties would benefit from having Shakespearean fools to pierce the bubbles that surround them. (I conceded, however, that Lear’s fool doesn’t prevent him from destroying his kingdom or his loved ones.) I wondered at times whether Obama is a Fortinbras, coming in resolutely to clean up the mess left by Claudius, or a Hrothgar, sitting helplessly on his throne.

When Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were nominated to the Supreme Court, I examined Sotomayor’s childhood love of Nancy Drew mysteries and Kagan’s appreciation of Pride and Prejudice to see what that said about them.

When Spain beat Holland in the World Cup, I compared the contest to Prospero struggling with Caliban in The Tempest. When Michael Vick returned to football after imprisonment for dog fighting, I wondered if he were like Coleridge’s ancient mariner: having killed the albatross (or dogs in this case), will he spend a lifetime in expiation? More than once, watching the 42-yearold quarterback Brett Favre take another hit, I have recalled Ralph Hodgson’s poem about a dying bull:

And the dreamer turns away
From his visionary herds
And his splendid yesterday,
Turns to meet the loathly birds
Flocking round him from the skies,
Waiting for the flesh that dies.

Finally, when the new decade rolled around this past January 1, I wrote a post warning people about the dangers of gazing into Denethor’s palintir, the crystal ball from The Lord of the Rings. Is the Internet our own palintir, I wondered, and do we risk misreading the state of the world and going mad, as Denethor does? Just because black-sailed ships are sailing up the river does not mean that all hope is dead.

I don’t just write about national news. Upon occasion I talk about how recent graduates are using literature to handle job challenges. Sarah Tennant Simmons '06, for instance, told me that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by a patient able to communicate only through blinking his eyelids, reminds her to look for the individual in each and every one of her hospice patients (Sarah is a nurse). Jodie Costa '02 wrote an essay for the web site about how the essays of E. B. White helped her cope with an unexpected period of unemployment.

I also write about personal tragedies. I talk about how I used literature to grapple with the death of my son and how I am using it to handle the terminal illness of St. Mary’s emeritus philosophy professor Alan Paskow. When Lucille Clifton died, I wrote about what she had meant to the St. Mary’s community.

I can't tell all the stories so I’ll conclude with one of the wilder ones. In the weeks leading up to the 2010 Super Bowl, I wrote that Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell had been an English major in college and regularly uses poetry and poetic language to inspire his team. ESPN’s on-line magazine discovered my post and linked to the site. Suddenly, over a two-day period, I had almost a thousand visitors.

Then, on the eve of the big game, knowing that fans from one team or the other would be distraught the following day, I posted the following passage from Beowulf:

Then an extraordinary wail
arose . . . ,
a God-cursed scream and strain of
catastrophe,
the howl of the loser, the lament of
the hell-serf
keening his wound
.

Three or four Indianapolis Colts supporters wrote in thanking me. “Oh lord, does it hurt!” said one.

An 8th-century epic providing solace for a grieving football fan? I’m not surprised because I’ve seen literature do this all my life. Blogging, however, allows me to spread the good news at moments when people are open to hearing it.

You will find Robin Bates’ blog at www.betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com.