Some Artists Really Are Too Cool for School

Is higher education the best thing for everyone?

By David Yaffe (Syracuse)

I just finished teaching a poetry class in which nearly every poet had a degree from the Ivy League or Seven Sisters. But plenty of great artists never went to college, or else they dropped out. Walt Whitman and Hart Crane didn’t seem to miss college degrees, and in Tin Pan Alley, neither did George and Ira Gershwin.

True, Cole Porter graduated from Yale, where he was the greatest Whiffenpoof ever. The inventor of the modern incarnation of singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, blew off classes at the University of Minnesota for a one-way ticket to New York City, Woody Guthrie, and destiny, but Guthrie’s fellow troubadour Pete Seeger attended Harvard (before dropping out), where his father was a musicologist. Suzanne Vega majored in English at Barnard, and Paul Simon did the same at Queens College and even did a little time in law school. (Like a litigator, Simon would sometimes begin his verses with facts: “They’ve got a wall in China / It’s a thousand miles long.”)

Leonard Cohen not only has a literature degree from Continue reading “Some Artists Really Are Too Cool for School”

Becoming a ‘Stylish’ Writer: Attractive Prose Will Not Make You Appear Any Less Smart

How can you write better?

By Rachel Toor  (Eastern Washington)

When I watch creative writers perform, I hear a host of mostly unspoken questions. In their body language, self-presentation, jokes, and post-reading interactions, they seem to be asking: Am I boring? Am I funny? Are my sentences flat and flaccid? Is the pacing right? Am I losing the audience? Am I making people feel something? Am I good enough? Ultimately, what I think they’re asking, behind all the bravado, posing, and posturing is: Am I attractive?

Listening to academics, I pick up a different set of concerns: Am I making a convincing case? Have I mentioned everything everyone else has said about this topic and pointed out the ways that they are (sort of) wrong? Do you see how much I’ve read? Have I dropped enough important names? Does my specialized language prove I deserve to be a member of your club? Am I right? At the end, I hear hope disguised as an attitude that asks: Am I smart? Continue reading “Becoming a ‘Stylish’ Writer: Attractive Prose Will Not Make You Appear Any Less Smart”

Next Time, Fail Better

How can you become a better learner?

By Paula M. Krebs (Wheaton)

Humanities students should be more like computer-science students.

I decided that as I sat in on a colleague’s computer-science course during the beginning of this, my last, semester in the classroom. I am moving into administration full time, and I figured that this was my last chance to learn some of the cool new digital-humanities stuff I’ve been reading about. What eventually drove me out of the class (which I was enjoying tremendously) was the time commitment: The work of coding, I discovered, was an endless round of failure, failure, failure before eventual success. Computer-science students are used to failing. They do it all the time. It’s built into the process, and they take it in stride. Continue reading “Next Time, Fail Better”

Hum Along: Or, How I Took Up Guitar and Became a Poet

What have you learned about life?

by David Baker (Denison)

Bob and Carol Crawford lived four houses down from us, on East Circle Drive, in Jefferson City, Missouri.  Right in the middle of their tiny trimmed yard was the white-brick house, so heavily paneled and carpeted inside that, sitting there one summer afternoon, I felt like I’d been plunked into a Kleenex box.  But when Mr. Crawford—Bob—leaned over to slip me a new half-dollar, silver as a tooth, I knew I was destined to play music for the rest of my life.  It was 1966.  I had lugged my plum-red Gibson Melody Maker guitar and my amp, the size of a boot box, down to Crawford’s for my first professional performance.  I played two songs—some scaly melody out of Mel Bay #2 or #3 and “Wildwood Flower” (or “The Groovy Grubworm,” as one guitar book called it).  I no longer own the amp or guitar, but I still have that coin. Continue reading “Hum Along: Or, How I Took Up Guitar and Became a Poet”

The Professor Was a Prison Guard

How does college relate to the real world?

By Jeffrey J. Williams (Carnegie Mellon)

When I was 20, I left college and took a job in a prison. I went from reading the great books as a Columbia University undergraduate to locking doors and counting inmates as a New York State correction officer. Since I’m an English professor now, people never entirely believe me when the issue comes up, probably because of the horn-rimmed glasses and felicitous implementation of Latinate words. I fancied I’d be like George Orwell, who took a job as an Imperial Police officer in Burma and wrote about it in “Shooting an Elephant.” I thought I’d go “up the river” to the “big house” and write “Shooting an Inmate” or some such thing. It didn’t quite happen that way, although as a professor, I’ve worked 14 of 16 years in state institutions. Continue reading “The Professor Was a Prison Guard”

My Ignorance and Me, in Front of a Classroom

What have you learned about teaching?

by Kase Johnstun (Tacoma CC)

I’m a transplant to Tacoma, Wash., like many. Before packing up the truck, loading up the dogs, and leaving behind a stiff mortgage in Salt Lake City, I heard the warnings and rumors about T-Town. “It stinks.” “Tacoma Aroma.” “Full of crack whores, bums, and gangs.” But when the yellow truck dropped down from Snoqualmie Pass, as we traveled along the Green River, and when we pulled into our apartment complex that sat on the edge of rippling waters of Commencement Bay, I knew the complainers, the voices that dominated chat rooms and review boards, had it wrong. Or maybe they just hadn’t seen Tacoma through the eyes of a transplant and his ignorance. Continue reading “My Ignorance and Me, in Front of a Classroom”

The Pleasures of the Unfamiliar

What kind of person are you?

by Curtis Perry (U of Illinois)

If you read this and come see me at the University of Illinois, I think you’ll find me to be generous and helpful but not chummy.  I am myself a private and somewhat reserved person—which is why I’ve chosen to write about my scholarly rather than my personal life here—but I do like to be helpful and I love meeting earnest students who want to get the most out of their college experiences. Continue reading “The Pleasures of the Unfamiliar”