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The Challenge of Phillis Wheatley (poem)

“Phillis Wheatley frontispiece” by Scipio Moorhead – This image is available from the United States
Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a40394
I’m currently taking a MOOC from Stanford University Online called “Ten Premodern Poems by Women,” led by Eavan Boland. It’s essentially a poetry appreciation course, fostering a broader sense of women’s essential and often neglected contributions to the canon of English-language poetry. Each week, Eavan Boland introduces a poem, and then offers some historical and biographical – and even a little formal – context, and then discusses the poem with a guest speaker, usually (so far) one of the Wallace Stegner Fellows in poetry from Stanford’s Creative Writing Program. The course is very enjoyable and informative, and taking it is giving me a chance to try to re-connect with the student experience: we have weekly writing assignments, informal responses to each text. In the past few weeks, the prompts for these assignments have invited participants to compose poems of their own, either in the style of the work we’re reading that week or in reaction to the context and themes of a given poem. I had never really looked too closely at the work of Phillis Wheatleybefore – the first poet of African descent to publish in English. The facts of her life are well known: at about seven years old, in 1761, she is stolen from her home in Senegambia and transported on the slave ship Phillis to pre-revolutionary Boston, where she is purchased by Mrs. Susan Wheatley for a “trifle” of either ten pounds or ten dollars; “Phillis” has a gift for languages that her new “family” encourages, and by the time she reaches her teens she excels at poetry; in 1773, around her twentieth birthday, her poems are collected and published (in England, not in Boston) as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Read through the lens of our own time, many of these poems can seem deeply troubling, as they appear to praise slavery – in highly conventional late 18th-century style – as a means to Christian salvation:Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.” In his 1922 preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson lamented that

one looks in vain for some outburst or even complaint against the bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land. In two poems she refers definitely to Africa as her home, but in each instance there seems to be under the sentiment of the lines a feeling of almost smug contentment at her own escape therefrom.

Reading Wheatley now, I feel what we get aren’t outbursts but cracks in the mask, in her formal poetic façade, at which something like an agony, suppressed in the interests of her survival as a child in bondage, briefly shows through. What we have, after all, are the poems of a teenager. After her manumission, when she was 28 or 29, Wheatley is said to have composed another 142 poems, now lost; I can only imagine that some expression of that pain must have found its way into that work, silenced by circumstance. One of the ways to honour Wheatley’s legacy, it seems to me, is to risk writing a little way into that silence: not to speak for her – although, in ventriloquizing her seven-year-old self and transposing her voice into an English she didn’t have at the time, I ‘m aiming at least to gesture at that fraught and awful gap, the racially, culturally and linguistically marked distances of the Middle Passage. (“Yummy,” I discovered, is one of a few English words imported from Wolof, Phillis Wheatley’s native language.) I wrote this piece, torsioning the pentameter/hexameter couplets that were a mainstay of her early style, as an homage and as an attempt to encounter those distances. The challenge of encountering Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates argues, “isn’t to read white, or read black; it is to read.” I wanted at least to begin to address that challenge. And since the poem was submitted to a public forum anyway, I thought I might as well republish it here, myself.

“Phillis Wheatley,” July 1761, about seven years old
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate 

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat . . .
I‘m not sturdy enough. My two loose front teeth
fall out: I make a charm to ward off certain death,
jamming them between tarred planks near the keel
like deciduous tokens. I can’t feel
the ghost of my lost mother’s touch. Wolof
has no such words. Crammed bodies reek; men cough
up on themselves, yoked in rusting collars
to be unlocked only weeks later when we dock.
A lady tours the wharf. For ten pounds or dollars
she gets to become my good Boston mummy.
She gives me an apple. I say, “Yummy.”
She tells me, that’s a funny way to talk,
and makes me leave my carpet-scrap cloak behind,
I imagine because she’s afraid I might trip.
She rechristens me after that bad ship.
If only she knew my true name, I shouldn’t mind.

Teaching Literature in the Time of the MOOC (Audio)

Here is an audio capture of my part of a colloquium session for the University of British Columbia Department of English Faculty Research series, which took place in the afternoon of Friday, October 18, 2013, on “Teaching Literature in the Time of the MOOC.” I co-presented with Jon Beasley-Murray. (There are a few glitches – I inadvertently call Dave Cormier “Eric” – so I have included a script for the talk below. I truncated the long quotations when I presented. The gain on the recorder was also set a little high — my apologies for any clipping. Jon’s portion of the session can be found here.)

The past year has seen massive and radical shifts in the practice and delivery of higher education, particularly around the emergence of the MOOC, the “Massive Open Online Course,” adopted and (as of January 2013) offered for credit through many prominent North American and Australian universities. While some commentators continue to suggest that educators are over-enthusiastically caught up in surging hype around the technologizing of education, hype that will soon deteriorate into backlash, it has become clear that the MOOC represents much more than a passing trend. It signals a fundamental change in the cultural and pedagogical mission of the university – in what constitutes a university, and what constitutes university education, in our time. I, we, believe it is vitally important for academics – not just administrators, not just early adopters, not just those in the managerial echelons of an emerging knowledge economy, but particularly academics in the critical humanities – to address and to interrogate the implications of this change. Because of the velocity of these ongoing renovations to the form and substance of higher education, we need to do more than act as latecomers or followers, to be more than epigone adopters. Bluntly put, our job descriptions are changing, with or without our direct input and even our consent, and it is vital that we find the means, as both pedagogues and scholars, to contribute not only to managing but also to shaping the direction and structure of these nascent developments.

I don’t want to position myself as anything like an expert. Frankly, it’s too soon in the arc – I won’t say history, not yet – in tracing the developmental arc of media-savvy pedagogies for anyone but a few originators to lay claim to expertise, and even then there seems to me to be something endemic to these kinds of digital humanities, something inherent in what has come to be called connectivity, that wants both to exploit and to refuse cults of expertise, cults that have also largely tended to be understood as the provenance of a professoriate. I’m still under the sway, myself, of Paolo Freire’s critique of what he called the “banking model” of education, and I think I share his thorough suspicion of the cultural privilege of expertise. But rather than offer any materially rigorous critique of the economics of knowledge production and dissemination, I’m going to stick to a critique of the MOOC at the level of metaphor, something I feel like I can do with some confidence in my own method. It’s how I work, in my own field, as I understand it. But I want to be clear that I’m thinking of what I’m proposing today, briefly, as gestural and provisional, as a small contribution to a workshop rather than as a definitive or in any way exhaustive reading of the MOOC in our time, in its time.

I should offer at this point a potted history of the MOOC, although in a spirit of appearing to let shallow précis pass for knowledge, I have to defer to Wikipedia, which does a much better job than I ever could at condensing the last four or five years of MOOC history and at naming the significant names. Wikipedia – and Jon can tell you better than I can – in some very telling ways epitomizes the networked, editorial crowd-sourcing that is currently tending to replace expertise in this contemporary educational episteme, the time of the MOOC. So, go read Wikipedia, and find out something about Dave Cormier, George Siemens, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, Coursera, EdX, and the whole whelming business. In a November 2, 2012, article on Education Life, New York Times correspondent Laura Pappano dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” lending an epochal weight to a phenomenon that is, I’m willing to argue, almost without a history, and even without history.

So what does a MOOC have to do with time? I want to gesture at two key aspects of generalized MOOC temporality, both of them catachrestic: packeting and velocity. As one among many formations in the current digitalization (as opposed to the digitization) of knowledge, MOOCs imply a mediated phenomenology, a specific set of experiential markers keyed to time management – or to a common figure in MOOC syllabi, a figure that I’m going to suggest manifests as generic course content around learning outcomes a technological latency, the data packet. For example, Jennifer Shoop’s current syllabus for “English 402: The Poetry of John Milton,” a MOOC from saylor.org, has a detailed segment on “Time Commitment,” which is distinctive to on-line pedagogy:

Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of approximately 73.25 hours to complete. Each unit includes a time advisory that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit. These advisories should help you plan your time accordingly. It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories and to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself. For example, Unit 1 should take 6.5 hours to complete. Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunits 1.1 and 1.2 (a total of 3hours) on Monday night; subunits 1.3 and 1.4 (a total of 6.5 hours) on Tuesday night; etc.

The precision suggests an empirically obsessive scientism, but also a desire to lay out student commitments with as much transparency and accuracy as possible. Al Filreis’s “ModPo,” a “fast-paced” and much more loosely orchestrated MOOC from UPenn on “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” still lays out participant time commitments (“Workload: 5-9 hours/week”) and offers some proleptic feedback in an FAQ on course velocity:

You say the course is “fast paced.” Will it move too fast for me?
ModPo is “fast paced” because we will not spend long on any one poet. This is a “survey” course — covering many poets with the objective of conveying a sense of poetic movements and trends. We will study only a few poets in any depth (Dickinson, Williams, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery) but otherwise during each week we will typically talk about poems by three or four or even five different poets.

A sense of depth is sacrificed for coverage, and the learning outcomes are accordingly adjusted, offering gestalt in lieu of detail. Finally, the extensive course matter around Gregory Nagy’s HarvardX MOOC on the Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours explains at some length how pace and segmentation interconnect, a pedagogical strategy as well as a gesture at the temporality of his subject-matter, particularly the Homeric epic. Indeed, of all of the MOOC syllabi I have tried to encounter so far, Nagy’s is the most reflexively sophisticated, and conveniently provides me with something of a test-case for an informed critique of the humanities MOOC.

In an article from The New Yorker earlier this year, Nathan Heller seems to think so too, spending considerable column-length on Nagy’s HarvardX course, and its time-demands:

Nagy has been experimenting with online add-ons to his course for years. When he began planning his mooc, his idea was to break down his lectures into twenty-four lessons of less than an hour each. He subdivided every lesson into smaller segments, because people don’t watch an hour-long discussion on their screens as they might sit through an hour of lecture. (They get distracted.) He thought about each segment as a short film, and tried to figure out how to dramatize the instruction. He says that crumbling up the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he had at the lectern.

Presuppositions about attention span and attentiveness push Nagy to “crumble up” and parcel out his material, but I’d like to assert that what’s happening here isn’t so much an effect of his students’ shrinking cognitive capacities, but rather the impact of the structural informatics of media-dense teaching. He’s creating analogues on his students’ screens to the data packets – as distinct, though not entirely so, from the packaging or commodification of information – into which his texts and videos must be divided in order to disseminate efficiently across a network. Data packets are essentially arbitrary segments (blocks, cells) of bits and bytes, of data, into which a text, for instance, must be materially fractured if it is to be transmitted effectively. The process of packet-switching involves a horizontal leveling of parceled information to facilitate exchange across a dimensional (as opposed to linear) network; in a way, you could imagine one of Nagy’s students ranging in an anti-linear fashion through the welter of text, video and assessment tools that make up his MOOC, although that movement is still governed by a broadly linear rhetoric – at least a rhetoric, if not a teleology – of progress and completion, of sectional and totalized learning outcomes.

Efficiency, as a hallmark of good tech, of vibrant network and of functional pedagogy, is tied to velocity or pace, the re-assemblage and the intake of cultural knowledge – in Nagy’s case, of Homeric epic and Sophoklean drama. The trick to success in his course in particular, he suggests, is learning to manage and to adjust your rate of reading, to accelerate and decelerate modes of critical attention. There is, frankly, way too much material on Nagy’s syllabus, as there is on Filreis’s. I have to confess that I signed up for the Nagy MOOC – drawn by the promise of some sort of close-ish link to the cult of expertise that accretes around Nagy’s work on Homer. And I flunked it, mostly because I just didn’t have time to do the reading or to complete the multiple-choice and short-answer assignments. It’s reading, of course that I have done before, for the most part, so that shouldn’t have been a problem, but there is a density of information – something keyed to what I’d like to think of, analogically again, as bit-rate compression – that was frankly overwhelming, particularly as spare-time or extra-to-load reading. Nagy insists in the descriptive matter he writes about how to take up his assigned coursework, that students need to learn different velocities of reading, from fast to slow; the second is privileged, as a mode of close attention that Nagy develops from his own take on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Homeric philology. (I hope you’ll pardon the extensive quotation.)

So what do I mean when I say slow reading and fast reading? Let me explain briefly, starting with slow reading in §5A and then moving on to fast reading in §5B. For the reading of the following paragraph, §5A, you will have to slow down and take more time. For the reading of the paragraphs after that, §5B, §6, §7, §8, and the Appendix, I hope you will feel free to speed up again.
§4a. So here is the paragraph that needs to slow you down until you have finished reading it (and this paragraph includes the moderately long quotation that you see ahead). Please give yourself about five minutes. That said, let me delve into it. When you do slow reading in this course, you have to slow down and give yourself time to stop and think about what you are reading. You have to do this even if you feel at first that you simply do not have the time to do this. You have to develop a sense for feeling that you really do have the time to stop your reading and to think about what you have just read, allowing yourself to make connections with what you have read earlier. Some people think that philology is the “art” of such slow reading. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of these people, and he compared the “art” of this “philology” to the art of the goldsmith:
“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today; by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of “work,” that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to “get everything done” at once, including every old or new book: – this art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.”
In closing, let me highlight one big change I made in the translation I just quoted: the translator had written “with delicate eyes and fingers,” but Nietzsche in the original German text mentions fingers first and eyes second – in order to drive home his comparison of philology with the art of the goldsmith: when you read slowly, you read with a sense of touch – with “delicate fingers and eyes” (mit zarten Fingern und Augen). We see here an example of reading out of the text instead of reading into the text (I will define these terms in §8).
Now that I am finished with this paragraph, please feel free to go back into a mode of fast reading.

Such Nietzschean tactility feels anathematic to a largely tactless and intangible internet. The manual control of the eye, its kinesis across the liminal surface of a screen, seems to be a transplanted version of formalism or of the deconstructive “slow reading” practiced, or so he says, by J. Hillis Miller. Nietzsche, it sounds like, wants you to run your finger over the paper, tracing each line. But the tactility of translucent fonts is both metaphorical and – despite the existence of the touch-screen and the new Windows touch, say – at best a feint. Stopping to think, rewinding a video, going back over a passage are all embodied reactions, all reading tactics, that have nothing inherently to do with electronic media. Rather, Nagy is cautiously attempting to return something of the material character of the book – of the manuscript, of “hand-writing,” in fact – to a multifunctional medium that fractures, compresses and accelerates. Yet rewinding, as Laura Mulvey reminds us, is a temporal trait – a gestural inversion of what Vladimir Jankélévitch characterizes as time’s essential irreversibility – that remains specific to cinematic media, from videotapes and DVDs to the YouTube videos. The time of the MOOC – that is, broadly understood, its temporal episteme – has everything to do with shaping and managing these recursions and inversions, with stopping and starting, with packet-switching and shifting velocities. In 1993, Paul Virilio asserted with dire conviction that

With acceleration there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal – a mix of history, stories, and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies. (The Art of the Motor 35)

I want to start to claim here, pace Virilio’s warning, that we need to think carefully about how the anxieties around mass connectivity and the knowledge economy, anxieties that are for me essentially temporal in character, don’t so much impel us to withdraw nostalgically into a world of letters and paper, but help motivate is to address (say, through a more careful interrogation of something as seemingly incidental as metaphor) what it means to teach literature, and what literature and reading might become, in an era when something like a MOOC is even conceivable, let alone a cultural and educational destiny.