Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Essay Writing for Jesus

I often assign a paper during the Romanticism segment of the survey course that has students thinking about notions of the sublime. They read excerpts of Kant and Burke, and in class we look at these notions in Shelley, Blake, and Wordsworth. This is hardly an innovative concept in the pedagogy of Romanticism, but I find it works pretty well for a period in which I've done very little advanced reading.

For this assignment specifically, I get a lot of students who reference both the language of, and often the fact of, their personal relationship with their lord and savior Jesus Christ.

I can't help but roll my eyes when Blake and his visionary cosmology, or Wordsworth and his "semi-atheism," or heaven forfend, the outspoken atheist Shelley, are revealed to be Christians along the line Joel Osteen and Jerry Falwell.

Now I know that my own personal history with Christianity (my folks are evangelicals, and until about 18, I was too) conditions this response, but I am hardly closed off to the possibility of my students' faith. I just hate it when their papers become a venue for their personal witness.

Three papers in a row this evening found references to poets' beliefs that were both counter to all evidence in their biographies, to what was discussed in class, and which are completely ahistorical: the kind of personal teddy-bear god that has inf(l)ected a lot of popular American religious discourse--especially for teens. I learned that when Wordsworth speaks about nature in Tintern Abbey, he really means "Jesus," that the Tyger solves the problem of evil because it shows us that all of creation is part of God's Work, God's Plan and God's Love. The third paper references the author's desire to find "the presence of God in Blake's writing," but then finally acknowledges that this isn't an appropriate strategy. I'm not entirely sure why the author felt the need to signpost a rejected interpretive strategy, but I wish more students understood this.

I understand that many students with an evangelical upbringing will naturally transpose the ineffable and infinite of the sublime into the vocabulary of "my god is an awesome god," and I tend to understand this issue a bit more, often with a simple comment like "take care not to transpose your 21st century beliefs onto 200-year-old texts." But the papers where students spend the whole essay arguing that a poem about nature is really about Jesus? They unnerve me.

Are they witnessing to me? Do they believe that they are taking a stand? Are they so deeply immersed in a kind of totalizing theology that they can imagine no other way through which to view experience?

So I've got to write end comments on these papers, and since all three invoke a literalist Christian God, but take different tacks in doing so, I can't even cop-and-paste a response for their end comments.


Dr. Crazy said...

We teach a similar student population, so I entirely empathize with your experience with the whole, "jesus is the lord and savior" paper. One thing that has helped to eliminate that from my survey papers is that I talk about "the sublime" through Weiskel's 3 phases of the romantic sublime, and the topic is figured as a response to his argument about that. In other words, I ask them to evaluate one poem in terms of those three phases, using the period-specific stuff (Kant, Burke) to explain their claims. It is *really* difficult to do that in a simple, short analysis essay and to find a way to bring Jesus in. Sometimes I think they make the Christian argument not because they think that they're taking a stand or witnessing but because they think it's an authoritative position. If you eliminate the possibility for it to be that, I find they do it less (if at all - I've not gotten one of these papers in a survey in years now).

(I'm also weak in the Romantic period, but I am - unaccountably - strong in theories of the sublime and the beautiful.)

negativecapability said...

I am a this makes me particularly sad. Reading that essay on Blake might have necessitated it's own beer.

Your post, though, just gave me an idea for a course. One of the reasons I find the Romantics interesting is that they manage to redefine what Christianity means (even the atheists) along all kinds of different lines. It's something that's tough to address, though, unless you have time to dig into all of the stuff that's too long to anthologize, which I think is part of the problem. I know everyone probably thinks this of their time period, but the Romantics really are victims of misunderstanding through anthologization.

Dr. Crazy said...

NC: that would be an awesome course! And I'm in no way a Romanticist, but I actually agree that the Romantics are more misunderstood than writers of other time periods (though such an admission probably makes me a lame representative for the time period that I study :) )

Horace said...

Drambuie and Water on the rocks, actually, rather than beer. And Project Runway. Because as gut wrenching as those last three papers were, they were also the very temporary key to grading jail. new batch of short grad papers tomorrow, and then real freedom for a bit.

And NC, that totally is a great course, and the kind of thing that I could never get into in the short little section of the survey course (which is all I could ever be trusted to teach of the Romantics, anyway...)

Sisyphus said...

Grar! Bleh! I'm having the same trouble, except they _are_ being expected to read religious texts and make an argument about religion, and they are instead imposing the words of their parents or pastors or priests or whatnot onto the texts and are not making any connections to the bible! The bible, people! You should be thrilled to include it as evidence; why not actually quote it? Or read it?

Gah! (end rant here. Sorry!)

Bardiac said...

My sympathies. I think at least partly there's a totalizing response about Chrisianity, and also partly a youth thing where they haven't really had time to deeply question and get to know stuff yet. So they aren't really aware that they're looking at a skewed sense of Christianity.

I had a student write a paper on the Dream of the Rood once (the assignment was to analyze the imagery) that seemed to think the image of Christ on the rood was all lambs and love. It was a shock to me!

Lisa said...

Ok... so I completely sympathize with the "I totally get the Romantic poets because, like, I had this personal experience with God" thing. It comes up quite frequently in poetry classes, because "it's supposed to be all about what I take away from the poem, right? I mean this close reading stuff is just, like, all about the man imposing on what I think." No matter how many paradigms I would introduce or how many different lenses I would encourage them to employ in their readings. (I'm writing this and it's almost cathartic!) Still, I have to say that even *more* insidious to me was a completely straight-faced close reading of Blake's "Tyger" as a "foreshadowing" of Disney's "Lion King." Forget God... it's the great Temple of Disney... "The circle of life in Blake's 'Tyger'" I believe it was called. And he was one of the ones who came in to argue his grade! The only way I could even get him to listen to me was to keep repeating... "You don't even have the right species of animal."

servetus said...

If this is really such a huge problem for you (I guess I don't understand why bringing Christianity as a reading framework is any more problematic than any other externally imposed reading framework), why don't you engage the topic specifically by asking them to assess how the Christianity of these authors is different from theirs?

Horace said...

Servetus, it's not that I de facto have a problem with Christianity as a reading framework: it's an entirely appropriate one for Spenser, Milton, Tennyson, Cather, or O'Hara. I object to it because it's anachronistic, and because so often these students seem deeply conditioned not to look beyond it. Saying that Wordsworth is worshipping Jesus in nature is not really different from saying that Milton was actually a Satanist in Paradise Lost.

Similarly, I don't want to call Shakespeare "gay" even though we may find homoerotic desire in his work. "Gay" is similarly an anachronistic term. That said, I open to students addressing the spiritual elements of Blake's poetry, as long as they take them on the terms presented in the text, which means supported by actual evidence. I'd have no problem with a paper on the echoes of religious rhetoric in Wordsworth, but calling him secretly born-again is unsupportable.

That said, I'd have no objection to the assignment you suggest here , though I suspect that at this state school, such an assignment would be frowned upon...

Dr. Virago said...

OMG, Lisa's "you don't even have the right species" is cracking me up!

And I whole-heartedly agree that the Romantics are the most problematically misunderstood bunch of writers b/c of anthologization. But I still blame them for a lot of student misreadings of earlier stuff (especially the whole 'poetry is about experience' Romanticism-light thing).

Anywho, I have to deal with similar things with Julian of Norwich and medieval religious stuff in general. At least I can head it off at the pass by emphasizing again and again the fact that the Reformation hasn't happened yet!

But the "best" case was a grad student who did an evangelical reading of The Sound and the Fury (for the *grad* research class). He was *supposed* to do a critical history, but it ended up a paper that mentioned a few critical approaches but then spent most of the time talking about how all criticism was wrong because it hadn't pointed out how one of the characters had turned away from God in despair and need to take Jesus into his heart.

My comment? "Characters aren't real people -- they don't have souls or wills. On that fact alone you whole argument falls apart. IF you're going to study literature, you might want to remember that it's literature." He then switched concentrations within the department.

PhillyChief said...

So I'm just going to cut to the chase and ask, do these students who've not only missed the point of the assignment but have shown no attempt to learn the material get big red "F"s or what?

Horace said...

Not simply on principle, no. And there are a range of possibilities here: the student who raised such a reading and then rejected it is doing something different than a student who mischaracterizes something using an anachronistic lexicon, which is itself a good bit different from a poorly argued, but other wise coherent argument than is simply mistaken.

While I don't want to speak about any one paper or another specifically, I am usually able to assign a grade based on factors completely unrelated to the religious bent of the argument (and find it makes the whole thing a little less touchy). Since, for example, most of these arguments are not rooted in any actual textual evidence, I often find that students who draw such conclusions have used very little quote evidence: if a student uses, say, a grand total of 9 lines from two different poems which together total over 300 lines, this would itself be grounds for the poor grade it would earn, regardless of the claim, which I could address as a separate issue...

In fact, virtually every argument that comes from any kind of ideological left field (even the left fields I find myself patrolling), is measured against the kind of evidence it uses and its ability to work with that evidence to make a claim.

PhillyChief said...

Would you be so generous if instead of completely disregarding the topic in order to give christian testimony they instead wrote about the greatness of supply side economics, the Iraq war or even the joy of owning puppies? I simply can't understand how if given a paper that, regardless of aim, exhibited the following:
"Blake and his visionary cosmology, or Wordsworth and his "semi-atheism," or heaven forfend, the outspoken atheist Shelley, are revealed to be Christians along the line Joel Osteen and Jerry Falwell"
that you could not simply dismiss it as failure.

1. If you ask for a paper on Romanticism and don't get a paper on Romanticism, the topic of this other paper should be irrelevant beyond the fact that it's not addressing Romanticism.

2. The details you're using instead to base a grade like insufficient quote evidence shouldn't be the meat of the grade but support for the primary reason for the poor grade, the complete disregard for the assigned topic.

I find this line frightening:
"I am usually able to assign a grade based on factors completely unrelated to the religious bent of the argument (and find it makes the whole thing a little less touchy)

This is ridiculous. So in other words you have to walk on eggshells because of these kids or else what? Cries of persecution? Prejudice? That's outrageous, and why in no small part we have problems like what happened in Dover, PA, Kansas, and brewing in Florida and Texas. This fear of offending these people's beliefs further empowers them and jeopardizes the future. There may come a time when churning out testimonies might be acceptable for ANY assignment if no one speaks up soon and says, "the emperor has no clothes" instead of merely pointing out the stitching is sub par.

Professor Zero said...

I'm having the same problem teaching Octavio Paz and Federico Garcia Lorca, both of whom are actually quite religious. But the students think they are "out there" to an immoral degree.

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