Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Sweet World of Teaching

A good instructor does not instruct but provides an environment for the student to learn effectively and, most importantly, willingly.  The learning process should be transparent to the student: he/she should learn without necessarily being aware of being taught. Most effective learning involves a willing, curious, open mind. A good instructor offers a student a world of ideas and an opportunity to engage with these concepts intellectually. Why would a student be interested in the concepts instructor is trying to convey? Because the instructor’s enthusiasm for the subject he/she is teaching is contagious. The role of an instructor then is similar to the function of a candy store display: there is no question that the kids want it as long as you show it to them. If they see candy, they will want candy.

I am an instructor because I am interested in the process of learning. Each student has a different way of acquiring information: my challenge is to recognize each student’s learning style and cater to it in order for the student to retain the information I am trying to convey without him/ her recognizing my effort and with minimal effort he/ she puts into gaining knowledge, expertise, and interest. I also believe that literature as well as the art of reading and writing are important aspects of being human: literature offers us a wealth of information, opens a whole new world to the imagination, and brings out the best of our nature: feelings of empathy, pity, compassion, tolerance, understanding for another human being, delicacy, good taste, sensitivity to other’s pain and sorrow, a recognition of our own finitude and limitations, our own insignificance in the universe. In short, literature teaches us to be human: to recognize our place in the world, our responsibility to the world, so we can become good ambassadors of our own kind.

The idea of online education presents to me a range of new challenges as well as new possibilities. For once, I will be able to hide my foreign accent and teach without constantly being conscious of the students’ possibly questioning my ability to teach English knowing that it was not even my first, not even my second, language. Some of the challenges I might find are in a different way of interacting with my students, in a different way of getting to know them. How do I show my interest in their success? How do I impart to them my enthusiasm for their education? For literature? How do I avoid making literature seem dry with online lectures and discussion board? In a traditional classroom, if I find I’m losing my students’ interest, I can always walk around, gesticulate, change the intonation of my voice to bring them back; in an online classroom that will not be an option. How do I keep them interested? Some of the more interactive exercises I use in class, such as my descriptive writing assignment, “How to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” will not be possible to execute in an online environment.

As I continue to teach, I challenge myself at finding more effective ways, more interactive ways of conveying information to students that they will be able to retain for a lifetime, not only for the duration of the class or the semester. I constantly experiment with different methods of teaching, try to vary the format of the class to keep my students interested in the subject (lecture, discussion, demonstration, visual presentation, group work, etc.). Currently, I am working on improving my discussion questions: how do I ask questions that will provoke a meaningful discussion among the students so that they will forget that there is a moderator in the room? I have a feeling that the experience of teaching online will help me with this particular challenge.

My job, as I see it, is to lead a student in front of that candy store display and watch their mouths water as they gaze upon the wealth of sweets. I cannot make them buy the candy; I cannot force them to eat it; I can only entice them to desire it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

God is Dead

The Romantic period can be identified by a pulling away from religion or religious iconography to what, what Carlyle termed, "natural supernaturalism": the secularization of spiritual experience by identifying God in nature and in the individual rather than in some abstract realm, church altars, and/ or official figures of the church with the imagination figuring as the faculty of redemption.

Poets started finding spiritual meaning in the natural world and a religious epiphany emerging from the individual himself or the individual's communion with nature. Blake rejected traditional, institutionalized religion in favor of his own system of beliefs: as Los proclaims in Jerusalem, "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd my another Man's." He saw traditional theology as limiting of the power of man and another way of keeping him enslaved and subjugated. Wordsworth found his religion in the natural world, where he became the sole minister of it. As Abrams points out, his Prelude is filled with theological language, but it is secularized. For example, the boat stealing episode expresses a sudden awe at some awful power represented in the "huge Cliff" emerging between the water and the sky that keeps the poet disturbed and agitated for days afterwards. Shelley's antipathy to institutionalized religion is evident in a number of his works, perhaps most ostensibly in The Necessity of Atheism where he argues that because there is no proof of the existence of a Deity, we must resign ourselves to the only reasonable conclusion that there cannot be one. In the Epipsychidion he rejects the "sect" as one of enslavement and "cold oblivion."

Instead of religion the Romantic poets sought a spiritual experience in the objects of the senses--in the beauty and sublimity of the natural world. Wordsworth find "a sense sublime" in nature and a manifestation of God. For him God is everywhere: in the rocks, and trees, and flowers. For Keats, nature is an escape from melancholy: he writes in the Ode to Melancholy that we should "glut our sorrows" on nature because it alone provides pleasure found in its passing beauty. Shelley in Mont Blanc again finds an incomprehensible, awe-inspiring power behind the great mountain, sometimes identified with Godwin's Necessity.

Along with the Evangelicalist, movement in England came the rejection of the "cold" religion of Catholicism and distrust of Catholic priests and monks. The sentiment is evident in the Lewis' The Monk, Owenson's The Missionary, and Shelley's The Cenci, for instance. Lewis' Ambrosio is not only seduced by Matilda, who turns out to be the instrument of Satan, but she encourages him to kill and helps him seduce the innocent Antonia. Owenson's missionary in his attempt to convert a beautiful priestess of Brahma to Catholicism falls in love with her, yet still remains true to his vows. She, for the love of him alone, is excommunicated from her faith and is destroyed by the religious advocates of the religion she chose to follow for the sake of her lover. The missionary at the end realizes that he has destroyed the young maiden's life in his imperialist attempt to "command." In The Cenci, Shelley exposes the hypocrisy of the Church in the figure of Count Cenci, who rapes his own daughter after a banquet, at which she undermines his feigned piety. Morality becomes subjective and personal rather than an objective expression of some theological, essential principles.

The emergence of Gothic fiction is closely related to the people's disenchantment with religion, monasticism, the excesses of the Regency, and politics. As Marilyn Gaull points out, "gothic architecture and antique collecting contributed to the fantasy that was preferable to degeneracy, corruption, and the visible ruins of politics and the church with which many of them have been involved" (Gaull 228). The atmosphere of horror and dread, the presence of ruins, dark castles, and creepy abbeys is symbolic of the devastation and deprivation of the civilized world. For example, in Radcliff's A Sicilian Romance, the atmosphere of horror pervading the haunted castle of Mazzini is symbolic of the marquis' tyrannical, deprived character and of his guilt of imprisoning his wife. In Byron's Manfred, Manfred wants to find peace and forgiveness for his crime of incest and of breaking his Astarte's heart. He uses magic to summon spirits and when he is refused forgiveness, chooses to die defying all authoritative powers, including the Abbots' offer of redemption from sin through religion. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is probably the most prominent example of Gothic fiction where God, the creator, is displaced by a man, the creator. The story betrays an anxiety of the power of science replacing the tenets of religion.