Thursday, May 29, 2008

Progymnasmata: Anecdote from Shakespeare

In my course Great Books Writing Workshop: Christendom the students are writing essays about Shakespeare's Henry V this month. This student, J.D., chose to do the Progymnasmata exercise "Anecdote Amplification," which has a particular structure prescribed for it. (Explore the topic at my web site.) J. does a nice job with a very small side note in the play, and I present this essay as an example of what a clean, clear little essay can look like. Enjoy!

(Posted as-is, without correction, and I wish it had a title. Titles are great.)

In the midst of an army camp sat a young boy. With the impending
doom of a battle of unfair numbers, he makes a speech about his pick-
pocketing companions saying: "They would have me as familiar with
men's pockets as their gloves or their handkerchiefs: which makes
much against my manhood, if I should take from another's pocket to
put into mine; for it is plain pocketing up of wrongs. I must leave
them, and seek some better service: their villainy goes against my
weak stomach, and therefore I must cast it up."

Although a nameless character in Shakespeare's King Henry V, Boy
shows a maturity beyond his age when he seeks a more ethical group
of people to surround himself with. Even as a young boy, Boy
recognized that bad company corrupts good morals and sought to
separate himself from such "bad company". Unlike most young people
who give in to pressure, Boy saw that it was wrong to pick people's
pockets and as any good person stopped serving his masters before he
gave into temptation.

Children often give in to pressure, whether from adults or other
kids. This is considered a part of growing up, but although we will
fall into the trap of peer pressure Boy shows that we do not have
to. One way to keep from giving in is to surround ourselves with
good company. The saying "one bad apple ruins the whole barrel" is
very true. If we surround ourselves with bad people we are likely to
make bad decisions, however if we hang around good people we are
likely to make good decisions. Many times, but not all the time, the
downfall of morally good people is caused by the bad influences of
others. At work a coworker may talk someone into lying about the
number of hours they worked, at school a child may be talked into
cheating on a test, it happens many times.

A really good friend of mine goes to a public school. Although she
is still tempted to do stuff, she eliminates lots of temptations by
choosing her friends wisely. She doesn't hang around with people she
knows are not going to help her be a good Christian. By doing this
she doesn't have to deal with her friends constantly nagging her to
do stuff that she knows is wrong. Another really good friend has
made a similar choice. She chooses to not make some acquaintances
she has her best friends because she knows that it would not
necessarily be the best thing for her.

Although Boy was just a boy, he knew that when it came to making
moral choices it was best to have moral influences. Just a Boy did
not want to go about "pocketing up wrongs" with his companions, we
should "cast up" our bad influences for better companions.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

College Paper Angst

My dear daughter Abby is having trouble with a whirlwind humanities course done in two six-day weeks to be the equivalent of a full semester course, complete with a twelve-page paper. Her lament is on Facebook, inaccessible unless you're already her friend, so I pass on her added lament that the required terminology makes scanning difficult, and I'll just copy it here for you:

"The Paper Blues"
(To the tune of "I Need a Hero")

Where have all the good quotes gone
And how to use CMS?
Where's that scholarly article
To make this paper the best?
Isn't there a Principled-Pluralist creed?
Late at night I toss and turn and dream of what I need


I need a paper.
I'm holding out for a paper 'til the end of the night.
Argument's gotta be strong
And it's gotta be fast
And it's gotta be fresh from the fight.
I need a paper.
I'm holding out for a paper 'til the morning light
It's gotta be sure
And it's gotta be soon
And my argument's gotta be larger than life.

Somewhere after midnight
In my wildest fantasy
Somewhere just beyond my reach
The perfect source is reaching back for me.
Racing on the thunder and rising with the heat
It's gonna take a peer-review'd to sweep me off my feet


Up where the mountains meet the heavens above
Wherever Dr. Kemeny the papers does grade
I would swear that somehow there's an 'A'
To be made

Through the wind and the chill and the rain
And the storm and the flood
I can feel its approach
Like fire in my blood.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

An Exemplary Paper on Augustine

I got a very nice paper yesterday from Lydia Murdy, 10th grade, and got her permission to share it here. Note that she makes good use of the chronological progression of his life story, showing how his faith developed over time--she uses each episode to comment on the characteristics of the kind of belief he had at each time. Enjoy! (Posted as it was originally received.)

Augustine: A Restored Soul
1,128 words

Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most important man in Western Civilization and his books the most valuable. They have been read countless times in the past 1,600 years, and each reader gleans important truths from them every time he reads them. One of the most poignant books is Confessions where Augustine recounts the struggles he suffered before finding peace in Jesus Christ. Augustine’s story is not a tale of triumph after triumph, as we might expect from so great a man, but instead trial after trial. Augustine had many objections to the Christian faith that needed to be overcome before he was saved. To read about and understand this struggle is comforting to Christians because we can see how God took a man just as sinful and weak as us and made him into a pious giant in the Christian faith.

This great man, when he first read the Scriptures as a pagan searching for truth, thought them course because of their simple style. He had started his search for truth when he read in Cicero’s Hortensius that man should look for truth no matter where it might be found. But though Cicero’s words pushed him onto the path of questioning that would eventually lead him to God, Cicero’s grand and masterful style also hindered him. The Bible, compared to Cicero’s work, seemed lowly and simple, so Augustine despised it and sought truth among other pagan works of philosophy. But as the years passed and his search became more desperate, he came under the teaching of Ambrose in Milan, and he reevaluated the Scriptures. He saw the simplicity of the Scriptures as their beauty, for hidden beneath the ordinary surface are the precious jewels of the mysteries of God’s love and his intricate plan for our salvation.

Augustine’s previous beliefs in Manichaeism, a Gnostic heresy, also led to many objections to Christianity. As a Manichaean, Augustine imagined God as a vast physical being that permeated the whole of his creation. But taking that premise to its conclusion, God’s residence in any place was limited by its size. Because God was physical, a smaller part of him would reside in a room and a larger in the sky. But Augustine eventually forsook the ideas of the Manichaeans in Milan and turned to the books of the Platonists who showed him that God is a spiritual being. His presence is not defined by the matter he created. As much of him can be contained in a nutshell as can be contained in the whole universe. God could even reside in a human being. Thus, with the Platonists, God mercifully crushed one more obstacle in Augustine’s path.

The more Augustine heard, the more convinced he became of the error of the Manichaean beliefs he had been following. But this did not cause him to accept immediately the doctrines of Christianity. He was like a man who, having been under the hands of a bad doctor, was not ready to entrust himself to a good one. (VI, 4) Augustine objected to the habit of Christians of believing many doctrines without having proof or without completely understanding the proof. They trusted faith greatly. But after a time Augustine realized that it was not only the Christians who relied greatly on faith, but also himself and everyone around him. He believed the Battle of Marathon took place simply because it was recorded in Herodotus, not because he had fought in the battle himself. He also took for granted the existence of many towns and countries that he had never actually seen himself; he just had faith in the words of his friends that these places existed. Augustine realized that he believed facts daily simply because of the faith he had in friends or books and that if he didn’t have this faith he would have to live a life of complete cynicism. Augustine could no longer rail against the Christians for their faith in many unproven things because he himself lived a life of faith.

All of the aforementioned obstacles Augustine faced because of his personal background and previous Manichaean beliefs. But the last obstacle is one we all face. Augustine knew only the shadowy joys of his life of sin, and he feared the pain of giving them up. One by one many boulders had been thrust from his path, but this final great boulder still remained. With all his questions answered, Augustine wanted desperately the pure Christian life, but it meant losing the sinful life he knew so well. He saw the beautiful image of chastity and purity beckoning to him from peaceful green meadows of faith, but he also desired the cheap sensual pleasure he had enjoyed for so long. Many of us, I am sure, know this kind of pain. We know that health, wholeness, and happiness wait for us with Jesus Christ, but the nearness of our own sin and its familiarity restrain us. We and Augustine are like a drug addict who knows that an addiction free life is better that the broken hallucinations of happiness given by a drug, but he is too scared of the pain of losing the hallucinations to choose the better life. Augustine dealt with this feeling for a long time until finally he came to a pit of despair thinking never would he have the full joy that he truly desired. Finally, at the command from a child singing in a game, “Tolle, lege,” “take it up; read it,” he picked up Paul’s letter to the Romans and read chapter 13, verses 13 and 14: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This was the final push for Augustine, and he took a headlong plunge into the dark cavern of faith, not caring anymore if it hurt to give up his sin. But he found the cavern to be an entrance to glorious, holy, cleansing, healing light and a home of everlasting peace with Jesus Christ.

This is the pain and the suffering Augustine went through. This is the questioning that tore his soul into shreds before it was made whole in Jesus Christ. Augustine, the great man of Western Civilization, was made of a lump of clay just like us and struggled just as we do. So, let us remember Augustine when we want to give up and hold on to the illusions of our sin. Let us remember that the peace, joy, and love that Augustine received resolved every question and answered every desire that Augustine ever had before he was saved.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tom Wolfe Interview

My husband Glenn shared with me at lunch today a delightful interview of Tom Wolfe by Peter Robinson, in the program "Uncommon Knowledge." This link will take you to the first of five installments, with literate discussion of science, philosophy, and writing, mostly writing. Note that there is a bit of explicit sexual reference ala Freud.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Discovering Classics

When I was in graduate school I heard of a game played by grad students at parties: "Confess a classic you have not read, and if you are the only one in the group who has not read it, you get a point." That's humbling and interesting and fun. Paperback Swap (see link way down below) has enabled me to get some of these things I know I have meant to read all along but haven't yet. Yesterday I started Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. I am only a few pages in, but I am transported by the language. At first the dialect is off-putting, but Hurston makes it oh so poetic, and I am entranced. So much depth of thought in even the gossip of the idlers on the porch...

It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Theme of Death in British Literature

In commemoration of final exams at Grove City College this week, and in honor of my eldest, finishing her freshman year there, I want to present her opening paragraph from a take-home exam question for a British literature course. Abby is tracing the theme of death through these poems, beginning with "Ozymandias," as you will see hinted at in this nice paragraph.

Way to go, Abs! :-)

Death is a great leveler: It takes a brilliant theologian and a trucker and lays them gently side by side in a quiet cemetery. It tenderly pries a man’s grand artifices of arrogance and conceit from his cold fingers, steals his monuments to himself from him, and shifts them together deep in the sands of a desert. In the end, no matter how hard a man tries to leave lasting mementoes of his existence for future generations, death takes him, the only man who had a personal interest in his affairs.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What is an "A" Paper?

I have on the "Client Comments" page of my website the following testimony:

"Thanks for your evaluation of T's paper. Once again, you reinforced (sometimes in the exact words I had used) what I thought of his paper. You really are wonderful! ;-)" [And regarding another student in that family, whose paper is among those in Noteworthy Papers from 2001-2002 Students ...] "I must tell you that your evaluation (a grade of 'A') was met by leaps of joy (literally) and whoops of 'Wow! Wow!' Such is the esteem with which your opinion is held around here. :-) "
The "A" student is now in a difficult humanities discipline in graduate school and has shown in his academic work over the years that he is truly a gifted student, and a diligent one as well. The mother is a dear long-distance friend of mine who teaches writing, too, and I would love to have my children in her classes.

All of that is to say, I do not give A's easily, and even the ones I do give are almost always A-minus if it is early in the year, because there is ALWAYS something that can be improved. To me an A paper is one that does everything it was supposed to do (a B paper) with additional style and depth and excellence that just lifts my heart as I read it. If I can be surprised or delighted by something in the paper, and that is consistently integrated into the whole, that paper might come to an A grade, even with a couple of serious grammatical errors! (Well, maybe an A-minus in that case.) My husband testifies that at Clemson University about 1980 a very strict code required that any paper with one major error (comma splice, s-v disagreement, runon) could earn no higher than a B-minus, and two of those errors resulted in a failing grade. I'm not quite that strict.

But for those who aspire to an A, consider it is with me a badge of high honor indeed. The A-plus paper is one I would have been thrilled to have written myself, and I have one or two of those each year, too.

I really cannot say it better than Jack Lynch does in "Getting an A on an English Paper."

Friday, May 2, 2008

Friday Funnies: Bailey White

Bailey White is an eccentric, eerily familiar to me. She writes intense local-color pieces of South Georgia/North Florida, evoking myriad pictures in my mind. On the page for her first book, Mama Makes Up Her Mind, the "See Inside" function offers one of my favorite excerpts. Her mother reminds me a lot of my Grandmother Carter, who grew up in that area.

Mama Makes Up Her Mind