About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Monday, June 23, 2008

More on Teaching "Non-Traditional" (Or Any) Students, With a Focus on James Joyce's "Araby"

There was a lot of thought-provoking response to my last entry (“On Portraying the ‘Non-Traditional’ College Student”), and so I would like to continue the discussion this week.

A number of people who posted, and some who contacted me outside of the blog, wrote letters to Atlantic Monthly about the article (“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” by Professor X). I wrote one too. Editors will typically select a small number of the letters they receive – looking for representative ones, brief ones, ones that can be readily edited for the space available. So let me open this blog to those who want to post their letters here, published or not, once the July (but probably August) issue of the Atlantic Monthly comes out.

Now to this week’s entry. I am also going to try to tie in some of the response to my “The Personal is Cognitive: The Human Side of Learning” from the week before last.

What I would like to do this week is to think on paper about teaching – the art and strategy of it – and to do so by focusing on a single short story, James Joyce’s “Araby,” one mentioned by Professor X in his “Basement…” article.

“Araby,” the third story in Joyce’s Dubliners, has become part of the Western literary canon, a familiar entry in a zillion anthologies and syllabi. It was on the Humanities 1-B syllabus I was given to teach 30 years ago. Though a classic, it is arguably too much of its time, place, and language for many to connect with. Professor X writes that his students “fidget…yawn…and grimace” upon first encounter. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering why Professor X didn’t select or substitute other stories.

So let’s think about teaching, using “Araby” as an object to turn and turn in our hands and heads, considering through it the teaching of literature – or any subject, for that matter – from a number of perspectives.

First, a refresher. “Araby” is set in Joyce’s dreary Early-Twentieth Century Dublin and is narrated in the first person by an adolescent boy who is thoroughly infatuated with the older sister of one of his pals. The boy’s language is rich, fervid, and his description of his friend’s sister is flat-out rapturous. Though he watches her from afar and only directly encounters her once in the story, “…my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.” You get the idea.

The defining moment in the story begins to develop when the girl, in that single encounter, expresses regret that she can’t go to Araby, the bazaar that’s in town, and our narrator, emboldened, says he will go and bring her something. After an agony of waiting for his drunken uncle to come home with a few shillings, the boy rushes to Araby, arriving at closing time. It is as dreary a place as the city surrounding it. He finds an open booth, eyes vases and tea sets, feels the few coins in his pocket, and realizes suddenly, painfully, the foolhardiness of his desire and quest. “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity,” the story ends, “and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

So let’s say, I, you, or Professor X might want to teach “Araby.” There are a lot of questions to consider in selecting any piece of literature for a syllabus. Certainly, one’s own pleasure with the text matters – it enlivens the teaching – but there needs to be further justification, since teaching literature means reading a story or poem with others to some pedagogical end, a social intellectual activity.

Here in three overlapping parts, three cycles or lines of sight, are some of the things I might think about as I consider assigning “Araby.”


I’d ask myself what it is I want to achieve through teaching the story: what about literature and the appreciation of it, or about the structure of the short story, or about Joyce and his Dublin, or about symbolism and imagery, or about the cadence of a sentence, or about imagination and longing, or about conceptions of romance and gender, or….And I’d ask these questions if I were teaching “Araby” to a group of high schoolers or to a graduate seminar in English – though, of course, the specifics of what I did in each classroom would be different.

I’d intersect such questions with what I know about the students before me, high schoolers to advanced graduate students. Some of what I know comes from their location in the system: Were there prerequisite courses? What have they already been reading for me? And some of what I know is provided by their performance, by discussion in class, by tests or papers, by comments made in conference. And some of what I know emerges via relation, through what I try to make a respectful engagement with them as people with histories, interests and curiosities, hopes for the future.


That last point about considering the histories of the people in the class brings into focus another set of, not unrelated, questions, questions about the politics and sociology of what gets selected into literary canons, of what authors get read. So I’d be asking myself: Does my syllabus reflect in some way, to some degree the cultural histories and practices of the students before me, particularly if those histories and practices have typically been absent from the curriculum? There can be great pedagogical power here, and all of us who have taught literature have seen it: Students lighting up when they read stories with familiar languages, geographies, family scenes, cultural practices that they haven’t read before in a classroom. This point was made nicely in several posts. Given this perspective, and depending on who was in my class, I might take a pass on “Araby.” I know that when I first read the story as a college freshman, it seemed as flat and distant as could be.

But culture is a complex business, as is teaching, and a cautionary note was raised in last week’s posts. While being responsive to our students’ cultural histories and practices, we have to be mindful of how easily “culture” can be narrowed and reduced as we try to define it. Given the tendency in our society (discussed at other times in this blog) toward either/or thinking and one-dimensional answers to complex educational questions, the point is worth emphasizing. As expressed in one post, there is “no monolithic us,” no blanket African-American, or working-class, or Puerto Rican culture, and thus no ready match-up to writers from these backgrounds. Black kids won’t automatically respond to Alice Walker. How a story of hers is taught becomes a key variable. This seems obvious, I know, but it can slip away from us.

So maybe “Araby” shouldn’t be ruled out of court….


Which leads me to the third line of sight I’d take when considering “Araby.” And that is my own experience with the story: as an underprepared college freshman from a working-class background, as someone who later taught “Araby,” and as a middle-aged man reading it once again, just before composing this entry.

As I noted a moment ago, I didn’t like or get “Araby” the first time I read it. Though I had a terrific senior high school English teacher – a guy who turned my life around – and some wonderful teachers later in college, my college Freshman English instructor was awful. As I subsequently learned more about literary technique in general, and Joyce in particular, and especially as I had to eventually teach “Araby” myself, I came to appreciate it. And reading the story a few days ago – thinking back to my own adolescence – it touched me deeply.

I take a few lessons from this brief survey of my own time with “Araby.”

The first lesson has to do with how I missed completely in my freshman year the overlay of the story with my own experience. Like the narrator, I too lived in a sad and taxing place and sought release in my imagination. And, like him, I had a desperate and unrequited crush – in my case on a waitress in the Mexican restaurant down the street. My heart too picked up speed just walking past the front window, hoping that she was at the counter. The important point here, I think, is that we sometimes don’t see connection or relevance automatically, readily. This could be a place where artful teaching comes in.

Teaching also comes in, of course, in understanding literary technique, the way “Araby” works as a story: the structure of the thing, the boy’s hyperbolic language, the small touches that mean so much. I remember not getting the ending at all: how did we go so quickly from looking at vases and jingling a few coins in the pocket to the crashing “my eyes burned with anguish and anger”? But a little guided reflection on that ending would have revealed a powerful truth, surely known to me at 19, and, for that fact, to all the folks in Professor X’s literature class: that our hopes are sometimes dashed through the smallest thing – an overheard remark, a glance away, an opportunity missed by a minute or two.

If I did elect to teach “Araby,” I would probably be considering in hindsight what didn’t happen with me upon first encounter – which provides another way to think about how to open the story up to others.

I invite the readers of this blog to pipe in, to continue thinking with me about teaching – teaching a story like “Araby”… or any of the other issues about teaching raised in my last few entries.


  1. During the past few months, as I've been talking with groups of
    incoming students and their parents at orientation sessions for our
    campus, I think about Mike Rose and his work. In particular, I tell
    the groups that we teachers experience great joy when we can help
    students achieve their dreams. I also note that we treachers
    experience great sadness when our students can't seem to find the
    motivation to do their best to achieve those dreams. In these
    orientation sessions, many parents' facial expressions and comments
    suggest that they feel the same way. The students seem to conceal
    their feelings more, though. Or maybe I'm just not astute enough to
    pick up on their subtle expressions.

    When I work with these same new students in the fall, however, I know
    that they will share their aspirations with their classmates and with
    me. The challenge then is to help them find the motivation to strive
    to reach those dreams--and to overcome the hurdles along the way.

    I'd love to hear from others who have helped students stay focused on
    their goals.


  2. Dear Mike:

    I've spent a good part of the morning reading your entries and readers' posts. Of course, your compelling thinking and passion comes forth beautifully in your writing and inspires.

    As promised, I said I'd write when life settled down a bit. Here are some thoughts and reflections from a midwest university-based education researcher and writer and activist.

    You asked a while back, "how do we get more deliberate discussion about the purpose of schooling out into the public sphere?" You also wondered "what is it about school structure, politics, etc that disrupts" these sorts of discussions?

    Time and Fear.

    Time. First, we are in a hurry--as we should be, right? We don't have time to waste deliberating when kids are stuck in hallways, without materials, in desperate conditions that constitute their schooling.

    But what happens is that this urgency, this emergency situation that is facing our students today is not, as has been noted, solved by a single magic solution--eg. more computers, less art, new teachers, new buildings, more books. So, we have to slow down and mire in complicated discussions and look at things from multiple perspectives. And talk and trust and repeat over and over that the bottom line isn't a numerical score on a test--the bottom line is creating schools that support adults and children and youth coming together in humane ways to learn together.

    It's hard for policy-makers at every level to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty and to know how to respond in ways that will, and I say this cynically and sadly, help them continue to win elections.

    In addition to the problem of time, we are operating in a fear-based world. What if our kids can't compete globally (what does that really mean?)? What if ineffective teachers were replaced? What if charter schools overtake traditional public schools? What if..."other people's children" learned codes of power? What if 9/11 happens again?

    How do we respond to fear, anger, terror, and nagging questions about inequity and justice in our world? When you write about care or love as a way of living in community--in a place, as Maxine Greene writes-- that is constantly "in the making" we are again reminded of how scared we are of hope and justice. And how hard we have to work to get it.

    Sara Mortimer-Boyd's lovely writing nails it all for me. She wrote, "I am small and the world is large and there is so much to know." Her statement contains all the wonder of learning, the purpose of education, and the humility of a truly educated human being.

    Many thanks--
    Audrey Appelsies

  3. One more thing I forgot to mention:

    A helpful way to persuade policy-maker and others about the complexity involved in the act of teaching well is to do exactly what you have done with your discussion of how you might go about teaching "Araby." A friend tells me often that people, in general, do not understand the many skills involved in teaching--at any and every level. Often as educators we take for granted that people understand what goes into our work or worse yet, we do not consider our skills and craft of value. We have yet to lay claim to our knowledge and its power.

    Audrey Appelsies

  4. Great post, Mike. The Atlantic piece set my teeth on edge because it seemed like such a good example of the editors selecting it because it confirmed their stereotypes.

    As for teaching Araby, I have two thoughts. The first is that there are straightforward, practical teaching methods that might help. For example, I might have us try reading the first paragraph in different voices--in the voice of an old man; in a whisper, as if you're telling a secret, etc. It's kind of a trick to get students to read a difficult piece multiple times and really listen to the words. I might also stop after a couple of pages and have us all write about what we think is going on and what we're confused about, so that we can track the reading as it unfolds.

    The second thought I have is that I would hope to have already started a conversation about "why these pieces of literature?" Who made this anthology or who decided this was the right story for us to read? Who was this Joyce fellow and why should I care about him? Like you, I might very well choose a different story entirely, but if I did teach Araby, I'd want to have the question of why be open to exploration.

  5. Response to Don. I really like these suggestions, and have done some similar things over the years. But one that I haven't done, and that I'm crazy about, is reading that opening paragraph in different voices, for it would humanize what too easily can just be read as musty old words on a page.

  6. Mike -
    I just found your blog and am going to recommend it to friends. I am a former teacher from a little Title I school district in Arizona, and I believe that using what students know already as a starting point is a useful tool.
    Thanks for your blog!

  7. I do teach Joyce to my AP seniors -- usually Portrait of the Artist, but sometimes I do Dubliners. I find that Araby is usually not their favorite. I think they're too close to it. When I've picked out just one story, I've done Eveline: I teach in a very close community where we talk/joke pretty openly about being in a bubble. The final scene where she is gripping the railing in white-knuckled fear of leaving the sordid familiar does resonate with my seniors.

    Portrait is pretty difficult, and I've found the real keys are 1) providing a lot of background -- easily done by dividing them into groups, giving them topics, and having them present to classmates and 2) scaffolding. I do it later in the year when we've looked at Byron, Freudian psychology, romanticism, etc. in other texts. I also do a "theme wheel game" -- Joyce is not subtle, and we'll analyze a passage and "spin the wheel" to find the theme (ie. paralysis of Ireland, nationalism vs. Catholicism, Madonna-Whore complex, etc.) I also do reader's theater with the Christmas dinner -- I pull kids up to read/act out the big fight. Brings the book alive and allows them to see some of the humor. That passage cracks me up every time.

    Great blog. Love thinking about your ideas on teaching.

  8. To Lightly Seasoned:

    Thank you for this. I'm pleased that my entry is bringing forth further suggestions for teaching fiction -- and for teaching a writer like Joyce to contemporary students. I especially like your use of reader's theater, which resonates with Don Zancanella having his students read the first paragraph of "Araby" in a range of voices. All this underscores nicely the rich interplay between the written and the oral, certainly with Joyce, but with lots of other writers, too.

  9. I was touched by Robert B’s comment about the importance Lives on the Boundary has been for him. He is part of this, it seemed, to pay back the gift Lives offered him a new way to see oneself. His comment led me to think about what does bind this particular community together—and I vote for our shared sense that some books are transformative and talking about/sharing with others is one of our essential tasks.

    Case(s) in point: first, the Basement of the Ivory Tower piece. I’ve tried to figure out why the piece so stuck in my craw; while I went about mouthing at that particular professor X, others had much sympathy with him. Mike pointed out that such publications are just not helpful: I would add it’s just not inspiring. Other commentators have gone to some length to explain to this professor why teaching students whose background makes them strangers in academia is not hopeless. Their answers, now maybe they’re exciting, informative, I feel “better” after reading them and worse after reading Prof X.

    Another case in point--I might have just stopped trying to figure out why the Atlantic article left me frustrated had I not received David Hawkins’s The Roots of Literacy—a book Susan Florio-Ruane (not sure if that spelling is correct) mentioned in a posting on this very blog some time ago. As I read through Hawkins’s essays, I kept imagining how Professor X might have learned from them:

    In “What It Means to Teach,” Hawkins comments upon a classroom teacher who, after thirty-five years, keeps teaching because there is still so much to learn. Her practice-teaching student is amazed; he thought it “could all be learned in two or three years.” It is possible, Hawkins agrees, to learn the kind of practice that then leads to another continued forty years of learning. But “whether our …colleges get many of their students on to that fascinating track…is another matter.”

    “To understand the dimensions of the teaching art…is an equally endless commitment and one that needs constant insight and renewal.”

    “…the teacher-learner relationship is at least as old as our human species…a key link in the chain of human history and culture and that without it we would perish immediately,” and he goes on to say the teaching-learning relationship is

    “a moral relationship. If teaching is good or bad, it is morally good or bad. …The relationship by its very nature involves an offer of control by one individual over the functioning of another, who in accepting this offer is tacitly assured that control will . . . enhance the competence and extend the independence of the one controlled, and in due course will be seen to do so.”

    And so goes the cycle of learning, reading, writing, experiencing, learning reading writing experiencing….

  10. I enjoyed reading Professor X’s “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” in the June 2008 issue and, as a fellow English professor in the proverbial trenches, can commiserate with X’s conflict between sympathy for his struggling students and a committed adherence to academic principles. Having taught college freshmen for 20 years, I can even sympathize with X’s premise that college might well not be “the great leveler” and that such a philosophy might even be destructive. I too have encountered the occasional student on whom repeated salvos of explanation, assistance, and reconnoiters seemed to bounce off an absolutely impermeable exterior! But frankly, such an experience is quite rare, so I wasn’t far into X’s defense of his position when my fellow feeling ran dry. I think it’s time for Professor X to venture out of the basement into the real world—the one his students and most of the rest of us inhabit.

    I was struck by his report of a staggering and apparently not atypical failure rate of 66% in his course(s), which surely need not and should not simply be accepted as an inevitable if unhappy result of maintaining high standards.

    If professors of foundation courses like English 101 and 102 across our nation’s colleges lobbied for college-preparatory programs in writing and mathematics (as many community colleges boast but apparently not the one where X teaches), such appalling experiences as X’s—not to mention his students’—could and would be averted. Speaking from my experience at a college where 30-40% of my college-level composition students have successfully traversed their way through one or two preparatory English courses in advance of mine, I am pleased to report that, once prepared and refreshed, my diverse students from checkered and often downright deficient academic backgrounds prove themselves able to meet the writing and critical thinking challenges I put to them. In fact, most of them flourish and find themselves invigorated at the close of my time with them, confident to tackle similar challenges in their remaining academic work. Hamlet was right. The readiness really is all.

    It simply is not enough to bemoan the unsurprising fact that students who are allowed—forced, really, because of no alternatives—to take classes for which they are unprepared often fail them. It is also not particularly useful to take a certain, if grim, satisfaction (as X seems to do) in correctly predicting Student Y’s failure the first week of class. After all, how prescient does one need to be to form such a hypothesis when the cards are so thoroughly stacked against one’s students?

    I exhort X and other fellow educators teaching at institutions providing no foundation-building programs for their students to refuse to play the role of silent partners in such demoralizing schemes as setting up students to fail. The reasons that students in entry-level writing courses are unprepared are many and varied. In the great majority of cases, colleges can help students address and remedy these deficiencies before these deficiencies batter the students into permanent failure. Higher education is, by most current accounts, facing perilous times, and retreating to the ivory tower—or even the basement--without putting up a fight for our students and their potential is hardly the solution.


    Janele D. Johnson
    Colorado Springs, Colorado

  11. I am in the process of creating my syllabi for the upcoming semester, so your piece on teaching “Araby” came at a perfect time. It helps me try to explain to myself why I choose to teach some stories, novels, or memoirs instead of others.

    I agree with you when you say, “While being responsive to our students’ cultural histories and practices, we have to be mindful of how easily ‘culture’ can be narrowed and reduced as we try to define it.” Instead of trying to define what culture is, I hope to give it room in the classroom by offering lots of different perspectives. “Araby” can be opened up and made relevant, and maybe a contemporary story like Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” can help a story like “Araby” come to life for college composition students. Of course, finding and creating that “connection” and “relevance” that you speak of is the challenge that we all face.

    Like most community college classrooms in Los Angeles, mine contains a mixture of extremely different classes and races, religious backgrounds and cultural beliefs. There are first and second generation immigrants from all over the globe, and there are also students who have never traveled outside the region where this college is located. When I first began teaching, I felt the students just had to understand the significance of “Young Goodman Brown” because Hawthorne was one of my favorite authors. I found myself teaching it from the same vantage point as my upper-division American Literature professor once did, and it failed miserably. I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t ready to teach “Young Goodman Brown” because I had not yet found a way to make it my own and apply it to the lives of people who didn’t care or know much about early American history. I had not yet made the proper connections.

    I have learned to try to create a syllabus that reflects the reality of our world, even if it doesn’t always match the particular make-up of my classroom. When class discussion is alive and well, I see how these students struggle to respect and come to terms with each other’s different perspectives, and I know that I can’t predict what these differences will be just by looking at a student or knowing what country they came from. In the same way, I expect my students to make the leap toward embracing different or foreign perspectives and techniques through reading and to enter each text with open minds.

    I have also learned that I can’t always predict how a text will be received in the classroom. I often teach two sections with the same course material, and one class will enthusiastically embrace a particular short story while another will initially frown upon the story. I have found it best—or most convenient and seemingly successful—to teach a group of stories and essays together that all share a general theme that touches upon a current issue in our society that we all share (myself and the students together), such as “personal responsibility” (McPherson’s “A Loaf of Bread” / Erdrich’s “I’m A Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy”) or “how individuals cope with and process war” (Achebe’s “Civil Peace” / Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible” / Sontag’s “Watching Suffering From a Distance”) or “how we perceive or judge others” (Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” / Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”). I don’t advertise my perspective to the students before the texts are read because I like to see how the students grapple with them by themselves. I do keep these themes in my pocket for the moments that I see the students struggling with how to approach the stories/essays. This is also an exciting way to show how these huge issues can be explored in entirely different ways with different literary or rhetorical techniques.

  12. Sara, your description of what works well for your students in teaching "foreign" or otherwise hard-to-relate-to texts resonated with me. I liked your stated philosophy about making these texts relevant somehow rather than teaching "Young Goodman Brown" in the context of early American history and culture. (I related to that one, having also experienced pretty abysmal failure in the past with that very example and approach!)

    You mentioned keeping the "big" (e.g. easy-to-relate-to) themes in your pocket, so I take that to mean that you don't open up your discussion by talking about those themes straightforwardly. That's my point of difference, I guess. I do begin a discussion of, say, Faulkner's "Barn Burning" by fielding my students' attitudes/ideas about where morality comes from--if and how we learn it, how hard it is to change our moral codes, etc. This opening philosophical chatter usually makes them more receptive to the moral struggles and ultimate triumph of personal principle that the story's narrator undergoes.

  13. Thanks for this thoughtful post.