The Black Dog Nipping at My Heels

The black dog can slither like a snake. The black dog can make himself invisible. The black dog can teleport through locked doors and closed eyelids. He snarls from behind me as the passage grows narrower and narrower, the lights dimmer and dimmer, then appears suddenly in front of me when the walls are so tight I can’t turn around.

With his constant snapping, I can barely read, much less write. He snatches my half-formed poems and shakes them, snapping their necks. Even his barking is derisive.

And the black dog can talk. We have conversations like this:

Maybe I should write about some of the things I’m doing with teaching and WordPress for #TWP15. I’ve been doing it for a long time–

Why? Nothing you’re doing is interesting. It’s all been done before. And by smarter and better.

OK, let me look at my little list of ideas: Quantity vs. abundance as a function of our abilities and posture? Rabbit-holes as the real world? Memorable learning and ego?

Dumb. Dumber. Dumbest. No one wants to hear your blather. Look around, man…your betters have it covered.

I could work on some ideas for Nousion. Comment on some of their work…

You know those students see right through you? You aren’t asking for their advice and ideas to be inclusive but because you have nothing interesting to bring to the table. You type a lot on their posts and say nothing. Just stop.

[Fires up TweetDeck] I need a connection. Or at least a distraction.

Hey, look how those “friends” you messaged haven’t replied? You know why that is, right?


That’s it. You’re not just unoriginal, you’re a fraud. Quit trying to sit in with those real thinkers and real writers and real educators.

[more silence]

Sit. Roll over. Get up. Get out. Goodbye.

Depressed, Analytical Valley Girl


From Audrey Watters on Twitter a few days ago:

Today a friend sent me a link to James Pennebaker’s Analyze Words, a site that performs textual analysis on Twitter feeds. When I tried it, I realized that this must be the system that Michael Petrilli had used in his “analysis” (it says so in the article, but I didn’t remember the name of the software) because of the strange “Spacy/Valley girl” category. Here are my results (TL;DR I’m a depressed, analytical, personable valley girl):


Automated textual analysis is an interesting, but limited technology. I’m all for using it as one tool among many to spark thinking. But what’s with the sexist, dismissive “Spacy/Valley girl” category from someone supposedly interested in words and language? Presumably it’s a category intended to convey informality, use of words such as “like” and perhaps present tense? Pennebaker’s book on which this is based (The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us) doesn’t provide any specifics…the only mentions of the phrase “valley girl” come in the following quotes, which are predictable in their banality and lack of useful information. First, a comparison of two categories:

Pompous instructions: Although your professors gave this topic rather minimal attention, cognitive dissonance is a common psychological phenomenon with which the vast majority of uninformed laymen will be familiar … generating an example should be simple enough once one has become reasonably familiar with this concept.

Valley girl instructions: OK, we might not have talked about cognitive dissonance much. Which I think is totally crazy cause it’s like, everybody should be able to see that cognitive dissonance is majorly relevant. Like, it’s seriously happening ALL the time, you know??… So OK, it’s your turn. I mean, like really try to think of an example of cognitive dissonance and tell me everything about it.

And then the dismissal (I wonder which category this falls into? Arrogant, Sexist, Old White Man?):

In fact, if I, like, started—you know—writing in a Valley girl style for like gobs of paragraphs, and, you know, if, uhhh, your phone rang and like you totally answered it? You would like majorly start talking like this.

I’ll stop now to preserve our respective senses of dignity.

Not exactly deep thinking is it? I guess it sells better to use the Buzzfeed quiz model than to provide and support textual analysis as a point of inquiry…

Note To/About Self: Rhizo14/15

I finally got around to reading “Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade” and a quote from one of the #rhizo14 participants the authors surveyed caught my eye. He or she described the #rhizo14 experience as being composed of “disjointed networks of pre-established subgroups.”

To some extent, that was how I experienced #rhizo15. Having been uninvolved or involved only at the very periphery of the previous year’s #rhizo14 experience and various other MOOC and MOOC-like experiences that the most active participants appear to have been part of together, I felt some sense of the outsider looking in. I was surprised at how solid the group formations already were (or seemed) before the course even started.

This isn’t a criticism: that my participation quickly dwindled was fundamentally a matter of the choices I made in how to engage (or not). But the comment made me think about what I was and wasn’t able to take away from the experience that might be applicable to my own practice:

  1. Some (a very small number) of the tweets and comments bordered on hero-worship. That’s uninteresting except that it points to how much the success of #rhizo15 depended on Dave’s position and personality…and I suspect the combination of these tendencies and so many who already had shared experiences explains the nearly complete absence of anyone challenging any aspects of the nature of the #rhizo15 experience itself.

  2. We who don’t have an avid following aren’t going to have much success throwing up a video every week and drawing a crowd of many hundreds or thousands, no matter how provocative or insightful the idea…and given the dynamics of communities and the various roles needed for them to be healthy, this is a situation where size does matter. I like the “big idea” approach, though, foregrounding the big questions that too often lie hidden beneath the surface of the mundane and organizing the experience around them.

  3. Something about the radically de-centered nature of the course appeals deeply to me, though I can barely dip into those waters when teaching formal classes. So a challenge for me is how to facilitate sustained engagement, self-organizing activities and group exploration and cohesion within the bounds of academic terms, defined outcomes and required grades.

  4. I’m intrigued by some of the artistry that emerged. I’m doubly intrigued by the sparks when the artistic expression meets the formalized expression. There’s more than a little of the Two Cultures problem involved here, the divides between formal and informal, art and craft, research and…well, whatever the “other” is.

The Nurse, the Wicked Fiend (#moocspeare)

Romeo and Juliet - Nurse realizes...

Reading, particularly reading the text of plays (not to mention texts of uncertain reliability in terms of the author’s preferences), is an intense negotiation of the competing forces of interpretation of words, context and authorial intention in the melange of previous readings and performances and critical discussions.

Reading Romeo and Juliet this time around I’m seeing many things—almost too many things—in new ways. Some of it is being sparked by the conversations on the “Hack Shakespeare” Facebook group and the occasional #moocspeare Tweets. The rest comes from some change in the forces of negotiation between myself, my text and memory.

The nurse is a character I’m seeing in a very different light. I’ve always read her as a kind of Falstaffian character, similarly comedic but with significantly less depth. Now I’m seeing her as a significantly darker, even malevolent actor. Her role is clearly meant to be important (I’d be surprised if any characters other than Romeo and Juliet themselves get more time onstage). And in her role as caretaker and messenger, her words seem to not just predict but—Iago-like—provoke ill actions until she betrays Juliet, pushing her to marry Paris, a move that is either incredibly stupid or deeply malicious. “O most wicked fiend” indeed!

Or maybe I’m being too hard on the nurse. Perhaps she’s just being pragmatic, a trait whose contrast is so heightened in contrast with the feelings of pure love between Romeo and Juliet that her pragmatic approach—in which Paris and Romeo are interchangeable—feels hostile. She’s certainly intended to be the earthy counterpart to Juliet (a role Mercutio, with his ribaldry and vulgarity, is Romeo’s), providing the opposite pole in one of the intense dualities in the play, pure love vs earthly love.

Shakespeare is Shakespeare because of the depth he brings to the stories he adapted from other, simpler sources. The Nurse’s character—and her role—change. She’s never merely a comic foil, just as Falstaff is never merely a comic buffoon (which heightens the tragedy of Prince Hal’s rejection of him), but as the play progresses the balance shifts from mostly humor with a blunted blade beneath to a fully revealed cutting edge. “Women grow by men,” the nurse notes early…but Juliet is to learn they die by them too.

When My Time Comes

This song has been in my head for months. No matter where I go, how far forward or back, I remain balanced on the razor edge of the knife.

“When My Time Comes”

There were moments of dreams
I was offered to save.
I lived less like a workhorse,
more like a slave.
I thought that one quick moment
that was noble or brave
would be worth the most of my life.

So I pointed my fingers
and shouted few quotes I knew,
as if something that’s written
should be taken as true.
But every path I had taken
and conclusion I drew
would put truth back under the knife.

And now the only piece of advice that continues to help is:
anyone that’s making anything new only breaks something else.

When my time comes,
When my time comes,

So I took what I wanted
and put it out of my reach.
I wanted to pay for my successes
with all my defeats.
And if Heaven was all
that was promised to me
why don’t I pray for death?

Now it seems like the unraveling
started too soon.
Now I’m sleeping in hallways
and I’m drinking perfume,
and I’m speaking to mirrors,
and I’m howling at moons,
while the worse and the
worse that it gets.

Oh you can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks.
Yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it’s staring right back.

—from North Hills

De-Centering and #rhizo15

Dave Cormier, Chief Rhizologismat(g)ician, makes an interesting comment about how he wants to position himself in #rhizo15:

Broad based community leadership (see DS106) is interesting, but not what I’m trying to do. I am trying to stay ‘just close enough’ to the formal education model that some of the lessons that I learn in rhizo could leak over into the formal system.

Dave has probably said this before and I wasn’t paying attention (to be fair, I’ve been hiding out in a big literature, writing and lexicography cave for a few years). Intuitively, #rhizo feels significantly further away from the formal education model than DS106…so far away that I wonder if the notions of #rhizo itself, whatever they may be, can leak over to the formal model (a different thing, of course, than participants bringing what they learn to—or using what they are learning in—their formal classroom environments).

This isn’t just an abstract question, as I’m due to start teaching a class in less than a month and I’m still wondering how the lessons I am learning might inform, apply to, or be brought to that course.

It’s the very “not-thereness” of #rhizo—which at this point is basically Dave posting a video each week with a provocative-but-not-necessarily-new topic with the instructions “explore and share”—that makes it great and difficult to identify as a means of application. Which isn’t, of course, what Dave is talking about above…he talks about the lessons that he has and will learn. Of those I already have many. But needs must, so I am forced to think about how the model of #rhizo itself might help me with the class I have to teach.

Feuds and Fate in Romeo and Juliet (#moocspeare)

Usual warning: meandering, “rough-draft” thoughts follow.

I’m starting to wonder if the “real” fate in Romeo and Juliet isn’t the fate ordained by the stars but their own romantic attachment to that fate as embodied by the feud between their houses that (they believe) must divide them.

Until now, I’ve alway understood the feud between the Montagues and Capulets to be deep, enduring and consistently violent. But for some reason, the moment when old Capulet calls for his sword and Lady Capulet offers a crutch (in multiple senses) I started wondering: what if the feud, while long-standing, was because of that very length, waning? Except for the aptly named Mercutio, whose mercurial temper undoes himself and everyone around him—and who is neither Montague nor Capulet!—there’s not much to say that the feud is more than a tradition. Old Montague and old Capulet appear to want the feud to continue, but not necessarily with vigor: old Capulet stays Tybalt’s hand when Romeo is unmasked…but even before that did anyone really think that Romeo would go unrecognized? I don’t think so…masked events were common but it was also, I think, understood that most participants would be known to one another anyway. The masks were—in the same manner but the opposite intent of the feud—a shared fiction that made for a particular context for action. There’s no real sense that, but for Mercutio’s hot-headedness and Tybalt’s fire, the houses were actively at each other’s throats.

What if the feud wasn’t just below a boiling point, stoked to overflowing by the actions of the characters, but just an excuse for the actions of the selfish or limited characters?

In that sense, the feud becomes a pretext and context for the very human, personal actions of Mercutio, Tybalt, Romeo, and Juliet. Mercutio, crucially of neither house, provokes an enocunter. Tybalt is just as determined. But after the death of Mercutio—even after the death of Tybalt—all might not necessarily be lost. What might have happened if Romeo and Juliet had simple declared their love? Might not the force of their love just as likely unified the houses? The outcome certainly couldn’t have been worse.

But Romeo and Juliet are both romantics in their own way. Romeo is committed to a romantic idea of love; Juliet is committed to the romantic idea of the enduring feud that must transgress it. Between them they are possibly creating a fiction of necessarily doomed love. In this way it is not the stars that determine their fate, but they who make up a fate of their own that comes from and then feeds on their young love.

Romeo and Juliet Reading Notes: Prologue (#moocspeare)

Fate and star-crossed lovers

The mysteries of Romeo and Juliet deepen—as does my perception of the play itself—every time I read it. And those mysteries begin to reveal themselves in the first lines of the prologue, with the description of Romeo and Juliet as “a pair of star-crossed lovers.”

How star-crossed? How are we to understand the grip of fate in this play? To be sure, people in Shakespeare’s time typically believed more literally in fate and astrology and were, on the whole, a significantly more superstitious lot, than the average reader today (see “Superstition, Folklore, and Astrology in Shakespeare’s Time”).

On the other hand, Shakespeare’s other plays don’t—and this is all subject to my amateur understanding and memory—treat fate as the kind of immovable, inescapable force one might expect based on the explicit phrase “star-crossed,” the general feelings in the culture at the time, and the end of Romeo and Juliet in this particular play. Hamlet, for example, clearly changes in the play from feeling buffeted by the ineluctable winds of fate to taking action and thereby taking his future into his own hands. Perhaps Hamlet’s death is subject to fate, but the manner of getting there is up to him…should he choose to exercise his will. Even Macbeth, where fate is so explicitly invoked, it is also questioned. Macbeth may be fated to be king, it is his character that determines how he’ll get there.

The Sonnet Prologue

Why open with a sonnet? The primary source for Shakespeare’s play—Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet—starts with one, but I like to think that Shakespeare was more thoughtful than to simply take on the received form. The sonnet was a typical form for writing about and expressing feelings of love…and while Shakespeare doesn’t use the Petrarchan form, the plot of the play w/r/t Romeo and Juliet (and even Romeo and Rosaline) is Petrarchan.

And why not maintain the sonnet prologues through the play? Does the orderly, structured sonnet break down under the fight against fate? Does the play just get too wild and defies convention?

The Chorus

Why have a chorus? How does it relate to the tradition of the chorus in Greek drama (if it does)? Why does the chorus appear before only the first two scenes? It’s not as if the drama particularly needs the context-setting or the plot synopsis. I guess it emphasizes the presence of fate, that the story about to be presented has already unfolded because the entire plot is summarized.

Death-marked love

Is there any Shakespeare play in which the imagery of Death is as vivid?

Hints of Themes to Come

A few things struck me in the Prologue that become recurring themes later:

The opening word, “two,” is a literal invocation of the recurring theme of dualities and binaries—love/hate, light/dark, fate/will, etc.

“Civil hands” is the first of many references to hands. Bloody hands. The hands of marriage. Saints’ hands. “Let lips do what hands do.” And that’s not even to get into all the fingers!