John Donne and the Sonnet Problem


What makes a sonnet? For most early modern examples, the answer is clear: a 14-line rhyming poem, its form either Shakespearean (three quatrains and a couplet) or Petrarchan (an octave and a sestet). There are exceptions to those formal rules, but most sonnets meet them.

Formal rules are the conventional answer. And that answer works for conventional sonnets, which are the vast majority of sonnets.

But if you enforce formal rules too rigorously, you encounter a few interesting problems. These are the problems that my project is investigating. Moments’ Monuments: The ACL Database is collecting as many sonnets as possible, so I can get a more definitive answer to this question: Is the sonnet a form or a genre? The trouble is, you need to decide first what qualifies as a sonnet.

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The OED maketh an exact man

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” So writes Sir Francis Bacon in his essay “Of Studies” (1597). What exactly he means by this three-part aphorism is unclear, so let’s focus just on the middle part: “conference [maketh] a ready man.” We’ll have to determine the meanings of at least two words: ‘conference’ and ‘ready.’

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”The Past is a Foreign Country…”

“… they do things differently there.” So goes a very quotable aphorism by the otherwise obscure novelist named L. P. Hartley. There are things about its people, their mindsets and habits, that seem utterly foreign: like alchemy, or absolute monarchy. But we measure their distance also by things they did that we can’t do, like building temples or writing epic poetry.

Their poetry is also, paradoxically, where we can find familiarity. Sure, past writers use antique formulations and words, but their underlying emotions can be human in a transcendent, trans-historical way. We can feel their urgency.

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NLP for Literary Critics: An Introduction and Tutorial

Preface: Knowledge and Information

Shall I compare thee, human, to a machine? Thou art more critical and more intemperate (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18).

But seriously: how do human readers compare to machines? I ask because I want to define how literary critics can use machines to augment and extend our readings. Figuring that out depends on an understanding of how our readings compare to the machine’s abilities. Sure, they’re faster: but faster at what, exactly?
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The Roald Not Taken: Teaching the Short Stories

I’ve just finished teaching 58 first-year students the adult short stories of Roald Dahl, the 20th-century English writer better known for children’s books. (Here’s the course outline in PDF.)

From 1944 to 1988 Dahl, who died in 1990, wrote and published stories for adults: beginning with memoirs of his RAF service during the second world war, and covering a range of topics and settings: suburban English and American life; dysfunctional marriages; country pastimes in his rural Buckinghamshire (dog races, pheasant poaching); pick-pocketing, rat-catching, and human taxidermy. Continue reading “The Roald Not Taken: Teaching the Short Stories”

Roald Dahl’s Stories for Adults

“I’ll bet you think you know this story. You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.” Roald Dahl wrote this about the tale of Cinderella in Revolting Rhymes, but it also applies to the stories he wrote for adults from 1944 to 1988. “Nobody in their right mind would want to be a character in a Roald Dahl short story,” writes Anthony Horowitz (2.x). This author of beloved children’s books was known as ‘the master of the macabre’ for the twisted imagination he reveals in stories abounding with cruelty, lust, madness, and murder.

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The History and Future of Reading

This is a provisional description of a graduate course I’ll offer in the Department of English in Spring 2018. For details and updates, contact me.

The history of reading begins with the invention of written language and culminates, like all histories, in the present — in the seminar room of this course, among other places. Here we will study that history and the theorizations of reading practices, and consider how cultural and material circumstances have influenced historical readers. And we will see the present and future of reading as equally subject to our own intellectual habits and technologies. But we will also examine our practices of reading two novels in 18 — novels from the 1760s and the 1990s. Both are “thick with the presence of other books” (in A.S. Byatt’s words), and with an awareness of their own status as books, of both the limits and potential of written language.

We read today in an age of abundance, when Google Books offers searchable access to 12 million books in 300 languages (so far). Digital tools help us navigate and analyze these texts quickly, but human expertise must apply qualitative judgement to all of this quantitative data. This course will explore the possibilities and limitations of what Stephen Ramsay calls “algorithmic criticism,” or the use of computers to ask empirical questions of texts, and to visualize their linguistic features using word trees, heat maps, and other deformations. Ramsay has addressed the limitations of this criticism, which aims “not to constrain meaning, but to guarantee its multiplicity.” To this end, the course aims primarily to teach and to theorize a critical toolkit, and to understand how it originates in or differs from past reading and interpretive practices.

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Ten Ways to Teach without Lecture Notes

Prefatory note: I’m writing this as a university professor of literature, but most of my observations should apply to other subjects at other levels.

In a hypothetical alternate universe, imagine that you have to teach a class in ten minutes and just finished reading the book. You favour “just-in-time” teaching methods – out of habit, if not principle – so you tend to lecture from a list of ideas, quotations, questions, and classroom exercises, accompanied by a good slideshow. But today, as I said, you just finished the reading and teach in ten (now seven) minutes. What do you do?

First, let’s drop the alternate-universe fiction. Over the years my lecture notes have thinned considerably. I used to go in with every word scripted, in mortal fear that I would run out of material. But I’ve come to realize two things: students retain far more from interative knowledge-creation than from knowledge-delivery; and each class gives you an opportunity to make knowledge together, in ways you can only do together. In your limited time, in this room, with these minds, what knowledge will you produce?

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The Cure for Death by Powerpoint

This is an edited version of the talk I gave in the Faculty of Arts Teaching and Leaning Workshop series at the University of Calgary on 20 October 2016.

I delivered it for university faculty, but I think it could apply equally to all classrooms — maybe even beyond.

UPDATE (28 November 2016): I’ll give another version of this talk to the wider university community on 20 January 2017. Click here for details

Here’s the abstract:

Most of us use slideshows like Powerpoint or Keynote to accompany our lectures and illuminate our points. But what principles and habits are we following when we write our slideshows? Are we showing students the right information, in the right way, at the right time?

In this workshop, you’ll design slideshows to match your teaching goals to students’ learning needs. You’ll critique some slideshows that just don’t work. You’ll learn about some features of these two programs, like text animations and embedded media. And you’ll learn how slides can tell stories and provoke conversations, not just deliver information. Continue reading “The Cure for Death by Powerpoint”