Teaching and Social Norms

April 08, 2005

This one could easily have been titled "things the toddler taught me about teaching undergraduates," but that title would have raised expectations beyond this little post.

We were talking about the 1920s yesterday, and I chose to frame the decade using art in general and literature in specific to argue that it was an era of anxiety. So, we talked about Hemingway's "A Clean Well Lighted Place" and Mary Webb's With Affection and Esteem, then moved to a nice loose discussion about changes in class identity between the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. To the first approximation, 18th century class is defined by birth, 19th by behavior, 20th by consumption, with the qualifier that all three always matter. As Flea points out, you don't take your boyfriend to the job interview.

a graph showing births declining, behavior as an uneven bell curve, and consumption increasing steadily then going asymptotic

The transition between class defined as behavior and class defined as consumption came during the "modern" era - that moment between about 1885 and 1925. I used one of our short stories, Mary Webb's With Affection and Esteem as our transition. Read the short story, it is only about 1500 words and it is very good but sad.

I argued that one aspect of the story is that the landlady is coming out of the 19th century, with class, and worth, and meaning, defined by behavior and expectations. Myrtle Brown is a more modern woman, and wants to add worth and value and meaning to her life, to pay the debt of beauty that she feels owed, by engaging in an act of consumption - buying cut flowers.

So where does the toddler come in?

The slacker section had exactly two people read that short story. After pulling teeth for a while I gave up, decided that it was short, and spent 5 to 10 minutes of class time reading it out loud. I cry almost as easily as Dick Vermeil, and I choked up at the moment when she was buying her flowers and fulfilling her dream. But, since part of the toddler's bedtime ritual is to read three books, and since his second favorite toy after the Little People Schoolbus is the closest book, I have had a fair bit of practice at reading out loud.

Afterwards we had a pretty good discussion. The kids are not dumb, but they are overworked and a bit lazy.

Posted by Red Ted at April 8, 2005 07:55 AM | TrackBack