Dr. Shaheen

Dr. Nasseb Shaheen, a English professor at the University of Memphis, passed away this last Friday-Saturday. I knew him only a little, having never taken an class from him in my nearly five years there, but I think everyone who knew him has a Dr. Shaheen story to tell.

If he liked you a little, I was told early on, he might let you see his massive collection of pre-King James Bibles, and before long, he did invite me to see them. Geneva Bibles, Bishop’s Bibles, countless editions, many rebound with his imprint.

While probably best known for his extensive cataloging of all the references to scripture in the works of Shakespeare, I most associate him with the Bible as Literature class that he taught to undergrads. He often taught in the classroom directly across from my shared office, where I could hear him, with his distinctive and unforgettable voice, through two doors,  discussing the JEDP theory or the beauty of the Letter to the Hebrews. I tried to audit that class for  years, but my schedule always bumped into his regular TTH time, and I’d always justify waiting another semester. I felt short-sighted when I left, and doubly so now.

There were a lot of weekends, especially when I was writing the dissertation, when I’m pretty sure the only people in Patterson Hall were Dr. Shaheen and me, both working late, and we would often stumble into each other in the hallways, surprised that anyone else was around at whatever strange hour it was. He regularly walked through the entire building in the evening, turning off lights in classrooms on 3 floors to save money for the university, and when he would get to the lone light in my office,  I would hear, “Duncan!” or “Michael!” out of the darkness, checking to see if it was indeed me.

I last saw him this summer – June or July – just before I moved. He congratulated me on my new TT position and expressed a considerable amount of horror that I was going to be teaching 4/4.

Upon beavers

Tycho Brahe has a very distinctive sense of humor and writing style. I was musing about exactly why it was distinctive after reading this comic, and realized that it is because very few people would, upon discussing beavers, remark, “Their hunger for wood is well known.” Perhaps, “Beavers eat wood,” or “They eat wood,” or “They like wood…” not an elaborate passive-voice construction that evokes the songs of bards who have traveled hither and yon before dispensing their melodic lore to us, the undeserving, who know not the ways of the beaver, despite the  legendary status of said wood-eating prowess.

And then I realized that the phrase in question is, more or less, exactly how a Obi-Wan sounds: passive-voice, authoritative generalities. “The sand people are easily frightened…” I utter a variation of this quote at least weekly, but no one ever gets it.

25 Pounds of Thing

This picture is from a month ago, so Kara, alias Miz Thing, alias K-Dog, and also known by many other names, is probably a pound or two heavier now.


I’m trying out a new theme with this post. I’m getting too old to read white on black, I suppose.

K-Dog has been a handful of late. She is not exactly getting into trouble so much so as releasing enough energy to trigger the formation of stars. It is safe to say that I can sit on my couch in the living room on any given night and watch pockets of Jeans Instability spontaneously form at the edge of a nebula. Things are going SMACK and CRASH and RUNRUNRUNRUNRUNRUN STOP RUNRUNRUNRUNRUNRUN. Swirls of random galactic matter, usually paper, are swept into a gaping, toothy maw which must be constantly pried open to check for heavy metals and other items not conductive to planetary formation.

Planetary formation, of course, happens in the backyard.

Rhetorical Narrativism: A Rhetorical-Critical Reading of the Early Christian Gospels

Recently, while trying out the online goodies at UHD’s library, I discovered that ProQuest hasn’t listed my dissertation abstract yet.  So, in order that it has some sort of web presence, I’ll just post it here:

Duncan, Michael Gary. Ph.D. The University of Memphis. May 2009. “Rhetorical Narrativism: A Rhetorical-Critical Reading of the Early Christian Gospels.” Major Professor: Brad McAdon, Ph.D.

This dissertation introduces a new approach to rhetorical criticism of the early Christian gospels, which I call rhetorical narrativism. This approach is necessitated by the relative inattention of historians of rhetoric to the early Christian period, defined here as 35 CE-425 CE, due to the mistaken assumptions that there is little Christian rhetoric present before Augustine, and that the rhetoric present in early Christian work is dependent on Greco-Roman models. In this approach, the Greek texts that have come down to us of the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are considered to be rhetorical narratives that also employ hermeneutical rhetoric. Furthermore, in contrast to a common understanding of these texts, the gospels were written by authors with as much free control over their compositions, arguments, and sources as any ancient author, in contrast to the “weak authorship” assumptions of the Q hypothesis that dominates mainstream biblical source criticism. This approach also suggests that due to their institutionalized power over interpretation, rhetorical critics should more explicitly explore their own subjectivity toward Christian beliefs when analyzing the arguments within the gospels.

Rhetorical narrativism is demonstrated through three case studies which focus, respectively, on the rhetorical composition of the various post-resurrection accounts, the conflicting material relating to John the Baptist, and the evolving portrayals of Judas Iscariot. The conclusion suggests that the author of the Gospel of Mark is the originator of much of the rhetorical narrative found in the gospels, having composed the text with a polemical aim of undermining the authority of the original apostles. A closing excursus on pedagogy notes this approach and the texts of the gospels can be useful for teaching the analysis of arguments, the nature of source documentation, and critical thinking, even to Christian students with strong beliefs about the texts in question.

Rumpole of the Bailey

I have been enjoying watching episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey recently, as well as reading the stories, both by John Mortimer, and thus feeding my ongoing minor obsession with British genre fiction. I am particularly pleased with how the stories deal with identity and morality.

First, identity. Horace Rumpole, the barrister’s barrister, played in the TV series by the masterful Leo McKern, has certain eccentricities that appear in EVERY episode/story at least once. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. They would make an excellent drinking game. Horace always:

  • Refers to the time that he won the “Penge Bungalow Murders, ALONE AND WITHOUT A LEADER!” ;
  • Refers to his wife Hilda as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” sotto voce, or openly when she is not around;
  • Refers to Phyllida Esrkine-Brown as “the Portia of our Chambers”;
  • Refers to the sub-quality claret available at Jack Pommeroy’s Wine Bar as either “Pommeroy’s Plonk,” “Pommeroy’s Very Ordinary,” “Chateau Fleet Street,” “Chateau Thames Embankment” (my favorite), or something similar;
  • Notes that the wine in question keeps him “astonishingly regular”;
  • Visits Pommeroy’s only because his blood alcohol level is “dangerously low”;
  • Quotes Wordsworth, the “old sheep of the Lake District,” at length with little or no provocation;
  • Mentions that he is about to, or has had already, a lunch of “steak and kidney pud,” and debates the merits of any meal he has at some length;
  • Refers to a judge in the Old Bailey by nickname of his own design – the “Mad Bull,” “Injustice Gravestone,” “Rice Krispies,” etc.

And so on and so forth. While all these things have their charm, Mortimer subverts them on a constant basis. Rumpole often questions whether or not he is merely a collection of eccentric behaviors, a sort of Wordsworth-quoting automaton with frightening powers of cross-examination, and if he is even capable of being anything but the eccentric barrister Rumpole. Furthermore, these very eccentric qualities all have a clear price; Rumpole’s stubborn inability to change and his strict moral code on the job mean that everyone around him (aside from his wife Hilda, who mirrors his consistency) is socially mobile, whereas he is perpetually a junior barrister, unwilling to play politics or do any action for appearance’s sake. Add to this the fact that the series is very long, and employs a loose floating timeline that has Rumpole at roughly age 65-75 for more than 30 years, and it is strangely poignant how the world seems to pass Horace and Hilda by.

But at the same time, Horace and Hilda seem far more real and human than most of the lot that Rumpole has to deal with at the Old Bailey. The world of criminal law in Rumpole’s universe is full of surface-level fakes, judges that have risen via the Peter Principle to their level of incompetence, and the criminals, which are usually the best of the lot. Rumpole insists on remaining a junior barrister because he is comfortable there, whereas he knows he would make a lousy Queer Customer (Queen’s Counsel) or Circus Judge (Circuit Judge). He rejects the social mobility and success that Hilda wants for the somber pleasures of individuality and the knowledge that he did not sell out his principles.

This choice is also mirrored in his moral code, which he usually sums up in one of his closing remarks, about the “golden thread of British justice” – the presumption of innocence. Horace refuses to plead guilty unless his client admits guilt, and he equally refuses NOT to fight on if his client admits guilt to him. In terms of both morality and identity, Rumpole detests how the courts and police can force guilt onto a suspect and transform them into a guilty party without the benefit of sufficient evidence or adequately skilled representation. For him, innocence is a sacred affair that is inexorably tied to personal, individual freedom; crime and guilt must be established, not assigned or assumed.

There is a deeply Platonic vibe, a strong desire for access to the truth, in what Rumpole does, but at the same time he is perfectly willing to lie and manipulate the system in order to win a case. For this reason he has no moral problems with harshly cross-examining a possible rape victim, or defending the many members of the Timson clan, a family of minor criminals; the ends justify the means if the truth about the crime (or alleged crime) is revealed, or at least what can be known is displayed, no matter what the personal cost to the participants or to Rumpole’s career, marriage, and dinner plans. Mortimer is very skilled at finding scenarios where Rumpole’s clients actively resent him getting them off, and Rumpole regrets winning as well.

There is a considerable amount of irony in how Rumpole uses his oratorical skills, with all their rhetorical tricks, cookery, wooing, and manipulation, to defeat what he sees as real cookery; the corruption inherent in the judicial and police system, and the gradual erosion of his beloved golden thread. He has no problem fighting fire with fire, whereas his “learned friends” shy away from his willingness to go to any lengths to defend his client, and the various judges that he battles hate him because his time-consuming antics and cross-examinations disturb their universal desire to have the trial end early so they can take in various sporting events.

Rumpole is deeply conservative but he is an active, fighting, open-minded, old-school conservative rather than the rigid social conservatives that are so prevalent here in America. He is pleasantly absent of things like racism, sexism, and ageism; such things matter little to Rumpole – only guilt and innocence and incorruptibility. In that sense, even though Rumpole claims all he would do as a judge is mutter to himself, “There but for the grace of God, goes Horace Rumpole,” while letting everyone go left and right, his respect for the law and his steady moral compass would really make him a natural judge; he just prefers to work as a barrister, fearing the Peter Principle.

Incidentally, I am also very pleased by how the plots are constructed. Rumpole’s case is always neatly intertwined thematically with his life at home and the social goings-on in Chambers. The resulting parallels are always pleasurable and literary. Mad Men has been doing this to good effect lately as well.

More Than One Path

The debate about grammar in the field of composition is old, and it feels older every time I see a new entry. Stanley Fish’s latest NYT column is yet another public broadside, and yet the battle (accepting, for the nonce, that only two sides exist) always reminds me of the Merrimack and the Monitor, blasting away at each other to no real effect because they’re both too well armored.

Let me oversimplify the two sides (again, bear with me for a moment) to set the comic stage. The pro-grammar position holds teaching grammar (or “forms,” as Fish puts it, making a flanking movement into argument via progymnasmata-style imitation) is valuable and essential. Adherents look at the infamous NCTE statement on language (among many NCTE has made) as dangerous naiveté that ignores the more pressing danger of not learning, and compromising with, the dominant forms of English. They point out (Kolln, Mulroy, etc) that the countless empirical studies that find grammar is useless or even detrimental to teaching writing are either too short-term (they really should start around grade 4 and go to the college years, see Mulroy) or have other methodological flaws.

The anti-grammar (who is anti-grammar, really?), orthodox, party-line, contemporary, or relativist position has several angles to it. The first is that the empirical studies are enough evidence that teachers of writing have better things to do than grammar drills; namely, they need to be teaching reading, writing a thesis, summarizing, doing research, etc. There is an element of desperate triage to many of the arguments, as if the teacher was a medic in a field strewn with bleeding, screaming near-corpses; those with non-critical wounds (grammar and usage problems) must grit their teeth as their fellow soldiers, numb to argumentation, are on the verge of bleeding to death first. The second angle to the anti-grammar position is power. If we teach students the dominant standards, all we’re doing is reinforcing the standards – in fact, even if we point out what is an arbitrary standard and what isn’t, by noting one is dominant, we play into the hands of the elite because students will note the imbalance and conform to the standard rather than subverting it. The third angle is a disciplinary push against current-traditionalism, assuming that what was done in the past is, by necessity of age and the necessity of instruction always improving, bad.

I have suspected for awhile that the arguments on both “sides” of this question are more convenient than correct, by using the commonplace that teachers teach like they have been taught. Namely, I suspect that the pro-grammar folks hold their position(s) chiefly because they were taught grammatical forms early in their educational career; they then assume (or suspect) that their current writing skill (far higher than average) is due to this early, rigorous instruction. Alternatively, they did not have this instruction, and became strong writers later in life, and wish they had it to begin with. Furthermore, the anti-grammar folks hold their position(s) due to having achieved a high level of writing skill without such instruction, or even in spite of it, if they had it and disliked it intensely. Theoretical arguments are then piled on top of these two lore-centered, subjective epistemologies.

The elephant in the Burkean parlour is that no one knows with a reasonable degree of certainty whether or not early instruction in grammatical forms leads to great writing skill later in life. There is only lore. There are four-year studies, but none that stretch from, say, age 8 to 20, that I know of. It is incredible we don’t know this as a discipline, and at the same time, it’s not surprising. The writing study at Stanford has gotten some worthy coverage lately, but it largely only looks at Stanford students (which are NOT typical college students), it doesn’t dig into their HS and elementary education, and it’s not concerned with this question anyway.

There is also a second, smaller, but probably more important elephant; no one knows (as Fish points out in his article) if a rhetorical approach to grammar in college pays off in the long run. Really all the evidence we have is Mulroy’s admonition that the ancients thought a rhetoric and grammar-based education was good enough to keep around for hundreds of years, like other worthy, empirically tested goodies like slavery, oppression of women, dictatorships, and religious-based warfare. That’s not to say imitation and attention to forms is not a good idea; I use assignments not dissimilar to Fish’s in my classes, and I do so without theoretical shame. Like most teachers, I try different things consistently to see if they work. If the students are engaged and appear to be learning (which is always a hard thing to measure, even with constant assessment), then I keep it in the toolbox.

But here’s another shy elephant – there just might be multiple paths to a high level of writing skill. In fact, my musings here presuppose such a situation. It just might be possible for a student to become a powerful, rhetorically viable writer without explicit instruction in forms and grammar – and with it. It’s a truism now that people learn in different ways and having come from different backgrounds. For myself, I believe most of my writing skill comes from two sources – countless late-night online roleplaying sessions in my early twenties, where typing speed and spur-of-the-moment creativity were de rigueur, and draconian grammar teachers by the 6th grade. Those are two completely different writing environments. Of course, my experiences may be clouding my judgment here; if I did not have such a strange hybrid educational experience, then I might not be postulating multiple paths to writing success. But I have gotten to the point where I am very suspicious when someone tells me they know how to teach writing, as if there is only one method, everyone else is misguided, and all students are the same. The spirit of the NCTE statement has a ‘teacher, learn from your students’ aspect to it, to which the pro-grammar forces (and Fish) can be tone-deaf.

My students come from such interesting and diverse backgrounds by the time they reach my classes, and while it would be nice, even comforting, to know that they all passed under the stern gaze of nuns hunting down comma splices (note again Fish’s admiration of Catholic schools), they haven’t. So I share Fish’s imperative to accept the challenge of dealing with a possibly inadequate secondary education; behind this lies the reason for the rhetoric & composition discipline, after all. Note that accepting this imperative requires – demands, even – recognizing different paths to learning.

But the question remains – what do we do? That there is a curious lack of agreement on this, still, after 40 years of conferences, books, and journal articles since the heyday of composition in the ‘60s, is peculiar. And I do not talk about agreement within the discipline, as there is a weak party line of sorts; I’m talking about a consensus outside the discipline of rhetcomp–in the English field, in academia, and in the general public. The biggest, most pressing task facing rhetcomp is to convince others that we know what we’re talking about, and the biggest reason that this has not happened, I think, is not from a lack of rhetorical skill, a lack of sound arguments, or even a lack of public intellectuals like Fish.

It’s that the product we (or some of us, rather) are selling – a complicated mixture of relativism, linguistics, academic politics and labor issues, freshmen still struggling as writers after two or three semesters of writing instruction – just isn’t that hot a property. Rhetcomp is not a solution, but a set of problems, and our audience wants a solution. That’s why many rhetcomp folks, I think, retreat to theoretical rhetoric because philosophy (which is, cough, theoretical rhetoric) isn’t as intimately connected with the practical, day-to-day aspects of teaching writing.  We need to redesign the product before we design the ad campaign. This will involve a fair amount of deception, of course, as I see no path where rhetcomp will be a solution, unless we all decide collectively to adopt Genung’s 1887 The Practical Elements of Rhetoric as the nationwide undergraduate textbook. Right now, culturally, a fair amount of America can’t handle the educational questions rhetcomp asks, as they already possess perfectly acceptable answers;  grammar is good, grammar is bad.

The Beach and the Papers

H and I went to Galveston yesterday with our now 5-month-old boykin spaniel, Kara. We arrived late in the afternoon and stayed until the beach closed, so it was fairly cool. Kara swam (a little, with prodding), dug in the sand (a lot, without prodding), and had a variety of strangers comment favorably upon her cuteness.  The water was about 75, I’d estimate, and after wading out to neck-level, I could see quite a few fish leaping about.

My classes are going well so far. The first large batch of papers and homework is in my hands, and I intend to grade all of them tomorrow on Labor Day and thus render the holiday’s title ironic. Then again, I can’t remember a Labor Day that I didn’t work through in some form.