The Door is Closed

NYC  pugetsound

Two years ago I left New York City and moved in with my parents when my father was diagnosed. I was finishing my dissertation for the doctoral program in the English department at New York University. I am still finishing my dissertation.

This morning I was woken by my father. He was standing in my doorway, quite upset because he had taken his medication without food. Even tired and muzzy, that was odd to me, because he has his morning routine down and generally handles it well on his own. So I said, “Well, you need breakfast,” and stumbled out of bed. He followed me to the kitchen and stood beside the pantry while I fetched the bowls (he always has trouble remembering the right cupboard) so I asked him to get his cereal. He looked and me at said, “The door is closed,” as though it were a deal breaker. No breakfast for you, that door is closed. I was still a bit muzzy-headed, so I just said, “Well, then open it.” And his face lit up with that light bulb every teacher hopes to see as his frustration eased, and with a happy “Oh!” he opened the pantry door and grabbed a box of cereal.

My father has Alzheimer’s disease. There are structural and chemical changes in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients which result in changes in behavior and mental function, one of which is dementia. It’s not just forgetfulness. It’s gradually forgetting that the cereal is in a particular cupboard, that you were looking for cereal, that cereal can be found in cupboards, how to open a cupboard door, and that you can open a cupboard door. It’s physically losing the connection your brain made between the cereal and the cupboard, and not being able to relearn it. It is, at some point, forgetting how to feed yourself cereal. Forgetting why you should be eating. Forgetting the person who is feeding you, and getting confused and scared and angry about why there’s a strange person trying to force you to eat cereal you don’t want.

We’re not there yet, thankfully.

But I watch it progress every day, in silent sorrow that that scared, stressed, confused man is not the resourceful, dependable, wickedly funny man I grew up with. In silent terror that that could be me one day.Dadplay

I have chosen to pursue a career that depends almost entirely on my mental acuity. I could conduct research without the use of my arms, legs, hearing, speech, or even sight (Three words: graduate student assistant).  I could teach with any number of physical handicaps, though it would be challenging. But a disease that kills nerve cells and destroys the connections made in the brain would wipe out any original insights, along with my personality. Never mind forgetting how to write; I could forget how to think. That’s terrifying on more than just a professional level.

Care-giving has already seriously impacted my scholarly work. When I moved away from New York, I thought I would finish writing in the next six months and revise and defend within the year. It’s been two, and I am nowhere near ready to defend.

At first, I postponed my writing because of all the urgent matters that had to be dealt with due to the diagnosis. We needed medical exams done, his retirement paperwork had to be processed, and power of attorney had to be arranged. Then there were all the more personal issues that had to be resolved; I had to figure out how to unsnarl the mess my
parents’ finances had become and make care-giving plans with my brother and sister, since my mother has her own health issues and would need help with our father. Then there was the grieving. We had lost one of my brothers only a few years before, and now we were losing our father, more slowly, but just as thoroughly.

Grief is surprisingly distracting.

When I went back to my latest chapter, I had lost the thread of my argument. I spent time reviewing what I had written, refining my aims, and reorganizing the project. I started writing again. I found that I could not write for more than an hour at a time, if I was lucky. I had a well-appointed home office with a reasonable personal library and access to NYU’s databases and I was getting very little done. There were continual interruptions. My father forgot where he was going or what he was doing, and needed help. My mother got confused and upset by bills she had never handled before and needed me to explain something to her. My sister’s work schedule changed and she really needed me to take my nephew and niece for the day. One of my online students was having trouble with her essay and wanted to consult. Mom got frustrated with Dad and lost her temper, so she needed a break. Another student was disputing a grade and I needed to craft a polite email indicating that choosing to get married in the middle of the term and go on honeymoon was not an acceptable reason for late work. None of these are insurmountable obstacles, but together they and their comrades made writing more than half a page at a time a rare event. I became embarrassed by how little I’d written in the last month, three months, six months, year. That in itself became a deterrent to writing, and I found myself putting more time into my teaching, where at least I saw swift results.

I hit the two year mark last month. I made arrangements with my sister and took off on a roadtrip to visit some friends and clear my head. I saw the Grand Canyon and reminded myself that I had personal and professional goals of my own, and that they didn’t have to be entirely subsumed by parental needs, no matter how important family is.

So I am recommitting myself to finishing my degree. I will complete and defend my dissertation this academic year. I will track my writing and keep myself accountable for progress. I will maintain contact with my advisers. And I will make this happen, because I want it.

Because this door is not closed.



Third Annual Staged Reading of Romantic Drama

After staging readings of Byron’s Sardanapalus in 2012 and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in 2013, the Department of English at New York University and Red Bull Theater are producing Joanna Baillie’s De Monfort on November 3, 2014. Posts providing background on the author and play are available on the blog for the Romanticist Research Group, an NYU English department graduate student working group I co-manage.

Support Romanticism at MLA 2014

There will be four fantastic panels sponsored or co-sponsored by the Division on the English Romantic Period at the upcoming MLA: mark your calendars and support Romanticism!

As some of you may know, the MLA, in a burst of consolidating energy (as they saw it), floated the idea of “absorbing” our division either into an 18th C. or 19th C. division, which proposal the Divisional Committee roundly resisted, apparently successfully thus far. But it’s all the more important that scholars of Romanticism demonstrate the ongoing vitality, unpredictability, and generativity of “romanticism” in all its modalities.


Cash Bar Arranged by the Division on the Victorian Period and the Division on the English Romantic Period: Saturday, 11 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., Los Angeles–Miami, Chicago Marriott

35. The Romantic Now
Thursday, 9 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Chicago D, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
“In this session, we offer and invite discussion of that temporality – the present –which cannot be spoken, only enacted, and we consider “enactment” from the perspectives of politics and poetic form”
Presiding: Marjorie Levinson, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor
1. “‘Now with Treble Soft,'” Jonathan Culler, Cornell Univ.
2. “What’s in a Name? Romanticism and Terror,” David E. Simpson, Univ. of California, Davis
3. “Taunting with Gavroche: Activist Deployments of Poetry,” Lyn Hejinian, Univ. of California, Berkeley

348. Nature: Meta-physics
Friday, 10 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., Chicago C, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
Presiding: Miranda Jane Burgess, Univ. of British Columbia
1. “String Theory and Sideways Growth: The Ecology of Romantic Poetics,” Sean Dempsey, Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville
2. “Miss Bates and the Nomadic Space of Emma,” Yoon-Sun Lee, Wellesley Coll.
3. “Keats and the Country Green,” Jonathan D. Mulrooney, Coll. of the Holy Cross

470. Nature
Saturday, 11 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Belmont, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
Presiding: Miranda Jane Burgess, Univ. of British Columbia
1. “Now No More,” Jacques Khalip, Brown Univ.
2. “Romantic Posthumanism: The Horror of Interspecies Community in Romantic England,” Ted Geier, Univ. of California, Davis
3. “Goya’s Scarcity,” David L. Clark, McMaster Univ.

SPECIAL SESSION with the Late-18th C Division:

235. Life: Before and after 1800
Friday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Addison, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature and the Division on the English Romantic Period
“Until the end of the eighteenth century . . . life does not exist: only living beings.” Our two divisions will revisit Foucault’s still influential, periodizing thesis to question its validity in the light of recent work in the field and to think about what we do and do not share.
Presiding: Kevis Goodman, Univ. of California, Berkeley
Speakers: Amanda Jo Goldstein, Cornell Univ.; Heather Keenleyside, Univ. of Chicago; Catherine Packham, Univ. of Sussex; Andrew Piper, McGill Univ.

Thanks to Dr. Maureen N. McLane for this reminder!

Collaborative Projects Underway

I was preoccupied through much of November with a collaborative research project regarding the medium of Romantic drama and the use of performance as a mode of research. My colleagues from the Department of English at New York University and I annually co-produce a work of Romantic drama with Red Bull Theater in New York City with the goal of examining how performance enhances–or fails to enhance–the poetry’s dramatic qualities. I include below links to posts from myself and my colleagues regarding this project:
“Prometheus Unbound and On Stage”
“Prometheus Unbound: The Staged Reading of a Lyrical Drama”

We recently learned that Suzanne Barnett of Manhattan College wrote a review of the performance for the Keats-Shelley Journal. Here’s a link:

M/MLA Presentation

Last weekend I presented an ongoing collaborative project at the Midwest MLA conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My colleagues, Randall Sessler and Omar Miranda, and I presented as part of special session panel on bridging art and scholarship organized by professors Kathleen Schagg and Andrew Salyer. Their recap of the panel is available here:
and more information on my collaboration with English literary scholars and theater professionals on the role of performance as a mode of research is available at our research group website:

Romantics writing satire?

Marilyn Butler points out, “The so-called Romantics did not know at the time that they were supposed to do without satire,” and indeed, most of the major poets of the British Romantic movement wrote satiric poetry.

William Blake
“When Klopstock England Defied” (c.1797)

William Wordsworth
“A Poet’s Epitaph” (1800)

Samuel Coleridge
“Fire, Famine, and Slaughter: A War Eclogue” (1798)

Charles Lamb
“The Triumph of the Whale” (1812)

George Gordon, Lord Byron
Don Juan (1819)

Percy Shelley
“England in 1819” (1819)

John Keats
“Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream” (1817)

See Marilyn Butler’s essay “Satire and the Images of Self in the Romantic  Period: The Long Tradition of Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris,” in English Satire and the Satiric Tradition, ed. Claude Rawson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984) 209.

Jane Taylor’s Intervention in Education

Jane Taylor’s most well-known poem may be “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” but she also made important interventions in the education debates of the early nineteenth century with her poems and hymns for children, which she wrote for education at home and in the developing Sunday School system. These texts include  Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804), Rhymes for the Nursery (1806), Limed Twigs to Catch Young Birds (1808), City Scenes; or, A Peep into London: for good children (1809), Hymns for Infant Minds (1810), and Original Hymns for Sunday School (1812), as well as a novel for children Display (1815).

Her satiric poetry addressed to adults, particularly Essays in Rhyme on Morals and Manners (1816), attempts to educate her readers through their sympathy with her satiric targets. Taylor demonstrates the pedagogical philosophy of sympathetic satire in “Prejudice,” a poem from her Essays in Rhyme on Morals and Manners:

Her thoughts, unused to take a longer flight
Than from the left-hand counter to the right,
With little change, are vacillating still,
Between his worship’s glory and the till.
The few ideas that travel, slow and dull,
Across the sandy desert of her skull,
Still the same course must follow, to and fro,
As first they travers’d three-score years ago;
From whence, not all the world could turn them back,
Or lead them out upon another track.
What once was right or wrong, or high or low
In her opinion always must be so:—
You might, with reasons new and pat,
Have made Columbus think the world was flat,
Or, when of thought and controversy weary,
Have got Sir Isaac to deny his theory;
But not the powers of argument combin’d,
Could make this dear good woman change her mind,
Or give her intellect the slightest clue
To that vast world of things she never knew.
Were but her brain dissected, it would show
Her stiff opinions fastened in a row;
Rang’d duly, side by side, without a gap,
Much like the plaiting on her Sunday cap. (ll.55-78)

“Prejudice” begins with a satirical portrait of the mayor’s wife in a small country town; the mayor and his wife had been shopkeepers for most of their lives, until, having saved enough money, they spend their golden years attempting to move up in society, building themselves a fancy new home and making the most of their “civic honours.” (l.43) The woman is mocked for her unreasoning attachment to long-held opinions, with the ridiculous comparisons to Christopher Columbus and Sir Isaac Newton hyperbolizing her obduracy. Similarly, the metaphor describing her brain as a desert void of ideas except those traveling the established route portrays her mind as inhospitable and unreceptive to new ideas. Her established opinions crowd out any potential new ideas or decisions in the Sunday cap simile while emphasizing the woman’s attachment to physical symbols of socio-economic success, like fashionable clothing. “Prejudice” is a formal satire operating through direct address to the audience, mocking a character for the audience’s benefit.

While Taylor’s mockery of the narrow-mindedness and prejudice of the mayor’s wife should result in recognition and amendment of similar faults in the reader, Taylor is not interested in mocking nouveau -riche pretensions or prejudice which primarily harms its holder. She writes,

It is not worth our while, but if it were,
We all could undertake to laugh at her;
Since vulgar prejudice the lowest kind,
Of course, has full possession of her mind;
Here therefore, let us leave her, and inquire,
Wherein it differs as it rises higher. (ll.79-84)

Taylor acknowledges the ridiculousness of “vulgar prejudice” in order to set up the more dangerous versions of the vice among the gentry, the (political) party man, and especially the irreligious. The changing targets in the poem demonstrate a shift in satiric targets from the ridiculous among the lower classes to a critique of higher class targets and, finally, to targets representing a specific behavior or opinion. In “Prejudice,” that target is the secular satirist, whether in print, speech, or thought: “Those minds that stand from all mankind aloof, / To smile at folly, or dispense reproof.” (ll.113-14) Taylor relies on religion, as a number of educational writers do, to grant her the moral authority she here denies to secular satirists. As part of her reproof, and this is where sympathetic satire most strongly differs from other derivations of the satiric mode in the period, she offers advice on how to correct the error for which she chastises her target. This focus on instruction and amendment is the major difference between eighteenth-century Augustan satire and Romantic-era sympathetic satire.

Taylor, Jane. “Prejudice.” Essays in Rhyme on Morals and Manners (1816). Providence, RI: Brown University Women Writers Project, 1999.

The Poetry of Charlotte Nooth

“To Contradiction”  (1815)

Dear Contradiction! oh! thou best resource
To waken into life the dull discourse!
When vapid Conversation seems to flag,
When words move slowly, when ideas lag,
Thou, with electric force canst rouze the mind,
New energies provok’d by thee we find,
Our fancy warms, our rapid diction glows,
And the full tide of talk impetuous flows.

Thou giv’st a scope for reas’nings just and clear,
For eloquence that charms th’ attentive ear,
The pointed raillery, the mirthful jest,
The argument well turn’d, and well exprest:
How dull, monotonous and tame were life
Without some sprinkling of this civil strife!
How wearisome is the assent, the smile,
Of those who think you erring all the while!
Yet too politely servile to oppose
Those words, which in your absence they expose,
Perhaps pervert their meaning, or invent,
Some circumstance which changes their intent,
Then all your tones and gestures mimick’d o’er
They make their jest of what they prais’d before.
For ever hated be th’ insidious ear
Whose malice is restrain’d alone by fear,
Which lurks th’ unguarded sally to detect,
Lives to revile, and glotes upon defect.

Give me the friend whose frank, ingenuous mind,
Stampt on each honest accent I may find,
Who, slave to no mean prejudice dares think,
Nor from a free avowal e’er will shrink,
But firm to sacred Truth will never bend
To be that thing, a tame, subservient friend,
One, who to suit th’ occasion forms the phrase,
And as his patron wills, can blame or praise.

Among the bland assentors are my foes,
He loves me best who ventures to oppose,
Corrects my erring judgement, mends my mind,
And in well meant severity is kind,
Tells me my faults, ‘ere yet too rooted grown,
And holds my fame as precious as his own,
Who loves the germ of virtue to observe,
Joys to commend, but blames without reserve.

Eighteenth-Century Classroom Management

In An Analysis of the Experiment in Education, made at Egmore, near Madras (1797), Andrew Bell laid out his monitorial system of education, which paired more advanced students, as teachers or assistants, with less advanced students  to help them learn. 

He describes their effect on classroom management thus: “The business of our little teachers (and they perform it to admiration) is not to correct, but to prevent faults; not to deter from ill behavior by the fear of punishment, but by preventing ill behavior, to preclude the use of punishment.” (61)

In Bell’s classroom, every student had a model of both behavior and study in the student assigned as his tutor. This does seem to me to be a potentially useful system; how do you “prevent” faults in the classroom?

Satire and Ridicule in Education

Here’s an excerpt from an analysis of discipline in Lancasterian schools in early nineteenth-century Britain:

Students in a Lancasterian school can advance through their lessons and classes without depressing the academic achievement of their peers, but they cannot advance faster than another member of their class without humiliating any slower learners. Boys wear tickets describing their merit in particular subjects, and when one boy does better at the lesson in that subject than the ticket-wearer, it must be given up. Lancaster says “The honor of wearing tickets and numbers, as marks of precedency, is all the reward attached to them,” but these marks of honor become indications of each boy’s abilities, and although the humiliation of losing precedence is intended to spur students to greater diligence, it can also depress students into mediocrity, if not worse, as they are compelled either to accept lower status at school or attempt lessons for which they are unprepared. The desire to gain prizes may spur students to overcome the shame of losing precedence. Boys receive prizes for correctly completing lessons and moving on to another class, and a production is made of bestowing these prizes:
At such times the countenances of the whole school exhibit a most pleasing scene of delight: as the boys who obtain prizes, commonly walk round the school in procession, holding the prizes in their hands, and an herald proclaiming before them, “These good boys have obtained prizes for going into another class.” The honour of this has an effect as powerful, if not more so, than the prizes themselves. The schoolmaster’s recognition and praise, and the envy of fellow-students who have not yet advanced, combine to make the completion of lessons appear desirable.

Lancaster follows Bell in abandoning corporal punishment, but where Bell involves students in determining punishments for infractions, Lancaster introduces a range of punishments, most of which are made effective by the shame and ridicule which they evoke. Punishments designed to humble the offender are by no means new to Lancaster; indeed, the system of punishment and reward was seen by many supporters as a course of moral training in accordance with Christianity. And unlike corporal punishment, which often lacks any clear connection between punishment and fault, Lancaster’s punishments are generally accompanied by a proclamation of the offender’s faults before the whole school, leaving the delinquent in no doubt about the offense for which he was being punished, which theoretically lets him know what he must change to avoid the punishment in future. However, to fulfill these purposes, a simple time-out chair or corner of the sort described by Hollingsworth would suffice, and Lancaster advocates a wide variety of humiliating punishments designed to invite the school to ridicule the delinquent and deter other students from offending.

Initial offenses receive admonishment, but should the lecture not be heeded, repeat and frequent offenders are in danger of a wide variety of punishments. Lancaster favors the pillory—a wooden log hung about the neck weighing approximately five pounds which confines movement, used primarily to constrain a wandering child to his assigned seat. Such a punishment may attract the attention or scorn of classmates, but other punishments are explicitly designed to do so. One such is the basket: “Occasionally boys are put in a sack, or in a basket, suspended to the roof of the school, in sight of all the pupils, who frequently smile at the birds in the cage. This punishment is one of the most terrible that can be inflicted on boys of sense and abilities.” It is regarded with such dread due to the public ridicule to which the penalized boy is presented, the “smiles” directed toward him. Though Lancaster approves of the punishment because it so rarely requires more than the threat, or at most a single treatment, to alter a given boy’s behavior, the fear of punishment cannot, as Trimmer notes, actually amend a student’s disposition, as positive motivational tools potentially may. Lancaster often requires a delinquent to parade around the schoolroom, complete with proclamations of his offense; for instance, when a boy commits a moral fault, “it is usual for him to be dressed up with labels, describing his offence, and a tin or paper cap on his head. In that manner he walks round the school, two boys preceding him, and proclaiming his fault.” Lancaster explicitly encourages teachers in the practice of ridiculing offenders, not only to amend misbehavior or deter students from delinquency, but even to coerce students to apply themselves to overcoming faults in reading:
When a boy gets into a singing tone in reading, the best mode of cure that I have found effectual, is by the force of ridicule.—Decorate the offender with matches, ballads; (dying speeches, if needful;) and, in this garb send him round the school, with some boys before him, crying matches, &c. exactly imitating the dismal tones with which such things are hawked about the streets in London…I have always found excellent effects from treating boys, who sing or tone in their reading, in the manner described. It is sure to turn the laugh of the whole school upon the delinquent; it provokes risibility, in spite of every endeavor to check it, in all but the offender.

Such a humiliation, Lancaster informs us, seldom fails to produce the desired change in behavior, because students are well informed as to the reason for their humiliation. However, especially in the last case, where the fault is academic rather than a matter of misbehavior, the penalties appear excessive. Setting up a student to be ridiculed by his school and classmates could easily create resentment. Even if the desired change of behavior was made, such punishments could result in bitter or indignant feelings which would interfere in collaborative teaching and learning; however, in a competitive Lancasterian schoolroom, perhaps such feelings would fuel competitive emulation.

Lancaster, Joseph. The British System of Education: being a complete epitome of the Improvements and Inventions practised by Joseph Lancaster: to which is added, A Report of the Trustees of the Lancaster School at Georgetown, Col. Georgetown: Joseph Milligan, 1812.
Lancaster, Joseph. Improvements in Education as it respects the Industrious Classes of the Community. 3rd ed. (1805). Clifton: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1973.