toni mcnaron's garden

Academic Colonialism

In 1964, when I began teaching English literature at the University of Minnesota, I lectured. That was how I’d been taught when in college, so I just started doing the same thing myself. I worked hard to make my lectures sprightly and engaging; students took notes eagerly and told me they learned so much in my courses.

This all came to an end during the Viet Nam War. As I came to believe that wars are often about one country’s trying to force a way of living on another. In other words, I began to understand how colonialism, which I found offensive and dangerous, worked. Simultaneously, I had occasion to act on a premise instilled in me as child by my father. He was a worker rather than an executive, so if there was a strike, he didn’t get paid. He explained to me about picket lines and drove home just how loathsome intro was ever to cross one of those. Students and a few faculty set up picket lines outside some of the building where very large lecture courses were taught. I knew I was not to go into my building if students began marching outside it with anti-war signs. So I took all books and papers out of my office and arranged to teach my Milton course in one of the student’s small apartment near campus.

I also experienced an epiphany: I realized that lecturing to students was not so different from waging physical war–I was imposing MY “take” on a given author or work on all the young people in my classrooms. My interpretation “won” over any they might venture to share. They learned to “surrender” any wobbly approach to my “superior” one.

What happened next change me permanently. I stopped lecturing, explaining–sometimes not so clearly–that I wanted to hear what they thought off Hamlet or John Donne or the way comedies ended compared to tragedies. So my directions might be something like “In your small groups, talk about the third act of “King Lear” and then we’ll come back to the whole class and share.” I then sat quietly while the poor students tried to follow my empty directions.

Gradually I learned about front-loading the class before dividing them into small groups. I also took a seminar for faculty taught by a professor of Education who gave me books to read on holding viable and rigorous discussions.
Things got better and I even came to understand that occasionally students deserved to hear my grasp of a given author or form of writing before they contributed their own insights or raised their own questions,

In retirement, one of the best moments for me come from doing gig teaching where groups of usually older adults meet via Zoom or at the University’s Arboretum or, occasionally in my living room. I send them “prompts” that help them organize their responses, go more deeply into the books we will discuss, and expand their knowledge of certain aspects of a given text. The people who join these evenings keep coming back. They listen to each other and to me because they know that will enrich how they are thinking and feeling about a piece of literature.

I realize that I am actually good at creating situations where strangers can sit together and speak and hear amazing things about very hard pieces of writing. When I ask myself how it has come to be that I can help make such experiences happen, I often go back to that time a long time ago when I first labeled what I was doing as I stood in front of young learners and poured my wise words into their weak little brains as intellectual collonialism. Who could have predicted that a very awful war so very far away could help me alter how I would conduct my teaching from then on?

Being Human

In 1860, the Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, wrote a long poem entitled “Tithonus.” The title character is in love with Eos, goddess of the dawn, so he asks her to grant him immortality so they may stay together. She does that but forgets to include that he shall be eternally young, since she is new every morning. As Tithonus ages and ages, while Eos stays eternally young, he grows weary of immortality and begs to be returned to his human condition even though it means he will die. In a particularly moving line, he speaks of how cold his feet are. The poem ends with his giving up eternal old age because it is too painful to love someone utterly different from him.

When the movie, “Barbie” became such a hit, I learned from friends who saw it in a theatre that Barbie chooses to become human and leave Barbieland where everything is eternally fresh/bright/entertaining/magical. I flashed to Tennyson’s poem and waited impatiently for the movie to be offered on a streaming platform. Once I watched it, I knew I wanted to compare these two seemingly very different artistic works. Barbie comes to the same conclusion that Tithonus reached, i.e., endless repetition can become boring at best and stifling at worst. So Barbie embraces change and agency even if that means she will die eventually. Much has been said about how feminist the movie is, and I agree wholeheartedly. I also love hearing the old lesbian singers, Indigo Girls, giving us sing their famous song as background for a character created originally to be super feminine and mindless.

The movie, however, also bravely asserts that there are worse things than dying. Barbie gradually comes to grasp that one thing worse than death is eternal fluffiness. So, like her Victorian counterpart, she swaps empty control for a chance at genuine connection and sharing. And her movie ends by her going to one of the most female places possible–a gynecologist’s office. Maybe Tithonus chose to visit an old English pub as his initial activity once freed from immortality. May his cold feet have found warmth just as Barbie is finding genuine womanhood.

“Stage Beauty”

I recently watched the 2003 movie “Stage Beauty” for the third time. It is about theater in mid-to-late seventeenth century England when women were not allowed to act on stage. Female parts were played by young male performers called “boy actors.” One of the most famous of these men was Edward (Ned) Kynaston who played many of Shakespeare’s female characters, most especially Desdemona from “Othello.” His dresser was a young woman named Margaret (Peg) Hughes. In the movie he is played by Billy Crudup and she is played by Clare Danes. Peg had a huge crush on Ned, sometimes watching his acting from the curtain while mouthing what he was saying to the spellbound audience. Other nights, she ran as fast as she could as soon as Kynaston was on stage, going to a scruffy playhouse where aspiring actors staged Shakespeare and where she played Desdemona. Then she dashed back to the big theater in time to help Kynaston take off his gown and put on his men’s clothes before going out to find his lover who was also a boy actor.

The movie is about what happens when King Charles II, egged on by his mistress, Nell Gwynn, issued a giant proclamation saying women could play female parts and abolishing boy acting as a career choice. Needless to say, Kynaston is devastated since he does not know how to perform maleness. Eventually, Margaret Hughes finds him acting in a seedy vaudevillian playhouse where he had to raise his skirt to show the gawking audience that he really was a man in drag. She takes him away and helps nurse him back to health.

In a pivotal scene, she tells him she will just lie down beside him while he sleeps. Once they are under the same blanket, she asks him “What do men do?” when they are lovers. Kynaston, played to perfection but Crudup, tells her a little before she begins touching him and asking first “who are you now” and eventually also acting “who a I now” as she assumes various postures in relationship to his body. I find this scene amazing for its radical bravery in staging it and in what it asks me to feel and think about. They each become both “male” and “female” as their sexual palates are enlarged by how they touch and interact physically, and how they talk about which gender they occupy at any given moment in their embrace.  As I watched this scene, I thought what a template this movie is for our current understanding of nom-binary and trans approaches to gender and sexuality.  But mostly I just reveled in the tenderness between the two actors and the bravery of the director, Richard Eyre.

As the movie comes to its as they rehearse the scene in which Othello suffocates Desdemona,  shouts at Kynaston that no woman would die as passively as he has portrayed that moment in his performances.  Sensing that she is right, Kynaston says he will play Othello with her and I watch spellbound as they wrestle and scream/grunt before Othello throws Desdemona on her bed and viciously attacks her with his pillow.  The audience in the film is as frightened as  am, so we all breathe a sigh of relief when Hughes reminds us that she is not dead and we have one more scene in which Emilia laments the loss off her Lady and excoriates her vile husband for ruining two splendid people.

If I ever teach this play again, I will assign “Stage Beauty” because Eyre’s production and Crudup’s and Danes’ performances have altered my understanding of what Shakespeare was trying to tell and show us about a third way of understanding gender and sexual performance.

Deep Space

The James Webb telescope is sending back amazing images from deep space, changing our whole approach to the universe and our place within it. Recently I saw ten of those photographs and was mesmerized by them. The colors and amorphous shapes drew me in to the unknown, suggesting movement and change and something beyond. Those of actual planets (xo planets, I was to learn) awoke my imagination and stirred my intellect. I just sat at my computer screen and gazed at what the marvelous instrument was showing me.

While I was so engaged, I began to think about Creationists who truly believe God created the world as we know it in six days and then rested on the seventh. I wanted them to look at the same ten photographs I was looking at, since the longer I stared at them and the closer I let them get to my innermost being, the more I felt I was looking at creation as it was occurring so very far away from me and my tiny world called Earth.

If a creator could form our planet in all its wonders and glories, why would that force be content to stop creating once “earth” was set in motion? Wasn’t it just possible that the process of creating forms in an unending and incalculable universe IS “god.” And might these images from the Webb telescope not make visually clear that science and faith need not be set against each other. Rather it is science that is allowing us here on our created planet to experience the wonderful reality of planets and sounds and stars beyond number and imagination. That in itself is a miracle, surely, showing just how amazing the human brain can be even as it renders unarguable just how tiny we humans actually are in relation to all that is “out there.”


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