Teaching British Romanticism in China

Billings 2009 016I’ve been procrastinating. A recent trip to Montana left me in a swoon. Now it was just a Movable Feast.  But I needed to get back on track and prepare a lecture on American Romanticism & New England Transcendentalism. As I wrote this students were reading excerpts from The Scarlet Letter, The Raven, Song of Myself, &, Moby Dick. Each excerpt consisted of just 4-10 pages because that was all to their anthology. Luckily I was here to remedy the situation with my “traveling library”: 3 Norton anthologies, and several paperback novels.

So this unit on Romanticism wrapped up the first half the semester. We started with Thoreau’s “Reading” to frame the semester. Then we read The Alchemist. It was a simple allegorical novel written in 1988, but as I read it again and discussed it with the class it fit perfectly into the curriculum as a warm-up exercise. The story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd on a road trip to fulfill his dream, practically introduced Romanticism. Clever readers saw that it was a very Romantic text, building on the ideas of Thoreau and Transcendentalism.

tintern abbey2My classes had beucoup difficulty with the British Romantics. I even created a powerpoint lecture just to introduce the ideas of Romanticism, each of the Big Five (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats), and a time line to help students relate what was going on both in China (i.e. The Taiping Rebellion) and the rest of the word (i.e. Marx’s The Communist Manifesto was written just a couple years before Walden). And of course, by the time I met the students in September, they already had mandatory classes in American & British History. I also defined and included pictures of an albatross for Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and Tintern Abbey for Wordsworth’s “Lines.” And I related the ideas, imagery, and symbolism of Romanticism to both the first reading (Thoreau’s “Reading”) and The Alchemist.

I introduced British Romanticism by talking about the lives and times of the poets. Remember Charles Dickens’s famous quote from a Tale of Two Cities? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” That’s what it was like in England at the time. And kind of like today. People moved out of the countryside and into the sooty cities. Urban populations increased. The rich got richer, and the poor poorer. The Romantics dealt with the issues of the Industrial Revolution, just as we struggle with globalism. The economy boomed, yet people still lacked meaningful employment. Those that did find jobs struggled to make a living wage. Meanwhile, slavery ended, but a new kind of slavery began.

(As I write this and put my thoughts in order I cannot help but wonder about this. So as an aside via a dramatic stage whisper I ask the audience, “Could slavery really have ended because machines and industry made slaves obsolete, too costly?”).

Oh, and by the way, people back then were pissed. People protested. Even the British Century had its own version of Osama bin Laden. The Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon across the Channel served as a handy excuse to crack down on dissent, ratchet up security, suspend habeas corpus, and mow down the masses with a cavalry charge in the “Peterloo Massacre.” But there were some good things too–like a rising, educated middle class that demanded more voice in government and had time and money to go on vacations and buy stuff. And thank Hermes, more and more women went to college. In time these women too added their voices to the song of the world.

But that’s ancient history. This was the 21st Century. This was the Chinese Century. And of course, all college students will have good jobs after they graduate. Some of them nodded and voiced an affirmation when I said this. Others looked at me with blank faces: Where the hell are you going with this? Patience, young grasshoppers.  They should trust me as their guide through the forest of the night.  Do this and some will become well-paid English teachers. Do this and some will become well-paid translators.

So what if after a couple years I stole all their jobs?

A couple years from now I will invent a hand-held translator device. I showed them my cell phone and showed them how it was really a state of the art contraption that does all the work for you. No brain required. I will call it, The Poly Vox™. It will be very convenient. Oh, and by the way, all translators will suddenly have no job. Too bad, so sad. A little while later I will invent a robot that teaches. You can download all the information you want your child to memorize and have your robot teacher teach everything in the convenience of your own home. There is even a sophisticated heuristic algorithm that enables AI empathic communication between teacher and student. Very cool. I will revolutionize home schooling transmuting it from cottage industry into into a factory system. Oh, and by the way, all teachers will be jobless too. Of course I exaggerate. Some of you will find a nice government job teaching all those people who cannot afford to go to Wal Mart to purchase their very own Teacher Droid™.

How would you feel about this?

This is what happened—or feeling of it—during the Romantic Period. New machines such as mechanized looms put a whole lot of people out of work. Luddites protested this and even destroyed mills and looms that made, of all things, stockings. This prompted the government to make “machine-breaking” a crime punishable by death. But one of the poets we read for class was dissented. Lord Byron argued against the bill in an eloquent and passionate speech.

Too bad, so sad, Lord Byron. The government would have their way: Machinery was more important than humanity. It was one small step for Skynet, one leap backward for man.

This story illustrated the times and the Romantic Movement. The poets perceived that Nature and the Common Man were being consumed to feed the furnace of industry. Look what the Age of Reason had wrought. So the Romantics revolted—not with guns and bombs, but with pen and paper. They saw themselves as outsiders, prophets, and mystically in communion with the Zeitgeist. They perceived reality and extrapolated truth from its beauty. Instead of microscopes and scientific method, the poets used imagination and intuition to discover the universe.

I knew the students would need help deciphering Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” or Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But imagine my consternation when nobody could tell me what “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” or Byron’s “When We Two Parted” was about. Weren’t these truths self-evident?

They had no problems describing poetic structure, however. Shelley’s “Ozymandius“? Oh yeah, that looks like a sonnet all right. Fourteen lines and a strict AB rhyme scheme finished off with a sweet couplet. Ho, hum. And “Lines”? That was blank verse with iambic pentameter.

No shit, Sherlock.  Now if I could only teach them the art of interpreting hidden meanings.

But could they make sense of Byron’s cold metaphor in “When We Two Parted”? Does “Pale grew thy cheek and cold, / Colder thy kiss” mean that when the speaker kisses his lover for the last time his lips freeze and he feels the full fury of the north wind? What if he wrote, “Rosy grew thy cheek and warm, / Warmer thy kiss”?

And what about the daffodils in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”? What are these flowers doing? Are they just there planted in the ground? I stood at a soldierly position of attention to illustrate this. “Or are they dancing?” I said, and then just to make sure we were all on the same page, sprang with mercurial gusto from sentinel-like stillness into a Viennese Waltz.

The women giggled.  And then there was silence. The class became a cold, dark place. Gone was the warm cheerful exuberance of those first days of school. The journey had a high attrition rate. My Wednesday morning class lost over half the students. Of the dozen or so men in five literature classes, only one or two occasionally came by to read the newspaper or rest their heads upon a desk. The rest I suspected were indulging in their hobbies (a surprising number of whom listed “sleeping” and “playing video games” as hobbies on their information cards I collected on the first day of class).

Most of the women soldiered on. So I stopped the class to have a heart to heart, allow them to air their grievances, and voice their dissent. It was a ten minute Festivus. I asked them if they had any problems with the assignment: 41 pages total and 2 weeks to complete it (usually they just have 1 week, but this time they had a week long National Day holiday too). Then I said that if anybody could beat me at arm wrestling I would give them an A on their final exam. There were no takers. I reminded them that on day one I had said that this journey would be challenging, and it was up to them to rise up to it. Now, the people were revolting against my benevolent dictatorship. I told them that college literature is not a dinner party. And still they revolted—and it wasn’t because they had read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience during National Day.

Somebody groaned. And somebody said they couldn’t understand the poetry without more background and context. This was despite each chapter and each author having 1-4 pages of history, background, and “remarks.”

“Have you ever felt lonely?” I asked, “Have you ever had a break up?”

That was all the context and background they needed. Classics were classics. The classics transcended context. That was why I was enjoying my Tang poetry and Wu Ch’eng-en’s The Journey West. Now Byron’s Don Juan “Cantos III” was another story. It’s like a Greek history lesson. You will need some knowledge of Greek mythology to make sense of things. But when students told me they needed more background… That was pure excrement. They were just resisting my efforts to make them use their brains.

Now was the time of the semester when foreign teachers who so looked forward to coming to a Teacher’s Paradise within a Great Wall, first began to realize that education was different here. For students, getting into college is a stress fest rat race. For teachers, teaching was a comfortable, relaxing  government job.  College was not a right, but a privilege that supposedly unlocked the gate into the Middle Class. Here, acceptance was a time for celebration. Graduation not so much. Maybe this was because there was an unofficial “no fail” policy. Everybody graduated; not everybody got accepted. In the West, professors worried about grade inflation. Nobody worried about that here; the grades weren’t fixed, but passing was certainly assured.

Several veteran foreign teachers shared stories about students they never knew existed, who showed up for the final exam, couldn’t read the questions, and spoke a scant amount of English.  These students either copied the answers, or just failed the exam. The teachers subsequently failed them for the semester.  But they were administratively passed anyway. Of course this was only anecdotal evidence. Perhaps just a gross generalization. How true it really was throughout the country will remain a mystery for the time being. But the stories helped me to understand why some of the English majors I taught couldn’t read my monosyllabic syllabus or answer a simple direct question: “Do you like this poem?”

But I still remember Lucy, a student attending a university in Shanghai who had the balls to tell me I should read Twilight. There was another student, Vera who was writing a paper on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. She came to my office distressed about this 1925 novel as evidence that the American Dream was a farce. There were others as well. The drama students in particular shined bright. And now, I was meeting some very vocal and confident students from a freshman Oral English class I had taken over from Gee.

Perhaps this was Capitalism with Chinese characteristics. And there was a major supply versus demand issue. Too many people and not enough colleges. This may seem to be the perfect seed bed for a meritocracy. But the “no fail policy” undermined this. As the country raced to modernize, China needed educated people.  For the moment quantity took precedence over quality. The Sleeping Dragon needed flesh to fuel its growth. So it became an assembly line education were graduates were cranked out at a furious pace. But this was just a boots-on-the ground perspective from a third tier university foreign teacher well-versed in Romanticism. Either that or I was a frame-breaker, an industrial saboteur throwing wrenches into the cogs.

And now there is a handful of students I must prepare a lecture for. It’s on American Romanticism and I will conclude it by showing how all this semester so far leads up to our next novel, Lois Lowry’s The Giver. That and I had a counterrevolutionary pop quiz to devise.