Class Preparation

Each week for the first couple of weeks, you will be preparing for class according to one of the following models:

Question:  In your reading you have encountered a passage (no more than 2 sentences in prose, one in poetry) which genuinely confuses you even after rereading it and the surrounding text several times.  Note where the passage occurs and then do any research that might help you clarify its meaning, such as looking up unfamiliar words or words you suspect might have had a different meaning at the time the passage was written.  Try to identify as nearly as possible what is confusing you within the passage.  Be ready to explain what possible meanings it could have and why you’ve ruled them out or can’t decide among them.  Unlike the example below, it is better to choose a passage where the meaning seems important—not a minor ambiguity.  “Question” class preparations may not be expanded into one-page papers, unless (having answered the question) they become “ambiguity” situations.

Example: pg. 207 “A Model of Christian Charity”

            “There are two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: justice and mercy.  These are always distinguished in their act and in their object, yet may they both concur in the same subject in each respect; as sometimes there may be an occasion of showing mercy to a rich man in some sudden danger of distress, and also doing of mere justice to a poor man in regard of some particular contract, etc.”

I think I understand the distinction between “act” (mercy or justice) and “object” (“the person to whom they are directed” or “their purpose”?), but I don’t understand what he means by “the same subject in each respect.”  The “subject” may be the one who is being merciful or just, but what does “in each respect” mean?  I suspect from the second part of the sentence with the examples that he means that either the wealthy or the poor can be treated with either mercy or justice—you’d expect mercy for the poor and justice for the rich—but he thinks of situations where even the poor need justice and the rich mercy.  But I don’t see how the bold sentence really explains the example.

Ambiguity: This is a fake question.  Find a moment in the text that is ambiguous (no more than a couple of sentences in prose or one stanza in verse), difficult, or contradicted by another part of the text.  Explicate the ways in which it is ambiguous and explain why the ambiguity is important for the text or why it might exist.  Unlike “question” passages, “ambiguity” preparation must be able to explain its importance for the text as a whole.  You may also want to connect the ambiguity to some of the themes that have been brought up in lecture or in the introductory material.  Ambiguity passages can be written up as one-page papers.

Example: pg 1700 “An Horatian Ode”

            So restless Cromwell could not cease

            In the inglorious arts of peace,

                        But through adventurous war

                        Urged his active star,

By the logic of poetry syntax this should mean “Cromwell’s active star urged him through adventurous war.”  The “star” comes from astrology—the arrangements of the stars and planets at your birth that determine your character.  So your “star” always determines you.  But like Shakespeare wrote “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, Marvell’s complicated syntax appears to mean that Cromwell “urged his active star,” which doesn’t make sense on the face of it—a person can’t urge a star—but it might suggest that Cromwell is responsible for his own actions.  The ambiguity of this line encompasses one of the central concerns of the poem: the extent to which Cromwell made the times or the times made Cromwell.  For example, in the lines “But those [ancient rights] do hold or break,/As men are strong or weak,” (38-40) which suggests that the English Civil War might not have happened if certain personalities like Cromwell had not been involved.  But later the poet writes “But thou, the war and Fortune’s son”(113) which seems like Cromwell just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Research: Find something in the text that needs further clarification.  Do some quick research and be ready to explain how your research illuminates the text.  If you are unfamiliar with the literary form, research that before turning to historical information.  That is, don’t research details about Cromwell’s Irish campaign if you don’t know what a Horatian Ode is.  A research class preparation may be turned into a short paper. 

Example: “An Horatian Ode”

The Norton describes Horatian odes as poems of “cool and balanced judgment,” the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says that they are “urbane” and “contemplative.”  All of these adjectives suggest objectivity and distance.  We know that Marvell supported Cromwell so it’s interesting that he would want to be more objective about Cromwell in public.  Maybe he wants to make Cromwell seem like an inevitable force of nature—not something that can be argued about or someone who falls on one (Republican) side.  There are a number of times in the text where Cromwell seems compared to animals or natural events: he is “three-forked lightening” (13), “angry heaven’s flame” (26), and “a falcon” (91).  Marvell makes Cromwell seem inevitable when he writes “’Tis madness to resist or blame/the force of angry heaven’s flame” (26-7).  The Horatian ode just reinforces the sense that Marvell is being objective about Cromwell’s power.

In All Cases

* Work closely with the text.  Quote specific passages and then characterize them rather than just characterizing the poem or sermon as a whole.

* Be as specific as possible.  Don’t say “An Horatian Ode” ‘has a theme of war,’ detail what aspects or elements of war Marvell seems most interested in.

* Spend a good amount of time reading the passage and thinking about it in relation to the text.  Make sure you read what comes before and after to make sure you’re not distorting its meaning by taking it out of context.  The syntax is often very challenging.  Make sure you know what the subject (verb, direct object etc.) of the sentence is.

* Any one of these may require additional research; try not to spend too much time researching.  It’s more important to think through the text itself than to get copious amounts of outside information.  You may use notes in the book as outside “research.”

You should spend some time on these class preparations, particularly at the beginning of the semester.  If, however, after a week or two, you find yourself still spending over two hours, please see me.  I expect that once you get the hang of this, it should only take between 20-40 minutes per class prep.  (If you can do a good job in significantly less time, great!)