Amherst poetry seminar reflections, Part 1: the liberal arts toolkit

Frost Library and the Freshman Quad are the setting for this opaque installation artwork titled "Adirondack Chairs Pondering"

I am hoping not soon to recover from the gracious and learned knock on the head that I got from attending a seminar on poets James Merrill and David Ferry last week at our alma mater, Amherst College (forgive the smarmy latinate reference there but I’m still a bit high on purple). The two days of discussion of these two poets’ work and the reading afterward by David Ferry, my thesis advisor David Sofield, Richard Wilbur–another towering figure in American poetry who is a visiting professor at Amherst this year–and by green eminence Dan Chiasson would have made the seminar amazing in its own right. However, the fact that I got to sit in on two Amherst classes beforehand, and that the overall experience came just as I am starting to reengage with writing, made the impact of this short visit extremely intense. Without being able to do either aspect that I experienced real justice–how education seems to be going at Amherst now, and what those in the seminar learned from each other and from Merrill and Ferry’s work–I do think that both offered a view into how the liberal arts enterprise (done right) provides an powerful set of tools for understanding the world and one’s passage through it, and demonstrated the hard work it takes to develop and put to use those tools.

What follows are my reflections on the two Amherst classes I got to sit in on. Next post: the poetry seminar and reading themselves.

In the Amherst classroom I: Process in the First-Year Seminar

Please excuse our dust as we replace all bound printed materials with laptops

Propelled by tea and Robyn through the rain, I arrived at Amherst just in time to sit in on Nicola Courtright‘s First Year Seminar titled Encounters with Nature. The class was held in a gorgeous, high-ceilinged classroom in Fayerweather, with the students and Nicola seated around a rectangular set of tables. Prof. Courtright (my Art 11 instructor in Spring 1991) opened the discussion with about 18 freshpeople by having a little laptop etiquette talk (i.e. do not Facebook during class), which became manifestly necessary to me as I realized that there was no multilith (which now sounds like some sort of standing stone circle erected by very early scholars) or any kind of course reader. Everything is distributed online through the course website: students download PDF versions of articles to their laptops, make annotations that are evidently shareable, upload their assignments for grading and share them within virtual groups for peer assessment. She then said the students would be spot checked on their ability to name all their classmates. This reminded me of the same cohort-forming strategy I saw used when I went on Outward Bound recently, and it fits with the overall emphasis on process that I saw in this particular section of FYS.

An extra-idealized view of Memorial Hill and the wooded landscape around Amherst, derided by West Coast students as "not really wilderness" (Image:

In the Introduction to Liberal Studies courses that Amherst required of freshmen in my day (shaking cane at bewildered Millennial student audience)–indeed the only required course back then–there was also an emphasis on process but with a different set of assumptions about the writing and analytical abilities that students brought with them from high school. While in Prof. Courtright’s class there was some discussion about the assigned reading, an essay by recently embattled Wisconsin Prof. William Cronon called “The Trouble with Wilderness,” what was most striking to me about the session was Nicola’s explicit remarks to the class about how she planned to foster peer-to-peer discussion rather than a series of binary comments between Professor and Students. After making comments in the beginning of class about how important it was for everyone to participate in discussion, she then said, in effect, “I’m keeping my eyes lowered so that you talk to each other, and to do that it will be handy to remember each others’ names.” This sort of conversation was more or less achieved, and I realized that the pervasive “likes,” “you knows,” and other interjections were just part of dialectical English amongst educated elites, here in this strange land into which my liege lord Duke Strunk of White has teleported me to make these faithful observations.

Dr. Johnson's reflections on the Common Reader as cited by Woolf: "I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtility (sic) and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours."

All this emphasis on the classroom process could perhaps be chalked up to a kind of “team play” focus without having required a fundamental change from the old ILS approach I experienced. What really showed me the pedagogical evolution was the closing part of the class in which Nicola displayed two student response writings on the screen. Nicola handed out a guideline to “Reading as a Common Reader (The What-Where-Why Protocol)” and asked each student to comment on what they were feeling as they read each word and line of their peers’ writing. The rubric here is, “What: state the feeling; Where: tell the writer where the feeling arose; Why: offer an explanation for why you felt that way.” The rhetoric of feelings could be seen as fairly mushy, but in practice this seems to be a good approach in eliciting student comment while staying focused on one’s responses to the writing rather than making judgements on the writers’ intentions. What the students were about to start in the coming weeks was a process of virtual teams of three students who would read each others’ response writings and comment on them through shared online annotations. I have seen some research that certain students participate in discussion more effectively when given the chance to do so online (see, e.g., Harris and Sander 2008) but I am curious as to how Amherst faculty can balance this against the special and all too rare opportunity to have actual “f2f” peer interaction routinely in class.

Nothing says "Contemporary writing center that is relevant to today's kids" like a fountain pen

What Nicola explained to me after class is that this focus on the process of reading, critiquing and revising writing is something that Amherst has adopted (well, many faculty have anyway) with some collaboration from the Dartmouth Writing Program and is linked with the strengthening of the resources available to students and faculty in the Amherst Writing Center, which I remember as being basically one person (Susan Snively) and serving as a kind of penalty box for students who really couldn’t hack it freshman year. Of course one can see this as a necessary and sound approach to take in parallel with Amherst’s strategic expansion of its student body to increase the range of economic backgrounds started by former President Marx–but it’s not just that. We are undergoing massive changes in how people relate (i.e. mediated through online interaction) that are strongly tied to the means by which people communicate (through absolute reams and terabytes of text, churned out every minute) and places like Amherst are lucky to have the funds and smarts to be able to take a proactive stance, hopefully taking advantage of these changes to the benefit of the liberal arts ecology that we hold dear.

To complicate and yet to enjoy: Amherst's creed!

To return in closing to the nominal subject matter of “Encounters with Nature,” all these tools for peer interaction and for engaging with writing about ideas are being brought to bear to support a key task of the liberal arts education. If Amherst does its job, the first-year student who wrote in September that “The idea of nature being beautiful is rather self-explanatory” will by Parents’ Weekend have a disquieting and liberating sense that these sorts of tautological verities don’t really work. Whether it is beautiful nature or the savage / idyllic wilderness, Amherst classes (especially the FYS) are hopefully giving young people an insight into how people have constructed and maintained these ideas, a perspective on the kinds of arguments made in the course of constructing and tearing down such ideas, a sense of what counts as a valid argument, and the toolkit one needs to develop in order to make such arguments on behalf of whichever ideas arouse one’s passionate commitments.

Interlude: Passionate Commitments

The Antonio's Special and a fried eggplant and peppers slice

The cream cheese brownie at the Black Sheep







After the class and talking with Prof. Courtright I rushed into town to make sure I satisfied the one base desire that calls to me when in Amherst–slices at Antonio’s. The place opened the year after we graduated and they have a wonderful assortment of unique slices, which for the sake of not requiring the XXXL undergraduate gown it’s probably a good thing I couldn’t access while a student.

A while back: 3 year old A already thinks it's normal to eat a piece of pizza bigger than your head...that's my girl!

The cream cheese brownie at the Black Sheep also called to me but its sweet alto was subsumed beneath the basso grumblings of the Antonio’s Special…or were those grumblings my own? At some point during my stay in town I did manage to eat a brownie, and it remains the benchmark for its kind. In fact eating more than one within a few days might turn you into a bench.

In the Amherst classroom II: Philosophy 11: God, Morality, and Freedom

Katia Vavova lecturing at Amherst in March 2011, clearly not to first-year students (Photo: Cole Morgan '13)

After lunch, in a typical September in Amherst transformation, the rain abated and it got hot and humid, right in time for me to sit in on a class in one of the oldest and least improved buildings on campus–Barrett Hall. This was Prof. Katia Vavova‘s Philosophy 11 class, titled God, Morality, and Freedom. Having taught expository writing for eight years to first-year students at Rutgers, I identified strongly with what was going on in the FYS, but Prof. Vavova’s good-humored but rigorous moves through a discussion of how we reconcile the idea of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent G-d and the existence of suffering created a classroom dynamic quite distinct from the seminar, and was a wonderful chance to get a broader view of teaching and learning at Amherst.

At our 20th Reunion last May, children of the Class of '91 ask Uncle Webster, "If you are omnipotent, why don't I have a snack right now?" (Joking aside, this very sort of query was raised in the Phil 11 class! I.e., if G-d were really omnipotent why would I feel a bit hungry right now)

The Phil 11 class, made up mostly of freshmen, had been reading J. L. Mackie’s article “Evil and Omnipotence” on the problem of reconciling an “OOG” and the existence of suffering in the world. I gathered that even these few weeks into the semester some philosophy ways of speaking and writing had been shared with the class–like when a student looked at her iPad and said Microsoft Word didn’t recognize “omnibenevolent” and Katia said, yes, MS Word pretty much can’t help you in Philosophy–and there were a few things I missed in the discussion having not done the reading. But Prof. Vavova’s handout (which you can download here: vavova_problem of evil notes, with thanks and copyright to her) lays out pretty much the focus of our discussion: as she puts it, “Mackie says that the problem of evil is a logical one: it is a problem about consistency—a problem of clarifying and reconciling beliefs. It is not a scientific problem to be solved by further observation or a practical problem to be solved by action or decision.”

What struck me about the class was first that the students had done the reading. Most of them participated during the class and the weight of discussion did not cohere around one or two leading lights. In the course of setting out the terms of Mackie’s argument, Katia got everyone to agree that the least controversial of the establishing statements (numbered 2 through 4 below) is 4: there is suffering in the world.

The argument:
1. Suppose that God (an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being) exists. [A for reductio]
2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate suffering. [A]
3. If God is omnibenevolent, then God wants to eliminate suffering. [A]
4. The world is full of suffering. [A]
5. If the world is full of suffering, then either (a) God doesn’t have the power to eliminate suffering, (b) God does not want to eliminate the suffering. [2,3]
6. Either God is not omnipotent or not omnibenevolent. [4,5]
7. God (an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being) does not exist. [1,7]

"Gromit, how is it that the moon can be made of such delicious Wensleydale cheese when there is suffering on our Earth?"

But in getting to that agreement, there was some pretty interesting discussion about how one would prove the existence of suffering, with a diversion through Sartre and Existentialism and (at least to my mind) a bit of delicate dancing around the fact that suffering is not constantly in one’s face at Amherst. The class also did some good work on how Mackie defines logical inconsistency, which is in a statement of the form “P and not P,” i.e. “the moon is entirely made of cheese and the moon is entirely made of bread,” an entirely inconsistent vision of a celestial picnic.

The process focus in this class was on the rules by which people make philosophical arguments, rather than on cohort dynamics or the steps for reviewing one’s own or a peer’s writing. But given the content at hand (God, Morality and Freedom), and the  well-restrained comments of the students that nonetheless pointed to at least a few that were not used to coming at the G-d question from a philosophical perspective, it struck me that PHIL 11 gives these students a “net” for their future arguments of all kinds, in the sense that Robert Frost famously said that writing poetry without meter and rhyme was like playing tennis without a net (a sentiment that was wholly adopted by the poets we would later read in the Amherst Today seminar). The ability to speak of even the most commonly-accepted ideals (G-d is omnibenevolent) in a detached way that insists on consistency and argumentative rigor is an incredible asset. It would be great if we had more of that approach to steering our nation’s public life (although I guess both the conservatives who sneer at the “reality-based community” and the liberals who bash Obama for not being enough of a fire-breathing ideologue would disagree).

A sketch of the future campus of the Yale-National University of Singapore liberal arts college, to be the first of its kind in Asia.

I don’t know if it is solely through small seminar-style classes, populated by the world’s top students, and conducted in idyllic Citie on a Hill surroundings that one can successfully instill the tools of argument, self-criticism, and engaging critically with heretofore-unquestioned ideals that I saw on offer in these two classes. But it sure seems to happen successfully at Amherst, and I found myself looking at the liberal arts with a new appreciation having been at MIT for eight-plus years and hearing the constant drumbeat of science and technology education as being most critical to our nation’s (or any nation’s) future prosperity. That may indeed be the case but it seems that only with good arguments will we be able to move society towards embracing sci/tech rationalism as we might want. Maybe the best evidence that other non-Little Three grads share this belief is the fact that Singapore–having put maybe half a billion dollars into just their alliance with MIT over the past 15 years or so–recently agreed with Yale to create a new liberal arts college in Singapore to be the first of its kind in Asia. If this most perspicacious and agile of nations thinks the liberal arts is good, who are we to argue?

One thought on “Amherst poetry seminar reflections, Part 1: the liberal arts toolkit

  1. Great post, Josh. It was great having you in class. I especially like this bit:

    …it struck me that PHIL 11 gives these students a “net” for their
    future arguments of all kinds, in the sense that Robert Frost famously
    said that writing poetry without meter and rhyme was like playing
    tennis without a net…. The ability to speak of even the most
    commonly-accepted ideals (G-d is omnibenevolent) in a detached way
    that insists on consistency and argumentative rigor is an incredible
    asset. It would be great if we had more of that approach to steering
    our nation’s public life…

    I think you really got what I was trying to do with that class–and what I think is valuable about philosophy.

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