The Myths and Meanings of Fairy Tales

All over the world, people recognize and revere the stories and characters featured in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  This famous collection was published long ago by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, first printed in 1812 in German with the title of Kinder und Hausmärchen, or ‘Children’s and Household Tales’.  The many tales collected by the brothers Grimm offer fascinating resources for considering the complexities of life in Europe in the early nineteenth century, and provide a window into key ideas related to childhood, gender, family, class, violence, fear, work, and socioeconomic hardship (among other things).  It may come as no surprise, therefore, that these themes are writ large in what has become the most famous series of fairy tales ever produced: the various films by Walt Disney and his company that are based upon earlier fairy tales.  The date that this blogpost is due is our pre-Thanksgiving flexday, and since I’m going to be giving you a break in class my hope and expectation is that you take this response very seriously and do a good job with it – while also having a little fun with a topic that many of you will find near and dear to your hearts. 

Fairy tales are simultaneously meant for entertainment while also being intended to intrigue and educate readers/viewers about certain moral ideas.  With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to see what might happen if you precisely and directly bring specific tales from different times into conversation.  Thus, I want you to carefully and pointedly compare a single, specific story (or character) from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with a particular movie (or character) from the Disney princess universe.  Your response should be at least two in-depth paragraphs in length, and in your discussion you might consider ideas of this sort:  What are these stories and versions about, and in what ways are they notably similar and different?  What did you find shocking or surprising in these stories, and why?  Do these “texts” ultimately suggest different ideas and definitions of “fairy tales” (or indeed “myth”)?  How/why so?  Finally, what is the “moral” of the story for your chosen “texts”, and more importantly, what social or political ideas relative to the various time periods in question do your selected stories seem to subtly highlight and comment upon?

Thoughts on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Convocation Lecture, and the Tragic Myths of America

The 2021 Convocation Lecture for first-year students is being given by none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates, the award-winning author of Between the World and Me. While this is not explicitly a book about mythology, it does offer some “tragic” truths about America and actually speaks in interesting ways to myths and myth-making since the very founding of our nation.  In this blogpost, then, I want you to carefully respond to this year’s “common reader,” and specifically the Convocation Lecture by Coates on 16 November.  Your response should be two paragraphs long, and you might consider such things as:  In the wake of this event, what stood out for you?  What did you find enjoyable (or not), and why?  What did the writer say that really touched a nerve with you?  What did you find interesting about Coates’ talk, and how/why does it connect up with the themes and topics of our class on myth and tragedy?  How did this discussion enhance your understanding of Between the World and Me in terms of its themes, anecdotes, or style?  Also, looking at Coates’ lecture critically, why do you think this kind of event is useful and important for all of you as first-year students at Stockton?  Having spent so much time together reading and examining this excellent book, I’ll be very curious to hear your thoughts about Coates’ (virtual) visit to Stockton!

Myths and Folklore in (or about) Early America

During the week leading up to this Blogpost, we will be covering a lot of ground in class as we begin Unit Two. We will be starting this work by exploring the folklore of the American frontier, then move on to consider the tragic realities of life for the millions who lived under the yoke of slavery and Jim Crow laws. As you will learn, race itself is essentially a “myth,” yet racism is a very unfortunate reality for many, even today, as Ta-Nehisi Coates makes very clear in Between the World and Me (the book that will be the centerpiece of this second unit). In your very first assigned reading this semester, Robert Brockway mentioned that myths were central to the cultures of the ancient world, but there are many stories or traditions from the “new world” that “have mythic overtones and intentions” – quasi-mythical premises that are seen in songs and stories, scientific studies, legal pronouncements, philosophical systems, historical theories, and political ideologies.

With this in mind, your task in this blogpost is twofold (and your write-up itself should be two separate parts):  1)  Compare/contrast the folktales of early America (featuring Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, and/or Daniel Boone) with the myths of the “old world” that have been our focus so far this semester.  What does such a comparison reveal about these early American tall tales, about early America itself, and/or about the history and development of myths all over the world?  2)  I recently heard a Stockton student reference the idea that there were “Irish slaves” in early America. In fact, this idea has been debunked and is, sadly, often cited in support of nationalist or even white supremacist causes. The fact of the matter is that, as historian Liam Hogan notes, “There is unanimous agreement, based on overwhelming evidence, that the Irish were never subjected to perpetual, hereditary slavey in the colonies based on notions of ‘race.’ “  What are some other “myths” or stories that influence the early years of America, for good or ill?  What kinds of “tall tales” fueled social injustices before, during, and after the founding of the United States.  And how do such far-fetched “myths” continue to cause problems for us today in the twenty-first century? 

Making Sense out of Medieval Myths and Legends

One of the great mysteries surrounding the history of Western Europe is how, exactly, Christianity first co-existed with pagan traditions and ultimately took root, influencing virtually every facet of life.  Mythology was not immune to this influence, as the traditional legends and stories that had been told for centuries eventually died out and in their place arose new legendary forms and new heroes.  This Blog post is designed to have you explore some of the key changes that occurred during this broad transition.  Our last four classes have covered a wide variety of medieval tales, including the Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf, Viking myths, the real-life legend of Joan of Arc, and stories about the famous warriors Roland and King Arthur.  In order to examine these legends and the medieval period from which they arose, I want you to do three things:

1)  Compare/contrast one of the stories you have read to an ancient myth we read over the first few weeks of the semester.  Or, compare a medieval hero-figure with an ancient hero (or maybe even another hero from the Middle Ages) and see what there is to see.

2)  Pick out a key theme that you find is powerfully resonating in these sources, and consider how two medieval stories recently assigned for class engage with and articulate ideas about that theme.

3)  Identify a meaningful quotation from the story that you have enjoyed the most in our recent class forays.  What does your chosen quote emphasize in terms of the story in which it is found, and what does it say about the trials and tribulations of the hero at the center of that story?  Just as importantly, how does it highlight and raise questions about the transitional era known as the Middle Ages?

Each of these three parts should be at least one thoughtful paragraph in length.  By completing these three tasks, my hope is that you identify some meaningful ideas, complexities, and connections that are found in the various legends written in medieval Europe, and come to a better understanding and appreciation for the “realities” of myth during the so-called Middle Ages.

Violence, War, and Peace in Greek Mythology

On our very first day of class, I mentioned that for many people, when they hear the term “myth” they immediately think about Greek myths, and the gods and goddesses of Athens.  They may not immediately think of Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ but without a doubt, it is one of the most important, most influential mythological works ever written. Though it is understood as a sweeping myth, Homer’s masterpiece is also fascinating as a kind of political document, a manifesto about war and peace, imperialism, violence, hatred, and so on. And that fact has inspired the prompt for your third Blogpost of the semester.  This will be a two-part response, as articulated below:

1) The infamous “clash of the titans” is one of the earliest stories that we have from the world of Greek myth. Thinking back to our class from last Wednesday, I want you to explore a specific story from early Greek myth as a kind of political document, a creative act that negotiates the day’s crises of power and authority.  How is war and violence manifest in this story, and what does it teach us about such violence, the people who enact violence, and, perhaps, about the Greek culture itself? 

2)  In the second part, I want you to build on this thinking by examining something related to war and peace as depicted by Homer in the ‘Odyssey.’ Homer himself apparently endured considerable civil strife and warfare in his lifetime, and it is only natural that he uses the words of his characters to comment on the violence and power-struggles that surrounded him.  Hence, in this section I want you to address a particular war-oriented theme – such as violence, hatred, justice, mercy, authority, surrender, and negotiation – and examine that theme as presented in a particular passage from the ‘Odyssey.’  Pick a quotation or two from the text and then discuss it in terms of its political content.  In your discussion you should identify the central issue of your chosen lines, and detail the challenges, views, and logic of characters concerning the subject; then, you must offer some thoughts on what YOU think about the topic within the context of the story (if not the culture of Greece more generally). 

Exploring the Epic of Gilgamesh

One of the primary functions of this Blogsite is to encourage students to think about and explore a given text assigned for class on their own before we work together in class to make sense out of the story.  The second blogpost of the semester is designed with that task in mind, as I want you to articulate some preliminary thoughts about the complex Epic of Gilgamesh, which is viewed by many experts as perhaps the earliest masterpiece of world literature.  To variously explore this wonderful story, I want you to do two things (in at least one paragraph for each part): 

1)  The first myths we studied this semester were various myths of creation and destruction, which are far shorter than the Gilgamesh legend, and also come from far different times, places, and cultures.  Yet there is meaning to be found when bringing these diverse early myths into conversation with the ancient mythical roots of Mesopotamia.  For part one, then, I’d like you to consider similarities and differences between the shorter creation and destruction myths and the far longer Epic of Gilgamesh.  What might get revealed about the differences between early “epic” and “myth” by comparing, for example, the trials and tribulations faced by Gilgamesh with the Biblical story of creation?  To really explore such issues, please compare Gilgamesh to a single creation/destruction myth of your choosing, and then pick two characters (one from each text) and compare/contrast them.  What does this interaction suggest about the characters themselves, and more importantly, about key elements of each myth (if not their respective societies)?  What does your comparison reveal about the two works, and the two different types of work in question (i.e. epic vs. myth) ?? 

2)  For your second section, I’d like you to draw very precisely on some of our earlier work in class, specifically our foundational classwork on the all-important theories of Aristotle (on tragedy) and Joseph Campbell (on the “monomyth” of the hero).  For Part Two, then, I would like you to carefully and critically apply the ideas of these thinkers to The Epic of Gilgamesh.  If you are interested in the key notions of Aristotle, you might show how the plot of this epic masterpiece fits certain “tragic” modes (such as leading toward a kind of “catharsis”), or attempt to view Gilgamesh (or perhaps Enkidu) as a kind of “tragic hero” according to the terms laid out by Aristotle.  On the other hand, you might tell us about how Campbell’s theories regarding the hero’s quest (i.e. separation – initiation – return) help us to understand the journey undertaken by Gilgamesh.  Overall, what key ideas or issues get raised through a careful application of the ideas of Aristotle and/or Campbell’s to this fascinating Mesopotamian epic?

A First Foray on Myth and Tragedy

During the first few weeks of the semester, we are working to lay important intellectual foundations for our class by exploring the meaning of myth, introducing Aristotle’s theories about tragedy, and considering the more recent scholarship of Joseph Campbell on the “hero’s journey.” This three-part Blogpost is designed to get you to think about these ideas a little bit differently, and especially to make connections between the world of myth and our own “real” lives – something we will be doing throughout the semester.  With that in mind, then, you will write three short paragraphs (total) in response to the three prompts below.  I’ll be curious to see what you come up with for your first response writings of the semester!

1)  For class last week you read an article (published on ThoughtCo) that takes different theories about myth and combines them into the following simple definition: “Myths are stories told by people about people: where they come from, how they handle major disasters, how they cope with what they must, and how everything will end.” Taking this definition into consideration, I’d like you to discuss a time in your life when a “myth” or a story with key mythical elements played a key role.  Many believe that myths are things of the past, yet we still mythologize many aspects of our world – so how does your experience with myth highlight the power and significance of myths to living beings in the twenty-first century?

2)  On Monday we examined the ins and outs of Aristotle’s foundational views of myth from the Poetics. Hence, I thought it would be worthwhile to apply specific ideas from Aristotle’s theories to a specific movie, text, or experience from your own life.  To do so, you might tell us how the plot of your chosen tale fits certain “tragic” modes (such as leading toward a “catharsis”), or consider how the characters fit Aristotle’s ideals – especially of the “tragic hero.”  And in making these connections, you might also consider this:  what are some of the ways that tragedy functions in your own life?  How does tragedy make you feel, and what does it teach you about the world in which we live?

3)  Wednesday we will be exploring Joseph Campbell’s notion of a “monomyth,” which has been profoundly influential. But one controversial aspect of his view of the “hero’s journey” is the idea that the heroes of myth and legend are, in certain fundamental ways, discernably different than those “heroes” we see in everyday life.  But is this really true?  What is a hero?  To consider these questions, I’d like you to cite a hero that you know personally or just know about, and use them as a way to define, discuss, and illustrate what it means to be heroic.  In time, we will test these ideas by seeing how your notions are similar to – or different than – the ideas of Campbell, as well as the actual heroes depicted in myth and legend throughout the ages.

A Critical Analysis of “Surf Music”

Education commentator John Taylor Gatto contends that “Close reading of tough-minded writing is still the best, cheapest, and quickest method known for learning to think for yourself.” It is with such a premise in mind that I want you to complete this final Blogpost of the semester, which should (I hope) be both fun and thought-provoking. You are completing this assignment during our pop culture unit, and in some ways we have been gearing you up for this assignment all semester via our classic “Thursday Tunes.” For this Blogpost you will select a specific piece of “surf music” to examine and analyze — in other words, a surf-related song (and one that you will likely choose from our class material on 4/15). To mix it up a little bit and variously practice/apply your critical thinking skills, you will conduct a three-part analysis of your chosen song, as outlined below.

Part One – Summary: Listen to your chosen song several times, and take a look at the lyrics online (assuming there are lyrics). Then, summarize it by briefly telling its surf-related story. What, in general, is the song about? The answer to that question should not be an interpretation, but a short, basic explanation of the contents of the song. To help write this summary, you could possibly consider working with/using the 5Ws and H idea made famous by journalists (who, what, where, when, why, how).

Part Two – Synthesis:  To synthesize means to combine or connect, and in this section I want you to synthesize the contents of your piece of surf music with key ideas and premises that we have covered so far this semester.  Put another way, I want you to draw specific connections between your chosen song and specific social, historical, scientific, commercial, or political topics that we have covered in class this spring.  How does your song relate to our coursework, and what do these connections highlight or reveal to us as “consumers” of surf culture?

Part Three – Interpretation: Most of us tend to think of music in terms of its entertainment value, but the fact is that music – especially music with lyrics – is emotionally riveting and deeply meaningful, much like literature. Hence, in this section, I want you to analyze and interpret the meaning of your chosen song. To do so, you must break down the song’s lyrics and focus on specific details that might have deeper significance. Therefore, you might take into consideration such things as: the “theme” of the song; the historical, cultural, and technological context of the music; the songwriter’s background and experience; the genre of the music and its importance; the implications of key images, words, metaphors, or other minute details found in the lyrics. Reflecting on these details, what does your song “mean,” and/or what does it say about surfing and its place(s) in society?

Is Surfing Really a Sport (or just a Pastime), and Why Does this Matter?

Due to COVID-19, the Olympic debut of surfing did not occur in the summer of 2020.  But this year, spectators at the Tokyo Olympics will finally get to see surfers in the water, competing for gold medal glory. While many professional surfers have praised this new contest, others see it as being unnecessary and problematic, potentially leading to more overcrowded line-ups around the world and, in general, continuing recent trends of commercializing the sport. But IS surfing really a sport? In an article assigned for class on 3/30, Brian Blickenstaff notes that many of the best surfers on earth do not enter competitive events organized by the World Surfing League, and that the judging of these competitions has often been seen as subjective and questionable. In addition, there are issues of gender, race, and sexism on tour, and “the clothing and apparel industry that banks on the surfing culture is far, far bigger than the actual professional surfing economy.”  Of course, these issues do not necessarily mean that surfing is not a sport. For this Blogpost, then, I would like you to enter into the fray on this topic, a debate that has been raging in the world of surfing for at least 50 years, and is only intensifying with the Olympics finally upon us. What do you think: IS surfing a sport, or just a fun pastime? In the “sport vs. art” debate, is it true that artistry, the relationship with nature, and individual expression on the waves has taken a back seat to professionalized competition and commercialization? Why do you think the way that you do? And, ultimately, why is this question so important, to “soul surfers” and competitive surfers alike?

Surfing, Science, and the Impact of New Surf Technologies

For our next Blogpost, you will have several options to choose from as you essentially range about some of the material we’re covering during Unit Two (on the science and technology of surfing).  To do so, I want you to let you thoughts go and explore TWO of three science-related topic options.  For each topic you choose to tackle, you should write a paragraph — so, two total paragraphs is the goal. 

Here are the three topic options that you might choose from:  1)  Environmental impacts are prevalent as a result of surf technologies, such as the rubber used to make wetsuits and the Styrofoam that fills most of the world’s surfboards. Yet few surfers choose to acknowledge the “elephant of the room” in terms of surfing and the environment, favoring the notion that the surf community is essentially attuned to the waves and one with the ocean.  How do we reconcile our surfing enjoyment with its real-world impacts?  2)  Address the age-old question of whether shaping is truly an “artform.”  You might consider such things as:  Is board shaping really an “art”?  Why or why not?  And who cares if it is “artistic” or not – what difference does it make? Is it “wrong” somehow to ride a mass-produced surfboard?  3)  For your final option, you should consider the controversial “Surf Ranch”.  What do you think of Kelly Slater’s famous man-made wave (and others like it)?  Is this technological development the latest, greatest example that surfing today has “lost it soul”, or does it represent an ingenious example of forward progress? 

Surfing in the Wake of Colonization: Growth, Globalization, and Politicization

Since your first Blogpost of the semester, our class has covered a lot of historical territory (literally and figuratively speaking). This second Blogpost is designed to encourage you to think more fully about certain aspects of that history, and to view these various times, trajectories, and transformations in a new and different light. It is also aimed to invite you to think visually a bit, something you will be doing soon for your first Middle Stakes writing of the semester (due roughly a week-and-a-half from now). For this Blogpost, then, you will bridge the past and the present, and think historically and visually, by completing the following two steps:

1) Pick two historical topics covered since our last Blog that you think are interesting/important. You may choose from the following list, subjects which you may want/need to narrow a bit in order to have something thoughtful to say about them: Alexander Hume Ford, the Outrigger Club, George Freeth, Duke Kahanamoku, the Hui Nalu Club, Walter Dillingham, May Rindge, the Royal Hawaiian (or Moana Hotel), Henry Huntington, Tom Blake, Jock Sutherland, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and the South China Sea Surf Club.

2) Write at least one robust paragraph about both of the historical topics you choose from the list above (so, two paragraphs minimum). In each paragraph, you should explore the meaning and broader significance of your subject, and draw some conclusions about it in terms of the history of surfing. To do so, you must offer: a) A quotation that somehow encapsulates and addresses your subject. You should not only find and present this quote, but somehow use and interrogate it in your discussion. b) An image or video that represents your subject. You can offer us this simply by providing a link. Then, here again, you should tell us what is notable about that image, and discuss how/why it illustrates key issues related to your topic(s) and its role in the history of surfing.

Considerations on the Birth, “Death,” and Rebirth of Surfing

‘Surfing & Society’ is an H-designated course that will deeply explore the history, politics, and development of surfing in America, and beyond. During our first several class meetings, our course has focused on the development and early history of surfing, and for your first Blogpost of the semester you will be asked to do a few (relatively) simple things to get you thinking about the assigned reading for Tuesday, February 2, and to explore certain ways in which it connects up to what we did in the first week of class. For this initial trial run, there are three options for you to choose from, and you should choose TWO of these prompts and respond to them (with your writing amounting to at least two robust paragraphs overall):

1)  One of the very first things we did on our first day together was define and discuss “the stoke.” For this option, you should apply your ideas about “the stoke” to one of our recent readings. It would certainly be sensible to articulate how “the stoke” is seen, articulated, and examined in one of the literary/historical accounts we have read so far (by Captain Cook, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Jack London). But if you would like to apply this premise to a historical event or colonial topic mentioned in ‘The World in the Curl’ instead, that would be totally fine. Whatever text or topic you wish to discuss, you should explain where and how “the stoke” is seen, and why this particular reference serves as an important and illuminating example of the early history of surfing.

2) The four historical/literary texts listed above (by Cook, Melville, Twain, and London) are fun and quirky and provide an interesting window into the premodern world of surfing. But there is a darkness lurking beneath the surface when it is realized that they are also products of colonialist expansion and exploitation in Hawaii, and the Polynesian islands nearby. For this option, then, you should choose one of these texts and consider it as a kind of political document, a text about war and peace, kingship and rule, imperialism, xenophobic hatred, and so on. To address these issues, your response should focus on a particular passage where issues of power and authority are subtly at issue. How does your chosen passage bring to the page such notions as violence, religion, hatred, justice, misunderstanding, authority, and/or negotiation? Place the passage specifically within the colonial context of the day, consider its meaning and significance, and by all means feel free to offer some thoughts about what YOU think about the topic, text, and theme in question.

3) An important intellectual skill is comparison, and in fact one of the things we will do frequently in class is compare ideas, sources, places, and people from the broad culture and history of surfing. So for the third and final option for this Blogpost, you might do some comparing and contrasting and see what comes of it. For example, you might compare and contrast such things as: Christian missionaries vs. Hawaiian religious leaders; native surfers vs. the white settler population; the morals of Polynesians vs. the morals of tourists; the US government vs. Hawaiian kings; surfing in Hawaii in the early twentieth century vs. surfing in California and other mainland locales; and/or premodern surf techniques and ideals vs. the “modern” notions of the sport that arose in the United States. Whatever topics or ideas you choose to compare, your paragraph should articulate some of the notable similarities and differences but, more to the point, what is learned through the comparison. What does your comparison reveal about early surfers and the rise, “death,” and rebirth of surfing?

Thanks for your efforts, gang – I’m looking forward to seeing what you all come up with for this first Blogpost of the semester!!

On the Power of the Panopticon

This fall, universities have been faced with an unprecedented crisis in the form of COVID-19.  Colleges around the world have taken wildly varied approaches, many of which have been harshly criticized.  At Penn State, for example, faculty warned administrative leaders about a second wave of the pandemic in the fall, yet classes were held face-to-face – and indeed, a fairly large number of students and employees contracted coronavirus, thus causing even more controversy.  In one recent account, the author drew on Michel Foucault’s ideas about the panopticon as a way to understand what was happening on campus:  instead of heeding the warnings, “the university instituted a series of panoptic measures to surveill and control students and faculty, hoping to obtain full compliance with social distancing rules through draconian means. But the history of Penn State surveilling and controlling campus members precedes the recent pandemic.”

Using these words as a cue, in this Blogpost I want you to think about the rise of “surveillance society” in the modern age.  More specifically, I want you to consider the way in which “panoptic” forms of surveillance, policing, and power exist in your own life.  Write two paragraphs on the following:  1)  In what ways is Stockton University guilty of functioning as a “panoptic institution”?  And how do you feel about this?  2)  What are some other ways, or realms, that a de facto panopticon plays a role in your life?  I’m thinking here of things like your cellphones, social media, your parents, the local police, and the list goes on.  Is this acceptable, or should something be done about it?  CAN anything be done about it given our technology-driven world?

On the Roots of Racism in America

In Alex Haley’s influential novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, he tells the tale of an African man who is captured in his native land as a boy, sold into slavery and transported to America, where he lives out his days working on the plantation. The book goes on to tell the story of his children and grandchildren, who face many trials and tribulations but eventually go on to find happiness and success in the country that was forced upon their family as a home. For class Wednesday, we are going to trace the history and “roots” of slavery and racism in the United States, and some of Haley’s words in the novel certainly provide some interesting food-for-thought. Looking back at the past, for example, one character wonders what another’s “true name had been – the name of his African forefathers – and to what tribe they had belonged. He wondered if the gardener himself had known. More likely he died as he had lived – without ever learning who he really was.”  Another character “thought that it was impossible for a ‘massa’ to perceive that being owned by anyone could never be enjoyable,” while another “was weeping for all of history’s incredible atrocities against fellowmen, which seems to be mankind’s greatest flaw.” Through the plight of centuries of slaves and their families, Haley powerfully shows the reader the sad, deplorable truism that “It is the way of the world that goodness is often repaid by badness.”

This is nowhere more clearly seen for those of us living in the United States than in our sickening history of slavery and racism.  On the one hand, the early years of our nation are a wondrous and inspiring tale of growth, innovation, and development, as our founding fathers essentially created a grand new experiment in democracy, freedom, and nation-building.  On the other hand, that very edifice – the very foundation of our country – was literally and figuratively built on the backs of slaves like those depicted in Haley’s novel.  For this blogpost, I want you to write two paragraphs, in which you share your thoughts about the nation’s roots in slavery.  I actually don’t have a specific question or prompt in mind here, but want YOU to respond to what you are assigned for class today as you see fit.  For instance, you might think about new issues and ideas that you never knew about before, you might consider how the videos assigned for class are somehow revealing about issues in our education system or the politicians who run our society, you might connect the assigned material to the historical ideas and issues we have covered so far this semester, or perhaps draw specific connections to Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and our current political moment.  In other words, just “riff” a bit and offer us something that we, in turn, might think about as we work together to explore the slave “roots” of America. 

Considerations about Columbus and the Conquistadors

This blog posting was written not long after protests and violent clashes erupted over a statue of Christopher Columbus in the summer of 2020 in the “city of brotherly love.”  The status of the monument is in currently flux, due to a court ruling that placed a temporary “stay” on its removal from Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia.  A lawyer who represents a group of local residents who want the statue to remain called this decision “not just a victory for the Columbus Statue, [but] a victory for civilized society.” Statements of this kind raise issues about memorials of this sort, which – like many confederate statues across America – enshrine and celebrate highly contentious figures from history.  Taking such debates as a cue, in this blogpost I want you to think about the assigned readings from the “age of exploration” by viewing them from two divergent perspectives, as outlined below. 

1)  First, you might consider what, exactly, the “truth” is concerning Columbus’s journey, and the account of that journey.  Or, you could ask similar questions of “truth” about the texts written by/about the conquistador Hernan Cortes, Bartolome de las Casas, and the work known as the ‘Florentine Codex.’  What are some of the main obstacles to really knowing the “truth” on the issues and details presented in these texts?  If it is, perhaps, “inevitable” that the writing of history takes sides, what are the ramifications for our understanding of these texts from the “age of exploration” – and, more broadly, for our comprehension of power as articulated in the various historical works we have studied so far in Unit One? 

2)  Next class, we will be considering the subject of the Enlightenment, a concept that Immanuel Kant famously explained by saying that “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (or, perhaps, “immaturity”). Kant criticized “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another” and encouraged his fellows to think critically and question accepted “truths” and structures of power.  In what ways, then, are the authors of the texts assigned for class today “enlightened” – or not?  To borrow from the lawyer’s statement above, how are these accounts presentations of “civilized” society – or not?  Alternately, you can again think broadly here, and highlight a truly “enlightened” idea that we have covered so far in class.  What made this notion so revolutionary in its own day and age?  As a member of “civilized” society in the twenty-first century, how do you respond to such “enlightened” thinking? 

Musing on Machiavellian (& Hobbesian) Ideals

By definition, a “leviathan” is a kind of massive sea monster, and for this blogpost we are going to literally and figuratively play with that premise by exploring two “monsters” of political rhetoric:  the dark-hued theories about power espoused by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince (1513) and Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651).  Hobbes generally believed that there were profound misunderstandings in his age about the nature of sovereign power, and he had a cynical view of English politics and rule. Writing a century earlier, and about the complexities of Italian city-states, Machiavelli arguably took an even more cynical view, and his advice has had such a profound effect on subsequent political thought that his very name has come to have sociocultural meaning (with “Machiavellian” a pejorative term that is used to denote an individual who is noted for “cunning, duplicity, or bad faith” – especially a ruler whose behavior is manipulative, deceitful, and/or deceptive.)

In response to the cold-hearted – yet chillingly pragmatic – views of Hobbes and Machiavelli, in this blogpost I want you to do three things: 

1) Try and compare/contrast the political thought of Hobbes and Machiavelli. In what way are their approaches, theories, and conclusions similar, but also, in what crucial ways do they seem to diverge?

2) Pick out a provocative quotation from either Leviathan or The Prince and connect it to one of our recent historical examples (perhaps especially Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I).  Try to place your chosen comment(s) within the historical context of the day, and explore how it might open up some new perspectives on one of our recent readings. 

3)  Finally, pick another quotation – likely from the other assigned author – and think about the ways in which this notion logically applies (or not) to our own day and age.  You might consider:  is this particular suggestion for political behavior a wise one, a good way for a ruler to (justly) navigate the challenging political waters of the twenty-first century?  Or would his premise be problematic in some way, shape, or form if taken up by a modern-day politician? 

Initial Ponderings About Power

So far this semester, we have primarily focused our attention on introducing and defining power as an ideal, and broadly tracing some of the key political and historical developments in terms of power structures from the ancient world through the so-called Renaissance. And by the time you write this first blogpost of the semester, you also will have been exposed to some of Plato’s philosophical ideas about power and justice. For your first written homework of the semester, then, I’d like you to build on this early work, while also starting to make some connections to things we will be covering in the coming weeks. To do this, you are going to respond to three question sets, which are designed to get you to think critically about some key elements of power, past and present. Below are the three question clusters you should answer carefully and thoughtfully, through (at least) a well-crafted, detailed paragraph per section. Your blogposts are due before classtime on 9/18, and I look forward to reading your responses, and learning more about you as a result!

1)  The first two full class sessions were designed to introduce two key concepts for us this semester:  power and critical thinking.  And then we spent a day covering a broad overview of various historical and political systems and structures of power.  As you think back to those classes, I want you to reflect on them and consider what you learned. What is it that seems most important to you from those early days in class? Why so? How might you use/apply this learning to the rest of our semester’s work (if not your work in other classes or other social environments)?

2)  Now that you have a better basic sense of just what power IS, I’d like you to offer some thoughts about how it is manifest in your own life. On one hand, what are some of the ways in which you, as an individual, have power? And why is this so important to your life, your own well-being and prosperity? On the other hand, what are some key ways in which you are disenfranchised in American society, or at least relatively powerless? How does this lack of power make you feel, and what might be done about it (personally, locally, or globally)?

3)  For class today you will be examining brief excerpts from Plato’s Republic – a monument of Greek philosophy and world literature. The main focus of these passages is the topic of justice, a premise that is varied and complex. To explore the theme of justice in the Republic, I would like you to do two things in this section of your blogpost. First, I’d like you to select a single passage from the Republic that you find to be interesting, provocative, or somehow problematic as it relates to the topic of justice. Then, you should analyze the passage itself and try to place it within its historical context.  How does this statement fit within Plato’s broader discussion of justice and power, and how does it fit within the political and intellectual climate of ancient Athens? Secondly, what do you think about the viewpoint at hand concerning justice, and why? One way to answer this question would be to consider Plato’s reasoning, and then provide a modern-day example as a test-case. What does your example show us about justice (or lack thereof) in the face of social controversy, and how does it illustrate your own view of justice? What might Plato have to say about your example?

Surf Music Analysis

Education commentator John Taylor Gatto has asserted that “Close reading of tough-minded writing is still the best, cheapest, and quickest method known for learning to think for yourself.” It is with such a premise in mind that we want you to complete this final Blogpost of the semester. The topic of your Blogpost will be a specific piece of surf music (in other words, a song – probably one chosen from our class material from last Thursday). Critical thinking is varied thinking, and in that spirit we want you to conduct a three-part analysis of your chosen song, which will require you to practice and apply separate, but equally important, intellectual skills.

Part One – Summary: Listen to your chosen song several times, and take a look at the lyrics online. Then, summarize it by briefly telling its surf-related story. What, in general, is the song about? The answer to that question should not be an interpretation, but a short explanation of the contents of the song. To help write this summary, you could possibly consider working with/using the 5Ws and H idea made famous by journalists (who, what, where, when, why, how).

Part Two – Synthesis:  To synthesize means to combine or connect, and in this section we want you to synthesize the contents of your piece of surf music with key ideas and premises that we have covered so far this semester.  Put another way, we want you to draw specific connections between your chosen song and specific social, historical, scientific, commercial, or political topics that we have covered in class this spring.  How does your song relate to our coursework, and what do these connections highlight or reveal to us as “consumers” of surf culture?

Part Three – Interpretation: We usually think of music in terms of its entertainment value, but the fact is that music – especially music with lyrics – is deeply meaningful, much like literature. And in this section, we want you to analyze and interpret the meaning of your chosen song. To do so, you must break down the song’s lyrics and focus on specific details that might have deeper significance. Therefore, you might take
into consideration such things as: the “theme” of the song; the historical, cultural, and technological context of the music; the songwriter’s background and experience; the genre of the music and its importance; the implications of key images, words, metaphors, or other minute details found in the lyrics. Reflecting on these details, what does your song “mean,” and/or what does it say about surfing and its place(s) in society?

Movies, Horror, and Monstrosity

In a recent study, literature scholar and monster expert Leo Braudy outlines four major types of monsters:  1) The “monster from nature” who reflects our fears of losing control over the natural world. 2) Monsters that reflect human concerns with science and its power. 3) The “Jekyll and Hyde monster,” doppelganger figures that represent the ways that many people live double lives, or have more than one “true” self. 4) Monsters that serve to interrupt our modern developments and changes (especially those that somehow return from the past). For part one of your blogpost, I’d like you to discuss how a monster you viewed during your filmwork for this week fits within one of Braudy’s four over-arching categories. Whether you choose a creature from a horror film or a “classic” monster movie, I’d like you to explore how/why your chosen monster fits into one of these categories and thus works to “indulge our fears and desires” (to quote Braudy).

Sadly, this will be your final blogpost of the semester. Therefore, I thought this would be a good opportunity to make some final connections and draw some over-arching conclusions about your work this spring. So, for part two, I’d like you, again, to discuss a specific movie monster you screened in preparing for class this week – but preferably a different beast than you considered in part one. For this section, I’d simply like you to connect your monster to certain creatures, themes, and ideas we have covered previously this semester, and see what broad conclusions you can draw about movie monsters through these connections. Since this is your last blogpost of the semester, how does your selected cinematic beast tie into some of the key historical, social, and political ideas of the course, and what overall conclusions does it point to with regards to monsters and monstrosity? That is the question I would like you to answer here.

Gothic Literary Horrors (and Empathy too)

In a recent study, scholar Ardel Haefele-Thomas contends that Gothic horror developed as a place “in which to explore ideas about race, interracial desire, cross-class relations, ethnicity, empire, nation and ‘foreignness’ during the nineteenth century.” Gothic horror of the Victorian Age serves the complex function of giving rise to our fears, while also exploring and critiquing them. As Haefel-Thomas states, “these texts transgress monstrosity in the sense that they help interrogate the very idea of what is mon­strous, opening up spaces where we can read sympathy for others who are queer, who are multiracial, who live outside of the” norms of society.

For part one of this blogpost, then, I would like you to pick a specific character or scene from one of the excerpted works found on the syllabus for this week: Frankenstein, “Ligeia,” The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. For whatever character or scene you choose to explore, I want you to focus on the horror embodied in/through that character or textual moment. How, specifically, does the author create horror in the audience, and use it to play with the reader’s darkest fears? What ideas are in question here, and what social issues – or fears – are rendered problematic and indeed horrific?

For part two, I want you to flip the script and consider the ways in which Gothic horror does not necessarily reject but sometimes welcomes the horrific monsters and their problems. To borrow Haefele-Thomas’s words, in this section I would like you to consider how a given character or scene does not create horror but quite the opposite, opening up a space “where we can read sympathy for others” who are different. In other words, how does this character, or textual moment, “transgress monstrosity” and view the monster with empathy, and to what end is this sympathy established? If we are meant to embrace the monster somehow, why so — and how so? What does this teach us? I will be curious to see your responses to the ways in which Gothic horror creates fear and promotes horror, while also (sometimes) embracing those creatures that lead to horror and panic in the humans that encounter them.