Sunday, July 29, 2012

That's Why God Made Blogs

In various threads of the discussion boards at the class (and yes, the discussion board remains basically a mess, as noted in a previous post), some people have been expressing how frustrated they are with the essay framework of 270-320 words (or whatever it is; I forget the exact numbers). Of the many things that I would do differently in this class, I am actually pretty sympathetic to this word limit on the essays. I probably wouldn't call them essays with such a low word limit; someone at one of the discussions suggested thinking of it as an "idea" which sounds pretty good. A lot of the trouble I think is that as soon as you say the word "essay," people have some pretty specific expectations, and writing 300 words is not one of them.

In my classes, the essay option (which hardly any student chooses - my experience with that suggests most students basically do not like writing essays about literature; more on that below) has a word count range from 300-1000. That seems to work pretty well, in the sense that people who do like to go on at length have 1000 words available. Every once in a while someone sends me an email to tell me 1000 words is not enough and I assure them without hesitation that 1000 words is plenty. Unfortunately, though, a limit as high as 1000 words does not really force them to focus or to learn how to be concise. I really respect the 300-word limit for this class because it forces people to be concise... like or not. As someone who is not very concise, I know I will learn new skills by writing within that limit.

At the same time, sure, I might have LOTS of things to say that don't fit into the "essay" for the class. In my opinion, that's why God made blogs, as I said in the title of this post. We have a whole Internet and endless social networks to share our thoughts with others; a class assignment is just that: a class assignment. It almost always just goes into the virtual trashcan when the class is over. Because I don't like the idea of my work, even just a class assignment, going into the virtual trashcan, I posted my essay here at the blog. Could I have said more on the topic? Sure! Did I want to? No! Instead, I wanted to tell a story, so I spent my extra time writing out my version of The Robber Bridegroom (one of the two stories I wrote about in my essay), and posted that story here at the blog - not for a class assignment. Just for me. The very first thing I did when I signed up for this class was to create this blog. In my opinion, that is the first thing any student should do for any class they are taking - don't let your learning disappear into the virtual trash can at the end of class! Create a blog to record your questions, your thoughts, your ideas, the work you do for the class. It's YOUR learning, YOUR class... and you can record that entire process in YOUR blog.

Meanwhile, I also want to say something about the reluctance so many students have in writing essays, even tiny ones just 300 words long (that happens to be the minimum for my class). I used to have two writing assignments in my online Myth-Folklore class every week: an essay, and a story retelling. Easily half the class would write exactly the minimum for the essay (when you see an essay exactly 301 words long when the word limits are 300 min - 1000 max, you know they were straining even to reach 300 words), but people would almost always write longer stories, sometimes 500 words or 700 or whatever - but always longer than the essays. As for the content of the essays, it was usually just not very interesting to read; I suspect that is because the student was bored while writing the essay. The stories, however, were always fun to read, because they always had some kind of surprise in them, some undeniably creative spark that made the story something you never would have thought of yourself - some vivid visual detail, some twist in the plot, some surprise in the characters.

Well, last year I decided the time had come to do something about this; I was bored reading the essays, the students were bored reading each other's essays, and (I suspected) they were bored writing the essays. So, I changed the essay assignment and gave the students a CHOICE: they could write an essay based on the reading as in the past, an "enrich the reading" sort of thing like what we are doing at Coursera, but with some more specific prompts (here's the assignment) OR they could write an essay based on the writing process itself, language usage, their experience as writers/readers, etc. (here's the assignment). I figured I would get maybe half and half - half the students writing traditional essays (the English majors, professional writing majors, people who felt confident writing would choose that option I thought), while the other half of the class would choose the new alternative (the business majors, engineering majors, pre-med students, etc. - in a Gen. Ed. class, there are students from all the colleges at my school, which is a great thing about the class). Imagine my surprise when.... NOBODY wrote essays. Seriously - out of over 700 weekly assignments during the semester, there were fewer than 20 essays about the reading. Basically everybody chose the other option. Why? I'm not 100% sure why, but I suspect it is because that even if they DO like essay-writing, they do that all the time in their other classes anyway, and wanted to try something different. For the most part, though, I think people don't really like writing essays about literature. Plus, these new essays about writing and language were really fun to read, vivid, creative - and they also garnered better comments from the other students who were curious to read them, too. The essays about the cartoons were the best, since the insightful intelligence of the cartoons prompted insightful and intelligent commentary from all the students (they noticed all kinds of things in the cartoons I had never even noticed myself, that's for sure). I've made various changes to my classes over the years, but this move away from the traditional essay was the single best change I've ever made. I could kick myself for being so slow to make the change! I knew for years the essays about the readings were a problem... but I wasn't brave enough to do something about it. This is a college writing class; we have to write essays about the reading, don't we? Well, sort of - but they don't have to be your typical essay, as I discovered happily last year. And, of course, the storytellings are the best thing of all; that's why the class projects are based on storytelling, not essay writing.

Now, there is a HUGE difference between my classes, which are Gen. Ed. courses required for graduation, and this Coursera class, which is totally voluntary. People are in the Coursera class presumably because they are passionate about the subject matter. So, it makes sense that people would want to do more than the assignment expects... but, as I said in the title of this blog post, that's why God made blogs. I have really enjoyed reading the blogs of people who are in the class, and I hope that more of the really serious students will make blogs of their own. It took me about 15 minutes to write the essay for the first week's assignment... I'm spending my real time writing here at the blog. For me at least, that is where the time is well spent.

Out of curiosity, I checked: I've written 1250 words here. It would certainly improve in quality if I edited it down to be 1000 words long... but it's Sunday, my last Sunday of summer vacation, so many truly fun things to do. And, it's my blog and I can do what I want to, ha ha. So 1250 words it is. :-)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Week 1: Grimm Story Retold - The Robber Bridegroom

As I mentioned in a previous post, writing essays is not my favorite thing to do... but I love to make up stories. In the classes I teach, the students write their own versions of traditional myths and legends and I enjoy their stories so much (here are some past projects). For this class, I am going to make my own stories (provided I can find the time!), just as my students do - and I have given myself 1000 words as a maximum limit, the same as the limit for the stories in my own classes. For Grimm, I knew I wanted to do my own version of The Robber Bridegroom (here are my thoughts on that story), telling something about the backstory of that mysterious old woman. Who is she exactly? I think my answer to that question does not contradict what the Brothers Grimm tell us in their story... but it may also come as a surprise! Here is my story:

The woman had waited a very long time, not sure if the day would ever come… but it had. She heard the bird croaking its useless warning - "Turn back, turn back, thou pretty bride" - and when she climbed up the cellar stairs and saw the visitor in the doorway, illuminated by the light of the setting sun, she knew: it was her own daughter, now fully grown. The robber had taunted her for years with this threat: "If you don't serve me well, wench, I will go have my way with your daughter. She must be getting all grown up by now," he would say. The woman had been a servant - no, a slave - to this band of robbers ever since that day, long ago, when they had abducted her from the cow pasture. She had told her husband to watch the baby when she went to fetch the cow home, and that was the last time she had seen them. The years had passed, and the chief of the robbers had never ceased making threats about her daughter - and oh, how many times had she regretted ever having let the truth slip from her lips, that fatal mistake she had made when they dragged her away and she had begged the robbers to let her go home to her husband and her poor little girl.

But now, she saw that little girl, all grown up, standing on the threshold. So many thoughts and feelings welled up inside her, but she kept calm and betrayed no emotion on her face. Most of all, she fought down the panic and despair at her own bad luck: if it were morning or even afternoon, they could have made their escape, but it was sundown, and the robbers would already be on their way home, carrying their latest victim with them along the path of ashes, the only safe way to reach the house through the darkness of the woods. Yes, it was too late to just make a break for it. They would have to wait until the robbers were asleep before running away, and there was not even enough time to tell this poor girl what was happening. "Listen to me, girl," she said urgently. "This is a den of robbers. You thought you would find your husband here, but you will find only your death unless you do exactly as I tell you. When the robbers finally go to sleep tonight, you and I will run away together but now you must hide behind this cask" - she was already rushing the girl down the stairs to the cellar - "and not make a sound no matter what you see, no matter what you hear. Do you understand? Not a sound."

And just as she uttered these last words, the robbers came bursting through the door, laughing and shouting, as they made their way down into the cellar for their grisly night's work. The less said about that, the better. They had brought home another girl, she was a red-head this time the woman noticed, but it was better not to notice. They killed the poor girl and cut her up and then started making a fuss about where her ring finger had gone. The woman was sure one of the robbers had pocketed the ring finger and the ring upon it; no matter, the main thing was just to get them to leave off arguing and sit down to supper. Finally she got them to come to the table and eat… and before she poured the wine, she put a sleeping draught into it, making sure the murderers would sleep even more deeply than usual.

She then rushed to the cask and found her daughter curled up there, shivering with fear and horror. She patted the girl gently on the shoulder but dared not make any sound, and pulled her along up the stairs and out of the house. As they stood there in the moonlight, the woman saw an amazing sight: the path was illuminated by a gentle green glow, something the woman had never seen before. The girl gasped and smiled a tiny smile. "It's the peas and lentils," she said. "I scattered them as I came here and look, they have sprouted! It's beautiful, isn't it?" As the girl turned to look the woman in the face, she saw that the woman was crying. Being a tender-hearted girl, she tried to embrace the woman and comfort her, but the woman pushed her away and said, "No time for that now, no time. We must run for our lives!"

And so they ran and ran along the path through the woods that glowed in the moonlight. The woman thought with every step: what would she say? what would she do? Was this a dream? Had it all been a dream? Was this really her daughter here beside her? "Morning will tell," she thought to herself. "I will see what the morning brings."

And so, just at dawn, they reached the mill stream and the woman saw the familiar house. She fell to her knees, exhausted and weeping. The girl was concerned, and bent down … and at last the woman embraced her and sobbed, "My daughter, my daughter." And the miller came running out from the house, worried sick about where his daughter had been all night - and there she was, his daughter… and his wife. They wept, they laughed, and wept again. And when they could weep and laugh no more, they went into the house and recounted all that had happened. Then, to the horror and surprise of her mother and father, the girl reached into her pocked and pulled out the finger of the dead girl, with the golden ring upon it. "Don't worry, my dear mother and father. We will destroy this robber, we will destroy him forever."

To find out how that happened, you will need to read the old story for yourself.

Image source: Dark woods by Mathias Erhart at Flickr.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Week 1: Grimm Essay - The Golden Token of Proof

Since I had gotten all excited about maybe writing a short story for the assignment, I was definitely bummed that the assignment states very explicity, "write an essay..." - oh well! Since I am not a big fan of essay-writing, I decided just to get it out of the way. I did like the challenge of getting it down to under 320 words; for sure my little essay improved as a result of that (see below). I'm fascinated by questions of identity, proof of identity, doubles, disguises, etc. So I figured I would write an "identity" essay for each of these essay assignments. People reading them won't see the interplay and development of ideas from essay to essay, but it will make it more meaningful for me - and the theme of identity is ALL OVER THE PLACE in the books we are reading for this class. Plus, that will give me a focus for my reading too, looking for identity motifs.

And now that this not-so-fun task is out of the way, I can spend some more time enjoying the Brothers Grimm and go ahead and write my story just to satisfy myself. For example, I really REALLY enjoyed myself telling my own version of the Robber Bridegroom! Meanwhile, I'm curious what this whole peer response thing will be like. These little essays are so short, I would actually be glad (and curious) to read more than just four of them! :-)


Proof: how do you prove who you are, or prove what you saw? In the world of Grimm, you might need a golden proof token, magical or realistic; both kinds of tokens are powerful. For a magical token, consider the golden slipper which allows the prince to recognize his Aschenputtel. The slipper is not just the right size (plenty of women could have the same shoe size as our heroine); instead, the shoe mysteriously bestows identity on Cinderella, making her recognizable to the prince. The prince did not know her at first, but after she puts on the slipper, "the prince looked in her face, he knew again the beautiful maiden that had danced with him, and he cried, 'This is the right bride!'" It makes sense that in a story filled with magic, the identity token would have a magical quality; this is not your usual shoe. In a more realistic story, "The Robber Bridegroom," we find instead a realistic (and gruesome) golden token. The nameless heroine can dramatically prove that the story she has told is not a dream at all but the real truth because she possesses the real finger of the murdered woman, a finger bearing a golden ring. This golden token allows the wedding party to recognize the robber bridegroom for what he truly is - a murderer: "The robber, who during the story had grown deadly white, sprang up, and would have escaped, but the folks held him fast, and delivered him up to justice." In both fairy tales, justice is done, thanks to the proof provided by the magical token of a golden shoe or the horrifying but realistic token of a golden ring on a dead woman's finger. So, the next time you show your driver's license to a TSA agent, just be glad you don't have to meet the Grimm gold standard to prove who you are!


Robber Bridegroom: I love this story!!!

Another one of my favorite tale types that shows up here in the Crane book of Grimm stories is The Robber Bridegroom (the version I know best of this story is the English Mister Fox, since we read that in the class I teach; if I have time this morning I'll write up a separate post about that). The plot itself is incredibly dramatic, of course - the woman who faces what seems like certain death but who manages to escape (with the help of another woman in this version!), and who is able not only to save her life but to bring about the destruction of her enemy in the end. Fabulous! It's a very memorable story where the plot is very well-motivated in terms of emotions, something you could call "realistic" (in comparison to the more fantastical Grimm stories), something you could imagine easily in a modern version as well... but the element of dream fantasy enters into this story in a brilliant way; that's one of the things I love about it. So, here's a list below of the elements of this story in this particular version that really stick with me:

But the girl did not seem to love him as a bride should love her bridegroom; she had no confidence in him; as often as she saw him or thought about him, she felt a chill at her heart. I really like the psychological development of the bride; she is clearly someone we sympathize with and we take her concerns seriously. I like her!

Suddenly she heard a voice cry, "Turn back, turn back, thou pretty bride, Within this house thou must not bide, For here do evil things betide." This might seem to be the most unrealistic element in the story, but I really like the idea that this could just be a talking bird, delivering its message a bit like an automaton - not understanding what it is saying, but nevertheless striking fear into the heart of the woman who hears the words.

You thought you were a bride, and soon to be married, but death will be your spouse. Fantastic! This old woman is not an automaton just parroting words; she speaks words full of feeling, and this encounter is intense! Like the bride, she is a very sympathetic character to me, albeit eerie and weird. What is HER story? If I were going to tell my own version of this folktale, I would imagine some kind of backstory for this old woman, a tale about how she came to be the servant of these evil men and just why she has chosen this woman in particular to partner with in making her escape.

They gave her wine to drink, three glasses full, one of white wine, one of red, and one of yellow, and then they cut her in pieces. What a gruesome way to use the one-two-three motif that is so characteristic of European fairy tales. Ouch!!! This element of the three colors of wine will show up when the bride retells the story in her own words, as a dream, later too!

Come to supper, and leave off looking till to-morrow; the finger cannot run away. IRONY! Love it! This is one of my favorite lines in the whole story because, of course, the finger can run away… if it is being carried by a living person.

The peas and lentils had budded and sprung up, and the moonshine upon them showed the way. GORGEOUS. In terms of visual motifs, this is my favorite moment in the story - it's beautiful and suggestive as well as being a practical element in the women's escape.

I will tell you my dream. YES: THE DREAM. To me, this is what makes the Grimm version of this story my favorite of all the different versions. I already see stories like these as being dream-like, and so of course I love the idea of invoking the dream mode itself within the story, using it as a way to introduce the truth by means of life-saving subterfuge. Amazing! Whatever storyteller first figured out that the woman should tell her experiences as if they were a dream gets the gold star from me! Excellent!

Sweetheart, the dream is not ended. And it's true: the dream/nightmare has NOT ended in more ways than one; until the robber bridegroom is defeated, the terrible dream world might yet come alive again.

And here is the finger with the ring! THE TOKEN REVEALED: I just love this! It's the macabre and murderous opposite of Cinderella's slipper - the token of death and hate rather than of love and happiness, and the token that will bring about justice in the end.

Man, I love this story… Maybe I will write my essay on dream motifs and/or identity tokens. Gosh, there is so much I love about these types of folktales that I will probably just have to let my Magic 8-Ball decide for me what topic to write on. :-)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hans in Luck and Wonderfully Wise Fools

I really enjoyed the Hans in Luck discussion in this thread at the course site; someone made a comparison between Hans and Mr. Bean, which delighted me enormously (I love the film Mr. Bean's Holiday!). That wide-ranging discussion about wise fools (and related matters) made me remember two posts I had written for Randy Hoyt's Journey to the Sea online mythology journal, so I thought I would link to them here.

I remember that I really REALLY enjoyed writing the piece about Aesop, Diogenes and Rumi. So many people know about Diogenes and his lamp but the meaning of that story has really changed over time... not to mention that we don't really understand the term "burning daylight" in our electrical modern world! :-)

(Diogenes, by Tischbein)

Brothers Grimm illustrated by Ubbelohde

Well, frustrating as the Coursera discussion boards may be, my time spent there this morning was amply rewarded: I am SO GRATEFUL to Ulrich (check out his blog: Krautblog) for pointing out an edition that is beautifully illustrated with line drawings by Otto Ubbelohde (1867–1922), which is available as a Kindle book for just $3.99: Grimms' Fairy Tales (illustrated by Otto Ubbelohde) [Kindle Edition]. Over 400 drawings! Wow! Reading Kindle books on my iPad is a favorite way for me to relax... I am so going to enjoy revisiting the tales with these delightful illustrations.

Here is an illustration for Hans the Hedgehog, one of my all-time favorite Grimm stories but not on in the Crane book we are using for class:

Better Use of Discussion Boards?

I left this post over at the Technical Support Discussion Board - if other people have ideas re: discussion boards, chime in there. I think this link takes you there! (Although I am not sure... this discussion board software has not won me over with its features, alas...)

UPDATE: Kudos to the Coursera staff: they have implemented weekly subforums. That should help a lot in managing signal-to-noise, esp. since the first class essay assignment will be announced tomorrow. Very nice! I am impressed by the quick response to this particular issue.


Here are three ideas (I chose just three in honor of the Brothers Grimm, of course… the Law of Three) about some things that might help make the discussion boards more useful - ideas that fall within the limits of what the software itself allows (no profile pages for participants? no avatar images? ouch! I really miss those features). Anyway, here are some ideas:

1. More Specific Forums. Instead of "General Discussion" it would be good to add some more specific forums in which to create threads - like Brothers Grimm, for example, and similar forums for each week. I'm very interested in reading about Brothers Grimm this week; I am less interested in the random topics people are posting about (although I'm sure there are people interested in the more wide-ranging threads). So, I would really like to see a "General Discussion" forum for truly general topics but ALSO a dedicated forum for each week's reading, so that those of us with less time can focus in on threads related to the actual reading.

2. Featured Threads. I don't really have time to weed/read through all the threads, many of which are not exactly discussion threads, or which are not likely to lead to good sustained discussion. It would be great if the course moderators identified threads of good general interest and promoted those. I don't know if it is possible to have "featured threads" in the software itself (I just see last updated, top threads, newest and subscribed), but even if there were just a list of links to "Featured Threads," that would work.

3. Help with the HTML editor. Almost no one seems to be including images in their posts, and few people are including links. A little introductory video with a step-by-step how-to showing the use of the editor and positively encouraging people to include links and images might help. (I, for one, had never seen the Markdown system and it is a bit odd at first.) Images can really help bring online discussions to life and break up the black-and-white monotony of text text text - especially without avatar images, it sure would be nice if people were inclined to include images. We can all use a meme now and then.

Truth be told, I am mostly interacting with people via Twitter, Google+ and blogs… but I am trying to visit at least a few threads every day. These are just some thoughts about how that experience might be more productive/efficient, at least for me. Thanks for listening… if someone is out there listening…? :-)

Brothers Grimm Wordle

Although the discussion boards just seem maddeningly clunky to me, I'm trying to find a few every day to participate in - and one I found this morning was about doing text analysis of the Brothers Grimm, which is a cool idea, and that is a feasible strategy for so many texts in this course, since they are available in digitized versions! Anyway, that inspired me to make a Wordle of the Brothers Grimm book we are reading, and the results show visibly just how simple and basic the storytelling vocabulary is! Click here for larger view.

Hans in Luck: The Nasruddin of Brothers Grimm?

I won't have time to write up every story we are reading from Brothers Grimm like this, but I am picking out my favorites to comment here on the blog, and the story Hans in Luck is definitely one of my favorites - is Hans a fool? or a wise fool? That is the question! Plus, I would argue that it is an impossible question to answer, just as it is impossible to say whether Nasruddin is the village idiot or a Sufi master. In case people are not familiar with Nasruddin (OH I LOVE NASRUDDIN), here is one of my favorite Nasruddin stories:
A friend came to visit Nasruddin and saw him crawling around on the ground outside his house. The friend asked, "What are you doing?" Nasruddin replied, "I am looking for a valuable coin that I lost!" The friend got down on the ground and started looking for the coin also, wanting to help his friend. After some time, he asked Nasruddin, "Where exactly did you drop the coin?" Nasruddin answered, "I dropped it somewhere in the house." "IN THE HOUSE?" cried the friend. He was angry because they were crawling around on the ground looking for the coin in the yard. "Why don't you look for it in the house?" Nasruddin replied, "It's too dark in the house. I need the light to see."
So, what say you? Is Nasruddin a fool? Or a wise fool, who understands something much deeper - that regardless of where he lost the coin, the light is what matters... that it is enlightenment itself, not material possessions, which should be the object of our search? The joke works both ways, and I think the same is true of Hans - think about the last part of the story (here's the whole story):
[...] he placed the stones carefully by his side at the edge of the well; then he sat down, and as he stooped to drink, he happened to give the stones a little push, and they both fell into the water with a splash. And then Hans, having watched them disappear, jumped for joy, and thanked his stars that he had been so lucky as to get rid of the stones that had weighed upon him so long without any effort of his own. "I really think," cried he, "I am the luckiest man under the sun." So on he went, void of care, until he reached his mother's house.
Hans, freed of his burden. Nasruddin, searching in the light. Or are they village idiots the both of them? LOVE IT. No one can answer that question for you: only you can answer it for yourself. :-)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Calling All Bloggers! :-)

Is anyone else blogging about the class? I've met Andrea - - and Shilpa - - and I would be so glad to find some more people using a blog as their personalized format for sharing thoughts and ideas about the readings (the discussion board just feels so impersonal and awkward). If you do have a blog, leave a comment here!
Addition: Jessica -

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Death of the Hen

Oh, I love stories like The Death of the Hen... HILARIOUS - and so easy to improvise endlessly, imagining all kinds of animals and inanimate objects who could play their part. Plus Crane's illustrations are brilliant - just look at the poor dead hen's chicken feet sticking up out of her burial mound. Ha!

So the cock was left all alone with the dead hen, and he digged a grave and laid her in it, and he raised a mound above her, and sat himself down and lamented so sore that at last he died. And so they were all dead together.

Clever Grethel: Cutting Off Ears... or Worse!

Dan Ashliman's website has this BRILLIANT story from 1001 Nights which is a parallel to the Grimm Brothers story about Clever Grethel but oh-so-risque by comparison! It starts out with a married woman whose LOVER wants to have the geese to eat - One day the lover saw the geese and felt his appetite tempted by them, so he asked if his mistress would not cook them for him. The woman is glad to have the chance to dupe her husband, and tells her lover, "Light of my eyes, I promise that my bastard of a husband shall not have a taste of them." So, she cooks the geese, gives them to her lover and then proceeds to trick her husband and his guest. She tells the guest that her husband plans to castrate him! As Allah lives, my husband is offended with you and has laid a snare for you to cut off your testicles and to reduce you to the sorry condition of a eunuch. The guest, of course, runs away - and the story ends just as the version in Brothers Grimm, where the husband runs after him shouting that he will take just one... meaning one goose, but the guest thinks he means just one of his "eggs." HA!

Here is Walter Crane's illustration for the Grimm story:

Grimm: The Rabbit's Bride

I am so glad the Lucy Crane Grimm starts out with such a weird and unfamiliar story - The Rabbit's Bride! With such brilliant illustrations by Walter Crane also (see above and below; I love the animals wearing spectacles so that they can read!). My favorite is the part where the bride, after running away from her rabbit husband, fools him with a doll as her double: Then she made a figure of straw, and dressed it in her own clothes, and gave it a red mouth, and set it to watch the kettle of bran, and then she went home to her mother. Back again came the rabbit, saying, "Get up! get up!" and he went up and hit the straw figure on the head, so that it tumbled down. And the rabbit thought that he had killed his bride, and he went away and was very sad. Given that I am quite OBSESSED with doubles in literature, it seems a good omen to have the first story in the first book for the course feature a double like this.

For what it is worth, in Dan Ashliman's translation, the rabbit realizes that he has been tricked by the double: The hare came once more and said, "Open the door! Open the door!" Then he opened the door himself and struck the doll on the head so that its cap fell off. Then the hare saw that this was not his bride, and he sadly went away.

Ashliman presents the Indian story of The Tiger's Bride, and it has a different kind of "trick" to fool the animal husband - a rather gruesome one! Then the tiger told her to set to work and cook a feast while he went off and invited his friends to come and share it. But the bride when left alone caught a cat and killed it and hung it over the fire, so that its blood dropped slowly into the pan and made a fizzling noise, as if cooking were going on... EEEEK!

I was surprised to find that Ashliman grouped the Grimm story along with the Indian tiger story under the Tale Type of "How the Devil Married Three Sisters." The rabbit is not the most suitable husband... but he does not seem in the diabolic tradition - at least the tiger is carnivorous. :-)

UPDATE: Nice discussion at Google+ about this post: thanks, everybody! :-)

Course Calendar

One of the class participants helpfully prepared an ics calendar file and I imported that into Google Calendar. I was surprised the Coursera site itself did not offer us a calendar to subscribe to. Anyway, here's the calendar - I've made it public, so anyone can grab a copy of this calendar to have; just click on the AddCalendar button at the bottom of the embedded calendar here.

Walter Crane: Baby's Own Aesop

For the first unit in the course, we are reading the Grimm Brothers fairy tales edition illustrated by Walter Crane - so of course I had to say something about Walter Crane's BEAUTIFUL edition of Aesop's fables - the Baby's Own Aesop of 1887. He took limericks W.J. Linton and built full-page illustrations around the limericks, sometimes one on a page and sometimes in fascinating combinations. You can find the book online at the International Children's Digital Library, along with other books illustrated by the amazing Walter Crane.

Here is a Flickr slideshow of images from the book:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Writing for the Course

Professor Rabkin's comments on writing for the course get to the heart of what really intrigues me about the Coursera model and how it can help students share their thoughts and ideas with each other. Here is a quote from his remarks in the "Writing for the Course" video:
For now what we need to understand is that your audience and purpose is to enrich the reading. So, if you've been able to read for this course and come to a deeper understanding than someone else about your subject while someone else has come to a deeper understanding of some other subject, you are able to enrich that person's reading, that person is able to enrich your reading and by reading each other's work, you collectively get more and more out of the same material.
Apparently the way this will work is that each week we write a brief (very brief!) essay, while also having the chance to read the essays of four other students in the class. I am really looking forward to seeing how the courseware faciliates this process.

Student to student engagement and the purpose of writing is something that continually challenges me as an online instructor myself, and I am optimistic that the online environment really CAN make it possible for students to share and learn with each other far more intensively and effectively than in the traditional classroom.

Of course, the situation with this course is VERY different from the courses I teach. As I see it, Professor Rabkin is very lucky - the students taking this course are here by choice, and they are probably quite passionate about the subject matter. This is not the case with the classes I teach. Some students enroll in my classes out of a passion for the subject matter, but most of the students enroll because they need an upper-division Gen. Ed. Humanities course in order to graduate, and an online course is the easiest to schedule. Plus, my course has the reputation for being a lot of fun (although also a lot of work), so I get a lot of students who choose the course as the "lesser of two evils" as it were. Many students in my courses do not like to read (some will even openly state that they hate to read; they would never be able to keep up with the reading load Professor Rabkin has set for this class), and many of them lack basic writing skills, not to mention the kind of interpretive and analytical skills that Professor Rabkin clearly expects the students in this class to have mastered already.

As a result of their lack of skills and lack of cultural background, the students in my classes do not like writing analytical essays and they do not enjoy reading such essays written by their fellow students. So, I have instead focused my classes on storytelling and re-telling the stories we read for class in new and creative ways. This works very nicely! Students can use the storytelling skills they have acquired from other movies and television, even if they do not read a lot of books. They enjoy reading the stories written by other students, and learn a lot about storytelling from those other students. I also really enjoy reading their writing and get a strong sense of each student as an individual personality from this highly personalized style of writing. So, for my classes, where the students are not interested in analytical writing and are not well trained in those skills, the storytelling option has worked out great.

In Professor Rabkin's class, though, the situation is different - and I am looking forward to seeing what will result from this style of sharing. I also really appreciate his focus on short-form writing; that is something we definitely have in common! The writing assignments in my class also have strict upper-word limits in order to try to get the students to focus on sharing their best and most important ideas, rather than going on and on and on (as happens in so much academic writing). Of course, as an academic, I am prone to go on and on and on and on, so the 300-word limit is going to work very well for me, too, in terms of the material I share with the rest of the class.

So... much excitement in all kinds of ways. I have one more introductory video to watch (or, rather, transcript to read)... I feel like a little kid on the first day of school with all this. So much fun to embark on a new learning adventure! :-)

The Farmer and the Snake

Professor Rabkin uses the fable of the farmer and the snake as an example to illustrate different ways of reading and interpreting a story. Since I am very interested in Aesop's fables (I published an English translation of the fables for Oxford's World's Classics some years ago), and since this is an especially fascinating fable, I wanted to record some thoughts about it from my own perspective here! :-)

The Aesopic fable of the farmer and the snake is one of the more unusual fables in the Aesopic corpus because it is really a full-blown folktale which has been added into the fable tradition because it features an antagonistic pair of main characters, with one of those characters being an animal (the snake). Aesop's fables usually do not have a plot as complex as the plot of this story, but the focus on the two antagonists with a "mistake made" and a "lesson learned" is characteristic of the fable genre, making it possible for the story to sneak into the Aesopic corpus. When Ben Perry was classifying the Aesopic fables (his numbering system is still a standard tool that scholars use in referring to the fables), he faced a real dilemma with this story and ended up included two different versions of the same story in his inventory, each with a different number.

Greek Aesop. Here is Perry's summary of the story he designates as Fable 51, which comes from Greek sources:
A snake bit a farmer's son so that he died. To avenge his son's death the farmer waited at the snake's hole and when the snake put out his head swung at it with an axe. In so doing he missed the snake and split the nearby rock. Having failed to kill the snake, and fearing his enmity, the farmer urged the snake to become reconciled and to live on friendly terms with him thereafter. Said the snake, "I can have no friendly feeling for you, when I see that cloven rock, nor can you have any for me when you look at your son's grave."
This version is found in the Greek prose Aesop and in the prose paraphrase of the poetry of Babrius, although this poem is missing from the incomplete copy of Babrius that has survived.

Latin Aesop. Here is Perry's summary of the story he designates as Fable 573, which comes from Latin sources:
A snake used to come into a poor man's house every day and eat crumbs from his table. Not long afterwards the poor man became unexpectedly richer; and it so happened that he became angry with the snake on a certain occasion and wounded him with an axe. In the course of time thereafter he was reduced to poverty again, and then he realized that his previous good fortune had been brought about by the snake, before the latter was injured. So the man implored the snake to forgive him, but the snake replied: "Because you repent of having injured me, I might forgive you; but so long as the scar on my body remains you can't rely on my good will, and I'll not return to friendship with you until I forget the perfidy of your axe."
This story is not reflected in the Greek tradition (that's why it has a number in the 500s; Perry tackled the Greek Aesop first, then the Latin), and is found only in the prose paraphrases of Phaedrus; the original poem by Phaedrus has not survived, although Zander and others have tried to reconstruct the poem on the basis of the existing paraphrases in Ademar and Romulus.

Missing piece of the puzzle: Panchatantra. The Greek tradition represented by Perry 51 is clearly a story that has suffered some confusing loss in content: a snake bites a farmer's son (the reason for this attack is not explained), and the farmer strikes the snake. The farmer later attempts to make his peace with the snake (the reason again is not explained), but the snake says that they can never forget their former grievances. In Perry 573, the motivations of the characters are more clear, and the function of the snake as supernatural source of wealth and prosperity is also much more clear. But why did the son kill the snake? To get some motivation there, we need to turn to an ancient Indian version of the story in the Panchatantra (there is considerable overlap between the Aesop tradition and the Panchatantra, so this comes as no surprise). In the Panchatantra story, the greedy son attempts to get all the wealth at once! That theme of greed would fit in perfectly with the Aesopic tradition, but somehow that element of the story has fallen out in Aesop. The snake punishes the boy for his greed by killing him; the father then attacks the snake in anger, as in Aesop, and is rebuffed by the snake when he attempts a reconciliation. The Aarne-Thompson number for this story is 285D, and you can read the Aesopic version, the Panchatantra version AND other versions at Dan Ashliman's webpage dedicated to this tale type.

For example, Ashliman includes a beautiful Cherokee story about the snakes' revenge which, while quite different in many ways from the Greek and Latin and Indian stories, has many wonderful features in common with it. I really like this story!
One day in the old times when we could still talk with other creatures, while some children were playing about the house, their mother inside heard them scream. Running out she found that a rattlesnake had crawled from the grass, and taking up a stick she killed it. The father was out hunting in the mountains, and that evening when coming home after dark through the gap he heard a strange wailing sound. Looking about he found that he had come into the midst of a whole company of rattlesnakes, which all had their mouths open and seemed to be crying. He asked them the reason of their trouble, and they told him that his own wife had that day killed their chief, the Yellow Rattlesnake, and they were just now about to send the Black Rattlesnake to take revenge.

The hunter said he was very sorry, but they told him that if he spoke the truth he must be ready to make satisfaction and give his wife as a sacrifice for the life of their chief. Not knowing what might happen otherwise, he consented. They then told him that the Black Rattlesnake would go home with him and coil up just outside the door in the dark. He must go inside, where he would find his wife awaiting him, and ask her to get him a drink of fresh water from the spring. That was all.

He went home and knew that the Black Rattlesnake was following. It was night when he arrived and very dark, but he found his wife waiting with his supper ready. He sat down and asked for a drink of water. She handed him a gourd full from the jar, but he said he wanted it fresh from the spring, so she took a bowl and went out of the door. The next moment he heard a cry, and going out he found that the Black Rattlesnake had bitten her and that she was already dying. He stayed with her until she was dead, when the Black Rattlesnake came out from the grass again and said his tribe was now satisfied.

He then taught the hunter a prayer song, and said, "When you meet any of us hereafter sing this song and we will not hurt you; but if by accident one of us should bite one of your people then sing this song over him and he will recover."

And the Cherokee have kept the song to this day.
You can find many other marvelous Cherokee tales in Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee which is online at the Sacred Texts website.

For all that I love Aesop, if I were going to pick a story to retell in my own words, I would choose the Cherokee story. Just imagine the thoughts of the man on his way home, thinking about the events that are going to take place...

Getting Started

I just got the email reminding me that the Coursera course begins this week. The website is nice, and it's clear what I need to do to get started - which is to view some video clips. I'm not the biggest fan of doing things via video, but I see that there is a course syllabus in text format, too. So, off I go to watch the first video clip - I'm definitely looking forward to the course and have lots of questions about how it will work.

(pause for watching...)

I watched half of the "What This Course Is About" video and then, feeling decidedly restless, I decided to just read the transcript instead. That worked! I've never been one to listen to lectures (they are inevitably too slow for me) - but the transcript was very easy to access. I enjoyed so much Prof. Rabkin's story about her daughter playing with dolls in Spanish, when she would not speak Spanish herself with her family or in public. To me, that gets at the importance of fantasy and role-playing for learning itself, for the process of changing ourselves from one person into another person. That happens to us constantly, of course, and fantasy is a force in our mind that makes it possible. My favorite expression of that in literature is what the Monolith does to the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Monolith sends FANTASIES into the minds of the apes - they imagine having more food to eat, they imagine defeating their enemies, they imagine living in comfort and delight, and it is that experience of imagination which makes their culture evolve.

So, the first little lecture was good on the topic of fantasy in very general terms... I can't say it rocked my world in any particular way, but I'm ready to move on to the next video. Unless something in the transcript makes me feel like I need to watch the video, I'm just going to read the transcript.

(pause for reading)

Well, what a great surprise - this little talk was about reading for the course and he picked... an Aesop's fable! Oh my gosh - I start my courses with Aesop's fables, too (and I have been obsessed with Aesop's fables for over 20 years...). Rabkin presented several different ways of reading/interpreting an Aesop's fable, while my focus with my students is on different ways of TELLING an Aesop's fable. Meanwhile, for myself as a reader, I am a comparativist - I like to find different versions of the "same" story told by different storytellers in different contexts and compare them. So, just for my own amusement, I am going to pause here and write up a blog post on the Aesop's fable of the serpent and the farmer.