Of course, this spider isn’t deadly, but it looks as if it were! Okay, there’s not really a link to my topic, I just thought this picture Stephen Fry posted on Twitter was terrific. He’s currently down in Madagascar and if you follow his tweets, you will get some cool photos.
In class today I had my sophomore class do an exercise I have used before, but the results intrigued me because this is one of those quiet classes that seldom speaks. Consequently, they have made a lot of extra work for me to come up with a variety of techniques to get them to engage with the materials, including making them lead the discussion at the start of each day. Not always successful, of course, but at least they get to feel a little empathy (I hope) for my frustrating situation.
The exercise focuses on our reading of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale. The Pardoner is a swindler who not only tells his fellow pilgrims how he swindles people, but tries to do it to them at the end of his tale. That’s some chutzpah! In demonstrating his art, he actually offers a moral sermon on the theme Radix malorum est cupiditas, or avarice is the root of all evil (a subject he knows all too well).
In the course of the discussion, we talk about the Seven Deadly Sins, a popular rhetorical tool in the Middle Ages (and beyond: Marlowe gives us a wonderful parade of them in his Doctor Faustus). Then I mention how the Vatican has come up with a new list for our time, modernizing the medieval trope.
Before I show them that list, I ask them to work in pairs and make their own list. I also ask that they provide people in the news to exemplify them. It’s always interesting to see what they come up with. I did a version of this just a week or so ago with the freshman medieval class: their major point of concern? Gang violence, for one, which seemed an odd thing to focus on in this relatively safe city (especially for a bunch of mostly small town and suburban kids). They also came up with some of the same concerns as the Vatican, like environmental damage, drugs and excessive wealth.
The sophomores also focused on greed, citing Enron, the oil companies, Hollywood and, perhaps unfairly, Bill Gates, as examples of avaricious wealth. The big thing for them, however, was adultery. I think every single group listed that, citing either Brad Pitt or Bill Clinton (they ran neck and neck throughout). Pity that this seems to be the legacy for Clinton, not that balanced budget and lack of debt that we’re all paying for now with the no-tax-but-plenty-spend (AKA après moi, le déluge) practices of the current administration. There was one group who blasted stupidity and named W and Palin as examples, but by far Clinton was a favorite target. Those who named murder as a key sin also mostly named O. J. Simpson as the example. I mentioned that he had been found not guilty in his criminal trial, but they seemed to disregard that detail.
Paris Hilton was the equivalence of conceit for several of them. There was a group that found flashy dressing to be a sin and mentioned a co-worker as an example (too much glitter). One group mentioned rape as well as murder (Ted Bundy and Charles Manson respectively), but on the whole I was struck by their very personal and judgmental focus. There was little perspective on the larger world around them or vision beyond their own immediate concerns.
I always learn from my students, but I don’t always like what I learn.