Thursday, April 16, 2009

Review of Vanessa and Virginia

Photograph of Julia Duckworth Stephens, mother of Virginia and Vanessa

I got this book from the Amazon vine program, which sends free books to people to review. Sometimes the books are really great, but more often they are bad, or only so-so. This fell into the so-so category.

The author's idea was to write a memoir from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister. She was a painter, and they were very close as children and later as fellow artists. Vanessa married, and then had several affairs with men, producing a number of children. Virginia married but never had children. She was much more successful as a writer than Vanessa was as a painter.

This idea--of imagining Vanessa's voice-- was good because we know a lot about what Virginia thought, as she wrote so much, but we know less about Vanessa's inner life, which the author imagines, based on several biographies of the sisters. The problem is, the voice that she gives Vanessa is not very credible. She sounds entirely too contemporary. Vanessa, for example, would not use the word "parenting" for example, as nobody did before about 1980.

The plot revolves a great deal around Vanessa's torments about her lover Duncan Grant, who was bisexual, and who ended up dumping her for a man. In this book the author imagines that Vanessa attempted suicide over this. I don't know if there is any historical evidence for this. WE know of course that Virginia successfully killed herself.

But the interesting aspects of the plot and the author's ability to evoke the setting of a late 19th century upper-class English childhood do not make up for the lack of a convincing narrator's voice. I realized, reading this, how important this often over-looked quality of first-person fiction is: one thinks of successful first-person narrators, like Huckleberry Finn or David Copperfield. Maybe those voices succeeded because the writer knew the character's place and time so well, as it was his own. In a way, Susan Sellers is writing historical fiction, and making a Bloomsbury character talk convincingly is almost as hard as making a medieval person talk convincingly! That time was long ago and far away, it turns out.

The other problem is that Sellers assumes that the reader knows a lot about Bloomsbury, almost as much as she does. She does not explain who Lytton, Carrington, Vita, and Ottoline are. I think she wrote this novel for Bloomsbury fans who will recognize the characters as old friends from their readings of other books about Bloomsbury. I am not particularly a Bloomsbury fan. I love Virginia Woolf's novels, but the whole cast of decadent, somewhat pretentious, privileged upper-class intellectuals does not appeal to me very much.

REading this reminded me of the day that I visited Sissinghurst Castle in 1994. WE took a cab from town to the garden, which was the creation of Vita Sackville-West and her husband. Vita was one of Virginia's lovers. There had recently been a PBS television series about Vita's affair with another woman, Violet. When the cab driver picked us up, he asked us if we were going there because of "the scandal." We asked, "What scandal?" Apparently a lot of Americans were drawn to the garden because of the titillation factor. We were in fact wanting to look at the flowers. I thought it was funny that a hundred years later, this affair was still "a scandal."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Academic literacy

Jim Burke has a cool blog for English teachers. Here is a recent post about what California college professors say about what students need to be able to do in college.

Academic Literacy: What Do You Need to Succeed?

What are the skills necessary to not just survive but thrive in academic classes in general and at the college level in particular? This is the question the California State University and University of California systems asked some years ago in a report titled Academic Literacy.

Here is one of the most important passages in a section that discusses the concept of "habits of mind":
What constitutes academic literacy?

The dispositions and habits of mind that enable students to enter the ongoing conversations appropriate to college thinking, reading, writing, and speaking are inter-related and multi-tiered. Students should be aware of the various logical, emotional, and personal appeals used in argument; additionally, they need skills enabling them to define, summarize, detail, explain, evaluate, compare/contrast, and analyze. Students should also have a fundamental understanding of audience, tone, language usage, and rhetorical strategies to navigate appropriately in various disciplines.

Our study informs our conclusions about the complex nature of academic literacy. Competencies in reading, writing, listening, speaking, and in the use of technology that are described in later segments presuppose the intellectual dispositions valued by the community college, CSU, and UC faculty who teach first-year students and participated in our study. They tell us, and our experience confirms, that the following intellectual habits of mind are important for students’ success. The percentages noted indicate the portion of faculty who identified the following as “important to very important” or “somewhat to very essential” in their classes and within their academic discipline. College and university students should be able to engage in the following broad intellectual practices:

* exhibit curiosity (80%)
* experiment with new ideas (79%)
* see other points of view (77%)
* challenge their own beliefs (77%)
* engage in intellectual discussions (74%)
* ask provocative questions (73%)
* generate hypotheses (72%)
* exhibit respect for other viewpoints (71%)
* read with awareness of self and others (68%)

Faculty members also indicated, by the percentages below, that the following classroom behaviors facilitate students’ learning. They noted that students should be able to do the following:

* ask questions for clarification (85%)
* be attentive in class (84%)
* come to class prepared (82%)
* complete assignments on time (79%)
* contribute to class discussions (67%)

Successful college and university students also know how to take advantage of what college has to offer, especially when they do not understand an assignment, are confused about teachers’ expectations, or need particular guidance. Self-advocacy is, therefore, a valuable practice that emerges from the recognition that education is a partnership.

College and university faculty also expect students to:

* respect facts and information in situations where feelings and intuitions often prevail;
* be aware that rhetorics of argumentation and interrogation are calibrated to disciplines, purposes, and audiences;
* embrace the value of research to explore new ideas through reading and writing;
* develop a capacity to work hard and to expect high standards; and show initiative and develop ownership of their education.