On my brother’s advice, I went ahead and registered the domain http://www.nathangilmour.com a while ago, and in the intervening time I’ve been putting together a new professional page. So take a gander if you will, and if you have suggestions for the banner, do give them–I’m no graphic designer, and this fourth iteration of the banner graphic still does not please me.
I’m once again in debt to Fran Teague, my wonderful dissertation director, for a bit of pedagogical gold. When we took on King Lear in her graduate Shakespeare class in 2005, she introduced the history-of-theater question of how one could stage Cornwall’s and Regan’s brutal act of putting Gloucester’s eyes out on a thrust stage. After all, no matter what object one hid behind, someone would be able to see what’s actually going on. Our class, as I remember, pretty much gave up on verisimilitude and conceded the impossibility of anything but a stylized gouge. (The next spring, UGA’s theater department, putting on Lear, went for a stylized pantomime.) She set before us a simple and elegant solution: since Gloucester is tied to a chair, the actors playing Cornwall and Regan could simply tip him back, apply the stage-blood, and tip him forward again when time came for Gloucester to speak his lines. So, as you might have anticipated, I picked two burly boys (I had the class pretend that one was in fact a cross-dressing Jacobean actor, even though both had pronounced facial hair), sat in a chair, and for the last five minutes of today’s class (whose reading ended with the end of act three, where Gloucester loses his eyes) they figured out how to put my eyes out for the audience’s delight. The gentlemen tipped me back without a hitch (I told ’em I’d flunk ’em if they dropped me), and the class went out with a good visual.
Thank you, Dr. Teague.
In comp class we spent the bulk of our time dealing with agents and actions and making sure they actually appear in each clause’s subject and verb, so I won’t have a teaching post tomorrow. I suppose I’ll have to think of something to write between now and then.
Yesterday’s class landed me in a strange place but one that, for the moment, I’m alright with. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I don’t go out of my way to announce that I’m a Christian but also don’t duck the question when students ask. (I do, after all, often make reference to the text of biblical books when I teach literature and philosophy, so the question is a natural one.) I’ve taught three semesters, as readers here no doubt know, of a special section of freshman comp based on the Hebrew Bible in translation.
But yesterday we were tackling an essay by David Hume on miracles, and my students didn’t quite grasp the power of his argument, so stepping inside the role of Hume as so often I’ve stepped inside the role of Plato, I parsed his dense prose not as a step towards refuting it but in the process of becoming a Hume for my students to fight. So I broke down the following sentence for them:
…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior. (The Portable Enlightenment Reader 110)
To break that down, since a given miracle is by definition not reproducible (Princess Bride aside), therefore only available to the bulk of humanity by means of somebody’s account of that miracle, the credibility of that miracle depends upon the credibility of the reporter. So given the incredible character of a miracle, only a supremely authoritative witness, one effectively invulnerable to deceit and incapable of deceiving, could relate a miracle believably. But to say that a given person believes in such things as the dead rising from the grave is to call that person credulous at the outset. Therefore no account of a miracle can be authoritative, and thus no reasonable person ought to believe a miracle.
One good man in the back row took me on, and I respect that, but I quickly reiterated and solidified Hume’s position using his vocabulary, and once again the class was in what I called (at the end of the class) Hume’s headlock. As I dismissed the class to go watch Obama’s inauguration on television, I could tell that the air was still somewhat heavy in the room.
I hope that the experience leads some of my evangelical students (I’m sure they’re in there–this is UGA, after all) to talk with some educated Christians about Hume’s argument rather than give up on the whole project. I’d hate to have that on my conscience. But all the same, as I’ve said in conversation if not here, I’d rather have these students encounter ideas like Hume’s in the safety of my classroom, where the conversation ends and allows for reflection and help-seeking, than some day in conversation with a coworker or some other context in which a genuinely aggressive atheist is pushing the ideas. That might ultimately be a cop-out on my part, but I do think that, among the ways that my students could encounter Hume, mine is at least not the worst.
Micah to Mary yesterday:
“Pretty soon I’m going to be a grownup, and then people will call ME Daddy.”
I realized while planning today’s lesson that, until some of the characters just go devilish on the audience, I have a hard time blaming anyone in King Lear for what comes to pass. On one hand, Regan and Goneril don’t speak up when the old man insists on keeping a 100-man private army after ceding the throne. On the other, with half of Britain to run, I can’t blame either daughter for objecting to Lear’s 100 knights causing trouble in the palace. And while it’s rotten for the daughters to turn the old man out in the storm, they do note immediately afterwards that they would have been happy to house Lear, just not his soldiers.
Now I realize that as acts three and four move along, the play’s traditional baddies move from merely frustrated to openly nasty, but I’m talking about the opening acts here.
I gave good mini-lectures today on the history of the English Bible (because there are so many echoes of Paul in King Lear) and on the changing character of the term “natural” (because a firstborn’s privilege is, in the eyes of Edmund, supernatural and thus nonsense) as we went along, and this class has been wonderful about coming prepared and talking in class. I suppose Jess Walker was right about this (even if she remains wrong about Merchant of Venice): sophomore English and journalism majors make for a fun conversation.
Look for a post on the Enlightenment and religion tomorrow.
If there are any rich blog-patrons out there, I have good news for you. The C BD academic calendar showed up in the mail this weekend, and I’m positively salivating over some of the offerings. If you want to start a career as a wealthy blog patron, you could make my year by sending any or all of these gems to the following address:
Department of English
254 Park Hall
Athens, GA 30602
N.B. If you are taking this as a serious request, please do not send these books. This is a bit of a pipe dream, not a serious request. I have neither the time nor the shelf space for these multi-volume beasts.