All entries for November 2010

November 28, 2010

Follow Up: Letter about HE Cuts: Reply from my MP Chris White and my reply to him

Follow-up to Letter to my MP about Higher Education Cuts from The Midnight Heart

Last month, I wrote a letter to my MP complaining about the proposed Con-Dem Coalition changes to higher education. I received a letter which did not really address the concerns in my last note, and I have replied again.

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Dear Chris White,

Thank you so much for getting back to me. I really appreciate it.

Thank you too for the points made here. I wrote to you about the funding of teaching in Higher Education and you seem to have replied to me about the rise in student fees. Regarding the rise in student fees, I realize that in these proposed changes, some provision has been made to help economically disadvantaged families. I am also aware of the claims made by the Browne Review, though I must point out that I feel that this review was fundamentally flawed, as I stated in my last letter.

Since you are writing to me about student fee rises, I must tell you that I am fundamentally against it. From the point of view of someone who has worked in higher education, these changes in student fees represent a move towards the commercialism of the US Higher Education system, which is fundamentally flawed. It turns Higher Education into a business where students are customers and lecturers are service providers – I cannot tell you how damaging this is to education. An education at university should not be merely focused on summative learning – passing exams, meeting grades – but also about formative learning – learning to question assumptions, considering moral/critical conundrums etc. Only this kind of education can create a ‘big society’.

You have not really answered the objections that I described in my last letter. I suggest that you haven’t answered them, because they are extremely serious objections. I would refer you to them again.

The proposed changes will only deepen the class divide between Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and the post 1992 institutions. The Browne Report talks about giving students “choices”, but all this means is that students who have the money will go to the better-off universities and those who don’t will be left with badly funded ones. Bad funding means of course large class sizes, harassed staff and few facilities, and so the vicious cycle continues, as student satisfaction is the measure of university success, and how could students ever be satisfied at a badly funded university?

I have taught at a Russell Group university (Warwick University) and at a post-1992 university (Northampton University). I know what the differences are in terms of affluence, education and confidence. I would emphasize, however, that just because my students at Northampton were attending a post-1992 university did not mean that they did not deserve a decent education. Many of them were lacking in confidence and needed more support, but many developed to be great scholars.

If the Browne Report has its way, however, there will be huge pressure on post-1992 institutions. They will not be able to compete, because they will not be funded properly, and this will mean larger class groups, more hours for overworked lecturers, and fewer facilities. Inevitably, the students that suffer will be working class students who can only afford to go to a post-1992 institution.

You tell me that you will be voting in favour of these changes when they come before the House, but you have not really convinced me that you honestly believe in these proposals. What you have convinced me of is that you are a party man representing the concerns of the Conservative Party (which far from represents the whole country) rather than your constituents. I would urge you to reconsider your position, as I am sincerely doubtful that it represents the interests of your constituents and the future generation to come who will have to deal with the consequences of this proposed wrecking of Higher Education in the UK.

Sincerely,

Dr. Zoe Brigley Thompson


November 16, 2010

What was the Rally to Restore Sanity about? Why was it important?

Washington DC, Rally to Restore Sanity

It isn’t that we shouldn’t hold strong values and opinions. It is that those values and opinions ought to be based in fact and reported to others with civility. It isn’t that we should compromise those values and opinions. It is that we have to live in a world where actual compromise is necessary to survive. It is that we have hair dressers and family members and friends and coworkers who are going to disagree with us, sometimes vehemently and sometimes on a lot of different topics, and we have to recognize that they are human and probably not evil. We have to recognize that just like we don’t want to hurt the country, they probably don’t want to either. -Art at the Auction


"Be the Hammer or the Anvil" Exhibition in Dundee, Scotland: Fetishism and the Female.

Writing about web page http://www.generatorprojects.co.uk/CURRENT.html

In September, I met Catriona McAra at the ‘Violence and Reconciliation’ conference at Exeter University – I wrote up a bit about her panel here . I recently heard about a new project that she is working on: an all female group show in Dundee responding to the notion of fetishism and the female.

Taking its title from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus In Furs, the show aims to explore each artist’s individual approach to fetishism and materiality through newly commissioned bodies of work. The exhibition will also include a small pop-up library of subject associated literature on loan from the Glasgow Women’s Library. McAra has been commissioned to produce two text accompaniments, one of which will materialise after a week working alongside the artists at GENERATOR projects.

It’s an exciting project working through women’s art and surrealism, and I wanted to highlight it on my blog. It is taking place until December 5th 2010 in the GENERATOR artist space in Dundee. For directions, see this link .

Hammer or Anvil Exhibition, Dundee, 2010

November 11, 2010

Singing Isaiah: A Family Lullaby in Wales.

When I was a little girl, my mother used to sing to me a lullaby, which her mother (my Welsh grandmother) used to sing to her. The words went:


O Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land,
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea,
Where mansions are prepared for me,
And view the shining glory shore,
My Heav’n, my home forever more!

I never knew where the lullaby had come from, though I had an idea that it was something to do with the Irish immigrants in our family who came to South Wales at the end of the nineteenth century looking for work in the ironworks and the mines. My great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father, was Irish.

I was thinking about this lullaby the other day, and I was doing some research. To my surprise, I discovered that the lullaby was part of Isaiah 62.4, It just shows how ignorant I am of the Bible. I am not sure whether my mother and grandmother know this, but I will ask them when I next ring home.

When I read the full scripture though, what struck me was how beautiful it was, how right it was too for the Irish immigrants, even if that is not where the lullaby tradition in my family came from. It’s a little like hiraeth too, that longing for homes that have disappeared, friends who passed on and loved ones lost to us. Even as you read the lines (which I quote in full below), it is obvious that the joys described will only be experienced in restfulness and peace after death. I think I had a sense of this even as a child.


I’ve reached the land of corn and wine,
And all its riches freely mine;
Here shines undimmed one blissful day,
For all my night has passed away.

Refrain
O Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land,
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea,
Where mansions are prepared for me,
And view the shining glory shore,
My Heav’n, my home forever more!

A sweet perfume upon the breeze,
Is borne from ever vernal trees,
And flow’rs, that never fading grow
Where streams of life forever flow.

Refrain

The zephyrs seem to float to me,
Sweet sounds to Heaven’s melody,
As angels with the white robed throng
Join in the sweet redemption song.

Refrain


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This entry is also posted on Americymru: http://americymru.ning.com/profiles/blogs/singing-isaiah-a-family?xg_source=activity#ixzz150mWN1EB

November 09, 2010

James Brasfield Reading for NVWN.

Writing about web page http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=154852937861330&index=1

James Brasfield

I am really pleased that tonight I will be introducing a reading by the poet, James Brasfield, for the Nittany Valley Writers’ Network. It’s taking place in the Schlow Library in State College (in the Children’s Room) at 7.00pm.

A native of Savannah, Ga., Brasfield will read from his 2010 debut collection Ledger of Crossroads (Louisiana State University Press, 2009) and will discuss the craft of writing poetry as well as his experience of publishing. His poems have appeared in many publications, including Agni, Chicago Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, New Orleans Review, Seattle Review, STAND, and The Southern Review.

James Brasfield studied poetry and translation with Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, Daniel Halpern, and other luminaries. He served as an editorial assistant for poetry at The Paris Review. He has received fellowships in poetry from The National Endowment for the Arts and The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Most recently, from 2008–2009, Brasfield served as Visiting Poet at The University of Memphis. He is married to the fiction writer Charlotte Holmes.

Twice a Senior Fulbright Fellow to Ukraine, Brasfield has taught at The Yuri Fedkovych State University of Chernivtsi and at The National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In the article PSUkraine (in Research/Penn State, Vol. 17, no. 1 (March, 1996)), David Pacchioli interviewed Brasfield about his experience of the Ukraine, and I quote from the interview below:

There is, of course, another dimension in which we may hope to gain from crossing cultures with a place like Ukraine. That dimension shines clear from the experience of Jim Brasfield, a poet and lecturer in English at Penn State who spent the 1993-94 school year in Kiev as a Fulbright lecturer.

“I can’t describe the devastation, what’s left after the fall,” he says of his first impressions of the newly independent Ukraine. “You wonder how the Soviet Union lasted as long as it did.” In Kiev, crumbling infrastructure and bleak Soviet architecture overlaid the faded splendor of the old Byzantine city. A typical rural dwelling, he found during his travels, consisted of two un-plumbed rooms, one upstairs, one down. In one such home he remembers seeing “a color TV in the kitchenette running American movies that were all dubbed by a single voice.”

“Capitalism has exploded there,” Brasfield reports. “At the same time there is a very old culture that has survived despite Communism. Entrepreneurs are transporting contemporary American free-market culture – its most vulgar aspects – straight into a setting that is virgin to the hard sell.” The resulting clash, he says, is ruthlessly one-sided.

Still, Brasfield’s Fulbright posting was to one of the current bright spots in Ukrainian intellectual life: the freshly reopened University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy. Dating to 1615, closed down by Czar Alexander III almost two hundred years ago, Mohyla was re-chartered in 1992 as a semi-private university, the first in the history of Ukraine. “The reopening meant a lot to Ukrainians,” Brasfield says, “because the university pre-dates high Russian culture.”

Only two languages were allowed in Mohyla when Brasfield taught there: Ukrainian and English. The faculty was a broad mix of westerners, from Germany, Canada, and the United States. The 250 students, Brasfield says, were the “cream of the crop” of Ukrainian youth.

Although he had received a creative arts grant from the Fulbright foundation, and had submitted proposals for a course in translation and a poetry workshop, “When I got there,” Brasfield says, “The dean of humanities told me that what they needed was a good survey of American literature.” He had to scramble for books, but with the help of the U.S. Information Service and America House in Kiev, the cultural arm of the American embassy, he was able to pull together a course including Melville and Dickinson, James and Pound.

“In classes, they were sheer joy, very eager,” he remembers of his students. Used to attending classes without texts, depending solely on lectures, “they loved the open western style—reading and asking questions.” At first, in fact, he was taken aback by how hard his students worked. “They don’t have the diversions that we have here.” With his leftover book allowance, he helped the students publish a literary magazine, the first in Mohyla’s history.

Outside the classroom, Brasfield was quickly introduced into Kiev’s community of writers and artists, and made to feel at home. “I was very lucky,” he remembers. “I just slipped into that world.” Traveling to Kosiv in the Carpathian mountains and to Lviv with the poet Oleh Lysheha, he saw something of life beyond the capital. After 10 months, Brasfield came away profoundly affected.

“My sense of art changed, my sense of what poetry is,” he says now. “A sense of a life in art was given to me in a new way.

“Artists don’t make a place in their lives for art,” he explains. “Art is their lives, despite all the difficulties.”

Which is not to romanticize, he insists, or not too much. When his ten months were up, Brasfield was ready to come home. “The intensity of living in what were often third-world circumstances just wore me down,” he says. “You spend a great deal of time and energy each day just foraging for what you need.”

But living with the Ukrainians, he adds, he came to “a better understanding of what’s important in life.

“They depend on each other. They have to.

“And they get by.”

Brasfield is also an expert translator of poetry. He has received The American Association for Ukrainian Studies Prize for Translation, a Pushcart Prize for translation, and The PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha. Oleh Lysheha (born 1949) and Paul Celan (born 1920) seem to be powerful influences on Brasfield’s poetic imagination.

Oleh Lysheha offers a poetic refusal of modern commercialism. Writing about Lysheha for Poetry International Web, Andriy Bondar describes the poet as a reclusive dissident:

“I live in places with no Microsoft or McDonald’s. Archaic is my ideal,” he likes to repeat. Indeed, Lysheha is the Ukrainian Henry Thoreau of the beginning of the 21st century. The way of life of ordinary people does not seem to apply to him. He exists in a parallel universe – he likes to walk barefoot in the city, to swim in the ice-cold river in winter, he catches fish with his teeth, knows how to make paper from mushrooms, never uses public transport, and does not have a job.

Paul Celan, on the other hand, is not so much a dissident as a singer of human pain, expressing, in poems like Death Fugue , the nullity of human endeavours and yet the indomitable human desire for life. Celan appears in Ledger of Crossroads as an awe-inspiring figure of fascination.

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Read James Brasfield’s poems ‘Heart of Dixie’, ‘Waynesboro’ and ‘Czernivtsi’ on the Here, Where I Am Blog


Letter to my MP about Higher Education Cuts

Writing about web page http://www.demo2010.org/

Dear Chris White,

I am writing to you because I am very concerned about the recommendations of the Browne Report and proposed changes to higher education. It seems to me that the government is treating higher education like a business, when the act of providing a stimulating and worthwhile education is far more than simply providing a business service.

The proposed changes will only deepen the class divide between Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and the post 1992 institutions. The Browne Report talks about giving students “choices”, but all this means is that students who have the money will go to the better-off universities and those who don’t will be left with badly funded ones. Bad funding means of course large class sizes, harassed staff and few facilities, and so the vicious cycle continues. The Browne Report tells us that student satisfaction is the measure of university success, but how could students ever be satisfied at a badly funded university?

I have taught at a Russell Group university (Warwick University) and at a post-1992 university (Northampton University). I would emphasize, however, that just because my students at Northampton were attending a post-1992 university did not mean that they did not deserve a decent education. Many of them were lacking in confidence and needed more support, but many developed to be great scholars.

If the Browne Report has its way there will be huge pressure on post-1992 institutions. They will not be able to compete, because they will not be funded properly, and this will mean larger class groups, more hours for overworked lecturers, and fewer facilities. Inevitably, the students that suffer will be working class students who can only afford to go to a post-1992 institution.

Frankly, I am disgusted by the current government’s approach to this issue. It is a cowardly approach, if, when a government hits hard times, things like education are handed over to the whims of the free market (a market which took us into this economic crisis in the first place by the way!). I cannot support you as my MP if you support such an approach, but I continue to hope that you will represent my view as a member of your constituency.

Please contact me by e-mail when replying.

Sincerely,

Dr. Zoe Brigley Thompson

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Attend the demo against higher education cuts in London on Wednesday 10th November 2010: http://www.demo2010.org/

Demolition

Write to your MP here: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/


November 03, 2010

The Native American Time Ball.

Native American Time Ball

Seen at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. (Shouldn’t it be called the Museum of the Native American?).

The idea for this activity is borrowed from the traditions of the Yakima tribe of Native Americans who still live in the eastern part of the state of Washington. Yakima, later renamed Yakama, is pronounced YACK-uh-maw, with a strong accent on the first syllable. In the past much of the tribe’s history was passed down from generation to generation by the women of the tribe using an oral tradition known as the time ball. New brides used hemp twine to record their life history starting with courtship. They tied different knots into the twine for days and weeks and added special beads for significant events. They then rolled the twine into a ball known as the “ititamat,” which means “counting the days” or “counting calendar.” The ball of twine grew in size as time passed and as events occurred. The women would sometimes divide the twine into 25-year lengths to make it more manageable. When the women were very old, they could use the knots and beads of their time balls to recall not only what happened in their lives but when the events occurred. They could easily recount when their children were born, when they moved away, and other major experiences. When a woman died, her “ititamat” or time ball was buried with her. (Bonnie M. Fountain )


Visit to the National Gallery of Art in DC: The Age of Innocence, Gesture and the Fan.

Follow-up to Screening Intimacy Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'. from The Midnight Heart

When I was in Washington D.C. last week, I visited the National Gallery of Art where they have a show on at the moment: From Impressionism to Modernism – The Chester Dale Collection . There were some very impressive paintings on display, but what particularly struck me was a series of paintings that featured women in sumptuous surroundings holding fans.

Only recently, I wrote up a blog entry on gesture and intimacy from a paper that I saw by the film academic Steven Peacock at the Writings of Intimacy conference . In his paper, Peacock talked about Scorsese’s film The Age of Innocence based on the book by Edith Wharton. Both the film and the book focus on the scandalous Countess Elena Olenska, whose separation from her husband causes ripples in 1870s upper-class New York society. Newland Archer is fascinated by the Countess Olenska, in spite of the fact that he is about to marry the innocent, pure, beautiful May Welland.

What Peacock talked about was how Scorsese uses gesture as a kind of power play between Elena Olenska and Newland Archer. Here is what I said about it in my previous blog entry:

Peacock analyzed the scene in the box at the opera in which Elena’s gestures are both declamatory and intimate. Elena extends her arm to Newland to be kissed, but her hand hangs there while he hesitates. They start to make smalltalk and in discussing her experience of the opera, Elena extends her fan over the spectators. When she does so, she is expressing her fondness for the place, yet it is also a gesture that claims dominion.

When I was looking at paintings in the Chester Dale collection, I remembered Peacock’s reading of The Age of Innocence. I was fascinated to note too that many of the paintings from around the time when The Age of Innocence was set (1870s) featured women with fans, and in each case the fan seems to signify something different,

The first painting was Madame Camus by Degas (1869-70):

Degas - Madame Camus (1870)

Here, the woman, who might be another Countess Olenska, is sat up in her seat in sumptuous surroundings. We see her thoughtful face in profile, and the fan in reaching out and up from the chair suggests intention. The scarlet colours of the background, her dress and the fan suggest love, sexuality, passion even. Altogether, the picture presents a vision of someone on the verge of doing something and the fan is almost leading her there.

Next was The Loge (1882) by American artist, Mary Cassatt.

Cassatt - The Loge (1882)

A loge is a small compartment, a box at the theatre or a separate forward section of a theatre mezzanine or balcony. In this exclusive space sit two young women, a decorous spectacle for the theatre-goers, and the scene is very reminiscent of The Age of Innocence. The two women, however, seem uncomfortable with the situation, and one is almost hidden behind her fan. These female figures resemble the good, true and innocent May Welland more than Countess Elena Olenska.

Finally is another painting by Mary Cassatt, Miss Mary Ellison (1880):

Cassatt- Miss Mary Ellison (1880)

The title suggests that this portrait must have been a commissioned work, yet strangely the figure is picture of dejection. Staring into the distance, she is lost in her own thoughts, and the way that she holds the fan seems mechanical, as though she is merely going through the motions of proper manners and delicacy. There is also something very vulnerable about the figure, since reflected in the mirror behind her is the back of her head and her shoulders.

In each of these paintings, the fan works differently to suggest passion, shyness and dejection. It would be interesting to know whether Wharton or Scorsese were aware of paintings like these and to what extent they might have contributed to their renderings of The Age of Innocence.


November 01, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and Pain —– October 2010

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

“To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This famous statement was made by the philosopher Theodore W. Adorno and it expressed his view of the valuelessness of writing after the unspeakable violence of the Holocaust. Adorno’s vision is bleak, yet poetry has a funny way of delving into pain and suffering and commemorating human endurance.

One of the poems that has moved me the most in all my years of reading poetry is John Berryman’s ‘The Song of the Tortured Girl’. Berryman himself had a colorful life as a member of the American Confessional movement – a group of writers who forced themselves to probe even their most disturbing thoughts. He committed suicide in 1972.

‘The Song of the Tortured Girl’ is wonderful because it looks unflinchingly at human suffering, and it is worth remembering that people all over the world are experiencing such violence at this very moment:


Often ‘Nothing worse can now come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.

Berryman offers us a glimpse of the life of the girl – her family, the weather, her community – and then brings us back to the terrifying reality that she must now bravely face: the faceless torturers and her clinical cell. Most wonderful, however, is the end of the poem, which dwells not her current pain and suffering, but on a joyful memory of a better time that she returns to again and again:


High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
- I no longer remember what they want. -
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.

To read the full poem see this link at my blog, The Midnight Heart:
http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/the_song_of/ Thanks to
George Ttoouli for introducing me to this poem.


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