Who, if I sung out, would hear?

Echo Bridge, Waban, Massachusetts

Echo Bridge, Waban, Massachusetts

The rock looked inviting.

Rocks, as I am sure you know, do not often look inviting. But this one did. Its cold, rough, mossy surface jutted out over the Charles River. It was bathed in sunlight.

I had not been exploring Hemlock Gorge very long, but I wanted to sit. And I wanted to read in the sunlight. What did it matter that I was wearing a business suit and a light trench coat, and had a laptop bag with two books slung across my shoulders? The river spirits wouldn’t care how I was dressed.

The soles of my shoes slipped and I was afraid of falling in. But, settling myself on the rock, I looked out at the river. I felt like child again, in a world of unlimited possibilities.

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Congratulations, Simon Brown!

by Matthew Koslowski on May 6, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

So Much Things to Say: 100 Poets from the First Ten Years of the Calabash International Literary Festival edited by Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer.
 

My friend, Simon Brown, has a poem included in the anthology, So Much Things to Say!

I’ve mentioned Simon before, in one of my first essays The Prestige in Poetry. I called him “a poet of great promise” and I am glad to see his work starting to get the recognition that I expect from him.

This is the start of great things for Simon and his work.

Check out Simon’s blog, The Written Word. And read an article about the Calabash International Literary Festival on The Jamaica Gleaner.

Giving Poets a Bad Name

by Matthew Koslowski on April 30, 2010
in Anecdotes, Essays

We sat in the small square of chairs set before a microphone and two tables, one with two books on little stands and the other piled with books. Three women walked from the escalator over to the table and one of them, our poet, sat down at the table between the two books.

The time was not yet 3:30pm, the appointed time.

I chatted with my girlfriend. She asked me what I knew of Louise Glück’s work. I admitted I knew little besides her The First Four Books of Poems, which sat on my lap waiting to be signed.

I had bought the book largely for the silver sticker that read, “U.S. Poet Laureate.” While I lived in Chicago, I wanted to get acquainted with contemporary English-language poetry and would regularly peruse the book shelves there. When I saw that sticker, I figured there were worse poets with whom to get acquainted. A few times I thumbed through her work but it did not much resonate with me.

“What will you be reading today?” a member of the small audience asked.

Louise looked startled. “Reading? Why did you think this was a reading? I am not reading today. If you’ve got a questions, I’d be happy to have a conversation with you all. And, of course, I’ll sign.”

On the little table, just beside her with her books, a sign said, “Reading & Signing.” There was a collective sigh of disappointment.

She looked at our blank faces. “Please understand, that I hate to read my work. I think the performance cheapens my poetry. My poems, when spoken, get transformed into a linear progression of words that only happens once. I apologize if there was a misunderstanding, but I clearly told Barnes&Noble that this was to be a signing event.”

When Homer, and the singing minstrels who sang his epics, gave voice to his poetry, did that cheapen the work? When Shakespeare’s actors gave voice to the grand poetry in his plays, did that cheapen the work? I thought these questions but did not dare give them voice.

She added, “I only read if my publisher demands it. Or if there is a huge financial incentive.”

No, Ms. Glück. It is not the performance of your work that cheapens it: it is your attitude.

Motivation and Incentives

by Matthew Koslowski on April 23, 2010
in Anecdotes

In This Essay

“Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” by Amanda Ripley, TIME Magazine, Volume 175, Number 15 (April 19, 2010)
On the Surprising Science of Motivation by Dan Pink, TED
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink
Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn
 

I stopped dead as I looked at the magazine racks in my local Barnes&Noble about two weeks ago. On the cover, a little girl was sitting at a desk in front of stacks of cash, with bills falling from the desktop to the floor. The title asked: Should Schools Bribe Kids?

I felt revulsion.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards was one of the first books on education that I read. Although Kohn’s book focuses strongly on the effect of rewards and incentives in the rearing of children, he also discusses incentives in the workplace. His arguments were compelling and I could see their relevance in my own life. As I wrote in “Racing to the Test”, my pay-for-performance incentive plan doesn’t motivate me.

After reading Alfie Kohn’s work, I saw Dan Pink’s TED Lecture On the Surprising Science of Motivation. His work was congruent with the work of Kohn, though I didn’t see the nuances at first. I’ve watched the video perhaps four or five times now. At first, I focused on his arguments that incentives inhibit creative thinking. Pink also talks about how incentives actually boost performance for production of unit-driven tasks, such as Adam Smith’s example of creating pins or in the reading of a number of books.

Even with these two works in mind, I bought the TIME Magazine. I hoped to find that the work of the economist was one more piece of evidence supporting my conclusions.

The article describes four experiments designed by Roland Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist who wanted to test market forces in learning. The experiments were:

  • in New York City, paying fourth- and seventh-graders for earning higher test scores;
  • in Washington, D.C., paying sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for certain behaviors, such as attendance;
  • in Chicago, paying ninth-graders for earning As, Bs, and Cs;
  • and, in Dallas, paying second-graders for each book they read.

And my predictions were mostly right. I thought they would all be failures, but one surprised me.

The schools with pay for performance did boost some test scores but not consistently. And the improved performance on specific tests did not translate to improved performance on the national tests that determine America’s international standing in education. If I were to pay you — well, most of you — right now to solve a second order differential equation, most of you could not do it because most of you have never learned to solve second order differential equations. Paying a student to get a better grade without teaching the student the techniques of how to get a better grade is much the same.

But the one program that seemed to have the most effect was paying second-graders for each book they read. The students earned their money after taking a short quiz on the book. I balked, thinking that such a program would kill a child’s natural inclination to read. Alfie Kohn makes a strong argument for incentives killing internal motivation. He describes a reading incentive program they had when I was a kid. After reading so many books, a child can earn a pizza from Pizza Hut.

And then I remembered something. Something very important that I had forgotten while reading Alfie Kohn’s book. I participated in that Pizza Hut program. I studied literature in high school and college; I love to read for pleasure; and I am well on my way to becoming an English teacher.

As much as I hate to admit it, maybe there is something to these program after all.

* * *

PS: You would think Dan Pink was paying me, considering how often I have mentioned him on Literature&Literacy. He’s not, but I like his areas of interest and research. Though I wouldn’t mind if he were to pay me.

Pen to Paper

by Matthew Koslowski on April 14, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

The Mystery of the Messy Notebooks: Why Agatha Christie’s method was utterly deranged by Christine Kenneally, Slate, April 12, 2010.
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Letters on Life: New Prose Translations by Rainer Maria Rilke (Ulrich Baer, ed. and trans.)
 

On Monday, I was reading Slate. What inspired me to read it that day, I am not sure: it has not been one of the sources that I regularly turn to for my news.

Perhaps because I want to be a writer myself, I have always found it fascinating to listen to stories about how artists, musicians, and authors create their work. Without any real study, the descriptions of the creative process stick with me.

For example, years ago I listened to part of an interview with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. (Perhaps the entire band was being interviewed, my memory is vague.) I remember nothing about that interview, save this one thing: R.E.M. records the music without Michael Stipe present and then they give him the rough cut on a tape. He walks around listening to the tape again and again until he is able to put words to the music.

But I am glad that I decided to read Slate this week. Otherwise I would have missed a great article about the writing process that Agatha Christie employed. If you can call how Agatha Christie wrote a “process.”

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