Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bloguiste en vacances

Emergent circumstances now emerge, leaving me in search of the right analogy. I find it, naturally, in academic life. Oxford University, where I took an undergraduate degree (1958-61) as a Rhodes Scholar, prides itself on its ancient mode of instruction. It is called the “tutorial method”. Each week—during the twenty-four weeks a year a slothful Oxford undergraduate is actually in residence, that is—the student has a meeting, of about an hour’s duration, with his tutor. The first fifteen minutes are taken up with social trivialities, usually including (anytime after about 9:30 a.m.) a glass of sherry. Then, for the next twenty minutes, the student reads viva voce the essay prepared on that week’s topic. This is followed by the tutor’s oral critique of what has just been read and, perhaps, some discussion between tutor and student.

Oxford seems very proud of this system. At the recent Oxford reunion, which I wrote about in a posting not long ago, the Vice-Chancellor made it clear that the institution is prepared, like JFK, to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, to continue to support the “tutorial method”. Perhaps there is some less efficient way of teaching than the tutorial method, but if so I haven’t yet discovered it. Like so many other aspects of modern academic life the “ tutorial method” is among the fossil remains of an ancient time before the invention of typewriters, word processors and photocopy machines. The word “lecture” reveals the kinship of that fossil to the tutorial method. Anyone who knows a little French knows that the word “lecture” has to do with reading. In an age before easily reproducible textbooks the professor read (lectured) his opinions from a podium. Students wrote down what he said on wax tablets. If you think that Aristotle at times sounds elliptical, it’s because what you are reading is not Aristotle but student notes on some Aristotelian “lecture”.

It should be fairly obvious that the discussion of a student’s essay would be more fruitful and more profitable if the tutor had actually had time to read and think about the essay in advance. But since Jowett didn’t know anything about email attachments we continue to glory in the “tutorial method”. All this is neither here nor there, except by way of providing me with an anecdote needed to minister to my own sloth. I had an undergraduate acquaintance at Jesus College, a history student, who was more conspicuous as a bridge player and ballroom dancer than as an historian. The awful responsibility of producing an essay every week at last overwhelmed him, and the dread day arrived when he had to appear before his tutor armed only with a few random sentence fragments in a notebook. According to his own proud testimony, he handled this sticky situation in the following way. He addressed his tutor confidently: “Last week an essay,” he said; “next week an essay. This week—copious notes!”

Your bloguiste finds himself in a somewhat similar pickle. He has twenty-four hours to prepare to take off for Europe. Tomorrow night, volcano volente, he’ll be half way to Paris. On Wednesdays the second and the ninth of June he ought to be able to come up with something that might, by the exercise of heroic charity, be called an essay. But on June sixteenth he and his friend John Meyer will be in a car at an undisclosed location in northern Spain searching for their pilgrimaging wives somewhere along the route to Santiago. They must sweep them up in the aforementioned vehicle before driving like demons to Barcelona to catch a ferry for Livorno. Because on the following Wednesday, June 23, bloguiste will be installed in the Castello Santa Maria Novella in Marcialla, near Certaldo in Tuscany, sitting at the feet of the world’s greatest living dantista, maestro Roberto Hollander, who will be conducting a week-long seminar of the Princeton Dante Reunion. This year’s theme: Dante’s use of his classical predecessors.

Jean and Robert Hollander, the famous translators of the Divine Comedy

As thirteenth-century Tuscan castles go, Santa Maria Novella is pretty deluxe. There are even those who, seduced by the amenities, the superb gastronomy, and the celestial calm and beauty of the surroundings, are willing to forgive the want of wi-fi. Truth to tell, your bloguiste is of their number.

The Castello Santa Maria Novella, near Certaldo

Readers can therefore look forward to a two-week vacation hiatus in Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche. These circumstances may also serve to offer a plea of extenuating circumstances to private correspondents who may have concluded that I have dropped off the edge.