Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Cutting Some Slack

Even my most libertarian friends, with their dreams of desert freeholds or serene isolation from the rest of us, have to own up, sooner or later, that we live in a community.  That unless you are Ted Kaczynski, making bombs and manifestos in an isolated cabin, you'll have to deal with people in a way that is civil and constructive, even if it isn't always friendly.

This is where slack-cutting is of value.  The quality that lets slide the irritating quirks of others, usually with phrases like "Oh, that's just [him/her]" or "I have to work with [him/her] later, so I'll let it go".
Public hostility is different.  Recently I was rudely and aggressively insulted in front of a large crowd.  I had respected the offender, and in some ways I still do—in ways that will be enough to work with her if I am called upon to do so.  After her tantrum I can no longer like her, but I've cut slack to a practical ground, where any contact I have with her can be useful, though I am reasonably sure it can no longer be pleasant.

Fiction writing—or at least some of the characterization that a fiction writer does—can begin in cutting slack.  You let things slide because you're interested in seeing where they head, because you realize they may make good copy up the road.  But it's good as well for people who do other things.

I tend to pace in the classroom.  It's because I can't stand still when the ideas are good.  I can see that it might unsettle someone: twice in twenty-five years of teaching, people have complained, but for the most part my students put up with it, out of their own kindness and graciousness and, I certainly hope, a returned respect for me and for my forgiveness of late papers, class-cutting, and improvised apologies and excuses for the aforementioned.  I also hope they get excited by the ideas as well, and realize we all have different ways of making that known.

Still, when I saw a student evaluation that expressed real discomfort with my pacing—that went on about it for a paragraph or so—I took stock of my habit.  This was mid-semester, on a large internet site, so it gave me time to correct my behavior to less discomfort a student who was apparently very upset about it.  I tried to check the pacing—a practice I found a little distracting myself, since I had to call myself out on a number of occasions—but I figured the class was about the students instead of about me, so I could adjust as much as I could.  And the student mentioned that it had gotten better…in the four subsequent evaluations where she registered complaints that it had happened to begin with.

Yes, I said 'she', because it wasn't hard to figure out who it was.  She dropped pure factual information into the paragraph—the course she was taking from me, and that she was taking yet another simultaneously—so I knew instantly.  Don't ever think you're that opaque on anonymous evaluations.  She graduated before three of the five complaining paragraphs were published, but in her aftermath she left me thinking:

First time, maybe the second time, the problem was about me.  By the fifth time, it's about you, my dear.

Which speaks to cutting slack.  One thing we can learn is how to do it.  Because the things about someone else are sometimes about you.  I've learned it too often in my own life, made too many mistakes, indulged too many bad quirks and habits, to not hope for slack from those of you I have offended.  Which doesn't mean that your own little performances won't show up in something I write someday.  

 Because that's the way I roll.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Downton Abbey: Some Thoughts

So, we've caught up with Downton Abbey around the Williams house,  and the verdict is still, all in all, favorable.  Rhonda loves period narration, the Austen-like feel of the show, the nuance of character, the visual sumptuousness.  I agree with much of that (for some reason, I've never been as big a Jane Austen fan as a number of my friends, though I'll immediately own up to her brilliance), but for me, the first two seasons were (so far) preferable to the one we are currently watching.

Here's why.

The first two seasons I found more centered on history, the approach and disaster of the Great War.  It might be just my own interests—I'm fascinated by the event, and have expressed its crucial importance in every damn Modernism class I've ever taught—but it was important to the show as well, in that historicity is what makes it rise above soap opera.

Oh, the history is still there—Branson's Fenian fervor and Edith's budding feminism—and I'm still hoping those situations will blossom in the story line rather than remaining clever window-dressing.  And the show's treatment of slow democratization and British class bigotry (present then, present now) always makes for good story.  The broad characterization that is one of the strengths of British comedy holds up well here reminding me how many British actors are versatile and genuine pros, and how we don't see enough of that on diva-haunted American television.  And yes, I know, this is some of the better programming out of Britain, that a large portion of their television diet is as bad as ours, but they don't have hundreds of channels—hundreds!—filled with complete crap, thank you, and at least they can put forth some literate scripts that you can see performed without your having to pay a small fortune for HBO or Showtime.  I do, by the way, succumb to the PBS-watcher's mythology that the Brits are more literate than we are, because when it comes right down to it, they are, along with the rest of the industrialized world.  It's more evident to us because we speak their language.

So that's the praise: historicity, acting, a verbally attractive script.  But I'm concerned in this third season that it's less and less distinguishable from, say, Falconcrest (which I didn't watch, but saw trailers where well-dressed women were slapping each other. I think it was Falconcrest.  Perhaps Dynasty.  The point being that, at least to my tastes, there's a vanishing point in soap operas in which one is indistinguishable from another).  Soaps are a different form of storytelling from historical fiction, and when you bring them both together, when you cross genres, each should be schooled by the other.  Here's hoping that the rest of this season, and all of the one that follows, bring Downton Abbey back to what I was liking so much as it gathered speed.