English Professors as Therapists

I loved this, from Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:

In an important study done in 1979, researchers demonstrated that any form of therapy could be effective if certain criteria were met: that both the therapist and the patient were acting in good faith; that the client believed that the therapist understood the technique; and that the client liked and respected the therapist; and that the therapist had an ability to form understanding relationships.  The experiments chose English professors with this quality of human understanding and found that, on average, the English professors were able to help their patients as much as the professional therapists.

This leaves me with several questions.  Why English professors?  Is this choice intended to be some kind of extreme example that goes to show that any sensitive person, in any random profession, might be able to do as much good as a trained therapist?  (As in, even an English professor.)  Or were English professors presumed to be relatively intuitive and emotionally sensitive to begin with?  I suppose probably the latter, although I wonder if that assumption would be as likely to be made today; in 1979, before the theory and culture wars, the profession may have seemed seemed more “sympathetic” in some respects that it does today.  (See, for example, movies like Smart People.)

Were self-nominations accepted for English professors possessing these “qualities of human understanding”?  Imagining therapy at the hands of certain English profs I’ve known over the years would be a somewhat scary thought.  But much as we dislike it when students try to turn class discussion into group therapy, I kind of like the implication that there could be some hidden therapeutic benefit in our talking cure (not that this is the point of the experiment).

Anyway, Solomon’s book is excellent and quite moving and eye-opening in its descriptions of the devastating effects of chronic/major depression.  It made me feel sad about David Foster Wallace, who apparently had suffered from very serious depression for years prior to his recent suicide.  (Btw, I feel retrospective guilt about my reaction to his very bleak story “The Depressed Person,” which I took to be somewhat cruel in its depiction of a woman whose depression is overwhelming and tedious to her acquaintances; for some reason it did not occur to me that it might be based on his personal experience as a “depressed person.”)

Perpetual Garage Sales in Elkhart, Indiana

Sad NY Times article about hard times in Elkhart, Indiana:

To understand just how grim things have gotten in this northern Indiana town, consider a new law passed last month by the City Council that limits residents to one garage sale a month.

It seems the perpetual garage sales — which for scores of people in this town are a sole source of income, and for others the only source of clothing — were annoying some residents. The restrictions will make the financial pinch that much tighter.

“I have no other option,” said Todd Baker, 34, who lost his factory job in July right before his wife gave birth to their third child. Friday was his last permissible day to sell old children’s clothing, muffin tins, a fake white Christmas tree, stereo speakers and dozens of household doodads out of his garage…

Elkhart, near the Michigan border in an area known as Michiana, is the white-hot center of the meltdown of the American economy. Its main industries, the manufacturing of recreational vehicles and motor homes, have fallen apart over the last year because of high gasoline prices. That has taken down ancillary businesses like R.V. parts suppliers and storage warehouses.

The jobless rate in Elkhart has increased more than in any metropolitan area in the country; it rose over 4.8 percentage points from August 2007 to August 2008.

This obviously shows why/how Indiana is in play for Obama.  There are probably a lot of desperate people in Elkhart and elsewhere in the state whose natural instincts would, in normal circumstances, lead them without question to the white P.O.W. air force fighter pilot over the black Hawiian/Kenyan former Chicago community organizer… but these aren’t ordinary times.

I taught Dickens’ Hard Times last week and kept thinking about resonances between the novel and our moment.  This article made me think about the role of entertainment and “amusement” (to use Dickens’s term) in our economy.  Hard Times puts a traveling circus at the heart of its imagery as a symbol of the need for imagination, play, and entertainment in everyday life.  Part of what I found sad about this article is the way the fate of this town has been linked to the manufacture of Recreational Vehicles.  Of course the 7 m.p.g. R/V is as good a symbol as any of the arrogant recklessness of the U.S. over the past several decades in terms of energy use.  But if you can bracket that, you can also see the R/V as an embodiment of American optimism and the middle-class promise of a retirement filled with travel and modest adventure/exploration.  That promise is now basically lost in such a dramatic way that people aren’t simply selling their R/Vs at bargain-basement rates, but the whole industry is disappearing into an economic black hole of “perpetual garage sales.”

Maybe that’s a subject for a different post, but until a year ago we lived in a slightly more modest neighborhood in town where there was a bit of the perpetual garage sale phenomenon.  For a while our neighbor across the street, a U.S. mailwoman we were friends with, had one every weekend — or she let some friend or cousin or something who lived in the country outside of town use her driveway for one.  It drove me a little crazy, this weekly sale with something of the quality of a Dollar Store — a lot of random cheap stuff (“muffin tins, a fake white Christmas tree,” etc.) some of it presumably purchased to sell here.  It’s a big class divide: the yard sale as a fun, very occasional family ritual, on the one hand — a chance for the kids to sell some of their old toys and clear out the basement — and on the other, as a serious opportunity to eke out an additional $100 or whatever for the week.

Going canvassing again this afternoon…


COURIC: Have you ever been involved with any negotiations for example, with the Russians?

PALIN: We have trade missions back and forth. We do — it’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia — as Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go?

It’s Alaska, It’s right over the border. It is from Alaska, that we send those out to make sure an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state.

Video Excerpt.

Someone on The Daily Dish compared this to a memory of a fifth grade book report that she tried to fake her way through.  I had similar thoughts — it reminded me of one of those really, really bad teaching days when you have a cold or something and are either underprepared or just lose your way and you realize you are mouthing absolute B.S.  That bizarre image of Putin “rearing his head” sums it up — this errant figure of speech, kind of a cliche that maybe she started to think better of midway through.

On a second viewing of the video, it almost seems plausible that Palin truly does not understand what Couric means by “foreign policy credentials.”

Done with my class/ Heathcliff nightmare

I’m done with my summer session class. That went really quickly, actually. Just need to finish grading papers and exams this weekend.

One student made a comment to me that made me feel that I’d succeeded in some small way: he reported that he’d had a nightmare about Heathcliff the night before. “He was chasing me and it was so scary… he’s just so relentless.”

1943 Fritz Eichenberg etching of Heathcliff

Fritz Eichenberg, Heathcliff Under the Tree, Cover Image from Wuthering Heights, 1943, wood engraving

Teaching Gaffes

I am teaching again after a semester off. Summer Session I. Really enjoying it so far, the students seem motivated and good.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed had a funny discussion thread about Teaching Gaffes. This was the winner, by ‘hegemony’ — something to aspire to:

I brought in a plate of doughnuts for the last class of the term. Laid them out on the plate on the desk, all luscious and sticky and gooey, for the end of class. Then I got so involved in the topic of the class that I sat on the doughnuts.I didn’t realize until I was back at the board, writing, and there were muffled shrieks of laughter from the class.

This was two years ago. The students are still talking about it.

I tried to be very hip and ironic and with-it about the doughnuts on the seat of my pants. Of course I failed utterly. It didn’t help that they were so sticky that I had to go to the bathroom to try to sponge them off, and so then I had sticky doughnut mess plus big wet spots on the back of my pants. It also didn’t help that it was an intensive class, so I actually had to teach several more hours with doughnut leavings on my pants.

Whenever I see one of those students, which is all too often, they say, “Heya! Had any doughnuts lately?” And then they laugh themselves silly.