Summer of Dreck and Marcus Aurelius Takes Inventory! A disjointed blog-post.

The first writing that my students do is a version of making a list.  We read the opening to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and it becomes clear that: 1) he believes that virtue or character can be, and should be, taught and learned (that is a concept many have not thought about); and 2) that one does not learn only in school.  (Here are three entries from Meditations: “Manliness without ostentation I learnt from what I have heard and remember of my father,” and “My mother set me an example of piety and generosity, avoidance of all uncharitableness–not in actions only, but in thought as well,” and “From Rusticus [a teacher] I derived the notion that my character needed training and care….Also I was to be accurate in my reading, and not content with a mere general idea of the meaning; and not to let myself be too quickly convinced by a glib tongue.”) So, I have my students write an imitation of the first book of Meditations.  During the discussion as we set the assignment up I ask them if they can learn from fictional or imaginary characters? from their pets? Can they learn by negation (to see someone do something and swear never to act like that)?  We have a pretty healthy discussion about things that can be learned and who is teaching (even if they don’t think of it as teaching). My students inventory the things that they value (often teamwork, generosity, hard work, compassion, perseverance) and the people who have helped them learn these things–it gives them a chance to make their gratitude explicit–and to begin to define–explicitly–who they are and who they want to be. I also get a chance to see what they value and, in a limited way, where their writing skills are.
The blog is named PulpTeacher because it is my contention that there are lots of things to be learned from genre literature (mysteries, thrillers, horror, SF, graphic novels, and westerns [romances too if I knew anything about them]), popular movies, and all kinds of popular culture.  I spend a fair amount of time working between so-called “classics” (Marcus Aurelius and Plato and Ovid for example) and so-called “pulp” and trying to demonstrate what they share. Critics might point out, fairly, I guess, that I have decidedly middle-brow tastes. In that spirit I provide a list of “pulp” that I read this summer along with a couple of “higher brow” things. Here is an example of PulpTeacher’s mind at work.  (Ah, now we get to the digression–where much real learning takes place.) I taught my students Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Inception last year.  I had admired his Batman Begins and thought The Dark Knight superior. Virtually all of my students really liked the Batman movies (though they were essentially inarticulate about why–“they’re cool” is not really critical analysis).  So I saw The Dark Knight Rises this summer and I thought”–too busy, too ambitious, too loud and, perversely, too long and not long enough–still worth seeing though (it is too long because of the time–153 minutes or so but it is too short because it has so many threads in the loom that it has trouble giving them all the time they need–hence a sense of hurriedness despite the length).  The trio (are they a trilogy?) of Batman movies by Nolan raise the following questions which, though they overlap from movie to movie, are raised in a kind of bas-relief by each one: Batman Begins–What are my obligations to myself? (So we see him engage in a kind of existential self-creation, self-definition); The Dark Knight–What are my obligations to those I love/who are closest to me? (Rachel in particular but Chief Gordon, Harvey Specter, Alfred); The Dark Knight Rises–What are my obligations to my city/the polis/community? (Do I have to lie for them? die for them?). All of these questions overlap, of course, but it is possible to think through them using this template to begin–and students can and will make these arguments passionately.  Notice how these “themes” are shared themes of the “classics.” Acts of self-discovery and self creation from Oedipus to Hamlet; obligations to those I love from Antigone to Lear; obligations to my city or community from The Republic to Measure for Measure and on an on. Pulp teaching makes “pulp” more “respectable” and the “classics” more teachable.
My summer mystery/pulp reading included:
1) Matthew Quirk’s “The 500” (not good)
2) Elizabeth Haynes’ “Into the Darkest Corner” (satisfactory)
3) Barry Eisler’s “The Khmer Kill” (satisfactory +)
4) and 5) Karin [sic] Slaughter’s “Snatched”  (satisfactory +) and “Criminal” (quite good)
6) Harlan Coben’s “Fade Away” (not good)
7) Chuck Hogan’s “The Killing Mood” (good)
8) William Landay’s “Defending Jacob” (good +)
9) Olen Steinhauer’s “Nearest Exit” (OK)
10) Chris Pavone “The Expats” (good)
11) and 12) Gillian Flynn’s “Dark Places” (good) and “Gone Girl” (superior +)
13) and 14) Bruce DeSilva’s “Cliff Walk” (quite good) and “Rogue Island” (good +).
15) Patrick Dewitt, “The Sisters Brothers” (good).
16) James Lee Burke: Creole Belle (superb).  I offer two exemplary passages from it:
“No one likes to be afraid. Fear is the enemy of love and faith and robs us of all serenity. It steals both our sleep and our sunrise and makes us treacherous and venal and dishonorable. It fills our glands with toxins and effaces our identity and gives flight to any vestige of self-respect. If you have ever been afraid, truly afraid, in a way that makes your hair soggy with sweat and turns your skin gray and fouls your blood and spiritually eviscerates you to the point where you cannot pray lest your prayers be a concession to your conviction that you’re about to die, you know what I am talking about.”  Creole Belle, p. 193

“Age is a particular kind of thief. It slips up on you and steps inside your skin and is so quiet and methodical in its work that you never realize it has stolen your youth until you look into the mirror one morning and see a man you don’t recognize.” Creole Belle, p. 204
17) Gregg Hurwitz, The Survivor (very good)
18 and 19) Maureen McHugh, Mother and Other Monsters and After the Apocalypse (Both are collections of stories–superb but unteachable–or better said–most are inappropriate for teaching to high school kids)
I read LOTS OF DROSS FOR A BIT OF GOLD–but isn’t that ever the way.
For school I also reread Simon Weisenthal’s The Sunflower and Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World.
On the nonfiction side I read:
Phineas Gage by John Fleischmann
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden–an almost unbearable look into North Korea; and,
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel–possibly the best thing I read.
Next up for me is the new Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel The Prisoner of Heaven (with a substantial tip-of-the-hat to The Count of Monte Cristo according to the reviews).  I will be teaching his Shadow of the Wind (and getting a chance to really think through “melodrama”) this year.
Next week some thoughts on teaching Ovid and pattern recognition.


Filed under Batman, Batman Begins, books and learning, christopher nolan, critical thinking, education, Inception, movies, pedagogy, popular culture, teaching, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Summer of Dreck and Marcus Aurelius Takes Inventory! A disjointed blog-post.


    Wonderful beginning of the year lesson/activity…hope you won’t mind if I send this on to other teachers looking for ways to challenge their students with “complex texts” (Common Core requirements) and with relevance! Your choice of both text and writing activity mix both perfectly….in fact, as I’ve observed over the past year of following your blog entries–most ALL of your assignments qualify as excellent examples of what the country is now striving to embed in its classrooms! Keep them coming!

    • Hi Mary Kim,

      Thanks for the compliment–coming from a pro such as yourself I’m deeply touched. Feel free to send to anyone. I have ruthlessly stolen any good idea for many a year now. I really humbled that you read along.


      Daniel J. McMahon, Ph.D. Principal DeMatha Catholic High School 4313 Madison Street Hyattsville MD 20781 240-764-2202 240-764-2275 fax ________________________________________

  2. km

    Have a feeling I should have read Gillian Flynn’s two previous novels before I read Gone Girl as (like you) I enjoyed it immensely. Will agree that Rises is a different film than the previous two Nolan products but I still really enjoyed it, especially with the ending to Bruce’s arc. I felt Bruce got pushed aside in Dark Knight (not exactly a negative, especially with the Joker to contend with) and it was good to see the focus on him return from Begins in Rises.

    • I really liked Gone Girl. It is superior entertainment and qualitiy literature–I think that there is a remarkably cool philosophical notion in the “best behavior” trap they work themselves into through a sort of mutually assured destruction (maybe that is an aspect of love–giving someone else the means to destroy you?). I was less charmed–though satisfied–by the earlier ones. I, too, enjoyed Rises–my observations about length and ambition notwithstanding.

  3. Judith Rawson

    I think Creole Belle is one of James Lee Burke’s best in several years. Some of the descriptive and ruminative passages took my breath away.


    I found What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel very disturbing and a wonderful book to elicit responses and genuine thinking from some of the inner city students I’ll be with this month. The whole issue of fairness is so telling of one’s moral compass.

    • Hi Mary Kim,

      I agree. I love the way he walks you from “Lexus lanes” and “line (or place) holders” into some serious ethical issues. His discussion of fairness is terrific. (I liked “Justice” a bit better overall, but I’ve never seen a philosophy professor generate more and better examples of complex ideas).


      Daniel J. McMahon, Ph.D. Principal DeMatha Catholic High School 4313 Madison Street Hyattsville MD 20781 240-764-2202 240-764-2275 fax ________________________________________

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