Saturday, February 22, 2014

Lane Cooper: The No-Nonsense Professor

Reading Literature

Lane Cooper: In his course description, he set down some rules:"Careful reading should precede all writing. The object of each paper or report should be thoroughness and truth. Literary finish and individuality of expression are desirable."
Credit: Cornell University's Rare and Manuscript Collections ImagesSource: The New Criterion


An article  by Michael Dirda, in The New Criterion examines a teaching style that, for the most part, is no longer in vogue; in his piece, Dirda, himself a professor, looks at the large influence that Lane Cooper, a noted Cornell University English professor, had on his reading and understanding of literature.

Dirda writes:
Lane Cooper has long been an important figure in my life, even though I never met this Cornell University English professor, who died in 1959 at the age of 84. Today, if Cooper is remembered at all, it is probably for his amplified English versions of Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric—both still commonly met with in used book stores. But to me he represents the kind of humanistic scholar and teacher that I’ve always admired and once aspired to become.

Most of Cooper’s books are devoted to encouraging students to make the classics a central part of their intellectual lives. To this end, he wrote articles about education, translated Plato and Aristotle, compiled an anthology of essays called Methods and Aims in the Study of Literature, and published the outlines and syllabi for his own college courses on Dante, Chaucer, literary criticism, and the classics in translation. Cooper was the sort of committed educator who could produce a pamphlet entitled Literature for Engineers, yet turn around and eviscerate shoddy scholarship as unsparingly as A. E. Housman in a bad mood. In an excoriating review of Anna Robeson Burr’s book The Autobiography, Cooper concluded with these sentences: “A word must be added on her style, which is generally diffuse, at times muddy, and often pretentious; and on her Index, which is untrustworthy; see, for example, the second, eleventh, and twelfth references to Augustine.” Period. End of review. Having actually read Burr’s book, I know that Cooper’s judgment, though cruel, is just.
There was certainly no nonsense to Lane Cooper. In one of his course descriptions he set down three blunt sentences about student composition that I have never forgotten and that I have tried to live up to in my own professional life. For a long time I kept them pinned above my desk. Cooper told his students:
Careful reading should precede all writing. The object of each paper or report should be thoroughness and truth. Literary finish and individuality of expression are desirable.
I first heard of Cooper when I was a freshman at Oberlin College in the late 1960s. Casting caution to the winds, I had signed up for a course called “Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poetry,” given by Professor Andrew Bongiorno. On the first day of class, Bongiorno—whose gaunt, noble features called to mind an El Greco saint and an especially austere one at that—stressed that it was better to learn a few poems well rather than skim through a hundred. In the weeks following he would sometimes scribble lines of Horace or Catullus on the blackboard and point out how the English poetry we were reading echoed them. I soon learned that Bongiorno’s principles of intensive analysis and comparison derived from his own teacher, Lane Cooper, under whom he had written a dissertation on Lodovico Castelvetro’s sixteenth-century commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics.
This is an important idea, "that careful reading should precede all thought." It used to be called a close reading of the text, to apprehend and understand what the text is saying, to get to the gist of the argument, so to speak. There is also, equally important, the pleasure of reading, which is equal in my view to the pleasure of adding knowledge.

Today, we are awash in literary theories of various schools of thought; while one can argue on the merits of each school and what it puts forth in its argument, too much energy is often spent defending the theory rather than reading and enjoying the poem, short story or novel. It is also true that much of what goes for academic writing is obtuse and lacks the penetrating clarity that one would expect from individuals with high degrees; if things are not clear in their own minds, it will not be clear in the minds of the readers.

On a personal note, I had a professor in literature, in a course on "American Tragedy," who was no-nonsense in every way; Prof. Hoffman was well-educated, well-read, and tough on his students. He told one student after a difficult mid-term (I got a B, the second-highest mark), assigning him an unheard of grade of F-: "You do not belong in my class; go immediately to the office of the registrar and drop this course; you have no hope of passing it." He later confided to me that this was his last semester teaching. More's the pity. I enjoyed the class, and worked hard to meet the high expectations of this professor, who many thought a curmudgeon. I ended with an A-; his was one of the few courses in English Lit that I fondly remember.

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You can read the rest of the article at [NewCrit]

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