Penman No. 240: Cebu Goes MAAAD

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Penman for Monday, February 27, 2017

 

 

THAT’S MAAAD as in “Master of Arts in Applied Arts and Design,” a new degree program recently launched by the University of the Philippines Cebu in collaboration with Taiwan’s Shu Te University (STU).

And what’s the big deal about this new offering? Well, it taps into one of Cebu’s native strengths—its deep roots in artistic expression, coupled with cutting-edge technology—while bringing Cebu in direct contact with leading global knowledge centers like STU.

Cebu, of course, isn’t just one of the country’s major economic and political capitals. It’s also home to rich cultural traditions in painting, literature, music, dance, theater, and film, among other genres. It’s no surprise that it gave birth to a world-class talent like furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue, who graced the launch of the MAAAD program along with Cebu City Mayor Tomas R. Osmeña, UP President Danilo L. Concepcion, UP Cebu Chancellor Liza D. Corro, and CCAD Acting Dean Jocelyn Pinzon. STU was represented by its former President Dr. Chu Yuan Hsiang and Dr. Eing Ming Wu, among others.

The cooperation between UP Cebu and STU is no accident. Cebu and Kaohsiung are sister cities, an unusually strong relationship made visible by the proliferation of modern “Kaohsiung” buses in Cebu. It implements the Taiwan-Philippines Academic Networking Platform which was forged in May last year between UP and the Southern Taiwan Universities Alliance, following a visit to Kaohsiung by a UP team led by then President Alfredo E. Pascual and UP Open University Chancellor Grace Javier Alfonso.

“We in Taiwan have usually focused on Western countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, neglecting an English-speaking country much closer to Taiwan, the Philippines,” noted the ebullient Dr. Wu, who would email me upon his return to Kaohsiung to report that “I am overwhelmed by the new momentum created by our partnership. At this moment, ten UP Cebu students plus one chaperone have arrived to visit physiology labs in three different distinguished universities. They will be staying at the UP Guest House in Kindness Hotel, a facility we set up to host our Filipino visitors. Another batch of six UP Diliman faculty members will be in Kaohsiung to seek matches with Southern Taiwan universities for their PhD degrees from February 28 to March 3.”

UP Cebu is uniquely positioned at the nexus of tradition and innovation. It’s the UP System’s eighth and newest constituent university, but it will be celebrating its centennial as an educational institution next year. The age shows in the old college building along Gorordo Avenue, but don’t let the antique charm fool you—a laser cutter and 3D printer are busy at work in another wing next door. For its part, and although relatively young, STU has already won prestigious international awards for its students’ work in communications and design, including the iF Student Design Award in 2016.

The new MAAAD program promises to be both challenging and rewarding. To be administered by UP Cebu’s College of Communication, Art, and Design (CCAD), the 36-unit, four-semester program will cover courses in research, digital content design, product design, fabric design, technology, and art, among others. Classes will be taught by instructors from STU at UP Cebu’s new campus at the South Road Project—a huge reclamation area that promises to be the city’s new boomtown—but students will defend their theses and receive their diplomas at STU in Kaohsiung. (Mayor Osmeña had made the five-hectare SRP lot available to UP.)

MAAAD faculty and students can bank on laboratories and facilities comprising UP Cebu’s FabLab (put up with DTI support), fine arts workshops, and the CCAD’s computer laboratory. It won’t be cheap, with tuition running at nearly P60,000 per semester, but a scholarship scheme is being discussed. Besides, explains Chancellor Corro, “We expect many of our students to be working professionals for whom the program will present expanded opportunities for further growth.”

In his remarks, Kenneth Cobonpue made a wry reference to the fact that UP turned him down years ago when he applied to its Fine Arts program after failing his drawing exam. He later found his true calling in industrial design. The MAAAD program should now make sure that no design geniuses are turned away at the door, ever again. For more information, email maaad.upcebu@gmail.com. The deadline for applications is July 15.

 

ON BEHALF of my old office, the UP Institute of Creative of Writing (UPICW), I’m also glad to announce the fellows to the 56th UP National Writers Workshop to be held on March 12-19, 2017 at the BP International Makiling, Los Baños, Laguna. Twelve writers have been selected for the workshop, to be led by this year’s workshop director Vladimeir Gonzales.

The 2017 fellows are Arbeen Acuña (Fiction, Filipino), Christa de la Cruz (Poetry, Filipino), Zeno Denolo (Fiction, Filipino), Rowena Festin (Fiction, Filipino), Rogene Gonzales (Fiction, Filipino), Arvin Mangohig (Poetry, English), Arnie Mejia (Creative Nonfiction, English), Paolo Enrico Melendez (Creative Nonfiction, English), Charisse-Fuschia Paderna (Poetry, English), Wilfredo Pascual (Creative Nonfiction, English), Karren Renz Seña (Fiction, English), and Alvin Ursua (Poetry, Filipino).

See you all next month in Los Baños!

 

SPEAKING OF Cebuano artists and writers, I was very sad to hear about the passing after a long illness of a colleague and friend—and one of UP’s and Cebu’s most outstanding art scholars and critics—Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete. Reuben was also one of the stalwarts of the Erehwon Center for the Arts, and we went to the US together last July on Erehwon’s behalf to pitch hard for the establishment of the American Museum of Philippine Art. More than that, he had been one of my daughter Demi’s favorite teachers when she was an Art Studies major, and my wife Beng was a dear friend of his to the last. Reuben left an indelible impression on everyone he met with his prodigious knowledge, his acerbic wit, and his passion for books and learning. Godspeed, Reuben, and see you in that great gallery in the sky!

 

 

Penman No. 237: A Singular Honor

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Penman for Monday, February 6, 2017

 

 

I’VE HAD the pleasure and the privilege of winning a number of awards for my writing and teaching, but none of them has been as personally overwhelming for me as a recent honor bestowed upon me by my university and by a private benefactor.

At its 1323rd meeting last December 16, the University of the Philippines Board of Regents approved the creation of the One UP-Jose Yap Dalisay Jr. Professorial Chair in Creative Writing, to be awarded once every three years to a deserving professor (an assistant professor at the minimum) in the Department of English and Comparative Literature (DECL) who has distinguished himself or herself in creative writing and its teaching.

The awardee will receive a grant of PHP 120,000 per year for a three-year period, and will be selected based on criteria set for One UP professorial chairs and by a committee of the DECL.

The chair will be funded by a donation of PHP 4.15 million contributed by a donor based in the United States, who wishes to remain anonymous and to be identified only as “a longtime friend of the Philippines.” The donation was coursed through the Friends of the UP Foundation in America (FUPFA), with the assistance of the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs and the UP Foundation.

My department and I are profoundly grateful for this great honor which, until it happened, was something I never imagined would fall on me, especially within my lifetime—and while I’m still in active service, two years’ short of retirement. Professorial chairs are usually set up by wealthy families or corporations in their own names. We have several endowed chairs in the humanities at UP, but this is our first for creative writing, and it will go a long way toward ensuring that young Filipino writers and their work get due recognition. (And just to make it clear, I myself won’t be seeing a single centavo of this generous grant—but that’s all right and as it should be, as I hold another chair.)

I have to admit that I do know the anonymous donor—a dear friend who spent many years in the Philippines and who has written about her experiences here with deep affection and insight. I’ve helped her bring those experiences to fruition as the editor of her books and, she says, her mentor, and later her friend. She could just as easily and more logically have named the chair after herself or her family, as I had urged her to do when she first broached the idea of endowing a chair at UP, but she insisted that it be in my name until I could no longer demur. While she has had no personal connection to UP, her late husband’s developmental work involved UP, and she and her late husband had many friends there—Carlos P. Romulo, Salvador P. Lopez, and Cesar Virata among others—so the chair recognizes those valuable relationships as well.

I can say that while our donor is by no means a Bill Gates or a Rockefeller—she lives modestly by herself in her advancing years—she is unfailingly generous and hospitable whenever Beng and I pay her a visit, and she knows the world (and I do mean the whole wide world, beyond the Worldwide Web) more intimately and more wisely than most people do.

The plans for the chair were put together over the past few months, and we have to thank outgoing UP President Fred Pascual, Vice President for Academic Affairs Giselle Concepcion, UP Foundation Executive Director Gerry Agulto, Friends of the UP Foundation in America Vice-Chair Polly Cortez, and DECL Chair Lily Rose Tope for facilitating the process. (Yes, folks—if you have friends and fellow UP alumni in the US who may want to give donations to UP for various causes, these can be coursed through Ms. Cortez at fupfa.org).

I know she doesn’t want too much of a fuss to be made about this, but once again I’d like to thank my friend for this singular honor, which will long outlive both of us. At current rates, the chair will be endowed for 34 years, although we’ve provided for the necessary adjustments to be made to account for inflation and other supervening circumstances. I look forward to the imminent selection of the first chairholder, who will also be expected to produce a book-length work and to deliver a lecture over his or her tenure. A life in academia has few pleasures, but this is one of them, and one of the best ones—for the recipient, the donor, and the honoree alike.

And this is as good a time as any to say thank you as well to Fred Pascual, Giselle Concepcion, and the other members of the UP System administration, whose six years in service will end with the turnover of the university’s reins to incoming President Danilo “Danicon” Concepcion and his team on February 10. I’m amazed by and rather sad at how quickly those six years have passed. Being a non-academic, Fred Pascual assumed the presidency as a relative unknown and got off to a rocky start, and I was among the vocal critics of some early missteps that could have been avoided with better advice.

But I came to be impressed by how hard Fred and Giselle worked over the years to raise UP to global standards (an initiative still not without its critics, UP being UP) and to expand its reach and resources. And while I never sought or held office under this administration other than the directorship of the Institute of Creative Writing, I was glad to be of some quiet service to Fred and his people when I could. We citizens of the Diliman Republic wish them well, as we look forward to even more achievements (let’s hear it for those Maroons!) under President Danicon and returning UPD Chancellor Mike Tan. Push on, UP!

Penman No. 229: Our Waking Dream—Why We Need Language and Literature

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Penman for Monday, December 12, 2016

(This is the full version of a Powerpoint presentation I summarized for my Penman column, and I’m reproducing it here to share the visuals as well, culled from various sources on the Internet; if any of these images are copyrighted, I will be glad to take them down on request, thanks!) 

THANK YOU all for this kind invitation to share some of my thoughts with you today on “The Crucial Role of Language and Literature in the New GE Program.”

I could stand here for the next 20 minutes and deliver the standard academic lecture on why we need to put literature on the GE curriculum. But it would be the kind of lecture you would have heard dozens of times before, filled with the kind of platitudes you could recite in your sleep.

To give you an idea of what this talk could have sounded like, let me quote from what one of my alma maters, the University of Wisconsin, says about the need for literary study:

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“Because literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. In the classroom, the teacher can lead the student to think critically about what has been read. Classroom discussions sharpen reading and thinking skills and increase the student’s ability to express thoughts orally. The teacher can then use these processes to stimulate in students the desire to organize and record thoughts in writing. Thus the study of literature can be seen as practical intellectual discipline. It directly involves the student in the analysis of difficult literary texts, and in doing so it develops verbal skills which are transferable to other contexts. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend, and analyze other kinds of texts (newspapers, reports, briefs, etc.). This is why, for example, English majors make such highly qualified candidates for law school.” (http://www.uwstout.edu/english/lit_study.cfm)

I’m sure this all makes perfect sense—indeed, that’s this whole session in a nutshell. Just to belabor the point, of course we need literature, because our students can’t live by math or physics alone. Besides, teachers of literature need jobs.

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But humor me for a minute and allow me to move away from the ridiculously obvious and the brain-deadeningly pedantic reasons, and return to the roots of why literature is important in the first place—in or out of the classroom, in or out of the GE program.

This will be a very short talk, and if you miss anything, don’t worry—at the end of my presentation, I’ll give a copy to the organizers to share with you. So you don’t even need to take notes; just listen.  I won’t be quoting from Shakespeare, or citing any eminent scholars with hyphenated European names. Begging your indulgence, I will simply construct the argument as I would teach it in my own class, on the topic of “Why are we studying literature?”

To begin with, we’re often told that like the other arts, “Literature is what makes us human.” But what exactly does that mean? How does literature humanize us?

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Literature relies on language, and other animals possess and command a form of language, too. Whales, monkeys, elephants, and birds communicate, presumably for the most basic things—food, sex, danger. We might even call their most basic utterances words and phrases of a kind, performing a clear and practical function. They form sequences of meaning, like saying, “There is food down there” or “I want to make a little baby with you.”

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This is language, but it’s not literature as we know literature. Why not? Because literature requires imagination—dreaming of things beyond the immediate and the practical—and furthermore, a medium of transmission and preservation of the products of that imagination. We’re told that animals can dream, but they can’t record and communicate these dreams like we do.

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Literature is our waking dream, a dream we describe and share through words. These dreams—these stories we make up in our minds—can teach, can delight, can disturb, can enrage, can exalt. They can remember and can therefore preserve our memories—our thoughts and feelings—as individuals and as a race.

As far as I know, no other species—nothing and no one else—can do this. Literature makes us human, because it allows us to tell stories that make sense of our lives, even stories that never happened, except in our imaginations, which also makes belief in things like Paradise possible.

Without literature, we cannot acknowledge and even talk about our inner selves, our inner lives. That’s something math or physics can’t do—at least not in the way of a poet or a novelist. The appreciation of beauty belongs to this realm of the imaginary, the recognition of pleasing and meaningful patterns in the seemingly abstract.

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The magic of literature lies in how it deals with reality and reason through fantasy and the imagination, and approaches the truth through make-believe, or what we might call the artistic lie. Literature can make use of use of things that don’t exist or things that never happened to talk about things that do—because reality is often too painful to confront directly. As one of my own teachers put it, art (or literature) is “the mirror of Perseus.”

That’s because—if you recall the story of the Gorgons—Perseus could kill Medusa, whose fatal gaze would have turned him to stone, only by using his shield as a mirror. Literature is that shield. By deflecting our gaze and seeming to look at other people, we are able to see the truth about ourselves, in all its harshness and unpleasantness.

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At this point, I’m going to backtrack a bit so I can go deeper into another basic argument why we need literature in any curriculum. The point is no longer just to say that literature makes us human; rather, literature makes us better humans, by teaching us discernment and critical judgment.

Literature is a history of the words that have made sense of our lives. Like the Bible or the Iliad or the Noli and Fili, it shows us at our best and worst, so we can choose how we want to live—whether as individuals or as citizens or as a society.

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To do that—to help us use both our reason and imagination—literature uses language, and language uses words.

Through carefully crafted stories, poems, and essays, literature shows young readers that words are supremely important in becoming a better person. This is especially true at a time when words like friend” have been devalued by Facebook,

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and “hero” by those to whom history, and honor and honesty, especially in public service, no longer mean anything.

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Every entry and every post our students make on Facebook and on Twitter is a test of how well they have learned their language and literature. I’m not talking about their grammar. I’m talking about their sensibility—the way they think and express themselves, the way they deal with other people, especially people holding an adversarial opinion. How careful are they with their ideas, with their choice of words?

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And it isn’t so much they as we who are being tested. How well have we taught them? How deeply have we drawn on the wealth of human experience in literature to impress upon them that life is full of difficult choices and decisions, of hard struggles to be fought and won? To a generation of millennials weaned on instant gratification and on tweeting before thinking, the complexity of life can be a profound discovery.

This is the first and the most important lesson of all literature:

Words have meaning.

And because they have meaning, words have power, and words have consequences.

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Words can hurt.

Words can kill.

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But words can also heal.

Words can save.

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Words make law.

Words make war.

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Words make money.

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Words make peace.

Words make nations.

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Words are the songs we sing to our loved and lost ones.

Words are the prayers we lift up to the skies.

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Words are the deepest secrets we confess.

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Words are what we tell our children the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.

Words are all that some of us—especially those whom we call writers—will leave behind.

Speaking of writers, seven hundred years ago, a Persian poet named Hafez wrote a short but wonderful poem:

Even

After

All this time

The Sun never says

To the Earth

“You owe me.”

Look

What happens

With a love like that.

It lights up

The whole

Sky.

This, my friends, is what we teachers—whether of literature or science—do with our students, with every class and every lesson we teach. We light up the sky of their minds with love—the love of ideas, of engagement with the world.

And that is why we need language and literature—not just in our GE programs, but in our lives.

Thank you all for your attention.

Penman No. 221: Teaching the Millennials

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Penman for Monday, October 17, 2016

 

 

THERE WERE no marching bands, greeting cards, or fireworks to mark the event, but World Teachers’ Day was celebrated last October 5. As unofficial or secular holidays like Mothers’ or Grandparents’ Day go, it’s a relatively new one, proclaimed by UNESCO in 1994 to draw attention to the key role teachers play in molding the citizens of every country. My calendar shows that I did nothing remarkable that Wednesday, my day off from teaching, so I very likely spent it on a foot-massage-movie-and-dinner date with Beng. But surely teaching would have crossed my mind, as it does every day, because we keep preparing for our next class even in our idle hours, wondering how we can make our students’ encounters with us more interesting and memorable.

I’ve been thinking about teaching a lot more lately, first because of the recent deaths of some valued mentors and colleagues. Just over the past month, our department lost two of its stalwarts—Professors Sylvia Ventura and Magelende “May” Flores. I’ve written quite a bit in this corner about Sylvia, my Shakespeare teacher, who fired up my enthusiasm for Elizabethan drama and poetry. May was an English-language specialist and textbook author, a sweet, imperturbable lady with a caring smile for everyone. (Continuing the tradition, May’s son Emil also teaches with the department and has become one of our prime experts on science fiction and creative nonfiction.)

The second reason is my own impending retirement, less than three years hence. It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than three decades since I gave up my PR job at a government agency to devote the rest of my life—as I told myself then—to studying, writing, and teaching. I never did become much of a scholar—I guess I did become the writer I wanted to be—but even this close to the end of an active career, the teacher in me is still a work in progress.

That’s because every teaching day is a new performance, even if—like it would be for a theater actor—the script may essentially be the same for courses you’ve taught for years. Every new batch of students brings with it a new mix of challenges—even, over the decades, a generational drift to adjust to. For example, a teacher can’t simply blame millennials for their lack of a historical memory, which we helped create; I try to get them interested in the past not for the past’s sake, but to show them how an appreciation of the past can help their future.

Teachers, in other words, have to keep learning about their students and their interests, so lessons remain fresh and relevant, rather than boring incantations regurgitated from ages past. We need to relate the lesson to the student’s present realities, which may seem daunting if you’re talking about, say, a 19th-century short story about the French bourgeoisie, but which can be done with a little imagination (in this case, I’d begin by talking about the Filipino middle class and its aspirations—“Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”).

But as vital as it is to connect directly with millennials, it’s just as important to remind them that there are many things in this world that may seem to have little or nothing to do with them that will still affect their lives—in other words, that we’re still motes in the grand scheme of things, and that Nature can be profoundly indifferent to our noisome plaints and woes.

That’s a harder lesson to impart, even to older students—to any person who hasn’t encountered something much larger than himself or herself, like a World War, or martial law, or a terrorist attack. In a me-centered universe, no one wants to feel disempowered, so I then have to challenge them into getting out of themselves and enlarging the sphere of personal actions they can take to improve not only their own future, but also that of their fellowmen.

Back when we ourselves were freshmen and sophomores in the early 1970s, this message came down to us in the exhortatory slogan “Serve the people!” Exactly how seemed a lot simpler to figure out back then, when a predatory dictatorship was looming over everything and everyone (a dreadful specter I thought I’d escaped forever). Today a young person’s options are far richer and more complex, with all manner of personal advocacies, NGOs, weekend CSR programs, and Facebook groups competing for one’s political attention.

But whatever the chosen means may be, the overriding need for building empathy remains, for leading young urban, middle-class Filipinos to see, to appreciate, and to grow their stake in a future that they share with the millions of others who live unlike them, many without the opportunities that they enjoy. We can’t truly be a nation—much less a Christian one—if we continue to dismiss the bullet-riddled bodies of the poor as trash because we find nothing in common with them.

A teacher’s job is to help students draw the line between two points, including and especially the most seemingly disparate ones. That includes the line between teacher and student, between student and student, and between student and society. If that’s all I’ve done these past three decades, I can retire happy.

 

 

AND NOW for something liberative. According to the exhibit notes, “Ebarotika! (You are Erotic, Eve) follows the story of Eve who dared venture into the forbidden. Her defiant act opened knowledge’s connection with sexuality, the knowledge of one’s sexual and erotic desire. But it also resulted in shame and punishment. Thus, many of us cover and hide our sexual and erotic life. Those who are bold enough to come into the open are subjected to stigma, discrimination, and death. Sexuality and the erotic are a source of life, joy, and pleasure. They are not objects of fear, horror, and anxiety. They must be opened, shared, and celebrated instead of being censored, concealed, and criminalized.”

Curated by Lia Torralba, Ebarotika! features 19 Kasibulan artists: Yasmin Almonte, Lot Arboleda, Chie Cruz, Cecil de Leon Escobar, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Anna Fer, Lorna Fernandez, Kristin Garanchon, Lorna Israel, Amihan Jumalon, Nina Libatique, Eden Ocampo, Jonabelle Operio, Fel Plata, Rebie Ramoso, Benay Reyes, Doris Rodriguez, Christine Sioco, and Lia Torralba.

It opened last Saturday, but will run until November 23 at the Sining Kamalig Art Gallery located on the Upper Ground Floor of Ali Mall in Cubao, Quezon City. See you there!

 

Penman No. 214: Soon, Another Presidential Race

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Penman for Monday, August 29, 2016

 

 

NO, NOT for President of the Republic of the Philippines, but, for some Filipinos, an almost equally significant post—that of President of the University of the Philippines System, who will be chosen by the UP Board of Regents in a meeting in mid-November. Standing at the forefront of Philippine higher education, UP—recognized by its new Charter as “the national university”—very often sets the standards and the tone for other Philippine universities, especially State-funded ones, to follow. Thus, the position is much more than honorific or ceremonial; the UP President is expected to be a visionary, an executive, a manager, a motivator, a mentor, a democrat, a disciplinarian, a nationalist, and an internationalist all at once.

UP Presidents have been known to surprise their constituencies. The very first one, Dr. Murray Simpson Bartlett, was an American and, of all things, a Protestant pastor—and yet he envisaged the new institution as a “University for Filipinos.”

Edgardo J. Angara was a successful lawyer and a budding politician, having served as a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, when he was asked by outgoing UP President Onofre D. Corpuz to consider taking over in 1981. The reluctant nominee and non-academic turned out to be one of UP’s best presidents, restructuring the university’s organization, boosting faculty salaries, and reforming its curricula.

Francisco Nemenzo was a professed Marxist who modernized the university’s facilities and mindset, revitalizing UP’s core General Education program, and making better commercial use of UP’s vast landholdings. Emerlinda R. Roman broke barriers as UP’s first woman president, after having served twice as Chancellor of UP Diliman. A management expert, she was able to harness considerable resources on the crest of UP’s centennial in 2008 and to employ those to the UP community’s benefit.

Incumbent President Alfredo E. Pascual’s ascendancy to the presidency came as a surprise to nearly everyone—perhaps including Pascual himself—when the BOR elected him in 2010 on the first ballot, reportedly by a one-vote margin (by tradition, the BOR members agree on a unanimous vote after the fact). A Chemistry and MBA graduate who later spent many years in the private sector and with the Asian Development Bank, Pascual was seen to be an outsider and went off to a rocky start. But he proved to be a quick study, and has worked hard to raise UP’s international profile and its connections, to raise performance incentives for UP’s professors and researchers, and to expand the UP System’s reach.

Their successor, according to search guidelines recently released by the BOR, must meet the following basic standards: (1) hold a master’s degree, with a doctorate preferred; (2) have substantial academic experience at the tertiary level; (3) be able to serve the full term of six years before reaching the age of 70; and (4) have no conviction for administrative and criminal offenses.

Additionally, and just as importantly, they should demonstrate (1) a commitment to academic excellence and national development; (2) the political will and the skills to defend and promote academic freedom and the University’s institutional autonomy; (3) a commitment to democratic governance in the University based on collegiality, representation, accountability, transparency, and active participation of constituents; and (4) a commitment to preserve the public and secular character of the University. (There are more requirements, which you can check out in the guidelines here: http://www.up.edu.ph/call-for-nominations-for-the-next-u-p-president/.)

This early, several prominent academics and personalities have been heard or rumored to be interested in running for the presidency. They include UP Law Dean and popular radio host Danilo Concepcion; former UP Diliman Chancellor and physicist Caesar Saloma; current UP Diliman Chancellor, anthropologist, and newspaper columnist Michael Tan; current Vice President for Academic Affairs and marine biologist Gisela Concepcion; and former Senator and now Representative and UP Law alumna Pia Cayetano. The names of former Vice President for Academic Affairs and now National Historical Commission chief Maris Diokno and of former CSSP Dean Cynthia Bautista have also been mentioned. (My information, mind you, is based on coffeeshop chatter, and could very well be denied by any of these eminent persons tomorrow.)

In practical terms, and despite and away from all the spirited rhetoric we can expect of the campaign process, it will all come down to a matter of securing six votes among the 11 members of the BOR. The composition of that board is provided for by the new UP Charter, RA 9500 (which, as Dodong Nemenzo’s Vice President for Public Affairs, I among others had the privilege of lobbying for in the Senate before it passed under Emer Roman in 2008, perhaps the government’s greatest gift to UP on its centennial).

The BOR comprises the chairperson of the Commission on Higher Education, who also serves as the BOR’s chair; the incumbent UP President, who serves as co-chair; the chairs of the Senate and House committees on education; the president of the UP Alumni Association; the elected representatives of the UP faculty, staff, and student sectors; and three regents appointed at large by the President of the Philippines (the BOR will recommend a shortlist of persons chosen for their academic and professional accomplishments—at least two of them have to be UP alumni—but the President can technically make other selections). Effectively, therefore—considering that the two representatives from the Senate and the House will likely be Malacañang allies—the Philippine President can exercise tremendous influence in selecting the UP President.

Before the new Charter defined an odd-numbered BOR, a tie was possible. In 2004, the then 12-person BOR was deadlocked 6-6 between Emer Roman and the Palace candidate, then Ambassador to the UK Edgardo Espiritu. The tie was broken 7-5 in a second vote a week later.

It’s a critical choice for both the Palace and the University because UP’s history is replete with instances when the two presidents have clashed bitterly, with sometimes brutal consequences. Rafael Palma fought Manuel L. Quezon over political issues, including free speech at UP, as a result of which the government cut UP’s budget and denied Palma a gratuity upon his retirement in 1933 after a decade of service. (Upon Palma’s death in 1939, however, Quezon praised him as “a patriot, a scholar, and one of the noblest characters that ever lived,” and even had Palma’s interment delayed so he could personally attend.) Bienvenido Gonzalez and Elpidio Quirino also warred over academic freedom. Salvador Lopez stood up to his fraternity brother Ferdinand Marcos in defense of civil liberties.

Bearing these presidents and precedents in mind, if you have a candidate whom you feel should lead UP onward, take note that nominations will close on September 23; the BOR election will be held November 15; and the incoming UP President will take office on February 10, 2017.

I myself will be retiring from full-time teaching in three years and so will see only half of the next President’s term through, but whoever gets chosen should have an impact less on the outgoing profs like me than on the incoming freshmen of Batch 2017. Admittedly, UP could always do better at basketball, but choosing the next coach of the UP System could prove just as important to the shaping of the Filipino mind as the one that 16 million of us made just a few months ago.

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Penman No. 206: Keeping Faith with Science

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Penman for Monday, July 4, 2016

 

 

IT’S GRADUATION season, and in a departure from tradition, the College of Science at the University of the Philippines invited a humanist—yours truly—to deliver the commencement speech before its graduates last June 26. In my opening, I adverted to my stillborn ambition to become a scientist at the Philippine Science High School. Herewith, some excerpts from my talk:

This isn’t really about me, but about how people like me once had a dream like yours, of working in a lab wearing a white coat, finding Nobel-prizewinning solutions to global hunger and disease—in other planets if not this one. I never did become a scientist or an engineer, but I like to think that I’m still doing science—through creative writing.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

I like to think that I continue to have—as Edward Hubble told the Caltech graduating class in 1938, “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination.”

To be honest, I didn’t know that quote until I read it in an excellent commencement speech delivered just two weeks ago, also at Caltech, by the neurosurgeon and public-health researcher Dr. Atul Gawande, who reminded the graduating class that despite the demonstrated power and beneficence of scientific thinking, science today is under attack from many fronts—from pseudoscientists, from politicians, from all kinds of pundits claiming that climate change is rubbish, that vaccines are bad for your babies, that all GMOs are harmful, and that guns keep people safe. Dr. Gawande even titled his talk “The Mistrust of Science,” and pointed to the emergence of alternative “cultural domains” eager to advance their own agenda at the expense of scientific scrutiny and analysis.

This is not to suggest that science is infallible—it would not be science if it were—but rather that science, in all of its negotiability, has become a political football, especially among the impressionable and uninformed. In our recent experience, for example, statistical surveys and voting machines were wholeheartedly embraced when they favored certain candidates, and torn apart when they did not.

More than ten years ago, I shared with another graduating class an observation that sadly remains true if not even truer today: a disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education—yes, who needs algebra?—when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s dispense with values, with decency, heck, with the law itself, because none of those things really worked, did they?

It is easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the may pinag-aralan, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily co-opted by the powers that be. Ferdinand Marcos had probably the best Cabinet in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do little against their President and his excesses.

In a sense, therefore, we are all culpable and complicit in creating this monster of the anti-intellectual. Call it, if you will, the revenge of the flunkers (among whom I suppose I could be counted)—if accomplished academics can be employed by despots and crooks against the people, then the people can hardly be faulted for distrusting them.

For us UP graduates, the seductions of power will always be there. Power and wealth are also very interesting games to play, and few play them better than UP alumni—the power side more than the wealth, as I suspect that Ateneans and La Sallians are better at making money than we are.

But even these can put you out of touch. I have had friends in Malacañang and Makati who seem to have lost all sense of life, thought, and feeling on the street, beyond what their own commissioned surveys tell them. Worse, they seem to have lost touch with their old, honest, self-critical selves. They forgot all about Sophocles and poetry and mystery and music you can’t buy at Amazon. They see politics not as the opportunity to serve the people but to keep themselves in power. They take the law not as a means of dispensing justice, but as an inconvenience, an obstacle in the way of their popularity. Indeed a drug menace threatens our society, but there is still no drug more potent and more dangerous than power and its abuse.

We—scientists and artists—have to work together to find and to deploy an antidote to this creeping cynicism, to this wholesale surrender of sense and sensibility at the altar of political expediency and popularity. We may work in different ways, but we are both bound by our quest for the truth—which you approach by fact, and we approach by fiction.

You graduates of the UP College of Science have an additional responsibility: to keep faith with your mission and to hold true to your dream, not just for yourself and your family, but for your country and your people. Hold fast to science as a means not just of expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but also of using that knowledge to improve Filipino lives.

We know that science is often a long-term investment with no immediate and tangible benefits, and we can only hope that politicians can respect that, and can trust physicists searching for subatomic particles like the Higgs boson simply because, well, they’re there, somewhere, and could help us understand the universe better. We need brilliant young minds like that of a Nima Arkani-Hamed, exploring supersymmetry, or a Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman mathematician ever to win a Fields Medal.

But we also need scientists who can relate more directly and more immediately to society—scientists who can work for peace, for social transformation, for empowering the poor and the weak, scientists in the service of the Filipino. We need scientists with ambition and vision, but also with conscience and humility.

Let me return in closing to some words from Dr. Gawande: “Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.”

I stand here to attest that even those like me who once dreamed of becoming scientists but chose another path in life know this to be true. In these times, when popular sentiment and demagoguery pose grave threats to reason and to the imagination, we need to remember to keep faith with science, as well as with art, to pursue our work despite and within an environment clouded over by politics, in this hour of great moral confusion. By continuing our work, we assert our freedom and our indomitable humanity.

Science and freedom go indispensably together. Science liberates the mind, and without freedom—without a society and a government open to new and contrarian ideas—knowledge cannot prosper. Science must help light the way forward in the resolution of key national issues. Is there proof that the death penalty really works as a deterrent to crime? Should all mining really be banned? Are nuclear plants and incinerators necessarily harmful? The answers may not always be pleasant or agree with our own beliefs, but only science will yield the truest ones.

 

 

 

Penman No. 193: Knowledge as Capital

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Penman for Monday, March 28, 2016

 

 

THE UNIVERSITY of the Philippines (UP) campus in Cebu City hosted the second presidential debate a couple of Sundays ago, and with education on the debate agenda, the setting couldn’t have been more appropriate. UP—so far, our only “national university” so designated—may be more than a hundred years old, but it continues to grow, particularly in places like the Visayas, Mindanao, and Central Luzon, where the demand for quality higher education is as great as ever.

Not too many people may have been aware of it, but in preparation for the debate—and indeed for the next national administration—UP President Alfredo E. Pascual commissioned a study by the university’s think tank, the Center for Integrative Development Studies (CIDS), to look into where we are in the regional scheme of things and how we can expect to catch up and compete with our more advanced neighbors.

Copies of the paper—titled “Knowledge-Based Development and Governance: Challenges and Recommendations to the 2016 Presidential Candidates”—were provided by UP to the staffs of the presidential candidates in advance of the Cebu debate. But knowing most politicians’ propensity to go for the sound bite and dwell on the personal, I tend to doubt if more than one or two of the candidates or their staffs found the time and the focus to read it.

It would be a pity if that indeed were the case, not only because of all the work that UP put into the paper (CIDS was backstopped by the offices of the President and the Vice President for Academic Affairs), but because of all the opportunities for development that we will likely miss, again, if our political leaders don’t heed what our top academic minds are saying.

The full text of the paper can be found here: http://www.up.edu.ph/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/20160315-UP-Knowledge-Paper-Final.pdf. For the benefit of our readers (and maybe the odd politician who will read this), I’ll unpack the technical jargon and get to the core of what the paper says and proposes.

It opens with an indisputable premise: Education is indispensable for economic development. More education means less poverty and income inequality, because it drives innovation and productivity, and helps people adjust to new challenges and opportunities.

But of course we already knew that. In a society like ours, we all look to education as the way out and the way forward, which is why our people slave for years overseas to put their kids through college. So sacred is education to the Filipino family that every candidate for public office, especially the Presidency, feels duty-bound to extol its virtues.

To be fair to the present administration, it’s put its money where its mouth is, for the most part. The study notes that “Since Benigno S. Aquino III assumed the presidency, government expenditure on public education has enjoyed annual increases. Out of the education sector‘s PHP364.9 billion budget for 2015, PHP43.3 billion was given to state universities and colleges—a 13.8 percent increase over the 2014 allotment…. Over PHP3 billion was made available for scholarships under SUCs and more than PHP2 billion for scholarships administered by the Commission on Higher Education. A total of PHP316 million (roughly 0.09 percent) was earmarked to fund research.”

That sounds good, but sadly it’s still not enough. The rest of our ASEAN neighbors spend an average of 5 to 6 percent of their GDP on education, but we try to make do with 3 percent. That’s why even our best universities lag behind their global and regional counterparts. The study notes that “In 2014, the University of the Philippines ranked only 8th out of the top 10 universities in ASEAN. In 2010, the Philippines ranked 89th in the global Knowledge Economy Index, far behind Singapore, which placed 19th.”

With all the new phones, computers, and call centers we see around us, we might be led to believe that the Philippines has become a high-tech haven, but that just isn’t so. (“We may be No. 1 in voice operations,” I once heard President Pascual say in relation to BPOs, “but were just around No. 9 in non-voice, which is where there’s more value-added. We need not just call center agents, but software engineers!”)

In its summary, the study observes that “Our level of technology remains low in quality and scale, and concentrated in low-productivity sectors. To catch up and move ahead faster, we need to raise our scientific and technological skills, which only better and more focused education can achieve.

“This calls for massive government investments in high-level knowledge capital—the so-called ‘suprastructure’ of economic growth. This human capital will create a knowledge-based economy driven not just by brawn but brains, tapping into one of our richest but least developed resources.”

In other words, and to put it plainly, we need more brainpower—more nerds, if you will—of the kind who can innovate, produce, do trailblazing research, and network with their global peers. That kind of knowledge can reap sizeable benefits for our economy, as it’s done for Singapore, China, Korea, and a host of other countries who’ve invested in their “suprastructure.”

But PhDs don’t come easy and don’t come cheap. UP argues that our government should have a plan to produce them systematically. The object of our educational system shouldn’t just be producing hordes of college graduates who can’t find good jobs, but graduates in fields and with skills that the economy actually needs. The best of them should be sent abroad for advanced degrees, and then brought home with sufficient incentives and an environment conducive to research. The UP paper goes even farther and recommends that in areas where we lack expertise, world-class professors and researchers should be enticed to teach here and work with their local counterparts, in the same way that Singapore was able to considerably shorten its learning curve.

While much of this will occur in science and technology, the paper wisely notes that “Because values are important in setting the right path to growth, the promotion of science and engineering should be closely integrated with the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities to ensure the holistic development of the Filipino.”

To spread the work and its benefits, the UP paper envisions a hubs-and-spokes model of development anchored on regional centers of excellence in certain fields—possibly even other national universities beyond UP.

There’s a lot more to be found in the study that was UP’s gift to the candidates—and thereby to the nation—but whether any practical good comes out of it will depend on the political leaders who govern our fortunes, and, ultimately, on us who vote them into office.

(Kindly note that as a “think paper” subject to further discussion, the study mentioned here does not necessarily reflect the position of the UP academic community as a whole, but rather of the researchers and offices involved.)

 

Penman No. 184: Degrees and Diplomas

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Penman for Monday, January 25, 2015

 

 

IT WAS with much interest that my eye strayed last week to a story on the BBC website with the headline ‘Penguin scraps degree requirement.” The article went on to report that publishing giant Penguin Random House—presumably one of the world’s most literate employers—was no longer requiring applicants for any job in the company to show college diplomas.

“The firm wants to have a more varied intake of staff and suggests there is no clear link between holding a degree and performance in a job. This announcement follows a series of financial companies dropping academic requirements for applicants. Neil Morrison, human resources director, says they want talented staff ‘regardless of background’,” the article noted. The report went on to say that leading accounting firms such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young had also relaxed their educational requirements, with Deloitte changing its selection process so recruiters would not know what schools its applicants had attended.

It’s a novel idea that sounds fair and makes sense, but I’m sure it will take some time before Philippine businesses catch on, as obsessed as we Pinoys are with college diplomas, especially those that come from certain schools. Just scan the Sunday classifieds in any local newspaper—for jobs of any real economic and social worth, your typical non-equal-opportunity employer will demand a piece of parchment from a “Class A” university, which will count more than any previous experience you may have acquired.

Arguably, that wasn’t always the case. We baby boomers belong to a generation—probably the last one—for whom gutsiness and scrappiness was still the best way forward, rather than degrees and diplomas. Just ask any taipan how many of them have Wharton MBAs. One of them whom I happen to know, because I’ve written his family’s history—Filinvest founder Andrew Gotianun Sr.—didn’t go beyond two years of college at San Beda, and had to drop out because of his father’s unexpected demise. His wife Mercedes, Filinvest’s other dynamo (Andrew was the visionary, Mercedes the executor), graduated from UP with a BS in Pharmacy, magna cum laude—but what led to her success as a banker wasn’t college but streetsmarts. “I made friends with the owners of banks abroad and convinced them to lend me their operations manuals,” Mercedes told me, “which we then adapted to local conditions. That’s how Family Savings Bank began.”

Indeed it used to be that you could get places without a college degree, as long as you had talent and guts (you needed both—just one wouldn’t have done it). Among writers, in particular, a degree was a bonus, maybe even a demerit, in those pre-MFA (Master of Fine Arts, the writing degree of choice) days. The old conviction was that, to know how to write, you had to know how to read, and the serious would-be writer read a lot outside of school without having to be told. The real test of the writer was, well, in the writing—in the quality and the consistency of one’s craft, rather than in the number of English units one could present.

There was no finer example of this than the late National Artist NVM Gonzalez, who never finished college (he did go to National University), but who went on to a distinguished writing and academic career here and in the US. The late journalist I. P. Soliongco was another such titan in his field. My friends Pete Lacaba and Krip Yuson, both dropouts by choice, deserve honorary PhDs for all their work as far as I’m concerned—not that they would care—but more valuable is the fact that they’ve been asked to teach and to share their expertise with younger Filipinos.

My own dad Jose Sr. also dropped out of college—he was the smartest kid of his time in our province of Romblon and could have gone on to become a de campanilla lawyer, but was too poor and also perhaps too confident in his abilidad to go the full distance, and soon fathered me and my four siblings. Seeing him write as well as he did—he was a keen reader of novels and magazines—I grew up believing that I didn’t need a college degree, either, to get where I wanted, so I dropped out of UP in my freshman year to get a job as a newspaper reporter. My younger brother Jess, also a talented writer, obviously had the same impression and did exactly the same thing, dropping out of UP before landing jobs with San Miguel’s PR department and later becoming editor-in-chief of the Mindanao Cross. I went on to work with the National Economic and Development Authority for ten years, even earning a graduate UP diploma in Development Economics as a special student and working on special detail with the United Nations Development Programme, doing project studies. I began writing plays, stories, and screenplays and winning Palancas, and felt that I could have gone on for life with little more than my 21 undergraduate units in English and 30 grad units in Economics.

But one day in 1981—after attending the Silliman Writers Workshop and falling under the spell of Robert Graves—I decided to go back to school as a returning sophomore, at the age of 27. I found school exhilarating, and later quit my job to study full-time, with my wife Beng taking up the slack. To be honest, it wasn’t the fiction that roped me in, but the poetry of Sidney, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and James Dickey, among others. Having tasted such ambrosia, I craved more, and so I went on to Michigan for an MFA and to Wisconsin for a PhD, both on fellowships, making up for lost time (BA at age 30, MFA at 34, PhD at 37). I told myself that there was nothing more that I wanted to do for the rest of my life but write, teach, and spend time with family. There was, I must say, a great material and emotional cost to these degrees, which had I known it then I might not have been willing to pay. But with the deed done, I can’t regret the fact that these degrees have allowed me to move up the job ladder and gain the respect of people who haven’t the faintest idea what I do.

I finished college not so I could get a good job, which I already had, or so I could append little letters to my name, which I hardly use outside of work. (No self-respecting writer, as far as I know, has ever flaunted his or her PhD; you’d simply be laughed out of the place.) I did it for love—for the love of knowledge, especially the kind of knowledge for which there exists no practical utility and which is therefore the purest and sweetest, and for the love of my parents, who deserved some payback for all their hard work and sacrifice.

Make no mistake: I do agree with Penguin in broadening their search for good people to those without diplomas from Harvard or Oxbridge to show. You could miss out on a Steve Jobs, a Bill Gates, or a Mark Zuckerberg that way. But you could also always drop out of college, do your thing, and go back when you have the time to finish up—like Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Shaquille O’Neal did. Make that “Dr. O’Neal”—Shaq even went on to pick up a doctorate in Education in 2012.

And what about my brother Jess? He went back to school, too, earning a BA in Journalism at age 49, and a Bachelor of Laws at age 55. A published author, he now practices and teaches law, completing our father’s dream. Sometimes, those degrees and diplomas do count—for all the right reasons.

 

Penman No. 168: A Lesson in Poetry

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2015

WE’VE BEEN talking about poetry in my Literature and Society class this past month, and it’s been an interesting journey, taking us everywhere from the Japanese haiku master Issa Kobayashi to the American modernist e. e. cummings and the Filipino early feminist Angela Manalang Gloria, with a bit of Sylvia Plath and Ricky de Ungria thrown in. There are many more important poets we could have taken up—in another class I might have discussed TS Eliot, Jose Garcia Villa, Denise Levertov, Edith Tiempo, and Pablo Neruda, among others—but this course is just a peek into poetry for non-Literature majors, so we’re taking examples that are sufficiently challenging and instructive but also fairly accessible, pieces that speak to common experience wherever in the world the poem may come from.

A few meetings ago we took up one of my personal favorites, a poem titled “The Blessing” (originally “A Blessing”) written by the late American poet James Wright in 1963. It’s not a very long poem, and pretty easy to visualize. As it opens, the persona (what we call the speaker in the poem, the “I”) is traveling on the road with a companion, bound for a city in Minnesota.

The mood is set with the descriptive line “Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.” Two ponies emerge from the woods and greet the visitors. “They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness / That we have come. / They bow shyly as wet swans.” The persona feels a strong and strange attraction between himself and one of the ponies. “I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, / For she has walked over to me / And nuzzled my left hand.” The contact is electric, and the poem ends with the persona achieving a kind of apotheosis (a word I don’t use in class—let’s just say a climactic moment): “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

It’s a lovely poem because of its consistency of tone and of its return to a Romanticism that seemed lost in an age of machines and pragmatism. (By Romanticism with the big R, we mean here an embrace of Nature as the source of all good things, and of the imagination over reason as the way to wisdom.) Indeed there’s a poignant optimism if not innocence in the poem that’s about to be shattered; in 1963, America stood on the verge of the Kennedy assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War; the civil rights movement was rising to a crescendo. A darkening of the national mood—eventually affecting us half the world away—was imminent, if not inevitable.

That’s what I guide my students toward in the poem. It’s good to appreciate that glorious burst of ecstasy in the end, when the persona feels so in communion with Nature that he sees himself as a flower, but a couple of references earlier in the poem hint at another world—the “highway to Rochester, Minnesota” in the first line, and the “barbed wire” that the persona steps over to meet the ponies. Whatever “Rochester, Minnesota” might be (I’ve been to Minnesota but never to Rochester), it’s a city at the end of a long cross-country journey.

It’s the persona’s and his companion’s real destination, and the roadside encounter with the horses—as pleasant and as ennobling as it it—is just a stop. When the magical moment fades, the travelers will have to hit the road again, and lose themselves in the maw of the city.

At this point I pause to introduce a big word to my students, one of the few they’ll learn from me over the semester (as a rule, I hate big, showy words, and urge my students to do as much as they can with short, simple ones, but sometimes there’s nothing like a polysyllabic monster to wake people up). In this case, my word for the day was “prelapsarian,” referring to “the human state or time before the Fall,” in Christian belief.

The Christianity’s beside the point (we’re in UP, after all), but what’s important is the idea of a place of innocence we sometimes find ourselves wishing to go back to, especially when we feel overcome by the grime and the corruption of the modern world. We talk about the relationship (“dichotomy” would be another big word) between city and country, between a place we associate with sin and guile, and one we like to imagine as a refuge, a haven of peace and purity.

We then spend a bit of time on the image of the fence, which separates the road from the pasture. What are fences for, I ask? They keep some things out, and some things in, they’ll say. If Nature is as benign as the poem suggests, shouldn’t we knock all fences down? Let’s not be naïve, someone will say—not everything in Nature is so kind, and neither are many humans; we need to protect ourselves from each other. I bring in a quote from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Do they, really?

We talk about the Pinoy penchant for building tall walls, topped by bubog and barbed wire, to ward off the presumptive manunungkit. Whatever happened to neighborly trust? We’re laughing, but when we go back to James Wright’s poem, everyone now understands why he gave it the title he did. Class is over, and we all step out to another late afrernoon in Diliman, finding our way home beneath the acacias and the bamboo.

PS / I don’t bring this up in class, because I don’t want “what really happened” muddling up anyone’s interpretation, but it’s interesting from a writing point of view to read what the poet Robert Bly noted down about a trip he took with his friend James (from the book James Wright: A Profile, quoted in english.illinois.edu):

“One day James and I were driving back to Minneapolis from a visit with Christina and Bill Duffy at their farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. Christina loved horses, had been a rider in Sweden, and continued to keep horses here. So horses were very much on both our minds. Just south of Rochester [Minnesota], James saw two ponies off to the left and said, “Let’s stop.” So we did, and climbed over the fence toward them. We stayed only a few minutes, but they glowed in the dusk, and we could see it. On the way to Minneapolis James wrote in his small spiral notebook the poem he later called ‘A Blessing.’”

[Image from mcleodcreek.farm.com]

Penman No. 163: The Gentler Path

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Penman for Monday, August 24, 2015

FOR THE first time in something like 20 years, I’m teaching two undergraduate classes this semester. I usually teach one graduate and one undergrad class, but thanks to what I’m taking as a glitch in the registration process, my graduate fiction writing class—which is usually oversubscribed—had zero enrollees this term, forcing its cancellation and my reassignment to a course usually reserved for young instructors, English 11 or “Literature and Society.”

I should make it clear that I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergrad class every semester, and have done so unfailingly since I returned from my own graduate studies abroad in 1991. The benefits go both ways—young students get to learn from more experienced professors, and senior profs get to know how young people think. With four years of active teaching left before retirement (it’s hard to believe, but I’m getting there), these encounters with some of the country’s brightest young minds will only become more precious, and as with every class I take on, I can only hope that, many years from now, my former students will remember something useful that they picked up from me.

I haven’t taught English 11 in ages, so it was with some trepidation that I entered the classroom on our first day a couple of weeks ago, under UP’s new academic calendar. Students don’t realize this, but professors can be just as full of anxiety at the start of the semester as they are. As I scan the roomful of faces, I’m already wondering who will likely give me problems and who will make it worth the effort of preparing for every day’s lesson as if I myself were taking an exam. Thankfully, most of these mutual apprehensions soon retreat as I reassure my students that I know what I’m talking about—and that I won’t scream at them if they don’t—and as I begin to understand what exactly I’m working with, which is always a welcome challenge.

This semester, I was glad to discover that my English 11 class of about 30 students was composed of mainly science and engineering majors. You’d think that teaching the humanities to them would pose problems, but I see it as a unique opportunity to lead smart people on an adventure they might have missed out on otherwise. Of course, UP’s General Education program makes sure that our graduates acquire a balanced outlook on life, so my students didn’t really have any choice, but I see my job as making them see Literature as much less an imposed subject than a welcome relief from everything else—in other words, fun. When you disguise labor as discovery, and emphasize incentives over penalties, the students—and you yourself—can feel more relaxed.

English 11 is what used to be English 3 in my time—an introduction to literature—and while some teachers see this as a chance to pile on the heavy stuff like The Brothers Karamazov (and I can understand why), I prefer to take the gentler path to literary enlightenment, and begin with things the students know or can apprehend. That way you can lead them to stranger and more intriguing discoveries about the way language works to convey human experience.

Last week, for example, one of the first poems we took up in class was “Southbound on the Freeway,” a poem published in 1963 by the American poet May Swenson. We could’ve done something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but unless you train lay people to look at poetry a certain way—to see it as a puzzle or a riddle to be solved, for example—it’s often very hard for them to get a handle on what some poets do on a high and abstracted level of language and idea, much like the way Picasso’s departure into Cubism (think of his women-figures with their eyes looking this way and their noses pointing that way) can be better appreciated if you first consider what goes into a traditional portrait like the Mona Lisa.

“Southbound on the Freeway” reads like a rather simple and even funny poem, in which alien visitors on a spaceship look down at the Earth, and see creatures “made of metal and glass…. They have four eyes. / The two in the back are red. / Sometimes you can see a 5-eyed / one, his red eye turning / on the top of his head.” It doesn’t take much for the student to see that the aliens, hovering above a freeway, have concluded that the cars themselves are Earthlings, and even that some cars—like the “5-eyed” police car—are more special than others.

In literature, this is a familiar device we call “defamiliarization,” by which poets and other artists take something we see everyday and present it to us in fresh and unexpected ways, revealing facets and insights we never really thought about before. The Swenson poem seems like all it does is show us how perspective can change our perception of things, but it goes beyond that eye-trick and asks a very intriguing question at the end: “Those soft shapes, / shadowy inside / the hard bodies—are they / their guts or their brains?”

At this point, I ask the class, what’s this poem really about? Is it just about aliens and humans, or about cars on the road? Inevitably, someone spits out the magic word: technology! So what is it about technology that’s so important, I press on, and what does it have to do with our lives? Why, everything, the class exclaims in a chorus—we’d die without our cell phones and iPads!

We go into a brief and engaging discussion about what exactly technology means, and whether it has benefited human society—or not. We talk about mechanization, automation, better and easier ways of doing things, products that were invented to improve human life, and inventions that did the opposite. We talk about armaments, and about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and how it actually helped to encourage more slavery in the American South. I tell them that at some point, later in the semester, I’ll talk to them some more about the legend of Dr. Faust and how it led to the stereotype of the mad scientist, all the way to Dr. Strangelove, Lex Luthor, and Doc Ock. I can see that the class is listening, and I’m happy.

I ask them what the real question is that the Swenson poem is posing, and they get it. It’s been a good day in school for Literature and Society.