December 2013

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom - Karren Alenier -
Karren LaLonde Alenier

Learning About Learning

Since the Steiny Road Poet caught fire over working on close readings of Gertrude Stein’ long poem Tender Buttons and enlisted the students of Al Filreis’ Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Modern Poetry to help her do this, she has been propelled into a learning environment unlike any she has ever experienced. First she has met many people as excited as she is about the writing of Gertrude Stein but the difference is these people spread over the whole world have an unimaginable capacity to sustain this enthusiasm 24/7. With the MOOC learning environment, this nonstop behavior is possible.

Before Steiny guides you, Dear Reader, into the fun-loving passionate world of The Button Collective studying Stein’s first love poem to Alice B. Toklas, she will take you to the center that connected this group.


On November 9, 2013 at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, Steiny was privileged to attend Al Filreis’ University of Pennsylvania Homecoming panel discussion, “How to Teach Poetry to 42,000 Students at Once: ModPo, MOOCs, and Online Learning.” Early in the conversation, guest panelist Andrea Buonincontro asserted that ModPo “didn’t feel massive.” Buonincontro was one of two volunteer Community Teaching Assistants sitting with Filreis, Community TA Raymond Maxwell, and Staff Teaching Assistants Julia Bloch and Dave Poplar. Ray Maxwell said that Filreis’ videos talking out each poem on the ModPo curriculum with the staff TAs generated big energy and that was what brought this massive community together.


Filreis said he developed the MOOC Modern Poetry from a face-to-face class. In 1994, he asked U. Penn to provide his students with email accounts and he started to send out assignments using email. He also asked his students if their parents and grandparents were on email and if yes, he collected that contact information. Then he sent out an assignment to his student and their Internet-connected family members on Robert Frost. His experiment was successful and changed the behavior of his students who were resisting the work of a conservative poet and the family members asked to be included again on other assignments.

Saying that the subject matter of poetry suggests open pedagogy where students can assume a greater responsibility for what they learn, Filreis said offline that crowdsourcing, a process often used to subdivide tedious work, has made a difference in this course. One of his agreements with students is if they write a paper, they must also read and comment on four peer papers. Reading every paper from thousands of students is not possible for Filreis and his dozen staff TAs. This year Filreis and his staff enlisted selected returning students to assist and monitor the four assignments. He said the additional crowdsourcing has made the job so much easier and more efficient.


When asked who pays for ModPo, Filreis said for this year, not much money was spent since the videos produced last year for individual poems were being used exactly as-is this year. However, last year U. Penn spent top dollar producing the videos of Al talking with his staff TAs. Shrugging, Al said the venture was purely a gift economy with nothing expected, especially after the public accolades began accruing. As a follow on to a Friends Central school teacher saying Modpo was being franchised in schools like hers (teachers are having their students participate in selected ModPo curriculum), Filreis said that he firmly believed that MOOCs should remain free of cost to everyone. He also acknowledged that MOOCs are an “opportunity to bring down the walls of universities that keep the masses out.”


First Steps:

In the case of ModPo, an enrollee merely goes into the Discussion Forums, clicks on Study Groups, finds the category All Threads and then clicks on Start new thread. Then the study group leader is prompted for an informative title, some words about the content of this study group, and some identifying tags—like Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons.

It’s a build-it-and-they-will-come assumption. Because Filreis pivots his ModPo curriculum on Gertrude Stein, the chances were fairly weighted toward student interest and, within a few days, the posts to the Close Reading all of Tender Buttons MOOSG erupted into a 24-hour hangout for Stein fans around the globe. At this writing, about dozen Stein fans actively write to the MOOSG but the stats show thousands of hits to the conversation thread.

Next Steps:

Meanwhile the MOOSG leader has to set the path and the pace. Steiny implied in the first post that she would be moving though Tender Buttons consecutively and then writing a summary of the discussion to her personal blog The Steiny Road to Operadom. Unstated was when she would move to the next discrete part of Tender Buttons. Not having a set schedule seems to be the best way to work with a group that is highly creative and not amenable to many rules. A flexible schedule also adjusts to the pace of discovery and who has time to write to the study group.

Because Steiny needed to test her own commitment, she wrote the first four close reads alone and then she invited ModPonies to join her on this journey through this difficult-to-appreciate poem. Interestingly, not a single participant complained about starting five to six subpoems from the beginning. In fact, most participants stated they were glad to find such a study group and began pitching in.


Growing the Experience:

So after a critical number of subpoems had been discussed by the Button Collective, Steiny began suggesting that the group look at what had been done and either apply three words to each subpoem to chart essential characteristics of that subpoem or alternatively boil the subpoem down to one word that might be an object Stein was describing but did not name. Steiny was concerned that the Buttons had little familiarity with the close reads she did alone and she was also concerned about establishing collective memory for the work done. This fell on deaf ears.

So Steiny put this precis list on the table for consideration:

"A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass." -- womb
"Glazed Glitter." --livelihood
"A Substance in a Cushion." --pillowtalk
"A Box." [first one] --kaleidoscope
"A Piece of Coffee." --???
"Dirt and Not Copper." --alchemy
"Nothing Elegant." -- vacuumcleaner
"Mildred's Umbrella." --vagina
"A Method of a Cloak." --proposal
"A Red Stamp." --period
"A Box." [second one] –fertility

No comment. But one particularly active Button from Sydney, Australia, (the first ModPony to join the TB MOOSG) suggested applying an unusual lens—the Ten Commandments matched to the first ten subpoems. Why? Because the close readings were yielding possible references to Jewish subject matter like Kabbalah and numerology. Immediately questions erupted about which version of the Ten Commandments to use. Refereeing, Steiny said let’s go with the Jewish version given Stein came from Jewish stock.

Steiny set up the two lists of Ten and asked the Buttons to choose a matched pair of numbers:

 4-A BOX.

I am the LORD thy God
1-Thou shalt have no other gods.
2-No graven images or likenesses.
3-Not take the LORD's name in vain.
4-Remember the Sabbath day.
5-Honour thy father and thy mother.
6-Thou shalt not kill.
7-Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8-Thou shalt not steal.
9-Thou shalt not bear false witness.
10-Thou shalt not covet.

Then she decided to lead by example, taking “A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.” as seen through Commandment #1 “Thou shalt have no other gods.” Steiny’s approach was to pick out whatever words and phrases resonated with the first Commandment and discuss the subpoem from that vantage point. The discussion satisfied Steiny both for its aptness and for review purposes. However, this close read generated no discussion but two ModPony regulars commented on possibilities among the other pairings, one stepping up specifically and the other making enough of a statement to encourage Steiny to ask the uncommitted one to lead a pairing she had made a comment about.

Several days went by without resulting in much action leading Steiny to write four more of the discussions about the pairings and then ask two Buttons who had already written one a piece to do a second pairing each. One additional Button showed up unannounced and worked out the unexplored 10th.

Steiny viewed this exercise as a way to shift attention from something already examined so that the text under consideration could be seen anew. Steiny experienced resistance, acquiescence, and absence by the general Collective. Perhaps they were stressed by the demanding ModPo workload involving the aleatory (as in chance) poets like John Cage. Perhaps they didn’t understand the project or its purpose. Perhaps they were worn out from too many late nights and needed a break.

Or perhaps, they took exception to this approach like one Button who said she had reached a “crossroads in this Steinian journey that involved resistance between exegesis and eisegesis. In plainer words, this Button wanted to stick to the text without bringing in personal experience. This Button said she was satisfied looking at the mechanics of how the text was written. For a Stein text this means emphasis on alliteration, assonance, repetition, word choice, word roots, spelling, use of the same words from subpoem to subpoem, change of verb tense, word play, grammatical function. Not a bad approach at all and so much to look at.

However, why negate what is outside the box, especially with a writer like Stein who seems to reach in all directions at the same time? And certainly the Button at her analytic crossroads was not negating other approaches. The problem with working in a study group where the members are geographically dispersed, live in different time zones, and operate from diverse cultures is the lack of body language. People misunderstand. Words alone do not convey all the meaning. Oh, well, you might say, Dear Reader, so much for reading anything written, especially Gertrude Stein. Here I’m leaving this on your literary stump and rushing to a different line of thought.


One of the most stunning moments of The Ten Butts Thru Ten Comm Project was the discovery of a connection between Tender Buttons and Stanza Meditations, another difficult-to-appreciate love poem Stein wrote for Toklas. Recently in the literary world, Yale University published an unedited version of Stanzas putting back the word “may” where Alice insisted Gertrude excise that word. Alice was angry with Gertrude when she found out about the great Modernist’s undisclosed pre-Alice love affair with one May Bookstaver. In “A Piece of Coffee.”, the fifth subpoem of Tender Buttons, the Button Collectivist reading COFFEE thru “Thou shalt honor they father and they mother” noticed five occurrences of the “may.” Here’s the last stanza of “A Piece of Coffee.”:

“The settling of stationing cleaning is one way not to shatter scatter and scattering. The one way to use custom is to use soap and silk for cleaning. The one way to see cotton is to have a design concentrating the illusion and the illustration. The perfect way is to accustom the thing to have a lining and the shape of a ribbon and to be solid, quite solid in standing and to use heaviness in morning. It is light enough in that. It has that shape nicely. Very nicely may not be exaggerating. Very strongly may be sincerely fainting. May be strangely flattering. May not be strange in everything. May not be strange to.”

Here’s what the study group member said:

“15 days ago, we studied "A Method of a Cloak." and I thought that the many occurrences of the letter ‘A’ created a type of coded love-letter to Alice. Karren [a.k.a. Steiny] then wrote this: ‘Now I understand why Alice got so mad with Gtrude when she learned about May Bookstaver and how Stanzas in Meditation was heavy with the word may.’

“There are 5 occurrences of "May" in the last stanza of this poem.
There are 3 occurrences of "one way", and 1 of "perfect way".
Then there is this:
may not
may be
may be
may not be
may not be strange to.

“I'm not sure about this, but I'm going with my gut feeling. Gertrude has decided that she will honour her parents through the productivity of her mind, and she does this with Alice by her side, as her one and only love. But the memories of May remain... and yet... there can only be "one way".... only one "perfect way' ...... but still the hesitation... may not, may be, may be, may not be, may not be, and finally ------- STRANGE TO. Gertrude decides and proclaims that her family is Alice, and that May is a stranger.”

Smiling nonstop, Steiny has gone back to look at “A Piece of Coffee.” with fresh eyes and sees the possibility that “typing” could be the one word to summary to COFFEE. It fits with various phrases in the subpoem such as the open line “More of double.” In Gertrude’s world, typescript doubled her handwritten copy. However typing might also be Gertrude sorting out her love life as indicated by the analysis of the last stanza of this subpoem. Also, in that phase of her life, Gertrude was starting to let go of character typing that she called Bottom Nature in favor of poem portraits.


Now the question is how will a MOOSG such as the Tender Buttons study group fare after the heat fades from the virtual classroom as the Modern Poetry staff closes up their offices? Did Steiny mention the teaching staff had established office hours that were much like the discussion forum study groups where weary students could camp out for an hour to philosophize and to probe the minds of these literary leaders? Sometimes the meetings with staff were like a lay down on the analyst’s couch—if I tell you about my history, could you put that into perspective with why I don’t understand this poem by Gertrude Stein? Well, perhaps Steiny exaggerates, but the success of ModPo is all about making this course, this experience-in-learning, a personal experience.


And yes, indeed, much of the learning in a MOOSG is about discovering how to learn outside the normal approaches. Learning with Gertrude Stein is setting the mind free.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
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©2013 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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