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 Making Sense of the Times in Core
"After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities." --T.S. Eliot, "Gerontion"

Photo of ClassFinding the way is dangerous, but the journey can be worth the risk. In Core, working with challenging texts--canonical or otherwise--encourages students to be attentive while treading the textual passages and corridors of the labyrinth. Such texts can dislodge them from the comfort (or the pain) of their own historical and personal moments. This is a process that Birkerts (1994) laments as obsolescent. Even if Birkerts is correct about process, the ideas behind such texts are not so easily discarded, and that kept many students reading. Change, love, obsession, warfare, power: these aspects of "exploring human experience" apply in every society and era; thus we get Romeo and Juliet retold as West Side Story and, more recently, in a popular film with the doomed lovers caught up in a turf-war between 1990s gangstas. Broad themes, varying each year with changes in the syllabus, are the basis of Core, and teachers work hard to show students why simple platitudes, received opinions, or even a multi-barreled chaingun from Doom will not resolve such issues easily.

This is familiar ground to anyone who accepts Hawisher's and Selfe's (1993) hypothesis that we live in "prefigurative" times. Faigley (1992) once watched as a group of his students, writing under pseudonyms, turned a reading discussion into a flame-war; he believed he was witnessing "the dance of death upon the graves of the old narratives of moral order" (p. 196). These are difficult claims to challenge, but they can be qualified. Our elders may not have considered the consequences of environmental depredation on a global scale, nuclear or biological terrorism, or hackers lurking like ghosts in the machine of electronic global commerce. But those before us faced, in their own ways, other challenges, even terrors as the moral order of society wavered, even disintegrated around them. A neighbor's Ike-era fallout shelter reminds me of this, as well as family stories about the influenza epidemic of 1919 and the collapse of the economy a decade later. The dance of death remains the same, even if the steps change. Our elders also lived in prefigurative times; any era with an Auschwitz would be without remembered precedent. As Sidra Ezrahi DeKoven (1980) reminds us, the reality of the extermination camps was beyond the capacity of language as it existed then. Despite the limitation, writers of works about the Holocaust somehow forged ahead into literary terra incognita by representing "an oscillation and a struggle between continuity and discontinuity with the cultural as well as the historical past" (DeKoven, 1980, p. 4).

One does not read Holocaust Literature for pleasure. Still, the success of those writers in responding to unprecedented events always provides me with a sobering dose of reality when theory-driven worries about our era crowd around me. Instead of fretting or refusing "it," we might instead search for an oscillation between past and present today. And the very books that students sell back might be one of their best resources as we teach them about that oscillation, if we can challenge them to become engaged in the tasks--and joys--of reading difficult texts and responding to them.To those ends, conferencing helped me to establish oscillations between past and present, between reader and text.

Beyond the End of the Book