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The reluctant teacher

May 5, 2010

By Staff Reporter

BOOKS/PETER MCDERMOTT

You really know you’ve made it when 20 years after your death a scholar writes a book based on notes that a 19-year-old student took at your early lectures. The book’s author is Brigitte La Juez of Dublin City University and the student was Rachel Burrows (née Dobbins) who bequeathed her notebook to Trinity College in 1977, almost 50 years after she began attending classes in French literature at that institution of higher learning. Her not-yet-famous professor was Samuel Beckett, who, though a very conscientious teacher, felt he wasn’t cut out for the job.

By 1930-31, when the lectures took place, he had already spent two years teaching and studying in Paris. He met fellow Dubliner James Joyce there for the first time and wrote an essay defending his work. In “Beckett before Beckett,” La Juez says that the young writer had “begun to wear a French beret and to pepper his conversation with Gallicisms which his parents could not understand. Nonetheless, they recognized the prestige attached to an academic career and supported him in his choice.”

Le Juez reports that in interviews the former student gave to scholars in 1982, she drew a “warm and enthusiastic portrait.” Burrows said: “We knew nothing of him…none of us could foresee that our tall, taciturn rather self-effacing young lecturer was going to revolutionize the form of European theatre.” Her classmate Aileen Conan remembered: “He faced us all with a distracted air, or abstracted might be the better word. But one felt he didn’t enjoy lecturing.” Becket had a job for life if he stayed three years, but he quit after about 18 months.

Beckett enthusiasts will be interested in his views at that moment on the greats of French literature, but the 80-page volume has value generally as a curiosity. It’s priced at $10.95.

The lost art of penmanship

The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. But one wonders if people in just a few decades will ask what that means, just as today they might inquire, for example, about the origin and/or meaning of being hoisted by your own petard. The sword has been replaced by rather more lethal weapons and is seen these days mainly in pirate movies. But what of the pen? Is it similarly destined for obsolescence?

Peter Schineller S.J., an associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America, raises this point in a video at its website www.americamagazine.org (it’s also available on youtube). A fellow Jesuit who is a teacher said that a student told him he couldn’t understand his written comments and corrections on a paper he’d handed back. It turned out the student couldn’t read cursive writing at all.

John Patrick Shanley has reminded us in “Doubt” that there was a certain type of teaching nun who thought that the ballpoint pen represented the end of civilization. The America staff member, who is also an archivist for the New York province of the Society of Jesus, isn’t so apocalyptic about the potential demise of all types of pens. However, he suggests there will come a time when people “will be unable to read the Declaration of Independence or love letters from grandpa to grandma written 50 or 100 years ago…

“I’m sure there are compensating factors, and yet I think we’re losing something in the process,” he added. Most people over 35 will agree with him, among them the successful authors who still write their books in long hand.

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