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One Class, One Day: Staring into Robert Frost’s Well

Allison Adair’s seminar connects poetry to persuasion

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CAS senior writing lecturer Allison Adair says the point of persuasive writing is to “imagine you’re hosting a dinner party,” gathering as many people into a conversation as possible. Photos by Vernon Doucette

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Allison Adair chats with a student as three others wait to speak with her before class. One holds a late paper, two gaze at a sign-up sheet for small group meetings.

Slowly, students gravitate toward their desks, arranged in a circle. The sign-up sheet circulates, passing over notebooks, folders, and thick tomes.

Three times a week, these students dive into Robert Frost’s work in WR150 Writing and Research Seminar, a class that meets at 3 p.m. in the College of Arts & Sciences and is part of the core program for almost every student on campus, from those studying engineering and the hard sciences to communication. Students learn to write by crafting essays about their readings from Frost (Hon.’61) and other literary selections and by doing library and Internet research.

“Where is everybody?” asks Adair, a CAS senior lecturer and 2008 winner of the University’s highest teaching honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Chatter continues as she glances around the circle of 14 faces. Three more students trickle through the door and take their seats.

The red-haired poet with an easy smile talks over her students until hers is the only voice heard. She has the class turn to Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something.” Orange tags stick out from her book like a dozen squashed butterflies.

The goal, she says, is to understand the poem and its complexity and learn how to integrate quotations in their essays about the text.

The point of persuasive writing is to “imagine you’re hosting a dinner party,” Adair offers. Like successful hosts, students must gather as many people into their conversation as possible, inclusive but not chaotic. This is the wind-up speech for the class’s second essay, one that should weave outside sources and excerpts from two Frost poems into a persuasive text.

One head continues to bend over the sign-up sheet. Adair asks Miles to put it aside until the end of class.

Focus. Back to Frost.

Adair fishes for immediate reactions to the poem. “Does it seem like a typical Frost poem?” she asks as she settles at a desk.

“It doesn’t rhyme,” says one student, a leg pulled close to her chest.

“What does that tell you automatically?” Adair prods.

“Well, it’s not typical,” the student responds.

True, Adair says. This Frost poem has no rhyme or meter—that’s significant. She asks for a volunteer to read. Miles agrees.

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.

Adair stops him and asks for a translation.

One student mumbles a response swallowed by the sound of a bus passing along Commonwealth Avenue. Shaylithia then offers her take: the poem gets at the unfairness of judging people by their outward appearance.

“Be careful not to jump too quickly to metaphor,” Adair warns. “Stick to the literal translation.”

She asks whether the students believe Frost accepts critics’ claim that he is as self-absorbed, or “godlike,” as the poem states. Their opinions ping-pong until one strikes a chord with Adair.

“Put it on pause for a second,” she says, jumping to the green blackboard. “That’s what you want to do in your essay.”

She scribbles four things on the board:

“godlike”
[exaggeration]
speaker disagrees

Suddenly she has the makings of a persuasive sentence, involving textual evidence (“godlike”), an interpretation ([exaggeration]), and a conclusion (speaker disagrees), that she wants students to use in their next essay.

Discussion turns to the tale of Narcissus and whether Frost shares his vanity. “Do you think Frost is too self-centered to get deeper than his own reflection?” she asks.

The only sound is from another bus below. Then one response leads to a round of opinions: possibly Frost does accept his self-centeredness, since he tries to repent and see past his reflection; maybe he voluntarily lets go of the image beyond, more interested in seeing himself.

Adair reads another four lines of the poem.

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.

She wants to know what purpose the dash in the last sentence serves. More responses bubble up, and she returns to the blackboard.

Is the poem’s speaker staring into a well and seeing a concrete image or something abstract? Adair enjoys playing devil’s advocate, switching sides depending on each response. Students pick words from the text, like “uncertain” and “picture,” to argue their cases.

“There’s a difference between just looking at something and really seeing something,” Adair says. “That seems to be the tension here.”

“I don’t think he really even knows what it is,” says a student who has just finished braiding her hair. Adair laughs and has her read the entire poem. She does so in a clear and steady voice, pausing at the poem’s natural breaks.

“What do we do?” asks Adair, referring to whether the last word—“something”—is meant to be literal or figurative.

She returns to the board to plug “something” into the formula. She compares interpreting poetry without guidance to someone helping shop for a party without knowing anything about the menu. Both are difficult, if not unfair.

Students laugh and take notes. Who knew a discussion about a Frost poem could include shopping for an imaginary party while peering into wells?

A train whistles outside, and Adair glances at her watch. Less than 20 minutes left.

She throws out examples of how the formula developing on the blackboard can be used in a persuasive essay comparing Horace and Frost. “Makes you nervous, doesn’t it?” she asks impishly. “Pressure’s on.”

Adair looks at the circle of confused faces. “Does this all make sense?” she asks. Not completely. She fields questions before turning back to the debate on “something.” Is it concrete or abstract?

No one agrees. But that may be the point.

Already past her 50-minute limit, Adair passes around a handout with excerpts from John McGiffert’s “Something in Robert Frost.” Homework: read the full essay online and practice the day’s formula, using quotations from the handout.

Students start shoving books and papers into their backpacks, preparing to leave. The circle disintegrates.

Half the class is still there five minutes after it’s over.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

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