Notes on the Notes

Heller’s novel brings us to what seems to be the other end of the spectrum- gossip as reaction or as justification; countergossip. Barbara starts her writings in an attempt to define or better “explain” the goings on between her close friend and a student, a scenario reprehensible to the outside world. Her commentary ultimately defines Barbara moreso than Sheba, providing us with this idea of “gossip as self-definition”( you are who you are by what you gossip about)
The actual title, “What Was She Thinking?”, on one level captures in the incredulity and moral righteousness that accompanies the gossip of scandal. Unlike other gossip, that delights in itself in a voyeuristic or omniscient way, the gossip of scandals is a protective mechanism on the surface. Although it is deeply embedded in schauedenfreude and other psychological pleasures, it is first and foremost gossip with a function. Children must be protected. Bad guys must be brought to justice. The gossip of scandal allows itself to exist because in the most open settings to shed light on the shadiest characters in society.

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Secrecy in Education

Students tend to have a bit of a fixation on teachers’ private lives. Apologies for the aphorism, but it just seems to be the case. Last week, we saw a young girl manipulating imagined notions of her instructors’ personal lives in order to get her way (at least in the short term). This week, we see a teacher’s individualized attentions and relationship building with students ultimately leading to her dismissal.
The question becomes- Is teaching an open secret?
There are definitely arguments for it. What goes on in a classroom is, on some level, sacred and not to be shared. A class’s entire identity can develop around one or two incidents that anyone outside the class is unaware of.
These incidents seem to be those in which the teacher drops the secretive persona or fails to perform it for a second- the humanizing of an authority figure. It might be the slip of a profanity, the telling of an anecdote, or simply a moment shared between teacher and student that is more affectionate than professional (obviously, not to an extent that would be deemably inappropriate or harmful to the child.) Those are the moments in which a student seems to determine who a teacher “really is” and believes him or herself to have unveiled the secret.

So the education system, as a whole, becomes an unveiling of secrets. There is a structure of when students get to know or “uncover” what, perpetuated and constantly changed. It ranges from simplistic, pneumonic tricks ( “i before e, except after c”, “PEMDAS”, musical solfage, et cetera) to those things we shield children from (most obviously and contentiously, sex ed). In all these instances, however, there is something that is to be shared at a very specific point on the timeline so as to maintain control over the students. This idea may fall apart in progressive classrooms and at the upper academic level, but in the traditional elementary setting, there is a very structured, planned conception of a hierarchy of power based on the transfer of information.

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And Other Stories You Should Not Read While Student Teaching

*Disclaimer- this promises to be a rather long and incoherent posting, if only because I was amazed to find Lillian Hellman was not a vapid, self-aggrandizing tabloid writer as Chuck Palahniuk, who may very well fit that description himself soon, suggested. I apologize in advance.

There was something incredibly eerie about reading this play while my pseudo-students at JHS 217 took a test. There’s so much policing of what they get to know and don’t get to know, and what we’ll accept they know. They can’t read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series because they like it too much. They’re not supposed to curse or talk about gangs, even though they live in a hub of juvenile violence, have family members in gangs, and just had their school graffiti’d. There’s a huge disconnect between what’s known, and what we would like to believe is known, and the biggest of these comes in the form of sexuality. Things get harried. Kids shouldn’t know too much, and what they do know is in the bite-sized, censored form of Dinosaur Divorce and The Baby Kangaroo Treasure Hunt: A Gay Parenting Story, rather than by starting and open and complex dialogue. (There’s a nifty Times article about this kind of crazy stuff that may get included at the end of this post.)

Creepier still is how reminiscent one of my students is of Mary. This girl, who was left back a year, seems to terrorize other students and tries to play the teachers, and it seems to almost work on my cooperating teacher. Do we as “adults” forget how scary middle school ringleaders can be, or do we repress it, or….?


Martha’s suicide also had a level of the uncanny, but it stemmed more from this weird convention of women walking into another room to shoot themselves. Hedda Gabbler walks into a smaller room, seemingly firing off rounds, in order to avoid scandal and to disable Brack’s power over her. Jessie in ‘Night, Mother does the same, though she builds the dramatic tension throughout. There are surely plenty of other instances, and if we broaden the idea to just “suicide” everyone from Ophelia to the main character in Wit technically qualifies. But there’s something so bizarre about not showing a woman killing herself. In terms of technical issues, that may have been a concern for Hellman initially, but no one has revamped it. Perhaps it’s too vulgar and spectacular a thing for theater as a whole, but the idea of killing one’s self in the closet, so to speak, is a difficult one to tackle.


I guess the last theme that really troubles and fascinates me from Hellman is the unaskable question. What ultimately destroys the relationship between Karen and Joe is not the scandal, nor its turnout, nor even the tension it creates, but the idea that some questions are not to be asked. Joe is curious (as anyone would be), not marking a level of distrust, just curious. It would be impossible for him to not have a flicker of questioning, for him to not at some point fixate on a moment he witnessed between the two women that would suggest their affair was such. He cannot stay with his affianced because he is human and has thoughts, and that is probably crueler than Mary’s rumor or Martha’s suicide, because it’s a social expectation we’ve all encountered at some point. Everyone is told “don’t think like that” or “don’t ask that”, despite the fact that we tell students (including mine) “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”


Which perhaps is true. We’re not asking stupid questions, but rather dangerous questions. Questions for which there are no simple answers. Questions like Professor Weir’s “What do you want of me?” or Miller’s “Which David is the real David?” or Sedgwick’s “Where does the closet start and end?” or Maher’s sad, sorry little blog questions a post earlier. They’re dangerous because we forget the first rule of mock trial- Don’t ask questions you don’t already know the answer to. In that moment of suspension between question and answer, an entire relationship disintegrates, a young man risks honesty, a literary scholar gets stark introspection, and a feminist tries to understand society through language. It’s dangerous stuff. (Certainly not for children).

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Reflection Blog

1) I found the motive portion of the draft extremely helpful. From an ascholastic point of view, it was probably good for me to examine why certain topics and texts intrigued me, rather than saying “I just like them”. In addition, the motive helped and continues to help me consider what I eventually want to argue. I suspect this will help me write a clear and effective, but passionate, thesis paper.

2) The questions, for sure, were frustrating just because I had difficulty formulating them. I kept be concerned that my questions were too big, too small, or completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. I hope to have better developed, more meaningful questions to display as I go

3) “How can I convince you that this is a legitimate argument?” Yes, this is a hyper-cliché answer, but my main concern is that of inconclusive conclusions. I would love to know, both stylistically and in terms of the research cited and provided, what it takes to write a legitimate, well established thesis paper in English literature studies.

4) “Where do we go from here?”
Or, rather “How do we organize where we go from here?”. The research seems both exciting and daunting. The challenge is going to be getting my head together and focusing on a step by step thesis journey, rather than vomiting all the thoughts in my head onto an academic background.

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American Gossip

The most striking difference between the gossip about Hester and that of our other heroines and victims (Lady Windermere and her mother, Desdemona, Emma, Sansay, etc) is that there is the distinct marking of religious fervor in the discussion of adultery. This seems to be a uniquely American phenomena, one that even Sansay is shielded from both by Hatiian influences and her geographical origin in America (Sansay from Philadelphia, Hawthorne from a clearly more zealous time and place of New England a century before.) The crimes placed upon Hester, her shame and requisite punishment, bear not the markings of social propriety, but rather of sin as epidemic. She puts the entire community at risk with her wantonness and thus must be made an example of. In this manner, gossip functions as a kind of enforcer, an element that allows the parish as a whole to learn from one’s fall and to go forth in Puritanical piety. Gossip is not something one does out of boredom or enjoyment; gossip is a societal duty, the way information gets passed to protect everyone’s bodies and, ultimately, their souls.

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Emma’s Narrator

Finch and Bowen depict a narrator that is condescendingly attuned to the nature of thought in Highbury. The two address gossip as a source of power and autonomy for Emma and the other women, wherein free indirect discourse deflects masculine thought by voicing it, often ironically.

Bowen’s assumption of the narrator as female fascinates me most in the article. The snarkiness with which she looks at the actions and thoughts of Highbury’s residents is totally outside of the realm of polite feminine discourse. Women can be nasty and catty in Austen’s England, but they must do so with subtlety. The narrator, in contrast, brings the ridiculousness of characters like Elton and Frank Churchill to the forefront, making gentlemen into fops and ladies into birdbrains.

The interesting paradox here is that the omniscient (or, at least, informed) narrator is attuned to both sexes, though presumably gendered female. She can note the “peacocking” of Elton as easily as she can tell Harriet’s concerns of bandaging. Reminiscent of the narrative voice in Stranger Than Fiction, Emma’s narrator can understand the finer points of farm-tending and needlepoint as well as the nuanced experiences of romance from both sexes (most specifically, in depicting both Knightley and Emma’s feelings upon their betrothal) The pacing, even, of the writing depicts varying speeds of thought patterns, creates a specificity of gendered and social experiences in Highbury. In this case, similarities in wording depict ideal matches. So much more so, the only outlying pair (Jane and Frank) do not give us access to free indirect discourse, so much as epistlery and hearsay experiences.

Austen’s gossip gives us the social face of Highbury, and is fascinating in the feminine domain. However, the free indirect voice of the narrator gives us a wider, more rounded, and ultimately more solid vision of life in Highbury.

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The Mini-Lesson and a response to Erica’s presentation

In terms of Dillon’s article on Sansay, these are three questions she may have asked herself-

1) Why is Sansay’s tone and diction at times so coquettish, flippant, or downright girly in discussing a topic as masculine and gritty as the Hatiian Revolution?
2) How does the epistle, both as a form of writing and specifically targeted towards Aaron Burr, function for Sansay?
3) How does the concept of scandal (sex, violence, betrayal, domestic abuse) temper the early American novel (considering “America” as largely Puritanical in its roots)?

As for Erica’s presentation, the manner in which we’ve come to define secrecy as a class seems remarkably similar to the word “conspiracy” (I hope that’s not a keyword for another presentation). The idea of secrets suddenly seems incredibly malicious and deviant for reasons that I can’t quite define. It was a wonderful presentation, I just found myself troubled at the idea that secrets can never be positive or without bad intentions; without “covering up” something.

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Historic Secrecy

The narrator at the beginning portion of Sansay’s Secret History is, for sure, a perfect example of narrator as gossip-monger. Her motives, however, seem to be distinct from those in Wilde, Shakespeare, Defoe, and Chaucer. Iago sought power (or, perhaps, was just a force of incorruptible evil), Wilde’s gentry seek status and amusement, Defoe’s narrator is trying to make sense of the plague and Chaucer’s crow just seeks a moral right. But Sansay’s narrator, more than anything, seems to need this gossip in order to keep going.
The narrator of Secret History really doesn’t have much going on for herself. Her sister Clara, being pursued by a high ranking general while married, is a Helenic figure. The narrator is little more than a handmaiden, helping her sister to occasionally fend off amorous advances (such as the general’s, reminiscent of David and Bathsheba in their intensity, but with more reciprocation.)
Secret History also has the markings of being excessively catty. The Creole women impose sumptuary laws, draw demarcation lines, beleager and, in one instance, behead native women who threaten to seduce socialite husbands ( Truly, “the rage of the white ladies still pursued them with redoubled fury, for what is so violent as female jealousy?” (Sansay 78)). The stakes for the women on Cape Francois are substantially higher even than those in Wilde’s London. The result is a glut of gossip and violence, even with a revolt going on. The Horrors are not so much the pestilence and violence of the military, but that of the ladies.

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Night of the Living Defoe

I’ve recently been subjected to all of the movies in the Resident Evil series, as well as a good chunk of the first season of The Walking Dead (certain people in my life really, really, really enjoy zombie films.) So it comes as no surprise that Defoe’s narrative sounds a bit familiar. Add this to the fact that I just reread Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood in preparation for her triumphant return to Queens College, and it seems kind of shocking that epidemic/pandemic as a source of rumor didn’t dawn on me sooner.
The vast distinction, I guess, between this type of suspicion and rumor-mongering as opposed to the gossip in Wilde and Shakespeare is the sheer vastness of the threat. Whereas Lady Windermere and Othello were individuals at risk by high society gossip, the citizens in Defoe’s London dealt with a widespread paranoia where everyone was at risk.
Interestingly enough, the class issue still came into play quite blatantly. Defoe observes that the plague entered homes mostly through the staff, making the servant/working class the equivalent of rats and the scapegoat for the sickness infecting high society London. Additionally, the power from above to restrict and maintain the “sick” by means of shutting houses up on hearsay in order to protect government officials continues the theme of gossip as first and foremost a privilege of the wealthy.
However, unlike in Wilde and Shakespeare, this gossip did not come from the elite like the Duchess of Berwick or military upper class from Venice. Rather, anyone could point fingers and incriminate other people, leading to more of a witch hunt than a zombie outbreak. Here, status had to be maintained either by getting out of London entirely or placing one’s self above suspicion. Ultimately, though, it seems that gossip and the plague are in strict opposition, with the former equalizing the classes and the latter struggling to maintain order and hierarchical propriety in society.

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I Can See the Stars From the Gutter

The definition of “gossip” ends up being pivotal in Lady Windermere’s Fan. The society ladies and the menfolk spend a good portion of the play debating the meanings of “good”, “bad”, “ proper”, and “charming” without ever really doing anything beyond gossip. In Act III, Cecil’s definitions of “gossip”, “history”, and “scandal” all offer both a comedic and a profound look at how information is passed along. Essentially, there is no truth, only the loudest gossip, which becomes history. However, “scandal” is a repulsive phenomena because it takes that hearsay and adds morality and ethics to it, thus attempting to make it “true” or “right”. This is at its core disgusting to our characters because it takes frivolity and makes it serious and vice versa.

On the page after Cecil’s proclamation, Darlington says one of Oscar Wilde’s cleverest and, arguably, most moving lines- “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” There can be a motif of ambition here, but I suspect it drives at something deeper. There is a great leveling, a baseness in that line that evens out all of society into one collective lump of refuse. Unlike those who discuss “scandal” and moralize, there is no hierarchy of right and wrong in Darlington’s mind. Rather, it is one’s attitude, the choice to “look at the stars”, be that to dream or romanticize or transcend or simply to ignore the goings-on of the terrain before a person, that distinguishes the gentlemen from the blokes. It takes an outsider’s perspective (Darlington being Australian) to see the characters as parts of a whole rather than a caste system with levels and histories of various repute. In the end, we all must engage in gossip to understand the world around us, but some will choose to go beyond, either through morality or imagination.

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