The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

“…mit grosser Wildheit” (with great ferocity)

In 1902, Rainer Maria Rilke went to the zoo and wrote about a panther pacing in his cage. Though Rilke’s panther has a “great will,” so long as he’s trapped, the desires that exist deep in his limbs can never be realized. There are moments when one can see the tension in the panther’s body and his eyes dilate with memories of freedom—reminders of the elegance and ferociousness of a liberated panther, reminders of what could be.

Tonight, four us—all men—went to see Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 played by the Hong Kong Baptist University Orchestra. Nearly every week, a group us guys goes to a classical music concert, and as we teach ourselves about the music, we bond over our shared experiences. I’ve dubbed us “the Mahler Men,” and I had high hopes for this concert.

Written in the two decades before Rilke’s poem, Mahler’s first symphony is full of instructions that could describe Rilke’s pacing panther—”dragging like a sound of nature,” “solemn and measured”—as well as possible descriptions of an uncaged panther: “tempestuous,” “vigorous,” “with great ferocity.”

But at this performance the panther never escaped. Like the poem, there were moments of tension, and there were places where I could see great ferocity. Though there were a few missteps notably in a bass solo and in the brass section, what really separated this performance from an inspiring, professional one was the inability to let the cat out.

Unlike Rilke’s panther, who never tried to leave the cage, the orchestra attempted to free the music. But to play with great ferocity doesn’t just mean to play loudly, one has to play fearlessly.

Sure, it was a disappointing concert, but it was also the first classical concert where I could confidently point to specific moments and aspects of the performance that should have been better. I actually knew when they messed up. Oddly, it felt good. It’s exciting to have proof that you’re learning. You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy classical music, but it’s fun to know that the contrabassoon player had a great performance. I mean it’s cool enough just to know what a contrabassoon is.

Go Big Green!

Why didn’t I think of it before? Priya Venkatesan taught a required first year writing course at Dartmouth, which means she and I taught very similar courses, and I have to give her credit I never could’ve come up with her idea. Priya Venkatesan threatened to sue her students for criticizing her. She sent her class an email:

… I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom shall go unmentioned in this email) of violating Title VII of anti-federal [SIC] discrimination laws…

It’s brilliant. First off, this a good technique to make your students pay attention: “Hey class, pay attention and agree with me, or I’ll sue you.” Plus, they’ll be too busy freaking out to notice the grammar errors in the email. Apparently, the students disrespected Venkatesan by being intolerant of her views. Unfortunately for academia, the press has called her views “post-modern” and part of “French narrative theory,” rather than the more accurate label—stupid. If I had followed her example, I could have waltzed into class and said anything I wanted, and my students would’ve been forced to listen to me. There’d be no need to lesson plan.

Second, she reportedly missed about three weeks of class and stopped grading papers. Think of all the free time I’d have to travel around Asia if I didn’t have to lesson plan, attend class, or grade papers. I could learn to cook, spend time learning Chinese, or maybe even take massage lessons. Now it turns out that Dartmouth is making her class pass/fail. This means she didn’t need to do any grading at all. Her entire class is passing. For every hour of class there is about three hours grading, and Venkatesan found a way to around this whole system. Supposedly, she has left Dartmouth and is now at Northwestern, another elite university.

If you read her students’ reviews, they clearly hated her. But on the bright side, she’s writing a book about the whole experience. I could even imagine the autobiography of a delusional crackpot academic selling well. Her emailed finished:

… I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will “name names” so to speak. I have all of your evaluation and these will be reproduced in the book.

Have a nice day.


Have a nice day, indeed.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

I learned most of my Chinese history from playing Nintendo.

Before the age of ten, my neighbor and I had familiarized ourselves with the names of the important figures in China during the second and third centuries. Liu Bei, Sun Quan, Cao Cao, Cao Ren, and Cao Pi—we knew ‘em all. Combined, we spent countless hours and (our parents’) dollars playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a role-playing game where you attempted to unify China. Somehow—even without Wikipedia or the internet—we learned a bit of the actual history. Though, we always chose to play as the Cao family not for any historic reason, but because we thought Cao Pi—and this provided hours of entertainment—was pronounced “Cow Pie.” Come to think of it, the idea of “Cow Pie” conquering China is still funny.

I bring this up, because at dinner with some of my students, Romance of the Three Kingdoms came up in conversation. It turns out it’s an important historical novel based on actual events—not just an era acting as fodder for video games. Wanting to come off as more knowledgeable than I actually was, I asked a few educated questions: “Now, I know Cao Pi was Cao Cao’s son but how was Cao Ren related to Cao Cao again?” I impressed a couple people—briefly—but then someone inevitably asked how I knew the plot of a massive tome written in the 14th century. Sheepishly, I had to admit that I learned it from a video game.

But, they had too! While I learned my Chinese history from the first RotTK, a couple of my students learned from the much more sophisticated ninth installment of the game. It doesn’t sit completely right with me for a generation of people to learn Chinese history from a Japanese video game, but if you’re going to play video games anyways you might as well learn something that you can later teach your English teacher. Right?