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· Whose Words These Are I Think I Know ·

You should maybe hear in my title a poetic line from Robert Frost. It's changed, of course — his "woods," from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," turn (without acknowledgement) now into my "words."

I begin this way because, poetry notwithstanding here, my subject today is history — especially this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We Americans celebrate it each January, of course. My own day I've spent preparing for a writing class tomorrow, one King has long figured in. Of interest has been a scholarly essay noting King's quoting of black clerics, but citing white, in My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence (Keith Miller, "Composing Martin Luther King, Jr." PMLA, January 1991).

Miller's claim is interesting. He explains how in borrowing from black preachers, King is not rightly to be charged, thoughtlessly, at least, with plagiarism. My students always take his essay to heart.

My purpose, however, is neither to commit nor commend such borrowing, but rather, in the interest of study, to inform solid, scholarly reading — which, as I tell my students, necessarily includes three key tasks:

  • abstracting the main ideas,
  • noting any ordered figures of speech,
  • and observing the main divisions of topical organization.

Here I thought to note just the second, implicitly giving you the gist of Miller's essay. Fit to the task is an email I wrote Friday to a student who, down with an incipient cold, asked me for a short study update. Here is our exchange.

Student: I will not be able to attend class today (1/14), and I sincerely apologize for this. I have been trying to fight off a bad head cold (even though it's just beginning). I would greatly appreciate any information you could give me as to what the class read or discussed today, granted no new hand-outs were given. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Styles: My thanks for your note. Since not everyone finished it, we had a conversation today about Miller's essay. I stressed only his use of figures, ignoring everyone's suggested titles and Miller's topical divisions. We'll do them Tuesday.

His main concerns are three: the key word "borrowing" (which when critics quote it may be ironical), his two phrases "shared treasure" (suggesting money and coinage) and "the black folk pulpit" (preachers preaching, literally, at Ebenezer Baptist Church), and, last, his key claim that King's discourse is whole-cloth weaving not quilt-making ("tapestry" not "patchwork" [p. 75]). You should note, however, Miller's prior use of "mine," "weld," and "alloy" — metallurgical terms — which he does not, of course, stress so much.

This reading, though technical, is really quite helpful in understanding Miller's argument. We all began, by the way, saying whether we agreed or not with his claim, however much we really understood it.

Do get well. I'll start analyzing his text and thought more Tuesday. Then you can share your own suggested title.

This short title, a classroom heuristic I use, will take the form tomorrow of "_____________, _____________, and the Idea of _________________." It helps my students inform their understandings of what I call an author's "conceptual topic." But tonight my topic is just bedtime, or, as Frost might say (echoing a prayerful rhyme), "Now I lay me down to sleep."

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— And, with no remaining pedagogical miles to go!

Solid stuff, Styles. Thanks for the tips — which I intend to, uh, "borrow."

Posted by loretta markle on January 24, 2005 09:40 PM


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