On Cows

Lydia Davis has already done this sort of cow observing in her chapbook, The Cows. Perhaps inspired (as usual) by her, I couldn’t help but put down a few words about some of the cows in my own town:


From the gate we saw the youngest at the corner of the pasture, hiding against the stone wall. Another licked himself under a tree at the top of the hill. One stood guard in the center of the field. Cow number A24 came close to us, so close that when I read the tag on his ear, he seemed to nod, suggesting that both he and I knew his “name.”

The bulk of the group, however, rotated around the cow with a particular attribute on this rainy day. Attached to the end of his knotted tail was a long stick shaped like a slingshot. Two cows stood on either side of him at first, trying to knock the stick away. This effort was short lived, however. The cows all went back to chewing, and the stick just hung there, swaying back and forth with the slow steps of its host.

2013 S. Vos


How Many Blogs

Here is one blog I used to use, for writing on art:


Detecting Gender: Inspector Morse and Feminist Theory


image credit: http://www.vpt.org/show/17619/404

In the Inspector Morse episode Day of the Devil, Morse periodically visits the psychiatrist of a serial rapist and murderer who has escaped prison. The psychiatrist, Dr. Esther Martin, is stationed at an Oxford hotel per the request of the killer. Morse periodically visits the doctor in order to gather more insight on the criminal, and to see if she is safe. A female police officer, W.P.C. Nora Curtis, accompanies Dr. Martin. During one of Morse’ s visits, he joins both women for a drink in the hotel cafe. They begin a conversation after Morse suggests that Constable Curtis may need a break to attend to her “living arrangement,” or her boyfriend, with whom she lives. The conversation begins as follows:

W.P.C. Curtis: I live with someone. He divides his time between me and the motorbike, but he’s alright.

Dr. Martin: (smiling) He’s got a motorbike?

W.P.C. Curtis: Yeah.

Dr. Martin: I had a motorbike once.

W.P.C. Curtis: (astonished) You? What was it?

Dr. Martin: A harley, actually. It belonged to my eldest brother, and the supposition was that it would pass on to the next male in the line.

Morse looks down as if ashamed or embarrassed.

Dr. Martin: But I challenged my other brothers to a speed trial, saw them both off and got to keep the bike.

W.P .C Curtis: (smiling, in awe) That’s wonderful. That’s fantastic, doctor.

Morse: Why should Dr. Martin’s success cause you such unbounded joy, Constable?

W.P.C. Curtis: Oh, no reason, sir.

Morse: Come on, you can barely contain yourself.

W.P.C. Curtis: (slowly) I was pleased because she’d beat them at what’s considered their own game. She pauses. That’s never easy for a woman as we don’t get to make the rules. Or, don’t you agree sir?

Morse: Yes, I do. But, in beating them at their own games, aren’t you in danger of losing something essential?

W.P .C. Curtis: (mockingly) Our cuddly qualities, sir?

Dr. Martin looks at her, sighs, and smiles gently.

Morse: If you mean a disinclination to violence, a greater capacity for fair-mindedness and compassion, then yes, your cuddly qualities.

W.P.C. Curtis’s eyes burn into him.

Morse: I’ve always seen femininity as a guarantor of civilization.

W.P.C. Curtis: You’ve rather an idealized view of us.

Morse: That may be, but, it is my view.

W.P.C. Curtis: I can sum up your idea of feminine qualities in one word: weakness. And it’s that weakness that sustains discrimination, inequality, and violence in all its forms, from the Saturday night slap in the mouth to the kind of things we get from this bastard we’re all chasing.

Dr. Martin: Are you sure you don’t want any coffee, chief inspector?

Morse: No thank you doctor, I appear to have upset Constable Curtis. That was inexcusable, even if it was unintentional.

Constable W.P.C. Curtis: Sir.

When Morse asks Constable Curtis if she (as a member of the female community, who identifies with Esther Martin’ s story of beating her brothers in a race), is “in danger of losing something essential,” he uses a word that both refers to something crucial and to what may be considered the essence or necessary quality of all women. The conversation that follows brings up a critical question for feminist thought: Is there always something wrong with saying there is an essence of women, or that this essence is femininity? What if that essence is a set of positive qualities such as those listed by Morse: an aversion to violence, a propensity toward fairness, compassion? If we accept the idealized view of women espoused by Morse (1), what happens to masculine women? In other words, what are the dangers of holding such a romantic view of all women?

In this case, it is, at least in part, Dr. Esther Martin’ s trust in women that leads her to danger. When Morse and Lewis interview her about how and why she had purposely assisted Barrie’s escape from prison, she described the first time she had met him: “I’d broken down on my motorbike. I thought they’d stopped to help. I could see the woman in the van, and thought I was safe (crying). ” The woman in the van was the wife of a second rapist, herself battered, and had joined the men rather than risk further endangerment. Dr. Martin, who sits between Morse and W.P.C. Curtis in the conversation described above, is accurately placed, for she believes not only in the ideal view of women, but in their ability to take on the masculine role as well. When Morse ends the conversation with an apology, it seems to be precisely because he understands the complex position of women, especially those who choose to move beyond traditionally feminine roles (2). Ride on her Harley as she might, she was reminded in the worst of ways which sex she was.

But is it the behavior of women that matters most in the case of crimes against them? According to W.P.C. Curtis’s impassioned speech, the woman’s behavior, especially if it is weak, actually allows the crime to occur. Her response to patriarchal norms, as a woman who joins the police force, is indeed to “beat them at their own game,” to carry and cock a gun. This view leaves in tact masculine dominance, whether its representatives be male or female.

Morse, on the other hand, describes femininity as a “guarantor” of civilization. He implies that women embody this femininity, but he never says so outright. In his daily life, he is no chief member of the masculine crew. Rather, he spends his idle time drinking wine and listening to female opera singers. He reads to such an extent that it endangers his reputation as a “copper” (3). If femininity is to guarantee civility, it must not be something that only women can access. In addition to taking on relatively humane hobbies, Morse consistently identifies with women. In Day of the Devil, for example, he makes no move to announce that Dr. Martin let Barrie out of prison, or that she intended to kill him. Both Morse and Dr. Martin, a man and a woman, identify with women in the end. At the end of the final interview with Dr. Martin, Morse asks her if she could have gone through with the murder. She picks up a ring from the examination table, which had belonged to another one of Barrie’s victims, and tells Morse that when he finds the owner of the ring, he is to look into the woman’ s eyes. Here, she says, he will find the answer to his question.

In seeking revenge against her rapist, Dr. Martin moves beyond an individualist quest to “beat men at their own game,” to an action that she sees as an act of solidarity with other women. It is precisely this identification with the other, whether male or female, that is the true “guarantor of civilization.” If women have traditionally been more able to identify with others, it is because, in order to become human agents themselves, they had to identify with that which is other from themselves – the masculine norm. If only men were human, it was the prerogative of women to show their likeness to men.

Inspector Morse’s brief speech on gender, along with the circumstances within which the speech takes place, reminds us of this basic quest for humanity. The turning of tables with regard to gender requires not the female assumption of male roles, but men’s capacity to see in themselves that which has thus far been considered “feminine. ”





1 Although the “peacefulness” of women is a widespread view that has existed and continues to exist, I would like to maintain the words used in this show in particular. It seems that while a general form of essentialist belief about women is consistent with sexist views of women as homemakers and mothers only, Morse expresses something very different.

2 This is one of many examples of Morse treating women more gently than he might a male colleague. Some might see this as condescending, but this behavior may also be read as that which results from empathy toward women in patriarchal society.

3 See Happy Families.

Stacie Vos, 2010

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Lesson Archive IV: Shakespeare, Alliteration, 9th Grade

This is just a brief example of some of the work I was able to do with a ninth grade class at Longmeadow High School in Massachusetts. I called the warm-up exercises “Daily Fuel.”

Final Shakespeare Warm Up

featuring an image from  Heywood’s The Play Called the Four P’s:

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 7.46.25 PM

Lesson Archive III: Willy Loman and “Whipped” Cheese

One of my favorite high school lessons was on a strange moment in Death of a Salesman, when Willy admonishes his wife for offering him “whipped” cheese upon his return home from work. I used this detail as a way in to my unit on the play, especially as a way to model close reading, advertisement analysis, and understanding the historical background for the dramatic text.

Here are the materials I used, starting with the plan itself (Note that I did indeed bring artificial cheese in to the class):

Objective: Students will analyze the significance of the symbol of “whipped cheese,” relating it to the larger themes of technological development in post-war America.

Students will be able to define alienation and relate it to the symbolism used in the opening scene of Death of a Salesman.

Aim: Why does Willy say “How can they whip cheese?” What message can we draw out of this detail, both in the text and in our lives today?


Cheez whiz

Print outs of cheez whiz ad and tupperware ads

Technology time line/page on women’s work opportunities in 50’s (Both blocks (C has other homework but should read this as well – they have two days).

Handout (front and back) with quotes on cheez whiz (One easy, one hard)

Alienation poster


-As students work on warm up, circulate and mark in their HW assignments. (With Roster) – They should have annotations (10 pt.), chart and paragraph (15 points)

I. Warm up: read and respond to handout from The Observer. Write response in new notebooks.

II. Share responses and re-read the quote by Willy.

III. Ask students to share initial reactions to Willy thus far. What has he been complaining about? How do he and Linda interact? (Students should refer to HW for this). Ask students to notice the breaks in his speech…

What does Willy say about his son Biff? (Biff works on a farm…)

IV: Possible interpretations of the cheese comment and hist. Background: In the 50’s, women were largely expected to be homemakers first. However, there were technological advances that were presented as innovations for female homemakers, things that made their lives more enjoyable, freer.

-read handout on top of technology timeline

-Look at and discuss impressions of images

-Read closely the cheez whiz ad.

Note that one ad said “Cheez whiz changes everything” (making leftover broccoli appeal to the dad…)

(Insert another part for Block B: quotes from Biff and Happy about farm v. Workplace. Biff says “goddamit, I’m lonely” — business success and alienation)

IV. B – Define alienation.

V. Partner work: Read the paragraph from a critical essay on this play. The paragraph focuses on the cheese detail. What is the paragraph saying? You may want to use a dictionary to paraphrase this piece with your partner.

VI. Closing: in notebook, respond with your own opinion from today’s class. Go back and find one quote from the text (play, paragraph, or both) and explain why you think Miller included the detail of cheez whiz. What does it tell us about the society in which the Loman’s live, and Willy’s response to it?

Cheez whiz transcription cheez whiz ad

Cheez Whiz Quote to Analyze

Another Cheez Whiz Article

Claire Denis’s Melville

I just posted a high school lesson I taught on “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” I showed the film by Jonathan Parker after reading the story, in part because the students were not accustomed to reading texts from before the 20th century, and partly because they were weeks away from graduation and thus miles away from me at times.

Another film adaptation of Melville’s work (this one, Billy Budd) is Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. In the incredible last scene, Denis Lavant delivers a beautiful dance in fits and starts:

http://vimeo.com/40552113 .

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Lesson Archive II: Melville, Bartleby

I taught “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a group of 11th graders at Longmeadow High School in Massachusetts. I knew that many of them had jobs, but I didn’t expect that they would describe them with such enthusiasm in the writing exercises I designed to introduce this text. I remember in particular a very shy and quiet young man who wrote at great length how much he enjoyed working at Six Flags, how his co-workers and bosses were “cool.”

This unit came after a longer one on Death of a Salesman.

Here are some of the questions and conclusions I posed throughout the brief unit on the story:


“Bartleby:” handout I

Ask students to share their own experiences with the workplace. What things do they like/dislike about their jobs?

(Possible modern-day work settings to be used for the Wrap-Up/Homework include: the New York Stock Exchange, a doctor’s office, a lawyer’s office, a classroom, a diner, a radio station, a movie studio, a movie theater, a grocery store, a factory, headquarters of a major corporation, a museum, the White House, a taxi garage, a newspaper office, a publishing house, the cockpit of a plane, a circus, a telephone switchboard, a fire station, a police department, a laundromat, a car wash, a printing press, a forest ranger’s office, a farm, a zoo, a scientific laboratory, a hospital, a plant nursery, and a daycare center.)

Explain that we will be reading a short story this week that is set in a different time period from Death of a Salesman, but addresses some of the same issues, if very differently. One of the essential questions we will think about this week is

What is resistance? What means of resistance are most effective? What is worth resisting? What is the nature of work today?

More specifically, how is Bartleby a role model for many today? How do his words spread?

Looking ahead – we will watch most or all of the film in class later this week.

Evaluation / Assessment:
Students will be evaluated based on written journal entries, participation in class discussions, their modernizations of Melville’s passage, and annotations.

Guiding Questions

Bartleby” Handout II

A. Who is the narrator, and how does he speak?

How does he seem to feel about insolence?

B. Choose one copyist to describe in detail, explaining key lines (citing/quoting the text) about him.

C. Describe Bartleby’s working conditions. Where does he sit? Why does the boss have Bartleby sit where he does?

(Narrator is a safe man) –

(Turkey works hard in the morning but gets hasty in the afternoon. If we were to say he had a signature phrase, it would be “With submission, sir.”

-What does the narrator describe as his “arrangement” around Turkey and Nippers? (8)

-What do you make of the workers’ names being food-related?

III. Read pages 9-11 as a class, and annotate.

IV. Literature circles: assign groups and roles

V. When there is about 10-15 minutes left, turn students to the closing questions. We will share these at the end of class. I will also take any questions and ask students to share key lines from their groups. By Thursday, students should have completed the whole story (an additional 14 pages or so). We will then watch the film in class.


What do you make of the boss’s questions on the top of page 15? Why does he ask Bartleby if he “prefers not to” or if he “will not”? What is the distinction between the two?

Concluding points


1) This is a lesson about reading itself. Melville’s language is hard, and the message is not straightforward. Literary critic Barbara Johnson writes that reading is a “vertiginous” act. If you are truly reading and learning, you are necessarily uncomfortable. Another writer who teaches at the Yale Comparative Literature department tells her students that she writes her reading notes in pencil first, because she rarely understands what she reads the first time.

It is important to allow oneself to “not know,” or to be, as the definition of “vertiginous” states, unsettled and unsure. This means you have an open mind, that you are thinking. Those who always have to know or to be right will necessarily limit their own thinking and knowledge, as well as others’.

2) The work world requires that we fit into a mold – when we do not do this, we become useless and disposable, like the orange peel in Death of a Salesman. 

3) There is no real way to be an individual today – Melville describes Bartleby as being ghost-like, ethereal…

4) Even the “Boss” is unhappy under capitalism – but he wants the workers to pretend they are satisfied…

5) Words matter – Bartleby’s passive resistance through the use of the word “prefer,” his subtle critic is what works. In a way, this could be read as a general argument that subtle, artistic critique is more effective than direct political protest.