Musings + Essays

Constraint and the Unseen Doula: Lessons from the Best Class I Took at UVA.

By: Jen Shoop

What is the best class you’ve ever taken?

I learned a lot from a “folk” class I took at UVA that exposed me to the perils of retreating to the ivory tower, but I have to pay homage where homage is due: a gut survey class I took as a budding English major when I was a first-year at Virginia.  It was one of only a handful of classes I’ve ever taken with over a hundred students in it, and I’d sit in comfortable anonymity for an hour a week in a stadium-style auditorium, taking laborious notes in my gridded notebooks, with my overly-neat handwriting.  Much of the class felt a lot like exercise: the logging and display of definitions, dates, authors’ first and last names, successions of plot points.  There was a rigor and symmetry to it that I rather liked in my sophomoric understanding of the world, where everything — in academics and beyond — sat tidily on one side or the other of an equal sign.  Alliteration, iambic pentameter, Beowulf, the Magna Carta, bards, artistic patronage, litotes, blank verse, Shakespeare, metonymy.  The History of Literature in English: Part I.

And then one afternoon, Professor Clare Kinney stood at the center of the dais and broke free from what I had perceived as the snug exegetics of her lecture on Shakespeare to say this:

“Poetry.”  A dramatic beat passed.  I looked up.  “What is poetry?”  I rifled through my list of definitions.  And then:

“Poetry is a distillation of emotion.  It is the most reductive, pure expression of emotion you will find.”

I remember shifting in my seat, blinking.  My pen poised above my page, my note-taking interrupted.  And then a furious scribbling-down of her commentary, thoughts moving like deer after gunshot.

I had previously thought of poetry as undisciplined.  Much of it seemed free-form and vague, like Monet: you might catch an impression of something, but it was imprecise and half-formed.  Even Seurat-style poetry — more prescribed in its movements, conforming with various conventions of rhyme and meter — felt to me hazy, flimsy, and in my most unkind and naive of readings, cutesy in a cloying kind of way.  To my mind, the laze and gesture of poetry was inferior to the crispness and pique of expository writing.

Against the beam of Professor Kinney’s comment, my assumptions undressed themselves.  I realized that the conventions of poetry could also be implements of discipline in the hands of a worthy poet, the channeling of a wild flow of emotion into the confines of a pre-fabricated network of pipes.  Anger, love, jealousy, hurt molded into something fine.  There was shocking restraint — even self-abnegation — in such work.  I marveled at poetry with new eyes, wondering at the expansiveness that lay just beyond the form in front of me, as though it were a skeleton that had been burned of flesh.  What had it looked like before?  What preponderances had given way to this slightness of form?

I have thought often of Professor Kinney’s words, and in realms beyond the literary.  As an entrepreneur, I learned that constraints can be a good thing in business: they engender creativity and force a kind of ruthless prioritization that is healthy for a young organization.  Limited resources reform The Big Vision (a BHAG, business students call them — Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) into something small and workable, disciplining even the biggest dreams into the simplest versions of their constituent parts.  And that boiling down is critical, both for product development and for clarity in terms of what you are selling, and to whom.

I have also thought about Professor Kinney’s words as a new mother.  Motherhood: its own kind of poetry, alternately languid and piquant in its strumming of the heart strings.  My time to myself has been more than cut in half: I have perhaps four hours to myself on days I am home alone with her, two while she naps and two after she’s gone to bed, before I retire to sleep myself.  I find myself again at the lab table, reducing and trimming my list of priorities so that they fit within the prescribed timetable.  Would I rather shower or read?  Empty the dishwasher or walk the dog?  I have given up the thought of exercise beyond the multi-mile treks I make around our neighborhood walking our dog and running errands each day, and come to terms with it.  I’m more inclined toward self-care of other varieties: reading, writing, cooking, sitting beside my husband in the sprawl of sporadic conversation over the course of an hour in the evening.  Time, it turns out, is not simply one of the axes of human existence: it is an expression of my values.  And so I am at peace with how I spend my free time, as I find it well-calibrated with who I profess to be: mother and wife first, reader second, writer third.  I would prefer to be well-read and thought-filled than cut and trim — for now.  This may change.  I would rather pass an evening hearing in drips and drabs how my husband passed his day, or what he thinks about the news, or whether we should splurge on a fancy turkey from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats for Thanksgiving (<<the best butcher we have found in Manhattan, but their turkey costs $7/pound!!!), than out on the town.  For now.  This, too, may change.

Professor Kinney’s comment not only changed how I thought about an entire literary form, but how I conceived of the notion of constraint, a term so often tethered to the negative in our lexicon.

Constraint, she taught me, can also yield purity of thought, a shedding of the inconsequential, the ballyhoo, the fat.

Constraint, I learned, is the unseen doula of poetry, in all its forms.


+The above post reminds me of the benefits of being a perennial student.

+These tweed heels are SO GOOD.  And currently under $100.  Twiggy-esque!

+An affordable variation on the Staud bag I’ve been talking your ear off about.

+Writing about UVA always reminds me of my dear friend A.

+This bow-front, green-fur jacket is…incredible.

+My mom has always told me I look good in brown.  Brown feels like such a drab color, but I agree with her — and especially agree with her when I was a natural brunette.  This sweater hence caught my eye.  (A good last-minute score for Thanksgiving if you celebrate on the casual side!)

+These leather camera bags can be personalized with hand lettering and racer stripes.  LOVE!

+This flower-embroidered sweater is incredible.  Frida Kahlo meets Ralph Lauren.

+I mentioned my love of nutcrackers recently.  I think I need these and these for my holiday table, and will be dreaming of a set of these to complete the look…

+I’m a pragmatic cook.  How about you?

+The most popular items on my blog this moth: staid but chic loafersfacial cotton (yaaaas!), this statement Saloni (YAAAAS!).

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16 thoughts on “Constraint and the Unseen Doula: Lessons from the Best Class I Took at UVA.

  1. Some of my favorite courses in college were in art history — I minored in it, even though I took more courses than were required for a major (I just didn’t have the right combo of courses since I went abroad for a full year!) I loved my German Expressionism course in particular, and also fondly remember L’art contemporain depuis 1945, which I took at the Sorbonne. However, the most memorable course I took stateside was a comparative English class on Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, two of my favorite writers. The professor that taught it was so brilliant and I learned so much.

    I’d love to get more into poetry — I used to read it a bit when I was in school, and even kept a journal of my favorite poems for a time, but have never really continued with in in the 12 years since graduating. Any suggestions for good entry works? I’m not such a fan of the Rupi Kaur style of poetry, though I know it’s super popular these days.

    1. What an excellent composition for a course — Woolf and Hemingway! In many ways so stylistically different, but treating many of the same themes of isolation, identity, gender. Wonderful. For poetry — try Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Lowell, and Seamus Heaney. All are exceptional, smart, and a bit more narrative (?) than the Rupi Kaur style. You’ll note a similarity between all of them, or at least the first three, that is more a tip of the hat to my personal preference than anything else. xo

  2. First, I am about to teach a unit on poetry, and that definition feels so fitting for what I want to communicate. It is such a difficult genre to define, and your former professor seems to get it just right. Also, your comment about time being a reflection of one’s values is spot on. I have currently given up working out (although I’ve not entirely made peace with it). As a full time working mother of two, I prefer to spend my time with my two small children when I am not at work, or, as you say, sitting next to my husband for a small chunk of time each day. Particularly living in New York, I do feel guilt sometimes that I’m not “looking after” myself in the way I’ve been told I should, but, I value those hours with my children far more than the results of 40 dreary minutes on an elliptical; when I am old, I know I won’t regret the premium I put on time with them. Thank you for reminding me of the significance of that choice. This post just resonated on all levels!

    1. Hi Meredith! Such auspicious timing! Where do you teach, and what age? What’s the class?

      I’m so glad, too, that my note on time/values resonated. It’s been helpful to me to think within that framework because it’s alleviated guilt and also helped me practice mindfulness, i.e., “out of all of the things I could possibly be doing right now, what matters most to me?” I spend a lot of time, for example, tidying up our home and wiping down counters. Sometimes, it feels like it’s all I do, actually. Empty dishwasher, make breakfast, clean up breakfast, wipe down table. Clean up mini’s toys. Fold laundry, put away laundry. Etc. And I used to complain about this internally and occasionally to Mr. Magpie, too. But you know what? Cleanliness and order really matter to me. If my bed is not made by 9 a.m., I’m in a weird state of mind. It feels like I can’t start my day, and I’m all out of sorts. To me, an organized home is an organized mind. And so I no longer think about tidying up as this chore that is standing in the way of getting things done. I now see it as an important step in starting the day. Maybe that’s a little new-age-y, but anyway, it’s all helped me feel comfortable with how I pass my days. Oh, the accounting of motherhood!


  3. The History of Ancient Rome and Her Monuments, colloquially called: the walking tour of Rome. I took this course while spending a semester in Rome as a Classics major / Italian minor. We met once a week for 3 hours at a monument, a museum, or specific neighborhood in Rome. Our professor was an archaeologist, and led us in and around the city. His stories and history anecdotes were incredible and led me to explore parts of the city I certainly never would have ventured otherwise. This course was so much more than a tour of the Colosseum. I came, I saw, I learned, I loved.

    1. Sounds absolutely incredible. I want to take that class now. What a lovely, experiential way to learn history, and especially in Rome, where the ruins (traces of generations past!) are preserved. xx

  4. A little far from you, but the BEST butcher in town is Florence Meat Market – it’s in the West Village and the turkey is only about $4/lb I think? We’re ordering from there. Have tried Dickson’s many times and they’re great but nothing beats Florence.

      1. Wow. I am sitting her unpacking this — it feels like power when I read it, raw force. I love the formal aspects of it — the couplets interrupted suddenly by that three-liner, the unexpected birth of “flesh and poetry.”

        What makes this one your favorite?! xoxo

  5. My favorite class was the one that got me to declare a history degree – Colonialism and Empire. My professor encouraged me to focus and write from the perspective of the colonized, not the colonizer. That class taught me how to approach things from a different perspective, which has influenced my thought process immeasurably.

    1. I can imagine how powerful that must have been. I took a few courses that focused on or provided an overview of specific perspectives/critical theories, i.e., feminist, Marxist, structuralist, and stringing those alternate perspectives together was paradigm-shifting. It would be a good exercise for every student to understand that there are different modes of interpreting the world around us.


  6. I bought the facial cotton during the Sephora sale! And I have a question about one of your other fave products – the truth serum. Do you only wear it at night? I find it difficult to wear under make-up.

    I now have a new appreciation for poetry – there is a really nice, new library near me (it has a fireplace!) and I’ve been meaning to go back and just look through whichever books catch my eye. I think I will choose some poetry next time. Sadly, I couldn’t think of a class that really stood out in my business program, eek! I do like how you related constraint with business ideas, though (I’d never heard of BHAG!). As always, lots to think on here. xo

    1. Yay! I am loving that Shiseido cotton. What do you think?

      I apply the truth serum in the morning. I clean my face, spritz it with Caudalie Beauty Elixir spray, and then apply the serum (just a tiny bit) and let it set for a minute before applying face and eye cream. I don’t find that it interferes with my makeup, but every skin type is different; maybe it doesn’t absorb as well for you or something? Or maybe it’s not playing nicely with your other products? Grr, that’s so frustrating. I’m sure it would still work well if applied just before bed, to a cleansed face…but you might try swapping in a different moisturizer to see if that does the trick, or try switching up the order in which you apply your skincare? AH! I want you to love this truth serum as much as I do!!

      Keep me posted on the foray into poetry!! I find it’s best to read just a poem or two at a time or things go sideways. Ha.

      Finally, sometimes it takes years to really separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to influential courses. You may feel very ho-hum about things now, but maybe in five years, you’ll find yourself returning to a specific set of lessons or a particular comment one professor made, and you’ll see it as a fork, a turning point in your education. xoxo

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