Wednesday, 28 February 2007


Wednesday 28th February
I'm moderately pleased with how my presentation on Ernest Shackleton went at school today. Classes have not been going so great recently (since English Literature has become optional classes have finally dwindled down to a stable number of students: zero), so the largely positive reception from the 10th and 11th graders cheered me up.

I had never heard of the great man myself until I saw the Imax movie 'Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure' whilst I was working in Boston five years ago. At the end of the screening the audience had erupted into spontaneous, sustained applause, the tears had rolled down my cheeks and I'd felt a surge of patriotic pride - as though I had somehow shared in the achievement of the crew of the Endurance.

What has, of course, played such an important role in making the story of Shackleton and his crew's incredible survival so immediate to a modern audience, is the photography of expedition member Frank Hurley. It took me a while to find the photos at a reasonable resolution for projection on the internet, but happily I eventually stumbled upon the website of the National Library of Australia. They have a pretty extensive collection of Hurley's photographs, all available to download free of charge for study or personal use. Searching on the keywords 'Hurley' and 'Shackleton' turns up 135 images.

What was a new perspective on Hurley's work for me was the realisation that the Australian photography was no accidental artist - there is evidence in the collection of double-exposures and touched-up images - most notably the phony sunset on this image of the launch of the lifeboat James Caird.

Anyhow, I used about 30 images of the expedition, and finished with a picture from the trenches in World War I (several of the crew members whose lives had been preserved with such care by Shackleton were then thrown away by generals in the bloody battlefields of northern France) and a moody photograph of Shackleton's grave on South Georgia, posted online by some recent pilgrim there. I didn't script my presentation, because I'm too lazy, but extemporised - hopefully without getting too lost. Given the photographs, the story of the Endurance tells itself.

The idea of asking students to give a presentation on Great People from History came when a student asked me for help with a presentation he'd been asked to give on Martin Luther King Jr. This was at a formal dinner on Martin Luther King Day - which was to say, about one hour's time. I very much admire the Mongolian characteristic of leaving things to the very last minute - it reminds me of somebody. He'd done a very reasonable job on it, although it was also pretty clear that he only had the vaguest idea who Martin Luther King Jr was, and had basically lifted a lot of very dry biographical data from somewhere on the web (great detail on King's education, various academic achievements and posthumous decorations). I suggested he think about why King had made a mark on history, to which my student very honestly admitted to having no idea. Amongst other characteristics I suggested that MLK had moral authority - a description I smugly felt to be very apt.

This same student is to be the first up to give a presentation on a great figure from history. His subject (once I said that he couldn't just recycle the Martin Luther King script that I (mostly)wrote) is... Adolf Hitler. I had a look at his subject headings for his work: "Rise to Power", "Military Success", "Genocide" and "Last Days". Oh, and also "Moral Authority".