Friday, November 6, 2015


So I went to a reunion at the Beloved Alma Mater a couple of weeks ago. While timed to coincide with Homecoming, it was not by any means an official event; it was a reunion of staff and regulars (the line between the two is decidedly blurred) at the student-run coffeehouse where I used to work. And by "work" I mean "volunteer"; it was a strictly nonprofit coffeehouse, located in a building owned by the college and staffed by students who signed up for two-hour shifts in exchange for free coffee and the very occasional tip. We made enough money selling coffee and cookies to buy more coffee and cookies, and to pay for utilities and the occasional repair to the building. We had events that didn't cost anything to put on: open mike poetry readings, and swing-dance night, and music by pretty much anyone willing to perform for free, and Shisha Night.*

In its current incarnation, the coffeehouse is rather different. Among other things, they don't actually serve coffee any more. They do have regular live music -- by performers who actually get paid, although it's still mostly a "suggested donations" sort of affair rather than one with a formal cover charge. The aesthetic has changed a bit, more hard-edged punk than gentle hippie. Nobody smokes clove cigarettes any more, because they are illegal.

Some things have not changed. The current students passed around a bottle of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill on the lawn while the band did their stuff inside, and it was as vile as I remembered. (Did I mention that the reason why the college was willing to sponsor a student-run coffeehouse in the first place was that it got pitched as an Alcohol-Free Activity?) Every semester, a new, blank notebook appears -- the "coffeehouse book" -- to be filled with poetry, sketches, cryptic notes, and whatever else people feel like writing in it. There is still a swing on the front porch, repaired whenever it breaks by a townie guy named Ned. I did not remember Ned's name, but his face was familiar. He would have been in his mid-twenties when we were undergraduates, which makes him around forty-five now. Still hanging around the coffeehouse. Someone asked him, at the reunion, what drew him to the place, what made him want to hang out around undergrads. He said he'd gone to Johns Hopkins and had a very buttoned-down college experience, and he liked being around so much art and creativity.

And somehow, my generation of coffeehouse people has become history. Most of the notebooks from when we were there are in the library archives; only one remained in the coffeehouse. (Considering some of the things I wrote when I was twenty, this is probably just as well.) One of the current students interviewed a bunch of us '90s students for an oral history / documentary project. We were a little bemused. We remembered all kinds of things, together, that we'd forgotten separately. One woman (the one of us who became a corporate lawyer, who was exactly the one you'd expect to become a corporate lawyer if you had known us all when we were students) said that she was amazed that the school had just given us this building, theoretically the property of the state of Virginia, to do with as we liked -- repaint, fill a back room with pillows and nickname it the Opium Den, let someone draw caricatures of the entire staff on the wall. And that we got (a tiny amount of) taxpayer money, via the office of student organizations, to underwrite activities that included smoking shisha, grits-wrestling, the usual undergrad quota of drunken hookups, and a certain measure of creative anarchy.

But I still believe (in my idealistic, very non-corporate-lawyer, academic soul) that they were right to give us our space, that every college probably needs a creative space of this sort. And that every group of students ought to have a Ned, a grown-up of their own who knows how to fix the porch swing.

* Smoking flavored tobacco. Any other substances that may have been smoked on such occasions were, shall we say, not officially part of the event. It is still sort of astonishing, in retrospect, that we were allowed to have official events that revolved around smoking.

Monday, October 19, 2015

How many children had the Wife of Bath?

So I do this thing in my gen ed lit classes where students have to write down their thoughts, questions, and reactions to the reading on an index card before class. I'm generally happy to give credit to anything, as long as 1) it shows the student actually did the reading; and 2) it isn't plagiarized from SparkNotes. (I guess #2 is a subset of #1, but it is a special pet peeve of mine. Really, you need SparkNotes to have ideas for you?)

It's interesting seeing the trends in the questions, the way each new group of students seems to have its own character and set of concerns. This semester, everybody seems to want to know all kinds of stuff about the characters that's fundamentally unanswerable, things that are simply never addressed in the text: How old exactly is Beowulf? Did the Wife of Bath ever have any kids? What did Olivia's father and brother die of?

I wonder where this comes from. Do they think the answers must be somewhere in the text and they just haven't read carefully? Are they assuming that fictional characters have some sort of independent existence, so there must be a "right" answer even if it isn't mentioned in the text? (To be fair, this might be a reasonable assumption for the Wife of Bath question, since -- like most Brit Lit survey courses -- we're only reading the General Prologue and three of the tales, so it's quite possible, from their point of view, that the Wife of Bath could say something about her children or lack-of-children somewhere else in the work. She doesn't, as it happens, but she could.)

And sometimes the lack of a textually warranted answer is interesting, like with the student today who wanted to know why Viola disguises herself as a boy. She doesn't actually tell us. One might reasonably expect her to tell us: Rosalind does, Julia does, Portia and Imogen have reasons that can clearly be inferred. Viola doesn't. The closest thing to an answer we get comes much later in the play, when we find out her disguise is a way of keeping her lost brother "yet living in my glass." Pragmatic-but-wistful Viola doesn't confess that desire to the sea captain, but she also doesn't invent a more practical-sounding reason, which she could do. It's one of those nice little character notes that abound in Shakespeare.

Student questions. Even the naive ones are really pretty cool.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In praise of footnotes; or, more grumping about No Fear Shakespeare

I posted a shortened version of this on LJ after my last-but-one venture into the wilds of No Fear Shakespeare, but it's still bothering me, so I thought I'd post it as a follow-on to yesterday.

So I was looking at the No Fear As You Like It, because I am a masochist, and I found this.

Real Shakespeare:

Touchstone: I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.

Jaques: O knowledge ill-inhabited, worse than Jove in a thatched house!

Touchstone: When a man's verses cannot be understood, or a man's good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

No Fear Shakespeare

Touchstone: Well, I'm out here with you and your goats, in the same way that the witty poet Ovid was abandoned to the barbaric Goths.

Jaques: Oh, knowledge put to such bad use is worse than a god cooped up in a hut.

Touchstone: When a man's jokes fall that flat, it's as depressing as getting a large bill for a short stay in a little room.

Obviously, there is Very Much Wrong with the No Fear version, but what strikes me, especially, is how much "translating" the text into contemporary English fails to illuminate it. With the exception of the phrase "seconded with the forward child" and the single word "reckoning," there's nothing that's actually difficult about the language of this passage. What makes it difficult is content knowledge: in order to get it all, you have to know a little about Ovid's biography, and enough Latin to get the multilingual pun on "capricious," and enough about classical mythology to recognize the story of Jupiter, Philemon, and Baucis, and some stuff about Christopher Marlowe. You know, the kinds of things that are best explained in footnotes. And the No Fear version doesn't even attempt to convey any of this cultural knowledge; in fact, I'd go so far as to argue it actually conspires to hide this knowledge from students. The wordplay and allusions are either left unexplained, or completely erased, or watered down out of recognition ("Jove" becoming "a god"). Now, this isn't disastrous if your sole purpose is comprehensibility, because you don't NEED to know any of this stuff to understand the plot of As You Like It. It's lagniappe. Fluff. Part of the game of wit that Shakespeare's characters engage in, incessantly, while we busy modern people wish they would get back to the plot.

Except. Since this is a comedy, lagniappe and fluff and games and wit are sort of the entire point. And at least one of those allusions isn't a throwaway; if you do know about Jupiter and Philemon and Baucis, you're going to see little echoes all over this play, in old faithful Adam, and in the Duke's invitation to Orlando to share in their poor feast, and in the way a literal god shows up out of nowhere at the end (but maybe there have always been gods in the forest; we just didn't recognize them for what they were). It's a lovely little set of grace notes. And you can only learn to hear them if you spend some time learning early modern culture, not plots or lists of characters or Analysis of Major Themes. And the only way to learn that -- in the absence of time travel -- is by reading early modern texts. A lot. And paying attention to the footnotes.

It makes me sad that anyone would discourage students from trying.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No Fear Literature grumpery

I was poking around on the SparkNotes site today, which is something one should never do, except, like most of us, I need to go on there sometimes to verify that one of my students has been plagiarizing from it.*

Like most Shakespeare profs, I was all-too-aware of the existence of No Fear Shakespeare, but it seems that the No Fear series is branching out. There is a now a whole line of "No Fear Literature," marketed with the tag line "Read great texts in all their brilliance -- and actually understand what they mean." (I find this kind of baffling, as a marketing slogan, since it seems to imply that their target audience is stupid; wouldn't "You know you've got better things to do than read a stuffy old novel in Victorian English, so here's a crib sheet" be a little more flattering? But whatever.)

Now, I abhor No Fear Shakespeare, but I understand why it exists. I haven't got the foggiest idea why No Fear Heart of Darkness exists. (Helpfully, No Fear Heart of Darkness informs us that "Marlow said suddenly" is Ye Olde Englishe for "Marlow said out of nowhere," and that "the worst that could be said of him" means "the worst thing you could say about him.") Seriously, this is a twentieth-century text. Since when does it require translation?

And then there's No Fear Beowulf. There are, of course, plenty of very good reasons to translate Beowulf into modern English; I have nothing to say against such a project. There are fewer good reasons to translate Beowulf FROM modern English into modern English, however, and the text that SparkNotes is labeling as the "original text" very clearly is nothing of the sort. It's a fairly stodgy and old-fashioned translation of Beowulf, one that I can't imagine gets assigned very often nowadays, but it is definitely translated already. The cynic in me suspects that SparkNotes probably picked this particular text in order to manufacture a need for their product; I mean, if they'd used Seamus Heaney's version, which I suspect is the one that usually does get assigned, even high school students would probably realize that it is, in fact, perfectly readable already.

But this is what frustrates me about SparkNotes, in general; their entire business model seems to revolve around cultivating a feeling of learned helplessness in students, rather than actually teaching them how to read and think for themselves. (As much as I dislike the chirrupy, faux-hip tone of, they are at least a little better at trying to show students HOW to get from the text to an interpretation.)

Aarghh. I have ranted long enough, I suspect, so I will leave you with a brief excerpt from A No Fear Tale of Two Cities. Because apparently, rhetoric and parallelism and cadence and grace in language are scary, and must be eliminated.

It was one of the best and worst times in history. It was a time of great intelligence and ignorance, belief and disbelief, good and evil, hope and hopelessness. We had everything to live for, and we had nothing to live for. Everyone was going straight to Heaven and straight to hell. Basically, it was just like the present, with experts of the time insisting on seeing its events only in terms of contrasting extremes.

I can't wait for No Fear 1984. My irony-meter will probably explode.

* As a side note, WHY do plagiarists always plagiarize from SparkNotes? Don't they realize that it's completely Google-able, and that it is the first place most of us are going to check?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

syllabus dilemma

Let's say you usually take five days of class to teach a play, but you discover that after you've blocked off the first six weeks of class for Dr. Faustus + The Comedy of Errors + a really complicated (but hopefully worthwhile) role-playing game,* you have exactly twenty-four days left. On tap for those twenty-four days, for sure, are Much Ado, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and As You Like It, in that order. What do you do with the extra four days?

A) Insert The Merry Wives of Windsor after 2 Henry IV -- it pairs well with the H4 plays, and it's not so deep that you really need five days to teach it.

B) Cut a day from 2H4, and insert Richard II before 1H4.

C) Take a day to lecture about the stuff that happens in Richard II and show students a few key scenes and passages, but don't assign the whole play. Use the other three days to teach A LOT A LOT A LOT of sonnets.

D) Teach one of the narrative poems, which are just the right length for sliding into that space. (N.B., I've never taught V&A and barely remember it from grad school. I have taught Lucrece, and like it, but I'm not sure it works all that well with this lineup of texts -- I'd normally teach it in a sequence with Titus and Julius Caesar. OTOH, the whole obsession-with-chastity thing might pair interestingly with MAAN.)

E) What, are you STUPID? Show a MOVIE.

* Yep, I'm trying Reacting To The Past. Nope, I've never done anything remotely like this before. I may blog about it. Or I may go and hide in a corner and lick my wounds, depending on how it goes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Common-reading grumpage

So, it's time again for the annual round of freshman common-reading grumpage over at InsideHigherEd. Depending on which of the comments you read, the common-reading selections at the vast majority of universities are too new! too liberal! too nonfictional! too lightweight! too depressing!

John Warner's comments in the thread at IHE nail a lot of the difficulties, complications, and uneasy compromises of choosing a common-reading book. (Actually, John Warner pretty much nails everything all of the time, and can we please just make him Secretary of Education already?) Since I seem to have become, much to my own dismay, chair of the subcommittee that is in charge of selecting our university's common reading, I'd like to underline his point that the book has to be acceptable to faculty from across the disciplines. This, by the way, includes faculty who aren't necessarily on board with the whole liberal arts enterprise in the first place. I'm talking about faculty who want to jettison the whole program so they can spend the entire freshman experience course going over the requirements for their particular pre-professional discipline. And faculty who complain that the last few years' offerings have been insufficiently uplifting, and can't we just do an inspirational self-help book instead? And faculty who are Very Very Concerned that the book should not depict white people in our state in a bad light. (N.B., if you're going to have a common reading book about the civil rights era -- and there were several good reasons why our selection this year really needed to be about the civil rights era -- it is going to depict white people in our state in a bad light. If you don't want posterity to judge you harshly, don't behave badly.) And faculty who think it is really too much to expect students to read a whole entire book. (Call me old-fashioned, but I think somebody really needs to tell the students who are unwilling to read books that their choices are a) to become willing to read books; or b) to choose a life-path that doesn't involve college.)

Sigh. If they would just make me dictator of everything, I'd totally pick a classic. Like Lysistrata. Or The Importance of Being Earnest. Or maybe Candide. All of which have the advantage of being fun and short. But if I did that, certain people from the Pre-Professional Discipline That Shall Not Be Named would totally flip out.

Did I mention, we've been asked to start thinking about next year's reading selection more or less immediately after school reconvenes this year? I can hardly wait.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

a ranking of selected Shakespeare plays...

... according to how likely it is that the advice "Just have a threesome already" would solve everybody's problems.

Two Noble Kinsmen: YES YES HELL YES.

Troilus and Cressida: Yes; in fact, this advice would help in at least two different ways, one of which would have prevented the entire Trojan War.

Two Gentlemen of Verona: Yes.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Foursome, whatever. Yes.

Henry VIII: Yes, if Katherine could somehow be persuaded to agree to it. (Of course, some people might see "preventing the Protestant Reformation" as a problem in itself, but I'm not sure Shakespeare was one of those people.)

Twelfth Night: Maybe, although the more relevant piece of advice is probably "just be triplets already."

The Merchant of Venice: Somewhat, although it wouldn't really help with the whole anti-Semitism thing.

Hamlet: Sorta-kinda, although the advice would have to be delivered well before the play begins.

Antony and Cleopatra: Not really, although Antony / Cleopatra / Octavia might delay the beginning of the end a little bit.

Macbeth: No, unless we posit some sort of gene-splicing technology that would enable Lady Macbeth to have a baby that is Banquo's and Macbeth's. Still, they'd be stuck with the whole regicide thing.

Othello: No; Iago would still be in it, although he'd have to figure out a different line of attack.

Pericles: I don't even know who would be HAVING a threesome in this play, but I'm pretty sure it would not be a good idea to make the characters' lives more complicated than they already are.

Richard III: It wouldn't surprise me if Edward, Elizabeth, and Jane Shore were already having one, but it doesn't seem to have helped much.

The Comedy of Errors: I'm not sure there are three characters in this play who are not RELATED to each other. Ew.

The Merry Wives of Windsor: No; almost all of the problems in this play are caused by somebody wanting a threesome when no one else does.

King Lear: No. In fact, this advice is about the only thing that could make things even worse, because Regan would still be alive, and theoretically the rightful heir, at the end of the play.

Titus Andronicus: NO NO AND HELL NO. Somebody actually gives this advice in the text, with very unfortunate results.