Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bianca and Kate: a Misnomer U story

I've been in two minds about whether to post about this, but about a month and a half ago, one of our study abroad students -- I'll call her Bianca -- started making noises about possibly having to withdraw from the trip. This alarmed us considerably, since we were already at minimum numbers. Bianca offered no further explanation, but her friend, Kate, eventually turned up in my co-leader's office to explain that Bianca's family was in grave financial difficulty, and that while she had been able to scrape together (just) enough to make the payments, she wasn't sure she'd be able to buy textbooks, food, or anything else while we were away. To compound matters, some of her family were opposed to her spending money on what they saw as a luxury.

Bianca is a good student, but very quiet. Kate is the opposite, loud and brash and confident. It appeared that Kate had actually lent Bianca some of the money that she had been using to make the payments. Bianca, she explained, never got to do fun things like this, and Kate didn't really need the money right now. I don't know Kate's exact background, but I went out for tapas with her and her uncle once (because that is the sort of thing that happens sometimes at small colleges), and they struck me as probably very comfortably upper-middle-class. Kate, I think, had an upbringing that lent her a much more expansive sense of what is possible, and surmised that the faculty might be able to do something about Bianca's situation if they knew about it. And -- again because this is the sort of thing that happens at small colleges -- she was absolutely correct. We went to the Dean, who is AWESOME and immediately offered to buy the books himself, and to the chair of my department (because Bianca is one of our majors, but also because my chair knows everybody and can pull a lot of strings). They swung into action, and the upshot is that Bianca should have a fair chunk of emergency-scholarship money coming to cover her living expenses. Happy ending. (The sum of money, I should note, is in the three-digit range -- the sort of amount that seems big when you're a college student but laughably small later in life.)

So, a couple of things about this story: First, of course, it wouldn't happen at a state flagship university. You need to be at a place with a short enough chain of command, and a dean who knows individual students, and is willing to go to bat for them. You also need a few people who see travel, and all those other little enriching experiences, as an integral part of educating students. So, not the kind of thing that happens at a totally no-frills institution either, although I think no-frills colleges serve a useful purpose.

But more than all that, this story doesn't have a happy ending without Kate. And that, I think, is the real virtue of an institution like ours -- a public liberal arts college, not super-exclusive but academically solid. We're accessible to the Biancas, but we're also attractive to the Kates, and we're small enough that they'll meet up and befriend each other instead of stratifying into their own little cliques by the end of freshman orientation. And when students from different backgrounds come together, some pretty awesome things can happen. But it seems to me that they happened more often a generation ago, and are likely to happen less in the future -- because there are such big, class-based differences in colleges people aspire to attend in the first place, and as tuition goes up and up, the message from the media is increasingly becoming elites to the fancy R1s, plebes to the community colleges and for-profits, nothing in the middle.

But for now? We have a little space where the Biancas and Kates can and do meet, and where there are several people committed to making sure Bianca gets the chance to travel outside of the country for the first time in her life. And I'm proud to work in that little space. That is something.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fleeing the country (with students)

So, I have not been blogging about this because I didn't want to jinx it, and it has been touch and go whether we could get and keep enough students for the trip to make, but I think it is time to make it official: In less than two months, a colleague and I will be leading our first study abroad trip. We'll be flying out of Nearest Large City to our destination -- let's call it Green Country* -- spending a few days in the capital city hitting the tourist sites pretty heavily, going to Quieter City and staying there for three weeks, and then heading back to the capital for another week before going home. Somewhere in there, we both teach accelerated summer-term classes. Mine, I must confess, is cobbled together from a single graduate course on Greenish literature that I took fifteen years ago and a few texts that I've taught in survey classes, and I am feeling massively underqualified to teach it -- but there has to be a first time for everything, and at least I do know a lot about figuring out the logistics of travel-on-the-cheap, which is certainly a relevant skill if not an academic one. Somehow I ended up in charge of all the budgeting and finances. (Yes, that is the sort of thing one might normally expect the study abroad office to handle. No, they don't. Long story.)

We originally planned this as an Honors trip, which would have come with a built-in audience with travel scholarships, but for various reasons that ended up not happening. So after recruiting like crazy, we're taking five non-Honors students from Misnomer U., and one retiree from the community who's coming along as an auditor, and one student from a neighboring university. That was exactly the number we needed for the trip to make, so we've been keeping our fingers crossed nobody would drop out. There isn't much of a culture of study abroad here outside of the Honors program, and most of the students don't have the money (nor are there scholarships available for non-Honors folk). But we made it. That feels like a triumph. And in the end, I'm glad that we're doing this outside of Honors. Because I love the Honors students, but they have so many opportunities handed to them that really should be available to all of our students, and this group has worked so hard to come up with the money themselves and find ways to make it all happen.

We just held an orientation session, in which we threw way too much information at our students and fielded questions ranging from the predictable ("Will I be old enough to drink in Green Country?"**) to the moderately wacky ("Can I bring an acoustic guitar in a gig bag?"***), and it's finally starting to feel real.

It's going to be interesting. Ever since grad school, I have been used to using travel as a way to get away from my everyday academic life, or even, secretly in my heart of hearts, regarding my academic life as a way to finance travel. And it has become a way to turn into a different person for a while, one who doesn't give a damn about student evaluations or readers reports, one who feels younger and less tied-down, takes bigger risks, strikes up quick friendships with strangers and then says goodbye as quickly. One thing I haven't ever tried to do is combine these two lives. (I'm wondering, now, what sort of teacher I will become in Green Country, where our classes will be taught here-there-and-everywhere -- in our lodgings, maybe outdoors sometimes, maybe in the pub -- and whether I will bring that teaching persona back with me.)

* No, not Greenland. We're nowhere near that exotic.
** Yes, you will. Hopefully you won't do anything stupid.
*** Well, you COULD, but we really aren't sure you want to.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Shakesblogging 450: Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and second person pronouns

I'm teaching Othello this week, and I went to see a touring production with some of the students yesterday. God, that play is good. I say this as someone who isn't really a tragedy person. (OK, I like Desdemona because she is really a comedy heroine -- plucky, witty, independent of mind -- before being trapped in a foreign country and an abusive marriage takes that from her. You realize what a great character she is when you watch it. When students only read it, I think the submissive Desdemona of the last two acts tends to loom larger in their minds; but she is desperate, and bewildered, and has no good options by then.)

One of my favorite features of early modern English is the difference between "you" and "thou." (Well, favorite in that it's fun to look at in the classroom. I'm very glad I don't speak a language where you have to make such distinctions in everyday life, as I suspect it's a social minefield and I have enough trouble with unwritten social rules as it is.)

One of the things I always like pointing out in the classroom, when I teach 3.3, is that Desdemona starts "thou"-ing Cassio around line 20 or so: it's the equivalent of a verbal pat on the shoulder, an everything's-going-to-be-all-right moment. Which, of course, it isn't -- because the other striking thing about this scene is that Desdemona doesn't address her husband as "thou," not when she's trying to coax him to pardon Cassio, nor anywhere else in the play. He uses "thou" with her; she never uses anything but "you" with him, although she's willing to get more informal with Cassio, Emilia, and even Iago.

Iago's choice of Cassio isn't random. There's a real closeness there, a level of intimacy that she doesn't share with Othello, despite his best efforts. It's a totally innocent closeness (Desdemona seems to have a penchant for innocent opposite-sex friendships, a relationship that I believe is not actually supposed to exist in early modern society), and it's understandable that she's a little in awe of her much-older, war hero husband; but it gives Iago something to build on.

Close reading for fun and profit!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Shakesblogging 450: Scattered Thoughts on Timon of Athens

So, after I finished my tenure portfolio and before the massive stacks of papers started to come in, I took off for the big city to see Timon of Athens. (There are also baby pandas there, which were ADORABLE, but this is not really a blog about pandas, so I shall restrain myself.) Anyway, when I heard there was going to be a production in a vaguely-nearby city, I figured I should go because it was one of the five plays I needed to see to complete the canon; but then I went to see the same company do Troilus and Cressida, which actually made me excited about Timon. The production of Troilus was fantastic, and they're similar plays, I think, darkly funny and cynical in similar ways, and totally unlike anything else Shakespeare ever wrote. I wasn't disappointed: it turns out that Timon is a lot more coherent in performance than I would have expected, and more entertaining.

Most of the actors were masked (and pretty much all of the parts were credited just as "Ensemble"), the exceptions being Timon, Flavius, Apemantus, and Alcibiades, our four truth-tellers. Everyone else was interchangeable, which makes sense, because this is not really a play about characters. (I'm wondering now whether it would have a better reputation if it had come down to posterity as a Middleton play, because you don't expect Middleton to be about characters, just about masks and hypocrisy and people doing nasty things to one another and being ironically witty about it.) But there was one moment I found heartbreakingly sad in ways that I did NOT expect; near the end when Timon drives Flavius off, Flavius puts on a mask for the first time.

One of the things that struck me was how many references there were to people "eating" Timon; there's one line where Apemantus actually imagines the guests dipping their food in Timon's blood, a grotesque bit of Last Supper-ish imagery. And it made me think, Timon is kind of trying to be Jesus, walking around and performing miracles for people, and then he turns out to be spectacularly unable to cope with the fact that the full Christ-figure package includes being betrayed, despised, and martyred. (But then, Jesus didn't have to deal with the discovery that ALL of his dinner companions were Judases, except one. Really, it's a pretty neat reversal.)

The whole idea of retreating from the world, of turning your back on society and its hypocrisies and going out in the wilderness to be philosophers, strikes me as one of the big themes that comes up again and again in Shakespeare, from Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It, down through Lear and Timon, to The Tempest. But this is really the only one where the characters don't come back to society in the end, or at least try to create a new society on their own terms. They don't find growth or self-awareness either, only stasis.

As a side note, I kind of wonder if this might be John Shakespeare's story, right down to the finding-gold-in-random-places bit (in the form of a dutiful son getting unexpectedly rich in a new and disreputable profession). I wonder if Will never finished it because it hit too close to home.

Monday, January 20, 2014

binders of woman

So, yeah. This is it, the moment of truth in every assistant professor's life. The small binder is my actual application for tenure and promotion, the big-ass one is all the supporting documentation. (Mainly: evaluations for every damn course I have ever taught.) I'm surprised it crept up on me so soon. It feels like yesterday that I was applying for this job.

And, you know, I feel surprisingly un-nervous about it all. I've got five years of excellent evaluations from two different chairs, and the general institutional culture at Misnomer U. is that denials are rare and usually for good cause, so I think I'll be OK unless something really wacky happens, like the new provost suddenly deciding to raise the institution's research profile without telling anyone. (OK, I am a tiny bit worried about the new provost.)

But the guy who blew up the microwave oven in the faculty lounge TWICE has tenure. I need to keep reminding myself of that.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Shakesblogging 450: Happy Twelfth Night!

Fulfilling my resolution to post more regularly, even if it's just idle and random thoughts about Shakespeare:

Today is Twelfth Night, and who doesn't love Twelfth Night? It's certainly one of my favorites, at least most of the time. (I always have problems answering the "what is your favorite Shakespeare play?" question, because I change my mind all the time, and I certainly can't pick just one anyway. Shakespeare is awesome because he's varied. But Twelfth Night is delightfully varied in itself, so it is a pretty good pick.)

Anyway, I've just been thinking: I really like Orsino. Students tend not to like him all that much, because yeah, he is silly and self-dramatizing and "in love with being in love" (somebody always uses this exact phrase, every single time I teach this play). And he does say some dumb, sexist things, although it's hard to take him seriously when he turns around and says the opposite thing five minutes later. Opals and changeable taffeta, indeed.

So by the end of Act One, you can see exactly why Olivia doesn't want him, but you also see why Viola does. Because she gets to know him as his servant, and this is a man who is consistently polite and generous to his social inferiors. Valentine assures Viola that he's not "inconstant in his favors" where his servants are concerned; he also accepts Feste's teasing with good grace and insists on paying him properly for his song, even when Feste insists that it's no trouble at all. It's a nice little set of character notes; and it's particularly nice that he starts to get over his posing and eventually wakes up to Viola's love for him because he listens to his servant. He doesn't just treat "Cesario" as a convenient sounding board; he asks questions, pays attention to the answers, and apparently remembers every word of it later ("Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.")

(All this characterization, by the way, for someone who isn't even in the play all that much -- he's got a grand total of four scenes and fifty-nine speeches, and disappears for two whole acts in the middle. Orsino is right up there with Shylock, in terms of being a presence without actually being present all that much.)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Happy (busy) New Year!

Holy hell, has it been almost three months since my last post? Here's what has been going on in my life:

1) I moved. In the middle of the semester. Into faculty housing, which I've always been sort of ambivalent about, because it feels like acknowledging that I have no life whatsoever in this town outside of Misnomer U. But it is RIDICULOUSLY cheap and only two blocks away from campus, and since it had been five years since the last time I moved, I had forgotten how hellish moving was. And because I am really NOT good at housekeeping and organization and all that, I've been living among the boxes and sort of hoping they will unpack themselves; and because AT&T is EVIL, I still don't have Internet access at the new place. (Which is a good excuse for not blogging during the semester, but I will admit that I decamped to my parents' house for almost the entire break, in part to get away from the boxes, so I haven't had that excuse for some three weeks.)

2) I have been busy with stuff that I don't want to jinx by blogging about, like trying to plan a brand-new summer study abroad trip from scratch, and like going up for tenure. I feel like both of these things could go horribly wrong if I talk about them the wrong way. You'll get to hear about them when they are over.

3) I have been trying to revise the Edited Collection Chapter from Hell in a way that might possibly please the (apparently very grumpy) external reviewer. I am deathly afraid of jinxing this, too, so that's all I'm going to say about it.

4) Conversely, the other chapter for the other edited collection seems to have sailed through the review process, receiving about three lines of blandly positive comment and one request for a very minor revision. This is, I think, the difference between writing about the most canonical work by a majorly canonical writer and writing about an obscure play that no one ever reads or performs. I swear that any scholarship I attempt after this will be confined to the second category.

5) I'm running a Shakespeare film series this spring! (The honorarium for my award-thingy turned out to be just enough to pay for it, so I figured that was a sign that we needed to have one. And yeah, I'm a sucker for doing this out of pocket, but it seemed like a whole lot less trouble than trying to persuade someone else to fund it, and it's not like Shakespeare turns 450 every year.)

So yeah, that's my life. I'm starting to feel a bit like I made vows of chastity and poverty to Misnomer U., in exchange for a job, a succession of long lazy summers, and a sense that I'll be looked after. And you know what? I think I'm OK with that bargain, as long as they don't demand obedience also. (Which they might, unfortunately. Which is another story, and a totally unbloggable one.)

Anyway, I swear I will be better at this blogging thing in the new year. Maybe I'll do another series of Shakespeare posts, because I'm always up for geeking out about Shakespeare, and hey -- 450!