Monday, November 24, 2014

paradox

Just tell me what you want.

We want you to have some ideas you didn't get from a book, or from us. We want to push you beyond what you already know how to do. We want you to try things that are just beyond your abilities. We want you to experiment. We want you to make mistakes. We want to see growth, creativity, interesting failure. We want your reach to exceed your grasp; we want you to strive to do, and agonize to do, and fail in doing, not to tone it all down to yonder sober pleasant Fiesole. We want the jagged, awkward edges of a first effort, the unpredictable eruptions of discovery.

But then we have to put a grade on it. God damn.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Late-mid-semester grumpiness

I was going to do a proper post of Thinky Thoughts about the UNC athletics scandal, but at the moment this semester is kicking my ass six ways to Sunday, and I am too exhausted even to think. (Seriously, SHOOT me if I ever sign on to teach the one-credit Intro to College Life class again. $1,000 extra is SO not enough for a thirteenth hour of class time every week, and you have to spend SO much time herding freshmen: nagging them to do the online journal posts, arranging community service opportunities and hoping some of them show up, explaining the concept of comments on a paper -- which I wouldn't think would be that foreign, but two of them looked at me in utter confusion and seemed to think I wanted them to rewrite the paper. Dear God, do their high school teachers not comment at all on their work when they grade it? No wonder nobody can write.)

This particular crop of freshmen seems particularly flaky; there are about three in the entire class who are consistently completing all the assignments, and two of them are international students. Of the others, there are one or two who are consistently bright, friendly, and participatory in class, but who are well on their way to failing because they aren't completing ANY of the quizzes and journal assignments; several more who are obviously sullen and resentful but are at least making a gesture towards doing the work, and a bunch in the middle I haven't really got a read on yet. Are freshmen always like this, and I just blot it out from year to year? Or has NCLB finally ruined us forever?

I have also been having a lot of Weird Shit going on in my not-actually-freshman comp class (it's second-semester comp in the fall, so it's a motley mix of sophomores through seniors, with one true freshman who had early college credit, and one who started in the spring last year.) The latest incident, which will probably be making me cringe for years to come, involved a student who had been trying hard and doing poorly in idiosyncratic ways that suggested, to my untrained eye, that there might be disability issues involved, whether diagnosed or not. I submitted a report through the online-early-warning-reporting system, which the administration has been pushing hard for us to use, describing the student's issues in the candid and unvarnished terms one uses when talking confidentially to a colleague, suggesting he certainly needed tutoring and might need disability services...

... And by mistake, they forwarded the report to the student by e-mail. Word for word. I suppose I should be grateful that he doesn't actually seem to be bearing a grudge, and that it WASN'T a report complaining about the student's behavior, but THAT level of incompetence really does not make me inclined to trust the early-reporting system ever again.

So yeah, that's what it's been like for the last few weeks. This is the point in the semester when I find myself getting irrationally angry about stupid stuff, like students using the word "mechanicals" to refer to Bottom and colleagues in a paper on MND. (I'm never sure whether, or how, to correct this, since some professional literary critics do it, and they probably picked it up from their earlier teachers -- but seriously, would anybody think it was appropriate to call Shylock "the infidel" or Othello "the thick-lips" just because other characters do it? Why do class-based pejoratives get a pass?)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Herrick, again

I have been reading a lot of Herrick lately, between my current early modern poetry class and a thematic thing that I want to do next time I teach Brit Lit I. I read all of Herrick the summer after I finished grad school, sitting on the tiny patio of my old apartment with a glass of white wine and a bowl of strawberries; it seemed like fun, pleasant summer poetry then.

Coming to these poems once more, after six years and odd months in Deep South Town, after tenure, knowing that I will have much the same sort of life for the foreseeable future, is something else again. I find myself identifying a lot more with Herrick. Both his discontent, and his moments of satisfaction with the life he has, seem very familiar. (One of my students -- one prone to flashes of brilliance -- pointed out that To Live Merrily, and to Trust to Good Verses is all about being part of this awesome imagined community of poets, the community that he can't have in real life, not in Devonshire anyway.) I wonder if maybe he meant to marry and have children, only to find -- after he got there -- that it just wasn't going to happen, not here, not among these people. I wonder if Prudence Baldwin kept his bed warm for him. I wonder what drew him back after the Restoration, even though he seems to have planned, or at least wished, otherwise. (In this age of air travel, exile is seldom so permanent or the joy of return so profound, but I recognize the feeling: I have it, in miniature, every time I visit the big East Coast city that is home.) I wonder which is more real, the sense of exile or the interest in country customs and pleasures. I think Herrick and I would have had a lot to talk about if we met.

And I've been thinking about The Argument of His Book, the way the first four lines in particular are so much about the everyday stuff of a country parson's life, and how slowly, by degrees, his subject matter turns into a world of imagination and speculation, by turns frivolous and fanciful and profoundly serious. I suppose the stuff of all of our lives is like that. I do think the life and work I have here matters, and that is something.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Pet favorites

I'm teaching Northanger Abbey and Love's Labour's Lost back to back this week, and I'm struck by how much both of these texts seem to push my particular buttons. I know perfectly well that they're early works, a bit rough around the edges, and that both authors would go on to write things that were far more polished and profound -- but seldom, I think, so delightful.

I think it's something about the characters. They're like the best college students you ever had. They're so young, clever and earnest idealistic, by turns very silly and very perceptive*, and passionately in love with books and words. And they're innocent with the sort of first-youth innocence that can't and doesn't last, even in a gentle coming-of-age comedy, but the authors are so clearly taking joy in exploring that innocence and its potential, rather than in crushing it. That's actually quite rare, at least in Literature-with-a-capital-L, and I find it irresistible.

What are your pet favorites?

* Gotta give Catherine her props here. She picks exactly the right villain when she's rewriting her life as a Gothic novel, and I think it takes her influence for the usually-older-and-wiser Henry to see that his dad is a genuinely bad person, and that he and Eleanor have spent their lives quietly making excuses for him.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Random beginning-of-the-semester bullets

-- The university cafeteria's latest innovation is ... water with berries in it. It's nice, I guess, but I keep wondering if we have all been implicitly cast as Caliban.

-- You know how every department has that one wacky faculty member? Ours is harmless and friendly, and when he does things like blowing up the microwave, it is always completely by accident. Now that I have a front-row seat for a different department's internal drama, I am beginning to feel like I have never appreciated him enough.

-- The problem with those one-credit "student success" courses that are meant to increase retention is that you obviously have to have requirements and policies and instructions if you're going to give students credit for the class. And yet, the sort of students who are inclined to drop out of college tend to be precisely the ones who have immense difficulty following requirements and policies and instructions, so the next thing you know the class has turned into a sequence of hurdles that keep tripping them up, and they end up with a C or D or F in it, which probably doesn't increase retention. I wonder if there is any good way to teach students to do college who don't already know how to do college.

-- Teaching Romeo and Juliet for the first time in forever. I quite like this play, but I'm reminded of why I don't teach it very often; it's because students THINK they know it too well (and sometimes actually do know it pretty well), so a lot of the class discussion feels too glib, a recitation of canned answers rather than a process of discovery. I tried plugging in R&J's first two big speeches in the balcony scene into Wordle, and I think that helped a little -- you can see the clusters of related words more clearly, and how much they get used in proportion to each other, and it defamiliarizes the speeches a bit.

-- We have a huge influx of international students from one particular country this year, so many that campus rec has ordered a crate of cricket supplies. (No, it isn't either of the two countries that probably come to mind immediately when you think about cricket.) I rather think pickup cricket games will add a welcome degree of quirkiness to the campus, so I hope it takes off.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ugh...

So my department chair wishes to create this mostly-online graduate program, let's say that it's in Advanced Mopery. I don't actually teach Mopery, and there are only two people on campus who do, but the graduate program is intended to be sort of cross-disciplinary, so there are a bunch of literature classes attached to it. (All theoretical classes at this point, taught by theoretical faculty.) The senior Mopery professor wants to list me as one of these potential theoretical faculty on the proposal, so this is where I come in.

I am not wholly opposed to the concept, especially if it means I get to teach less freshman comp, but it seems to me that 1) teaching an online graduate class would be a hell of a lot of work, particularly since the topics for these classes are sort of ... far-ranging. (This is not the sort of program where you can teach a seminar on whatever your dissertation topic was and call it a day.) And 2) we teach a 4-4 load, we don't have a whole lot of support for research or travel or intensive study of new works of literature, and the institution really, really does not have the resources to change this. Nor, as far as I can tell, will there be a pay bump for teaching a grad class. And, in fact, Department Chair and Senior Mopery Professor seem to be working with the cavalier assumption that if you start the program first, the resources will eventually come, and then they will be able to hire new faculty, and compensate the existing faculty, and so forth. Whereas I am of the opinion that if you start giving away milk for free, nobody will offer to take the damn cow off your hands.

Oh, and the junior Mopery professor (who is no longer very junior, being tenured, and who is also well on his way to becoming somewhat famous) ALSO really does not want to teach in this program without some reasonable level of additional compensation, which the Powers That Be have positively refused to give him. At which point he basically washed his hands clean of the whole thing and left them to figure out how to put this program together without him. I am not sure that Chair and Senior Mopery Professor have realized that he is, in fact, the one with the leverage in this situation, and that he has very, very good odds of getting a better job elsewhere. (Let it suffice to say that if you Google his name, the first twelve or so hits are not us, and they include quite a few articles in national media.)

Chair knows how to work systems like nobody's business, so I'm reluctant to say that she and Senior Mopery Professor are being delusional; she is also a seriously awesome and ridiculously hard-working person who basically bleeds in the school colors, but I think that in this case this is part of the problem, because she has a hard time remembering that for the rest of us, this is in fact a job that we are paid to do, rather than the great calling of our life. (And yeah, everybody in academia has a hard time remembering that sometimes, but with Chair it's on a whole other level and most of the time it's great, until she starts expecting it of other people.)

Fuck, I really like and respect all of these people, and I don't want this to turn into a massive departmental feud, but I see almost no way that it doesn't. Meanwhile, I want to be a good citizen, but I really feel like I can't get behind this program and don't particularly want to teach in it, especially if there's no prospect of getting so much as a course release. Because in the end, it is extra work, and work deserves compensation (and grad students deserve faculty who aren't all stretched out like taffy). I said so, pretty much, in the department meeting today, and I feel like I've suddenly flipped the switch from being the Mousy Assistant Professor whom everyone liked, to being a Mouthy Associate Professor who is about to have enemies, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that, either. But tenure means not only that you can speak up about things, but that you sort of have to, right?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Shakespeare journalism grumpage

I really try not to get grumpy about other people's takes on Shakespeare. First of all, there is too much of that sort of thing in the world already; and secondly, I'm of the opinion that the more people there are thinking and talking about Shakespeare, the better, especially if they're doing it outside of traditional academic channels. (Well, OK, not if they're talking about authorship conspiracy theories, but that isn't really talking about Shakespeare.)

That said, this is a seriously dumb, reductive reading by an author who appears not to get the concept of drama. The whole point of Shakespeare is that he's writing characters, for God's sake, and that those characters are complex and flawed, and, moreover, that he has a peculiar gift for expressing multiple perspectives compellingly! For every ringing set-piece speech, there is a "Yes, but...", usually within a scene or two. Anybody who claims to be able to infer from the plays what Shakespeare's politics were is not only deluding themselves, but missing the reason why we read Shakespeare in the first place. (I think one of the reasons why pronouncements like Berlatsky's get under my skin is that teaching students to value and embrace ambiguity is perhaps the single most valuable thing we do in literary studies, and it drives me crazy when people don't get this.)

Full disclosure: I have my sneaking suspicions, and the answer I'd come up with is almost the polar reverse of Berlatsky's -- and I'd point to a lot of moments in its defense, from Isabella's courageous defiance of Angelo to Michael Williams's searching questions on the eve of Agincourt. And at least one of those moments, the Argument of The Rape of Lucrece, has the advantage of being one of those rare bits of text that Shakespeare seems to have written in his own person and from his own perspective. But I'd never be so arrogant as to claim that "my" Shakespeare is the only possible Shakespeare, or that we know for sure what he thought about anything.

(Also, if you're seriously going to argue that the Henry IV plays are a warning against rulers consorting with people who are beneath them, you've pretty much missed everything that Hal takes away from his time in the tavern. There's a reason why he ends up being a more effective leader than good old Dad, who never really gets what his son is doing in the Boar's Head, even though he did that sort of thing himself once upon a time. Granted, the plays work a bit better as a warning to the people on the lower end of the social scale against consorting too much with their rulers. God send the companions a better prince.)

Harrumph.