Monday, August 22, 2016

Fall, and cease

One of my college professors died yesterday. I found out the modern way, while taking a social media break in the middle of working on my syllabi, and it seemed right to put aside the work, and pause. This isn't the first time I've heard about the death of a former professor, but she was the first one who was clearly too young. In her photo on the department site, she doesn't look any older than she did in the fall of 1997, when I was her student in Shakespearean Tragedy.

I remembered the papers I wrote for her right away. I must have been going through a Weird Contrarian Theory phase, because in one of them, I argued that Gertrude pushed Ophelia, and in another, that the handkerchief in Othello was literally magical. The third one was about love and material wealth in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, and I don't think it had any weird theories, but it was twice as long as it was supposed to be, because I needed a writing sample for grad school. I remember that she agreed, very graciously, to let me write a paper that exceeded the bounds of the assignment, and to critique it carefully. I realize now that this was a big and somewhat presumptuous request to make at the end of the semester. If she was thinking oh no, not more grading!, she didn't let on.

I remembered, also, that she'd described Titus Andronicus as "sci-fi Rome," and when the Julie Taymor movie came out a few years later I realized just how apt that description was.

This afternoon I took my old Complete Works of Shakespeare down from the shelves. It had been my textbook for that course, but I'd also used it in freshman-year Intro to Shakespeare, and in a graduate seminar about the history plays, and another graduate seminar about revenge tragedy, and while writing my master's thesis and dissertation. So, out of the ten plays we'd read that semester -- Titus, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra -- the only ones where I could be sure my notes and underlinings were from her class were Julius Caesar, Othello, and Lear. I leafed through them all, anyway, trying to remember what was hers, and what was some other professor's, and what was mine. She was interested in inwardness, I think, in the mind. A note beside a Macbeth soliloquy: mind more compelling than reality. At various points in the margins of Brutus and Cassius's first conversation: introspective dilemma; don't look at self to see self -- look at me!; like Caesar, B. makes the mistake of looking for himself in other people's images; Stoicism is not enough. (Also, more amusingly, some instructions on how to celebrate the Lupercal: sacrifice goats, smear yourself w/blood, & run around naked striking women. Sounds like fun!) Beside Antony's "Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish" speech, one quote that I know was from her, because I labeled it: "theater of the wind" - Prof. B..

The passage that brought back her most vividly as teacher, though, had no notes at all beside it, just underlinings: King Lear's three-part threnody: Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror? Fall, and cease! I remembered being asked to write about that. Remembered that she began nearly all her classes by asking us to write about a quotation or a question; and that I'd picked up the practice in my first few years of teaching Shakespeare, and then dropped it once I began to have too much to say about the plays and too little time in which to say it.

And then I realized there was something I'd learned from her that I still do; she was the first professor I ever had who did much with film versions of Shakespeare, and in particular, the first one who showed contrasting film versions of the same scene. (On VHS, played on a tiny, wall-mounted TV; I think it was the Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson versions of Hamlet 3.4.) I am glad that she is still, in some way, part of my teaching, as I think most of my undergraduate English professors are. Perhaps we all live on a little in our students, and in the margins of our students' books.

Godspeed, Professor B. And thank you.

Friday, May 6, 2016

further grumpiness

This is surely one of the silliest, most grad-student-blaming things I've read in a while -- and I say this as someone who actually agrees that most scholarship in English isn't very interesting and that the really important, valuable work we do is teaching.

But, dude. "Research" doesn't actually mean "something that produces reproducible results, just like they do in the sciences." (There's glory for you.) Also, there might be some dissertations out there that follow the pattern “Concept X borrowed from theory Y is applied to works A, B and C that have something in common: time, author, country/group of origin, leading to this result: Z,” but this strikes me as a straw man that is about twenty years out of date, and in any case, you don't have to interview candidates with boring, formulaic dissertations. I guarantee you there's no shortage of applicants who don't. Some of them have even been adjuncts for years, and know exactly how to motivate a bunch of bored eighteen-year-olds with weak reading and writing skills.* Also, you don't have to require the candidate to do a research presentation if you aren't interested in their scholarship. (In fact, none of my campus interviews required any such thing; every single one of them required a teaching demonstration.) If you do ask candidates to give such a presentation, you're sending a clear signal that you are interested, and you have only yourself to blame if they choose to tell you about it.

Finally, if you want to see enlivening a classroom, try giving your students a bunch of cue-scripts for a scene in Shakespeare and asking them to put the scene together, early-modern-actor-rehearsal style -- which is something I wouldn't have known to do without all of the people doing research on early modern theatrical practices and uncovering facts about the objective world.

* Also, if you're at the Naval Academy and the average verbal SAT score among your entering class is 630, you've got no idea what a truly underprepared and unmotivated student population looks like. Just trust me on this one.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An irrational pet peeve

You know what I find unreasonably infuriating? Hypercorrection. For example, when students (or non-students) write "The introduction of this paper was well," when they mean it was good. Or "Mrs. Harris, whom was my high-school English teacher..." or "Give the forms to Mary and I."

For some reason, these constructions make me want to stab somebody, although other types of grammatical error do not. (I think this might have something to do with the fact that it drives me nuts when people try to be sticklers about rules without understanding the principles behind the rules.)

What are your irrational writing peeves?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sigh...

So, thanks to a lot of hard work put in by some awesome people, we have a new Center For Teaching And Learning at Misnomer U., and there are some grants available for faculty. Last semester, I put in for a grant to buy theater tickets for the students in my various lit classes, because it turns out that there are some awesome educational benefits to live theater, and also because it's really kind of stupid to ask people to read a play when they have never actually BEEN to one.

So, totally free tickets available for students. And I'm doing the driving.

It turns out that it is hard as hell to actually get students to take a few hours off to see a play. Well, I kind of knew that because I'd done this before, but I was hoping things would change when they weren't responsible for buying their own tickets. Nope. They are not interested. Or they are interested, but they're too busy for there to be a time that will actually work for them. Or they bail at the last minute, after I've already bought them a ticket. It isn't the students' fault, most of the time. It's because they have complicated lives: they had kids way too young and their child-care arrangements fell though, or they're working full time while also taking a full load of classes and their boss keeps changing the schedule on them. I totally get it. But I wish things were otherwise. And the ones who DO show up often seem not to be the ones who would benefit the most; they tend to be the ones who actually HAVE seen a play before, and are maybe even theater majors, and the ones who are visibly engaged in class and basically getting it.

So I'm off to see some Tom Stoppard today, with two students out of the twenty enrolled in Brit Lit II. I hope neither of them bails. (At least this grant thing has made me a lot more Zen about people bailing, because I don't have the choice between getting stuck with the price of the ticket myself or trying to chase down the student and get them to pay for a show they didn't actually get to see.)

I was right around their age when I first saw this particular play. I might still have the program somewhere. My parents took me -- because it was the first US run and of course they were excited about seeing it, and of course they waited until I was home on spring break. It wasn't my first play by a long shot. It wasn't even my first Tom Stoppard. I want things to be that uncomplicated for my students. It turns out that it takes more than a bit of money to uncomplicate them -- and yet, money is surely at the core of why this is so hard.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Pedagogy musings: necessary vs. plausible interpretations

So I have been grading poetry papers, which is a thing one should never do on a gloriously beautiful Saturday in April, particularly if they are papers from a gen ed lit survey. And I have been thinking about all the things that go wrong when we teach literature, and, especially, about the different types of interpretations we talk about, and how I, at least, am very not-good at teaching students to distinguish them from one another.

First of all, there is the necessary interpretation -- something that you absolutely need to get in order to make sense of the work at all, but you still need some level of interpretative sophistication to get there. For example, in My Last Duchess, "the speaker is an irrationally jealous control freak who certainly made his wife's life miserable, regardless of whether he literally murdered her or not" is a necessary interpretation; if you don't get that out of the text, you aren't getting the poem. But many students, particularly in gen ed classes, do not get that out of the text without prompting, since the Duke isn't about to TELL you he's a control freak. (Some students do not even get "the speaker's wife is dead and he's showing somebody a picture of her" out of the text; I'm never sure what to do about those.) So most of us, in gen ed classes, spend a fair amount of time explaining HOW the poem shows that this is the case. In that sort of situation, you really do need to teach a specific interpretation, and try to make sure the class is on the same page about it.

But there's also the plausible interpretation, one that is clearly grounded in the text, but does not absolutely have to be the case. Mutually-contradictory plausible interpretations can co-exist. For example, I could argue that the Duke is so convinced of his own rightness that he has no idea how much he's just revealed about his character, and then suddenly at the end of the poem he does realize it, and his "Nay, we'll go / Together down, sir" is a desperate attempt to keep his listener from ducking out and telling the-Count-his-Master to break off the marriage negotiations right now. You, on the other hand, could argue that he knows exactly how much he's revealing, and wants the man to repeat it all to the Count's fair daughter so she will know what sort of behavior he expects of his next wife, and what will happen to her if she doesn't obey. We're both right; or at least we are if we can find sufficient textual justification for our respective interpretations.

Mostly, I want my students to accept the necessary interpretations and debate the plausible ones, but it occurs to me that I'm kind of crap at explaining how we distinguish between one and the other, and if we're lucky enough to get to the point in class where a student advances a plausible interpretation and defends it reasonably well, my first instinct is to repeat it and praise it and show the class some other stuff in the poem that could support the student's reading. But that tends to cut off discussion, because of course the other students are all thinking "well, that's it, she's clearly got it right, and I must be wrong if I didn't see that, so I'm just going to sit here on my hands and be glad nobody noticed." (This is invariably what happens in gen ed; English majors generally know that a work can have multiple interpretations, although they may be shy about openly disagreeing with someone else's.)

And then there's the plausible-interpretation-with-extra-stuff -- for example, a reading of "My Last Duchess" that situates it in the context of Victorian patriarchy, and suggests that Browning is really critiquing his own culture when he's ostensibly writing about a Renaissance Duke. This is exactly the kind of interpretation that we want our upper-level students to do in their research papers, and therefore we need to model it for them at some point, but teaching it in a lower-level survey is problematic, because it's usually not an interpretation that the students could have come up with for themselves on the basis of what they know right now, so it tends to reinforce the impression that the Professor Knows All and Poetry Is Way Too Hard For Me To Get The Right Answer By Myself. (Well, I think it's problematic; some of my grad school professors saw absolutely nothing wrong with teaching their own research, even at the sophomore-survey level.) But for some works, it's necessary (you cannot, for example, teach An Irish Airman Foresees His Death without some amount of historical context, even though it's not at all a difficult poem for students to read. At least, I do not see how to teach it.) Ideally, you could just provide the context-mini-lecture at the beginning of class, give the students what they need, and turn them loose on the texts, but this never seems to work that well when I try it in practice.

(Also, I'm suddenly remembering that I hated English lit up until tenth grade or so, because my teachers kept teaching plausible interpretations -- such as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is Really About Contemplating Suicide -- as if they were necessary interpretations, and I felt sort of stifled, because that was not an interpretation that I would have come up with, and there suddenly didn't seem to be any room for it to be a poem about how pretty the woods were at night. I don't know whether I started drawing better teachers at that point, ones who did make the distinction, or whether I just happened to get a run of teachers whose plausible interpretations didn't annoy me too much. I hope I do not stifle my students. But I am not sure I don't.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

For our Honors scholarship candidates, a piece of unsolicited advice

You know that place on the application where it asks you to write about the achievement you're most proud of? Consider not using it to tell us about your 4.0 GPA.

Tell us about that cool science project you did. Tell us how you're always starting novels and you finally finished one. Tell us how you got promoted to manager at your job. Tell us about the first meal you cooked by yourself. Tell us how you took care of your grandmother when she was dying. Tell us about the time you protested that awful policy at your school and succeeded in getting it changed. Or tell us how you didn't succeed, but you still think it was the right thing to do.

Tell us about something real. (Numbers on a transcript are not real.) Tell us about something that will stay with you. (Your 4.0 will not stay with you. One muffed test, or one cranky teacher, and it's gone forever. You will not miss it.)

If you must tell us about your grades, tell us about how you blew off ninth grade geometry for half a semester and panicked when you realized your midterm average was a 47% and your parents were absolutely going to kill you when they found out, and then you buckled down and turned yourself into a geometry machine for the next nine weeks and managed to bring your final grade up to a hard-won C. And that was how you realized you were actually good at math when you could be bothered to put in the time and effort.

Oh wait, that wasn't you, that was me. (They let me into college anyway. They even let me be a professor, eventually.) And it happened back in 1991, before parents could check their kid's grades online every single night and find out about every missed homework assignment at once; back when teachers could assign an F and make it stick.

I think I see the problem here...

Monday, February 8, 2016

How to comment on an online news article about higher education: a helpful list of rhetorical tropes

1) Refer to everything outside of higher education as "the real world," with the implication that colleges and universities are somehow unreal.

2) Refer to all students who express opinions you dislike as "coddled." As nobody ever uses the word "coddled" any more to describe anything except These Kids Today, this is a particularly useful way to create the impression that their ideas can be discounted automatically.

3) Describe all professors as left-wing Marxist tenured radicals. (Unless, of course, the news story you are commenting on is about the latest "disruptive" innovation or technology, in which case it should be taken as read that all professors are hide-bound conservatives who refuse to change anything ever. In either case, their opinions can safely be dismissed.)

4) Mention Saul Alinsky a lot. Nobody has the foggiest idea who this is, so he can be used as a convenient shorthand for All Things Vaguely Menacing, and you'll sound super-smart while you're doing it.

5) Pick a random arts-and-humanities course with a normal title, such as "Existentialist Philosophy" or "Eighteenth-Century Literature," and refer to it as a "major." Demand to know where all the jobs are for the eighteenth-century literature majors, and express your sincere concern that they need to be saved from themselves.

6) Pick a random arts-and-humanities course with a somewhat odd title, such as "Taco Literacy," and hold it up as an example of Everything Wrong With Every University Ever. Do this in the comment threads on stories that have nothing whatsoever to do with this particular course. (Or, in general, cherry-pick the strangest and most extreme example you can find of anything, treat it as a typical example, and shoehorn it into the comments on stories that have nothing to do with that thing.)

7) Refer to all fields of academic inquiry that focus on people other than white men as "Grievance Studies," and declare them to be intellectually and morally bankrupt by definition. If you do this often enough, and loudly enough, you will be excused from having to explain how you know this.

8) Ah, hell, you might as well declare all fields that end with "studies" to be intellectually and morally bankrupt by definition. If you are feeling particularly generous, you might make an exception for Religious Studies, Classical Studies, or International Studies ... no, on second thought, you've never seen any job ads with any of those fields in the title of the position, so it's safe to say they're all equally pointless.

9) Assume that liberal arts colleges, liberal arts majors, a liberal arts curriculum, and political liberalism are all exactly the same thing.

10) Conflate "holding an unpopular opinion" with "being a member of a minority group," and, in general, fail to distinguish between categories-based-on-opinion-and-belief and categories-based-on-identity. This will allow you, for example, to accuse people who disagree with you of hate speech, or to call for affirmative action for people who do agree with you. If anybody calls you on this, mention look, a squirrel! Rachel Dolezal.

ETA: 11) When citing examples of wasteful university spending, be sure to mention climbing walls. Never any other sort of sports or recreational equipment. Always climbing walls.

... I need to stop reading the comments, don't I?