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


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.)


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Photos, belatedly

I was going to write a proper back-from-Green-Country post a couple of weeks back, but I was about to leave for some islands (blessedly alone) to celebrate getting tenure and surviving my first travel-with-students experience, so I'll just post a few photos in which you can see the many fine shades of greenness that Green Country has to offer.

Yup, that's one of our students up on the wall. Nope, nobody fell off. There were times I felt like it wasn't for want of trying.

And nobody fell off the cliff either, so it was all good.

The sculpture had particular relevance to my class, so I showed an image one day, only to find that the students had already stumbled across it and wondered what it was. I like it when that sort of thing happens.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Texts and contexts

This is our classroom, at least most of the time; it came with enough furniture to seat eight, which was exactly the number we needed. Sometimes we go outdoors, or into the games room at the student apartment complex if we need to use the TV, and my colleague will be holding her class in the pub on Monday. (I plan to do the same for our very last session, once we are back in the capital. I figure the writer we'll be reading that day would have approved.) But most of the time, here we are hanging out in the living room / kitchenette.

And students talk. My God, do they talk. They argue about whether the Revolutionary Poet was a hero or an idiot, and whether the Playwright-and-Memoirist views the rural villagers he writes about as a separate, lesser order of people or whether he really gets them and their culture. They say smart and insightful things about the gender politics of personifying the nation as a woman. They make awesome connections to things they're learning in my colleague's class, despite the fact that her material ends about 700 years before mine begins. Some of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that they are an exceptionally self-disciplined and committed group, as evinced by the fact that they managed to scrape together $5,000 for this trip in the first place. But I also think that we have, quite accidentally, stumbled upon the ideal setting and context for a college class, and achieved something that is supposed to happen but very rarely does: students are talking to each other as much as to me, and they feel comfortable enough around each other to take up opposing positions. And there are too few of them to hide behind each other and let a tiny minority do most of the talking. It probably also helps that we have drunk beer, scrambled over rocks, and wandered through cow pastures together, all of which tend to dispel any notions that professors are a separate species.

I wish there were some way to bottle this atmosphere and bring it back with us. Maybe if we capped all of the courses at ten and installed comfy couches in every classroom, that would be a start; but I think you also need the sort of group bonding that comes through shared experience, and I don't think there is any way to make that happen artificially. (I realize that the "learning communities" trend is supposed to achieve this, but I'm skeptical about whether it actually works.)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Across the pond...

We are in Green Country, which is green as advertised. Thus far, things have gone reasonably well; at least, we made it from the US to Green Country, spent three busy and hectic days in the capital, and took the bus across the country without losing anybody or having any massive failures of planning. We may have thrown a few too many activities and tours at the students at once -- I'm not sure they took in as much as they should -- and I think we will almost certainly be looking for a different hostel in the capital if we do this again, or even apartments if we ever do this without being on a shoestring budget. (Yeah, right.) At any rate, we are now settled into our spacious, blessedly quiet new digs -- apartments in a massive student housing complex -- in a much smaller and less frenetic city, and are ready to start classes tomorrow. (It gladdened my heart to see four of our students seated around the common-room table at about eleven o'clock last night, earnestly reading modern Greenish drama. I think that we will have an enjoyably nerdy time.)

Also, it is cool seeing their horizons expand. They made friends with a German girl on the walking tour we took on the first day, and also an American who was on his way to study in Germany, and almost immediately started talking about how they wanted to go to Germany. This, in a group where two of our six traditionally-aged students had never been on a plane before we left. So yay, this is how it is supposed to go.