Wednesday, September 26, 2018

"Chees now": some thoughts on the Wife of Bath's Tale

Wife of Bath's Tale in Brit Lit I today, which seemed very apposite. I didn't bring up current events -- I almost never do in class -- and neither did the students, but I've been thinking about the tale all day.

When I first encountered the Wife of Bath's Tale, at the age of twenty, I fell in love with it at once; it seemed like an awesome badass fable of female power. I've noticed a shift in the last few years, with this newer, woker, generation of students. They want more from it. They want the rapist to be punished more harshly, and his victim not to simply disappear. One of them, last year, wondered whether Chaucer had ever actually met a woman. I can't really fault them for wanting these things, but I still love the tale as it is.

The Canterbury Tales -- along with most of Shakespeare's plays and Joyce's "The Dead" -- is one of those rare works I can teach year after year and still notice something new every time. This time, what I noticed most was the verb chese: choose, or chose -- Middle English spelling makes no very consistent distinction between the present and the past. It's all over this tale; the Wife of Bath uses it at least nine times in 400 or so lines. So many choices. Most of them are from a limited palette of options: either / or, and sometimes neither choice is very good. Our rapist-protagonist -- who is very young, very privileged, and very entitled -- suddenly discovers, when his crimes land him at the mercy of a jury of women, that "he may not doon al as him liketh." He has to choose whether to be executed then and there, or go on a twelve-month quest to find the answer to a riddle that may or may not have one. Conversely, some of the choices in this tale are radically free: Jesus, who could do anything, "In wilful poverte chees to live his life," and we're given to understand that Jesus wouldn't choose anything shameful. (There's a lot about social class in this tale, and a lot of play with words that were originally class descriptors but come to have moral connotations: gentilesse, vilainye, cherl. Our protagonist's elderly and undesired wife tells him that "men may wel often finde / A lordes sone do shame and vilainye," which has got to sting, and goes on to argue that such a man has no claim to gentility.)

And, in the end, the word becomes a present-tense imperative: chees now. The "now" matters a lot, I think: we are always making fresh choices, even when we're also constrained by our previous choices. And in the end, whatever he may have done in the past our protagonist chooses rightly (a third option, not one of the "thinges twaye" that he was originally presented with): Cheseth youreself.

It occurs to me that all three of the Norton Anthology standards that I teach regularly -- the Miller's Tale, Wife of Bath's Tale, and Pardoner's Tale -- are about justice on some level, and this is the only one that offers a vision of justice that is redemptive and not retributive, where people can be educated into choosing better. I think that may be why I like it so much.

I feel like we are being governed, at this particular moment, by people who are making choices again and again, and still and still choosing worse. I like to hope that there is still time to choose better. Even now.

Monday, August 27, 2018

On the performativity of "What have you been reading lately?"

So, for some reason they seem to have made me a full professor since the last time I posted here, and the new president of Misnomer U. hosted a dinner for everyone who had just been hired, tenured, or promoted, which was nice of her. There was one bit where we were supposed to go around the room and introduce ourselves, and also say what we had been reading lately. Forthwith, some observations:

-- If you are a humanities professor, you say something that is clearly pleasure-reading, but at least vaguely cerebral. Witty mysteries about British academics are good, or the sort of science fiction that doesn't have aliens on the cover.

-- If you are a scientist or social scientist, you name a book related to your field of study.

-- If you are nursing faculty, you disclaim having any free time at all for reading, and pivot to talking about your children or grandchildren.

-- If you are in business, you also disclaim any time for leisure reading, but you make a joke about spreadsheets instead of talking about grandchildren.

-- If you are a university administrator, you say that you are reading the university Common Reading book, or something by one of the writers who will be visiting for the Writers' Symposium in October. Either way, it is very interesting and you are enjoying it very much.

-- If you work in tech support, you are allowed to read the kind of books with aliens on the cover.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Clueless Class

So, I have just finished calculating midterm grades (they are due at 9 a.m. on the Friday before spring break for some reason), and the results confirm my impression that one of my two comp classes is the Kingdom of the Clueless. Thirteen of them, out of twenty, have a grade in the C range or lower. One of those is a classic "ghost student" who showed up to the first day of class and then disappeared, but the rest have fully earned those grades. I don't think I'm that tough. There are three students in my other section of comp with Cs, and none with anything lower. They've had the same instructions, the same activities, mostly-the-same everything. This particular section simply ignores all directions, spoken or written, and all examples.

I can understand how visible bad habits, like arriving to class late or doing the bare minimum in peer workshops, spread among a given group of students. If you see other people doing something, it becomes normalized, and you figure you might as well do it too. It's a bad dynamic from the instructor's point of view, but at least I understand how it works and where it comes from. In this group, though, all but a handful of the students seem to have become identically clueless in ways that ought to be invisible to each other. For example, one of the assignments in this class is to read, summarize, and evaluate an academic journal article in your intended major field. I've been using some variation on this assignment for over fifteen years. They see multiple examples from previous students. There are some predictable places where most students have difficulty -- no freshmen are very good at the evaluating part, and lots of them struggle with identifying main ideas and central arguments -- and the occasional one-off error (there's always that one kid who decides an alternative-medicine website is a journal article). But mostly, they sort of do what they were asked.

This semester? An amazingly high percentage of students -- but only in this one section -- seem to have interpreted this assignment to mean "Write a personal essay about why you're interested in your major." I have literally no idea how they GOT this notion.

And why is the Clueless Class always the one that meets at 11:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Is that time slot jinxed?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Athletics comes to Misnomer U.

So we have an athletics program now. This is new; or rather, new-old, since the program has returned after a hiatus of fifteen years or so, but at any rate, this is the first time I've had to deal with student athletes since I was hired.

I was hoping it would be better than I remembered. It isn't: there are still lots of annoying bureaucratic forms to fill out tracking athletes' progress and grades, even though they're mostly online now, and all of these absences that we MUST accommodate, even though the student is inevitably missing important stuff. And there is still an astounding level of apathy among most of the student-athletes toward anything remotely academic, coupled with an insistence that they MUST MUST MUST get at least a B. (Back in the good old days, the apathetic students were as apathetic about grades as they were about everything else; adding athletics to the mix seems to amp up their extrinsic motivation without doing a bloody thing about the intrinsic part, which is the part that counts. So, for example, they will insist loudly that they don't want to do peer review in comp class because they want MY opinion, and then flake out on a round of required conferences which is their big opportunity to get my opinion because they can't be bothered to complete a draft on time.)

One of them stole a paper draft from his roommate, which is a type of academic dishonesty I haven't seen before. (He "rewrote" it, but not well enough to cover his tracks.) Somehow, this seems like a much, much more serious level of wrongdoing than ripping a paper off the Internet.

And it feels like there is a kind of, I dunno, cult of performative apathy in the one class I have that's majority-athlete? That happens sometimes -- students feed off each other, and a small critical mass of visibly participatory or non-participatory students can set the tone for a whole class -- but it's noticeably worse with this group. (Due to the demographics of Misnomer U., it's very rare to have a class that's majority-male; this one is, and I feel like there's a crucial difference between the way guys act when they're trying to impress girls and when they're trying to impress each other. At any rate, I occasionally read complaints from people at other schools about male students talking too much and dominating the classroom, and this phenomenon is so utterly foreign to my own experience that it feels like a dispatch from Bizarro World. Where are all of these guys who WANT to talk in class? Can we please, please get a few of them over here?)

Grump. These kids today!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The new Norton Anthology, by the numbers

Years since the last Norton Anthology: 6. This seems awfully short, and I can't help wondering if we really NEED a new edition at all, but on looking up the publication dates for the last three editions, I guess it is their usual interval.

Versions of the Norton Anthology I will have used in my entire teaching career, once the new one comes out: 3. This is making me feel old.

Number of werewolves, compared to the last edition: +1. Yay! Who doesn't love a werewolf?

Number of plays about living with integrity in a world where the king is old, mad, and capricious, his vicious and venal children and children-in-law are running the kingdom, and the world is lashed by violent storms: -1. I will grant that I would never actually teach Lear in a survey course, and its replacement, Othello, is undoubtedly more accessible, but the timing seems unfortunate.

Number of gay Elizabethan poets with a taste for elaborate mythological allusions and silly wordplay: -1. (What the hell, Norton? Am I the only one who likes Barnfield?)

Number of other texts I will miss: No idea. They mark the stuff that's new with stars, but they don't call attention to the texts that have quietly disappeared. However, it looks like this revision is less of a bloodbath than the last one, in which at least FOUR pieces that I used to teach regularly, including a full-length play that is still under copyright and not available online, suddenly vanished.

Number of texts that survived the axe, but I have no idea why: Several, starting with most of the longer works by nineteenth-century poets. Like, does anybody actually teach Manfred or "The Scholar Gypsy"? (Undoubtedly, after the last edition, some Victorianist somewhere wondered whether anyone actually taught Richard Barnfield. Sigh.)

Number of texts I asked for on Norton's faculty survey that actually made it in: Two! "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" and A Christmas Carol. Woo hoo!

Number of new short stories by contemporary writers whose works I have actually read voluntarily: 3. (I don't know any of the stories, but given that I dislike most contemporary "literary fiction" and haven't really taken to ANY of the Norton's prior selections, this is a hopeful sign.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Jeopardy and hazard

In my two lit classes this semester, I'm doing ... not quite full-on-game-based-learning, but something close to it, with a few competitive role-playing activities, some theater-games-type performance stuff, and, in the case of the Brit Lit survey, a few days set aside for playing actual historical games, and thinking about what they reveal about the cultures that played them. (Plus, we'll be reading a lot of texts that are essentially gamey -- from Anglo-Saxon riddles to the storytelling contest in The Canterbury Tales to George Herbert doing fun, playful things with words.)

It's fun and creative and energizing, and I need that after ten years of teaching these classes -- but it's also deeply scary. I'm starting to understand, on a gut level, how apt it is that our modern English words jeopardy and hazard come from medieval gaming terms. (And Jeopardy!, of course, is a game today as well!) You can't always control how a game will go, even if you're theoretically the one in charge of the game. Just ask Chaucer's Host. The stakes are sometimes different from what you thought they would be; ask Gawain.

I'm hoping that this will all coalesce the way I'm envisioning, on a thematic level -- that we'll have enough time to talk about the physical and moral hazards of play (sometimes the Baron steals your hair; sometimes you're so busy dicing in the tavern that Death catches you unaware), as well as the ways it can work as a proxy for bigger cultural issues and culture wars (Herrick's holiday-games are particularly good for this). I'm not totally sure I will manage to pull this off, because I have a tendency to get distracted while teaching, caught up in the moment like Chaucer's squabbling pilgrims, and often never do reach the bigger points I intended to make; I feel like I lack an inner Parson to illuminate our pilgrimage's larger meaning.

In the meantime, we had a nice lively round of jeux-partis today, which meant everyone at least got used to talking in front of the class and defending a position; and we will be trying our hand at hazard in a few weeks (with handmade replica medieval dice, which are one of the many awesome things you can buy at Kalamazoo).