Tuesday, June 13, 2017

On teaching Caesar in the age of Trump

So I have been in Green Country for almost three weeks, and one of the nice things is that the time difference and the geographic distance mean I'm not bombarded with American news first thing in the morning. In fact, while I haven't absolutely unplugged from American politics, it all feels less urgent and outrage-making here.

Until the latest culture-wars outrage du jour turned out to be about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is always urgent around here. (OK, I'm sort of amused and baffled that a production that has been running for three weeks without anyone paying much attention is SUDDENLY urgent as far as the rest of the world is concerned, but whatever.)

Other, better Shakespeare scholars have weighed in on why nothing about the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar is particularly new or outrageous; I will note, however, that this play definitely seemed to have more bite when I last taught it, a few weeks after the election, and I plan to teach it again this fall, and probably again every year for the foreseeable future.

It is, in fact, really HARD to get students to read Caesar's assassination as justifiable, so I doubt that a "go assassins!" reading of this play is likely to come naturally to anyone. They don't, as a rule, want to see the conspirators as people they should like. (Particularly Cassius. I really like Cassius, but students in general do not -- they tend to accept Antony's judgment of Cassius, and the other conspirators who aren't Brutus, as acting "in envy of great Caesar," without considering that Antony has political reasons of his own for holding up Brutus as the Great Exception. What we actually get in the text is more nuanced; Cassius is so damn right about most of the questions of strategy, and perceptive and clearheaded about the consequences of letting Antony live and speak, and any successful political movement needs manipulative pragmatists as well as idealists.) As a rule, students tend not to see small-r republicanism as something worth killing to preserve. Politics, at the grand history-making level, are not quite real to them. Friendship is real, and they tend to fixate on the "Brutus literally stabbed his friend in the back!" part, even though Brutus and Caesar's friendship is something we're informed about rather than something we actually see. It's not clear that the Caesar we do see on stage is capable any more of friendship, in the sense of a relationship among equals. (Contrast with the Brutus / Cassius friendship, which is messy and stormy and tender and substantive, to the point where Cassius is the only person with whom Brutus gets to be really human by Act 4, and Cassius noticeably doesn't exploit or take advantage of that vulnerability.)

The idea that reasonable people might be willing to die or kill to protect a tradition of self-governance feels more charged, these days, like something my last crop of students could feel on a gut level.

I don't mean to suggest that the conspirators are right; the point is that we don't know whether they are right. Brutus agonizes over the unknowability of the future; he can't be sure whether Caesar will hatch into a poisonous snake until it's too late to do anything about it. We see farther than Brutus does; we know what he will choose, and what the consequences of his choices will be. But what we don't, and can't, know is what would have happened if he had chosen differently. It's a play about the difficulty of choosing and acting rightly when the information we have is necessarily imperfect (even in a world where omens and soothsayers and prophetic dreams are real, they can pretty much all be read in multiple ways, stymieing everyone's attempts to foresee the future; how much more difficult it is in our world). Moreover, the really fatal choices, from Brutus's point of view, are not the big ones but the little ones, not should we kill Caesar? but who gets to speak last at the funeral?

Some students have a hard time with this, too. They want the messages about right and wrong, and what people should have done, to be clearer. They aren't. They never will be. And I think we desperately need to know that, in a culture that tends to overvalue confidence and decisiveness and undervalue questioning and thought.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Three more days...

... and I will be on my way to Green Country with my colleague from the history department, her family, and 16(!) students from the Honors program. This is more than double the number we had last time, and even though a couple of the students are technically peer mentors (i.e., juniors / seniors with prior study abroad experience, who aren't taking the classes but are instead along to help with interpersonal stuff, RA-style), it's starting to feel a little overwhelming.

I hadn't even really thought about the logistics of getting twenty people with all associated luggage onto buses / to our lodgings / to the right meeting points for our various excursions until yesterday, and now I am thinking about it, and ... OMG. Also, in just over a week I will be teaching a whole class that I also haven't thought very hard about since the last time I taught it.

There seems to be more parental involvement, and more anxiety, with the Honors students. I taught Honors comp for the first time this spring, and I noticed the anxiety thing there as well. I mean, I sometimes wish our non-Honors students were MORE inclined to stress out about their grades, but ... there has to be a happy medium somewhere, surely? (I don't remember my parents getting this involved when I went to Spain for a semester in college, although my mother definitely has the right temperament for it -- but maybe I've blotted it out? I think it also helped that my parents had both lived in Europe, and were very comfortable with travel as a concept, whereas for many of our students / parents / SOs, this is all New and Strange territory. It's cool in many ways -- you can see the horizons getting wider -- but it also means they think everything is much scarier than it is.)

One of our students was apparently cautioned by her family not to drink any alcohol on the trip, because it is VERY DANGEROUS. (Whether drinking alcohol in general is dangerous, or just drinking it in Green Country, was unclear.) As these are all nineteen- and twenty-year-old students, going to a country where they will be able to drink legally for the first time ... good luck with that.

I hope they are less-stupid about drinking, and about walking home alone at three or four or five in the morning, than I was when I was their age. But I also hope they learn to explore, and to be fearless.

Friday, April 21, 2017


The theater department's first performance of The Taming of the Shrew was last night, and I got to join the cast for a talkback. It was a bit disorienting being on stage, especially in a theater where I've been dozens of times as an audience member (those lights are really bright! Blinding! And people are looking at me!), but I enjoyed it. The actor playing Petruchio seemed to have come, independently, to a very similar take on the play to mine, so that was nice. And I got to say some things about feminine-obedience-as-performance and playtexts-as-literature that were, I hope, at least vaguely coherent.

I like the way this production shaped up. It seemed more energetic, and more broadly comedic, than the early rehearsal I'd seen. I suppose that is one of the things the process does: makes everything a lot bigger. Or maybe it's audiences that make plays bigger, like mirrors reflecting a space back at itself.

Shrew reminds me of The Importance of Being Earnest, in a weird way. It's all about using language to break social rules and shape alternate realities (this is one of the things the Petruchio-actor and I agreed about, that Petruchio is first and foremost inducting Katharina into a game where words mean whatever the heck you want them to mean), and sometimes those realities grow out of control and take on lives of their own. I really wish it had been possible to fit the Christopher Sly framework into this production, but I had to cut it down to 90 minutes.

I am, as always, in awe of actors. They do something magical.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Conspiracy Theory

So, as many of you probably know, there is a moderately popular conspiracy theory that touches upon my field of study. Every now and then, students ask me about it, and I try to explain reasonably and neutrally that there isn't any evidence for it, and then move on. Less often, somebody makes a movie or TV show about it, or a complete stranger e-mails me out of the blue to Discuss Their Theories, both of which are situations that can be ignored.

Anyway, this particular conspiracy theory is relatively benign as such things go; that is, it doesn't involve denying historical atrocities, or accusing real people of fictional atrocities. (In its most common form, it does have a certain level of classist subtext, although there are a few variants that don't have the classism, and one or two that would be awesomely feminist if they weren't, you know, wrong.)

So why -- why -- do I always get Someone Is Wrong On The Internet Syndrome whenever I encounter it, such that I find it hard to concentrate on anything else? Aargh.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mid-semester miscellany

I'm sorry I haven't been around much, somewhat to my own surprise. There's a bit on Phil Ochs's Live in Vancouver, 1968 (an album I've been listening to quite a bit lately, because it feels like 1968 has so much to say to 2017) where he says, "When I came back from Chicago, I thought I'd write thundering protest songs, and I didn't ... It was exhilarating at the time and very sad afterwards, because something very extraordinary died there, and that was America." And, yeah, that's pretty much how I feel; I thought I was going to write lots of blog posts about Teaching in the Trump Era, and ... not so much. I don't even know yet what I think about Teaching in the Trump Era, or whether this is the Death of America or just one of those silly seasons of history that comes along every so often.

So, some non-political bullet points of mid-semester:

-- I'm teaching an Honors section of comp for the first time. It feels like being back in grad school, in some ways: a much more international-student-heavy population, and a level of grade-consciousness, anxiety, and perfectionism that I'd almost forgotten how to deal with. On the other hand, they are very good at paying attention to detail, taking peer workshopping seriously, and actually understanding what they read. I'll take it.

-- This summer's trip to Green Country is mostly coming together. It feels easier the second time, and I'm beginning to be properly excited about it. At first, it felt like "oh joy, all this planning and budgeting and filling-out-of-forms AGAIN," but now that the date is drawing closer, I'm remembering why I liked this the first time and want to do it again. And it will be all new for the students; I need to remember that.

-- My students think Edward II reminds them of Game of Thrones. I cannot wait for Tuesday, when they will encounter Lightborne.

-- The theater department is doing The Taming of the Shrew this spring. They wanted me to cut it down to 90 minutes, so I did. (Poor Christopher Sly and the Hostess and the Lord naturally got the axe, which I feel bad about, because Christopher Sly is important, dammit.) I went to a read-through last night, and got handed the part of Katharina, which I had not bargained for (Katharina and Petruchio will be played by professional actors in the actual production, and the actors haven't arrived yet). I hope I didn't sound too awful. I did get a compliment from one of the theater professors, which was nice, but I was impressed by how good most of the students sounded, already; they clearly knew what they were saying, for the most part, and were ready to put some natural-sounding emotion into it. I'm kind of in awe of actors. I think it's a good way to be.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Trading Austen for Auden

So. The world is changing -- in ways that I didn't will, and can't do much about -- and I am trying to plan out syllabi for classes that will be taught in that new world, without fully knowing what it will look like. Perhaps it will be very much like the Bush years; perhaps it will be very different from everything we've ever known, and very scary.

I asked one of my colleagues if she could cover my Shakespeare class on January 23rd, the Monday after the Women's March on Washington, just in case I got arrested. That is definitely something that I have never said, or had to think about, before.

But Shakespeare class will probably look much like it always has, only with more Coriolanus, and with the "you must needs be strangers" speech from Sir Thomas More to start off the semester. I just realized I'll be teaching that speech in the very last hour of Barack Obama's presidency, which is both very right and very wrong.

Brit Lit II is shaping up to be ... different. It was always going to be different this year, because I've been doing some new stuff in all of my gen ed classes, but it feels like it's been wrenched out of shape these last few weeks, woken from summer dreams. There are a couple of contemporary texts (one play, one novel) that I've ordered secondhand from Amazon and am planning to give away, because the deadline for ordering books had long past by the time I realized that I very much needed to teach them this semester. The rest of the syllabus is ... skewing later, away from the hopeful Romantics and confident Victorians, toward the catastrophes of the twentieth century and beyond. (For ages, I didn't really do much with the twentieth century. A couple of early Joyce stories, sure, and Woolf's A Room of One's Own, but the class often stopped in the 1920s. That's going to be different next semester.) I feel like I'm axing a lot of the readings I love to make room for these new ones -- maybe not forever, because I change things up all the time anyway -- but maybe it is forever. Maybe we are not going to have time ever again for comedy, or for beauty for beauty's sake. Maybe I'm not going to have this job until retirement, like I thought I would. Maybe our profession won't exist at all in a few years (because God knows, there seem to be some concerted, very specific, rhetorical attacks on universities just now, and someday it won't be just rhetoric). I don't know. I have no idea about the shape of this new world.

I have been looking over the dates on this new syllabus -- that list of as-yet-interchangeable Tuesdays and Thursdays -- and wondering if some of them will end up being Dates That Matter, like September 1, 1939, or whether they will all, perhaps, be days that we will forget, like the fifth of April 1868, or the second of November 1875. I hope that we will, after all, be given the grace to forget.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Hermione; a parable

So I have this one student in the quieter of my two freshman comp sections. I'll call her Hermione.

Hermione talks a lot, in a class where almost no one wants to talk. She raises her hand virtually every time I ask a question. I don't always acknowledge her right away, because I want to hear from the other students, but the truth is that Hermione is modeling exactly the right sort of student behavior, so I'm reluctant to ignore her. She does the reading; she's prepared; she has relevant and thoughtful things to say. Hermione is very politically outspoken, and very obviously liberal and feminist. Occasionally she expresses opinions that are slightly daft, in the way that idealistic eighteen-year-olds are sometimes daft, but they are always thought-provoking, the sort of ideas that should start an interesting conversation, except most of the other students don't want to talk about ideas.

We were doing a thing in class yesterday (I have to be vague here), where students had to propose some things, and then vote on the proposals. Hermione, naturally, jumped in with a nomination every time; perfectly reasonable ideas, in all cases. After a round or two of voting, I noticed a pattern: she was having a hard time getting the votes from her classmates (all but a handful of whom, for the record, are female). I could see what they were thinking: We don't like this person. She talks too much. She's too opinionated. We think she's showing off, and showing us up. We don't want to vote for her stuff. Maybe there was a bit of we don't trust her lurking behind it all.

I wonder how it would have gone if Hermione were Herman. I wonder if they would simply have accepted her as a leader, the sort of person they could trust to have good ideas.

Feeling utterly heartsick and angry and frightened for so many reasons.