Friday, March 28, 2008

Cross-dressing! Pirates! Double bed-trick!

Conference paper went over decently well, I think. I must admit that at least three minutes of it were devoted to explaining the exceedingly complicated plot of The Fair Maid of the West, and I didn't even get to the part about castration (that will be my next conference paper, I think). But the rest of it had some semblance of an argument, and I met some Other People Who Are Excited About Heywood, which is such a rare experience that it makes me very happy indeed.

It's sort of weird being at a conference where I know next to nobody, and of the handful of names I do recognize, most of them are members of search committees that have rejected me, or are about to do so. (I haven't gotten the official word from my most recent campus visit, but the SC member who's here didn't even look me in the eye when I passed him, which is damning.) One of my office-mates from grad school is presenting tomorrow, and I'm going to her panel session if I can get up early enough, but I have yet to run into her.

I seem to have landed a nearly-impossible assignment for the teaching demo at Last Chance Saloon College (it is something highly specific, involving an author and a historical event that are way outside of my field, AND the instructions were incredibly confusing). Ugh. Since I seem to strike out even with schools that request teaching demos on topics that are right up my alley, I'm not holding out much hope for this one. (Also, why -- WHY -- does every school request something completely DIFFERENT for the demo class? Wouldn't it be great if the MLA could mandate that all teaching demos be, say, forty-five minutes long and on a short story, poem, or scene from a play of the candidate's choice?)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

department of amusingly specific calls for papers

From the UPenn list:

I'm seeking contributors for a GEMCS 2008 panel on gluttony (broadly defined).

This could include gluttony in the morality tradition, gluttony as a character attribute in drama or prose, gluttony as a theological concept, gluttony in nondramatic art, or gluttony in any other situation your imagination, material, and relevance will allow, e.g. gluttony in the surprisingly numerous broadsheet ballads about providentially significant monstrous London swine, 1550-1640.

Clearly, I need to read some of these ballads. (I wonder if monstrous swine are only providentially significant if they are in London? Are there ballads about, say, providentially significant monstrous Norwich swine?)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

on going home (maybe)

This was a good day. We had a rockin' discussion in the Shakespeare class, all about Falstaff's speech on honor, and whether there's ANY way to see the king's actions as honorable, and the implications of Hal's "if a lie may do thee grace" line, and whether Hal actually likes Falstaff. And a few people who haven't spoken all semester piped up. And I had a phone interview that led to an almost immediate invite for a campus interview, at a place I'll call Last Chance Saloon College.

I'd want the job in any case, since it looks like it will be positively my last shot at a tenure-track job this year, but Last Chance Saloon College also happens to be in the great state of ... uh, Basketball. In fact, it is only an hour-and-thirty-minute drive from the University of Basketball, and not that much farther from the Beloved Alma Mater.

I don't think I realized I was homesick until this very day, but I am. I miss crape myrtles and Virginia pines and homemade pecan pie from the farmer's market and the smell of the University of Basketball library, and I want it to be short-sleeve weather already instead of endless cold and rain. And I have a grand total of about four actual friends in the entire Midwest, as opposed to moderately friendly work-related acquaintances. That didn't bother me so much when I was hoping to be here for life and expecting that my new colleagues would eventually turn into friends, but for the last month it has felt very isolating.

So I want this job very much. And yet I have mixed feelings about wanting it so much: partly because I've had so many hopeful-seeming interviews that haven't led to anything, and partly because one of the reasons why I chose an uncertain VAP over a nice safe postdoc was that I'd lived my whole life in two adjacent states, and there were always people I knew from high school at college, and people from my college at grad school, and I'd never had the experience of starting over in a totally new place. And I wanted that adventure, and I've mostly enjoyed it and I'm glad I have had it. But I meant to make a go of it for longer than a year. So I think I'm discovering that I'm more of a homebody at heart than I thought I was, and I'm not sure I like knowing that, especially since I know this job is as yet only a very uncertain hope.

Well. Wish me luck at the Last Chance Saloon.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

on teaching the history plays, and teaching uncertainty

So, I've finally got an opportunity to indulge my Great Scholarly Passion in the classroom and teach a whole tetralogy. (Pentalogy, really, since in my world The Merry Wives of Windsor is an inseparable counterpoint to the others.) It probably goes without saying that my students do not completely share the said Great Scholarly Passion, although some of them are at least willing to play along.

In an attempt to find out why the others were so silent, I asked them all to write down a question (or questions) that they wanted to talk about. Most of the ones that I got from more than one person were the ones I expected: how is everyone related to each other, how historically accurate are the history plays, why is Hotspur such a jerk? One trend kind of threw me. With varying degrees of critical sophistication, students asked: "How do you know who is the bad guy?" "Essentially: Who are the good and who are the bad guys in this play? I really don't like any of them." "Who are we, the audience supposed to sympathize with? At times it appears that Henry IV is the 'bad guy' because he deserted those who helped him to power. At other times, though, it seems like Hotspur is the 'bad guy' merely using the present situation as an excuse to rebel. Who is supposed to be the 'bad guy' here, or are we even meant to draw distinct lines between the 'good' and the 'bad' guys?"

To which my first instinct, of course, was to say "Dudes, this is Shakespeare! Mr. Negative Capability himself! The whole point is that there isn't a bad guy!" I think I ended up saying something less abrasive, to the effect that Shakespeare isn't going to tell you: this is a group of plays that grabs you by the throat and asks you what your values are.

And that happens to be why I love the histories; though I can, of course, see why students who were raised on high-stakes testing and trained to look for certainties find this sort of thing frustrating. Another student claimed not to have any questions, but asked for "a more lecture based class, maybe with powerpoints ... I think that would show more what is expected of us to be known." And yeah, I wanted to say, "Dude, this is Shakespeare!" to that, too, but I think I do owe it to her to take her frustration seriously, even if all I can do is explain why I don't think it is appropriate to teach literature via PowerPoint, and why I'm expecting them to learn skills rather than a specific body of facts. And one of those skills -- one that comes hard, I think, for most undergraduates -- is learning to embrace ambiguity and nuance.

I'm not sure how one teaches this, save by modeling, and I wish I knew how to be the sort of model my grad advisor was. I found my way to Advisor in my second year of grad school, not because I was particularly interested in his sub-sub-field (I'm not) or because his name had cachet (I didn't realize that it did until quite late in the game, when we were at a conference together and I suddenly discovered that he had groupies), but because he taught a terrific seminar on the history plays. I realized halfway through a class that I'd only taken because it filled a gap in my Shakespeare knowledge that I loved this stuff -- it was twisty and complicated and subtle, and Advisor is the sort of person who knows instinctively when not to push an interpretation, when to stand back and let his students tease out the subtleties for themselves. But at the same time, he was damned good at asking the right questions at just the right moment, pointing out the nuances the students might not have noticed. I don't have those instincts yet. Maybe I never will; one has to be, I think, a great listener as well as a great scholar. But I think I want to try.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

wherein I avoid writing my conference paper

A Mathematical Formula, by which the Awesomeness of a piece of Renaissance Literature may be Calculated:

1) Count up the total number of times the following elements appear: cross-dressing, pirates, unusual ways to poison people, bed-tricks, invisibility, sexually ambiguous kings, space travel, unexpected appearances from Roman gods, ghosts, zombies, cannibalism, Robin Hood.

2) Multiply the resulting number by 1 + the number of severed body parts appearing in the work. Severed heads count double if they talk.

3) Add five points if there is a hippogryph. Hippogryphs are inherently awesome. Other fantastic beasts may be worth a point or two, but not if they are named Error.

4) Add two points for every character who sings a totally inappropriate song; e.g., if four men going to the gallows decide to treat the audience to a rousing rendition of "Three Merry Men Be We," you would then add eight points.

Hamlet, for example, has pirates, two appearances of a ghost, and three really weird ways to poison people; it would score 6 + 2 x (however many of Ophelia's songs you deem totally inappropriate). Orlando Furioso would score off the charts, as it rightly should.

Maybe I should just go to this conference, say "Cross-dressing! Pirates! Double bed-trick!" and then sit down.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Guide To Writing English Papers, by F. Porpentine, age 20 1/2

Been visiting my parents over spring break, and have uncovered more undergraduate snark. I reproduce it without comment, except to note that the Elvis Studying Karate Department was more commonly known as Literary and Cultural Studies, and I spent three years mocking it, having spirited arguments with the professor who created it, and ultimately double-majoring in it. What can I say, they had good parties.

I have noticed that a striking number of the hits on this blog seem to come from students who are seeking advice on writing English papers, most often ones about "The Vine" or Lady Windermere's Fan. So, here it is. Go on and take it, I dare you.

Guide to Writing English Papers

1) Avoid Cliffs Notes. Are you really willing to entrust your grade to a company that can't punctuate itself properly? This does not, of course, apply to cases where you have to write about an extremely serious and difficult book, such as Sila's Marner or Ulysse's.

2) If you can't think of a topic, try a comparative paper. Compare the most disparate works you can think of, and give your paper a punchy title: "Dante, meet Bronte" "Quentin Tarantino and the Quest for the Grail." Such papers practically write themselves if you have a good imagination.

3) Do not use the word "postmodern." That's like wearing a sign that says "Kick Me, I'm Retro." At the better Ivy League schools, the hot new critical perspective is environmentalism. ("The Song of Roland, which is printed on recycled paper, exemplifies the medieval Christian epic.") If you're looking for something really fresh and origianl, try Neo-Freudianism ... with an ironic edge.

(Ignore this advice if your paper is for the Elvis Studying Karate department. They are clueless.)

4) If you have to write a paper about a truly evil work of literature (defined as "a book about fishing" e.g. Moby-Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, Trout Fishing In America) make it easy on yourself. Have a few stiff drinks, watch a good movie, and write your paper at the same time. Don't concern yourself with the actual content of the paper. Your professor will probably do the same thing when he grades them.

5) It is okay to make statements that have no bearing on reality. For instance, if you maintain that fathers in a patriarchal society have to sacrifice their children because otherwise the ambiguities in the contextual fabric of the family would be too much for the human soul to bear ... I promise your professor will not go home and ask her husband, "Honey, do you ever think about sacrificing our child?" She will merely praise the ingenuity of your argument. This goes double if she is a member of the Elvis Studying Karate department.

6) If your professor (not to mention names, of course) is in the habit of frequently checking his gold pocket watch, consider writing your essay on Oriental rice paper with a fountain pen.

7) Don't capsize the professor's personal boat. If he keep saying that English Renaissance plays don't have characters, for instance, it is not your place to disagree. Write about linguistic patterns or something. If you must mention the Duchess of Malfi, call her a "figure."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

it is a snow day and I am bored

Direct quote from this year's AP reading housing form:

In order to place you with the appropriate roommate please check all of the following that apply:

__ I snore loudly.
__ I prefer to stay up late.

One wonders precisely what they intend to do with this information. Do they put the snorers together? Do they put them with the people who prefer to stay up late? Do they, perhaps, have a special file of people who LIKE having roommates who snore loudly? Inquiring minds want to know!

I guess this is no sillier than the form I had to fill out as a college freshman, which included such items as "I prefer that my roommate not use drugs" (they did not ask about one's own habits, so my mom pointed out, quite sensibly, that some percentage of the people who ticked that box probably wanted to keep all the drugs for themselves). Times change, and every dorm claims to be substance-free these days, so I expect they don't ask that any more. They probably still don't ask the questions that matter: the Unmitigated Disaster that was my relationship with my freshman roommate could probably have been avoided if only there had been a box that said, "I am rather immature for eighteen and something of a judgmental snot." (OK, both my roommate and I could have honestly ticked it, so maybe it wouldn't have helped.)

So yeah, I think this was a completely mundane post, but as the subject line says, it is a snow day and I am bored. I'm very pleased that we get a snow day on a Tuesday, because Tuesdays are usually my least favorite day, but at the same time I can't help noting that it is a balmy 68 degrees in University of Basketball Town, and remembering that I could have had a postdoc if I hadn't decided to go chasing dreams halfway across the country. I guess I don't regret it. It has been a good year, in spite of everything, but I wish I had a clue what happens after this, and whether these are the last weeks of my academic career, or just the beginning.