Monday, October 27, 2008

we offer you our failures, we offer you attempts

Hey, everyone. I'm not dead. Nor have I fallen off of the face of the earth. I have been at my brother's wedding, and then at my college reunion, and two out-of-state trips on consecutive weekends tend to screw with one's blogging schedule. I owe y'all another Shakespeare courseblogging post, this one on why The Merchant of Venice is my favorite play to teach ever, but it's not getting written tonight.

Instead, I wanted to post a little about the Brit Lit survey class, the one that is, at best, touch and go if not completely moribund. I plucked up the courage to tell my Official Mentor that I thought things were going badly, and her reaction was basically, "Don't worry about it, sometimes you just get a bad class." Which was comforting, and something that nobody would ever have said at New SLAC (even if I had told any of the senior faculty there that I thought I was screwing a class up, which I wouldn't have done because they were all on the search committee for my job). I like the fact that none of the English faculty here seem to subscribe to the "you have to be 110% brilliant all the time" philosophy that prevailed at New SLAC. It's a relief.

We read The Duchess of Malfi last week. The discussion was actually halfway-decent, which surprised me, because this class met Dr. Faustus and Twelfth Night with stony and baffled silence. It may help that I'm a lot more personally invested in The Duchess, which is probably my second-most-favorite play to teach ever.

While I was at the Beloved Alma Mater over the weekend, I stopped by the classroom where I first read Webster. It looked much the same as always, apart from the tangle of smart classroom equipment in the corner: chipping blue paint on the windowsills, circle of too-small desks, chalkboard. In 1996, before there were fancy computers and projectors in every classroom, my Renaissance Drama professor passed around a book with an image of de la Tour's Penitent Magdalen.

I still show my students that image every time I teach this play. I point out, as my professor did for me, the play of darkness and light, the implicit messages about mirrors (Doth not the color of my hair 'gin to change?) and penance (nought made me e'er go right / But heaven's scourge-stick) and facing death with grace and courage (Yet stay, heaven gates are not so highly arched / As princes' palaces). This would not be particularly unusual if I had liked the professor in question. We all emulate the teachers we loved, consciously and unconsciously. But when I do this, I am imitating the one moment that touched me in a class that I spent in a state of silent, seething resentment.

I don't know how much of this was the professor's fault and how much my own. It's possible that I might have liked him if I had met him as a grad student, more confident in my ability to defend my own intellectual positions. As it was, I spent most of the semester feeling that the questions I cared about were off the table, and that "class discussion" was merely a farce intended to give the prof a chance to inform us that we knew nothing. Little things irritated me: the way he insisted on calling me "Miss Porpentine," on the grounds that he wanted to be called "Professor F." Probably, if he had asked me "What do you like to be called?" or even "Do you prefer Ms.?", it would have diffused at least some of my annoyance -- but at the time, I didn't know how to articulate what was wrong. I was astonished to discover that a number of my classmates actually enjoyed the class and liked the professor's digressions about his home repairs. I felt like they had personally betrayed me.

This is the class I imitate, perhaps in more things than I know. Perhaps some of my students are as bitterly resentful of me as I was of him, and will spend as much time excoriating me on the evaluations as I did. And yet. The Duchess, and that Magdalen, have stayed with me, and perhaps they will stay with some of these students. If I cannot be the professor I wish I could be for them, if this class is mostly a failure, I hope that I can touch them for a moment at least.


R said...

Just wanted to say thanks for this post. I've been thinking more lately about what kind of teaching persona I want to have (now that I'm doing *slightly* less blind flailing in the classroom!)--it's funny to think about just what we wind up modeling ourselves on.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I'm glad you found it helpful -- I always worry that I'm engaging in way too much self-indulgent reminiscing about my college courses, but I think they shaped what I believe and think about teaching far more than anything in grad school did.

R said...

No, I agree. I'm not out of grad school yet, so this might change, but certainly at this point, I find myself reaching back to college for teaching examples far more often than to anything I've learned in grad school. This may not be a *good* thing, mind, since one of my favorite professors was in the "very fond of digressions that eventually get back around to the point" camp, and I'm not sure I have the second part of that down. But I seem to be very good at the first. :)