Thursday, February 19, 2009

Courseblogging: On Sharing Books, and Sharing Intimacy

Um, yeah, I was going to blog the medieval lit class this semester, wasn't I? Right, let's pretend I've been doing it all along.

So we've been reading Chretien de Troyes for the last week or so, and one of the students accidentally left her book in another state, so after a moment of hesitation, I lent her my copy of the older edition. The one I bought back in 1995, for Freshman Shakespeare Prof's awesome Epic and Romance class, and then used again in the courtly love seminar the next year, and in Arthurian Lit the year after that. Lots of good memories in that book.

Lots of undergraduate notes, too, such as they are. Well, not notes so much as marginal comments, some of them academically useful, such as the definition of "psychomachia" and a reminder that one of the plot threads gets picked up forty pages later. More of them are in the nature of random scrawlings: "Poor horsey!" every time somebody rides a horse to death; one or two smiley faces at the funny bits; a sarcastic "Yup, that's us" beside some misogynistic comment; "Am I hallucinating, or did Chretien just start channeling Dickens or Gaskell???" next to the weird episode about all the poor exploited cloth-making maidens in Yvain. They are the notes of a curious, engaged, often naive, nineteen- or twenty-year-old reader. I hope my student -- who is bright, critical, rather less naive than I was -- will get a kick out of them. But therein, of course, lies the moment of hesitation. Do I really want my students to know me through my nineteen-year-old marginalia?

I did remember to remove my book-markers: a quiz from the Arthurian Lit class with some extremely private thoughts about an ex-boyfriend scrawled on the back, and a letter from a friend from my study-abroad days. Whew. Good thing I thought to check.

Any anxiety that I'm feeling about lending out my books is a symptom of something larger, of course; I feel like I'm having a tough time negotiating boundaries in this class. It is extremely small and intimate -- five students, three of whom I've had before -- and I'm teaching mostly new material and coming to it right after Brit Lit II, after the teaching adrenaline has been flowing for an hour and a half, and at that point I have a tendency to blurt out any old thing that crosses my mind. And we get to read poems like this, which cause extremely weird and non-intellectual things to cross my mind. ("Y'know, I was at the Kroger the other day, and I got one of those lemon-pepper rotisserie chickens, and it occurred to me that I could totally re-create the meal in this poem. Um, if I had a sister, that is. And a cat. And a poet to seduce. Uh, never mind about that.") The students seem to be amused by these asides -- which is good -- but I worry that I may be coming across as a complete flake, and I won't know until the course evals come in.

Maybe I shouldn't worry. Maybe this is how it ought to be. Teaching is an intimate and revealing act, no matter how you do it, and I suppose I'd rather reveal the side of myself that is goofy and passionate and has Weird Thoughts About Chickens than the stiff, mousy self who tends to come out in freshman comp classes. I did not, after all, mind random digressions at all in my undergraduate professors; but most of them were a great deal older than I am now, and most of them were male, and could therefore get away with that sort of thing more easily.

We will see. I hope I'm right in thinking a little more personality is better than less.


Miss Utsch said...

I really enjoyed reading this post!! It's the same thing I wonder on a daily basis as a high school teacher. I have a lot of personality and I let it come through in the classroom because I think it's more entertaining for my kids, and it forms a connection on a different level. But you're right, you get caught up and go "did I REALLY just say that to a group of 18 year olde???" I'm always wodering when I should stop but I guess if that's what it takes to keep my students engaged (and me from going crazy), I'll roll with it. At least I know it's what sets me apart from the other 9 million boring people trying to get contracts!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Hee, I guess all of this must be about ten times harder to negotiate in high school -- at least college students are technically adults!

Susan said...

Well, I think it would be hard to teach a poem like that without at least one inappropriate comment.

But even more, teaching students how thinking connects to life is actually useful -- I think they often put classes in isolation from the rest of the things they do. Seeing you making connections, even weird ones, does make a difference.

Fretful Porpentine said...

You're right; I think that poem is right up there with Lysistrata in that respect.

R said...

Ugh, I don't even want to know *myself* through my nineteen-year-old self's marginalia. I'll buy a new copy of a book before using an old one if the notes are too embarrassing.

Teaching adrenaline, yes. I'm teaching in small groups back-to-back this term, and I can (sometimes) keep myself from blurting out random things during the first one, but by the last one, the battle is over and I have been trounced.

I had the same undergrad experience, where I really liked those professors who made random connections and told odd anecdotes--but yep, they were mostly male and older. I'm teaching for someone right now whose lectures are maybe 50% jokes and asides, and the students eat it up, and I'm trying to figure out exactly what lets him get away with it. Maybe it's cofidence, too--though the suit doesn't hurt, probably.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I sometimes think it's all personality, and unfortunately, I'm not one of those charismatic instructors who can get away with anything. Alas.