Monday, August 10, 2009

Courseblogging, series 3: Taking another tilt at the windmill

So I spent this evening bouncing around the apartment to the CD that used to come with the Norton Anthology. Yes, I am a dork, but there is really so much good stuff on there -- Seamus Heaney reading from Beowulf, and Marie Boroff doing her best Wife of Bath impression, and my favorite song ever from Shakespeare, and To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time (can you tell I have a thing for carpe diem poetry?), and Since Laws Were Made For Every Degree.

I'm almost excited about this class again. Almost. And dreading it, too. I have two sections this semester -- both jammed full, sixty students in all, and one of them is at eight o'clock in the morning. And I have made a Virtuous Resolution to do individual conferences before both of the papers are due, plus quickie five-minute meetings for them to practice their Middle English pronunciation before our read-through of the Nun's Priest's Tale. That sort of thing worked well last semester in Brit Lit II, but I had fourteen students then. I think I just might be insane.

But the trouble with this course, really, is that it tries to be all things to all people -- and conferencing is the one way I know to reach the stragglers and teach the best students something useful. English majors are required to take a year-long sequence -- either Brit Lit I&II, American Lit I&II, or World Lit I&II -- so it has to be rigorous enough to work as a foundations course for the major. But only 4% of the students at Misnomer University are English majors. The other 96% need to take at least one literature survey to fulfill their gen ed requirements, and because Brit Lit I has the lowest number and that pesky "I" in the title, many of them mistakenly think it's the easiest. So they all get thrown head-first into Chaucer and Shakespeare; some of them read at about a sixth-grade level, and some of them are budding majors who are palpably, understandably frustrated with the level of discourse among their classmates.

I feel like I didn't handle this mix well last year. There were days when it felt like I was trying to discuss literature with a field of cows, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from yelling at them -- For God's sake, you're reading works that have touched and amused and infuriated twenty generations of people! Have an opinion about them! Express it! Is that so very hard? I didn't, of course, both because I am pretty sure it would have made things worse and because I lack courage.

I've been rethinking the class, this time around. There will be less reading (goodbye, Marlowe and Webster and Swift), more explicit instruction about the basics (here's how you take notes; here's how you prepare for a discussion class; here's a list of appropriate paper topics, and if you have a different one you'd like to pursue, make sure you run it by me). And, as I said, individual conferences. We will also be taking a couple of days to watch the film version of Wit, partly because it offers some provocative answers to the inevitable "Why do I have to know about John Donne when I'm a health sciences major?" question, but mostly (oh hell, let's be honest) because I'm going to need some down time after prepping for all those conferences. And I put in for a smart classroom, so there will be more music and video clips and images of period art, more of anything that might help medieval and early modern people seem a little more real and more human.

I have no idea if any of this will help. I worry that some of it is overly ambitious, and some of it may be counterproductive (do we really need all those technological bells and whistles? What happens if we forget to, you know, talk about books?) But at least it will be new, and I think I need new; I need to throw some things at the wall and see which ones stick.

And I do love just about everything we're reading, because I cut almost everything that didn't speak to me from the syllabus; life is just too short. Gather ye rosebuds. Perhaps, where there is love, nothing else can go so very wrong.


Sisyphus said...

No Marlowe or Webster or Swift1?1?!?! But how will they live!!!!

Ok, so what I've overheard TAs prepping for our early survey discussion sections (I TA'd the Shakespeare class but never the survey): If you were going to make a movie of The Miller's Tale, who would you cast in the parts and why? What would happen if the party actually _got_ to their pilgrimage at the end of CT, what would happen? Write an ending for the book (or beyond the ending, or whatever).

What I'm suggesting is that sometimes students do really well with understanding the text through writing (and hell, any writing practice is practice) and fear it less if you allow them to desecrate the texts through rewriting. I've made my students take two pieces in totally different voices/approaches and write one in the style of the other. (I'm trying to think of two in the Norton that would work here). That way you are "livening it up" but still doing it through writing and the text and not them dangerous bells and whistles.

I've also brought in scissors and clean copies of our poems and had them chop and interleave one poem with another (Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath worked well for some reason) and then discuss how it changed the tone/diction/whatever of the poem.

Oh, and I had all my students in my intro to lit class write sonnets, as I blogged about. It was nice in that they totally thought it was hard and annoying and I totally wanted them to get that impression of writing poetry, so you could say it worked.

hck said...

Yes, I am very late.

Yes, I tend to agree with Sisyphus: a life without Marlowe can only equivocally be called life.

That aside: On the one side I do very much admire your approach: if I had to teach a class of 60 I'd probably teach in lecture style (yes, of course: taking questions any time and digressing wherever a vocal part of the audience wants a digression), not seminar style, and most of the audience would find out (correctly) that they'd been served as well with a book to read than with my lecture to listen to.

On the other side: we did already discuss about styles of teaching quite some time ago. And in this case my approach probably differs fundamentally from yours: you try to "help medieval and early modern people seem a little more real and more human". Whereas I try to make the students see and feel and taste how different, how strange the texts we deal with are; and then to muse on why we still react to them (strongly), why we do interact with them, why they are not dead to us, in spite of their being that different and that strange. Whatever the students response to that question (and any response probably is a legitimate one): having become aware of that tension does change one's way to see many many things.
And, no, I'm proceeding like that not only when I teach traditional philosophy philosophy philosophy texts, but also when I teach Sharekspeare's Tempest or Tirant Lo Blanc. The experience IMO is the same.
And, yes, my whole approach might be (at least partially) due to the fact that I teach in philosophy. Or taking that approach might have made it possible for me to choose philosophy.

Please do continue to tell us what you do, and how your class reacts.

Best wishes!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sisyphus -- Yeah, I do a bit of informal writing along those lines (although curiously, it doesn't go over as well at this school than it did in my previous jobs; the "who would you cast in the movie version" question was kind of a bust because a surprising number of our students rarely see any movies. I'm not sure whether this is because they're poor or because they're evangelical Christians who are deeply suspicious of pop culture -- most likely a bit of both.)

HCK -- Oh, it's not a class of 60, thank God, it's two classes of 30, which is potentially more time-consuming but less flat-out insane.

And your point about not underemphasizing the very real cultural differences is well taken -- I worry a bit that I'm doing just that, at least in lower-level classes -- but I think students have to see a few points of connection before they can start thinking in terms of "what's unfamiliar about this world?" Put another way, your "why we still react to them (strongly), why we do interact with them, why they are not dead to us, in spite of their being that different and that strange" question is definitely worth asking in a college-level lit course, but it presupposes that students do react to the text and that it isn't dead to them -- and I feel like I have to do a lot of work first just to get the class to that point.

Unknown said...

I love the idea that you're showing Wit--although I remember watching it one summer, by myself, and it totally *wrecked* me. *shakes fist at Emma Thompson* Still, I like it as a preemptive answer to the "why do I have to do this" question.

And I so hear you on wanting to yell at your students to just *express* some opinion. A lot of students who take Brit Lit I here are at least thinking about being English majors, but it doesn't seem to make that much of a difference--they still don't know how to do the things that the class isn't always set up to teach, because it's more about "exposure" to the material and less about skills.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yeah, I think exposure vs. skills is the real conflict here, and part of me still wants to pile on the reading to maximize the exposure, even though I know on an intellectual level that it's not necessarily the best approach. It helps, a bit, to remind myself that this is only one semester and I can always change my mind about these choices later.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of differences vs. similarities in early literature,
(coming late to the party, sorry) when I saw Duchess of Malfi, I had to restrain myself from squeeing in the theater when Bosola overhears the Cardinal soliloquizing, because OMG they subverted tropes in the 1600s too! (And then I had to explain to my mom why it was so awesome, and it didn't really work.) I had the same reaction in my Brit Lit class when I found out "I grant I never saw a goddess go / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground" is a direct Take That to Plutarch's "angelic progress."