Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Courseblogging: Collective Personality

Man. Those 8 a.m. students are a tough crowd.

They will, mostly, rise to the challenge if they're given a specific assignment and they know they're going to be called on. (This week, they know they're responsible for looking up a particular word in the OED and telling their classmates about what they found. They're prepared, and sometimes they come up with pretty smart stuff) But they don't volunteer for anything, ask questions, or even laugh much, with the exception of one older student who's less self-conscious than the rest, and one English major who occasionally decides to throw me a lifeline, even though she seems to think my questions are painfully basic. (They are; honestly, I've resorted to throwing out softballs like "OK, what does it say in the footnotes about this line?" in the hopes that someone else will feel confident enough to volunteer. Anyone? Bueller? All right, moving on, then...)

Man. Those 11 a.m. students are a delight. I didn't expect my favorite class this semester to be a gen ed class, but this one has just the right mix of personalities: a core group of five or six really sharp English majors, and the spacy theater dude who sometimes appears to be completely stoned, but when he gets stuff, he really gets it, and the girl who blurts out the oddball questions that everybody else is probably wondering about but afraid to ask. They're energetic, and easily amused, and generally a pleasure to interact with. They get Donne! And Herbert! (Herbert is amazingly easy to teach when you're in the Bible Belt anyway -- even the 8:00 class did a pretty good job working out what all those references to wine and corn and thorns and fruit might imply in a Christian context -- but in the 11:00 section one of the students asked whether it was significant that the big shift in "The Collar" comes at line 33, and I was drop-dead stunned because I'd never noticed that before, but of course he did it on purpose. That's the kind of stuff these students come up with.)

It's not as simple as that, of course. I experience my students mostly as a group with a particular dynamic, so I tend to think of them collectively and lose sight of their individuality, especially in the first weeks of the semester when I'm still linking names, faces, and personalities together. And it's in those first weeks that impressions are forged, and solidify. Meanwhile, there are students in the 11:00 section who are quietly drifting away from the group, but I don't notice that until later, after the first set of papers and the midterm. And there are students in the 8:00 class who are thinking interesting thoughts and might even secretly want to be called on, but I won't know that, either, until after the class dynamic has set. It's a lot harder to change the way we do things in mid-semester.

By now, registration has started for next semester. I'm checking the class lists obsessively, looking for names I recognize (oh, she's good, I'm glad she signed up for the Shakespeare class ... hmm, wasn't that the guy who dropped in the second week of the semester, I wonder if he's got his stuff together this time?) and wondering about all the ones I don't already know, because who signs up for the course is a matter of crucial importance, and it's the one thing I absolutely don't get to control.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Bardiac Game

Anybody want to take a stab at which play we're reading in the Shakespeare class?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I think one of my students is going to fail the Shakespeare course. This is a new and upsetting experience; that is, of course I've flunked students before, but they have always been students who were actively complicit in their failure -- the ones who stopped coming to class, or didn't turn in assignments, or turned in a Wikipedia entry as their term paper and didn't even have the wit to claim they wrote it.

This student is legitimately trying. She's also woefully unprepared for an upper-level Shakespeare class and has no clue how to write an academic essay. She managed to scrape by with a D+ on the first paper, since she made a good-faith attempt to follow the guidelines. The second paper, which was supposed to be a summary and response to a critical article, was massively plagiarized, but it wasn't an Internet cut-and-paste job; it was the sort of plagiarism students commit when they don't really understand what they're reading and therefore haven't the foggiest idea how to paraphrase or summarize it. You know, "The author talks of how the subject is interpolated into a preconceptualist paradigm of reality. Also, he say that promotes the use of the posttextual paradigm of reality to deconstruct hierarchy."* That kind of plagiarism.

I highlighted the plagiarized passages on the first page, explained why it was a problem and told her that she would need to add quotation marks and citations or else paraphrase thoroughly, and advised her to focus on putting the parts of the essay she did understand into her own words and not to worry about trying to paraphrase stuff she didn't. And I gave her a week to rewrite for a maximum grade of C. (Honestly, I would be shocked if the final version earned a higher grade than C in any event.)

She said she wasn't very good at English, and the last time she'd taken a comp course was in 1992. Holy fuck. I don't know who advised her that taking an upper-level Shakespeare course would be a good idea. (She is a "general studies" major, which is Misnomer U.-speak for "this student started off in a preprofessional program but wasn't able to pass the qualifying exams; in theory, they are supposed to be taking a study skills seminar and getting some intensive advising, but it doesn't seem to be working in this case.)

I don't know if I did the right thing by giving her a second chance. I'm not sure there is a right thing to do in this situation (it is too late for her to drop the course now, and I don't think she would drop in any case because she said she needs another English course to graduate in December). On the one hand, this is very, very clearly not a student who intended to plagiarize, and we're meant to be educating students, not penalizing them for not already being educated, yes? On the other hand, it's just as clear that she hasn't come close to mastering the academic skills graduating seniors are expected to master, and almost certainly will not master them in the next few weeks. I'm putting this as if it were an academic problem, but of course it's a human one, too. It seems like a cruel cat-and-mouse game to lead a student on for almost two decades, taking her money and pretending to give her an education in return, and at last offering her a nearly meaningless degree. And yet it seems equally cruel to say no, you're not going to graduate after all, we know you tried your best but sometimes that's not good enough.

Ugh. I don't know what to do in situations like this.

* This is not an actual quotation from the essay; I made it up with a little help from the Postmodernism Generator. But you get the idea.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Courseblogging: Is Mary a Girl?

I have an exercise that I like to do on the first day of the Brit Lit I survey. I give the students a handout with Caedmon's Hymn (in Old English and modern English translation), a snippet of the prologue to the Prioress's Tale (in Middle English with glosses), and a couple of stanzas of Mary Sidney's "Psalm 139." And I ask them to pair up and talk a bit about the differences between the three passages, both in language and content. I keep hoping this will keep them from telling me that Chaucer or Shakespeare wrote in Old English (although it usually doesn't). More importantly, I hope it will provide a glimpse of three different ways of looking at the world. I chose these three passages, out of all of the possible early English texts out there, because they share a similar theme -- praising God -- but the authors imagine God, and the speaker's relationship with God, in wildly different terms. Which means they imagine being human in different terms as well. We can get a lot of mileage out of those differences -- usually more than enough for a first day's discussion.

This year, I was somewhat thrown when a student asked, "Is Mary a girl?" (I didn't know, yet, that this particular student specializes in quirky and awkward questions; my favorite, so far, has been "Is the Wife of Bath a cougar?")

"What?" I said, and then, "Mary Sidney's a woman, yeah."

"Oh," she said. "I was just wondering, because there weren't very many woman writers back then?"

I said there were more than you might think, and moved on to something else.

I've been thinking of this exchange, on and off, as the semester wears on and I start planning the reading list for the second half of the survey. We're not reading many early women writers this semester. A day on Marie de France; another on Margery Kempe; about half a day of Queen Elizabeth I, since she kept getting crowded out by Wyatt; a few poems by Aemilia Lanyer and Katherine Philips, to be read alongside their more canonical contemporaries. That's about all there was time for. It's rather more than we read in any of my undergraduate medieval or early modern lit classes. Sometimes it feels like not enough, especially considering that Misnomer U. is historically a women's college, still has a majority-female student body, and pays lip service to promoting the study of women's issues in its mission statement. Sometimes it feels like too many -- The Second Shepherd's Play got the chop this semester in favor of retaining Kempe; Milton is represented only by two sonnets, and I find both of those tradeoffs uncomfortable. Maybe I should try "Lycidas" next semester and toss "A Description of Cooke-Ham"? Which one will serve them better on the GRE, when they have a boss who likes to quote poetry, when they have their own classes of high-school students to guide on the first halting steps toward interpretation? Which one will they remember when (if?) they have a little space in their lives for reflecting on poetry?

I don't know. On the one hand, I don't like tokenism; I think we should be teaching works because they're good and important, not because they happen to be written by women. On the other hand, who gets to decide what's good or important? And isn't it inherently important that students know that people named Mary are generally female, even if they happen to write poetry?

I don't feel nearly as conflicted about the reading list for the second semester; by the nineteenth century there are plenty of women writers who are genuinely canonical (four out of five of the ones I'm contemplating teaching in this post*, for example, including two of the hyper-canonical ones). One can have one's cake and eat it too. But by the beginning of April, when we get to Virginia Woolf (who is, of course, as canonical as it gets), even the ones who were in my class for the first-semester survey have forgotten that we spent a day with Kempe or twenty minutes with Lanyer, and are inclined to take her parable of Shakespeare's sister as historical fact. I don't know if there's any way to avoid that. Most people forget most of what they learn in their gen ed classes, I suspect, unless they happen upon something that particularly fascinates or amuses or startles them, so it may not matter what ends up on the syllabus anyway.

But I think the student who asked if Mary was a girl was startled (and perhaps her classmates were, too, after she asked the question). And that's all to the good.

* For those who are wondering (and thanks to everyone who weighed in and encouraged me to choose Door B), the winner is ... North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell! Good story, a heroine who's around the same age as most college students and whose shifts in world-view and questions about received wisdom should still resonate, and lots of interesting stuff about industrialization and gender roles and class conflict and (re-)education to talk about. The fact that it passes the Bechdel Test many times over is a very nice bonus.

The runners-up, besides Northanger Abbey, were Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I may get around to giving them all a try eventually; it was hard to choose.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

smalltown blues

I am not, in fact, dead. I have been in VAP City over fall break; I went there with a vague idea that I might go to the art museum and maybe the theater, but ended up doing nothing so cultural. I wandered around a lot and gawped at architecture (for verily, VAP City has amazing architecture), and took the bus here and there, and went to a street festival and some bookstores and petted the bookstore cat, and had mini-doughnuts and hot cider with a slug of rum at the farmer's market. You know, city things. I miss those. Oh, and I went to the zoo, because that's always fun. Here are some zoo pics.

I needed to get away, if only for a few days; I think I will continue to need to get away at least once a semester, and for a couple of months in the summer, until I retire and can move wherever I like. It is becoming increasingly clear that I am not a small-town girl by nature. This is an unpleasant surprise, because I'd gone through the first thirty-two years of my life assuming I was the sort of person who could live contentedly almost anywhere, and now it turns out that I'm not, and I'm not sure what to do with that particular piece of self-knowledge. Oh well. Have a baby elephant.

(And no, I'm not applying for jobs in less remote locations; this is more of a vague sort of funk that I don't actually do anything about, the same way I feel vaguely blue about the prospect of never marrying and having children, yet I can't bring myself to put up a profile on one of those online dating sites, even though this would be the most logical course of action under the circumstances. I suck at Life Planning, I think.)