Friday, February 27, 2009

Composition atheist

You know something? I don't think I believe in composition.

I mean, obviously I believe it exists, because it's difficult to spend six hours a week teaching a subject that doesn't exist. But I am, like a clergyman in a nineteenth-century novel, Having Doubts.

I think these particular doubts began back in grad school, when I elected to teach second-semester composition in the fall semester for reasons that I now forget. The class comprised a mixture of first-semester freshmen whose SAT or placement-exam scores were high enough for them to place out of the first semester, and sophomores who had either placed into Basic Composition in their first semester or failed one of the courses later in the sequence, and were therefore a semester behind the rest of their cohort. And believe me, as soon as you read the first papers, you knew which were which.

It was at this point that I thought: Wait. If the composition sequence actually worked the way it's theoretically supposed to work, surely these two groups of students should have been indistinguishable? Or at any rate, the differences shouldn't have been so glaring.

The second comp course in the sequence at Misnomer U. is actually a junior-level course, taken by students who already have at least 45 credits under their belts, and at that level, the differences are even more glaring. Perhaps four or five of my 32 students are writing thoughtful, subtle, intellectually engaged essays. For them the course is, I think, a waste of time and energy that they might be using to learn something new, but otherwise harmless. (Unfortunately for these students, there is no way to place out of this course.) And at the other end of the scale, there are a dozen or so students who write like the weakest of first-semester freshmen; three to five semesters of coursework have plainly done nothing to bring their writing skills up to an acceptable college level, and I don't seriously believe that my class is going to make a difference for them either. It might make a difference for some of the ones in the middle, I suppose -- I might at least be able to teach them a few useful tricks for writing introductions and conclusions, or get them to remember that citations go outside the quotation marks -- but I'm not even sure of that. I don't believe I can transform them into writers of forceful and elegant prose. That has to come from within, and it has to be learned much earlier than junior year of college.

In theory, teaching composition is supposed to be the most useful work that English professors do. Hell, it's how we justify our existence to the rest of the world. I wish I were more convinced that this work had any value or meaning -- or, alternatively, that I had the courage to speak openly about my doubts, instead of mumbling my way through one more Sunday sermon about thesis statements.

Sigh. Maybe it will be better next week, when I hold individual conferences with the comp students; or maybe I'll be able to approach them with renewed faith after spring break, which seems far too long in coming.

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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Long-ass book meme, from Heu Mihi

... because I clearly can't do any actual work during office hours.

BBC Book List

Apparently the BBC reckons most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here.
1) Look at the list and put an ‘x’ after those you have read.
2) Add a ‘+’ to the ones you LOVE.
3) Star (*) those you plan on reading.

I'll be using a lower-case x for partial reads, because I can't resist splitting hairs.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen X+
2 The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkein - X
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte X+
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling X+
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee X+
6 The Bible – x (I think I have read the vast majority of it at some point or other.)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte X
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell X
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman X
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - X+
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott X
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller X
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare – x (barring Timon of Athens and Henry VIII, which I really should get to one of these days)
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier - X
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien X
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks * (Picked this up at the thrift store, really should get to it)
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - X
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger *
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot – X
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell - X
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald – X
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens - X
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams - X+
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh - X
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck - X
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - X+
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame - X
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy (Man, I'm not doing well on the Russian novels.)
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - X
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis - x (I've read two, I think; TLTWaTW was required reading in elementary school, and I'm pretty sure I read one of the others in college, when I went through a phase of really trying to like C.S. Lewis. It didn't work very well.)
34 Emma - Jane Austen - X
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen - X+
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis X
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - X
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Berniere
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne - X+ (In fact, I think this may be the first "chapter book" that I ever read)
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell - X
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - X
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving - X
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins - X
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery - X+
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood - X
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding - X
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan - X
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - X
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen - X
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon (I've never even heard of this.)
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens - X+
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - X
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon - X
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck - X
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt - X
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold * (Another thrift-store pickup I've been meaning to get to)
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas - X
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac - X
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding - X
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville – x (Got maybe 5/6ths of the way through, wrote a paper on it anyhow while pounding vodka screwdrivers and watching Pulp Fiction, got an A-. Sometimes I'm not sure I deserve my college degree.)
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens - X
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker - X
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett - X
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson - X
75 Ulysses - James Joyce - x (No, I didn't read all of it, and yes, I somehow faked my way through an exam on it in grad school. Hmm. Maybe I don't deserve my master's degree either.)
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - X
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola - X
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - X
80 Possession - AS Byatt X
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens - X
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker - X
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro - X
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - X
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White - X
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom (Curiously, I'm only familiar with this one because the LibraryThing Unsuggester lists it as among the top five books that you will not like if you really, really like the Orlando Furioso. I have not tried the experiment, but I think this is probably true.)
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - X
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad - X
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery - X
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams - X
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole - *
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare – X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Monday, February 9, 2009

apparently, I was on crack when I wrote these syllabi

Somehow, I scheduled student conferences with three of my four classes for Monday through Thursday of this week. Yes, those would be the three that aren't the medieval lit class. I shall be meeting face-to-face with all but FIVE of my students, having written copious notes beforehand. Or semi-copious notes. Or screw it, whatever I've got time for.

Luckily, the total enrollment in those three classes is around 45; had they been filled to the cap, it would have been more like 70. What the hell was I thinking?

Oh, and I have a paper for SAA due on Sunday, and an annual-report-thingy for the tenure file due Monday. (As a side note, I have never been to SAA before. Is it normal for the papers to list SIXTY-ONE items on the Works Cited page? 'Cos that's what one of the people in my seminar has done, and I was under the impression that these were supposed to be, you know, works in process, and not necessarily exhaustively detailed and polished pieces of scholarship. Also, I'm not sure I cited sixty-one works in my entire dissertation. It was a short dissertation. But I hope not to completely humiliate myself.)

Blogging will be light while I have a nervous breakdown. See y'all on the other side.