Saturday, September 27, 2014

Pet favorites

I'm teaching Northanger Abbey and Love's Labour's Lost back to back this week, and I'm struck by how much both of these texts seem to push my particular buttons. I know perfectly well that they're early works, a bit rough around the edges, and that both authors would go on to write things that were far more polished and profound -- but seldom, I think, so delightful.

I think it's something about the characters. They're like the best college students you ever had. They're so young, clever and earnest idealistic, by turns very silly and very perceptive*, and passionately in love with books and words. And they're innocent with the sort of first-youth innocence that can't and doesn't last, even in a gentle coming-of-age comedy, but the authors are so clearly taking joy in exploring that innocence and its potential, rather than in crushing it. That's actually quite rare, at least in Literature-with-a-capital-L, and I find it irresistible.

What are your pet favorites?

* Gotta give Catherine her props here. She picks exactly the right villain when she's rewriting her life as a Gothic novel, and I think it takes her influence for the usually-older-and-wiser Henry to see that his dad is a genuinely bad person, and that he and Eleanor have spent their lives quietly making excuses for him.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Random beginning-of-the-semester bullets

-- The university cafeteria's latest innovation is ... water with berries in it. It's nice, I guess, but I keep wondering if we have all been implicitly cast as Caliban.

-- You know how every department has that one wacky faculty member? Ours is harmless and friendly, and when he does things like blowing up the microwave, it is always completely by accident. Now that I have a front-row seat for a different department's internal drama, I am beginning to feel like I have never appreciated him enough.

-- The problem with those one-credit "student success" courses that are meant to increase retention is that you obviously have to have requirements and policies and instructions if you're going to give students credit for the class. And yet, the sort of students who are inclined to drop out of college tend to be precisely the ones who have immense difficulty following requirements and policies and instructions, so the next thing you know the class has turned into a sequence of hurdles that keep tripping them up, and they end up with a C or D or F in it, which probably doesn't increase retention. I wonder if there is any good way to teach students to do college who don't already know how to do college.

-- Teaching Romeo and Juliet for the first time in forever. I quite like this play, but I'm reminded of why I don't teach it very often; it's because students THINK they know it too well (and sometimes actually do know it pretty well), so a lot of the class discussion feels too glib, a recitation of canned answers rather than a process of discovery. I tried plugging in R&J's first two big speeches in the balcony scene into Wordle, and I think that helped a little -- you can see the clusters of related words more clearly, and how much they get used in proportion to each other, and it defamiliarizes the speeches a bit.

-- We have a huge influx of international students from one particular country this year, so many that campus rec has ordered a crate of cricket supplies. (No, it isn't either of the two countries that probably come to mind immediately when you think about cricket.) I rather think pickup cricket games will add a welcome degree of quirkiness to the campus, so I hope it takes off.