Saturday, December 17, 2016

Trading Austen for Auden

So. The world is changing -- in ways that I didn't will, and can't do much about -- and I am trying to plan out syllabi for classes that will be taught in that new world, without fully knowing what it will look like. Perhaps it will be very much like the Bush years; perhaps it will be very different from everything we've ever known, and very scary.

I asked one of my colleagues if she could cover my Shakespeare class on January 23rd, the Monday after the Women's March on Washington, just in case I got arrested. That is definitely something that I have never said, or had to think about, before.

But Shakespeare class will probably look much like it always has, only with more Coriolanus, and with the "you must needs be strangers" speech from Sir Thomas More to start off the semester. I just realized I'll be teaching that speech in the very last hour of Barack Obama's presidency, which is both very right and very wrong.

Brit Lit II is shaping up to be ... different. It was always going to be different this year, because I've been doing some new stuff in all of my gen ed classes, but it feels like it's been wrenched out of shape these last few weeks, woken from summer dreams. There are a couple of contemporary texts (one play, one novel) that I've ordered secondhand from Amazon and am planning to give away, because the deadline for ordering books had long past by the time I realized that I very much needed to teach them this semester. The rest of the syllabus is ... skewing later, away from the hopeful Romantics and confident Victorians, toward the catastrophes of the twentieth century and beyond. (For ages, I didn't really do much with the twentieth century. A couple of early Joyce stories, sure, and Woolf's A Room of One's Own, but the class often stopped in the 1920s. That's going to be different next semester.) I feel like I'm axing a lot of the readings I love to make room for these new ones -- maybe not forever, because I change things up all the time anyway -- but maybe it is forever. Maybe we are not going to have time ever again for comedy, or for beauty for beauty's sake. Maybe I'm not going to have this job until retirement, like I thought I would. Maybe our profession won't exist at all in a few years (because God knows, there seem to be some concerted, very specific, rhetorical attacks on universities just now, and someday it won't be just rhetoric). I don't know. I have no idea about the shape of this new world.

I have been looking over the dates on this new syllabus -- that list of as-yet-interchangeable Tuesdays and Thursdays -- and wondering if some of them will end up being Dates That Matter, like September 1, 1939, or whether they will all, perhaps, be days that we will forget, like the fifth of April 1868, or the second of November 1875. I hope that we will, after all, be given the grace to forget.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Hermione; a parable

So I have this one student in the quieter of my two freshman comp sections. I'll call her Hermione.

Hermione talks a lot, in a class where almost no one wants to talk. She raises her hand virtually every time I ask a question. I don't always acknowledge her right away, because I want to hear from the other students, but the truth is that Hermione is modeling exactly the right sort of student behavior, so I'm reluctant to ignore her. She does the reading; she's prepared; she has relevant and thoughtful things to say. Hermione is very politically outspoken, and very obviously liberal and feminist. Occasionally she expresses opinions that are slightly daft, in the way that idealistic eighteen-year-olds are sometimes daft, but they are always thought-provoking, the sort of ideas that should start an interesting conversation, except most of the other students don't want to talk about ideas.

We were doing a thing in class yesterday (I have to be vague here), where students had to propose some things, and then vote on the proposals. Hermione, naturally, jumped in with a nomination every time; perfectly reasonable ideas, in all cases. After a round or two of voting, I noticed a pattern: she was having a hard time getting the votes from her classmates (all but a handful of whom, for the record, are female). I could see what they were thinking: We don't like this person. She talks too much. She's too opinionated. We think she's showing off, and showing us up. We don't want to vote for her stuff. Maybe there was a bit of we don't trust her lurking behind it all.

I wonder how it would have gone if Hermione were Herman. I wonder if they would simply have accepted her as a leader, the sort of person they could trust to have good ideas.

Feeling utterly heartsick and angry and frightened for so many reasons.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Because everyone has already done the Miller's Tale comparison, here's some Macbeth

Macduff: Dude, you should totally be king. You'd be way better at it than Macbeth is.

Malcolm: You don't want me to be king.

Macduff: Why not?

Malcolm: "Your wives, your daughters / Your matrons and your maids, could not fill up / The cistern of my lust, and my desire / All continent impediments would forbear / That did oppose my will." In other words, "you know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful ... I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet." [Enter Arianne, a serving-woman.] Got a Tic-Tac?

Macduff: You know, that's a bad thing to do, but it might not be so much of a problem when you're king.

Malcolm: Really.

Macduff: Yeah, being king is kind of awesome that way. You can do "whatever you want." You won't have to assault women any more, because they start assaulting YOU. Hey, Arianne, how about a hug for The Malcolm here?

[Arianne exits in haste.]

Malcolm: I'm also really greedy for money, and I cheat good people. The more I have, the more I want. Don't you think that's a bad quality in a king?

Macduff: That's pretty bad, too, but ... we live in the real world, here. Kings are often corrupt. Being king gives you lots of opportunities to enrich yourself. As long as you don't go overboard with it, it's something the country can live with, as long as you've got other good qualities.

Malcolm: But I don't have any. I totally lack "the king-becoming graces / As justice, verity, temperance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, / Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude ... Nay, had I power, I should / Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell, / Uproar the universal peace, confound / All unity on earth."

Macduff: Oh. Well ... THAT shit actually matters.

Malcolm: So you'd say I'm not fit to govern, then?

Macduff: If that's really true, then HELL NO.

Malcolm: All right, NOW I believe you've got integrity. I'm going to tell you the truth: I was testing you the whole time, I'm not really a bad person at all, and I'm willing to go back to Scotland and be king.

Macduff: Whew!

Malcolm: I wonder what would have happened if we'd played this whole scene backward, and I'd led off with all the OTHER bad qualities first, before we got to Arianne.

Macduff: Don't be silly, anybody would have realized right away that someone with those qualities wasn't fit to be king. Why would we even need to get to Arianne?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fall, and cease

One of my college professors died yesterday. I found out the modern way, while taking a social media break in the middle of working on my syllabi, and it seemed right to put aside the work, and pause. This isn't the first time I've heard about the death of a former professor, but she was the first one who was clearly too young. In her photo on the department site, she doesn't look any older than she did in the fall of 1997, when I was her student in Shakespearean Tragedy.

I remembered the papers I wrote for her right away. I must have been going through a Weird Contrarian Theory phase, because in one of them, I argued that Gertrude pushed Ophelia, and in another, that the handkerchief in Othello was literally magical. The third one was about love and material wealth in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, and I don't think it had any weird theories, but it was twice as long as it was supposed to be, because I needed a writing sample for grad school. I remember that she agreed, very graciously, to let me write a paper that exceeded the bounds of the assignment, and to critique it carefully. I realize now that this was a big and somewhat presumptuous request to make at the end of the semester. If she was thinking oh no, not more grading!, she didn't let on.

I remembered, also, that she'd described Titus Andronicus as "sci-fi Rome," and when the Julie Taymor movie came out a few years later I realized just how apt that description was.

This afternoon I took my old Complete Works of Shakespeare down from the shelves. It had been my textbook for that course, but I'd also used it in freshman-year Intro to Shakespeare, and in a graduate seminar about the history plays, and another graduate seminar about revenge tragedy, and while writing my master's thesis and dissertation. So, out of the ten plays we'd read that semester -- Titus, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra -- the only ones where I could be sure my notes and underlinings were from her class were Julius Caesar, Othello, and Lear. I leafed through them all, anyway, trying to remember what was hers, and what was some other professor's, and what was mine. She was interested in inwardness, I think, in the mind. A note beside a Macbeth soliloquy: mind more compelling than reality. At various points in the margins of Brutus and Cassius's first conversation: introspective dilemma; don't look at self to see self -- look at me!; like Caesar, B. makes the mistake of looking for himself in other people's images; Stoicism is not enough. (Also, more amusingly, some instructions on how to celebrate the Lupercal: sacrifice goats, smear yourself w/blood, & run around naked striking women. Sounds like fun!) Beside Antony's "Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish" speech, one quote that I know was from her, because I labeled it: "theater of the wind" - Prof. B..

The passage that brought back her most vividly as teacher, though, had no notes at all beside it, just underlinings: King Lear's three-part threnody: Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror? Fall, and cease! I remembered being asked to write about that. Remembered that she began nearly all her classes by asking us to write about a quotation or a question; and that I'd picked up the practice in my first few years of teaching Shakespeare, and then dropped it once I began to have too much to say about the plays and too little time in which to say it.

And then I realized there was something I'd learned from her that I still do; she was the first professor I ever had who did much with film versions of Shakespeare, and in particular, the first one who showed contrasting film versions of the same scene. (On VHS, played on a tiny, wall-mounted TV; I think it was the Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson versions of Hamlet 3.4.) I am glad that she is still, in some way, part of my teaching, as I think most of my undergraduate English professors are. Perhaps we all live on a little in our students, and in the margins of our students' books.

Godspeed, Professor B. And thank you.

Friday, May 6, 2016

further grumpiness

This is surely one of the silliest, most grad-student-blaming things I've read in a while -- and I say this as someone who actually agrees that most scholarship in English isn't very interesting and that the really important, valuable work we do is teaching.

But, dude. "Research" doesn't actually mean "something that produces reproducible results, just like they do in the sciences." (There's glory for you.) Also, there might be some dissertations out there that follow the pattern “Concept X borrowed from theory Y is applied to works A, B and C that have something in common: time, author, country/group of origin, leading to this result: Z,” but this strikes me as a straw man that is about twenty years out of date, and in any case, you don't have to interview candidates with boring, formulaic dissertations. I guarantee you there's no shortage of applicants who don't. Some of them have even been adjuncts for years, and know exactly how to motivate a bunch of bored eighteen-year-olds with weak reading and writing skills.* Also, you don't have to require the candidate to do a research presentation if you aren't interested in their scholarship. (In fact, none of my campus interviews required any such thing; every single one of them required a teaching demonstration.) If you do ask candidates to give such a presentation, you're sending a clear signal that you are interested, and you have only yourself to blame if they choose to tell you about it.

Finally, if you want to see enlivening a classroom, try giving your students a bunch of cue-scripts for a scene in Shakespeare and asking them to put the scene together, early-modern-actor-rehearsal style -- which is something I wouldn't have known to do without all of the people doing research on early modern theatrical practices and uncovering facts about the objective world.

* Also, if you're at the Naval Academy and the average verbal SAT score among your entering class is 630, you've got no idea what a truly underprepared and unmotivated student population looks like. Just trust me on this one.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An irrational pet peeve

You know what I find unreasonably infuriating? Hypercorrection. For example, when students (or non-students) write "The introduction of this paper was well," when they mean it was good. Or "Mrs. Harris, whom was my high-school English teacher..." or "Give the forms to Mary and I."

For some reason, these constructions make me want to stab somebody, although other types of grammatical error do not. (I think this might have something to do with the fact that it drives me nuts when people try to be sticklers about rules without understanding the principles behind the rules.)

What are your irrational writing peeves?

Sunday, April 17, 2016


So, thanks to a lot of hard work put in by some awesome people, we have a new Center For Teaching And Learning at Misnomer U., and there are some grants available for faculty. Last semester, I put in for a grant to buy theater tickets for the students in my various lit classes, because it turns out that there are some awesome educational benefits to live theater, and also because it's really kind of stupid to ask people to read a play when they have never actually BEEN to one.

So, totally free tickets available for students. And I'm doing the driving.

It turns out that it is hard as hell to actually get students to take a few hours off to see a play. Well, I kind of knew that because I'd done this before, but I was hoping things would change when they weren't responsible for buying their own tickets. Nope. They are not interested. Or they are interested, but they're too busy for there to be a time that will actually work for them. Or they bail at the last minute, after I've already bought them a ticket. It isn't the students' fault, most of the time. It's because they have complicated lives: they had kids way too young and their child-care arrangements fell though, or they're working full time while also taking a full load of classes and their boss keeps changing the schedule on them. I totally get it. But I wish things were otherwise. And the ones who DO show up often seem not to be the ones who would benefit the most; they tend to be the ones who actually HAVE seen a play before, and are maybe even theater majors, and the ones who are visibly engaged in class and basically getting it.

So I'm off to see some Tom Stoppard today, with two students out of the twenty enrolled in Brit Lit II. I hope neither of them bails. (At least this grant thing has made me a lot more Zen about people bailing, because I don't have the choice between getting stuck with the price of the ticket myself or trying to chase down the student and get them to pay for a show they didn't actually get to see.)

I was right around their age when I first saw this particular play. I might still have the program somewhere. My parents took me -- because it was the first US run and of course they were excited about seeing it, and of course they waited until I was home on spring break. It wasn't my first play by a long shot. It wasn't even my first Tom Stoppard. I want things to be that uncomplicated for my students. It turns out that it takes more than a bit of money to uncomplicate them -- and yet, money is surely at the core of why this is so hard.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Pedagogy musings: necessary vs. plausible interpretations

So I have been grading poetry papers, which is a thing one should never do on a gloriously beautiful Saturday in April, particularly if they are papers from a gen ed lit survey. And I have been thinking about all the things that go wrong when we teach literature, and, especially, about the different types of interpretations we talk about, and how I, at least, am very not-good at teaching students to distinguish them from one another.

First of all, there is the necessary interpretation -- something that you absolutely need to get in order to make sense of the work at all, but you still need some level of interpretative sophistication to get there. For example, in My Last Duchess, "the speaker is an irrationally jealous control freak who certainly made his wife's life miserable, regardless of whether he literally murdered her or not" is a necessary interpretation; if you don't get that out of the text, you aren't getting the poem. But many students, particularly in gen ed classes, do not get that out of the text without prompting, since the Duke isn't about to TELL you he's a control freak. (Some students do not even get "the speaker's wife is dead and he's showing somebody a picture of her" out of the text; I'm never sure what to do about those.) So most of us, in gen ed classes, spend a fair amount of time explaining HOW the poem shows that this is the case. In that sort of situation, you really do need to teach a specific interpretation, and try to make sure the class is on the same page about it.

But there's also the plausible interpretation, one that is clearly grounded in the text, but does not absolutely have to be the case. Mutually-contradictory plausible interpretations can co-exist. For example, I could argue that the Duke is so convinced of his own rightness that he has no idea how much he's just revealed about his character, and then suddenly at the end of the poem he does realize it, and his "Nay, we'll go / Together down, sir" is a desperate attempt to keep his listener from ducking out and telling the-Count-his-Master to break off the marriage negotiations right now. You, on the other hand, could argue that he knows exactly how much he's revealing, and wants the man to repeat it all to the Count's fair daughter so she will know what sort of behavior he expects of his next wife, and what will happen to her if she doesn't obey. We're both right; or at least we are if we can find sufficient textual justification for our respective interpretations.

Mostly, I want my students to accept the necessary interpretations and debate the plausible ones, but it occurs to me that I'm kind of crap at explaining how we distinguish between one and the other, and if we're lucky enough to get to the point in class where a student advances a plausible interpretation and defends it reasonably well, my first instinct is to repeat it and praise it and show the class some other stuff in the poem that could support the student's reading. But that tends to cut off discussion, because of course the other students are all thinking "well, that's it, she's clearly got it right, and I must be wrong if I didn't see that, so I'm just going to sit here on my hands and be glad nobody noticed." (This is invariably what happens in gen ed; English majors generally know that a work can have multiple interpretations, although they may be shy about openly disagreeing with someone else's.)

And then there's the plausible-interpretation-with-extra-stuff -- for example, a reading of "My Last Duchess" that situates it in the context of Victorian patriarchy, and suggests that Browning is really critiquing his own culture when he's ostensibly writing about a Renaissance Duke. This is exactly the kind of interpretation that we want our upper-level students to do in their research papers, and therefore we need to model it for them at some point, but teaching it in a lower-level survey is problematic, because it's usually not an interpretation that the students could have come up with for themselves on the basis of what they know right now, so it tends to reinforce the impression that the Professor Knows All and Poetry Is Way Too Hard For Me To Get The Right Answer By Myself. (Well, I think it's problematic; some of my grad school professors saw absolutely nothing wrong with teaching their own research, even at the sophomore-survey level.) But for some works, it's necessary (you cannot, for example, teach An Irish Airman Foresees His Death without some amount of historical context, even though it's not at all a difficult poem for students to read. At least, I do not see how to teach it.) Ideally, you could just provide the context-mini-lecture at the beginning of class, give the students what they need, and turn them loose on the texts, but this never seems to work that well when I try it in practice.

(Also, I'm suddenly remembering that I hated English lit up until tenth grade or so, because my teachers kept teaching plausible interpretations -- such as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is Really About Contemplating Suicide -- as if they were necessary interpretations, and I felt sort of stifled, because that was not an interpretation that I would have come up with, and there suddenly didn't seem to be any room for it to be a poem about how pretty the woods were at night. I don't know whether I started drawing better teachers at that point, ones who did make the distinction, or whether I just happened to get a run of teachers whose plausible interpretations didn't annoy me too much. I hope I do not stifle my students. But I am not sure I don't.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

For our Honors scholarship candidates, a piece of unsolicited advice

You know that place on the application where it asks you to write about the achievement you're most proud of? Consider not using it to tell us about your 4.0 GPA.

Tell us about that cool science project you did. Tell us how you're always starting novels and you finally finished one. Tell us how you got promoted to manager at your job. Tell us about the first meal you cooked by yourself. Tell us how you took care of your grandmother when she was dying. Tell us about the time you protested that awful policy at your school and succeeded in getting it changed. Or tell us how you didn't succeed, but you still think it was the right thing to do.

Tell us about something real. (Numbers on a transcript are not real.) Tell us about something that will stay with you. (Your 4.0 will not stay with you. One muffed test, or one cranky teacher, and it's gone forever. You will not miss it.)

If you must tell us about your grades, tell us about how you blew off ninth grade geometry for half a semester and panicked when you realized your midterm average was a 47% and your parents were absolutely going to kill you when they found out, and then you buckled down and turned yourself into a geometry machine for the next nine weeks and managed to bring your final grade up to a hard-won C. And that was how you realized you were actually good at math when you could be bothered to put in the time and effort.

Oh wait, that wasn't you, that was me. (They let me into college anyway. They even let me be a professor, eventually.) And it happened back in 1991, before parents could check their kid's grades online every single night and find out about every missed homework assignment at once; back when teachers could assign an F and make it stick.

I think I see the problem here...

Monday, February 8, 2016

How to comment on an online news article about higher education: a helpful list of rhetorical tropes

1) Refer to everything outside of higher education as "the real world," with the implication that colleges and universities are somehow unreal.

2) Refer to all students who express opinions you dislike as "coddled." As nobody ever uses the word "coddled" any more to describe anything except These Kids Today, this is a particularly useful way to create the impression that their ideas can be discounted automatically.

3) Describe all professors as left-wing Marxist tenured radicals. (Unless, of course, the news story you are commenting on is about the latest "disruptive" innovation or technology, in which case it should be taken as read that all professors are hide-bound conservatives who refuse to change anything ever. In either case, their opinions can safely be dismissed.)

4) Mention Saul Alinsky a lot. Nobody has the foggiest idea who this is, so he can be used as a convenient shorthand for All Things Vaguely Menacing, and you'll sound super-smart while you're doing it.

5) Pick a random arts-and-humanities course with a normal title, such as "Existentialist Philosophy" or "Eighteenth-Century Literature," and refer to it as a "major." Demand to know where all the jobs are for the eighteenth-century literature majors, and express your sincere concern that they need to be saved from themselves.

6) Pick a random arts-and-humanities course with a somewhat odd title, such as "Taco Literacy," and hold it up as an example of Everything Wrong With Every University Ever. Do this in the comment threads on stories that have nothing whatsoever to do with this particular course. (Or, in general, cherry-pick the strangest and most extreme example you can find of anything, treat it as a typical example, and shoehorn it into the comments on stories that have nothing to do with that thing.)

7) Refer to all fields of academic inquiry that focus on people other than white men as "Grievance Studies," and declare them to be intellectually and morally bankrupt by definition. If you do this often enough, and loudly enough, you will be excused from having to explain how you know this.

8) Ah, hell, you might as well declare all fields that end with "studies" to be intellectually and morally bankrupt by definition. If you are feeling particularly generous, you might make an exception for Religious Studies, Classical Studies, or International Studies ... no, on second thought, you've never seen any job ads with any of those fields in the title of the position, so it's safe to say they're all equally pointless.

9) Assume that liberal arts colleges, liberal arts majors, a liberal arts curriculum, and political liberalism are all exactly the same thing.

10) Conflate "holding an unpopular opinion" with "being a member of a minority group," and, in general, fail to distinguish between categories-based-on-opinion-and-belief and categories-based-on-identity. This will allow you, for example, to accuse people who disagree with you of hate speech, or to call for affirmative action for people who do agree with you. If anybody calls you on this, mention look, a squirrel! Rachel Dolezal.

ETA: 11) When citing examples of wasteful university spending, be sure to mention climbing walls. Never any other sort of sports or recreational equipment. Always climbing walls.

... I need to stop reading the comments, don't I?

Monday, February 1, 2016

political bafflement

Why has being anti-French literature, anti-Greek-philosophy, anti-anthropology, and anti-non-vocational-education in general suddenly become such a popular conservative talking point?

Aren't these the very fields that have the most to do with preserving the knowledge and traditions of the past? What, exactly, do these people think they are conserving?

Friday, January 22, 2016

1902 Shakespeare quiz, Seventh and Lastly

Only seven questions in this final installment, alas, since the Numbering Genie seems to have struck again.

50) What do we know from the Plays about the private means and residence of the aunt of a young lover who came near having his head cut off?
51) Give six examples from the plays of nineteenth-twentieth century slang.
52) What character in the plays lost his head because he wrote correct Latin?
53) What character said that two potentates must be equally valiant, because they were both born by rivers in which salmon abounded?
54) What character was accused by his sister of preaching better than he practiced?
55) What character knelt before his blind father backward so as to pretend that he had grown a beard?
59) What King thrust into prison by his foes, receives a secret visit from one of his grooms, who breaks into sobs to think that the horse of which he had the care, is to be used in the triumph of former master's enemies, and what was the horse's name?

Thanks for the quiz, B.W.H. It was fun, if occasionally frustrating. I bet you didn't think someone would be taking it 114 years in the future. I wonder who you were.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

1902 Shakespeare quiz, part 6

40) What character in the plays uses the name of a popular seventeenth century author as an ejaculation?
41) What lady had for her maid the daughter of a celebrated witch?
42) On what day of the week, and at what hour did Romeo kill himself?
43) What character in the plays feared to cross the English channel for fear of seasickness.
44) Tell Cleopatra's fish story.
45) What character invited guests to a banquet and set them up for nothing but hot water?
46) What character in the plays was buried in the sand on a sea-beach?
47) What character was supposed to be possessed of a devil? What one talked Staffordshire dialect?
48) What character was hanged for stealing a crucifix from a cathedral?
49) Who arranged a play to be performed before a noble lord and wanted to play all the parts himself?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

1902 Shakespeare quiz, Part 5

30) Give the pleadings and arguments in the action of William Visor of Wincot, against Clement Perkes of the Hill?
31) What was the color of Orlando's hair? Who punned on his own name on his deathbed?
32) What dainties did Perdita provide for the sheep-shearing feast?
33) What was Shakespeare's favorite ballad judging from the fact that it is the one oftenest alluded to in the plays.
34) What six characters in the plays are palpably thumbnail sketches for six characters in the later ones?
35) What Scriptural story did Falstaff think fittest to be represented on tapestry?
36) What women in the plays had beards?
37) What character in the plays owed his life to his ability to write a clerky or engrossing hand?
38) What character in the plays was punished for his crimes by being buried breast deep in the earth and left to starve?
39) What character in the plays made a plume for his hat out of a pack of playing cards?

Monday, January 18, 2016

1902 Shakespeare quiz, Part 4

As before, I've transcribed the questions exactly as written, spelling errors and all.

20) How many years had Falstaff known Bardolph before he met Mrs. Quickly?
21) What was the name of Poins's sister? And who is alleged to have promised to have married her?
22) Where is breach of promise mentioned in the Play's?
23) What character was taken prisoner in joke by his friends disguised as enemies?
24) What character, who boasted of his knowledge of a certain language, was exposed by his companions who talked to him in gibberish which he mistook for that language?
25) What was Dull's riddle and what was the answer to it?
26) What are the names of the only four dogs in Shakespeare?
27) What noble lady refused to accept forgiveness from her leige if spoken in French and what Queen refused absolution if given in Latin?
28) Who was Casca's schoolmate?
29) Give all the instances of second marriages in the plays?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

1902 Shakespeare quiz, Part 3

In which the questions range from fairly normal trivia to "Guess what B.W.H. was thinking when he wrote this."

10) What lady in the Plays gave a critical opinion on her physical attractions? How many others are there of her name in the plays?
11) What Shakespearean characters played billiards?
12) What pair of lovers in the Plays played chess?
13) What was the maiden name of Petruchio's wife?
14) What Shakespearean characters mixed their metaphors?
15) What poetry did Falstaff propose to supply a theme for?
16) What character in the Plays gives a purely fanciful definition of a Latin noun to make a point in an argument?
17) Give three examples of Shakespeare's opinion of schoolmasters?
18) Two characters in the plays are said to have been born under the influence of certain planets; and one under a constellation. Name characters and influences?
19) What animal did Shakespeare hear of being hung for killing a human being?

Friday, January 15, 2016

1902 Shakespeare quiz, Part 2

Now we are heading into true stump-the-Shakespeare-scholar territory, so help with the ones I haven't been able to figure out would be appreciated! I have reproduced the questions exactly as printed, numbering errors and all.

11) What was the name of Falstaff's tailor?
12) What was the name of Mrs. Quickly's spiritual advisor?
13) What was the tale that Imogen read in bed.
14) What did old Capulet think of people who would not dance?
4) What was to have been the menu at Juliet's marriage with the County Paris?
5) What four characters in the plays had blue eyes?
6) What one of Queen Victoria's Prime-ministers is mentioned by his popular name in the plays?
7) What character in the plays, on being accosted by three acquaintances, expresses in his greeting to each, the different degree of his intimacy with them?
8) Differentiate between the finger rings of three gentlemen, two of whom were lovers of noble ladies and the third a reprobate?
9) The wedding gown of a certain noble lady is given in detail in the Plays. Who was the lady, and give the items detailed?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A 1902 Shakespeare trivia quiz, Part 1

So the university library is being renovated, and all kinds of interesting things are turning up. One of the librarians called me over, in great excitement, to show me her latest discovery: a stack of early-twentieth-century volumes of a journal called New Shakespeareana.

It seems that in those days, academic journals had trivia quizzes. The editor printed a list of 59 70 questions (for some reason, #14 is followed by a second #4), sent in by one B.W.H., who notes, "Of course every one of your readers can answer all the following questions without a Bartlett Concordance, as the answers are all in the Plays." (We had better be able to do that, as the answers are not in the journal.)

For fun, I'll be posting ten questions at a time, followed by my best stab at answers in the comments -- but I can't answer them all by any means, and I'm not sure all my guesses are correct, so everyone else should feel free to jump in.

1) What was Bully Bottom's remedy for a cut finger?
2) What credentials were required of bar-tenders (tapsters) in Shakespeare's time?
3) What was Falstaff's waist measurement?
4) How many children had Mr. Justice Shallow? Give their names.
5) Who was Parson Evans' favorite poet, and favorite poem? What was Falstaff's favorite tune?
6) How did Orsino's nephew lose his leg?
7) What was Holofernes's opinion as to the value of silent letters?
8) Who made Desdemona's handkerchief? and who, according to the arrangement of plays in the First Folios, was the first married woman jealous of her husband?
9) Who had a statue of pure gold after her death?
10) How long did Leontes take to woo and win his queen?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Loose canon

I don't usually teach a lot of contemporary lit in Brit Lit II. For the last few years, it's just been this one play, and I've been teaching it alongside works from the time period when the play takes place, because that seemed to make more sense than shoving it off by itself at the end of the semester and hoping the students actually remember something about that era by the time we get to it.

But this time, there is going to be a production of the play at another local university in mid-April, about three weeks from the end of the semester, so it seemed to make sense to place it where it belonged chronologically, and then add in some more contemporary lit after that. There was another play that I used to like teaching before they took it out of the Norton Anthology, but it's too long to photocopy and I couldn't find a reasonably priced, student-friendly edition. And I couldn't really find anything else in the anthology that really grabbed me. (To be honest, most contemporary poetry and literary fiction does nothing for me. I feel like I don't get the poetry a lot of the time, and while I enjoy some novels with Serious Literary Cred, there are a lot more I don't, and most of the ones I do like aren't really suitable for a gen ed Brit Lit survey for one reason or another -- they're too long, or require too much background knowledge, or the authors aren't British even if you use the Norton Anthology's amazingly expansive definition of "British.")*

So I asked for some suggestions about novels on Facebook, read one or two of them that sounded interesting, discovered that I didn't, in fact, find them interesting at all (pretty language, not much of a plot, unsatisfying endings). And finally, I gave up and ordered a novel that I'd recently read for pleasure. I'm going to be vague here, because I'm probably the first person ever to teach this novel in the classroom and I don't want students Googling the title and discovering my blog, but it's marketed as science fiction, although it's definitely unconventional science fiction with some literary pretensions. (This is, generally, the sort of book I do enjoy -- genre fiction with some serious ideas behind it -- but it has to actually work as genre fiction. No fair writing a literary murder mystery and then never solving the mystery.**)

Almost as soon as I submitted the book order, I started second-guessing myself. Sure, it's a decent novel, with the potential to open up some interesting conversations -- what is the good life? how much can our choices change the world? But is it worth four or more days of the Brit Lit survey, when Charles Dickens only gets two and my dear, beloved, dead-too-soon Keats gets one and a half, if he's lucky? Isn't the prose rather ... pedestrian? Doesn't it feel too rushed in spots, more like a summary than a story? Is anybody even going to remember this novel in ten years? Shouldn't I be spending those few precious days of class on something that has stood the test of time? Do I even like this novel that much?

Then I realized those are pretty much exactly the questions Virginia Woolf's narrator asks about Mary Carmichael's novel toward the end of A Room of One's Own, and I decided I felt pretty good about teaching this book. Because those are the kinds of questions students should be asking and answering for themselves, and because really, this is just the sort of book Woolf says the new generation of women novelists ought to be writing -- one that illuminates those dark corners of an ordinary, seemingly unimportant woman's life. (I teach A Room of One's Own in its entirety, every single time I teach this course, despite the stupid Norton editors' decision to print only excerpts in this latest edition, and if nothing else, this novel makes a really neat follow-on to A Room of One's Own.)

So, novel taken care of. Then I realized I still had a couple of extra days of class at the end of the semester, and started scrambling frantically to find some short stories to fill those days. I read about twelve or fifteen stories, and I think I've found a couple that I like. One of them is even unimpeachably literary fiction, by someone super-famous and well-regarded. It's a weird story -- sort of magical realism, I'd say -- and I don't know how it's going to go over with the students, but I thought it was weird in a good way. The other one is by someone who's basically an author of light pop fiction, but I think it really is a pretty good story, and it's easy to read and funny. They are both about art, in their different ways. I like stories about art. I threw in some Browning poems about art earlier in the semester, so now we have a mini-theme going.

I can't get over how much thought and second-guessing went into the last few weeks of this syllabus. It's like sailing into uncharted territory. I'm not sure I have the slightest idea what makes a piece of contemporary fiction good. I don't know if any of the ones I've chosen are any good, or if I will still like them once I have to stand in front of a classroom of gen ed students suffering from end-of-April exhaustion and find something to say about them.

On to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is sooo much easier!

* As far as I can tell, the Norton editors think you are British if you are from any country that was ever colonized by the British other than the US. Nigeria, Canada, Jamaica, Australia? Come on in. Americans, on the other hand, are only considered British if they absolutely insist they are, as is the case with T.S. Eliot.

** Donna Tartt, I'm looking at you.

*** I do, pretty much, believe in teaching the traditional canon in the surveys. If you're at an obscure regional state university full of first-generation students bent on careers in physical therapy or culinary arts, you have to believe in teaching the canon. If you're at Harvard or Oberlin, you can be pretty darn sure your students will encounter Donne and Shelley and Yeats at some other point in their lives, and proceed accordingly.