Wednesday, December 31, 2008

one nice thing about the academic job market

Four years ago:

visited 21 states (42%)
Create your own visited map of The United States or try another Douwe Osinga project


visited 32 states (64%)
Create your own visited map of The United States or try another Douwe Osinga project

It would be nice if fewer of them had been flying visits involving constant pressure to impress people, but one can't have everything.

ETA: I don't know why Maine keeps getting cut off, but the last time I tried to do this, it cut off the whole eastern third of the US, so I guess this version is an improvement. (I have not been to Maine, for the record.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas / MLA good wishes

A belated merry Christmas to everyone who's reading this, and good luck to everyone who's headed out to MLA this weekend!

It occurs to me that in the Regency romance of the academic job market, I have become the Elder Sister Who Married the Poor Curate, and consequentially can be of no help whatsoever in bringing the younger ones Into Society. But you do have my very good wishes for a successful Season.

Or, to employ a somewhat less embarrasing comparison: may you have a fine three days of hunting, catch the deer, boar, fox, or knight of your choice, and have to exchange your winnings with nobody.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Feeling lazy...

Here I am in Parentland. I'm staying for three weeks. Theoretically, this makes a lot of sense, as there is no particular reason for me to be in Deep South Town over winter break; our little library is unimpressive, the campus will be closed for most of the break anyway, and the most exciting thing to do in town is visit the Super Wal-Mart.

So why do I find it so difficult to get any work done in Parentland?

I would be feeling less guilty about this if I were actually partaking of the delights of Big East Coast City, but in fact, I have mostly stayed in the house re-reading children's books and enjoying the wireless Internet. For some reason, every time I visit my folks, my brain seems to turn into mush. I have three brand-new classes to prep and a paper to write for SAA, but neither of these things is happening at any noticeable speed. Nor have I bought any Christmas presents, because somehow, the "Christmas = four days from now" equation is just not computing.

Is anyone else feeling completely lazy, too?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Happy 400th birthday, Milton!

... which I wouldn't know about if Flavia and Lea hadn't reminded me, but hey, gratutous poetry posts are always good.

I am not a huge Milton fan, but I am fond of the end of Book 11 of Paradise Lost.

A Dove sent forth once and agen to spie
Green Tree or ground whereon his foot may light;
The second time returning, in his Bill
An Olive leafe he brings, pacific signe:
Anon drie ground appeers, and from his Arke
The ancient Sire descends with all his Train;
Then with uplifted hands, and eyes devout,
Grateful to Heav'n, over his head beholds
A dewie Cloud, and in the Cloud a Bow
Conspicuous with three listed colours gay,
Betok'ning peace from God, and Cov'nant new.
Whereat the heart of Adam erst so sad
Greatly rejoyc'd, and thus his joy broke forth.

O thou that future things canst represent
As present, Heav'nly instructer, I revive
At this last sight, assur'd that Man shall live
With all the Creatures, and thir seed preserve.
Farr less I now lament for one whole World
Of wicked Sons destroyd, then I rejoyce
For one Man found so perfet and so just,
That God voutsafes to raise another World
From him, and all his anger to forget.
But say, what mean those colourd streaks in Heavn,
Distended as the Brow of God appeas'd,
Or serve they as a flourie verge to binde
The fluid skirts of that same watrie Cloud,
Least it again dissolve and showr the Earth?

To whom th' Archangel. Dextrously thou aim'st;
So willingly doth God remit his Ire,
Though late repenting him of Man deprav'd,
Griev'd at his heart, when looking down he saw
The whole Earth fill'd with violence, and all flesh
Corrupting each thir way; yet those remoov'd,
Such grace shall one just Man find in his sight,
That he relents, not to blot out mankind,
And makes a Covenant never to destroy
The Earth again by flood, nor let the Sea
Surpass his bounds, nor Rain to drown the World
With Man therein or Beast; but when he brings
Over the Earth a Cloud, will therein set
His triple-colour'd Bow, whereon to look
And call to mind his Cov'nant: Day and Night,
Seed time and Harvest, Heat and hoary Frost
Shall hold thir course, till fire purge all things new,
Both Heav'n and Earth, wherein the just shall dwell.

Monday, December 8, 2008

"Not as bad as I expected": some final musings on the Brit Lit survey

Yes, this is another teaching post. Yes, the semester is over, grades are turned in, I have wine and Christmas music and a nice beef stew simmering on the stove, and I really should be posting about something other than teaching. But I can't resist one more post about the Literature Survey from Hell, even though I should have exorcised it by now.

On a whim, and because I wanted some feedback about what to keep or toss next year, I threw in a three-point extra credit question on the final exam: What was your favorite piece we read this semester, and why?

I discovered three things: 1) Twelfth Night and The Canterbury Tales were the runaway favorites; 2) a significant minority of students, perhaps half a dozen out of a class of 24, chose not to answer the question even though it was a complete freebie -- I don't know whether this means they couldn't think of anything they'd enjoyed, or they resented being asked for some reason, or what; 3) the ones who did answer the question had some interesting and quirky responses, many of which revealed more engagement than I would have expected from this group:

My favorite piece we have read this semester is "Lanval" by Marie de France. I loved it because I read it to my 14-year-old sister the first time I read it. I was just going about reading it nonchalantly and all of a sudden I got to the point where the mysterious woman is in a sheer gown trying to seduce Lanval. Both of our ears perked up because it seemed like some sort of medieval soap opera...

My favorite piece was Twelfth Night. I like the irony in the piece. I like how at the time women were not yet allowed to act, yet here was a women acting like a man so well. She fooled everyone. I also liked how Shakespeare made the men look so dumb.

... The Dream of the Rood because there was so much emotion that came from it ... I cannot seem to forget it. The trials that the man goes through internally with the sacred tree is very memorable, and I believe I'll always remember that story.

... I really liked the York play because it showed the men who crucified Jesus as humans, not monsters. I am a Christian, so I feel as though I have an obligation to view the men who crucified Jesus as monsters. But I also must remember that as humans, we make bad decisions, and sometimes those decisions have consequences far beyond what our minds can grasp. And that seems to be what happened to these men. They were doing their job and will forever throughout history be looked at as monsters because of it.

... Thomas Wyatt's poetry. His words helped me with a situation I had been dealing with for some time now. It was truly inspirational to walk away from previous bad relationships and look for something better out there.

... I can even relate to poor Malvolio. We both like things to be just so, and we try out best to follow the rules. If Malvolio was real, I imagine that he and I would get along very well -- if Malvolio gets along with anyone, that is.

My favorite work was Canterbury Tales ... I also like the fact of that they are on a trip and just telling stories to past the time. It reminds me of what my family does when we go on long trips. Hearing each others stories some serious, and some funny.

I would have to go back to the beginning of the semester and go with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It had a great story and lesson that kept my interest ... I am not a literature fan at all, but this class was not as bad as I expected.

Ringing praise, that last one. But it was a useful reminder that most of them didn't want to be there and felt out of their depth in the literature classroom, that their silence wasn't necessarily about me -- and yet, so many of them seem to have been touched or intrigued by something we read. And that is good news, perhaps the best news I can hope for.

I have a great many reservations about the value of gen ed, at least as it's handled at Misnomer U., which has a huge and inflexible set of core requirements. It's rare to see a student taking a class for pleasure or curiosity; they have so many requirements, and so little time and money, that they can't afford to. I'm also skeptical about the value of giving students a smattering of a dozen different disciplines, usually in introductory courses watered down to the lowest common denominator, rather than encouraging them to pursue upper-level coursework in a field that genuinely engages their interest and complements their major. Besides, on a purely selfish level, I'd rather have classes that are half as big and filled with students who actually want to be there.

For the most part, my freshmen didn't share this skepticism when I brought up the subject in the comp classes; they were firmly convinced that Well-Roundedness Is Good, and many of them offered examples of required courses that had turned out to be useful, or interesting, or not as bad as they expected. So evidently this model does work, at least for some of the students some of the time -- and it also translates into more jobs for English PhDs, so I really shouldn't complain.

And who knows? Maybe, if three-quarters of the class can name a text that they found memorable or funny or moving, from a long list of texts that they didn't know about or care about before, the gen ed lit survey has done what it's supposed to do for those students. I'm not sure that making them all into literary critics would be a desirable goal even if it were possible, but I think it is desirable to make everyone aware that men and women who have been dead for centuries might have something interesting to say to us (and might even be worth reading aloud to your fourteen-year-old sister).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


We are in the midst of exam week. I never know what to do with exam week, since I don't believe that exams are particularly useful pedagogically, not in literature and definitely not in comp. Neither the University of Basketball nor New SLAC held final exams in the comp classes, but Misnomer U. does, and as far as I can tell, the only thing they accomplish is confusing the freshmen. ("Why do we have an extra class at 8:00 on Friday morning? Why is it three hours long? What in the world is a blue book?") I reminded them about the exam period on both of the last two days of class, but so far, about half a dozen of the freshmen have e-mailed me to ask me when it was again. I referred them to their syllabus and to the exam schedule posted on the university web site. I wonder if it's a mistake to announce these things in class -- it seems to induce a kind of learned helplessness. On the other hand, this sort of thing is a useful reminder of how much implicit knowledge about the university I grew up with, and how much of that knowledge I tend to take for granted in my own students when I shouldn't. (I knew what a blue book was when I was FIVE, because my mother was an adjunct and she gave them to me to color in. Different world.)

The Shakespeare class was mostly very serious and focused, and a couple of my best students wrote for the full three hours. I feel good about making them banana bread, and I'm actually looking forward to reading their responses.

Some of the Brit Lit I students handed in their exams after half an hour. Half. An. Hour. For an exam that consisted of fourteen short-answer questions AND an essay that required them to discuss at least three different works. I advised them to spend at least an hour on the essay portion alone. Well, at least they will be short essays, and probably easy to grade. But good Lord, why do students whose grades are already marginal DO this to themselves? What are they thinking?

On the bright side, I read about 2/3 of Thomas Heywood's Rape of Lucrece during the Brit Lit exam. Nothing like two hours of enforced quiet time with no Internet access! (It is very different from Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece. For one thing, it is a musical. One of the songs is in Scottish dialect, never mind that the play is set in ancient Rome. Ah, Heywood, you are completely daft and I adore you.) Anyway, I feel ridiculously productive, although I'm pretty sure The Rape of Lucrece will not become part of the revised Magnum Opus, as all of the characters are a) Roman and b) aristocratic, which places it firmly outside of Magnum Opus territory. I do, however, need to write a conference paper on subversive ballad-singing in Renaissance drama, or some such.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

End of the semester!

Yup. Classes at Misnomer U. ended yesterday. Take that, those of you who were out on the beach in August while I was teaching my classes. Yay!

There's still a week of exams after the break, followed by an astonishingly early deadline for submitting grades, but in practice it's over.

Random observations about the first semester:

-- I shall miss my Awesome and Fabulous Shakespeare class. I really liked that group. It was a required class for many of them, but with only about three or four exceptions, they were also very much into the material for its own sake, and a few of them expressed an interest in taking the other Shakespeare course in the fall, even though they're not required to have more than one. I think I may make banana bread for the final exam. (Every now and again, I get a group that inspires me to bake.)

-- My morning freshman comp class reminded me a lot of the kids in the Summer Bridge program at the University of Basketball: very social, pretty chatty, better at talking than writing, eager and excited about being in college if sometimes clueless about what college-level work actually entails. This is mostly good, as I really liked working for Summer Bridge, but some of them do seem to need a level of discipline and general cluing-in about academic life that is difficult to provide during the regular semester. The afternoon comp class was pretty similar in terms of background, but without a core group of three or four excellent students to model good class participation and behavior, and I think the other students definitely needed that core group. But at least it is a very, very different dynamic than at New SLAC, where I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle every single day.

-- In general, this place has a very different vibe than New SLAC, despite being roughly the same size and having similar average ACT scores. I miss some things about the campus culture at New SLAC -- it was, I think, more engaged, more community-oriented, the sort of place where faculty showed up to the English Club poetry reading and everybody turned out for the choir concerts and theater department productions. On the other hand, I don't miss feeling like the unwritten requirements for tenure included being seen at these events (and, quite possibly, being an extravert). There has to be some sort of middle ground, right?

-- In lots of ways, though, the community vibe at New SLAC was illusory; it didn't necessarily encompass the commuter students from Desperately Poor City up the highway, for example. The same class divisions apply here, only more so: there are plenty of middle-class students who live in the dorms, work 10-12 hours a week if at all, participate in campus activities, and have a good-sized social support network among their fellow students. And then there are lots who commute from other counties, work such long hours that they fall asleep in class, and barely have a chance to talk to their fellow students, and they're visibly hurting from the lack of time and energy and, most of all, community. I don't know what to do about this -- maybe there is nothing we can do -- but I am very, very sure that the administration's current push toward distance education is going to make the problem worse, not better.

-- At any rate, there is good and useful work to be done here. And maybe that's the most important quality in any job, really.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mysteries of freshman comp

1) When one is teaching two identical sections of freshman composition, and taking care to teach them the same information in identical ways, why is there always a good class and a bad class, and often a dramatic difference between the two? More puzzlingly, why are my bad classes always the ones that meet later in the day? Shouldn't I be better at this when I've already had a trial run in the morning?

2) What's up with students who get busted for plagiarism on an assignment worth a whopping 5% of their grade, plead that they didn't know any better, and then proceed to skip the next week of classes, ensuring that they will get no credit for the course? If I were trying to convince the prof that I was a good student who had made one unfortunate mistake out of ignorance, you can bet my ass would be in that chair. Indeed, why is it ALWAYS the ones who are already struggling who choose to skip? Do they somehow think it's better to ensure that they'll fail instead of spending the rest of the semester worrying about it?

3) Why does there seem to be an upswing, this year, in students who want the university to police their behavior? I swear, I am getting so sick of reading argumentative papers about how smoking should be banned on campus, and alcohol should be banned on campus, and all campuses should be gated communities where visitors have to get a permit from the campus police, and colleges should return to the principle of in loco parentis*, and faculty members should conduct monthly searches of dorm rooms to make sure none of the students have alcohol, drugs, weapons, matches, or candles (!) Is it a deep South thing? A post-Virginia-Tech thing? A reflection of the fact that Misnomer U. already has rather overprotective policies, so students of a libertarian bent tend to end up somewhere else? Whatever, back in the last millennium we would SO not have stood for any of this. I feel old.

4) Why is the end of the semester so close and yet so far away?

* Yes, the student used the phrase in loco parentis. At least she genuinely learned something from her research!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Courseblogging: random bullets o' catching up

I'm still not dead. Just busy. Did I really intend to write a blog entry for everything we read in the Shakespeare class? Oh well.

-- The Merchant of Venice remains my favorite play to teach, though Titus was threatening to elbow it out of the way for a while. It's just so thorny and knotty, and students always want to argue about it, and the elaborate game of bluffing and entrapment that Antonio and Shylock are playing in 1.3. is so much fun to walk students through. (This is the scene that I used for my teaching demo at Misnomer U. -- it has plenty of drama and tension and gamesmanship to make it immediately compelling, but also lots of subtler language stuff that students don't get until it's pointed out to them, like the significance of the moment when Antonio shifts from "you" to "thou" and the extended wordplay on "kind." And then there are all the broader questions about money and identity and whether Shakespeare means for us to notice that Shylock is a moneylender because Christian Venice has forced the role upon him, or whether he's deliberately erasing that fact. Man, I love that scene.)

-- Conversely, the Henry IV plays are among my favorite bits of Shakespeare to write about, but I don't think I've found my way to a good teaching rhythm yet. We skipped Richard II, which I think was a mistake, and we will not have time to finish off with Merry Wives either. I liked it better in the spring when we read the whole pentalogy, but that takes up half of the semester, and there simply isn't time when you feel obligated to cover tragedy as well. But at least the students in this class really get Falstaff, and think he's hilarious, whereas my students at New SLAC seemed to want to throw him in a river long before Mistress Ford's servants did the job for them.

-- I always feel like I'm tipping my hand too much with the history plays. I do not like Hal. I am aware that I might feel quite differently about Hal if the two major influences on my scholarly life were not Freshman Shakespeare Prof, who has been known to call him a prick, and Graduate Advisor, who is a much gentler and more even-handed sort of person but still a Hal-skeptic. If your first contact with a play is a professor you greatly admire saying, "Hey, get a load of that duck over there!" it's always a wrench to make yourself see a rabbit instead, especially if you are temperamentally inclined toward ducks and don't particularly want to see a rabbit. I keep trying not to tell my students which one to see, but I can't resist pointing out the little hypocrisies, and before I know it, I have pretty much told them what I want them to see. (It doesn't help that I've spent a lot of time pondering small moments in these plays, and I can never help mentioning the results of these ponderings, even though I know objectively that Justice Shallow's servant Davy is not in any way an important character, and it would probably be just as well if I never mentioned him at all.)

-- I look forward to the Obama administration for many reasons, but mostly because it will once again be possible to teach Henry V without anybody comparing the title character to Bush. (N.B.: I have never tried to encourage this comparison. They come to it on their own.)

-- Whoever put Chimes at Midnight up on YouTube in its entirety is AWESOME. I want to marry this person, despite not having a clue about his / her gender.

Monday, October 27, 2008

we offer you our failures, we offer you attempts

Hey, everyone. I'm not dead. Nor have I fallen off of the face of the earth. I have been at my brother's wedding, and then at my college reunion, and two out-of-state trips on consecutive weekends tend to screw with one's blogging schedule. I owe y'all another Shakespeare courseblogging post, this one on why The Merchant of Venice is my favorite play to teach ever, but it's not getting written tonight.

Instead, I wanted to post a little about the Brit Lit survey class, the one that is, at best, touch and go if not completely moribund. I plucked up the courage to tell my Official Mentor that I thought things were going badly, and her reaction was basically, "Don't worry about it, sometimes you just get a bad class." Which was comforting, and something that nobody would ever have said at New SLAC (even if I had told any of the senior faculty there that I thought I was screwing a class up, which I wouldn't have done because they were all on the search committee for my job). I like the fact that none of the English faculty here seem to subscribe to the "you have to be 110% brilliant all the time" philosophy that prevailed at New SLAC. It's a relief.

We read The Duchess of Malfi last week. The discussion was actually halfway-decent, which surprised me, because this class met Dr. Faustus and Twelfth Night with stony and baffled silence. It may help that I'm a lot more personally invested in The Duchess, which is probably my second-most-favorite play to teach ever.

While I was at the Beloved Alma Mater over the weekend, I stopped by the classroom where I first read Webster. It looked much the same as always, apart from the tangle of smart classroom equipment in the corner: chipping blue paint on the windowsills, circle of too-small desks, chalkboard. In 1996, before there were fancy computers and projectors in every classroom, my Renaissance Drama professor passed around a book with an image of de la Tour's Penitent Magdalen.

I still show my students that image every time I teach this play. I point out, as my professor did for me, the play of darkness and light, the implicit messages about mirrors (Doth not the color of my hair 'gin to change?) and penance (nought made me e'er go right / But heaven's scourge-stick) and facing death with grace and courage (Yet stay, heaven gates are not so highly arched / As princes' palaces). This would not be particularly unusual if I had liked the professor in question. We all emulate the teachers we loved, consciously and unconsciously. But when I do this, I am imitating the one moment that touched me in a class that I spent in a state of silent, seething resentment.

I don't know how much of this was the professor's fault and how much my own. It's possible that I might have liked him if I had met him as a grad student, more confident in my ability to defend my own intellectual positions. As it was, I spent most of the semester feeling that the questions I cared about were off the table, and that "class discussion" was merely a farce intended to give the prof a chance to inform us that we knew nothing. Little things irritated me: the way he insisted on calling me "Miss Porpentine," on the grounds that he wanted to be called "Professor F." Probably, if he had asked me "What do you like to be called?" or even "Do you prefer Ms.?", it would have diffused at least some of my annoyance -- but at the time, I didn't know how to articulate what was wrong. I was astonished to discover that a number of my classmates actually enjoyed the class and liked the professor's digressions about his home repairs. I felt like they had personally betrayed me.

This is the class I imitate, perhaps in more things than I know. Perhaps some of my students are as bitterly resentful of me as I was of him, and will spend as much time excoriating me on the evaluations as I did. And yet. The Duchess, and that Magdalen, have stayed with me, and perhaps they will stay with some of these students. If I cannot be the professor I wish I could be for them, if this class is mostly a failure, I hope that I can touch them for a moment at least.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Fall break is almost over, and I really don't feel refreshed

I did grade almost all of the papers, though! Only seven freshman comp essays left, and they don't get handed back until Thursday, so I may take the evening off.

Grading and commenting on the Brit Lit I essays seems to have sucked up nearly all of my spare time and energy for the last few days. More than half were Cs or Ds. I think my grading standards were reasonable, but I feel like the Grinch right now. (I'm also wondering how some of these students managed to pass comp. Maybe they've regressed?) There were a few bright spots, but not many. The results didn't really surprise me -- this is the class where four-fifths of the students just sit there like lumps -- but I'm finding them depressing, all the same.

I think we shall watch film clips in both of my classes tomorrow.

Also, my toilet has been leaking massive amounts of water for two days and the rental office has yet to send the handyman over.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Courseblogging: Being the Work of a Young Man Whose Interests are Rape, Ultraviolence, and Ovid

We finished Titus Andronicus on Monday, but I haven't had a spare moment to type up a post about it until today. Some thoughts:

-- This is the only totally new text I'm teaching this semester, and I was nervous about it. I shouldn't have been. It teaches like a charm, although one of my brightest students absolutely hated it. I feel like I should have done more to draw her out on the assumptions and aesthetic values that were shaping her hatred, only I'm not confrontational like that, and she's one of those bright-but-not-talkative students, so I wouldn't have known she hated it if it weren't for her written responses. Some of the others were getting rather alarmingly into it :)

-- We talked a LOT about Lavinia, who of course needs people to talk about her, since she can't talk for herself through most of the play. Especially: how much is she directing things throughout the last two acts? When she starts leafing through Ovid, does she INTEND to suggest a particularly nasty mode of revenge to her father, or is she a reluctant participant? Should the death scene be played as a willing sacrifice, as it is in the Taymor film, or is Titus forcing it on her without her consent? (I would very much like to see a production where she is unwilling.)

-- What the hell is up with that clown? Is there anything going on with the fact that he's invoking St. Stephen, of all people (and seems to be the only Christian character in the play, if you take this as evidence?) I threw this idea out there, sort of randomly, and one of the students pointed out that this is really rather suggestive, in light of the fact that he's a messenger and gets killed. And then I thought, holy crap, he's got pigeons -- doves, essentially -- and I'm still not sure what to do with this, but I find him intriguing.

-- Good thing about the Norton Shakespeare: It reproduces the Peacham sketch, so we could all look at it and talk a bit about it. Mostly, I think we talked about costume as shorthand for identity, and what does it mean that Titus = Roman but Tamora = queen?

-- Bad thing about the Norton Shakespeare: "Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thine arms." Oh no no. It is just not Titus Andronicus unless she bears it between her TEETH (as she does in both Quarto and Folio texts, so I can't find a rationale for this choice other than editorial squeamishness). Harrumph. I think I shall go back to using individual paperback texts after this. They're cheaper and easier to carry around, anyway.

-- I really, really want to see Samuel L. Jackson play Aaron, especially the "yo, I'm so evil that I dig up CORPSES and prop them up at their friends' doorsteps" speech. That is all.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

chiefly procrastinatory

Via Ceirseach: The Amazing and Incredible, Only Slightly Laughable, Politically Unassailable, Po-Mo English Title Generator.

Here are some titles it suggested when I introduced it to Heywood:

Politicizing the Orgasmic Alterity in Thomas Heywood: Edward IV and Power

Attraction and Theory in Edward IV: Thomas Heywood Fragmenting Erotic Opposition

Historicizing, Masculizing, Interpreting: Withdrawal in Thomas Heywood and the Oral Dis-ease of Textuality in Edward IV

The Ethnocentrism of Capitalism and the Problematic in Thomas Heywood's Edward IV

Producing Influence: Female Object in Thomas Heywood's Edward IV

(Amazingly, four out of five of these sort of make sense, and the first one is actually quite apposite.)

Politics as Intercourse: Norming Homosexual Politics in Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West

The Advocacy of Pathos and the Orgasmic in Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West

Fraying Diaspora: Fictive Peoples in Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West

Producing, Deflowering, Developing: Means of Production in Thomas Heywood and the Racist Fragments of Margins in The Fair Maid of the West

Depression as Intolerance: Re-marking Neocolonialist Transgression in Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West

(These are even more appropriate, but one of the beauties of The Fair Maid of the West is that it has absolutely everything.)

Re-producing the Erotic Intercourse in Thomas Heywood: If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody and Madwomen

Thomas Heywood, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, and The Primitive: Infantilizing Oriental Rage

The Patriarchal Smuggling The Proletariat: Thomas Heywood, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody and Ideology

The Responsive Mediating The Penetrated: Thomas Heywood, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody and Womanhood

The Ephemeral Queering The Oppressed: Thomas Heywood, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody and Identity

(And these, alas, make no sense whatsoever. Two out of three's not bad.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Courseblogging: Much Ado About Nothing

So this was my third time teaching Much Ado in slightly less than a year. The second time is pretty much engraved permanently on my memory, since we were covering Acts 3 and 4 on the day of my teaching demo for the tenure-track job at New SLAC, and there was thus no way to avoid talking about sex in front of the Dean. Well, I'm told it was a good teaching demo, even though I didn't get the job. The day after that, I had a campus interview at another school that turned into a nightmare of inclement weather, cancelled flights, and hastily rescheduled interview appointments; I didn't get home for five days, so we never did have a class on Act 5. Pity, that. (I didn't get the other job, either, possibly because it was all too obvious that I was bad luck.)

So anyway, it was nice to have a bit of leisure time to talk about the end of the play and, of course, to watch Kenneth Branagh and his lawn chair. I think this is my favorite of the comedies, with the possible exception of Merry Wives. It's just fun.

I worry about spoiling that fun with too much analysis, but there's so much to chew on, most of it having to do with sex. This is a play whose title means, after all, "much ado about women's sexuality," among other things. So we spent about a day talking about the prevailing assumptions about female chastity in Messina, and whether there is, after all, any serious challenge to the idea that unchaste women are "rotten oranges"? I mean, the whole point of the Claudio-Hero plot is that Hero is innocent, so she really can't embody a challenge to that particular set of assumptions, although she can serve as a warning against leaping to conclusions.

Maybe Margaret challenges some of those ideas on a more fundamental level? Margaret is, at the very least, a flirt, but nobody seems to hold it against her. I'm not sure what to make of her, mostly because she's so silent during the last third of the play about everything that happens at the wedding (at which she may or may not be present), and when we last see her, she's cheerfully flirting with Benedick. Shakespeare would have had a model for a more heroic Margaret figure in at least one of his sources: Ariosto's Dalinda comes forward and confesses, at the risk of her own life. Shakespeare may not have given Margaret the opportunity; Branagh's film gives us a Margaret who definitely does put the pieces together at the wedding but chooses to keep silent.

Don John. What's up with him, anyway? The one thing we know about him is that he's "John the bastard": his mother is one of those loose women everyone thinks are so terrible. So what's he attacking? Women? The institution of marriage? The social structures that define certain sexual acts, and certain people, as illegitimate? Or is he just lashing out at everyone within reach, indiscriminately? I don't know, although my money's on Door 2 or 3. Anyway, nobody's rebellion against marriage lasts very long in Messina -- although at least one, and possibly both, of the young couples manage to renegotiate marriage on their own terms.

None of my students seemed very convinced by the Claudio-Hero match. Personally, I like to think that Hero's "And when I lived, I was your other wife / And when you loved, you were my other husband" line hints at a transformation of sorts in both characters, but I don't know exactly what that transformation looks like. I'm not sure Hero really does either, but I want to trust her and I want her and Claudio to be able to trust each other, because in so many ways this is a play about trust. Although trust, as Benedick and Beatrice remind us, also entails holding on to certain illusions ("A miracle! Here's our own hands against our hearts").

I still have the same giddy crush on Benedick that I had when I was eighteen, making him one of the very few wholesome characters in Renaissance drama that I find sexy. Usually, I have an unholy attraction to the Edmunds and Bosolas and Richard IIIs. (I didn't share any of this with the students.)

Next up: Titus Andronicus. This will be a different world.

Friday, September 19, 2008

more about pirates and Shakespeare

Avast, me hearties! This be Talk Like A Pirate Day!

As longtime readers of this blog will recall, there is a growing body of evidence that Shakespeare was a pirate. I propose to add to that body of evidence. But first, a joke:

Q: What has eight ARRRRms, eight legs, and eight eyes?

A: Eight pirates!

Now, consider this recent scholarly discovery. (You can tell that it is scholarly because it involves time-traveling chickens.) Guess who also had eight ARRRRms, hmm?

I rest my case.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

end-of-the-beginning-of-the-semester blahs

Brain feels fuzzy. I think grading 43 freshman comp essays has a bad effect on the intellect. I have been watching, in bits and pieces, the BBC first tetralogy as a reward for grading the essays, but tonight I'm too tired. Actually, the Henry VI plays work quite well as a soap opera, and I think it would be cool if someone remade them as one.

The essays were almost universally blah with two or three bright spots, all of them from the morning class. No really hilariously, head-clearingly bad ones, but most of them not very good. On Monday, I will receive 43 more drafts; on Tuesday, I have an insane number of conferences, like 21 or so. Oh yeah, and I will be teaching Titus Andronicus for the first time (though not, obviously, in freshman comp). Help.

So despite being a first-year faculty member, apparently I'm sorta-chair of this not-quite-committee thing. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I suppose it will look good in the tenure file, but I'm at the point where I feel like my head will explode if I even think about the tenure file. Anyway, I have been writing up a draft proposal describing what the not-quite-committee will do, which is rather challenging since I haven't worked out what not-quite-committees do in general, but at least it's only a draft. Right?

Is it fall break yet? I need it to be fall break. I think my students need it to be fall break; five weeks into the semester, the novelty has worn off, and the freshmen are hitting the grousing-chattering-heads-down-on-desks stage. Hell, I feel like having my head down on the desk sometimes. I was having one of my periodic fits of anxiety about the whole grading-and-credentials system, so I asked the afternoon class today how they would handle matters if they could be in charge of the university. The only answer that I got was "No offense, Ms. Porpentine, but I wouldn't have any English classes. [Pause.] Or math. Or science." Well, I'm, um, glad that the math and science profs don't seem to be doing any better with the Student Engagement thing?

It has been cool and pleasant these last few days, cool enough to keep the door to the patio open in the evenings, only I hope the big slugs don't come in. Ew, slugs.

On that note, I think my brain has officially turned to mush. Good night.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Courseblogging: The Lamentable Tragedy of Friar Laurence and the Nurse

We've finished Romeo and Juliet. I can now breathe a sigh of relief. I think I may need to take some time off from teaching this play, or rather teaching around this play.

The trouble is that everybody's read it, and I don't want to repeat conversations that they've already had in high school, so I end up doing around-the-fringes-of-the-play stuff. Such as watching clips from different film versions and comparing them, or looking at snippets from Arthur Brooke's gloriously awful poem, or giving the students the Q1, Q2, and First Folio versions of a passage and asking them to play textual editor.

Actually, the last activity went terrifically well, and I want to do it again. Indeed, they were all fine activities in themselves. But somehow, doing too much of this stuff seems like a desperate attempt to cover up a big gaping hole where the play was supposed to be. And I don't really have anything very original or insightful to say about this play -- with the possible exception of the passage at 3.5 where the Nurse stands up to Capulet and says, "I speak no treason." (Uppity servants are like gravy to me.) So yeah, we did talk a bit about the family as microcosm of the state, and whether this can be read as a political play, and if so, what the political message might be. That's still kind of talking around the young lovers, though. In a lot of ways, I find the older generation, with all their frailties and failures, more interesting.

I have graded the first batch of papers, except for a few that came in late. They were good for the most part, and one was brilliant -- the first A+ that I've ever given on a paper. I suspect that this says more about the students' prior level of preparation than my teaching, but it was nice, regardless.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

what does it say about me...

... that I went off to look at the MLA job list as soon as it went live, despite the fact that I already have a job and have zero intention of applying for any other jobs this year?

It's like crack, I tell you. Crack. (Also, Swarthmore? St. John's? Not that they'd have me, but I am so tempted...)

Best of luck to all readers who are job-marketing this year. I don't envy you. Not really.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Courseblogging: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Our classes on this play turned out to be very Bottom-centered (I keep feeling that there's a groaningly awful pun to be made here, but I'm not sure what it is). I think this has something to do with my own research interests and pet topics, and a lot to do with the Michael Hoffman film with Kevin Kline as Bottom. I didn't really care for this film when I first saw it in the theater, but it's grown on me. It's not the best film of a Shakespearean comedy out there (that would be Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night), or my personal favorite (Branagh's Much Ado, of course), but it is competently done, and the bits with the artisans are better than competent.

Anyway, we watched a couple of clips on the second day of class discussion and read an article about the film. Most of the students seemed to like Hoffman's take on the play, and, more interestingly, thought there was enough in the text to support a reading where Bottom is a bit of a visionary, clumsily groping his way toward something the aristocratic characters can't see at all, rather than a buffoon.

I agree. "Reason and love keep little company together nowadays" is probably the most sensible thing anybody says in the whole play, and the "eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste" speech strikes me as ... not just mangled, but ... synaesthetic, maybe? Of course he's misquoting 1 Corinthians 2, which is all about grace, and the ineffability of grace -- the whole idea is that the senses and the intellect are not enough to understand certain things. Theseus, among other people, doesn't get this.

I tried not to tip my hand too much. That is, I did talk about these ideas, but I didn't tell the class how they intersect with my research, and I restrained myself from ranting about one of my pet peeves: critics who refer to Quince, Bottom, and co. as "the mechanicals," sometimes "Rude Mechanicals," capitalized, as if this were the name of their theater company. (Would anyone dream of referring to Othello as "the thick-lips" or Shylock as "the infidel"? Surely not; and yet a class-marked pejorative that Puck uses once in the play gets casually tossed around as if it were a neutral descriptor. What's wrong with "the artisans" or "the amateur actors" or their names, for God's sake?)

Ahem. Got on my soapbox there, for a minute. I suspect that I do tip my hand too often, even without soapboxing. At the beginning of Wednesday's class, I asked the students to write for five minutes about whether they think the audience should be bothered by the fact that Demetrius is still under the influence of the love-spell when the play ends (and needs to stay that way for the happy ending to work at all). After they'd finished writing, but at the very beginning of the discussion period, I told them point blank that it bothered me, and took a quick straw poll. About half a dozen students raised their hands to indicate that yes, they thought this ought to bother us. A lively discussion of the issue followed. I walked out of the room thinking hey, what a great class, isn't it nice that the students are so comfortable expressing differences of opinion?

I read through the written responses that evening. Every last one said no, this shouldn't bother the audience. Hmm. Either they were playing guess-what-the-prof-wants on the written responses (and guessed wrong), or give-the-prof-what-she-wants during class discussion, or they genuinely revisited the question and changed their minds in the course of my fifteen-second statement that yes, this element in the play unnerves me and I don't know what to do with it. Somehow I'm not banking on the latter. Oh dear.

I think that will be one of my biggest struggles this semester -- to what extent do I want to tell my students what I think, and is there a way to express an opinion that isn't coercive? For the last third of the semester, we'll be solidly in Fret's Dissertation Territory, so I hope I can get it right by then.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wherein I am annoyed by a Washington Post article. I think.

The article in question is this one, "Ripped Books" by high school English teacher Nancy Schnog. The link probably requires registration, but the gist of it is, Schnog thinks students don't read because high schools are teaching the wrong books, and teaching them the wrong way.

"Butchering." That's what one of my former students, a young man who loves creative writing but rarely gets to do any at school, called English class. He was referring to the endless picking apart of linguistic details that loses teens in a haze of "So what?" The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes. The thesis-driven essay assignments that require students to write about a novel they can't muster any passion for ("The Scarlet Letter" is high on teens' list of most dreaded). I'll never forget what one parent, bemoaning his daughter's aversion to great books after she took AP English Literature, wrote to me: "What I've seen teachers do is take living, breathing works of art and transform them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection."

OK. I can kinda-sorta see Schnog's point. One correspondent, a high school senior, writes in to the online discussion about the article with a description of an all-too-typical high school English assignment: We are never given a reason Why? We are given highlighers and copies of text, told to find at least three metaphors and five similes along with the juxtaposition of this work and another. Fair enough: this is bad teaching, at least if the activity never goes anywhere. And I have to admit I've always been puzzled about why The Scarlet Letter, of all books, is standard high school fare: just how much does the average teenager know about adultery and guilt and vengeance and Puritanism?

Thus far, I'm with Schnog. I'm all for opening up the canon; I'd like to see high schools teach more contemporary lit, more science fiction, more books by nonwhite authors, and (my pet hobbyhorse) more books with happy endings. And I agree with her that some of the classics can wait, because there are books and authors students have to grow into. Dickens was mine. I remember reading Great Expectations in ninth grade and hating it. A year later, when we got to A Tale of Two Cities, something clicked. I remember exactly when it clicked, about a quarter of the way through the book:

'The old Sydney Carton of Shrewsbury School,' said Stryver, nodding his head over him as he reviewed him in the present and the past, 'the old seesaw Sydney. Up one minute and down the next; now in spirits and now in despondency!'

'Ah!' returned the other, sighing: 'yes! The same Sydney, with the same luck. Even then, I did exercises with other boys, and seldom did my own.'

'And why not?'

'God knows. It was my way, I suppose.'

And my tenth-grade self totally got this, because my tenth-grade self was not a good student, and blew off assignments that she was quite capable of doing, and let the kid sitting next to her in Algebra cheat off of her tests without really knowing why she was letting him do it. All of which seems to bear out Schnog's thesis: that students are more engaged, and learn more, when they can see at least a little of themselves in the books they're reading.

But. Butbutbutbutbut. Schnog starts to lose me when she assumes that teachers can necessarily predict which books are going to speak to high school students, and when and how and why this will happen, and in particular, when she makes some blanket assumptions about gender.

It's hard to forget my son's summer-reading assignment the year before he entered ninth grade: Julia Alvarez's "How the GarcĂ­a Girls Lost Their Accents." Try as he did, he never got beyond the first of 15 vignettes about four culturally displaced sisters who search for identity through therapists and mental illness, men and sex, drugs and alcohol. I could hardly blame him. We ask 14-year-old boys to read novels about the travails of anguished women and want them to develop a love of reading?

IIRC, this isn't a totally accurate characterization of Alvarez's novel, since the characters are children or teenagers for large chunks of the book. And I think Schnog is being a little inconsistent here; whatever one thinks of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, it clearly isn't one of the "classics" Schnog rails about elsewhere in the article. Whoever chose this particular summer-reading assignment was trying to do precisely what Schnog suggests that teachers should do -- add more contemporary lit and more multicultural voices to the curriculum. But one problem with this contemporary novel, evidently, is that it is about girls. Schnog admits as much in the online chat: I am ambivalent about assigning "girl-oriented" stories to young male teens: Why? Because in the main, they don't like them.

Cringe. Let's assume, for the moment, that she's correct. Wouldn't the next logical step to be to ask why they don't like them, and whether there's anything we can do about it, rather than assuming that this is an immutable state of affairs? And what about young female teens -- do they have the choice of a) attending an all-girls school or b) spending four years reading only books with male authors and protagonists (because everyone knows that's all the boys will read, and girls will read anything, so their wishes and perspectives are of secondary importance)?

Actually, come to think of it, that was pretty much all we read when I was in high school. And I didn't really feel the absence of female voices at the time; by eleventh grade I'd pretty much worked out that I liked English, and I was fine with a steady diet of The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Hamlet and Greek tragedy. I enjoyed all of those books, even if I did get a C on an AP English essay for arguing that Clytemnestra was the most sympathetic character in the Oresteia. Which might, again, seem to prove Schnog's thesis...

All the same, I think a reading list like that does skew both boys' and girls' ideas about what counts as literature and, more broadly, whose voices and perspectives are worth hearing. I'm pretty sure the skewedness was accidental on my eleventh- and twelfth-grade teachers' part; both men were wonderful teachers, alert and sensitive to both texts and students. But I find it unconscionable that someone would deliberately argue that we shouldn't be teaching "girl-oriented" stories to teenaged boys, knowing that in a typical, mixed-sex public school classroom, that means we won't be teaching them to anybody.

Whew, that was a lot of very inconclusive blather. I have no high school teaching experience, and no very good solutions to the problem Schnog is trying to address: how do you keep students from becoming disaffected with the whole idea of studying literature? But I do have one insight from my own experience as a formerly disaffected student: The books don't matter nearly as much as the teachers do. I stopped hating English about midway through tenth grade. This didn't happen when it dawned on me that Sydney Carton kind of interesting (because I'd been interested in lots of books without necessarily liking the class in which they were assigned), but when my sharp-tongued, not terribly charismatic teacher somehow managed to convey to me that she liked books, respected books, and also got a lot of pleasure out of thinking and talking about how books worked. This was something of a revelation to me, because my ninth-grade English teacher, who was very funny and popular with most of her students, had not liked books, and let her disdain show.

And so I find myself wondering whether Schnog lets her disdain for The Scarlet Letter, and her love for The Great Gatsby, show, and whether this is why her students react so differently to these two novels -- both of which take place in worlds far removed from a twenty-first-century teenager's experience. And I wonder, also, whether there are enough high school teachers with a passion both for books and for the pleasures of analysis to go around, and how we can entice more of them into the schools.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Courseblogging: Random Bullets o' Sonnets

I shall be blogging my Shakespeare class this semester. I think this is mostly for myself -- so that I have a few memoranda about what I thought about, what we talked about, what worked, and what didn't -- but if anyone else finds it helpful, great.

We're starting with a selection of sonnets. The sonnets always make me a little nervous; I'm not sure why, except lyric poetry in general makes me nervous. I like writing and talking about narrative. I'm not sure there is a narrative to the sonnets; if there is, it's a very weird and non-linear one. Because I am lazy like to maintain a very precise sense of literary decorum, this post will be equally non-linear.

-- Talking of narrative, I have been trying to make sense of Sonnet 146 ("Poor soul, thou center of my sinful earth") and why it is where it is in the sequence, assuming that the printer wasn't merely throwing sonnets in every which way, which he may well have been doing. I came up with a theory that I thought was rather cool: maybe Shakespeare wanted this very pious piece to go in the middle of all these increasingly embittered love sonnets, literally thrall to / lord of / foiled by the rebel powers that besiege the soul on all sides.

-- My students were not overly impressed with this theory. They kept wanting the soul to belong to the Dark Lady, or the speaker's friend, or anybody at all other than the speaker himself. This interpretation doesn't quite click, for me -- this particular poetic mode seems to call for introspection, rather than preachiness -- but I can't totally discount it.

-- Somebody suggested that the opening lines of Sonnet 135 ("Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will / And Will to boot, and Will in overplus") might refer, among other things, to penis size. The more I think about this possibility, the more I like it. I love having students with dirty minds. (Also, this group TOTALLY got Sonnet 20, which makes me happy. I wish we were reading more gender-bending stuff this semester -- we'll get to Merchant eventually, but the more I think about it, AYLI or Twelfth Night would be SUCH a good follow-up to the sonnets, and we're not reading either. Must remember this for next time.)

-- I have a professor in grad school who had a lot to say about linear and cyclical time in the sonnets, not all of which I remember, but I have to say that Sonnet 73 becomes a very different poem if you think about time as something cyclical, and the "leave" in the last line suddenly becomes "bring out in new leaves."

-- Back in college, I belonged to a very ineffectual Shakespeare society. As a Valentine's Day fundraiser, we decided that we would, for a small fee, deliver a rosebud and a handwritten sonnet to the purchaser's boyfriend or girlfriend. We started looking for suitable sonnets. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds," OK. After that, um... "My God!" said someone after half an hour. "All of these sound like they should come with black roses!"

I must tell this story to students more often. It always gets a laugh.

-- I'm using the Norton Shakespeare, about which I have mixed feelings, but one cool thing is that they do print alternative versions of a few sonnets from manuscripts and The Passionate Pilgrim. So we're reading some alternative sonnets for Wednesday. I'll see how it goes.

Next up: A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Day One...

So, this was my first day as a tenure-track professor. Shakespeare at 9, Brit Lit I at 10. I've had that sort of schedule in grad school, and I'd forgotten how nice it was -- the whole day ahead of you. I do have office hours on Wednesday afternoon, but Mondays and Fridays are free. (In theory, this will be time to Pursue Scholarship. In practice, probably not so much.) I still don't have an actual office; that is, I have been assigned one, but it is a brand-new office and as yet it is full of workmen and sawdust.

The Shakespeare class seems nice: mostly English majors, a few people with acting or directing experience, pretty engaged. I'm still making my mind up about the survey. They are nearly all non-majors, and I'm starting to think that my Mentor may have been right; several of them seem like they'll struggle with the reading. Well, at least we hit Chaucer before the end of the drop period (and there are thirty people enrolled, so I really hope some of them do drop).

I can't stop thinking about the fact that my first Brit Lit survey, back in grad school, was an absolute disaster. The second one, at New SLAC, was great, but the student demographics were totally different and the class ended in 1600 instead of 1800. (Also, we had lots of shiny technology at New SLAC, so I could perk things up by showing images and film clips. Here, it is me and a piece of chalk and an overhead projector, maybe a portable TV on a cart if I remember to reserve one. Which isn't bad; most of my own favorite professors had themselves and a piece of chalk. I had myself and a piece of chalk for my first two or three years in the classroom. It's a little scary how quickly technology becomes a crutch, and maybe just as well that I'm going to have to do without.)

Tomorrow: Two sections of freshman comp. God, I hope they don't hate me as much as my first-semester freshmen did last year.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I'm back

Here I am in Deep South Town. In the past week, I have gone camping in the Great Smoky Mountains, moved into the new apartment, posted the course grades for the summer class, acquired some new plants and utterly failed to assemble a bookcase, attended New Faculty Orientation and a party at my chair's house, and, rather oddly, gone out drinking with the local Chief of Police. How was everyone else's week?

I have Internet access at home, as of yesterday, but for some reason I have utterly failed in my attempts to access any work-related sites. Only fun sites. I'm not as broken up about this as I probably should be, although I guess I should do something about it. I keep getting "Sorry, we could not find this page" messages about the majority of the web pages in the state university system, and my login for WebCT doesn't seem to work. (It is remotely -- REMOTELY -- possible that all of the state university sites are down, but I suspect something more sinister is at work.)

I have been assigned a Mentor. I am starting to think this may be a mixed blessing, as she is very nice, but our approaches to pedagogy seem to be ... somewhat at odds. She said Dire Things about the students' reading and writing skills, and then finished off by saying she no longer assigns papers in her 200-level lit classes because they were so awful. Well, dude. How are they supposed to learn to write papers if they don't WRITE any? (On looking at her syllabus, it appears that the students are reading about twice as much in my 200-level Brit Lit survey as they are in hers. Perhaps this is overambitious. Then again, perhaps it will encourage the lazy students to drop, and since I have a total of ONE HUNDRED AND ONE students this semester, mass drops would be a good thing.) Anyway, I'm inclined to ignore most of the Dire Things she said about student literacy, because honesty, I had colleagues who said the same things at New SLAC, and they weren't true for the most part, and the average ACT scores here are pretty much identical to those at New SLAC.

We have had some meetings about Assessment, and Assessing the Assessment, and Assessing the Assessment of the Assessment. I felt sort of guilty for playing Buzzword Bingo in the first one, but then it turned out that everyone else was doing much the same, except for a few people who are really earnest about Assessment. Anyway, it appears that there will be a great many more meetings about this topic. I am tempted to come up with some Anti-Assessment buzzwords. ("When you assess, you make an ass out of essment"? All right, maybe not.)

Classes start on Wednesday. I'm not ready.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I LOVE the Beowulf movie!

... even though I've never seen it. Why? It is an AWESOME trap for students who haven't done the reading.

Heh heh heh. I wish people would make bad movies about everything I teach. I'm not quite sure what this says about me.

Final presentations today. Apart from the student who talked about how Beowulf fails to kill Grendel's mother because she seduces him, they were all decent, some much better than decent. This is the third time I've used this presentation assignment -- basically, "tell your classmates about your final paper, bring questions for the class and note places where you'd like some help, and we'll have a nice, relaxed conversation about it" -- and it has gone over brilliantly every time. I'm not sure it actually makes for better papers (sometimes I think nothing results in better papers, ever), but it does get them talking to each other rather than through me, and generally they are interested in what their classmates have to say. Sometimes it's even hard for me to get a word in edgewise, which I thought would NEVER happen with this group.

I wish it were possible to do this in the standard Norton Anthology of Brit Lit I survey class, but there is just TOO MUCH to read. (I have made the painful decision that we're not reading any Malory next semester. I adore Malory, but it's just not possible to do him justice in the survey. We might skip Sidney, too. This was a much less painful decision.)

I can't believe I'm already thinking about the next semester of classes before this one wraps up, but of course it's only a two-week break. Help.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dust Bunny Sanctuary

Back in New SLAC Town to get moved out. The landlord is coming in a couple of hours, so I really do need to finish up cleaning the place, as well as packing everything the movers didn't take with them.

My God, I suck at housekeeping. This place should have a "Dust Bunny Sanctuary" sign on it.

It's strange being here again. It's just about the time when I arrived last year, when I thought this might well be Home For Life. Now I know it is just a temporary place. I haven't had all that many temporary places in my life, apart from Spanish City where I spent a scary and glorious semester as a wide-eyed nineteen-year-old, and English City, where I spent a summer shacked up with my long-distance boyfriend. I have been back to Spanish City, and probably will be back to English City, which is a major tourist spot; I don't think I will ever have any occasion to visit New SLAC Town again. And yet, for ten months or so, it was home.

Leaving temporary places is always a wrench. I walked across the campus on Friday; the summer stillness lay heavy upon it, and no one was there. Perhaps that's as well. It wasn't a talking-to-people sort of walk.

New faculty orientation is on August 7th, which is TOO SOON. Eeee!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Fret's Awesome Weekend o' Sleep Deprivation

Back from a three-day trip to see Grad School Trivia Buddy married off. It was quite awesome and fabulous and resulted in my teaching Dante this afternoon on next to no sleep (the class, fortunately, went better than it really had a right to do).

The Beloved Alma Mater is roughly on the way to GSTB's home town, so I spent a couple of hours wandering around campus. The last time I was there was in February, about a year and a half ago; I remember wandering around the English building, getting all sentimental about the chipping paint on the stair railings and feeling like nothing had changed, until I happened to glance into a classroom. Five rows of students, all tap-tap-tapping on their laptops. You can't go home again.

The classrooms are empty in the summer. I stood, for a moment, at the front of Room 215, scene of a conversation with Freshman Shakespeare Prof (by then Sophomore Epic & Romance Prof) that may have changed my life. He wandered into class five minutes late, explaining that he'd just been teaching American Lit, and asked (rhetorically, I'm sure) how you could get from The Scarlet Letter to the Odyssey in ten minutes. And since I was the sort of irritating student who answered rhetorical questions, I thought of a way, and shyly sidled up after class to tell him about it. We talked. He asked if I'd ever considered grad school. Click.

I glanced at FSP's old office, empty now that he's in phased retirement. No books on the shelves; no ancient Doonesbury cartoons about grade inflation on the door. It seemed drained of personality.

The Medievalist wasn't around either, although his office -- in one of the outbuildings on the oldest part of the campus -- looked reassuringly occupied. For a long glorious autumn in my senior year, his Early Celtic Literature class met on a patch of grass in front of the office; I think of him whenever I hold class outdoors. I left a note. We haven't talked since MLA 2005, and I'm feeling like that's too long.

And so, back on the road.

Grad School Trivia Buddy gave terrific and exhausting parties even when we were impoverished grad students, so it didn't surprise me that she and her family pulled out all the stops for her wedding. I count five parties in slightly over forty-eight hours, not counting the wedding itself. Whew. (How AWESOME is it that they had a pig-pickin' for the reception? I have been jonesing for good barbecue since I don't know when. Mmm, pig.) Somewhere in between all that we even got in a wee-hours-of-the-morning trivia game, which I won, although it was hard-fought indeed.

I miss grad school. I didn't think I was going to miss it that much, because it took me way too long to finish, and by then I was a little sick of feeling like I was waiting for my life to start, and besides, most of my friends had scattered across the country. I guess what I really miss is having a steady group of friends who were up for late nights of drinking and intensely competitive board gaming, which just doesn't seem to happen as much in the world of Grown-Up Faculty. Or maybe it does, and I just haven't met the right people yet. But anyway, it was great to see these people, even if they keep doing crazy things like getting married, and having babies. (The other thing I discovered over the weekend is that while babies and toddlers are very cute, I'm really rather glad that all of them belong to somebody else. It generally takes me about thirty minutes in their presence to go from "ooh, I want a baby" to "ick, that is a lot of spit.")

How was everyone else's weekend?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lecture Guilt

The summer class is starting to settle into a rhythm. In-class writing, giving background on the reading, pointing out highlights of the reading, occasional interludes of period music or art, break, pointing out more interesting stuff about the reading, handing back the in-class writings and telling the students about all the smart insightful stuff the other students said, the occasional YouTube clip (here, have some animated Sir Gawain!), background about the next set of readings.

What's missing? Oh, yeah. They don't talk. Well, two of them talk, but one of them has four young children and has to be absent a fair bit of the time (all for bona fide emergencies, so I don't want to dock points), and it's pretty hard to carry on a discussion with one student and the instructor. I've called on some of the others out of the blue when I know for sure they have something to say, but I dislike putting students on the spot -- it's worse than useless if the student doesn't have something to say, and I cherish the illusion that class discussion ought to be free and voluntary. Paired or small-group activities have sometimes worked and sometimes flopped spectacularly. So I end up lecturing a lot.

I feel guilty about this. I'm not sure whether I ought to feel guilty. I mean yeah, I believe in the Virtues of Active Learning and all that jazz, but I also believe in Engaging Different Learning Styles and Responding to the Needs of Individual Students and Classes, and maybe this class has decided that their preferred learning style is listening quietly. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Then again, maybe there is -- we're here to teach skills, after all, not just content, and it's hard to learn these skills without using them. Then again, maybe there isn't; they do write in class, every class, so it's not like they're starved for a chance to do literary analysis in practice. And some students, apparently, like lecture and think they learn most effectively from it, to the point of asking for more of it on the course evals; who am I to tell them they are wrong?

Behind it all is a stubborn conviction that I must be doing something wrong if people don't want to talk -- because when I didn't want to talk, it was nearly always a sign that the professor was doing something wrong. This, of course, is silly, since they're not me; some are from cultures (or majors) where silence and deference are the rule, some are just shy. Still. I keep thinking about my least favorite professors in college: the one who never did anything but summarize the readings; the one who looked up at the class every now and then with a bone-dry "Would ... anybody ... care ... to ... comment ... on ... that?" (of course, nobody ever did); the one who asked the class to vote on whether they preferred lecture or discussion on the first day, but who really only welcomed comments when they allowed him to make the point that he knew everything about the topic and we knew nothing. I hope I'm not falling into one or more of those traps.

Anyway. Lecture Guilt. Excuse me, I must find some pretty pictures and music to illustrate tomorrow's lecture.

Monday, June 30, 2008

man, these three-hour classes are rough on the throat...

Owwwww. I bought throat drops on the way home, but they didn't seem to do much good. What I need to do is get the students to do most of the talking, but it is a small group (7 students), and most of them are shy. Should do more paired / small group stuff, I guess.

At least there will be no more Beowulf after today. I don't know why, but I don't like teaching Beowulf. Part of it, I think, is that it's one of those books that are firmly in my Discomfort Zone: texts that I know just enough about to be all too aware of everything I don't know. I like teaching Shakespeare. I know lots of stuff about Shakespeare. I'm OK with teaching Ibsen, because I know next to nothing about Ibsen; I can just deal with the words on the page, which is all you really need to deal with in a gen ed course, and not worry about what the critics are saying or the complexities of nineteenth-century Norwegian society. And the students and I get to figure it all out together, which is cool. Stuff in between, though? Discomfort zone.

Next up are the troubadour poets, who are firmly in the Ibsen category as far as I'm concerned. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Am in Parentland. The drive here took two days, with a detour to see my first cave and another one to see the house where my grandfather grew up. I have another eight-hour drive to look forward to tomorrow, but since the endpoint is the beach, I can't complain.

Went to Adjunct U. today to get the lay of the land. There sure are a lot of statues of the Virgin Mary there, as well as crosses on top of buildings, but maybe that isn't a bad sort of ambience for a medieval lit class.

In lieu of actually planning the first day of class, I have been engaging in the perfectly legitimate pedagogical tactic of collecting vaguely relevant YouTube videos. Here, have an animated intro to the Canterbury Tales. It's cute, although I'm not so sure about the music. Also, claymation Dante and Lego Beowulf.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

for the curious...

The one unguessed work from Thursday's game (#12) is Patriot Games. I'm not surprised nobody got it, since I'm told it doesn't take place in Florida at all. Or Flordia, even.

'Bye, folks. My dad and I are driving to Parentland. I'll be back when we get there.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A game...

Guess the work from the student's description of it on the exam! Information in these descriptions may or may not be accurate. 1-11 are reasonably canonical works by American, British, or European authors; 12 and 13 are works of popular fiction (in one case, a series rather than a book) that the students probably shouldn't have chosen (but at least neither one is Shrek or The Lion King, both of which spawned actual essays).

Have fun! And be warned, this is a little like reading inkblots.

1a) [Title] is a tragic story about ambition thats kills him because of that.

b) (same work, different essay) Basically a whole Frankenstein effect happened, her creating the beast that eventually led to her death. [Guessed by Anon II]

2) If "[assumed name of character] would have told the truth, he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his maiden in return for silence. [Guessed by Heu Mihi]

3) [Character] is on a quest for meaning while the accountant is on a chair. [Guessed by Anon I]

4) Having gone through three marriages and still wanting to pursue identity and happiness is a lot. [Guessed by Sisyphus]

5) a) [Character A] strives to show [Character B] that there is more to bla]ck people than black people being black. [Guessed by Heu Mihi]

b) (same work, different essay) However upon meetin [Characters A, C, and D]; and the journey, he encountered a Bulldogsroman.

6) The relationship of [Character A] and [Character B] is ex-marriage ... This turns the entire town against her in a rude, solitudal, and downcast manner. [Guessed by Kermitthefrog.]

7) In Hell, Satan is the big cheese. [Guessed by Neophyte]

8) [Title] is a comedy about a hopeless wanting to become the knight in shining amour ... Like any superhero [Title character] had a sidekick (and I’m not talking about the phone!) ... Although the brighter of the two, farmer guy has half a brain to live on. [Guessed by Anon I]

9) The relationship between [character] and her uncle started out – as in all Shakespeare’s tragic plays – in an a foreboding trail. [Guessed by Anon I]

10) No person has ever, or will ever, glorify a horse. [Guessed by Anon I]

11) [Character] as the role of a foil is even mentioned throughout literature in such things as a poem by Prufrock written in the 20th century. The main reason for his role is Shakespeares theory that all tragedies must have royalty. [Guessed by Kim Wells]

12) [Character A] and [Character B] have been teaching at the Navel Academy in Flordia ... After becoming angered and almost killing the reporter with his bear hands, [Character A] is almost on the verge of murder.

13) He is smart, charming, good-looking, classy, well-dressed, and resourceful, and ... he is always surrounded by minor characters who serve as foils until they are poisoned, exploded, or otherwise incapacitated. In order of attractiveness, these are... [Guessed by Sisyphus]

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Grading camp

Here I am at grading camp. It is the end of Day 3, and I've read about 360 essays so far, not counting the sample ones they use to make sure our internal grading scales are calibrated properly. This year the topic is about literary foils, or, as one student explained it, “In some novels the main character is befriended by someone of the opposite personality, creating a ‘good cop, bad cop’ type of unity.”

Lots and lots of essays about The Kite Runner, Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment ("Raskolnikov is a murderer, making it seem his morals are not good"), The Awakening ("This event completely throws Edna off her happy horse"), "1984 by Orson Wells," "the overexxagerated play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ by Scott T. Fitzgerald," &c. One on Harry Potter, and one on a Russian play so obscure I had to Google it. (The one about the Russian play was rather good; the one about Harry Potter, not so much.)

And one kid wrote a poem instead of an essay. It was the only poem I've ever read that rhymed "thirteen" with "crack feen." I hope never to read another.

Four more days to go, with overtime pay since a bunch of people didn't show up. Yay, I think?

Monday, May 26, 2008

a post for Sisyphus...

... who asked for more amusing AP bloopers. I'm sure there will be many more to come next month, but here are a few left over from last year:

"Jody has obviously learned some words (educated himself) that he knows people don't know and soon rises above and becomes mayor. No longer having to work for his money or make himself look better by wearing "pimp-associated" suits, he can just be himself."

"Upon being married, her story is recited to her husband and the veal of shame is lifted only to find hatred."

"In Germinal, the main character (who will be referred to as Jacques for the purpose of this essay) Jacques leads a revolution of miners against the wealthy mine owners ... Germinal was written in the 1600s ... and builds on Marxist ideas."

"His values began to change from being a general to owning an abundance of shirts."

"The Great Gatsby gives us a good perspective of life during the prohibition. At one istance alcohol was legal and in another it wasn't. This has great literary merit because the struggle Gatsby went through is going on today in a different form, marijuana, the most widely used illegal drug."

"On his exhile he comes across a royal band and murders everyone due to their obnoxiousness. Continuing his trek he comes across a Phenix that terrorized the kingdom of Thebes."

"The meaning of the book Frankenstein as a whole was that you shouldn't create something you know nothing about ... If you don't know how to express love to others but yourself, as Victor had done, then this is evidence that you yourself are incapable of handling another being especially loving it, even when your unsure of how it'll look."

"'Like father, like son' comes unfortunately to the feet of innocent bystanders in life as trainwreck parents drag their children in the dirt beside them."

"This action drove Heathcliff away, leaving him bitter and shellfish."

"And ultimately, Gatsby's obsession leads to his demise, proving that living in the past is not just unhealthy, it can kill you as well."

"Without the past, exsistence would not be."

"Blanches way of thinking throughout the whole novel is crazy. She actually doesn't think throughout the novel she just does things right before they happen and I'm telling you that's not how it works."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

right, so why did I let myself in for this?

My plan for the summer:

Today - June 3: Finish writing article and send it off. Finish syllabus for summer class. Clean out office. Box up ENTIRE APARTMENT. Possibly, put stuff into storage; possibly just leave it in the apartment, depending on whether the landlord will let me get away with not paying rent for July.

June 4-12: Go to Louisville to grade AP exams.

June 13-17: Drive to Parentland. Fill out paperwork for summer class. Finish prep for summer class, which is not precisely in my field and covers some material I haven't read since undergrad, and has three-and-a-half-hour class sessions.

June 23 - July 30: Teach summer class in Parentland. At some point, go to Deep South Town for a long weekend to scout out apartments. At another point, possibly go to a wedding. At yet another point, possibly return to New SLAC Town to let the movers in, if stuff is not already in storage.

July 31 - August 6: Drive to Deep South Town.

August 7 - New faculty orientation.

Now, the AP grading and the summer course are both things that I signed on for before I got the job offer at Misnomer U., and can't back out of now. By and large, it's just as well that I have a few sources of income for the summer, since the new place doesn't pay moving expenses, and the summer teaching will involve a lit class with a current enrollment of six students, which is the best kind of teaching. But still, aarghh.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Details, graduation, other stuff...

-- The rain stopped just long enough for graduation (and has now picked up again, in time to remind me to stay home because papers and final exams don't grade themselves). I knew only half a dozen or so of the graduating seniors, since most of my students here have been underclasspeople, but it was nice to have a bit of ceremony to provide a closing parenthesis to my year here. Opening Convocation (yesterday, a million years ago) was one of those "wow, I'm actually faculty now" moments for me, and this was another one; I still get a kick out of wearing the robes, even though I got the cheap off-the-rack ones and I envy the people who have floofy tams and colorful stripes.

-- So, the new place: It is a small public university in the South, with a pretty, historic campus and some interesting quirks; as such, it feels like my natural habitat, although it is definitely farther South than anywhere I've lived before. 4-4 load, small classes, a few more upper-level Ren lit courses on the books than there are at New SLAC; also, they have a real medievalist, so I don't have to be the Brit Lit to 1800 person. So all in all, it's got many of the traits I like about my current job, while it may be a better fit in the long run than New SLAC could ever be. It will be known here as Misnomer U., partly because it makes both "New SLAC" and "Last Chance Saloon" into misnomers, partly for a reason that is unbloggable because it would identify the place, but trust me, the nickname is apt.

-- The new town looks pleasant enough, from what I saw of it; it is significantly bigger than New SLAC Town (there are very few places smaller than New SLAC Town) but still quite walkable. It is, however, very much in the middle of nowhere -- the closest New City-sized places are two to three hours away -- and there seems to be, literally, no public transportation at all. This is not good news for those of us who hate and fear driving, but I guess I'll have to get used to it, and at least I have a car that isn't falling apart.

-- I've turned down or cancelled three interviews for one-year positions. I felt a bit iffy about this, since I don't yet have a written contract in hand, and one of them was a campus interview for what would have been a dream job if it were only tenure-track -- but I'm exhausted and burnt out from this whole process, and I just did not need that extra level of stress on finals week, and the folks at Dream SLAC needed to make a hire on a tight timeline with limited interview slots, so it was definitely the ethical thing to do. At least I have the ego boost of knowing that Dream SLAC thought I was campus-visit-worthy.

-- I was going to do a post about what I learned from my three years on the job market, but the more I think about it, I'm not sure I've learned that much at all. Only this: I returned, and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. And yet those accidents of time and chance determine the shape of the entire story when you tell it afterward, and in time you forget about them and think: I deserved this or It was meant to happen this way.

I keep wondering about the two other people who took PhD exams in Renaissance lit with me. I hope they've found something; they deserve it, and it's because of them that I'm all too aware that I had an unfair advantage at this game by virtue of being healthy, single, and debt-free. And so it goes. I suppose everyone has their share of unfair advantages and disadvantages, and by and large they balance each other. But I hope those two people made it through.

Monday, May 5, 2008

because late-season miracles seem to be my specialty...

I have a job offer. It is tenure-track. I said yes.

That is all.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ew ew ew ew ew...

On what PLANET is it considered appropriate to chew tobacco in class???

It took me a while to notice it was happening, as the student in question was using a Pepsi bottle as a spittoon, and I don't particularly mind if students have Pepsi in class. I do mind if the level of liquid in the bottle ... appears to be steadily increasing rather than decreasing. Ick!

If I never work in this profession again, I am not going to miss freshman comp at ALL.

On a more cheerful note, thanks to somebody-or-other at the Chronicle forums for linking to what is now my new favorite piece of medieval art. I adore the fact that those two back rows of students have not changed in the slightest in 600-odd years.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Woo hoo!

One of the students in my Shakespeare class wants to write her Honors thesis on Henry V! I am soooo excited!

I would, of course, be even happier and more excited if I were going to be around to direct the thesis, but still, it's a good feeling. Made better by the fact that the student in question is very bright, very conservative and Catholic, and, at the beginning of the semester, struck me as a bit of a black-and-white thinker. And a big part of what I'm trying to teach, when I teach Shakespeare in general and the history plays in particular, is the joy of embracing shades of grey.

And she is getting it. The final paper that started off as an attempt to prove that Prince Hal Is Really A Great Guy And An Ideal Monarch-To-Be is turning into a much subtler exploration of the ambiguities in the text, the things that pull for and against that reading, and the reasons why Shakespeare might have wanted to have it both ways. I admit that I did nudge her in this direction, and gave her a copy of the classic Norman Rabkin article on the topic, but I didn't push. She came to it on her own.

And it looks like I will be getting a whole slew of papers about The Merchant of Venice from the other students in the class, and again, I'm really pleased -- it makes me happy that they're seeking out the thorny, knotty, and uncomfortable texts. I wish I hadn't dropped Measure for Measure from my original reading list, because I think some of them would have done a fabulous job with it. Ah well. There will, I hope, be other Shakespeare classes -- at least, I have to trust that there will.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Happy Approximate 444th Birthday to Mr. William Shakespeare

In celebration, I post the most 4-filled passage of Shakespeare I could find:

Speak, sirs; how was it?

We four set upon some dozen--

Sixteen at least, my lord.

And bound them.

No, no, they were not bound.

You rogue, they were bound, every man of them; or I am a Jew else, an Ebrew Jew.

As we were sharing, some six or seven fresh men set upon us--

And unbound the rest, and then come in the other.

What, fought you with them all?

All! I know not what you call all; but if I fought not with fifty of them, I am a bunch of radish: if there were not two or three and fifty upon poor old Jack, then am I no two-legged creature.

Pray God you have not murdered some of them.

Nay, that's past praying for: I have peppered two of them; two I am sure I have paid, two rogues in buckram suits. I tell thee what, Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse. Thou knowest my old ward; here I lay and thus I bore my point. Four rogues in buckram let drive at me--

What, four? thou saidst but two even now.

Four, Hal; I told thee four.

Ay, ay, he said four.

These four came all a-front, and mainly thrust at me. I made me no more ado but took all their seven points in my target, thus.

Seven? why, there were but four even now.

In buckram?

Ay, four, in buckram suits.

Seven, by these hilts, or I am a villain else.

Prithee, let him alone; we shall have more anon.

Dost thou hear me, Hal?

Ay, and mark thee too, Jack.

Do so, for it is worth the listening to. These nine in buckram that I told thee of--

So, two more already.

Their points being broken,--

Down fell their hose.

Began to give me ground: but I followed me close, came in foot and hand; and with a thought seven of the eleven I paid.

O monstrous! eleven buckram men grown out of two!

But, as the devil would have it, three misbegotten knaves in Kendal green came at my back and let drive at me; for it was so dark, Hal, that thou couldst not see thy hand.

These lies are like their father that begets them; gross as a mountain, open, palpable. Why, thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, grease tallow-catch,--

What, art thou mad? art thou mad? is not the truth the truth?

Why, how couldst thou know these men in Kendal green, when it was so dark thou couldst not see thy hand? come, tell us your reason: what sayest thou to this?

Come, your reason, Jack, your reason.

What, upon compulsion? 'Zounds, an I were at the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion. Give you a reason on compulsion! If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.

I'll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,--

'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor's-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck,--

Well, breathe awhile, and then to it again: and when thou hast tired thyself in base comparisons, hear me speak but this.

Mark, Jack.

We two saw you four set on four and bound them, and were masters of their wealth. Mark now, how a plain tale shall put you down. Then did we two set on you four; and, with a word, out-faced you from your prize, and have it; yea, and can show it you here in the house: and, Falstaff, you carried your guts away as nimbly, with as quick dexterity, and roared for mercy and still run and roared, as ever I heard bull-calf. What a slave art thou, to hack thy sword as thou hast done, and then say it was in fight! What trick, what device, what starting-hole, canst thou now find out to hide thee from this open and apparent shame?

Come, let's hear, Jack; what trick hast thou now?

By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye. Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince? why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a coward on instinct. I shall think the better of myself and thee during my life; I for a valiant lion, and thou for a true prince. But, by the Lord, lads, I am glad you have the money. Hostess, clap to the doors: watch to-night, pray to-morrow. Gallants, lads, boys, hearts of gold, all the titles of good fellowship come to you! What, shall we be merry? shall we have a play extempore?

Content; and the argument shall be thy running away.

Ah, no more of that, Hal, an thou lovest me!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Working hard, or hardly working?

That's what my grandfather used to say when he came into the bagel bakery where I had my first job. It drove me nuts at the time, and I think the fact that I have used the phrase is a sign that I am Officially Getting Old, but I couldn't think of a better title for this post.

So I decided a month ago to keep a log of how much time I spent doing work, mainly because of this article and all the discussion it inspired. Because in spite of all the angry reactions -- and in spite of the fact that Bauerlein seems clueless about the fact that the majority of faculty have 4-4 or 5-5 teaching loads, I thought that he might sorta kinda have a point. I thought, well, I'm teaching four classes. Fourteen hours a week, actually, since we have these four-credit comp courses from hell. I admit that I don't have the service requirements that a tenure-track person would, but I am on the job market, which is a time sink in its own right. And I'm pretty sure I don't work 60+ hours a week. In fact, I bet I don't even work forty hours a week. Or do I? What the heck is "work," anyway?

So I started writing down exactly what I did and how much time I spent doing it on the day after spring break, exactly five weeks ago, and I stopped yesterday. During that time, I had two phone interviews and one campus interview (I counted job-seeking as work), attended one (local) conference, and accompanied a bunch of students to Nearest Big Metropolis for a weekend of theater- and museum-going. Here is what I learned from the experiment:

Conclusion #1: I was pretty much right about the amount of time I spent working -- an average of around 31 hours a week, as it turned out. In my busiest week -- which FELT very busy -- I spent 36 1/2 hours on work. So yeah, I'm a lazy slob. I'm OK with that.

Conclusion #2: These figures may skew wildly high or low, depending on what you think counts as work. Unlike the estimable Dr. Crazy, I did not think to lay out ground rules before I started, so I found myself constantly trying to make decisions: Does watching Shakespeare videos on YouTube count as class prep? (Yes, as long as I really planned to use them in the class.) Do office hours count, even if I usually spend them reading blogs and playing Word Sandwich? (No, I decided, office hours only counted if I was actively meeting with a student or doing something else work-related at the time.) Does random and idle reading about academic topics count, or attending other people's conference presentations? (Yes.) Should I count the whole weekend when I went to Metropolis with students? (No, only the time when I was actively engaged in watching Shakespeare, or in ferrying students to and from the train station ... and I felt kind of guilty about counting those parts, because the whole weekend felt more like a perk than a duty.) How about the fifteen minutes I spent helping the theater tech move my guest-room bed out of the apartment so it could star in the campus production of Brighton Beach Memoirs? (Sure, campus citizenship is part of the job. I counted the time I spent at random campus events, too.)

It's possible that if I were at a different type of school, I would find it easier to make these calls. The thing about New SLAC is, there are SO many unwritten expectations about showing up for stuff and "being a part of the life of the college," as they put it at new faculty orientation. I spent a lot more time at these events when I still cherished hopes of being tenure-track, but I still show up to a few of them, either because they're things I enjoy or because I owe someone a favor. So it's mostly-voluntary work, now, but it wouldn't be if I'd been hired for the t-t position, so I decided to count it.

I didn't count things like checking out the latest calls for papers or dashing off a five-minute e-mail to a student while engaged in otherwise recreational Internet browsing. Perhaps I should have, but honestly, most of the time I don't even notice that I'm technically working when I do stuff like that.

And then there was the time I went to see a play by New-To-Me Playwright, was totally blown away, and decided that the sophomore Honors seminar really needed a field trip to see a different play by New-To-Me Playwright. After debating with myself at some length, I counted the time I spent researching New-To-Me Playwright and organizing the field trip, but not the original afternoon at the theater, which was meant to be entirely recreational.

So anyway, this whole exercise has brought home to me just how fluid the boundaries between professional and non-professional activities are in academia. I think that's both a blessing and a curse. When there are no clear boundaries, it's easy to feel like you're working All. The. Damn. Time (or, more insidiously, to be working all the damn time without actually realizing you're doing so). On the other hand ... it's kind of cool that so many of the things I like doing are, in fact, professionally useful.

Conclusion #3: I don't spend nearly as much time grading papers as I thought I did. Maybe I have a tendency to confuse time spent grumbling about grading with time spent grading. Or maybe I'm saving it all up for the end of the semester. Oh dear.