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.