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.