Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A post of gratuitous cuteness

Welcome to the world, little guy.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas, all!

I'm off to visit BrotherPorpentine in the predawn hours tomorrow (and, I hope, eventually to meet my nephew -- who had better hurry up and get born before I have to go back to Deep South State). More updates to come, maybe, whenever I have Internet access and news.

Happy holidays to everyone!

-- Soon-to-be-Auntie Fretful

Monday, December 21, 2009

notes from Parentland

My mother, after watching the movie Julie and Julia: Well, she was a little narcissistic. But I guess that whole generation is a little narcissistic.

Me: Ahem. What do you mean, "that generation"?

Mom: Well, the whole blogging generation. You don't blog, so of course I don't mean you.

Me: Um.

Oh, dear...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Huh. That was not so bad, except for the parts that were

OK, so they came and I looked. I seem to have escaped the falling sword, at least this time around; most of the evals were fine and the ones from the Shakespeare course, which I was the one I was most worried about, were positively glowing.

Curiously, the lowest ratings came from the 11 a.m. section of Brit Lit II -- the class that I had personally enjoyed the most and thought went the most smoothly. Three or four students said they thought I was pitching the class toward the English majors too much and ignoring the non-majors. (Hmm, maybe that's because the English majors are the ones who talk and ask questions and seem engaged? You think?) Anyway, I'm not sure what to do with this, especially since the 8 a.m. students -- almost all non-majors -- seemed to have no such complaints.

As per usual, there were a handful of comments about how I was too nervous and fidgety and moved around the room too much and it was distracting. One student expressed the opinion that I might have a disability. Harrumph. Another one -- referring to me by last name only -- wrote something along the lines of "Porpentine does not know how to relate to her students. She kept telling us about things* that she said were only studied on the graduate level. WE DO NOT CARE." Somehow, I don't think my chair will take this as the damning indictment it was evidently intended to be. And there were the usual demands for PowerPoint, and complaints that I asked open-ended questions and wouldn't just tell them the answers, none of which really bothers me.

More worrisome, I think, is the fact that the one question on which I seem to be getting consistently low ratings is "This instructor conducted class in a way that stimulated interest." After three semesters, it's clear that this is a pattern and not a fluke, but I'm not sure what I can do about it, short of getting a personality transplant. I mean, I do show images and video clips, and they say they like that; they say I'm enthusiastic and they like that; and nobody has given me any concrete suggestions about how to be less boring, other than not telling them about stuff they DO NOT CARE about. Blah.

Oh well. I don't think I'm going to get fired for being boring, so it's all good.

* Incidentally, I have absolutely no idea what these "things" might be. I do remember saying something like "Nobody reads the Parson's Tale except grad students because it's a really long sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins," but we did read the Parson's Prologue, so it's not like it wasn't relevant. Other than that, I haven't a clue. Honestly, I think this is the real reason why course evals bother me as a general concept; so many of the comments bear no obvious relationship to anything I remember saying or doing, so it's hard to know what to make of them.

ETA: Please note that I'm dwelling on a handful of negative comments because they tend to loom large in my own head -- this was an overwhelmingly positive set of evals, and I'm not sure they can be improved all that much while still holding students to reasonable standards of college-level work. I thought of deleting this post when I read it over this morning and realized how negative it sounded, but I don't like to delete posts.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

a rhetorical question

Is there anything more agonizing than waiting for the e-mail with your course evaluation results? (Besides, I guess, waiting to find out whether you have cancer or something.)

Damocles, I feel for you...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Courseblogging: The end / the beginning

OK, that last post was rather boring and whiny. I'm in a happier mood now, as the exams are over and I don't have to start grading them until the weekend. I baked cookies for my 11 a.m. section of Brit Lit, by way of thanking them for being the sort of class that made me happy about going to work on Monday mornings. I wish I were going to see more of them next semester; right now, I have one enrolled in the Shakespeare class and one in Brit Lit II, while the 8 a.m. students, most of whom didn't show any obvious signs of liking my class, are signing up in droves. Go figure.

We finished off the semester with Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which was a new text for me. It taught pretty well, I thought (much better than I was expecting -- it's one of those poems where you wake up at 5 a.m. thinking "GOOD GOD, WHAT POSSESSED ME TO TEACH THIS?" after which almost anything is a pleasant surprise). And I passed around a handout with "She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways," and we talked a bit about the common threads and differences, and why the Brit Lit survey sequence splits where it does. (Well, mostly it splits where it does because the Norton Anthology splits where it does. Which came first, the survey course or the Norton? I haven't the foggiest.) Anyway, teaching the whole sequence is odd because you get a bunch of repeat students, for whom this is like the second half of the same course, and a bunch of new ones, many of whom haven't taken the first survey. I don't know whether to think of it as a continuation or a change.

I spent most of the exam period working on the syllabus for next semester. I'm trying something new, loosely inspired by Dr. Virago's Crux Busters and Sisyphus's Close Reading Homework: replacing the first long paper with a series of five mini-papers, which will require students to focus very tightly on a small part of the text. I have a feeling grading these will be a huge time sink, and I wouldn't even attempt it if I were teaching two sections instead of one, but I'm hoping it will get them in the habit of thinking hard about word choice and the like.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

random bullets o'xam week

-- Fondue and weird asparagus-wrapped-in-ham thingies from the faculty Christmas party count as dinner, yes? Particularly when washed down with large quantities of free wine.

-- Have written the exams for Brit Lit I (8 a.m. tomorrow) and Shakespeare (11:30 tomorrow). I wrote them after the party, so I don't know if they make sense or not. I'm not sure I care.

-- As of this morning, I have met with my third plagiarist in three weeks. The first one groveled, told a long story about how she was in a car accident and had two pins in her shoulder and didn't remember things too well, and asked "Is there no understanding?" in plaintive tones; the second one said very little; the third said "Okay!" in an oddly cheerful tone and walked off. I liked the second one best.

-- The final presentations for advanced comp were ... interesting, particularly the one where I ended up having to explain my views on euthanasia to a bunch of highly religious Deep South State students, and the one that ended with half the class arguing over the death penalty. I'm not sure that was how the final was supposed to go, but on the other hand, it's a rare experience to have comp students who show this much passion, and I rather enjoyed it.

-- Is the semester over yet? Sweet Jesus, I want it to be over, except I really don't want to have to read the evals, particularly from the Shakespeare course. Ugh.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Grading WTF-of-the-day

Why on earth would anybody think it was a good idea to turn in a seven-page research paper, written for an upper-level English lit course, without any paragraph breaks?

What's next? In a few years, will I have to tell them to use sentences?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Courseblogging: Occasions of Sin

Am halfway through the second set of papers: close reading of an early modern poem ten to forty lines in length, no interpretative or critical sources allowed, use of the OED highly encouraged. Two plagiarism cases so far (well, three, but the third one plagiarized a single sentence that wasn't even germane to her analysis, and once you get into single-sentence stuff, I'm inclined to dock the grade and move on rather than go through the hassle of filing a full report). I am disappointed, but not especially surprised; that is, in one case I'm both surprised and disappointed by WHO turned out to be a plagiarist, but not surprised that there were plagiarists. I mean, if you Google, say, "death be not proud poetry analysis," you WILL find many, many examples of what you are looking for. And as Angelo says in Measure for Measure, we are all frail.

There's a school of thought that says you're not supposed to give assignments like this. If you go on the Chronicle forums (which are a hotbed of judgmentalism, but somehow I can't tear myself away from them), you will find lots of people who will tell you that if you don't craft highly specific, unplagiarizable assignments that are unique to each class, you're just asking for trouble. As my older, Catholic-schooled relatives would say, you are giving students an Occasion Of Sin, and part of the moral responsibility is yours if they fall.

I don't agree. For one thing, I don't believe there's such a thing as an unplagiarizable assignment. (In my very first lit class, back at the University of Basketball where the Honor Code had teeth, I came up with a paper topic that I thought was unique -- "imagine you've invited two of the playwrights we've read this semester to dinner at your house and write a dialogue between them" -- and one kid STILL plagiarized. I doubt that anything will discourage the truly determined.) I'm also not convinced that it's a good idea to design your classes around the possibility that students will cheat. They probably will, but it gives the cheaters too much power.

Also, it seems to me that if the assignments are too specific, it's less likely that students will be able to transfer the skills they learn to their other classes. (I wonder if this is why the conferences I held last week involved one student after another telling me they'd never had to write a poetry analysis paper before. The simple, generic assignment that allows students a fair amount of latitude to make their own choices seems to have fallen out of favor.)

Still, I'm feeling a touch of nagging guilt; I have to remind myself that several of the other papers are excellent. At their best, the students picked poems that they liked and had a lot to say about, and a couple of them told me in conference that they were surprised at how much they were enjoying the assignment. (A few of them even chose to write about poems that they weren't required to read, since I told them they could pick any poem from the anthology if it met the requirements for the assignment -- it will give me a break from endless papers on "Death be not proud." Yay for people discovering Herbert and Vaughn on their own!)

I do think I need to do more scaffolding and really teach students how to focus closely on language, although this may not be feasible if I'm teaching two large-ish sections again; I'm not sure a short OED assignment plus class discussion are enough to prepare them for a longish analytical paper. One of the students showed me a cool color-coding method one of her high-school teachers had taught her; it involved identifying patterns of words and highlighting the ones that fit together in different colors. I might try this next time around.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nobody asked me, but...

Students deserve the option to attend public colleges and universities that aren't big-box mega-campuses.

I could say much, much more on this topic, but it's hard to get into the sticky details on an anonymous blog, and in any case, I'm too angry and disheartened and worried that I might be unemployed within the next year or two.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Courseblogging: More early modern stick-art!

For really advanced players of the Bardiac game, what seventeenth-century poem are we reading today?

(It went surprisingly well, BTW.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Courseblogging: Collective Personality

Man. Those 8 a.m. students are a tough crowd.

They will, mostly, rise to the challenge if they're given a specific assignment and they know they're going to be called on. (This week, they know they're responsible for looking up a particular word in the OED and telling their classmates about what they found. They're prepared, and sometimes they come up with pretty smart stuff) But they don't volunteer for anything, ask questions, or even laugh much, with the exception of one older student who's less self-conscious than the rest, and one English major who occasionally decides to throw me a lifeline, even though she seems to think my questions are painfully basic. (They are; honestly, I've resorted to throwing out softballs like "OK, what does it say in the footnotes about this line?" in the hopes that someone else will feel confident enough to volunteer. Anyone? Bueller? All right, moving on, then...)

Man. Those 11 a.m. students are a delight. I didn't expect my favorite class this semester to be a gen ed class, but this one has just the right mix of personalities: a core group of five or six really sharp English majors, and the spacy theater dude who sometimes appears to be completely stoned, but when he gets stuff, he really gets it, and the girl who blurts out the oddball questions that everybody else is probably wondering about but afraid to ask. They're energetic, and easily amused, and generally a pleasure to interact with. They get Donne! And Herbert! (Herbert is amazingly easy to teach when you're in the Bible Belt anyway -- even the 8:00 class did a pretty good job working out what all those references to wine and corn and thorns and fruit might imply in a Christian context -- but in the 11:00 section one of the students asked whether it was significant that the big shift in "The Collar" comes at line 33, and I was drop-dead stunned because I'd never noticed that before, but of course he did it on purpose. That's the kind of stuff these students come up with.)

It's not as simple as that, of course. I experience my students mostly as a group with a particular dynamic, so I tend to think of them collectively and lose sight of their individuality, especially in the first weeks of the semester when I'm still linking names, faces, and personalities together. And it's in those first weeks that impressions are forged, and solidify. Meanwhile, there are students in the 11:00 section who are quietly drifting away from the group, but I don't notice that until later, after the first set of papers and the midterm. And there are students in the 8:00 class who are thinking interesting thoughts and might even secretly want to be called on, but I won't know that, either, until after the class dynamic has set. It's a lot harder to change the way we do things in mid-semester.

By now, registration has started for next semester. I'm checking the class lists obsessively, looking for names I recognize (oh, she's good, I'm glad she signed up for the Shakespeare class ... hmm, wasn't that the guy who dropped in the second week of the semester, I wonder if he's got his stuff together this time?) and wondering about all the ones I don't already know, because who signs up for the course is a matter of crucial importance, and it's the one thing I absolutely don't get to control.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Bardiac Game

Anybody want to take a stab at which play we're reading in the Shakespeare class?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I think one of my students is going to fail the Shakespeare course. This is a new and upsetting experience; that is, of course I've flunked students before, but they have always been students who were actively complicit in their failure -- the ones who stopped coming to class, or didn't turn in assignments, or turned in a Wikipedia entry as their term paper and didn't even have the wit to claim they wrote it.

This student is legitimately trying. She's also woefully unprepared for an upper-level Shakespeare class and has no clue how to write an academic essay. She managed to scrape by with a D+ on the first paper, since she made a good-faith attempt to follow the guidelines. The second paper, which was supposed to be a summary and response to a critical article, was massively plagiarized, but it wasn't an Internet cut-and-paste job; it was the sort of plagiarism students commit when they don't really understand what they're reading and therefore haven't the foggiest idea how to paraphrase or summarize it. You know, "The author talks of how the subject is interpolated into a preconceptualist paradigm of reality. Also, he say that promotes the use of the posttextual paradigm of reality to deconstruct hierarchy."* That kind of plagiarism.

I highlighted the plagiarized passages on the first page, explained why it was a problem and told her that she would need to add quotation marks and citations or else paraphrase thoroughly, and advised her to focus on putting the parts of the essay she did understand into her own words and not to worry about trying to paraphrase stuff she didn't. And I gave her a week to rewrite for a maximum grade of C. (Honestly, I would be shocked if the final version earned a higher grade than C in any event.)

She said she wasn't very good at English, and the last time she'd taken a comp course was in 1992. Holy fuck. I don't know who advised her that taking an upper-level Shakespeare course would be a good idea. (She is a "general studies" major, which is Misnomer U.-speak for "this student started off in a preprofessional program but wasn't able to pass the qualifying exams; in theory, they are supposed to be taking a study skills seminar and getting some intensive advising, but it doesn't seem to be working in this case.)

I don't know if I did the right thing by giving her a second chance. I'm not sure there is a right thing to do in this situation (it is too late for her to drop the course now, and I don't think she would drop in any case because she said she needs another English course to graduate in December). On the one hand, this is very, very clearly not a student who intended to plagiarize, and we're meant to be educating students, not penalizing them for not already being educated, yes? On the other hand, it's just as clear that she hasn't come close to mastering the academic skills graduating seniors are expected to master, and almost certainly will not master them in the next few weeks. I'm putting this as if it were an academic problem, but of course it's a human one, too. It seems like a cruel cat-and-mouse game to lead a student on for almost two decades, taking her money and pretending to give her an education in return, and at last offering her a nearly meaningless degree. And yet it seems equally cruel to say no, you're not going to graduate after all, we know you tried your best but sometimes that's not good enough.

Ugh. I don't know what to do in situations like this.

* This is not an actual quotation from the essay; I made it up with a little help from the Postmodernism Generator. But you get the idea.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Courseblogging: Is Mary a Girl?

I have an exercise that I like to do on the first day of the Brit Lit I survey. I give the students a handout with Caedmon's Hymn (in Old English and modern English translation), a snippet of the prologue to the Prioress's Tale (in Middle English with glosses), and a couple of stanzas of Mary Sidney's "Psalm 139." And I ask them to pair up and talk a bit about the differences between the three passages, both in language and content. I keep hoping this will keep them from telling me that Chaucer or Shakespeare wrote in Old English (although it usually doesn't). More importantly, I hope it will provide a glimpse of three different ways of looking at the world. I chose these three passages, out of all of the possible early English texts out there, because they share a similar theme -- praising God -- but the authors imagine God, and the speaker's relationship with God, in wildly different terms. Which means they imagine being human in different terms as well. We can get a lot of mileage out of those differences -- usually more than enough for a first day's discussion.

This year, I was somewhat thrown when a student asked, "Is Mary a girl?" (I didn't know, yet, that this particular student specializes in quirky and awkward questions; my favorite, so far, has been "Is the Wife of Bath a cougar?")

"What?" I said, and then, "Mary Sidney's a woman, yeah."

"Oh," she said. "I was just wondering, because there weren't very many woman writers back then?"

I said there were more than you might think, and moved on to something else.

I've been thinking of this exchange, on and off, as the semester wears on and I start planning the reading list for the second half of the survey. We're not reading many early women writers this semester. A day on Marie de France; another on Margery Kempe; about half a day of Queen Elizabeth I, since she kept getting crowded out by Wyatt; a few poems by Aemilia Lanyer and Katherine Philips, to be read alongside their more canonical contemporaries. That's about all there was time for. It's rather more than we read in any of my undergraduate medieval or early modern lit classes. Sometimes it feels like not enough, especially considering that Misnomer U. is historically a women's college, still has a majority-female student body, and pays lip service to promoting the study of women's issues in its mission statement. Sometimes it feels like too many -- The Second Shepherd's Play got the chop this semester in favor of retaining Kempe; Milton is represented only by two sonnets, and I find both of those tradeoffs uncomfortable. Maybe I should try "Lycidas" next semester and toss "A Description of Cooke-Ham"? Which one will serve them better on the GRE, when they have a boss who likes to quote poetry, when they have their own classes of high-school students to guide on the first halting steps toward interpretation? Which one will they remember when (if?) they have a little space in their lives for reflecting on poetry?

I don't know. On the one hand, I don't like tokenism; I think we should be teaching works because they're good and important, not because they happen to be written by women. On the other hand, who gets to decide what's good or important? And isn't it inherently important that students know that people named Mary are generally female, even if they happen to write poetry?

I don't feel nearly as conflicted about the reading list for the second semester; by the nineteenth century there are plenty of women writers who are genuinely canonical (four out of five of the ones I'm contemplating teaching in this post*, for example, including two of the hyper-canonical ones). One can have one's cake and eat it too. But by the beginning of April, when we get to Virginia Woolf (who is, of course, as canonical as it gets), even the ones who were in my class for the first-semester survey have forgotten that we spent a day with Kempe or twenty minutes with Lanyer, and are inclined to take her parable of Shakespeare's sister as historical fact. I don't know if there's any way to avoid that. Most people forget most of what they learn in their gen ed classes, I suspect, unless they happen upon something that particularly fascinates or amuses or startles them, so it may not matter what ends up on the syllabus anyway.

But I think the student who asked if Mary was a girl was startled (and perhaps her classmates were, too, after she asked the question). And that's all to the good.

* For those who are wondering (and thanks to everyone who weighed in and encouraged me to choose Door B), the winner is ... North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell! Good story, a heroine who's around the same age as most college students and whose shifts in world-view and questions about received wisdom should still resonate, and lots of interesting stuff about industrialization and gender roles and class conflict and (re-)education to talk about. The fact that it passes the Bechdel Test many times over is a very nice bonus.

The runners-up, besides Northanger Abbey, were Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I may get around to giving them all a try eventually; it was hard to choose.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

smalltown blues

I am not, in fact, dead. I have been in VAP City over fall break; I went there with a vague idea that I might go to the art museum and maybe the theater, but ended up doing nothing so cultural. I wandered around a lot and gawped at architecture (for verily, VAP City has amazing architecture), and took the bus here and there, and went to a street festival and some bookstores and petted the bookstore cat, and had mini-doughnuts and hot cider with a slug of rum at the farmer's market. You know, city things. I miss those. Oh, and I went to the zoo, because that's always fun. Here are some zoo pics.

I needed to get away, if only for a few days; I think I will continue to need to get away at least once a semester, and for a couple of months in the summer, until I retire and can move wherever I like. It is becoming increasingly clear that I am not a small-town girl by nature. This is an unpleasant surprise, because I'd gone through the first thirty-two years of my life assuming I was the sort of person who could live contentedly almost anywhere, and now it turns out that I'm not, and I'm not sure what to do with that particular piece of self-knowledge. Oh well. Have a baby elephant.

(And no, I'm not applying for jobs in less remote locations; this is more of a vague sort of funk that I don't actually do anything about, the same way I feel vaguely blue about the prospect of never marrying and having children, yet I can't bring myself to put up a profile on one of those online dating sites, even though this would be the most logical course of action under the circumstances. I suck at Life Planning, I think.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Courseblogging: Economies of Scale

I am holding individual conferences for the Brit Lit I papers this week, which means that it's only Wednesday and I'm already totally, completely exhausted.

I tried this for the first time in the spring, when I had fourteen students in my one and only section of Brit Lit II. It was nice. Holding individual meetings with forty-eight students is totally different.

I'm glad I decided to do this -- I think it's necessary, especially since so many of the students have told me that they've never written a literary analysis paper before, or they've never written a paper this long before (5 to 7 pages). But oh God, I feel like I've had the same conversation about twenty times this week. And it is still, as I said, only Wednesday.

(It doesn't help that I finally broke a long-standing resolution and made a list of suggested paper topics, although I think this, too, was necessary; last year I got some papers on ... interesting topics, of which my favorite was entitled "Is it possible to sell your soul to the devil yes or no?"* So I thought it was only fair to give the first-time paper-writers a little guidance, but it turns out the students collectively homed in on two of the seven suggested topics and ignored the rest. I'm getting heartily sick of The Relationship Between Canterbury Tale X and Its Teller and Is Beowulf an Ideal Hero?, especially since most of the students haven't really got the "anticipating and responding to potential counterarguments" move down, so many of the papers are turning into long lists of Why Beowulf Is Awesome. Personally, I think I am on Unferth's side, if not the Fire Dragon's.)

Anyway, this is the first time my two sections have started to feel like a great deal more work than one, and it's a bit of a shock to the system. (I've taught double sections of comp before, but not lit, and with comp it's obvious much earlier in the semester that you're going to spend your life slogging through massive quantities of paper.)

* The answer, in case you are wondering, is "Yes it is possible because Dr. Faustus sold his soul to Lucifer, in exchange for his body and soul." Who knew Lucifer threw in a free body? Certainly not I.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Early Courseblogging, Series 4: Two Textbook Questions

Well, it is almost time to order books for my second semester lit survey, so some early courseblogging:

1) Has anybody ever used the deal Norton advertises where they package the Norton Critical Edition of your choice with one of the anthologies at no extra cost? How does it work, exactly? Does it make it impossible for students to buy used books, and / or is the bookstore likely to screw the order up?

2) Let's say you're teaching a survey course, pitched at about the sophomore level, for a mixed population that ranges from really bright budding English majors to students who will probably never read another serious work of literature in their lives. Let's also say that you've decided you want the students to read one mid-length novel in addition to the works in the anthology.

Do you pick:

A) a work by a really hyper-canonical author, someone you think everyone with a college education should at least have heard of, and ideally read? (There is a chance students will have already read it in high school and will have a been-there-done-that attitude. It may also not be a totally "representative" work, in terms of being typical of the period when it was written.)

B) a work by a somewhat less well-known author which feels more "representative," in that it hits a whole bunch of themes and concerns that feel pretty typical for the period, and it represents certain historical conditions and trends that you want students to know about. (The author is not super-obscure -- I'd expect most English majors to run across this writer at some point -- but I wouldn't be surprised if a well-educated person in a different field had never heard of him / her.)

(I'm being deliberately vague about the specific authors / books involved, partly because I'm contemplating multiple works in each category, and partly because I'm more interested in how my readers think texts for surveys should be selected in general than how they feel about the individual novels in question.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Courseblogging: On the Benefits of Chicken-Centered Pedagogy

My Brit Lit classes are gearing up for our read-through of the Nun's Priest's Tale on Friday. This is fast becoming an annual tradition, timed to coincide -- more or less -- with the eve of Talk Like a Pirate Day. Talk Like Chaucer Day? Or is it more like Talk Like a Chicken Day? I do not know. I suspect that I will be the only one with the nerve to make chicken noises to embellish her part. Hey, I'm the only one who can sight-read Middle English with any degree of fluency, so I have to do something embarrassing to level the playing field.

Anyway, the students have been in and out of the office all week to practice their parts: one or two on Monday, more on Tuesday, a small flurry today, and, I predict, a flood tomorrow.

It's interesting to watch them when they're all trying something new and unfamiliar. Some of them have clearly prepared, or perhaps over-prepared; they listen to the sound files on the Harvard Chaucer page and come into the office with their lines written out phonetically. Some (mostly the young men) sail in, brashly confident that they can figure it out as they go along (reading a few lines usually disabuses them of this notion). Everybody makes mistakes, of course. I tell them they're supposed to make mistakes. What's interesting is how they handle them. Some freeze up every time they come to a word they're not sure about, wanting to be told the correct pronunciation. Some correctly generalize after they've been corrected a few times -- once they know that "my" should be pronounced "me," they figure out, without being told, that "by" is "be," "time" is "teem," and so forth. Some remember how to pronounce "my" after only one mistake, but can't seem to generalize. Some plow through line after line, laughing nervously every time I correct them, then making exactly the same mistake in the next line. Some -- and these tend to be my favorite students -- ask questions about why the pronunciation is this or that, and whether you roll your r's in Middle English, and what's up with that Great Vowel Shift anyway?

You learn stuff about your students this way. It's interesting. That's partly why I do it, to be honest -- I'm not expecting any of them to learn to pronounce Middle English particularly well, and even if they do, it's not like this particular skill is good for anything except a very nerdy party trick.

I do it, also, because it gets them into the office, and requires them to try something new, and forces them to speak up in front of their classmates and risk making mistakes (in a low-stakes context -- everyone gets at least a B on this assignment unless they totally half-ass it and don't even make an attempt at the Middle English pronunciation). Besides, the final product, the read-through, is as collaborative as it gets -- everybody has a part, and we all get to hear the play of voices as the foxes and chickens and narrators read in turn. And I think all of these things are desiderata, especially at this point in the semester.

And the whole endeavor is a bit of a journey -- a journey that involves lots of stumbling and wandering by the way -- and it's just occurred to me that this is a nice parallel for the Canterbury Tales as a whole, since it's all about this group of flawed human beings quarreling and distracting each other and yet struggling, perhaps without fully realizing it, toward transcendence.

A couple of students made startlingly brilliant observations in class this week; I always like it when they come up with interpretations that hadn't occurred to me. One of them was in the 11:00 class, which is full of Startlingly Brilliant Folk. We were talking about the Wife of Bath's Tale, and I said something about how this was one of those cases where the tale seems wiser than the teller (because you don't expect the Wife of Bath to come up with that eloquent bit about gentilesse, not from what we've seen of her so far). And one kid said maybe she becomes wiser in the course of telling the tale -- she is on pilgrimage, after all, and presumably in search of enlightenment.

And that was lovely. But the other moment floored me (partly because it was in the 8:00 section, and I admit I've already started to expect less from that class). We were discussing the Pardoner's Tale this morning, and the way he goes into his sales pitch at the end, but nobody's buying his pig's bones and old pillowcases because he's already confessed he's a total fraud. Now, I tend to read the PT as an exploration of the power of storytelling, for both good and evil, but I suggested that his failure to land a sale meant this power has limits.

No, said one student, it means the tale HAS done its work -- it's taught the audience the lesson they need to learn, even if it's not the one the Pardoner intended to teach. They make the right choice, after all. The tale is getting the better of the teller.

Man, I love Chaucer :)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Courseblogging: Why

The students have been getting their feet wet with Middle English for the last week or so -- first a selection of lyrics, then the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. On Friday of last week, when they'd just gotten their first taste of Middle English poetry, I invited them to write down their questions. (Not to ask questions, as I would have done back in grad school; for if I have learned nothing else, I have learned that about two-thirds of them never will raise their hands, not even if I invite them to swap papers and ask someone else's question instead of their own.)

The questions, as always, were excellent. They ranged from the very specific (What does "grislich" mean? What is meant by "hevene queene," is that Mary?), through the shrewd generalizations and observations (Why do so many of the words start with y? Why is April spelled "Aprille" in one poem and "Averil" in another?) to the very broad (How many people spoke this kind of English? Does anybody speak this language today? What made the old kind of English change into the language we speak today?) (Alas, I had no answer for this last student; all I could do was refer the whole class to my medievalist colleague's History of English course if they wanted to know more. Who knows, one or two of them might even enroll.)

And then there were the "why do we have to study this?" questions: Why is it important to know middle English? What is the relevance of Chaucer to today's society?

Like a lot of early English lit folks, I tend to cringe at the word "relevance" (and its evil twin, "relatable"); The Rebel Lettriste has an eloquent post explaining why. But at the same time, I've got to acknowledge that the question is fair play, at least when it comes from the aspiring nurses and chefs and accountants who fill the gen ed classes. And it's a question I can't answer for them. They have to find their own answers. I told them so, at the beginning of the next class period; but not before I played them this.

That blows my mind, I said. That people are still recording and performing this song, some five-hundred-odd years after it was written. That this is still living literature. For me, that's why.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shakespeare things...

-- I have just discovered that the Norton Shakespeare relegates the "Groping for trouts in a peculiar river" bit to an appendix. Harrumph, I say. HARRUMPH. Much as Titus Andronicus is not the same without Lavinia carrying a severed hand between her teeth, Measure for Measure is much the poorer for the loss of that exchange.

-- I'm not sure how I feel about this Late Shakespeare course yet. I'm really a comedies-and-histories girl, I think, and the prospect of one Big Monumental Tragedy after another is beginning to feel wearying already. Measure will at least be a change of pace, but we don't hit anything really life-affirming and communal and joyous until the second half of The Winter's Tale, which is still two months away. I miss happy endings; and in particular, I miss smart, witty, resourceful young women who get to choose their own husbands and live happily ever after, instead of drowning or being hanged in prison or murdered by their husbands.

It occurs to me that most of the things I do love about the tragedies are the parts that come closest to comedy: Othello pleading his case before the senators, Desdemona and Emilia's friendship, the gravediggers making quietly subversive jokes before Hamlet arrives to steal the scene. (Well, I also love pretty much all of Antony and Cleopatra, but Egypt is kind of a comedic space anyway, being a country of feasting and drinking and witty banter and practical jokes involving fish and cross-dressing and powerful women, and the part that I find heartbreaking is the way all those things get crushed beneath the solemnity of Rome.)

-- Finally got around to registering for SAA today. I ended up dithering about it for an absurd amount of time, because three of the seminars looked like a pretty good fit for what I do and I couldn't figure out in which order I wanted to mark my preferences, and I was having trouble finding a fourth choice at all. I have no idea why I always end up taking forever to make decisions about these things.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Courseblogging: 1 1/2 weeks in...

So, early impressions...

-- As a way to start the semester, Beowulf freakin' rocks. I didn't teach it last year, because I'd already taught it twice in the space of twelve months and I was sick of it -- but hey, it has monsters! Monsters and doom! What's not to like? Also, the students seemed to like it and had a lot to say about it, especially in the 11 a.m. section. Probably, this was because they'd read it already in high school and felt like they Knew The Answers, but perhaps it's not a bad idea to start off with something that makes them feel comfortable. They were a bit quieter when we got to Marie de France, today; I suspect this is less familiar territory.

-- This is the first time I've taught two sections of the same lit class in one semester. I'm used to doing this with comp, so I knew going in that there's always a good section and a bad section, but I hadn't realized that it would matter so much more in lit. The 8:00 class is understandably sleepy and a bit sullen, and it's like pulling teeth to get them to say anything; the 11:00 class is all perky and excited and full of sharp observations, and sometimes hard to shut up. And yet, somehow, I have to steer things around that someone makes a few key observations about the reading at 8:00, even if I have to lead them there by the nose; and the 11:00 section has to be reigned in long enough for me to toss a few literary terms and dates out there.

Also, I've just realized that one of my biggest pet peeves, even bigger than text messaging, is student passivity. You know, like when a bunch of students are sitting where they clearly can't see the movie screen on the other side of the classroom, and you dim the lights and start projecting images and lecturing about what's on the screen, and it doesn't occur to them to move to a part of the room where they can see? That drives me nuts. That's the 8 a.m. class in a nutshell.

On the plus side, both sections ended up with a nice, even 25 students, so I don't have to adapt any activities to a larger or smaller group. (Also, THANK GOD the total enrollment stabilized at 50 instead of 60.)

-- My department had a reception-thingy for majors yesterday afternoon, and one of the 11:00 students complimented me on how much he was enjoying the class in front of my chair. SCORE. (As a side note, do you want to know how to get 45 humanities majors into a very small student lounge? Tell them there will be free food. It was kind of like going to the aquarium at shark-feeding time: both awesome and scary.)

-- Sir Gawain next. There will be medieval Christmas music.

Monday, August 17, 2009

outsmarted by the smart classroom

So, I requested one o' them smart classrooms for my lit classes this semester. (Comp will continue to take place in the dumb classroom, because, well, comp class always makes me feel dumb, and besides, I couldn't justify tying up the fancy technology when a third of our class sessions are given over to conferences or peer workshopping or some such.)

I swear. This technology has it in for me. I don't want to turn my back on it because it will probably end up strangling me with one of the power cords.

Something has gone wrong EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Granted, today was only the fourth day of the semester, but this does not bode well. I haven't been able to figure out how to turn the sound system on, or the projector unexpectedly dies, or the cable connecting the computer to everything else becomes unconnected.

I hate things that make me look dumb in front of my students on a regular basis. (And it's always in front of students, because even when I try to get to the classroom at 7:30 to test out the equipment for my 8 a.m. class, there's invariably a student already there. Since when do college students go to class at 7:30 in the morning? I suspect they are secretly vampires, or something.)

On the other hand, I love being able to show things like this, so I suppose it's a wash.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Courseblogging, series 3: Taking another tilt at the windmill

So I spent this evening bouncing around the apartment to the CD that used to come with the Norton Anthology. Yes, I am a dork, but there is really so much good stuff on there -- Seamus Heaney reading from Beowulf, and Marie Boroff doing her best Wife of Bath impression, and my favorite song ever from Shakespeare, and To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time (can you tell I have a thing for carpe diem poetry?), and Since Laws Were Made For Every Degree.

I'm almost excited about this class again. Almost. And dreading it, too. I have two sections this semester -- both jammed full, sixty students in all, and one of them is at eight o'clock in the morning. And I have made a Virtuous Resolution to do individual conferences before both of the papers are due, plus quickie five-minute meetings for them to practice their Middle English pronunciation before our read-through of the Nun's Priest's Tale. That sort of thing worked well last semester in Brit Lit II, but I had fourteen students then. I think I just might be insane.

But the trouble with this course, really, is that it tries to be all things to all people -- and conferencing is the one way I know to reach the stragglers and teach the best students something useful. English majors are required to take a year-long sequence -- either Brit Lit I&II, American Lit I&II, or World Lit I&II -- so it has to be rigorous enough to work as a foundations course for the major. But only 4% of the students at Misnomer University are English majors. The other 96% need to take at least one literature survey to fulfill their gen ed requirements, and because Brit Lit I has the lowest number and that pesky "I" in the title, many of them mistakenly think it's the easiest. So they all get thrown head-first into Chaucer and Shakespeare; some of them read at about a sixth-grade level, and some of them are budding majors who are palpably, understandably frustrated with the level of discourse among their classmates.

I feel like I didn't handle this mix well last year. There were days when it felt like I was trying to discuss literature with a field of cows, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from yelling at them -- For God's sake, you're reading works that have touched and amused and infuriated twenty generations of people! Have an opinion about them! Express it! Is that so very hard? I didn't, of course, both because I am pretty sure it would have made things worse and because I lack courage.

I've been rethinking the class, this time around. There will be less reading (goodbye, Marlowe and Webster and Swift), more explicit instruction about the basics (here's how you take notes; here's how you prepare for a discussion class; here's a list of appropriate paper topics, and if you have a different one you'd like to pursue, make sure you run it by me). And, as I said, individual conferences. We will also be taking a couple of days to watch the film version of Wit, partly because it offers some provocative answers to the inevitable "Why do I have to know about John Donne when I'm a health sciences major?" question, but mostly (oh hell, let's be honest) because I'm going to need some down time after prepping for all those conferences. And I put in for a smart classroom, so there will be more music and video clips and images of period art, more of anything that might help medieval and early modern people seem a little more real and more human.

I have no idea if any of this will help. I worry that some of it is overly ambitious, and some of it may be counterproductive (do we really need all those technological bells and whistles? What happens if we forget to, you know, talk about books?) But at least it will be new, and I think I need new; I need to throw some things at the wall and see which ones stick.

And I do love just about everything we're reading, because I cut almost everything that didn't speak to me from the syllabus; life is just too short. Gather ye rosebuds. Perhaps, where there is love, nothing else can go so very wrong.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

it begins

All-day meeting about assessment tomorrow (hence the bingo post from the other day). Students move in on Saturday, more meetings on Monday, registration Tuesday, classes start Wednesday.

I feel like I have accomplished absolutely nothing this summer, although I did write a book review and ten pages of mush that might eventually connect with the rest of the dissertation manuscript, so I suppose that's something. I don't do particularly well with vague deadlines and large unstructured blocks of time, which was something I already knew from the year I had a dissertation fellowship. (What I need is something like the tutoring job I had in grad school, which entailed hanging out in the dorms for three hours a night waiting for students to come to me. Structure, but not much responsibility. Alas, being a grown-up faculty member feels like it's all responsibility and no structure.)

At any rate, there is something comforting about the rhythms of the academic year -- the way the tempo picks up in the middle of the heat and stillness of August, and the new students flow into campus, and the crape myrtles are bright against the summer sky. (I am so glad that I ended up in a place with crape myrtles.) It's like a small rebirth, and it reminds me of the first glorious weeks of my freshman year. I hope our freshmen get to have memories that are equally happy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nice to see public liberal arts colleges get a little love, at InsideHigherEd.

Both the Beloved Alma Mater and Misnomer University arguably fall into this category -- or at least they did for many decades -- and I think this type of school fills a vitally important niche. I'm not quite as sanguine as Spellman about the future, because I've seen both institutions suffering under the pressure to become bigger! And more research-oriented! And more cost-efficient! And more vocational! And more standardized! And bigger! They have reacted to these pressures in opposite ways, the Beloved Alma Mater by "trying to become Princeton" as the Laid-Back Medievalist put it when I went back for my college reunion, and Misnomer U. by tipping closer and closer to becoming Yet Another Regional Comprehensive.

I'm also not as enthusiastic about vocational programs as Spellman is; I think they can work as part of a quality integrated liberal-arts program, but it takes a particular institutional culture and a lot of careful advising to make sure that they do. Students like the nursing major who took my upper-level Shakespeare class last semester, who wasn't the best writer in the class but was really talkative and enthusiastic and obviously very much into Shakespeare, even though the course probably made it harder for him to fulfill his program's requirements? Yeah, I want more students like that. But more often, I'm seeing a huge gulf in attitude and intellectual curiosity between the education, nursing, and business students and the ones drawn to more traditional arts and sciences majors, and the advisors in the vocational programs do not seem to be doing much to bridge that gap; if anything, they seem to encourage students to think of the liberal arts core requirements as a series of stupid boxes that need to be checked off. (And, to be fair, the whole structure of the core curriculum reinforces this world-view; I would like to see fewer tick-boxes and a chance for students to pursue work in a few complementary disciplines at a higher level, rather than taking a dozen unrelated intro-level courses.)

But this is turning into a nitpicking-and-grumbling post, and I don't mean it to be, because I do believe my institution is providing something valuable. I believe it is a place where it's easier for students to know their professors than not to know them, and I also believe that the features Spellman identifies as the hallmarks of a quality liberal arts education -- "small class size, close faculty-student interaction, an innovative and interdisciplinary common core in the arts and sciences, undergraduate research experiences, senior capstone projects, service learning and community engagement, and a rich and diverse co-curricular life" -- are the norm for all of our students and not just a hundred lucky souls in the Honors College. And I believe, most of all, that this type of institution needs to be an option within the state system, because for many of our students, going out of state or going to a private college simply isn't thinkable. (And yes, I know some private SLACs hand out financial aid like candy, but you have to apply first, and nobody has ever told them they can apply.)

Yeah. I think I believe in what I do. And that's a good way to feel at the beginning of a new year.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrog

Krak krak krak krak krak krak krak...

You know, I chose this apartment partly because of the pleasant natural setting. (Well, that and the fact that it had a swimming pool and didn't have cockroach corpses all over the floor, unlike the other three apartments I looked at. I am not much of a housekeeper, but I do have standards, occasionally.) I did not really think about how it was at the bottom of an embankment, and how water runs downhill, but I'm not sure that I would have made much of these facts if I had stopped to think about them.

When I discovered, on my second day of residence, that there were tiny little toads in the breezeway at night, I was rather charmed. I was even more charmed when I found the suction-cup frog climbing the windowpane. (I do not know what the scientific name of the suction-cup frog may be, but I am amazed at its feet.)

But, really? Is it too much to ask for an occasional night's sleep that isn't interrupted by the sounds of amorous amphibians? And do they have to sing all day as well, especially when it's raining, which is often? Are these, like, twenty-four-hour party frogs?

Krak krak krak krak krak krak krak...

I swear some of them are inside the walls. Is that even possible? Am I going to wake up one morning and find the toilet full of tadpoles?

Krak krak krak krak krak krak krak...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer reading: Thomas of Reading, by Thomas Deloney

Actually, I have just read or re-read all of Deloney's prose fiction in the last week and a half, as that appears to be the sort of thing I do when I'm avoiding actual writing, but I shall restrain myself and tell you about only one of them. You want to hear about the one with the serial-killing innkeepers, right? I thought so.

Stuff That Happens: In the reign of Henry I, there are nine merry and industrious clothiers in England, all of whom become very rich. Much of the text consists of the loosely connected, jest-book-style adventures of the clothiers, their wives, and their servants, as well as other eccentric characters such as Old Bosom the landlord "who, being a foul sloven, went always with his nose in his bosom, and one hand in his pocket, the other on his staf, figuring forth a description of cold winter. For he always wore two coats, two caps, two or three pair of stockings, and a high pair of shoes, over the which he drew on a great pair of lined slippers; and yet he would oft complain of cold." (I am inclined to suspect Dickens of taking lessons from Deloney, although he presumably wouldn't share Deloney's view that sending six-year-olds to work in a cloth factory is absolutely fine and dandy and a great way for the poor to provide for their children.) The clothiers get along well with the king, who comes to see their industry as the backbone of the English nation; they feast him, he grants their petitions, and it's all very harmonious as long as you don't try to steal cloth in Halifax, in which case the king allows you to be executed without a trial.

There's also a subplot concerning Margaret, the earl of Shrewsbury's daughter, whose father has been driven into exile for supporting the king's rebellious brother, Duke Robert of Normandy. She hires herself out as a maidservant to Goodwife Gray of Gloucester, the wife of one of the clothiers. Duke Robert catches sight of her while she's haymaking, falls madly in love with her, and persuades her to elope with him.

And then, in the last twenty pages or so, things get Seriously Weird. Thomas Cole of Reading, one of the clothiers, makes the mistake of frequenting an inn run by murderers. They have a special death chamber built for the purpose, with a bed that flips down through a trapdoor and dumps its occupants into a boiling cauldron, and have done away with sixty of their guests already -- but they don't find it easy to do away with Thomas, whose death is repeatedly prevented by a series of Arden of Faversham-style mishaps. Death omens proliferate; Thomas has a vision of the host with his hands all bloody, and is prompted by Providence to write a will, in which he leaves two hundred pounds to his jolly and improvident colleague, Tom Dove. The host gets cold feet, but his wife prompts him, Lady-Macbeth-style, to go through with the murder. Exit Thomas. Luckily, his horse gets away and prompts Cole's servant to investigate and reveal the murder; the host and hostess of the inn are hanged.

Meanwhile, the king captures Duke Robert and blinds him. Margaret is heartbroken and joins a convent.

Tom Dove has gone broke and been deserted by his servants when Cole's widow arrives to pay his legacy; the other clothiers chip in, and he eventually prospers.

Thoughts: There is a LOT here about social contracts. King Henry, portrayed as an ideal ruler (apart from that little affair of blinding his brother!) argues that “The strength of a king is the love and friendship of his people, and he governs over his realm most surely that ruleth justice with mercy; for he ought to fear many whom many do fear. Therefore the governors of the commonwealth ought to observe two special precepts: the one is that they so maintain the profit of the commons that whatsoever in their calling they do, they refer it thereunto; the other, that they be always as well careful over the whole commonwealth as over any part thereof, lest while they uphold the one, the other be brought to utter decay." Henry is initially rather annoyed when a long line of wains bearing cloth delays his journey, but almost immediately comes to see the clothiers as his kingdom's greatest asset, as well as personal friends whose proximity he seeks: “Likewise, within the town [of Reading] he after built a fair and goodly castle, in the which he often kept his court, saying to the clothiers that, seeing he found them such faithful subjects, he would be their neighbor and dwell among them."

In the last five chapters, those social contracts start to break down; fault lines appear between master and servant, guest and host, brother and brother, and are only partly repaired. This is particularly evident in Tom Dove's story, as he appeals to his servants: “It is not unknown, though you do not consider it, that I took some of you up from the highway; other some from your needy parents; and brought the rest up from mere beggary to a house of bounty, where from paltry boys I brought you up to man’s estate and have, to my great cost, taught you a trade, whereby you may live like men. And in requital of all my courtesy, cost, and good will, will you now on a sudden forsake me?” The servants reject this in favor of a more pragmatic world-view that emphasizes the economic basis of the relationship: “Because you took us up poor, doth it therefore follow that we must be your slaves? ... If you taught us our trade, and brought us up from boys to men, you had our service for it, whereby you made no small benefit if you had as well used it as we got it. But if you be poor, you may thank yourself, being a just scourge for your prodigality; and it is my opinion plain that to stay with you is the best way to make us like you, neither able to help ourselves nor our friends. Therefore, in brief, come pay me my wages, for I will not stay.” They return to Dove when his wealth is restored, but the cracks in the relationship remain: "And albeit he seemed to forgive their trespasses done against him, yet he would often say he would never trust them for a straw." (Deloney represents Dove's actions as exemplary and the servants as "wicked"; personally, I'm inclined to think the servants have an excellent point.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Discontents in Deep South Town

More discontents I never had
Since I was born, than here;
Where I have been, and still am sad,
In this dull Devonshire;
Yet justly too I must confess,
I ne'er invented such
Ennobled numbers for the press
Than where I loathed so much.

-- Robert Herrick

Am back home for the rest of the summer. I am trying out Herrick's formula for literary productivity. I'm not sure it's working.

I don't actually loathe it here -- at least, not yet -- but it is hazy and hot and sleepy, and there are too many strip malls and check-cashing places, and the most happening place in town is the Super WalMart, and the thought of staying here for the next thirty-odd years fills me with a vague sense of dread. I had an idea that this would force me to start revising the dissertation out of sheer boredom, or failing that, to start revising the novel I began a while ago and haven't touched for the last six months. But right at the moment, I can't bring myself to open either file.

Would it be phenomenally stupid for me to retype my entire dissertation, making whatever changes I see fit along the way? On the plus side, this would force me to pay attention to every word, and I would end up with a brand-new M*cros*ft W*rd version, which seems to be what publishers want, rather than an ancient and quirky WordPerfect file which always ends up with screwed-up formatting when I try to convert it. On the other hand, this sounds like it could be a colossal waste of time, and would also require me to actually install W*rd on my home computer, where I don't particularly want it. (Typing it up at the office is not an option, as I cannot have beer at the office. One must observe the decencies.)

Herrick, I'm fairly sure, never faced such a dilemma; but then, Herrick waited until after he had lost his day job to start sending his ennobled numbers for the press, which is a luxury I can't afford.

I think I will go swimming, or maybe pick some blackberries.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Summer reading: A Shoemaker, A Gentleman, by William Rowley

Yes, there is another early modern quasi-history play about shoemakers. Why did nobody tell me this when I was writing my dissertation? Oh well. At least I've read it now.

Stuff That Happens: The plot takes place in early fourth-century Britain, under the rule of the Roman co-emperors Dioclesian and Maximinus. The Romans have defeated the British king, Allured; they take his wife prisoner. His two sons, Elred and Offa, disguise themselves as humbly born boys named Crispianus and Crispin and become apprentices to a shoemaker. The household also includes the shoemaker’s wife, Cicely, and two journeymen, Ralph and Barnaby. Meanwhile, Sir Hugh and Amphiabel flee to Wales and take refuge with the Christian princess Winifred. Hugh falls in love with Winifred, but she’s made a vow of chastity. An angel appears, confirms that Winifred is holy, and persuades Amphiabel to confront the Roman persecutors. He successfully converts a knight named Alban, but Maximinus orders them all tortured and executed.

Meanwhile, Offa has fallen in love with Maximinus’s daughter Leodice and marries her secretly. Elred is drafted into the Roman army, and the shoemaker hires Hugh to replace him. Elred wins fame and honor by rescuing Dioclesian on the battlefield.

Winifred is captured and doomed to die; most of the shoemakers go to see the execution. Offa, left alone with Cicely, admits that Leodice is pregnant with his child. Barnaby rushes in and announces that Hugh has publically proclaimed himself to be a Christian and has been taken by the Roman officers. The shoemakers bear Hugh company at his martyrdom; after he dies, Barnaby declares that their tools will be known henceforth as “Saint Hugh’s Bones.”

Offa spirits Leodice out of the palace; she gives birth to his son at the shoemaker’s house. Elred returns and reveals himself to be Allured’s son; Maximinus agrees to free Elred's mother from prison and offers him Leodice’s hand in marriage, should she ever be found. On cue, Leodice turns up with the baby and announces that she is already married to Elred’s brother. Dioclesian and Maximinus restore Elred and Offa to their kingdoms, proclaim freedom of worship in Britain, and agree to let Offa build a church to St. Alban, the first English martyr.

Thoughts: First of all, I really, really need to re-read The Gentle Craft so that I can work out what Rowley is adding, changing, and emphasizing. As in Deloney and Dekker, much is made of the "gentility" of shoemakers; the printer dedicates the play "to the honest and high-spirited gentlemen of the never-decaying art called 'The Gentle Craft'." Elred initially greets the shoemakers as “gentlemen,” which prompts the Shoemaker to reply, “We are good fellows, no gentlemen. Yet, if gentleness make gentility, we are gentlemen” (I. ii. 54-55).

This speech glances at one of Rowley's persistent themes: how does one address and interact with people when the line between aristocrat and craftsman is blurred? The Shoemaker scolds Barnaby for addressing Hugh, a stranger who appears to be a gentleman, as "thou," and then finds himself in a very confusing position when he takes on Hugh as an apprentice: “Thou, gentleman, as thou art a soldier, and a good fellow when thou’rt a shoemaker, I bid thee welcome to Faversham” (III. ii. 207-09). When Offa reveals his identity, the Shoemaker exclaims, “How! my Right Worshipful ‘Prentice” (IV. ii. 151) and removes his cap, despite Offa’s urging, “Nay, gentle master, / I am your ‘prentice still, pray not stand bare” (161-62). It’s all treated comically, of course, but there are some serious questions lurking underneath; in a society where the most basic of social interactions are scripted by rank, what do you do when rank is both invisible and malleable? And what is this gentility stuff, anyway? Can one be both shoemaker and gentleman, both prentice and prince? Rowley does rather more with these questions than Dekker does, in part because the Roman setting allows for greater social mobility; Dioclesian and Maximinus are the sons of a scrivener and a smith. In this setting, it makes sense for Leodice to reason, “Whence springs that fount / That runs all royalty? ‘Tis the sea itself: / The lesser rivulets and running brooks / Are those of common sense, yet all do mix / And run in one another. What are titles? / Honours bestow'd ad regis placitum. / Should my father make that shoemaker a lord / Then were he noble” (II. i. 51-58).

Rowley does, however, restore the original social order at the end of the play, and I think he's making a distinction between aristocratic and common values throughout (though that distinction may be blurred in the case of Elred / Crispianus and Offa / Crispin). Cicely, on beholding the Queen being led to prison, comments: “The world treads not upright; methinks it had need of a good workman to mend it” (I. ii. 149-50). It’s not clear, however, how much workmen can do to mend it; the heroes and martyrs of this play are noblemen and women, while the commoners are chiefly concerned with laying low, adapting, and surviving. The Shoemaker's rejoinder encapsulates this difference: “Peace, Cicely ... let us keep good consciences within doors howe’er the wind blows abroad. ‘Tis honester deceit to seem bad and be good, than to seem pure and be a knave” (151-56). Similarly, Barnaby and Ralph keep Hugh company at his death, prompting him to describe them as “a trade / Of fellowship’s best mixture, nobly made” (IV. iii. 151-52), but they do not step forward and sacrifice themselves. Indeed, Barnaby tries to persuade him to disavow his faith: “Nay, fellow Hugh, or noble Sir Hugh, remember ‘tis not every man’s case to die a Christian. Prithee, leave it, then, and save thy life. The Roman gods are as good gods as e’er trod on a shoe of leather, and therefore, sweet Hugh, we may get their custom, and bring ‘em to our shop, and so we shall be shoemakers to the gods” (51-56). (All of this said, I wonder whether the conventionally heroic choice is necessarily the more admirable one, in Rowley’s world. Offa and Elred, like their subjects, are pragmatists and survivors, and they arguably accomplish more good than Winifred, Hugh, and company.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How I spent my summer vacation

For Sisyphus, who asked for pictures.

I saw a whole bunch of cathedrals:

and some big rocks:

and some cows:

I went hiking:

and saw some plays:

And drank a few pints of ale, of course. I don't have any pictures of the ale, or of the all-night kebab shop, although they are both Things That Deep South Town Tragically Lacks.

It has been three years since I have done any real traveling (defined as hauling around a big backpack from hostel to hostel, leaving the laptop at home, and doing absolutely nothing work-related whatsoever), and I had forgotten how short two weeks was. There will be more time next summer, I hope.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Am in England. Much playgoing to follow.

Don't anybody break the Internets while I'm gone.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

testing out the new camera

A couple of images, probably of no interest whatsoever to anyone except myself.

The view from the deck:

My rather untidy workspace:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Summer reading: The Captives, or the Lost Recovered, by Thomas Heywood

This is a lot like Plautus's Rudens, only with random lecherous dead friars thrown in. Fun!

Stuff that Happens: So there's this merchant, Mr. Raphael, who's in love with a girl named Palestra. His friend Treadway tries to dissuade him from marrying her, seeing as how she was brought up in a French whorehouse, but Raphael is having none of it. He arranges to buy Palestra from her pimp, a nasty type named Mildew, but he makes the mistake of giving Mildew the money before he gets the girl. Mildew, of course, arranges to run away with the girl and the money, figuring that "Whores and bawdes / May lyve in every corner of the woorld ... Faith, these are wares in all parts vendible."

Meanwhile, the abbot of a nearby community of friars tries to make peace between Friar John and Friar Richard, who, however, keep making faces at each other every time the abbot turns his back. We learn that Friar John is planning to seduce the wife of the convent's founder, one Lady de Averne.

A storm blows up, and Mildew is shipwrecked. Palestra and her friend Scribonia are washed ashore and take shelter at the friary, after singing a duet (triet?) with Friar John about the sad plight of charity in this degenerate world; because, after all, the natural response to being shipwrecked and soaking wet is to burst into song. Palestra is unhappy because the casket containing the tokens by which she may know her true parentage has been washed ashore. Meanwhile, an English merchant named Ashburne turns up in town, and mentions casually that he had a daughter who was stolen when she was a child. You think...?

Friar John writes a love letter to Lady de Averne. She shows it to her husband, who flips out and orders her to write back to him arranging an assignation. Somewhat alarmed by her husband's manner, Lady de Averne tries to explain to him that Murder Is Bad. He ignores this.

Mildew catches up with the girls, and there is another duet. "'Helpe, helpe, oh ayde a wretched madye, / or els we are undoon then.' / 'And have I caught, and have I caught you? / In vayne it is to roonne then' &c." Ashburne and his servants rescue the girls; Ashburne proposes to bring them home to his wife, who is (understandably) annoyed when her husband turns up with two sweet young things from the brothel.

Lord Averne and his servant lie in wait for Friar John and strangle him. As soon as he's dead, Lord Averne has a sudden realization that Murder Is Indeed Bad, and it also leaves you with inconvenient corpses on your hands. He decides to return the body to the friary, hoping to frame one of the friars for the murder; the servant places it on the privy. Friar Richard wakes up to use the privy, decides that Friar John is hogging it just to annoy him, and throws a stone at him. Being dead, he falls over. Friar Richard thinks he's killed him, panics, and drags the corpse back over the wall, hoping to frame Lord Averne for the murder.

A fisherman hauls the casket to shore in his net, and Palestra is discovered to be Ashburne's long-lost daughter Mirable. Yay! Much rejoicing! Ashburne's brother Thomas turns up in town; we learn that he is searching for his brother, and he also has a long-lost daughter who was stolen at the same time as Mirable. You think...?

Lord Averne is rather perturbed when Friar John's corpse turns up on his property again. In a last-ditch effort to get rid of the body, he and his servant dress it up in rusty armor and turn it loose on his old stallion, hoping it will be mistaken for a knight-errant. Meanwhile, Friar Richard has ridden out to the miller's on a mare. The stallion pursues the mare; Richard thinks John's angry ghost is pursuing him, so he falls off his horse and confesses to the murder.

Ashburne pays off Mildew, who reveals that Scribonia is actually Thomas Ashburne's daughter Winefryde. Raphael marries Mirable, Treadway marries Winefryde, and everything ends happily, even for Friar Richard, since Averne has a sudden twinge of conscience and confesses to the murder. Lady Averne, it turns out, has anticipated this and persuaded the king to pardon her husband.

Thoughts: No very deep ones, unfortunately, save that this play clearly owes a lot to Pericles as well as to Plautus, especially in Raphael's initial description of Palestra (the brothel, we are told, "coold not stand / But that her vertue guards it and protects it / From blastinges and heaven's thunder." It is not explained how Raphael became so familiar with this den of iniquity in the first place.)

The fishermen are drawn with a fair bit of attention and sympathy: "The trobled sea is yet scarce navigable / Synce the last tempest; yet wee that only lyv / By our owne sweett and laboure, nor cann eate / Before wee fetch our foode out of the sea, / Must venter thoughe with danger, or bee suer / With empty stomakes go unsupt to bed." (To the extend that there's any realism whatsoever in this play, it's here; Gripus the fisherman strikes me as sort of a nautical counterpart to Tawnycoat in 2 If You Know Not Me.)

I think a stage version of this would be a hoot, especially the scenes with the friars.

Monday, May 11, 2009

what I did at medievalist camp

Back from my first-ever Kalamazoo. First off, it was lovely getting to meet so many bloggers face to face, and I'm sorry I missed the blogging panel (my own talk was at the same time). Actually, I missed a fair number of panels that I would have liked to hear; there was just so much going on at the same time, including a fair assorted performances and other fun stuff. (Call me unscholarly if you will, but given a choice between attending an academic talk and watching a performance of The Tournament of Tottenham which consisted of a bunch of grad students hitting each other with Styrofoam flails and falling about the room histrionically ... bring on the flails. Every time.) So anyway, apologies for not making it to most of y'all's talks.

So. I totally get the Kalamazoo thing, now. I started grad school as a medievalist but realized I was a mismatch for the field long before I became confident enough in my own abilities to respond to calls for papers, so I'd been hearing about this legendary conference for ages, but had never actually experienced it before. And it really is as much fun as people say it is. I mean, flails and mead. And books! All of these books that I wish I had read before attempting my first upper-level medieval lit course! It is, alas, too late now; but I do have a shiny new recording of The Second Shepherds' Play on CD, which is making me excited about the prospect of teaching it again. (I had almost decided to drop the mystery plays from my syllabus for next semester, as gen ed students really seem to struggle with them, but I think I'll give them one more shot.)

One of the panels I did attend was a roundtable on teaching medieval studies at minority-serving institutions, although unfortunately, I didn't find it as useful as I'd hoped. A couple of the papers were interesting but not particularly applicable to my own institutional context; some of the others were just weird; nobody seemed to be talking about the question that really interested me, to wit: why the English major, and early English lit in particular, so often seems to be an exclusive club for white upper-middle-class students, and what if anything we can do to change that. So that was a little disappointing.

I went out for dinner on Saturday with a bunch of other University of Basketball alumni; apparently they have a sort of reunion at Kalamazoo every year. As it happened, several of them were people I had met for the first time as a prospective, Lo These Many Years Ago, and hence the people who had attracted me to my graduate program in the first place. (Being twenty-one, I didn't know to ask any questions about graduate programs that were more penetrating than "Will they give me money?" and "Do I like going out drinking with these people?"; and since two programs had offered me fellowship packages, it really came down to the second question. In hindsight, I think this was actually not a bad way to make a decision. One of the real strengths of my graduate program -- we talked a lot about this at dinner -- is the fact that most of the students genuinely liked and wanted to cooperate with each other; and perhaps my wide-eyed twenty-one-year-old self saw the importance of this when an academically savvier student would have stumbled.)

On another reminiscent note, I am continually amazed at how many of my undergraduate professors still recognize me when they see me at conferences.

I think that is about all. It was a hell of an intense weekend, and I didn't get a chance to talk to half the people or go to half the panels that I wanted to, but I'm hoping I'll be back.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Closing off

Kzoo paper: Done, pretty much. There will probably be hasty edits on the plane, or the night before when I'm reading it through for the last time, but at least has a conclusion now, and I've printed it off.

Final grades: Submitted in three out of four classes. I agonized over a couple of them. It is painful to flunk a student you've had for several classes, and will be seeing again in the fall; particularly if you get an eleventh-hour e-mail asking if it's too late to submit the paper that was due in March. (Um. Yes.) It's also hard to make the hairsbreadth yes-or-no decisions when a grade is right on the line.

I dislike this end-of-the-semester feeling, the feeling of things being ended and closed off and determined. (It is perhaps relevant that I score waaaaay over on the P side of the judging-perceiving spectrum on those Myers-Briggs tests, although I also think Myers-Briggs tests are pseudoscience, so on second thought, maybe it's not relevant at all.) I am OK with the prospect of making decisions at some vague date in the future, but I don't like having made them. Left to my own devices, I would submit the grades at the last possible moment, and the paper never.

I notice that the final grades for my courses are clustering in the B- / C+ range, which probably also reflects my aversion to decisions. You see, those are weaselly grades. A mid-range grade like that does not preclude the possibility that the student will end up with either an A or an F as a final course grade; it cuts off no possibilities; it allows one to put off passing judgment on the student's work indefinitely. (It is also, of course, possible that I have a whole slew of students doing B-minus to C-plus work, particularly in Brit Lit II, which has a striking lack of both stars and slackers.)

Well; the exams from the last class will soon be in, and after I finish grading them, the next teaching-related task on my agenda will be writing syllabi for next semester. I find that sort of thing much more pleasant. Syllabi are all about the promises, the hopes, the students I don't know yet, the open horizons.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Courseblogging: Last things

Final presentations today. Or at any rate, I like to dignify this particular assignment by calling it a presentation, although it is really all very laid-back and more like a conversation. I brought cookies, and we all sat around in a circle and talked through the final papers-in-progress, fifteen minutes per paper, bouncing ideas off of others and comments from the audience highly encouraged.

I've done this with four different classes now, at all levels, and it never fails to be awesome. (Um, apart from that one student in my summer class who tried to write a paper about Beowulf when she'd only seen the movie, but we do not speak of that.) Most of the time, for most students, it's awesome -- they get to play the expert and lead discussion about a topic that really interests and engages them, and they usually get a whole slew of questions and comments that will, I hope, make the final papers stronger. And I don't have to do any class prep, which is, I must admit, a strong incentive to end the semester this way as much as possible.

I'm a little worried that only one of the projects actually seems to have a thesis at this point, but hopefully that will come. They all have interesting topics, at any rate, and they seem super-intellectually-engaged; the flaws and pitfalls I noticed in the presentations all have to do with being too ambitious, trying to write about Everything About King Arthur in Pop Culture Ever, or Everything About Chaucer and Boccaccio Ever. And having too much to say is better than having nothing to say, for sure.

I shall miss this group. This is the first class I've ever taught that wasn't a required course for anybody at all, and it's so nice to have students who have, every one of them, chosen to be here of their own free will.

As Van Morrison says, wouldn't it be great if it could be like this all the time?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Courseblogging: Why I rather like teaching in the Bible Belt

Prioress's Tale and Second Nun's Tale today. Class was predictably icked out by the former, and were prepared to play along with me by at least pretending to find the latter intriguing. (I think it's one of the more underrated Canterbury Tales.) So I'm sketching out an argument about female speech in this tale: how the Roman prefect repeatedly stigmatizes St. Cecilia's speech as "rude," "wrongful," and "proud"; how the narrative voice describes her as speaking "boldely," with the implication that this is a good thing; how she's described on at least two occasions as "preching" and not merely "teching" (although she does both, really). And they're nodding along and tossing in some very good ideas along the way, building a character sketch of a Second Nun who is, in her gentle way, defending her own right to speak authoritatively about matters of faith.

Then I drop the "I, unworthy sone of Eve" bombshell -- intending to ask what difference it makes if, after all, Chaucer wrote this tale with a male narrator in mind. Only that's not where we end up.

"It reminds me of this woman preacher here in [Deep South State]," says one of my students unexpectedly. "She always calls herself 'Brother So-and-So.' It drives me nuts."

A couple of the other students nod. Apparently they, too, are familiar with Brother So-and-So.

"Oh," I say. "Um. Wow. Do you happen to know why she does that?"

"I guess because she associates being a preacher with being male."

Click. Something rearranges itself, and I start to wonder aloud what happens if, after all, this bit of gender-bending is not evidence of sloppy revision on Chaucer's part but a deliberate rhetorical choice on the Second Nun's part. I'm still not totally sure what to do with this, but I think it falls into the general category of Awesome If True. I like having students who can tell me about Brother So-and-So.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What possessed me...

... to think that ending the comp classes with a collaborative writing project was a good idea in any way, shape, or form?

... to assume that if I paired two C students together, they would somehow magically become able to remedy the deficiencies in each other's work?

... to think that if I paired an A student with a C student, they would make it to the end of the semester without killing each other?

... to decide that I was going to collect the group projects on Monday and have them all graded by Friday; and, moreover, to create a lesson plan that requires me to follow through on this rash promise?

... to teach a contemporary play about a mathematical concept that I can't begin to wrap my head around? Seriously, what in hell do I know about math? I'm not sure I even know anything about contemporary drama.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

my first SAA

Cool stuff:

-- Getting to meet up with Bardiac and Flavia! It was very nice, in Bardiac's case, to finally be able to put a face with the name, and in Flavia's case, to have an actual conversation, which we didn't really have time to do the last time we met.

-- My seminar group did not say anything horrible or terrifying about my paper. This was, admittedly, mostly because they didn't have time to say very much at all about my paper, but several people told me afterwards that they liked it, and some of the other topics of conversation gave me ideas about ways this essay could be expanded / folded into the larger argument I'm making in the dissertation book manuscript.

-- Free exam copies! (And a couple of other books that were very expensive even with the last-day discounts, but I figured the expense was justifiable since they are both Useful Reference Texts and Books That Can Be Lent Out To Students. I am slowly building a library of Books To Lend Out To Students, because our actual library is woefully inadequate for just about everything.)

-- Being around several hundred other Shakes-geeks. This does not happen often enough, and I'm starting to feel like I have an actual cohort of people to hang out at conferences, thanks to the miracle of the Internet.

-- Papers about gangster Othello. There really need to be more papers about the myriad ways that YouTube enhances one's appreciation of Shakespeare.

-- Getting to say hello to Advisor and Youngest Committee Member, although I fear that I may have been unintentionally rude to Youngest Committee Member, despite her assurances to the contrary. (YCM is one of those scary-brilliant young female faculty members who always make me go tongue-tied and feel like I'm perpetually wrongfooting myself, although she's quite a decent person who always comes across as very human and genuine in front of grad students, so I'm not sure why she intimidates me so much.)

Not-so-cool stuff:

-- Being gladhanded by the Annoying E---n M----n Representative. (Blanking out the press's name because I'd prefer that this blog not turn up on Google searches, not because it is the academic publishing equivalent of Lord Voldemort, although come to think of it, the latter may actually be true.) Note to publishing reps: using the phrase "peer review and all that crap" does NOT help your press project an air of academic rigor; also, when you approach potential authors, it is better not to use manners that you learned on a used car lot. (Actual quote: "Do you have a father? Do you have a grandfather? Well, I'm the granddaddy of academic publishing." Yes. Really.)

-- Not having the nerve to approach other, less alarming publishing representatives, people whose scholarly work I admire, etc. Really, I suck at this networking thing, and being around masses of Senior Scholars always makes me feel like a jittery bundle of social awkwardness and an intellectual lightweight.

-- The sound system guy at the Lucrece reading. Trust the text, please. Trust your actors, because they're good. You don't need all the fancy reverb and sonic distortion. Honest.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Courseblogging: A Knight ther was

We started Chaucer this week, and it was lovely. I feel like I have plenty to say for a change, and so do the students, and we're all on familiar territory again, although this is the first time I have taught The Knight's Tale, and the first time most of them have read it.

The students didn't entirely take to it, although they were at least willing to wrestle with it and engage with it. Admittedly, it's a hard sell as Canterbury Tales go -- stately and deliberate pace, no fart jokes, and a narrator who has a habit of spending fifty lines at a time describing all the things he's not going to describe. For all that, it's one of my favorites, and has been ever since I first read it as a junior in college.

What blows me away, again and again, is the sheer darkness of the Knight's vision of the universe -- which is all the more bleak for being couched in such lovely poetry. Listen.

My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne,
Hath more power than wot any man:
Myn is the drenching in the see so wan;
Myn is the prison in the derke cote;
Myn is the strangling and hanging by the throte;
The murmure and the cherles rebelling,
The groyning and the pryvee empoysoning...
Myn is the ruine of the hye halles,
The falling of the toures and of the walles
Upon the mynour or the carpenter.

After that -- after we hear what actually goes on in the heavens -- Theseus' own attempts to rationalize suffering, to look at the world and deduce the existence of a benevolent Firste Moevere and a "fayre cheyne of love" -- well, they ring a little hollow. They are necessary fictions, if we are to find the courage to live in a world where young men die painfully and needlessly, but they are not The Truth.

I see the Knight as a bit like the protagonist of The Seventh Seal -- a returned Crusader who has seen and caused too much suffering and too much death, who is maybe groping for redemption as he sets out on his pilgrimage, groping for meaning, but is not at all confident of finding it.

My grad school Chaucer professor regarded all of these opinions as dangerously heretical (on both my part, and the Knight's). We spent half a semester arguing about whether the gods were even gods. (He wanted them to be planets. But planets don't argue, equivocate, or play with human beings as if they were chesspieces. A Saturn who sends furies to knock people off their horses is the Saturn who devours his children, not just the Big Dude With The Rings.) Grad School Chaucer Prof also thought all of this meant I disliked the Knight, which is very far from the truth. I like the Knight. I just think nihilistic Knights are far more interesting than perfect ones.

So anyway, one of my students asked the "gods or planets" question today, and I tried to reconstruct the exact argument I'd had with GSCP, present both of our positions, and ask the rest of the class what they thought. And my very smart and skeptical student, bless her, pointed out that it doesn't make a great deal of sense to pray to planets. (She was, nonetheless, inclined to see more truth in Theseus' final speech than I do, since Love does, in a sense, triumph in the end. Most of the class wanted to see more justice in Arcite's fate than I do -- though they did agree that the ending was problematic in other ways, most of them having to do with Emelye. Somebody made the very sharp point that the Knight has lived most of his life in a homosocial world, and is probably not much used to thinking about what women want; I had to defend him a bit, since the story does register a fair bit about Emelye's wishes and desires, even as it also suppresses them. Someone else made the even more brilliant point that this tale sets up the central question in the Wife of Bath's tale, and indeed, maybe all of other the pilgrims are playing off of the Knight.)

I love this class. They're awesome. I hope we all stay this energized. I hope I can be like the Laid-Back Medievalist who taught my undergraduate Chaucer class and let me pursue heretical ideas as far as they would go.