Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lost in Austen

Hmm, scratch that last post, unfortunately. Jane Austen -- or, perhaps, the first really heavy chunk o' reading this group has encountered -- seems to be making them glaze over in a big way. I hadn't really expected this to happen, since all of my students at New SLAC loved, loved, loved Austen -- or rather, all of the ones who came to the English club meetings did, which is quite a small and self-selected subset of "all," come to think of it!

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, because anecdotally, I have observed that most people either adore Austen or are bored silly by her -- there is no middle ground. I actually did have the "bored silly" reaction when I first encountered her, at the age of twelve. Too young, insufficient context. I had grown into her by the time I was in college, but most of these students haven't, and I'm not sure how you create that context (besides showing a film version so they can visualize this world -- which I do plan to do, just not immediately). I am also very, very unsure how you teach students to see how and why Austen is funny; if you have to explain humor, you're pretty much sunk, yes?

I'm sure the students who adore her (there are bound to be one or two, surely, in a class of seventeen if sixteen of them are female?) are feeling frustrated as well; I know I am, because there's only so much painfully slow teasing out of meanings one can take. ("OK, what impression do we get when we're first introduced to Lady Russell? Anyone? Bueller? Umm ... "carefree"? That's ... an interesting way to describe her, can you show me in the text where you're getting that? ... OK, yes, you're right, she doesn't marry Sir Walter when people expect her to. Let's take a look at what she does care about..." And on and on.)

Also, is it just my early modernist bias, or are novels in general really hard to teach? I think this group might be overwhelmed by too much text to sift through, too many details.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Something unexpected is happening in the Brit Lit survey

The students are talking! I can't shut them up, sometimes! And they have Stuff to Say; some of it is offbeat or off base, but some of it is really sharp. And one of them, one of my weakest students from last semester, brought in a draft of a paper to office hours, while there was still time to fix it. (The draft in question needed a lot of fixing, and I hope to get her in for at least one more conference, but at least she had some ideas, and the impulse to make an appointment to talk to me about them.)

This is such a relief after last semester. I wish I could bottle some of this mojo and keep it for future classes.

I'm at a loss to explain the improvement -- it is certainly not my own comfort level or knowledge of the material, as this is the second semester of the Brit Lit survey and altogether rockier territory for me, although it may be easier going for the students.

Maybe it's all the visuals. For some reason, Romanticism seems to come with a lot of pretty pictures.

Students tend to like visual images, and be comfortable talking about them. (Truthfully, they often offer more sophisticated readings than I do; I took three or four art history classes in college, but it was a long time ago, and one of them was in Spanish. And maybe that's just as well; it means we can kick around ideas without any of us feeling like there's a massive gap in our levels of knowledge.)

Is it teaching English? I don't know. It's teaching something, and that has to be all to the good, right? I mean, if you've never seen a Turner landscape or a Grecian urn before, seeing one, even projected on a screen, is bound to widen your horizons. And most of our students have not seen these things. I can do something about this, easily and cheaply, and it's fun for all. But most of them can't find the main verb in a Shelley sonnet, either -- and of course, five minutes of looking at art are five minutes of not thinking about the words on the page. I'm taking a gamble that the tradeoff is worthwhile.

I just bought a whole slew of paperback dictionaries at the Books-a-Million, which is the only bookstore in town, so that each group of students could have one as I asked them to look closely at one stanza of a Keats ode. Some of them used them. That, too, is teaching something.

I want to give them so much -- the whole of British literature! new lexicons! new ways of looking at the world! -- and two and a half hours a week are not enough time. But they seem, this time, to be on board with it; and that, at least, is a start.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Courseblogging: Well, I see we are a small and select group

So, add-drop is over, and it appears that my medieval lit class will be small. Very small. Like, count-all-the-students-on-one-hand small.

I have mixed feelings about this. I knew it was going to be a niche course, but I was hoping for two hands. It looked like I was going to achieve that goal, but three of the students who were enrolled on the first day never showed up again. On the one hand, I really like the idea of being able to give all my attention to a tiny handful of bright, focused students, and I'm already picturing classes held in the coffeeshop by mutual agreement, plenty of easy chitchat, a cozy book-club atmosphere. (Not to mention less grading! Can we say it again, LESS GRADING!)

On the other hand -- I feel a little unpopular. I wonder if I could have done more during our first class to make students welcome (did I send the wrong signals? do I come off as too nervous, too socially awkward, too stiff? should I try to develop a more linear, lecture-centered style instead of leaping straight into free-flowing discussion?) I also wish we had a more diverse group (the one non-English major, who was also the only non-white student enrolled, dropped after the first day, and ideally, I would have loved to have a few people with a background in history or fine arts or social sciences). This probably reflects some institutional issues rather than problems with this particular class. Because of the way the curriculum is structured, there are some strong disincentives for students at Misnomer U. to take upper-level coursework outside of their majors, while there were some equally strong incentives for students at the Beloved Alma Mater to do so, so I grew up thinking of a big cheerful seminar table surrounded by English and history and philosophy students as the norm. Still, I worry that I might have pitched the first class too high, assumed too much knowledge, scared some students off.

I'm trying to remember whether I ever took a class that was this small. I don't think so; even in grad school, even in second-semester Anglo-Saxon poetry, my impression is that there were always a few more bodies to hide behind. I suspect this will put a pretty heavy burden on the students to prepare and participate -- which isn't a bad thing at all, but it can be exhausting to have to be on all the time.

Well, we'll see how it goes. Wish me luck.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Courseblogging: Before the beginning

Classes start tomorrow, which means I have this feeling in my stomach like I'm hovering on the platform trying to work up the courage to board a roller coaster. (N.B. I have not been on a roller coaster since I was nineteen and a couple of my friends talked me into going to Busch Gardens. This is a matter of choice.)

At least I have syllabi and reading lists now. The one for the medieval lit / women's studies class was a bear to draw up, as the parameters for the course were, basically, "read a bunch of stuff written in the Middle Ages that has to do with women." You know, as much as I like to grump about the rigidity of the traditional, chronologically-organized survey course, that sort of structure does make a lot of decisions easier. Trying to come up with a coherent structure and narrative for this course was like disentangling a clump of thread that has been soaked in honey so all of the different strands keep sticking to each other. (This was, incidentally, also how I felt about my dissertation.)

I ended up with a roughly tripartite structure: a month or so on Women and the Church, another month and a half or so of secular love lyric and romance, and a third unit with the gloriously vague title "Debating Marriage / Debating Women," in which we shall be reading lots of Chaucer and Christine de Pizan and, I hope, bringing some of the strands together -- because I do want them to come together eventually, just in a way that makes a pattern instead of a big sticky tangle. It will be like a tryptich, ideally, where you start to see the connections between the panels. (Art metaphors are coming naturally to me at the moment, as I have spent much of the afternoon searching for images of Eve and Mary to show on the first day, hence the pretty pictures at the top of this post*.) Or it might end up being a confused mess. There is only one way to find out. I feel a bit like Eve in the first image, reaching out her hand to take the apple.

Much will depend on the students, because so much does depend on students in small seminar-type classes. There are eight enrolled at the moment; I know three of them from the Shakespeare class last semester, and they're all pretty sharp and will be able to handle whatever I throw at them. The other five are complete unknowns. They are nearly all English majors -- I'd been hoping for a history or art student to mix things up a bit, but students here rarely seem to take upper-level classes outside of their major.

I hope they like me. I hope they don't mutiny at the sheer volume of Middle English they're going to be reading. I hope I can actually get some sleep between now and Tuesday. I hope...

*ETA: I am vastly amused to see that Wikipedia's entry on Fra Angelico lists the following five sections under "Biography": "Early Life, 1395-1436," "San Marco, Florence, 1436-1445," "The Vatican, 1445-1455," "Death and Beatification," and "Liqueur." Good to know Wikipedia has its priorities straight.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Courseblogging, series 2

I'm going to try to get back on track with the courseblogging thing, even if it did kind of fall apart midway through the Shakespeare course. I have three totally new classes to prep for next semester, and I have a feeling life will be easier the next time around if I blog my way through at least one of them.

So, which one do y'all want to read about?

A) The extremely cool upper-level medieval studies / women's studies course with a tiny enrollment, assuming it doesn't get cancelled;

B) The second half of the British literature survey, comprising lots of stuff that is waaay outside of my area;


C) The junior-level comp class, in which I am somehow supposed to teach writing for all professions and all disciplines, a task which is currently causing me to tear my hair out.

Other relevant data: I may never teach Course A again; I will probably be teaching Courses B and C for the rest of my career, but never for the first time again.