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.