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