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.