Sunday, January 31, 2010

idle musings about high school English

Congrats to Horace for correctly identifying the poem from my last stick-figure lit post: Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

I've been enjoying Dr Crazy's and What Now's posts about the high school English curriculum. I have nothing very profound to add to the discussion, especially compared to What Now's firsthand expertise, but it's got me thinking about my own h.s. English experiences.

Three out of four of my high school English teachers were terrific. The fourth one (ninth grade) was fairly awful, for the simple reason that she didn't like books. Seriously. I swear, she described EVERYTHING we read that year as "stupid." Romeo and Juliet, for example, was "a play about two stupid kids who think they're in love when it's really just infatuation, and they die because they won't obey their parents, who know better." (Curiously, this is a moderately accurate description of Shakespeare's source, but I doubt she knew that.) Anyway, she didn't quite manage to ruin Romeo and Juliet for me, or "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (a stupid story about a stupid man who won't face up to reality), but I do think I would have fallen in love with Great Expectations much, much earlier if I had encountered it with almost any other teacher.

My intermediate-school teachers were similarly uninspiring, so I went into tenth-grade English with minimal expectations. It probably wasn't until halfway through the year that I realized I was actually kind of liking the class, and was good at it. The teacher was a middle-aged woman, no nonsense about her, not particularly funny or charismatic -- but she respected the written word, and that mattered. (She was also capable of conveying this respect for Dickens while at the same time pointing out that the female characters in A Tale of Two Cities were basically ciphers; this is probably the closest thing to a feminist perspective that I encountered during my high school years. My last two teachers were men with big voices and big personalities; they, too, were very, very good at what they did, but except for the odd Emily Dickinson poem, women writers weren't on the program. I didn't notice this absence until college.)

Anyway, here's what I remember of our reading list:

Ninth grade: Lord of the Flies, Black Boy, To Kill a Mockingbird, Great Expectations, Of Mice and Men, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "Barn Burning," Romeo and Juliet; one independent reading book (assigned by the teacher); probably some other works I don't remember. (Looking back on this list, I think some curriculum designer may have been going for a coming-of-age theme? At any rate, it didn't translate; I don't remember our teacher drawing any connections between works in the classroom.)

Tenth grade: As You Like It, Julius Caesar, A Doll's House, A Tale of Two Cities, Cry, The Beloved Country, Night, one group project book (chosen by the group from an approved list; I still bear a grudge against my classmates for picking Silas Marner). I am positive that we must have read a number of other works, but I don't remember what they were.

Eleventh grade (American lit): "Civil Disobedience," Death of a Salesman, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye, various short stories (an awful lot of which seemed to be by Hemingway), rather a lot of poetry.

Twelfth grade (AP English lit): Huge chunks of the Bible and Edith Hamilton's Mythology (to be completed over the summer); The Oresteia, Oedipus Rex, The Infernal Machine, Antigone, Candide, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Absalom, Absalom; a whole boatload of poetry and short stories (of which I think Yukio Mishima's "Patriotism" was the sole non-Western selection). Plus one longer, college-style essay on a play of the student's choosing. (I picked Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding and fell giddily in love, much to my teacher's delight as well as my own.)

Looking back over this, it seems like a wildly unbalanced list in some ways; in addition to the near-absence of female and nonwhite writers (even canonical ones), there's the peculiar fact that I went away to college with a very good grounding in Shakespeare, a decent knowledge of ancient Greek drama, and absolutely no clue about anything in between. I can't complain; college filled in most of those gaps, and there was nothing to stop my teenage-self from going on an Alice Walker kick in my spare time (which I did). There's relatively little comedy, too; if I were going to make up a reading list of my own, I'd want to throw in some Austen or Chaucer or Wilde to lighten things up.

Also: man, my AP English class was hardcore. And I loved it. In fact, I think that was the year I fell in love with about 90% of everything we read, and surprised myself by loving Faulkner. Partly, I think that was a maturity thing; partly it was the sheer force of the teacher's personality; maybe it was also the fact that we shared a weakness for darkness and blood and family curses.

And also: You know what my eleventh- and twelfth-grade teachers did that really struck a chord with me? They framed classic literature as transgressive. (Which it totally was, most of it, in its day; we got to hear all about those wild and crazy Transcendentalists.) And I already knew, from my own experience, that reading this stuff for pleasure was more than a little countercultural in my massive concrete-block suburban public high school. I learned how to tune out the mandatory pep rallies by reading Greek tragedy. It was awesome. Maybe that's the way to sell books to teenagers.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

RIP, J. D. Salinger

I owe my existence to him, sort of. My parents' courtship began with a copy of "Hapworth 16, 1924" that MomPorpentine clipped from the New Yorker and sent to my father in 1965, the summer after their freshman year in college. (It took another couple of years for DadPorpentine to get the hint. This is why English majors tend to marry late or not at all.)

My own favorite is De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period, featuring one of the most hilarious descriptions of bad art ever.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Courseblogging: Today's stick-art

How much do I love my colored markers? A lot.

I love teaching this poem, too. I divide students up into pairs or threesomes, hand out dictionaries, and assign them each a stanza. This time around, I started them off with two questions: 1) What would you say is the most important word in this stanza, and why? 2) What strikes you as the most startling / unusual / strange word or turn of phrase, and why?

They talked among themselves for about ten minutes (and used the dictionaries -- yay!), and had a ton of stuff to say afterwards -- so much that I wished very much that our class periods were longer. I didn't have much of a chance to sum things up afterward -- but maybe that's just as well, since this is, after all, a poem of questions, and most of those questions resist easy answers.

I think this is one of the hardest things to convey, especially in the sophomore-level lit surveys -- the fact that our whole discipline isn't about getting the right answer, yet at the same time there are some answers more clearly supported by the text than others. (Because misreading does happen, especially with the unfamiliar syntax of nineteenth-century poetry, and sometimes you do have to jump in and say "No, the poet is comparing two things here, not describing one thing" or, more amusingly, "Yes, a 'heifer' really is a cow and not a term of insult.")

But by and large, they're doing good work and I'm happy about the way today's class went, whistle-stoppishness and all.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Courseblogging: If this is Monday, it must be Shelley

Byron last Friday, Shelley (Percy) tomorrow. Keats on Wednesday. Shelley again (Mary, this time) on Friday. Yikes. This is whistle-stop English literature with a vengeance.

I'm already starting to second-guess this part of the course; maybe it would have been better to use thematic clusters, the way I do when I teach seventeenth-century poetry. You know, poems about Death one day, and then ones about Oliver Cromwell, or whatever. (Not that the Romantics are writing huge numbers of poems about Cromwell; obviously, the specific themes would have to be different. Landscape. Childhood. The Common Man. That sort of thing.)

I guess how one organizes a syllabus says a lot about what one thinks the students really need to learn in the survey: do I want them to remember the authors' names and associate particular works or ideas with those names? Or do I care more about presenting a certain set of themes and concerns as typical of the period? Or do I want to problematize the whole idea of periodization and show them all the stuff that doesn't fit our stereotypes of the Romantics or Victorians? Or maybe I shouldn't be worrying about factual knowledge at all; isn't this essentially a skills course? (And so, Shelley Day becomes How To Read A Sonnet Day before I know it.) Honestly, I think my answer to those questions is "all of the above," and there just isn't time.

Anyway, it's too late to second-guess the syllabus, so I guess I'll have them do some in-class writing, put on some music, and somehow muddle through.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I hardly know how to write about this.

Four of our students died last weekend, in a particularly awful and terrifying way. They were freshmen, just beginning their second semester, still in their teens. I didn't know them. I'm sure many of my students did. It is a small college and a small community.

In some ways, it feels like this is not my tragedy to talk or write about. I didn't know what to say in class; I don't, of course, miss them in the way that so many of the students and professors on our campus miss them.

At least one of them would have been my student sooner or later, given her major. In a year or two or three -- I don't know and never will know exactly when -- I will teach a Shakespeare class that would have been slightly different in character, because the presence or absence of even one student changes the temperament of a class just a little.

There are so many would have beens; so much potential. I've just been thinking about how young eighteen or nineteen is, and how hard it is to guess who our freshmen will become. Their families and friends have lost the girls they knew; the rest of us, perhaps, have lost the women we will not know. And for that reason, no mind that's honest but in it shares some woe.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I went to the state capital yesterday in Grande Dame Colleague's van, along with a couple of other colleagues and three students. There was also a huge bus of Misnomer U. folks, which filled up too quickly to get a ticket, and assorted alumni and friends from other parts of the state. All in all, we filled up both galleries of the state House of Representatives. A couple of the representatives introduced us, and Sorta-Famous Alumna sang a song. We were going to take the state Senate by storm as well, except they'd adjourned by the time we got there because a water main burst and most of the downtown area was without water, so that part was sort of anticlimactic. So we posed for a couple of photos for the press, and then went to a reception at one of the hotels, where there was also no water, but lots of Wine For Legislators, and fried catfish bits, and mini-cream puffs, and all that sort of thing. So I had some wine and catfish, and tried to talk to legislators (I wasn't very good at it -- politics is not a game for introverts), and then we drove back, getting home at around 10:00 or so. Which wouldn't have been bad, ordinarily, but on top of the first day of classes it was a bit exhausting.

The Capitol building was nice: lots of swoopy art-nouveauish railings and Tiffany glass. I don't think I'd actually been inside a state legislature building since my Girl Scout troop's trip to Richmond when I was ten, so it was interesting getting to see it.

I'm not sure I feel like I contributed all that much, but I'm told that we made a pretty impressive showing through sheer numbers, and the important thing is to show the legislators that they have lots and lots of constituents who care about the university's future.

It's frustrating, though: apparently all kinds of daft public-university-related bills have been introduced this session, some of which have no chance of passing and no apparent purpose except to vent hostility against higher education in general, but at least one of which has me seriously worried.

Anyway, back to business as usual, at least until the next crisis. The classes seem OK, so far; I have a fair number of repeat students in Brit Lit II and Shakespeare, and the general temperature in both classes seemed pretty good. I don't know yet what to expect from either section of comp (one Basic, one regular English 101 but filled mostly with people who started in Basic or else failed it last semester). I hope neither of them is too dire.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Courseblogging: Gearing up

Syllabi for the second half of the survey are all ready to go. (Alas, I finished photocopying them half an hour before I found out that Misnomer U. is getting a writing center this semester -- but I'm not redoing them, and anyway, I'm not sure I quite believe in this writing center until I actually see it operating.)

The big changes from last year are: a) North and South will be our Big Novel instead of Persuasion; b) there will be one full-length essay, a midterm, and a whole slew of mini-papers instead of three essays; and c) we're on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule this time. Since there are so many more days of class, I kept getting tempted to toss in extra readings, even though I know on an intellectual level there's not really more time in the semester. Mostly, I restrained myself, although I will be taking a shot at "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and a couple of Hardy poems. (I may live to regret this, since twentieth-century poetry is way, way out of my comfort zone. Oh dear.)

One unintended consequence of the Great Novel Swap was that the Victorian section of the course started to look top-heavy and the Romantic section ridiculously brief. I've added Mary Shelley's "The Mortal Immortal" and cut "Goblin Market," "The Old Nurse's Tale," and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (none of which I was really feeling the love for, although they teach well). I added a couple of the Sherlock Holmes stories, including "The Speckled Band," so that the students could still have their object lesson in How To Talk About Creepy Sex Without Openly Talking About Creepy Sex. (If I get really ambitious, we might even end up talking a bit about canonicity and Why Sherlock Holmes Is Not In The Norton Anthology, and whether he should be. Or by that point in the semester, we might just end up talking about the movie, especially if I've actually seen it by then. A lot of my ambitions don't pan out.) Anyway, that should give us our requisite dose of proto-science-fiction / mystery and horror / general weirdness.

Should be a fun class. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I'm going back to Deep South State tomorrow. Classes start on Monday; I will be traveling to the state capital later that day to help lobby for Misnomer U's continued existence; on Thursday of next week I have to give a 40-minute talk that I haven't written yet. Instead of thinking about this, I shall post one more picture of the nephew-let, because he is adorable, and because it would be nice if we could all spend our days sleeping in a swing:

I'm teaching Basic (a.k.a. remedial) comp this semester, and I haven't got the foggiest idea what to expect -- but at least there are only two students enrolled, so even if I screw things up horribly, I won't be scarring too many people for life. Wish me luck.