Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Comedy of Errors

All right. I need to do something to get myself back in the habit of writing regularly, so I thought I'd do a full month's worth of Shakespeare posts for National Poetry Month. (I figure there are about thirty plays that I have something interesting to say about, and this will give me a few passes on the ones I don't.)

Starting a few hours early because of SAA; I'm not sure how much time I'll have over the next few days.

Day One: The Comedy of Errors

What I love about this play: Errors hasn’t got the depth or the lyricism of Shakespeare’s later comedies, and the beating-up-Dromio schtick (which is more or less lifted straight from Plautus) gets really old really fast. But the part that’s not in Plautus, and that takes my breath away, is the backstory / reunion plot with Aegeon and Aemilia. From the very first lines (“Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall / And by the doom of death end woes and all”) it’s evident that even in comedy, Shakespeare likes to play for really high stakes. Even in the most wildly farcical moments, the audience knows there’s a grieving father whose life and happiness are on the line, and the last scene is honestly moving. (Antipholus of Syracuse, too, ends up seriously doubting his sanity -- a nice reminder that actually being inside a farce is uncomfortable and a bit menacing, no matter how enjoyable waching it from the outside may be.)

I also love the way you can trace the outlines of Twelfth Night and the late romances, even in this very early play: tempest, shipwreck, loss, recovery.

Another nice moment is Dromio’s final line: “We came into the world like brother and brother; / And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.” One of the things I love about Shakespearean comedy is the breaking down of hierarchies – of gender, age, social rank – in favor of a sort of festive equality. And yes, the endings often seem to restore the normal social order, but I like to think that they also loosen up that order and render it a little more accommodating.

Favorite memory: Watching this at the Globe on my first evening in London last summer. There were two sets of matching balloons representing the two sets of brothers, and when Aegeon told the story of his oldest son’s loss, he released one pair. I remember watching them drift away over the wooden O, getting smaller and smaller in a vast blue sky, and maybe it was jet lag but I came very near to crying.

Monday, March 29, 2010

five things I did not know about teaching Basic Comp

1) Junior- and senior-level education majors will try to register for it. Seriously. They're looking for an English course, any English course, to count toward the required language arts concentration, and either they do not know that "basic" is a euphemism for "remedial," or they're looking for the path of least resistance and don't care. (This is a problem, since the course doesn't actually count toward the concentration or toward the credit hours they need for graduation. You have to keep checking the class rolls and e-mail them when they pop up.)

2) The number of students enrolled can be anywhere from 4 (in the spring) to 40 (in the fall). I suspect that spring-semester and fall-semester classes require completely different strategies.

3) There are people -- native speakers of English -- who do not understand about parts of speech. As in, they'll write about "the advertise" or, conversely, "to advertisement a product." I don't know how to help this student. I don't know whether this phenomenon is a sign of a learning disability, but at any rate, it is far, far outside of the limited training in comp that I got as a grad student. (The official party line in my grad program was that native speakers almost never make grammatical errors, which is the sort of claim that makes me wonder whether any of the composition theorists have ever actually taught a class.)

4) My Basic students seem to be taking the class far more seriously than regular freshman comp students, and putting in more effort; they're needier, and they require more help, but they also do what they can to help themselves, including -- amazingly -- asking questions! (I suspect that insecurity and self-doubt are powerful motivators, provided they exist in just the right proportions and don't overwhelm the student's capacity for rational thought. Hell, that's what drove most of us through grad school, isn't it?)

5) A single bright, engaged student can set the tone for the entire class, particularly if it's an older, returning student who is a former addict and now wants to be a substance abuse counselor. I am in awe.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Hi, everyone. :: slinks back in guiltily :: Sorry about the blogging hiatus. You can put it down to a combination of being distracted by personal / family stuff, and mid-spring semester slump. (I've always had a hard time with spring semester. It feels like this low, low ebbtide in the year, with all the short days and the greyness and the cold, and the shininess of the new classes wears off much faster than it does in the fall. The students are worn out, I'm worn out, and the nine weeks between the beginning of the semester and spring break feel like a long, long slog. There are many things I love about the eccentricity of the academic calendar, but this is not one of them.)

So, anyway:

-- Courseblogging stuff: Thanks to everyone who posted comments on my last post! I think I figured out a reasonable amount of stuff to do with Long Victorian Novels, or at least this particular novel. Here's how it broke down.

- First couple of days: some collateral readings from the "Woman Question" and "Industrialization" sections of the Norton. (Might do more of this next time around -- this is a novel about, among other things, education, and I'm thinking it might be interesting to read some selections from "The Idea of a University" alongside it, and I can see some connections to "Dover Beach" if I squint.)

- Third day: close reading of selected passages. (This did not go over particularly well, but I think it's necessary prep for the short paper that ties in with this novel. I'm still casting around for good ways to get students to focus on language, especially with fiction; mostly, they seem to want to skip straight to plot and character.)

- Fourth and fifth days: Some excerpts from the magazine in which the novel was originally serialized and the author's correspondence with the editor (Day 4), and some selected passages from critical articles about the novel, which pairs of students had to support or refute with evidence from the text (Day 5). They did pretty well with this stuff, and I think it was a nice opportunity to introduce some of the things that professional critics think about.

- Sixth day: Clips from the miniseries. (Oh, all right, you can tell I'm getting tired when my lesson plan consists of YouTube.)

And here we have two weeks of classes fitted.

-- A real live Shakespeare play on our campus! Yay! The theater department did a fantastic job, I thought, and I'm hoping there will be more (although our student demographics make all but a few Shakespeare plays tough to cast, since there simply aren't enough men). I don't know how many of my Shakespeare students made it to a performance, but one of my favorite freshmen from the survey class liked it so much that she went back twice :)

-- Advising season is upon us, and it's coming home to me that I really have no clue what I'm doing. I'm not sure how to get some of these students into my office at all, much less tell them in a nonjudgmental way to get their act together, much less give advice on how to do this. (One of my advisees is in my Shakespeare class. She doesn't turn in papers, she doesn't participate, and she hasn't written five out of six in-class responses. And yet, she keeps coming to class, as if merely being present in the room will magically cause her to pass. And this is the one I know how to find.)

-- Anybody else planning to be at SAA next month? Should we have a meet-up?