Monday, November 24, 2014


Just tell me what you want.

We want you to have some ideas you didn't get from a book, or from us. We want to push you beyond what you already know how to do. We want you to try things that are just beyond your abilities. We want you to experiment. We want you to make mistakes. We want to see growth, creativity, interesting failure. We want your reach to exceed your grasp; we want you to strive to do, and agonize to do, and fail in doing, not to tone it all down to yonder sober pleasant Fiesole. We want the jagged, awkward edges of a first effort, the unpredictable eruptions of discovery.

But then we have to put a grade on it. God damn.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Late-mid-semester grumpiness

I was going to do a proper post of Thinky Thoughts about the UNC athletics scandal, but at the moment this semester is kicking my ass six ways to Sunday, and I am too exhausted even to think. (Seriously, SHOOT me if I ever sign on to teach the one-credit Intro to College Life class again. $1,000 extra is SO not enough for a thirteenth hour of class time every week, and you have to spend SO much time herding freshmen: nagging them to do the online journal posts, arranging community service opportunities and hoping some of them show up, explaining the concept of comments on a paper -- which I wouldn't think would be that foreign, but two of them looked at me in utter confusion and seemed to think I wanted them to rewrite the paper. Dear God, do their high school teachers not comment at all on their work when they grade it? No wonder nobody can write.)

This particular crop of freshmen seems particularly flaky; there are about three in the entire class who are consistently completing all the assignments, and two of them are international students. Of the others, there are one or two who are consistently bright, friendly, and participatory in class, but who are well on their way to failing because they aren't completing ANY of the quizzes and journal assignments; several more who are obviously sullen and resentful but are at least making a gesture towards doing the work, and a bunch in the middle I haven't really got a read on yet. Are freshmen always like this, and I just blot it out from year to year? Or has NCLB finally ruined us forever?

I have also been having a lot of Weird Shit going on in my not-actually-freshman comp class (it's second-semester comp in the fall, so it's a motley mix of sophomores through seniors, with one true freshman who had early college credit, and one who started in the spring last year.) The latest incident, which will probably be making me cringe for years to come, involved a student who had been trying hard and doing poorly in idiosyncratic ways that suggested, to my untrained eye, that there might be disability issues involved, whether diagnosed or not. I submitted a report through the online-early-warning-reporting system, which the administration has been pushing hard for us to use, describing the student's issues in the candid and unvarnished terms one uses when talking confidentially to a colleague, suggesting he certainly needed tutoring and might need disability services...

... And by mistake, they forwarded the report to the student by e-mail. Word for word. I suppose I should be grateful that he doesn't actually seem to be bearing a grudge, and that it WASN'T a report complaining about the student's behavior, but THAT level of incompetence really does not make me inclined to trust the early-reporting system ever again.

So yeah, that's what it's been like for the last few weeks. This is the point in the semester when I find myself getting irrationally angry about stupid stuff, like students using the word "mechanicals" to refer to Bottom and colleagues in a paper on MND. (I'm never sure whether, or how, to correct this, since some professional literary critics do it, and they probably picked it up from their earlier teachers -- but seriously, would anybody think it was appropriate to call Shylock "the infidel" or Othello "the thick-lips" just because other characters do it? Why do class-based pejoratives get a pass?)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Herrick, again

I have been reading a lot of Herrick lately, between my current early modern poetry class and a thematic thing that I want to do next time I teach Brit Lit I. I read all of Herrick the summer after I finished grad school, sitting on the tiny patio of my old apartment with a glass of white wine and a bowl of strawberries; it seemed like fun, pleasant summer poetry then.

Coming to these poems once more, after six years and odd months in Deep South Town, after tenure, knowing that I will have much the same sort of life for the foreseeable future, is something else again. I find myself identifying a lot more with Herrick. Both his discontent, and his moments of satisfaction with the life he has, seem very familiar. (One of my students -- one prone to flashes of brilliance -- pointed out that To Live Merrily, and to Trust to Good Verses is all about being part of this awesome imagined community of poets, the community that he can't have in real life, not in Devonshire anyway.) I wonder if maybe he meant to marry and have children, only to find -- after he got there -- that it just wasn't going to happen, not here, not among these people. I wonder if Prudence Baldwin kept his bed warm for him. I wonder what drew him back after the Restoration, even though he seems to have planned, or at least wished, otherwise. (In this age of air travel, exile is seldom so permanent or the joy of return so profound, but I recognize the feeling: I have it, in miniature, every time I visit the big East Coast city that is home.) I wonder which is more real, the sense of exile or the interest in country customs and pleasures. I think Herrick and I would have had a lot to talk about if we met.

And I've been thinking about The Argument of His Book, the way the first four lines in particular are so much about the everyday stuff of a country parson's life, and how slowly, by degrees, his subject matter turns into a world of imagination and speculation, by turns frivolous and fanciful and profoundly serious. I suppose the stuff of all of our lives is like that. I do think the life and work I have here matters, and that is something.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Pet favorites

I'm teaching Northanger Abbey and Love's Labour's Lost back to back this week, and I'm struck by how much both of these texts seem to push my particular buttons. I know perfectly well that they're early works, a bit rough around the edges, and that both authors would go on to write things that were far more polished and profound -- but seldom, I think, so delightful.

I think it's something about the characters. They're like the best college students you ever had. They're so young, clever and earnest idealistic, by turns very silly and very perceptive*, and passionately in love with books and words. And they're innocent with the sort of first-youth innocence that can't and doesn't last, even in a gentle coming-of-age comedy, but the authors are so clearly taking joy in exploring that innocence and its potential, rather than in crushing it. That's actually quite rare, at least in Literature-with-a-capital-L, and I find it irresistible.

What are your pet favorites?

* Gotta give Catherine her props here. She picks exactly the right villain when she's rewriting her life as a Gothic novel, and I think it takes her influence for the usually-older-and-wiser Henry to see that his dad is a genuinely bad person, and that he and Eleanor have spent their lives quietly making excuses for him.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Random beginning-of-the-semester bullets

-- The university cafeteria's latest innovation is ... water with berries in it. It's nice, I guess, but I keep wondering if we have all been implicitly cast as Caliban.

-- You know how every department has that one wacky faculty member? Ours is harmless and friendly, and when he does things like blowing up the microwave, it is always completely by accident. Now that I have a front-row seat for a different department's internal drama, I am beginning to feel like I have never appreciated him enough.

-- The problem with those one-credit "student success" courses that are meant to increase retention is that you obviously have to have requirements and policies and instructions if you're going to give students credit for the class. And yet, the sort of students who are inclined to drop out of college tend to be precisely the ones who have immense difficulty following requirements and policies and instructions, so the next thing you know the class has turned into a sequence of hurdles that keep tripping them up, and they end up with a C or D or F in it, which probably doesn't increase retention. I wonder if there is any good way to teach students to do college who don't already know how to do college.

-- Teaching Romeo and Juliet for the first time in forever. I quite like this play, but I'm reminded of why I don't teach it very often; it's because students THINK they know it too well (and sometimes actually do know it pretty well), so a lot of the class discussion feels too glib, a recitation of canned answers rather than a process of discovery. I tried plugging in R&J's first two big speeches in the balcony scene into Wordle, and I think that helped a little -- you can see the clusters of related words more clearly, and how much they get used in proportion to each other, and it defamiliarizes the speeches a bit.

-- We have a huge influx of international students from one particular country this year, so many that campus rec has ordered a crate of cricket supplies. (No, it isn't either of the two countries that probably come to mind immediately when you think about cricket.) I rather think pickup cricket games will add a welcome degree of quirkiness to the campus, so I hope it takes off.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


So my department chair wishes to create this mostly-online graduate program, let's say that it's in Advanced Mopery. I don't actually teach Mopery, and there are only two people on campus who do, but the graduate program is intended to be sort of cross-disciplinary, so there are a bunch of literature classes attached to it. (All theoretical classes at this point, taught by theoretical faculty.) The senior Mopery professor wants to list me as one of these potential theoretical faculty on the proposal, so this is where I come in.

I am not wholly opposed to the concept, especially if it means I get to teach less freshman comp, but it seems to me that 1) teaching an online graduate class would be a hell of a lot of work, particularly since the topics for these classes are sort of ... far-ranging. (This is not the sort of program where you can teach a seminar on whatever your dissertation topic was and call it a day.) And 2) we teach a 4-4 load, we don't have a whole lot of support for research or travel or intensive study of new works of literature, and the institution really, really does not have the resources to change this. Nor, as far as I can tell, will there be a pay bump for teaching a grad class. And, in fact, Department Chair and Senior Mopery Professor seem to be working with the cavalier assumption that if you start the program first, the resources will eventually come, and then they will be able to hire new faculty, and compensate the existing faculty, and so forth. Whereas I am of the opinion that if you start giving away milk for free, nobody will offer to take the damn cow off your hands.

Oh, and the junior Mopery professor (who is no longer very junior, being tenured, and who is also well on his way to becoming somewhat famous) ALSO really does not want to teach in this program without some reasonable level of additional compensation, which the Powers That Be have positively refused to give him. At which point he basically washed his hands clean of the whole thing and left them to figure out how to put this program together without him. I am not sure that Chair and Senior Mopery Professor have realized that he is, in fact, the one with the leverage in this situation, and that he has very, very good odds of getting a better job elsewhere. (Let it suffice to say that if you Google his name, the first twelve or so hits are not us, and they include quite a few articles in national media.)

Chair knows how to work systems like nobody's business, so I'm reluctant to say that she and Senior Mopery Professor are being delusional; she is also a seriously awesome and ridiculously hard-working person who basically bleeds in the school colors, but I think that in this case this is part of the problem, because she has a hard time remembering that for the rest of us, this is in fact a job that we are paid to do, rather than the great calling of our life. (And yeah, everybody in academia has a hard time remembering that sometimes, but with Chair it's on a whole other level and most of the time it's great, until she starts expecting it of other people.)

Fuck, I really like and respect all of these people, and I don't want this to turn into a massive departmental feud, but I see almost no way that it doesn't. Meanwhile, I want to be a good citizen, but I really feel like I can't get behind this program and don't particularly want to teach in it, especially if there's no prospect of getting so much as a course release. Because in the end, it is extra work, and work deserves compensation (and grad students deserve faculty who aren't all stretched out like taffy). I said so, pretty much, in the department meeting today, and I feel like I've suddenly flipped the switch from being the Mousy Assistant Professor whom everyone liked, to being a Mouthy Associate Professor who is about to have enemies, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that, either. But tenure means not only that you can speak up about things, but that you sort of have to, right?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Shakespeare journalism grumpage

I really try not to get grumpy about other people's takes on Shakespeare. First of all, there is too much of that sort of thing in the world already; and secondly, I'm of the opinion that the more people there are thinking and talking about Shakespeare, the better, especially if they're doing it outside of traditional academic channels. (Well, OK, not if they're talking about authorship conspiracy theories, but that isn't really talking about Shakespeare.)

That said, this is a seriously dumb, reductive reading by an author who appears not to get the concept of drama. The whole point of Shakespeare is that he's writing characters, for God's sake, and that those characters are complex and flawed, and, moreover, that he has a peculiar gift for expressing multiple perspectives compellingly! For every ringing set-piece speech, there is a "Yes, but...", usually within a scene or two. Anybody who claims to be able to infer from the plays what Shakespeare's politics were is not only deluding themselves, but missing the reason why we read Shakespeare in the first place. (I think one of the reasons why pronouncements like Berlatsky's get under my skin is that teaching students to value and embrace ambiguity is perhaps the single most valuable thing we do in literary studies, and it drives me crazy when people don't get this.)

Full disclosure: I have my sneaking suspicions, and the answer I'd come up with is almost the polar reverse of Berlatsky's -- and I'd point to a lot of moments in its defense, from Isabella's courageous defiance of Angelo to Michael Williams's searching questions on the eve of Agincourt. And at least one of those moments, the Argument of The Rape of Lucrece, has the advantage of being one of those rare bits of text that Shakespeare seems to have written in his own person and from his own perspective. But I'd never be so arrogant as to claim that "my" Shakespeare is the only possible Shakespeare, or that we know for sure what he thought about anything.

(Also, if you're seriously going to argue that the Henry IV plays are a warning against rulers consorting with people who are beneath them, you've pretty much missed everything that Hal takes away from his time in the tavern. There's a reason why he ends up being a more effective leader than good old Dad, who never really gets what his son is doing in the Boar's Head, even though he did that sort of thing himself once upon a time. Granted, the plays work a bit better as a warning to the people on the lower end of the social scale against consorting too much with their rulers. God send the companions a better prince.)


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Photos, belatedly

I was going to write a proper back-from-Green-Country post a couple of weeks back, but I was about to leave for some islands (blessedly alone) to celebrate getting tenure and surviving my first travel-with-students experience, so I'll just post a few photos in which you can see the many fine shades of greenness that Green Country has to offer.

Yup, that's one of our students up on the wall. Nope, nobody fell off. There were times I felt like it wasn't for want of trying.

And nobody fell off the cliff either, so it was all good.

The sculpture had particular relevance to my class, so I showed an image one day, only to find that the students had already stumbled across it and wondered what it was. I like it when that sort of thing happens.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Texts and contexts

This is our classroom, at least most of the time; it came with enough furniture to seat eight, which was exactly the number we needed. Sometimes we go outdoors, or into the games room at the student apartment complex if we need to use the TV, and my colleague will be holding her class in the pub on Monday. (I plan to do the same for our very last session, once we are back in the capital. I figure the writer we'll be reading that day would have approved.) But most of the time, here we are hanging out in the living room / kitchenette.

And students talk. My God, do they talk. They argue about whether the Revolutionary Poet was a hero or an idiot, and whether the Playwright-and-Memoirist views the rural villagers he writes about as a separate, lesser order of people or whether he really gets them and their culture. They say smart and insightful things about the gender politics of personifying the nation as a woman. They make awesome connections to things they're learning in my colleague's class, despite the fact that her material ends about 700 years before mine begins. Some of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that they are an exceptionally self-disciplined and committed group, as evinced by the fact that they managed to scrape together $5,000 for this trip in the first place. But I also think that we have, quite accidentally, stumbled upon the ideal setting and context for a college class, and achieved something that is supposed to happen but very rarely does: students are talking to each other as much as to me, and they feel comfortable enough around each other to take up opposing positions. And there are too few of them to hide behind each other and let a tiny minority do most of the talking. It probably also helps that we have drunk beer, scrambled over rocks, and wandered through cow pastures together, all of which tend to dispel any notions that professors are a separate species.

I wish there were some way to bottle this atmosphere and bring it back with us. Maybe if we capped all of the courses at ten and installed comfy couches in every classroom, that would be a start; but I think you also need the sort of group bonding that comes through shared experience, and I don't think there is any way to make that happen artificially. (I realize that the "learning communities" trend is supposed to achieve this, but I'm skeptical about whether it actually works.)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Across the pond...

We are in Green Country, which is green as advertised. Thus far, things have gone reasonably well; at least, we made it from the US to Green Country, spent three busy and hectic days in the capital, and took the bus across the country without losing anybody or having any massive failures of planning. We may have thrown a few too many activities and tours at the students at once -- I'm not sure they took in as much as they should -- and I think we will almost certainly be looking for a different hostel in the capital if we do this again, or even apartments if we ever do this without being on a shoestring budget. (Yeah, right.) At any rate, we are now settled into our spacious, blessedly quiet new digs -- apartments in a massive student housing complex -- in a much smaller and less frenetic city, and are ready to start classes tomorrow. (It gladdened my heart to see four of our students seated around the common-room table at about eleven o'clock last night, earnestly reading modern Greenish drama. I think that we will have an enjoyably nerdy time.)

Also, it is cool seeing their horizons expand. They made friends with a German girl on the walking tour we took on the first day, and also an American who was on his way to study in Germany, and almost immediately started talking about how they wanted to go to Germany. This, in a group where two of our six traditionally-aged students had never been on a plane before we left. So yay, this is how it is supposed to go.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Four days 'til Green Country ...

Well, more like three and a half, I guess. This time four days from now we will be jammed into our airline seats for a long overnight flight, and this so does not feel real yet. In a week's time, I will be getting ready to teach a class that is totally new to me and SO far outside of my area of expertise. That part doesn't feel real either. I don't have much of a plan other than "we will read a bunch of books and poems that I think are interesting, and talk about them." (Which is, admittedly, about as much of a plan as I ever have for class, but most of the time I'm teaching material I've taught before, and also most of the time I have access to a whiteboard and a projector, which I won't on this trip.)

Also, sometime in between now and then, I really need to organize masses of paperwork, and also print off all of the online readings for my class for our 78-year-old auditor who doesn't do computers. (Who is going to be a pain in the ass, by the way. I was afraid of this from the beginning, but I was trying to keep an open mind because we really needed more warm bodies on this trip, but honest to God, this woman has basically stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play, and I don't even like Tennessee Williams characters when they are on the stage. By intermission I am always wishing that everyone in the play would Just. Shut. Up. Already.)

So I am worried about being in for a month of Just. Shut. Up. Already, and also worried about all the other interpersonal drama that goes along with ten people spending a month in close quarters. Travel with other people is always so stressful, and part of me really just wants to grab the backpack and run of to Bucharest or something, alone. And I really want the students to have a good time, and will feel guilty if they don't.

(This is making it sound like I regret having decided to do the trip. I don't -- or at any rate, I don't think I will. There will assuredly be good theater and good seafood involved, so there is no way this can be a total loss, and I think it will be cool seeing Green Country with students, for whom it will all be new.)

And hey, even if it is an absolute disaster, at least there is no chance I will lose my job over it. 'Cos you know what? As of this week, I have tenure.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Translations, Part V: What the Grades Really Mean

A+: This is the very rare paper that makes me dance around my apartment and shout. Also, it means I can knock off grading for the rest of the evening, because why spoil the glow?

A: This is genuinely very good indeed.

A-: This is interesting and insightful, but not polished. Or it is very polished, but not at all interesting. Oh, who am I kidding? It's really more of a B+, but see below.

B+: No good can come of this grade. Try not to assign it.

B: This has some facets that I can genuinely praise, but as a whole the paper is not quite ... there ... in ways that I will find almost impossible to articulate, and will write about half a page attempting to explain. The student, however, will be satisfied, and will not read that half-page.

B-: This is a strictly average paper, masquerading as an above-average one. But at least the student is genuinely trying very hard.

C+: This student may also be trying, but has hit a glass ceiling because the writing mechanics are so appalling; OR, this is an A student who is not trying at all.

C: A below-average grade masquerading as an average one. The paper has some vague glimmerings of promise, but a lot more wrong with it, which I will spend at least a full page attempting to explain. None of my comments will be read, and the next paper will be exactly the same.

C-: This is really more of a D, but I would greatly prefer not to have this student again next semester.

D+: This is more or less the right length, sort of on topic, and not plagiarized. It has no other redeeming features whatsoever.

D: This is way too short, but NO NO PLEASE DON'T MAKE IT LONGER.

D-: This is the kind of paper that makes one want to add insult to injury.

F+: A special grade, reserved for a paper that would have earned a B, but was turned in nine days late.

F: The easiest grade to assign, since the paper either was never turned in, or was copied from In the former case, the student will not argue; in the latter, there will be a long and complicated story about how the paper was typed at the student's great-aunt's house and the great-aunt sneaked in while the student was asleep, added the plagiarized bits, and then uploaded the whole thing to Shmoop.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


So, this fairly well-known pundit from a national magazine has just been to Deep South State, and has been blogging about his visit here. I mean right here. You can see the sign to Misnomer U. in one of his photos.

He seems to have liked the place, which is good, I guess. Still, it feels odd, seeing pictures of the place where one lives at National Magazine's website, and reading about how surprised Fairly Well-Known Pundit is that you can actually get decent beer around here. There is a strong undercurrent of This Is Real America, "real America" being defined as "places where people who write for National Magazine don't live." (There is not really any indication in the blog posts that writers and artists and professors do live here, although there is a whole lot about our local steel mill. Also, no particular indication that Fairly Well-Known Pundit expects anyone living here to read his stuff, although of course we have been; my colleagues have been sharing them all over Facebook.)

I feel a little ... exoticized. Maybe more so because I grew up in the world inhabited by National Magazine's target demographic, which is, basically, upper-middle-class urban east-coasters. My dad subscribes. Shoot, I won their cryptic crossword contest once when I was a teenager. And now it seems that I live in a place that is very, very strange to most National Magazine readers, and of course I knew I was leaving the world where I grew up behind when I chose this career (it is fair to say that was part of the attraction), but it's being brought home to me how far behind I've left it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bianca and Kate: a Misnomer U story

I've been in two minds about whether to post about this, but about a month and a half ago, one of our study abroad students -- I'll call her Bianca -- started making noises about possibly having to withdraw from the trip. This alarmed us considerably, since we were already at minimum numbers. Bianca offered no further explanation, but her friend, Kate, eventually turned up in my co-leader's office to explain that Bianca's family was in grave financial difficulty, and that while she had been able to scrape together (just) enough to make the payments, she wasn't sure she'd be able to buy textbooks, food, or anything else while we were away. To compound matters, some of her family were opposed to her spending money on what they saw as a luxury.

Bianca is a good student, but very quiet. Kate is the opposite, loud and brash and confident. It appeared that Kate had actually lent Bianca some of the money that she had been using to make the payments. Bianca, she explained, never got to do fun things like this, and Kate didn't really need the money right now. I don't know Kate's exact background, but I went out for tapas with her and her uncle once (because that is the sort of thing that happens sometimes at small colleges), and they struck me as probably very comfortably upper-middle-class. Kate, I think, had an upbringing that lent her a much more expansive sense of what is possible, and surmised that the faculty might be able to do something about Bianca's situation if they knew about it. And -- again because this is the sort of thing that happens at small colleges -- she was absolutely correct. We went to the Dean, who is AWESOME and immediately offered to buy the books himself, and to the chair of my department (because Bianca is one of our majors, but also because my chair knows everybody and can pull a lot of strings). They swung into action, and the upshot is that Bianca should have a fair chunk of emergency-scholarship money coming to cover her living expenses. Happy ending. (The sum of money, I should note, is in the three-digit range -- the sort of amount that seems big when you're a college student but laughably small later in life.)

So, a couple of things about this story: First, of course, it wouldn't happen at a state flagship university. You need to be at a place with a short enough chain of command, and a dean who knows individual students, and is willing to go to bat for them. You also need a few people who see travel, and all those other little enriching experiences, as an integral part of educating students. So, not the kind of thing that happens at a totally no-frills institution either, although I think no-frills colleges serve a useful purpose.

But more than all that, this story doesn't have a happy ending without Kate. And that, I think, is the real virtue of an institution like ours -- a public liberal arts college, not super-exclusive but academically solid. We're accessible to the Biancas, but we're also attractive to the Kates, and we're small enough that they'll meet up and befriend each other instead of stratifying into their own little cliques by the end of freshman orientation. And when students from different backgrounds come together, some pretty awesome things can happen. But it seems to me that they happened more often a generation ago, and are likely to happen less in the future -- because there are such big, class-based differences in colleges people aspire to attend in the first place, and as tuition goes up and up, the message from the media is increasingly becoming elites to the fancy R1s, plebes to the community colleges and for-profits, nothing in the middle.

But for now? We have a little space where the Biancas and Kates can and do meet, and where there are several people committed to making sure Bianca gets the chance to travel outside of the country for the first time in her life. And I'm proud to work in that little space. That is something.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fleeing the country (with students)

So, I have not been blogging about this because I didn't want to jinx it, and it has been touch and go whether we could get and keep enough students for the trip to make, but I think it is time to make it official: In less than two months, a colleague and I will be leading our first study abroad trip. We'll be flying out of Nearest Large City to our destination -- let's call it Green Country* -- spending a few days in the capital city hitting the tourist sites pretty heavily, going to Quieter City and staying there for three weeks, and then heading back to the capital for another week before going home. Somewhere in there, we both teach accelerated summer-term classes. Mine, I must confess, is cobbled together from a single graduate course on Greenish literature that I took fifteen years ago and a few texts that I've taught in survey classes, and I am feeling massively underqualified to teach it -- but there has to be a first time for everything, and at least I do know a lot about figuring out the logistics of travel-on-the-cheap, which is certainly a relevant skill if not an academic one. Somehow I ended up in charge of all the budgeting and finances. (Yes, that is the sort of thing one might normally expect the study abroad office to handle. No, they don't. Long story.)

We originally planned this as an Honors trip, which would have come with a built-in audience with travel scholarships, but for various reasons that ended up not happening. So after recruiting like crazy, we're taking five non-Honors students from Misnomer U., and one retiree from the community who's coming along as an auditor, and one student from a neighboring university. That was exactly the number we needed for the trip to make, so we've been keeping our fingers crossed nobody would drop out. There isn't much of a culture of study abroad here outside of the Honors program, and most of the students don't have the money (nor are there scholarships available for non-Honors folk). But we made it. That feels like a triumph. And in the end, I'm glad that we're doing this outside of Honors. Because I love the Honors students, but they have so many opportunities handed to them that really should be available to all of our students, and this group has worked so hard to come up with the money themselves and find ways to make it all happen.

We just held an orientation session, in which we threw way too much information at our students and fielded questions ranging from the predictable ("Will I be old enough to drink in Green Country?"**) to the moderately wacky ("Can I bring an acoustic guitar in a gig bag?"***), and it's finally starting to feel real.

It's going to be interesting. Ever since grad school, I have been used to using travel as a way to get away from my everyday academic life, or even, secretly in my heart of hearts, regarding my academic life as a way to finance travel. And it has become a way to turn into a different person for a while, one who doesn't give a damn about student evaluations or readers reports, one who feels younger and less tied-down, takes bigger risks, strikes up quick friendships with strangers and then says goodbye as quickly. One thing I haven't ever tried to do is combine these two lives. (I'm wondering, now, what sort of teacher I will become in Green Country, where our classes will be taught here-there-and-everywhere -- in our lodgings, maybe outdoors sometimes, maybe in the pub -- and whether I will bring that teaching persona back with me.)

* No, not Greenland. We're nowhere near that exotic.
** Yes, you will. Hopefully you won't do anything stupid.
*** Well, you COULD, but we really aren't sure you want to.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Shakesblogging 450: Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and second person pronouns

I'm teaching Othello this week, and I went to see a touring production with some of the students yesterday. God, that play is good. I say this as someone who isn't really a tragedy person. (OK, I like Desdemona because she is really a comedy heroine -- plucky, witty, independent of mind -- before being trapped in a foreign country and an abusive marriage takes that from her. You realize what a great character she is when you watch it. When students only read it, I think the submissive Desdemona of the last two acts tends to loom larger in their minds; but she is desperate, and bewildered, and has no good options by then.)

One of my favorite features of early modern English is the difference between "you" and "thou." (Well, favorite in that it's fun to look at in the classroom. I'm very glad I don't speak a language where you have to make such distinctions in everyday life, as I suspect it's a social minefield and I have enough trouble with unwritten social rules as it is.)

One of the things I always like pointing out in the classroom, when I teach 3.3, is that Desdemona starts "thou"-ing Cassio around line 20 or so: it's the equivalent of a verbal pat on the shoulder, an everything's-going-to-be-all-right moment. Which, of course, it isn't -- because the other striking thing about this scene is that Desdemona doesn't address her husband as "thou," not when she's trying to coax him to pardon Cassio, nor anywhere else in the play. He uses "thou" with her; she never uses anything but "you" with him, although she's willing to get more informal with Cassio, Emilia, and even Iago.

Iago's choice of Cassio isn't random. There's a real closeness there, a level of intimacy that she doesn't share with Othello, despite his best efforts. It's a totally innocent closeness (Desdemona seems to have a penchant for innocent opposite-sex friendships, a relationship that I believe is not actually supposed to exist in early modern society), and it's understandable that she's a little in awe of her much-older, war hero husband; but it gives Iago something to build on.

Close reading for fun and profit!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Shakesblogging 450: Scattered Thoughts on Timon of Athens

So, after I finished my tenure portfolio and before the massive stacks of papers started to come in, I took off for the big city to see Timon of Athens. (There are also baby pandas there, which were ADORABLE, but this is not really a blog about pandas, so I shall restrain myself.) Anyway, when I heard there was going to be a production in a vaguely-nearby city, I figured I should go because it was one of the five plays I needed to see to complete the canon; but then I went to see the same company do Troilus and Cressida, which actually made me excited about Timon. The production of Troilus was fantastic, and they're similar plays, I think, darkly funny and cynical in similar ways, and totally unlike anything else Shakespeare ever wrote. I wasn't disappointed: it turns out that Timon is a lot more coherent in performance than I would have expected, and more entertaining.

Most of the actors were masked (and pretty much all of the parts were credited just as "Ensemble"), the exceptions being Timon, Flavius, Apemantus, and Alcibiades, our four truth-tellers. Everyone else was interchangeable, which makes sense, because this is not really a play about characters. (I'm wondering now whether it would have a better reputation if it had come down to posterity as a Middleton play, because you don't expect Middleton to be about characters, just about masks and hypocrisy and people doing nasty things to one another and being ironically witty about it.) But there was one moment I found heartbreakingly sad in ways that I did NOT expect; near the end when Timon drives Flavius off, Flavius puts on a mask for the first time.

One of the things that struck me was how many references there were to people "eating" Timon; there's one line where Apemantus actually imagines the guests dipping their food in Timon's blood, a grotesque bit of Last Supper-ish imagery. And it made me think, Timon is kind of trying to be Jesus, walking around and performing miracles for people, and then he turns out to be spectacularly unable to cope with the fact that the full Christ-figure package includes being betrayed, despised, and martyred. (But then, Jesus didn't have to deal with the discovery that ALL of his dinner companions were Judases, except one. Really, it's a pretty neat reversal.)

The whole idea of retreating from the world, of turning your back on society and its hypocrisies and going out in the wilderness to be philosophers, strikes me as one of the big themes that comes up again and again in Shakespeare, from Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It, down through Lear and Timon, to The Tempest. But this is really the only one where the characters don't come back to society in the end, or at least try to create a new society on their own terms. They don't find growth or self-awareness either, only stasis.

As a side note, I kind of wonder if this might be John Shakespeare's story, right down to the finding-gold-in-random-places bit (in the form of a dutiful son getting unexpectedly rich in a new and disreputable profession). I wonder if Will never finished it because it hit too close to home.

Monday, January 20, 2014

binders of woman

So, yeah. This is it, the moment of truth in every assistant professor's life. The small binder is my actual application for tenure and promotion, the big-ass one is all the supporting documentation. (Mainly: evaluations for every damn course I have ever taught.) I'm surprised it crept up on me so soon. It feels like yesterday that I was applying for this job.

And, you know, I feel surprisingly un-nervous about it all. I've got five years of excellent evaluations from two different chairs, and the general institutional culture at Misnomer U. is that denials are rare and usually for good cause, so I think I'll be OK unless something really wacky happens, like the new provost suddenly deciding to raise the institution's research profile without telling anyone. (OK, I am a tiny bit worried about the new provost.)

But the guy who blew up the microwave oven in the faculty lounge TWICE has tenure. I need to keep reminding myself of that.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Shakesblogging 450: Happy Twelfth Night!

Fulfilling my resolution to post more regularly, even if it's just idle and random thoughts about Shakespeare:

Today is Twelfth Night, and who doesn't love Twelfth Night? It's certainly one of my favorites, at least most of the time. (I always have problems answering the "what is your favorite Shakespeare play?" question, because I change my mind all the time, and I certainly can't pick just one anyway. Shakespeare is awesome because he's varied. But Twelfth Night is delightfully varied in itself, so it is a pretty good pick.)

Anyway, I've just been thinking: I really like Orsino. Students tend not to like him all that much, because yeah, he is silly and self-dramatizing and "in love with being in love" (somebody always uses this exact phrase, every single time I teach this play). And he does say some dumb, sexist things, although it's hard to take him seriously when he turns around and says the opposite thing five minutes later. Opals and changeable taffeta, indeed.

So by the end of Act One, you can see exactly why Olivia doesn't want him, but you also see why Viola does. Because she gets to know him as his servant, and this is a man who is consistently polite and generous to his social inferiors. Valentine assures Viola that he's not "inconstant in his favors" where his servants are concerned; he also accepts Feste's teasing with good grace and insists on paying him properly for his song, even when Feste insists that it's no trouble at all. It's a nice little set of character notes; and it's particularly nice that he starts to get over his posing and eventually wakes up to Viola's love for him because he listens to his servant. He doesn't just treat "Cesario" as a convenient sounding board; he asks questions, pays attention to the answers, and apparently remembers every word of it later ("Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.")

(All this characterization, by the way, for someone who isn't even in the play all that much -- he's got a grand total of four scenes and fifty-nine speeches, and disappears for two whole acts in the middle. Orsino is right up there with Shylock, in terms of being a presence without actually being present all that much.)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Happy (busy) New Year!

Holy hell, has it been almost three months since my last post? Here's what has been going on in my life:

1) I moved. In the middle of the semester. Into faculty housing, which I've always been sort of ambivalent about, because it feels like acknowledging that I have no life whatsoever in this town outside of Misnomer U. But it is RIDICULOUSLY cheap and only two blocks away from campus, and since it had been five years since the last time I moved, I had forgotten how hellish moving was. And because I am really NOT good at housekeeping and organization and all that, I've been living among the boxes and sort of hoping they will unpack themselves; and because AT&T is EVIL, I still don't have Internet access at the new place. (Which is a good excuse for not blogging during the semester, but I will admit that I decamped to my parents' house for almost the entire break, in part to get away from the boxes, so I haven't had that excuse for some three weeks.)

2) I have been busy with stuff that I don't want to jinx by blogging about, like trying to plan a brand-new summer study abroad trip from scratch, and like going up for tenure. I feel like both of these things could go horribly wrong if I talk about them the wrong way. You'll get to hear about them when they are over.

3) I have been trying to revise the Edited Collection Chapter from Hell in a way that might possibly please the (apparently very grumpy) external reviewer. I am deathly afraid of jinxing this, too, so that's all I'm going to say about it.

4) Conversely, the other chapter for the other edited collection seems to have sailed through the review process, receiving about three lines of blandly positive comment and one request for a very minor revision. This is, I think, the difference between writing about the most canonical work by a majorly canonical writer and writing about an obscure play that no one ever reads or performs. I swear that any scholarship I attempt after this will be confined to the second category.

5) I'm running a Shakespeare film series this spring! (The honorarium for my award-thingy turned out to be just enough to pay for it, so I figured that was a sign that we needed to have one. And yeah, I'm a sucker for doing this out of pocket, but it seemed like a whole lot less trouble than trying to persuade someone else to fund it, and it's not like Shakespeare turns 450 every year.)

So yeah, that's my life. I'm starting to feel a bit like I made vows of chastity and poverty to Misnomer U., in exchange for a job, a succession of long lazy summers, and a sense that I'll be looked after. And you know what? I think I'm OK with that bargain, as long as they don't demand obedience also. (Which they might, unfortunately. Which is another story, and a totally unbloggable one.)

Anyway, I swear I will be better at this blogging thing in the new year. Maybe I'll do another series of Shakespeare posts, because I'm always up for geeking out about Shakespeare, and hey -- 450!