Wednesday, September 26, 2018

"Chees now": some thoughts on the Wife of Bath's Tale

Wife of Bath's Tale in Brit Lit I today, which seemed very apposite. I didn't bring up current events -- I almost never do in class -- and neither did the students, but I've been thinking about the tale all day.

When I first encountered the Wife of Bath's Tale, at the age of twenty, I fell in love with it at once; it seemed like an awesome badass fable of female power. I've noticed a shift in the last few years, with this newer, woker, generation of students. They want more from it. They want the rapist to be punished more harshly, and his victim not to simply disappear. One of them, last year, wondered whether Chaucer had ever actually met a woman. I can't really fault them for wanting these things, but I still love the tale as it is.

The Canterbury Tales -- along with most of Shakespeare's plays and Joyce's "The Dead" -- is one of those rare works I can teach year after year and still notice something new every time. This time, what I noticed most was the verb chese: choose, or chose -- Middle English spelling makes no very consistent distinction between the present and the past. It's all over this tale; the Wife of Bath uses it at least nine times in 400 or so lines. So many choices. Most of them are from a limited palette of options: either / or, and sometimes neither choice is very good. Our rapist-protagonist -- who is very young, very privileged, and very entitled -- suddenly discovers, when his crimes land him at the mercy of a jury of women, that "he may not doon al as him liketh." He has to choose whether to be executed then and there, or go on a twelve-month quest to find the answer to a riddle that may or may not have one. Conversely, some of the choices in this tale are radically free: Jesus, who could do anything, "In wilful poverte chees to live his life," and we're given to understand that Jesus wouldn't choose anything shameful. (There's a lot about social class in this tale, and a lot of play with words that were originally class descriptors but come to have moral connotations: gentilesse, vilainye, cherl. Our protagonist's elderly and undesired wife tells him that "men may wel often finde / A lordes sone do shame and vilainye," which has got to sting, and goes on to argue that such a man has no claim to gentility.)

And, in the end, the word becomes a present-tense imperative: chees now. The "now" matters a lot, I think: we are always making fresh choices, even when we're also constrained by our previous choices. And in the end, whatever he may have done in the past our protagonist chooses rightly (a third option, not one of the "thinges twaye" that he was originally presented with): Cheseth youreself.

It occurs to me that all three of the Norton Anthology standards that I teach regularly -- the Miller's Tale, Wife of Bath's Tale, and Pardoner's Tale -- are about justice on some level, and this is the only one that offers a vision of justice that is redemptive and not retributive, where people can be educated into choosing better. I think that may be why I like it so much.

I feel like we are being governed, at this particular moment, by people who are making choices again and again, and still and still choosing worse. I like to hope that there is still time to choose better. Even now.

Monday, August 27, 2018

On the performativity of "What have you been reading lately?"

So, for some reason they seem to have made me a full professor since the last time I posted here, and the new president of Misnomer U. hosted a dinner for everyone who had just been hired, tenured, or promoted, which was nice of her. There was one bit where we were supposed to go around the room and introduce ourselves, and also say what we had been reading lately. Forthwith, some observations:

-- If you are a humanities professor, you say something that is clearly pleasure-reading, but at least vaguely cerebral. Witty mysteries about British academics are good, or the sort of science fiction that doesn't have aliens on the cover.

-- If you are a scientist or social scientist, you name a book related to your field of study.

-- If you are nursing faculty, you disclaim having any free time at all for reading, and pivot to talking about your children or grandchildren.

-- If you are in business, you also disclaim any time for leisure reading, but you make a joke about spreadsheets instead of talking about grandchildren.

-- If you are a university administrator, you say that you are reading the university Common Reading book, or something by one of the writers who will be visiting for the Writers' Symposium in October. Either way, it is very interesting and you are enjoying it very much.

-- If you work in tech support, you are allowed to read the kind of books with aliens on the cover.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Clueless Class

So, I have just finished calculating midterm grades (they are due at 9 a.m. on the Friday before spring break for some reason), and the results confirm my impression that one of my two comp classes is the Kingdom of the Clueless. Thirteen of them, out of twenty, have a grade in the C range or lower. One of those is a classic "ghost student" who showed up to the first day of class and then disappeared, but the rest have fully earned those grades. I don't think I'm that tough. There are three students in my other section of comp with Cs, and none with anything lower. They've had the same instructions, the same activities, mostly-the-same everything. This particular section simply ignores all directions, spoken or written, and all examples.

I can understand how visible bad habits, like arriving to class late or doing the bare minimum in peer workshops, spread among a given group of students. If you see other people doing something, it becomes normalized, and you figure you might as well do it too. It's a bad dynamic from the instructor's point of view, but at least I understand how it works and where it comes from. In this group, though, all but a handful of the students seem to have become identically clueless in ways that ought to be invisible to each other. For example, one of the assignments in this class is to read, summarize, and evaluate an academic journal article in your intended major field. I've been using some variation on this assignment for over fifteen years. They see multiple examples from previous students. There are some predictable places where most students have difficulty -- no freshmen are very good at the evaluating part, and lots of them struggle with identifying main ideas and central arguments -- and the occasional one-off error (there's always that one kid who decides an alternative-medicine website is a journal article). But mostly, they sort of do what they were asked.

This semester? An amazingly high percentage of students -- but only in this one section -- seem to have interpreted this assignment to mean "Write a personal essay about why you're interested in your major." I have literally no idea how they GOT this notion.

And why is the Clueless Class always the one that meets at 11:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Is that time slot jinxed?