Monday, June 30, 2008

Breaking in the teaching text

I'm back home for less than a week before heading off for a conference abroad, so today I made a fly-by trip to the department to excavate my mailbox. Crammed up to the top of the cubbyhole were packages and packages of books. Some of them made me squeal with delight, while others (duplicate copies, style manuals) got promptly tossed on a lower shelf. And then there was the edition of Donne's poems I'd ordered for my new fall class.

Shit, I thought when I unpacked it. What the hell was I thinking?

Actually, I know what I was thinking: I was thinking that we'd be doing enough Donne to need a complete edition, but not enough that it was worth ordering the best possible text, or one with scholarly essays, or anything like that. The best possible texts, of course, tend to be more expensive, and in the interests of student budgets--and making the least amount of money purchase the greatest number of books--I chose a $10 edition with decent footnotes from a reliable publisher.

It's a perfectly good edition. The problem is that it's not an edition I've ever taught from before, and it's definitely not the ($15) edition I ordered for my upper-division class this past spring and conscientiously read through and marked up for pedagogical purposes.

Because here's the thing: like most people, I have certain texts that I teach regularly, and parts of my classroom shtick are pretty consistent from semester to semester. Sure, I may spend more or less time on a particular scene or issue, depending on the course, but some passages I talk about or have my class work through nine times out of ten--and it's useful to have my underlinings, bracketings, and brief marginal notes from all those previous classes to guide me or give me additional inspiration. (Why are those six words underlined? Oh! there's an interesting pattern of imagery there. Maybe I'll bring that up if discussion goes in the right direction. What are these little arrows for? Right! they indicate mood shifts. Etc.)

I'll also admit that I don't re-read every text every time I teach it; there's just not enough time, especially those weeks when I have two sets of essays to grade or an article deadline. I don't feel bad about this, but I don't feel bad, in part, because I'm able to rely on teaching texts that serve as their own lesson plans, mapping out my various interests and obsessions and my prior pedagogical strategies.

But even when I don't just forget the importance of sticking with the same edition, as I did in ordering the Donne volume, I seem unable to teach from the same text as reliably as I'd like: sometimes I get dissatisfied with a particular edition; sometimes it's that a revised edition is put out and I'm forced to upgrade; but just as often it's that different classes demand different editions.

For instance: I teach Paradise Lost all the damn time--I've taught the poem, either in its entirety or its majority, for the past six consecutive semesters in a total of nine different classes. And how many different texts have I taught the poem from, in those six semesters? Five. In Brit Lit I, I teach from the Norton Anthology of English Literature--first in its seventh and now its eighth edition. In my Milton seminar at Big Urban, I used the Hughes Complete Poems and Major Prose. Not totally satisfied with that, for my Milton seminar at RU I switched to the Riverside Milton. And then for my upper-division class this past spring, I needed, for the first time ever, a single-volume edition of Paradise Lost, so I ordered the Norton.

It was a busy spring. And I'd just re-read PL the previous semester (and taught it in considerably greater detail). So more days than not, I found myself at my desk, in the 30 minutes before class, just copying my markings--squiggly line for squiggly line, boxed bit for boxed bit, marginal comment for marginal comment--from one of the various other editions spread out before me.

I ain't proud. But I sure wish I had a scriptorium to do it for me.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Send help

I have been revising the same paragraph for four hours now. It is not a long paragraph--eight or nine typescript lines. Nor is this the final draft. What this is is a spectacular waste of my time.

And yet, even though it's freezing cold in the student union building and I'm hungry, I can't stop trying to get the fucker to work. I'm actually feeling invested in this project for the first time in a while.

Somebody just shoot me already.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The elite are different from you and me

I've read William Deresiewicz's latest essay in The American Scholar a few times now, trying to figure out why I'm reacting so negatively to it when I've made some of the same arguments myself about certain kinds of students and certain kinds of schools. Probably some of my irritation is born of self-recognition, but at least as much of it is the feeling--having spent a fair amount of time among students similar to Deresiewicz's, and a few years among rather different ones--that he's not merely exaggerating to make his case, but also engaging in a species of complaint that is itself as much an elite indulgence as some of what he criticizes.

Entitled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," Deresiewicz's essay argues that an elite education (which he never precisely defines, but which seems to mean attending an Ivy or equivalent institution) prevents one, first, from having a conversation with a plumber; second, from valuing intelligences that are other than analytic; third, from believing that people who went to other schools are worth talking to; and fourth, from taking risks or leading the kind of intellectual or artistic lives that such schools, really, ought to be encouraging.

That's not an entirely fair distillation of his essay (which is worth reading in its entirety), but it captures the extent to which I believe Deresiewicz overstates and exaggerates the more credible parts of his argument--as well as the fact that his essay is pulling in two or three different and somewhat contradictory directions.

Because yes, it's true that schools like Deresiewicz's Yale (or my own Instant Name Recognition U) are fetishized out of all proportion by a certain class of parents and their children, who come to believe that admission to such schools and only such schools represents success--or rather, the first and most necessary of what will become a lifetime of successes. And this can indeed produce kids who, though smart and certainly hard-working, learn that whenever there's a hoop, it's to be jumped through. No choice, no questions, and no failures--as long as you keep clearing those rings.

But you know, although I've taught kids who seem to match the above description, I knew very few of them when I was actually in college. It may be that things have changed in the 15 years since I entered INRU as a freshman, or it may be that I instinctively avoided people like that: my friends hailed, probably disproportionately, from public high schools and from less wealthy communities, and a lot of them were first- or second-generation college students. (And I'm pretty sure that we're all not only capable of having, but of enjoying having conversations with our plumbers, secretaries, and supermarket cashiers. That's why God invented the weather. And local sports teams. And the infinite variety of women's accessories.)

But I think it's more a matter of who's doing the viewing, and from what perspective. The older one gets, the less familiar the attitudes and the poses of the young become. When you're 30 or 40, you may still feel that you're just like your 18- to 22-year-old students, but you're not. You've grown up and they haven't (yet), and their callowness and shallowness can be exasperating. You're also seeing them, primarily, in their in-class selves, and you can't take their blasé or eager-to-please personae as evidence of how they actually feel (which Deresiewicz, in another context, admits).

Most students are taught to be hoop-jumpers. The difference lies in what they understand those hoops to consist of. The funniest and truest part of Deresiewicz's essay, but also the part that best encapsulates its limitations, is when he writes this:

A friend who teaches at the University of Connecticut once complained to me that his students don't think for themselves. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to.

I laughed out loud at that, thinking, "Yeah, that's INRU all over." But then--as someone who now teaches at an institution more like UConn than like Yale--I thought ". . . but damn. I wish I had more students like that." Students give us what they think we want, because that's the dynamic of the student-teacher relationship. But surely students who know how to think for themselves, and that doing so is desirable, are closer to actually doing it, all the time, than those who still think that there are absolutely right and wrong answers, and that regurgitating your lectures will guarantee them an A.

But elite students aren't risk-takers! Deresiewicz says. Well, no. But most students aren't. Most people aren't. Most people fear failure--but in my experience, "failure," for students at schools like Yale or INRU, means "selling out" just as much as it means "not getting a good job." I had an awful lot of conversations, in my junior and senior years, with friends who were asking what the point of it all was, and how they could do something meaningful in the world, and whether they were doomed to life on some kind of treadmill (making a living, supporting a family) no matter what their career path.

And that's what Deresiewicz leaves out of the picture: the fact that students, elite or otherwise, are generally aware of the choices they're making. It's their life, after all, and they know that choosing one path means abandoning a bunch of others that they may not ever be able to return to. Deresiewicz, though, claims that elite students (uniquely? or is it only bad when they do it?) value safety over opportunity, and he blames it on an institutional culture that has made them unable to contemplate failure, unwilling to risk financial security and court disappointment by trying to make it as an artist or intellectual.

Now, I've had students who might be the kind of students Deresiewicz has in mind, like the brilliant creative writer who wound up at law school in no time flat. But you know what? I don't presume to know why she made that decision. I also don't presume to think that that's where her story ends: she'll be 27 or 28 when she gets her J.D., with a whole life and set of opportunities still ahead of her.

I also have a hard time feeling that it's a huge loss if someone who isn't willing to take risks declines to take them. Would I have liked to have seen the novel that student of mine might have written? Yes. But I'd probably also like to have seen the novel that one of my freshmen comp students at RU might someday have written--had he had parents who were academics, who encouraged his writing, and who sent him to a fancy school where he could participate in 10-person fiction workshops with prize-winning novelists. But he didn't, and he's majoring in criminal justice. Is the unwritten novel of the former more valuable than that of the latter? I'm sure Deresiewicz would not say so. But his argument comes close to implying that, because one is privileged enough to know the good things in life, one has a moral obligation to pursue them at all costs. The other kid? Well, he probably has to support a family, or whatever.

The essay, really, strikes me as a series of cheap shots, pandering either to the self- and class-loathing of those who spent too many years in the Ivy League, or to the resentment of those who didn't (see? I was better off where I was!). Either way, it's profoundly self-congratulatory, flattering its readers for being anything but the "really excellent sheep" Deresiewicz teaches, without asking them to examine their assumptions that the elite are, somehow, different--and that their failures or successes matter more than everyone else's.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

To burn like Sardanapalus

I just received some most excellent news.

Or more accurately: I was made an offer--which I have accepted--that could result in, like, the only thing for which I’m remembered professionally (if indeed I’m remembered for anything).

Better than a funerary monument, anyway.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lazy, hazy, crazy.

People I Know in Real Life have been asking what it is that I do all day in SCTIAHTAMU. The short answer is: research. The longer answer is: reading lotsa obscure and mostly poorly-written stuff, the bulk of which I will never read again, quote, or even cite in anything I ever publish. And it's awesome.

As Tenured Radical commented a few posts ago, this kind of intense, leisurely exploration is what summers are for--though my summers haven't, actually, looked much like this for the past few years, when my energies have been focused on finishing up projects that were already close to completion and dealing with a variety of life changes.

The last time I really just wallowed around in an archive was the summer after my dissertation prospectus was approved, when I had a three-month fellowship at INRU's rare books library. With no real idea what I was doing, I just. . . read. Going to the library made me feel productive, so I spent five or six hours a day, five days a week, paging edition after edition of the works I was writing on, doing subject and keyword searches by every issue and historical event that intersected even tangentially with my topics and authors, and taking notes on whatever showed up: broadside ballads, instructional manuals, royal proclamations.

I still have a folder full of notes from that summer, and a small number of them did turn out to be immediately useful for my dissertation. As for the rest? I couldn't tell you the titles or authors of most of the works I read, much less the specifics of their individual contents. But the chapter whose topic coincided most closely with most of what I read that summer is the one chapter that I wrote quickly and confidently, where I felt sure of my argument and my material almost from the beginning. I don't think that's coincidental.

I'm more directed this summer, but once again I've found myself wandering down strange by-roads, enmeshed in debates that I hadn't known existed, and trying to track down every last pamphlet salvo in a particular skirmish--all without letting myself worry whether I truly need to do so or whether I'll ever refer to these notes again. You could call it due diligence. Or you could just call it fun.


In unrelated fun: I'm obsessed with this song, which I've heard two or three times at a local coffee shop (and which, despite my nonexistent Portuguese, I finally succeeded in transcribing enough words from to locate on ye olde internets). Don't say I never did nothing for you.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Always already resisting Mother Nature

Like many other places in this great nation, SCTIAHTAMU has recently been experiencing some hellishly hot weather. Although I'm basically pinging between an airconditioned apartment and an airconditioned archive (with the occasional intermediary stop in an airconditioned coffee shop), the two locations are more than a mile apart, so I spend about an hour outside each day, walking between them.

It's a rather pretty walk, straight across campus, and if I leave at 9 a.m. and cut through a few strategically-placed buildings for 90-second blasts of refrigeration, I can often make it the entire way without breaking a sweat. Heading back home at 5 p.m., though, is a whole 'nother story.

What's astonished me in the week I've been here is the number of people who seem neither dressed for nor bothered by the weather. I understand that those with actual jobs may have to wear long pants and button-down shirts, and that plenty of others probably manage to organize their day so that very few minutes are spent in the hot, humid, outdoor reality. I'm not talking about them.

I'm talking about the 20- and 30-somethings I see ambling through campus in 100-degree weather with virtually no exposed skin and in no apparent hurry to get anywhere. I almost fell into a fountain the afternoon I saw a guy strolling down a shade-less path in stiff black jeans, square-toed shoes, and a long-sleeved black shirt--clutching what appeared to be a cup of hot coffee.

But then, I got it: grad students.

Spring, summer, fall, winter--east to west and north to south--some things never change.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Snoopy McSpeculative

You really don't want to hear about my trip to SCTIAHTAMU--a trip that involved 15 hours rather than the anticipated 7 or 8; lost luggage; a freaked-out cat with an amazingly high tolerance for tranquilizers who went some 36 hours without using a litterbox; extremely disagreeable weather upon arrival; and the discovery, once said luggage finally showed up, that I'd failed to pack the power cord for my laptop. (Happily, time passed and sleep occurred and a really nice person mailed the cord to me.)

Instead, let's talk about my apartment. I've never met the woman I'm subletting from, and though I know a bit about her, her place has me speculating about her life, her personality, and so much more.

Wanna play along?
Her bed consistes of a boxspring and mattress set on the floor (no bedframe).

The artwork on her walls includes a print of Klimt's "The Kiss" and some small, framed Chinese and Japanese landscapes.

Her dishes are mismatched, but she has a complete spice rack, four china teapots, a coffee grinder, a French press and a stovetop espresso maker.

She does not appear to own a corkscrew.

She has a decorative basket, enlaced with ribbons, full of condoms (of several different brands, in singles or pairs).

In a visible location in her living room are Cranium and Boggle.

She has at least ten votive and other candles on surfaces throughout the apartment.

There is one plant (small, but healthy).

Her bookshelf contains--in addition to works related to her field/profession--a mix of relatively literary popular fiction (Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Sebold), Harry Potter and other fantasy-/sci-fi-type books (Anne Rice, Philip Pullman, Orson Scott Card), thrillers (Robert Ludlum and Michael Crichton), along with Anne of Green Gables, The Far Side Gallery, and a whole bunch of Steinbeck.

The place was left very tidy, with plenty of space for me in cabinets and closets, and a long, helpful note on the kitchen table.

She owns only a handful of movies, but among them are Pirates of the Caribbean, Hollywoodland, Star Wars, Braveheart, and Step Up.
Now~~you tell me the rest!