Monday, November 30, 2009

Extra parents

Cosimo has now met my dissertation director and I've met his. It feels like bringing someone home to meet the parents--except with a less clear script and a less clear sense of what the introduction is meant to accomplish.

When you take a new partner home to meet your actual parents, you're facilitating an introduction of people who might conceivably wind up stuck with each other for decades; even if they see each other only infrequently, the two parties will play a continuing role in each others' imaginative lives for as long as each is associated with you.

The same, presumably, is not true of the advisor/advisee relationship. Yes, my advisor is one of my most important intellectual influences, and yes, Cosimo is in an adjacent subfield and might have had a distant professional interest in meeting her (or she in meeting him). But it wasn't about anyone's intellectual or professional life--or if it was, it was about that weird space in which the intellectual and the emotional overlap and are indistinguishable from each other.

I spend a lot of time in that space. And in it, my advisor is mother, father, and both sets of grandparents.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Cosimo and I are headed to my alma mater to attend this year's Big Football Game. I missed it last year for a conference, but otherwise I've gone every single year since I matriculated; among my friends, it's become a reunion weekend.

The catch: Cosimo is an undergraduate alumnus of that other school: the one we're playing, and the center of all that is evil in this universe.

Luckily, over past games, I have consistently proven myself a model of charity and temperance.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shakes Invaders

We were about 45 minutes into our three-hour Shakespeare class the other night when the classroom door opened.

I was perched atop the instructor desk in front of the blackboard, my 25 students arranged before me in a semi-circle. We were working through a scene in Troilus and Cressida, and when I heard the door open, slightly behind me, I didn't look over. I was mid-sentence, and figured it was a student slipping in late.

Instead, a young man and young woman walked right into the center of the room and started performing part of the banquet scene from Romeo and Juliet.

We stopped abruptly. Fucking theatre kids, I thought. They must be advertising a production. Assholes. But since I knew the scene, and they'd already started, I figured I'd let them finish--surely they were just going to do the shared sonnet, and would be done in another dozen lines.

But they got to the end, kissed, and kept going.

The door opened again, and a third person came in: the Nurse. She got out a few lines, but when it became clear they weren't going to stop, I stood up.

"Thanks so much," I said sharply. "But you have the wrong semester: we do tragedies in the spring."

For the first second or two, even after I'd stood up, they didn't break character, but showed every sign of wanting to continue.

"You can leave NOW."

They slunk, grinning and only slightly abashed, to the door. As they got there, the woman playing Juliet announced something about this being a senior project--guerrilla Shakespeare, or some such shit.

After they left, my students and I stared at each other, rattled. We confirmed that none of us knew what the hell that had been, and that it hadn't been planned by any of us. One volunteered that she'd seen them doing this around campus--in the student union, and the bookstore.

There was a bit more nervous venting, but finally it seemed time to regroup.

"Okay," I said. "Let's return to the play we're actually reading, which is not Romeo and Juliet." I paused, thinking fast. "But the language you just heard Romeo and Juliet using--that overblown, self-consciously romantic language? That's really the same language Troilus is using in the scene we were just looking at. . . "

From the back of the room one of my students called out, "NICE segue!"

"Yeah," I shot back. "Most important thing I learned in graduate school."

* * * * *

We recovered, more or less, but what strikes me most about the episode is how different my reaction was from that of my students. I was pissed from the moment the actors entered, and although I didn't know what they were doing--and thought one of my own students might have engineered it for some misguided but well-intentioned purpose--I knew they weren't supposed to be there, and that I could get them out. My students, though, were much more shaken; some seemed genuinely upset.

It occurs to me that this is about the power dynamic in the classroom: I'm in charge and I know I'm in charge. My students, in a way that I don't often think about, are not in charge--even in a boisterous class where it can take me a while to get them to quiet down or to hush those having side conversations. Yes, they can tune in or tune out, and get up to go to the bathroom without asking my permission, but they don't feel they have the power to change what happens in that confined space; when something does happen, all they're able to do is watch.

The interruption also made me think about how vulnerable the classroom is. We think we're in a separate and semi-charmed space for those 60 or 90 minutes, but the world can come inside without our permission--whether it's jerky drama students or a medical emergency or a kid with a gun.

I'm still pissed at the actors (I spent almost 24 hours walking around muttering "fucking theatre people" under my breath), but I'm not sorry to have had the chance to think, in a concrete way, about my obligations to those in my charge for a few hours every week.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I love you. Now scram.

As my previous post suggests, I've been thinking about RU's graduate program lately. Not only is this spring the first time I'll be teaching an all-grad class (rather than a mixed grad/undergrad one), but I've also been writing a heck of a lot of recommendation letters.

I've written before about my ambivalence toward encouraging students to pursue an M.A. in English, but lately my ambivalence is centered, specifically, on the number of very good English majors I see turning around and applying to our own M.A. program.

This is something I absolutely do not encourage. It's not that I think our graduate program is particularly weak; it's uneven, to be sure, in part because it serves a very mixed population. Traditionally, we've served public school teachers seeking the M.A. in order to get their permanent certification, but we're increasingly getting younger students who have different ambitions; many talk about and some even go on to pretty decent Ph.D. programs.

But although recruiting our best recent graduates would seem to strengthen our M.A. program, I don't think that staying at their undergraduate institution is in the interests of those who are considering doctoral work; heck, even from a personal-growth perspective I don't think it's in their interests: go somewhere else! Do something new!

I know that many of our students have strong ties to this area, and either can't leave or can't imagine leaving; I know that sticking with the known--a campus they're comfortable with and professors they like and look up to--has what seems an irresistible logic. But it's not irresistible. It's just easier.

Last year I had a long conversation with a former student who's among the two or three smartest I've taught in my four years here, and the one I'm most confident could handle doctoral work. She said she was considering graduate school, but wasn't sold on it, so I told her to take a few years off and just live life--and, if she decided to apply for an M.A., to do it at a doctoral institution. When she left my office, she seemed relieved and happy that graduate school wasn't the only option for an articulate, intellectually curious person.

A month or so later she was back after having apparently decided (or, ahem: having been advised) that RU's program was really an ideal way to get her feet wet and "try out" graduate school. I wrote her a letter, she got in, and she's back.

Am I thrilled that she'll be taking my M.A. seminars? Yes. Do I think she raises the level of discussion in every class she's in (and provides an important intellectual model for her peers)? You bet. Am I disappointed that she's here? Absolutely.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Spenser/Milton bleg

Next semester I'm teaching an M.A. seminar on Milton, as well as doing an independent study with another M.A. student who has already taken both an undergraduate Milton and a graduate Spenser class--but who wants to reread both authors and get more deeply into the secondary criticism.

Now, I'm a Miltonist, after a fashion, but I usually teach Milton at the undergraduate level--with just a few critical essays or book chapters as supplements. When I teach Spenser it's only a book or two at a time, and I know nothing, absolutely nothing about Spenser criticism, old or new.

So tell me, Renaissance peeps: what criticism (articles or book chapters, or one or two entire books) would you consider essential for M.A. students to read on either author?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The big time

My work received its first published review the other day (not counting summaries of the "recent work in X Studies" variety), in the form of a review of a collection of essays to which I'm a contributor. The review of the collection as a whole is quite good, as well it should be--it's a damn fine book.

My chapter, however, the reviewer hated. He devotes an enormous paragraph to its crimes against right-thinking and right-reading, and declares it to be the collection's "most disturbing" essay.

I wonder if he'd be equally disturbed by a thank-you note?