Thursday, September 20, 2007

Oddball appeal

What is it that prods students in the direction of odd projects and paper topics?

Sometimes, of course, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the assignment. The student who decides to do a "close reading" of Comus for her first paper--even after being told, repeatedly, that a close reading needs to take either a single short poem or a passage of no more than 20 lines as its subject--simply doesn't know what she's doing.

Other times, it's less clear whether the student does or doesn't know what he's doing. That student who chooses to do a close reading of an obscure sonnet--one that wasn't assigned and that would require a considerable amount of historical background even to paraphrase? Well, who knows why he chose it. Maybe he misread the syllabus and thought that it was assigned. Maybe he knows enough about the context of the poem to have been intrigued. Maybe it struck him as baffling, and therefore compelling.

It's those last possibilities that interest me most. Is it intellectual curiosity that motivates someone to write on something about which he knows very little? Or is it a desire to do something new--and maybe in some senses easier--by avoiding the well-trod path?

I must admit to a personal interest in these questions, since I work on texts that are generally understudied--even those by well-known writers tend not to be counted among their "literary" productions. These days I don't think of what I do as particularly unusual (we all have our weird specialties), but as I puzzle over what could possibly be going on in my students' heads, it occurs to me that I was one of those students. And it also occurs to me that I don't have a clue what was going on in my own head then--or possibly even now.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As a sophomore I took a course on Milton, and I became fascinated by a minor work that we'd barely read or discussed. I had absolutely no familiarity with its genre or the issues behind it, and I don't think I could have told you, even then, exactly what attracted me to it; it was just weird! and different!

So naturally, when my senior year rolled around, I decided to write my thesis on it. And naturally, my thesis was a total fucking disaster.

Now, that disaster wasn't entirely my fault--my advisor was a straight-out-of-grad-school junior faculty member with no experience as an advisor, nothing but a cursory familiarity with the texts I was looking at, and (as I later found out) some significant drama going on in her personal life. But deciding to work on something so different from any text I'd ever encountered, and mainly because it was different. . . well, maybe that wasn't a smart decision on my part.

The experience was so traumatic that I became convinced I wasn't cut out for grad school.

Somehow I wound up there anyway.

While there, I proceeded to write a bunch more papers on weird texts and topics, some of which were equally disastrous and some of which started to be halfway decent as I learned how to ask the right kinds of questions. I designed a special topic for my oral exams (we had a bazillion topics that we were examined on at INRU, so this was just one of them) that might as well have been entitled, "weird stuff that interests Flavia mainly because she's never read or encountered it before." I spent a summer in a rare books library doing keyword searches ("WEIRD and STUFF") and indiscriminately paging everything that the catalogue turned up, whether ponderous 300-page tomes or broadside ballads.

Basically, I didn't have much more of a clue what I was doing than I had had in college. (I continued, and still do continue, to be unable to explain exactly why I'm interested in certain things--in the early stages of a project, I'm likely to say something like, "Well, I'm working on [totally random work]. Some of the stuff that [author] is doing seems weird. So yeah. I'm trying to figure out what's going on with that.")

Eventually, it became a dissertation. And now that it's done, and some of it's in print--and now that I have a job and some professional status--it doesn't seem odd at all.

* * * * * * * * *

But sometimes I still wonder why I always went for the neglected stuff--and not so much the cool neglected stuff, but the stuff that even many of my grad school colleagues let me know they found hugely boring.

Now, I'm absolutely in love with the material that I work on, but I wonder whether I wasn't also, however subconsciously, intimidated by the thought of working on more canonical works. I remember walking through the stacks at INRU at some point in grad school, looking for the four or five books that at least briefly discussed one of the works I was writing on, and passing the endless shelves of books on Shakespeare. "God!" I thought. "How does anyone write a dissertation on Shakespeare?"

I still wonder that. Somehow, writing on Shakespeare always struck me as more work than writing on the weird stuff I wound up devoted to. Maybe that's a sign that I took the easy way out--or maybe it's all a matter of perception. After all, I'm perfectly content to bumble about blindly as I try to come to grips with an entirely obscure text in a hybrid genre that deals with a historical event I know nothing about.

Or as I've been known to say in the classroom, "My God! I love this! I don't understand it AT ALL!"


Hilaire said...

That last comment about being fascinated by something you don't understand made me think about *possibility*. When you're working with an understudied, obscure text that has no received meanings attached to it in a critical tradition, there is a sort of intellectual possibility that one rarely feels - and that is pretty invigorating. I am working on understudied texts right now, and that's something of what I feel...

Belle said...

I am so there! I chose my field precisely because it was beyond the norm, and rather unfashionable. I looked at the works on French history and thought "why would anybody want to do that!?" and wandered off into the quieter and less traveled Balkans. Well-fished waters are not my thing; I prefer the quieter backwaters were I can muck in peace.

Of course, that was in the late 1980s, and I chose Yugoslavia. I discovered, to my own bemusement, that it was about to blow up in my face. By the time it did, I was already too far into the backwater to do more than watch in horror.

So good for you. We're the pepper in the soup.

Dr. Crazy said...

As for students who choose this stuff, I'm going to give my cynical answer that comes from having dealt with this a bunch of time now. Why do student pick texts we've not worked on about which to write, if it's not misunderstanding the assignment?

1. It opens up more possibilities for plagiarism. They think that you're less likely to catch them because no one else will plagiarize the same paper, you will be so dazzled by their "originality," whatever.

2. They've studied the text in another class and so they think that they are experts on it. This even (sometimes especially) if they've studied it only in high school. So they spit another prof's notes back out at you in their paper, again thinking that you will perceive them as highly original and astute.

3. They think that they will be rewarded for initiative and originality, and, as you said, they think it's easier to achieve those things when they're not writing on one of the assigned texts. This isn't really about intellectual curiosity, though, in most cases: it's about thinking that they can do less work for a better grade.

Yes, there are those rare students who really do have intellectual curiosity about something that seems odd or at the very least off the beaten path and they want to write on those things in order to explore them and to flex their critical muscles. You were one of those students. I was one of those students. It's no mistake that we went to grad school and are now professors. But the vast majority of our students? They are not this student.

Flavia said...

Dr. C:

I'm sure you're right about 1 & 2 in many cases--and I had a plagiarist in a class that I TAed for at INRU who did something very similar--but it's less likely in the courses that I teach in my field. I mean, if *I* (or my one Renaissance colleague) didn't assign the work, it's generally not the case that a student would have studied it elsewhere. Okay, sure: a Shakespeare play or one of Donne's love poems--but a Milton sonnet so minor that I doubt more than a couple dozen pages, total, have been written about it in 350 years? I can tell you that that's not being taught in America's high schools!

Still, your point #3 may be relevant. I should have mentioned that the student in question is actually in the process of applying to grad schools--so, he's smart and has intellectual aspirations--but at the same time he's not so amazingly smart that I'm sure this was pure intellectual curiosity. He may well have been trying just to stand out.

RLB said...

On another note... next library instruction session I teach I am *totally* using "WEIRD and STUFF" as my demo keyword search. :) (Then we can also try "weird stuff" and see whether Boolean operators make a difference or not.)

Nik said...

My thinking is that it seems easier to you not because it's inherently less difficult but because you're swayed that way. If you forced yourself to work on canonical Shakespearean texts and you didn't have proclivities toward it, that would be hard work. It's a genius that weird stuff comes easy to you. Revel, I say.

St. Eph said...

I've often thought the field of Weird Stuff Studies would be very popular among a certain subset. I'd be fully into it.

The overwhelmingness of the material written on Big Name writers is what scared me off from my guy for a long time. Until I realized that the market for Webster scholars is not good. My way in, though, has been to look at Weird Stuff in big name's canon. It's amazing how monolithic the criticism is on on some of Shakespeare's plays--which is where Weird Studies can be really useful in expanding the possibilities of the field.

Or so I tell myself as I slog through a chapter on some of the most dire stuff in my Big Name.