Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Textual determinism

Maybe I design my paper topics poorly. Or maybe I don't do a clear enough job of modeling in class the way I expect my students to approach the works we read. But dear God: if I get one more paper in which a student seems not to understand that an author has options and makes choices--or simply that a text could be different--I'm going to shoot myself.

The first time I encountered this problem was in my first semester at my previous job. I'd written a paper topic that asked for an analysis of the way a particular biblical text was used in one of The Canterbury Tales. A student came up to me a few days later and said that he was planning on writing about "The Miller's Tale" and Noah's flood, but he didn't really understand what I was asking: "What do you mean, how the story is used?"

"Oh!" I said. "Just how it functions in the tale. Why the Miller uses that story, and what parts of it, and that sort of thing."

"Nicholas wants to sleep with Alisoun."

"Yes," I said. "But he doesn't need the story of the flood to do that!"

"He has to get her husband out of the way. With a flood, he'll be in a tub up in the rafters."

"Sure. . . but he could make up any old story, right? He doesn't have to reference a Bible story, and it doesn't have to be that Bible story, or used in that way. What does it tell us about Nicholas--or about the Miller--that that's the one he uses?"

My student just stared at me. After ten minutes of this, he had to go to his next class. I shrugged my shoulders and wrote him off as an anomaly.

But he wasn't, or not entirely; I see versions of him every semester. I've learned to remind my students--even in upper-division classes--that the details in a work of literature aren't random: that they reflect larger patterns of meaning. But even when I've done that, and explained that the "importance" of a character or event isn't reducible to its plot function, I still wind up with essays that assert that the Nurse is essential to Romeo and Juliet because she acts as a go-between--and without her, the play wouldn't even exist!

I see this tendency most frequently in my Shakespeare class, and I've speculated that students might find it especially difficult to criticize or reimagine the works of The Bard. At other times, I've wondered whether drama somehow feels more teleological than a novel or short story (it's certainly more so than a lyric poem), and so is harder for them to think about in ways that don't reflect a kind of plot-based determinism.

But ultimately, I don't understand this. I don't understand why every seemingly throwaway scene or character winds up being identified, quite earnestly, as "comic relief" (if it's not necessary to the plot, it's comic relief. And that, too, is somehow necessary).

Is it that these particular students want to believe that everything is somehow essential--and merely highlighting a theme or adding to a pattern isn't enough? Is it about wanting definite answers? Or is it (as I sometimes fear) a sign that they don't understand themselves as having artistic or intellectual agency? Texts simply are: no one made them that way, and no one can remake them.

There seem, as we English majors say, to be Larger Issues here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Good things

Lately, I've been in a good mood. Reasons for this include:

  • The gorgeous weather we've been having: sunny and breezy with temperatures in the 70s and 80s.
  • Relatedly: margaritas; bars with outdoor seating; beloved former student/bartenders who decide they're not freaked out by seeing you and another of their former professors out drinking, and send over a round of tequila shots.
  • Finally dragging my over-the-visor CD holder out of the car, emptying it of everything I'm sick of listening to and loading it back up with music I haven't even thought of in ages. How could I have forgetten about David Bowie? Or Parliament?
  • Deciding not to worry about whether spending my entire 30-minute commute with "Suffragette City" on continuous repeat makes me a bad feminist.
  • On Thursday I'm off for a long weekend in NYC.
  • This trip was originally timed so I could catch Theatre for a New Audience's Antony and Cleopatra before it closed--but somewhere along the line I also wound up getting tickets to see the Patrick Stewart Macbeth. Insanely, I'm now wondering whether I couldn't squeeze in Top Girls, too.
  • There are three weeks of classes left. I wish it were two, or one--but three might just be doable.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Living to work/working to live

The terms we use for people who are consumed by their work are usually negative: he's made his job his life; he has no life; it's a job, not your life; all she ever does is talk shop. This is true, I think, even for those in creative fields. Sure, we romanticize artists and may speak enviously of their seeming immersion in an alternate reality--but when it comes right down to it, we're likely still to opine that they Really Need To Get Out More.

And yes: Getting Out More is a good thing. As is Being Well Rounded, and Having a Life, and Knowing What Really Matters (hint: not your work).

But the truth is, I am largely defined by my work.

In saying this, I do not mean that my job is my life. I go days without doing anything for which I draw a paycheque or that moves me any closer to another line on my vita--and though I love my teaching and my research, I still grumble about and shirk them.

Neither are my interests all scholarly: hang out with me for a week, and you'll be forced to admire shoes and handbags and glassware, hear about owls and James Bond, and probably consume lots of vindaloo. But at the same time, I don't think I'm ever not an academic, or not drawing somehow upon aspects of that training or identity.

In my spare time, mostly, I read and watch movies and talk. Few of my thoughts are unexpressed. Little of the information I take in goes un-analyzed. On seeing a new t.v. show, I think: "ooh, I could teach that!" On receiving a baffling email, I think, "what's really going on here? What does that mean?"--and I forward it to two of my friends and spend four days analyzing it.

For the first time in my life, too, most of the people I hang out with are academics: they make up 90% of my friends in Cha-Cha City and more than half of my friends overall (and then, of course, there are the bloggers).

I roll my eyes at my friends who are lawyers and married to lawyers and whose friends are all lawyers. God, I think. Get a life.

But. . . I think I like this. I don't think I've ever been happier.

Maybe I need to get out more.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

God is my parole officer

Driving to campus the other day, I saw this sign on a freeway overpass:

River Christian Fellowship

As far as I can tell, there's no pun or joke or deeper meaning here--it would be kind of groovy, at least insofar as Flavia knows groovy, if it were intended as some sort of Pilgrim's Progress-y, "yes! you are convicted under the law [of Moses]! but you are redeemed by Christ!"

As it is, I'm left thinking it's just a stupid and/or desperate attempt to drum up church membership. And maybe not the best way to welcome visitors to a depressed, post-industrial city with a non-negligable crime rate.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A modest little thing

Lest you be deceived, the title of the post is not a description of its author--as humble and retiring a figure as she is. Rather, it's a description of the project I'm currently working on.

And I suppose I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's a very old-fashioned kind of essay, one that points out an odd metaphor that seems to crop up in certain kinds of texts; traces it through those texts; and draws some conclusions about why it works the way it works. It's almost an assignment that I might give my students ("No, you cannot write about what a bitch Lady Macbeth is. But birds, now birds would make an awesome paper. There are totally a lot of birds in Macbeth").

On the one hand, it's nice to be working on something so focused and so self-contained. It's an interesting topic involving some unfamiliar texts, and since nothing has been written on the subject, I have a lot of freedom. On the other hand. . . is this actually an essay that anyone, anywhere, will ever care about?

It's at times like this that I recall a visiting researcher at the rare books library where I worked in college. He turned in dozens upon dozens of call slips, insisting that we wheel out cartloads of books to him at a time. Then he'd flip through them, taking only the barest of notes--and after 20 or 30 minutes return the entire cart and submit another batch of requests.

After a couple of days of silently watching this, one of the full-time employees looked up the guy's research application to see what he was doing with all those books. His project? An analysis of the use of the macron in Greek texts of a certain period.

Now, from my current vantage point, I recognize that this was probably only part of a larger project, and I can at least imagine some interesting and important questions that might have animated what at the time struck those of us behind the desk as hilariously pointless. For years, though, the dude studying the macron was my pet example of scholarship's willful obscurity; I'm pretty sure I trotted out that story more than once when explaining why I didn't think I should go to grad school.

So somewhere behind my mixed feelings about the narrow scope of this particular project is Macron Dude. But I suspect it's more than that. Maybe what it is, above all, is the worry that everything I work on would get me sniggered at by the folks behind the library desk. Yes, I've published things with bigger and often quite aggressive arguments. But maybe their aggression is really a compensation for--and semi-conscious recognition of--their irrelevance.

Which doesn't mean I'm going to stop doing any of it, of course. I'm not modest enough for that.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Da capo

I recently caught my semesterly plagiarist. This one came with some especially enraging particulars--but really, don't they all?

More surprising than the details of this case is what I discovered while assembling the paperwork to make a formal charge of academic dishonesty. I hadn't received certain documents back from my department chair, who was out of town, so she directed me and her secretary to the place in her office where I could find them: among a stack of other pending plagiarism charges. Rifling through these to find mine, I discovered that not one, not two, but three of the students I've charged with plagiarism in the past have new charges being brought against them by my colleagues.

I'd like to say that this gave me some sense of satisfaction, but really it just depressed me. Being caught once, you'd think, would put the fear of God in a student, especially since RU has a policy of two-strikes-and-you're-out (i.e., dismissed from the college). One of the students I caught in the past was radically unsmart and already failing my class, so I'm not surprised she did it again. But my other past plagiarists were canny and mostly diligent students, whom I even rather liked, and I'd have hoped that they'd have learned from the experience.

But if I've learned anything, now, it's this: it's not personal. It may feel as though my plagiarists are saying that they don't think I'm smart enough to catch them--but apparently they think equally poorly of my colleagues and of themselves: that they're not smart enough to do their own work, or make time to do their own work, or get help when they need it, or recognize when they shouldn't be in college in the first place.

Maybe this will keep me from dissolving in a rage the next time I catch one.