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.


Anonymous said...

Been there, and then some.

Here's a scenario from last semester: me with new book, copying notes from old book (same as you) and only later realizing that I had already done it with another copy of the new book. Geez.

What Now? said...

At this moment I have two copies of The Scarlet Letter sitting on my bookshelf in the hopes that I'll get motivated to transfer my notes this summer rather than waiting until November when I'll teach it.

Bardiac said...

Oh, yeah. I draw in maps sometimes (where's Verona? Rhodes? that sort of thing), and then have to find new ones when I change editions.

And all those little marginal notes...

Pamphilia said...

Hear you. I want in on the scriptorium. Wait- could we use research assistants for that? I've used one to transfer old notes to endnote and that's not all that different is it?

Renaissance Girl said...

You taught 5 editions of PL over 6 terms? That's just crazy.

I always use the Norton, even though it has a number of maddening typos, because it's portable, and because I have over a decade's worth of my own marginalia in mine.

Welcome home--but is it any cooler than where you were?

Flavia said...

RG: yeah. Isn't it nuts? And with both the Hughes (which is itself a new copy, replacing the one I used all through college and grad school & had become almost unreadable for all its enthusiastic and embarrassing marginalia) and the Riverside I was convinced this would be the copy I'd use forever and ever and ever, so marked up diligently & patiently.

And yeah again: it is much cooler here. Thank God.