Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How do you teach when the world is ending?

There would seem to be two possibilities. The first is that you don't teach, and the second is that you teach exactly the same way you always have. My preference, I guess, is for the latter--on the principle that the motherfucking sonnet must go on--but I don't really find either solution satisfactory. The first strikes me as an abdication of responsibility: a statement both that normal life is no longer possible and that whatever one teaches is not, in the final analysis, particularly important. But to go on teaching, as if the world weren't ending--well, that seems insufficient.

Obviously, the world has not ended or even threatened to end during my teaching career; neither have I taught in the wake of a natural disaster or period of civil unrest (though some of my readers surely have). But while I realize how offensive it is to imply that feeling like the world is ending is comparable to living through even the shortest and most localized of crises. . . I do feel like the world is ending.

I can't really say why; I felt this way for months or a year after September 11th, and then the feeling went away. Some awful things have happened since then, and I've known people who have fallen into despair at various points along the way--so I guess now is my moment. I'm sure it will pass. But I'm not sure what to do in the meanwhile.

I teach Renaissance literature. And while I resist the idea that my subject is irrelevant to or divorced from contemporary reality (whether that sentiment is meant as a criticism or as a compliment), I'm equally reluctant to suggest that we can learn--from the past, from art--anything that has a straightforward bearing on the present. In my classroom we may discuss the different leadership styles of Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff. We may analyze the ways history and language are manipulated for certain ends in The Faerie Queene. And I hope that those things allow my students to make similar analyses in other contexts. But I would never encourage them to find contemporary parallels to the things we read--and when they suggest such parallels themselves, I usually shut them down as quickly and politely as possible.

That's responsible pedagogical behavior for a lot of reasons. And yet on my own time I'm always seeing parallels and even actively seeking them out. "Omigod!" I'll tell a friend. "Listen to this passage from King James! Is he or is he not George W. Bush?"

It's one of the great joys of reading and of knowing other periods as well as most of us do--the ability to find and make those connections. They may be reductive or tendentious, but they feed our basic desire to make meaning out of our world. This isn't something I can teach my students, though I hope they experience it.

Myself, I started high school in the fall of 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down. Then there was the first Gulf War. But after that, through the rest of my teens and my mid-20s, nothing much seemed to happen. I felt that I was living outside of history, and I hated it. For a while I was obsessed with Watergate, and then for a much longer while with World War II. I started collecting popular music from the 1940s--mostly unremarkable stuff, musically, but I loved it. I listened to it over and over again, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a time where things mattered, where even minor decisions played out against a backdrop that gave them weight and meaning.

I was wrong, I guess, about what living inside of history would be like; for the past seven years I've been pretty sure that that's where we are, but the experience hasn't brought the clarity I expected: I don't know what anything means any better now than I did before, and I'm no better able to categorize life into Things That Matter and Things That Don't; everything seems either terribly unimportant or so very important that I don't have the energy or the resources to deal with it.

So maybe it doesn't help to prepare us, knowing history and knowing literature. But when we keep on teaching the sonnet as the world is ending, maybe what we're teaching is both that it isn't actually ending--and that it's done so plenty of times before.

Friday, September 26, 2008

It's the oldest trick in the book, but it never fails

"So okay!" I say to my students. "Where does Britomart wind up next?"

"Uh--that castle. Castle Joyous?"

"Yes," I say. "Why is it called that? What's it like? What do the people do there?"

"There are--there are lots of beds there," says one student.

"And those lustful guys with the Italian names. And the Lady of Delight," says another.

"Good. What's delightful about her? What makes this castle so joyous?"

"Uhh. . . she's beautiful? And she seems to sleep with the visiting knights?"

"Yes!" I say. "Basically? This place is Castle Sex."

Amazing how much more diligent they become in their close-reading after that.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Classroom redecoration

Virtually all the classrooms at RU consist of tablet desks arranged into front-facing rows. I've never loved this layout, but it's worked okay; my classes are still relaxed, smallish, and discussion-based. More to the point, it hadn't occurred to me to tinker with what God and the institution gave me.

I came to discover, though, that most of my colleagues do rearrange their classrooms, usually into a circle. At first this struck me as a tremendous hassle and waste of time--and circles are also a little too kumbayah or AA-meeting for my taste--but I couldn't deny that I'd rather teach to a room where most of my students could see each other.

So this semester I decided to experiment: I had my students move their desks into two concentric semi-circles, leaving me, as before, perched atop the instructor's desk. Since I have more desks than students--and since I'm fussy and anal-retentive--I do have to arrive five minutes early and sling some desks around myself to produce an arrangement I'm happy with, but in the cozy little room where I teach two classes back-to-back it's not a big deal, and the improved discussion dynamic is worth it.

My night class, however, is a problem: I have 28 students in a narrow, deep room with some 60 desks, and it's almost impossible to fit them into an orderly shape without leaving extra desks marooned in the middle of the room. The first few weeks I kept pushing desks around, trying to solve this geometrical puzzle, and making brisk fun of myself in the process. "God!" I'd say to my students. "I hate this! These extra desks totally stress me out!"

They'd laugh and try to help--but the room just didn't seem to permit the arrangement I wanted.

Then this past week I arrived early to find eight or ten students already seated in a small, tidy horseshoe with an abbreviated semi-circle just behind it. "Oh!" I exclaimed. "That's beautiful!"

Then I noticed that fifteen or twenty extra desks had been stacked up along the back wall, out of the way. "Wait," I said. "Did you guys do all this?"

They nodded, with smiles I couldn't interpret--but I have a hunch they decided that it's easier, all around, just to humor the crazy lady.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hating Jil

Like most everyone in this corner of the profession, I took a gander at the job list after it went live Thursday night. I wasn't looking with intent, and I didn't spend long on the site--just skimmed the listings and remarked that there were only three or four jobs I'd be interested in if I were on the market (not counting those at places like Berkeley and Harvard, which aren't actual jobs but a conspiracy between the MLA, FedEx-Kinkos and the U. S. Postal Service). Then I shut down my computer and went to bed.

The next 36 hours passed pleasantly: I puttered around the apartment, spent quality time on a couple of writing projects, and thought some more about a talk I'm giving next month. Then on Saturday, while refilling my coffee cup, I suddenly blurted out to the empty room, "I should apply for Job X."

Now, Job X is at a school that, over the years, I've occasionally pointed to as the kind of place I'd like to work. It's not an institution that most people would regard as a dream job, and I don't have any real investment in it myself--it just has a number of features that I consider desirable. Still, though I'm friendly with a couple of people in the department, I've never so much as set foot on campus, and when I saw the job listing on Thursday all I did was say, "School X! Good job!"--and then immediately clicked on the next page of listings.

But apparently some part of my brain kept thinking about that posting, unbeknownest to my conscious mind, until all in a rush I felt that I had to apply for that job. And--I could, couldn't I? It was just one job, and so really shouldn't take too much effort. I could even comfortably tell my chair about it, because hey: it was only one job! which I had totally reasonable reasons for applying for!

But, ugh. It would be work. And though I'd be a strong candidate, there are lots of strong candidates out there. And if I didn't actually want to leave my current position--and was in fact quite happy there--what was the point, really? Job X might be a better job over the long haul. . . but did I know that? And would it be better for right now?

I couldn't get back to work. I paced around my apartment for several hours and wrote long, insane emails to a couple of professional friends: what should I do? What should I DOOOO?

And then, just as suddenly, I decided that of course I wasn't going to apply for one stupid job; I wasn't going to apply for any jobs. I'd never intended to, and I wasn't going to. The End.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who falls into this mania every September. When it happened last year, though, I thought it was situationally specific: I was feeling unmoored in the wake of my breakup and uncertain what that meant for my professional gameplan. I didn't even get close to applying, but I spent the better part of a week freaking out about one listing in particular--and then wondering whether I shouldn't apply to a few other similar schools.

But here it's gone and happened again, nearly a year after I thought I'd figured out a rough five-year plan--one that does not involve my going on the market any time soon. So is it me, or is it Jil?

Jil, I've decided, is my professional alter-ego (not to be confused with Flavia--I've got more than one, folks; try to keep up). Or perhaps it's better to say that she--more than the real-life person who previously held that title--is my nemesis, made up of all my own worst and least-lovely characteristics: anxiety, vanity, doubt, and the haunting sense that my life could be even better if I only knew what I needed to do to make it so. Each year, Jil comes back into town and nags at me, tempting and frightening me with visions of alternate futures. Jil makes me wonder if I'm defining happiness and success properly, or if I'm capable of recognizing those things when I see them. Jil makes me restless and dissatisfied.

Jil. She's got such a nice, all-American name, and she comes smiling toward you with promises to listen, to help you out. But don't turn your back: Jil'll cut you soon as look at you.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

M.A. = gateway drug?

This past weekend I heard from a former student who graduated just over a year ago. She went enthusiastically off to law school, but found it a bad fit--and is now starting an M.A. program in the humanities.

My first reaction to this news was one of pleasure: she's smart, and seems to have the kind of serious, obsessional interests that would serve her well in graduate school. But as I continued to reflect on her and on several other students who have gone on to good master's programs, I realized that my satisfaction was twofold:
a) these are intellectually curious people pursuing further study in fields they enjoy


b) they are not in Ph.D. programs.

My reasons for being glad they're not in Ph.D. programs should be obvious: blah blah job market, blah blah debt, blah blah self-indulgent desire of the professoriate to see its choices validated in those of a younger generation. I think I'm supportive of those students who hope to do doctoral work, but they and their years of potential exploitation do weight on me.

M.A. programs, on the other hand, I've always regarded as benign. Sure, they're institutional money-makers and result in degrees that may or may not advantage their holders professionally, but their expenses are usually obvious and up-front. In exchange, the student gets a focused course of study that allows him or her to do advanced work in a specific field. Call it a luxury good or a pricey self-improvement project, but I assume most students recognize the trade-offs.

In practice, though, I've known very few people who have gotten an M.A., enjoyed the process, and not wanted to go on to get a Ph.D.--unless their M.A. was intended as a means to an end or life circumstances intervened.

So I'm wondering: am I allowed to feel good about my students going on to M.A. programs, even in the absence of an obvious career objective? Or am I just encouraging them to believe that the life of the mind exists only within the academy and/or with an advanced degree--and discouraging them from the discovery that engaged, intellectually rewarding lives are possible in the context of any number of other (more stable, more remunerative) careers?

Am I, in other words, part of the problem?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

In loco parentis

Dear Student:

You're a freshman. And every new environment takes some getting used to. But really: exposed nipples have no place in the classroom.

I don't care that you're male. And I don't care how badass slashing up your lacrosse t-shirt makes you. And while I might in other circumstances celebrate the comfort with your body suggested by those bits of fabric flopping across your flesh, in Composition I prefer not to.

And don't pick at those blemishes. It only makes them worse.