Thursday, April 29, 2010


It's time for my more-or-less annual reminder that, due to feedburning incompetence, the feed for this blog is not intuitive.

So any new readers who wish to subscribe should put this URL into their blog reader: I've also finally added a subscription link on my sidebar.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The kids are alright

Last weekend Cosimo and I went to see a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was put on by a local company that seems to have a canny sense of its audience: their play selections aren't especially daring (hence, MSND), and they obviously strive to keep them accessible and appealing to people who may not have much background in Shakespeare. This particular production was energetically choreographed, heavy on slapstick, and set during the "Summer of Love"--with lots of Beatles songs as incidental music. But since the troupe is also really talented, these things weren't just bells and whistles, but used in the service of smart, subtle, interesting interpretations.

Smart, but accessible! The perfect combination!

Well, you'd think. But we wound up walking out of the theatre behind a few fifty-something couples, and overheard their conversation. They'd loved the production. Then one of the husbands mentioned that their teen-aged son was studying the play in school, and one of the other husbands asked whether he or his class were going to see it.

"I don't know," the first man replied, and then laughed. "We were telling him they should--but now, after seeing it? I think this version would just confuse the heck out of the kids!"

The others laughed, shook their heads, and agreed.

Because, you know: if it's fun and has Puck wearing bell-bottoms, it must not be Real Shakespeare.

Friday, April 23, 2010


It's been noted, for years now, that much of the racial and ethnic diversity at top-tier universities involves upper- and upper-middle-class minorites: the sons and daughters of black doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers mingling with the sons and daughters of white doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers.

Although I believe that racial diversity is intrinsically valuable (it's surely better to have a whole bunch of relatively privileged students from different backgrounds than a whole bunch of relatively privileged students from the same background), this particular rap against college diversity programs does highlight the limited and limiting ways in which we often talk about diversity.

RU does not have the racial or ethnic diversity of the institution where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, and neither does it have the racial or ethnic diversity of the big urban university where I taught for a year as a lecturer. But it's more racially diverse than I would have expected (given its small-town, semi-rural location)--and it's phenomenally diverse in other ways: there are street-wise students from our state's biggest city, students who grew up in farm families, students who are military veterans, students who work full-time, students who have children. Most our students are traditional-aged, if you raise the upper end of "traditional" to 25 or 27, and most of our students live on campus. But a large minority commute, a large minority are transfer students from community colleges, and a small but visible minority are over 35. The range of economic backgrounds is also striking: I have students who take unpaid internships in Boston and New York, and students who are piecing together their tuition by cleaning houses.

And if we believe that diversity is its own good--that all students benefit from it, not just the ones whom diversity outreach is trying to give a leg up in the world--then surely we should define "diversity" as broadly as possible.

But of course, the problem is how to get a student body that's both cohesive enough and diverse enough. If you're an Ivy, you can construct a freshman class with whatever racial and ethnic balance you want; you can have students from every state in the union and most of the countries in the globe; and you can even have students from an impressively large range of family income levels (it doesn't often get mentioned, but the Ivies are much better on economic diversity than most private universities). But what you can't have, if you're an elite, residential institution, is students who vary tremendously in ability or preparation level, in age, or in domestic arrangements. Likewise, the more truly diverse a campus is, the less cohesive its student population is likely to be.

And maybe that's not a solvable problem. But looking back I'm struck by how homogeneous my own classroom environments were, when compared with those of my current students. And perhaps as a result, it took me a long time, post-college, to make friends with people who weren't my exact age (people more than two years older or younger just seemed to lead impossibly different lives), or with educational backgrounds unlike my own. Sure, I thought of myself as having an intriguingly diverse group of friends--but by virtue of being the same age and having attended the same institution, we were much more alike than different. So when I wound up with an officemate who was living with her parents on Long Island, and whose boyfriend was divorced with a kid? I liked her, and we had fun at work. But I couldn't imagine her life, and I probably didn't try very hard.

Maybe it takes a while, for everyone, to appreciate or take an interest in people significantly unlike themselves, and maybe colleges and universities can only do so much. And maybe being exposed to some kind of diversity helps one to negotiate other kinds later on. But I do wish we talked more about, and valued more actively, a fuller range of student and life experiences.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

30 days, 30 plays

Most of the Early Modernists among my readers probably already read Fretful Porpentine's blog, but anyone who doesn't should mosey over there, where she's been blogging one Shakespeare play a day, in honor of National Poetry month. The posts aren't meant to be comprehensive, or as first introductions to the plays for someone who hasn't already read them--but they're the smart, charming, personal reactions of someone who loves Shakespeare and reads him deeply. I think each post has pointed me to at least one new reading, or forced me to linger longer over at least one passage, even in plays I know well.

So hurry! The month's already half over!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

First, the high schools. Next, world domination.

Although I certainly believed everything I wrote earlier this semester about the ways in which professors serve as "public intellectuals" in the classroom, as well as about the peculiarly valuable mission of teaching terminal M.A. students, I must admit that what happened last week in my graduate Milton class surprised me.

The high school teacher among my students--a smart, soft-spoken man of about my own age--announced that his departmental colleagues had been asking him about the course he was taking this semester, and one by one expressed first envy that he was studying Paradise Lost and then regret that they had never had the opportunity to do so.

So he's now leading a weekly discussion group, for service credit, to guide his entire department through the poem.

And okay: I'm surprised that so few of his fellow English teachers had read Paradise Lost before. And I'm a little freaked out by the thought that some version of my take on Milton will shape the way one high school's entire English department understands the epic. But I couldn't be more pleased.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

A flame divided but undimmed

Last Saturday night I attended the Easter vigil mass at my church. I enjoy the whole triduum, but the Easter vigil service is my favorite--all 2.5 hours of it, from the blessing and sharing of fire to the Exsultet to the seemingly endless readings to the litany of the saints. There's a lot going on there, but one of the central features is the rite of initiation: it's at the Easter vigil mass that converts are received into the church via baptism, eucharist, and confirmation all in one blow.

Watching that part of the service made me reflect on the people who are choosing to become Catholics at this particular moment in the church's history. It's hard for me to imagine that I'd convert, myself--but it's equally hard for me to imagine leaving, even now, even after the revelations of the past several weeks.

I've been trying to figure out why that is, when plenty of people who share my politics are declaring this to be the last straw for them: final proof of the Vatican's indifference, contempt for laypeople, and disordered attitude toward sexuality.

But you know, I didn't need further proof of those things. I don't really feel any differently about this pope or about the Vatican as result of the latest sex abuse scandals or the revelations about their coverup. I continue to believe that the Catholic Church's attitudes toward most of the range of issues involving sex, gender, and sexuality are at the least misguided, and in many cases actively anti-Christian. I believe the church has been complicit with evil in the way it's dealt with the sex abuse scandal--but I already believed that, just as I believe the church to have been complicit with evil plenty of times in the past. Institutions are. People are.

Everyone has a breaking point, and maybe I'll reach mine. But I don't feel I'm near it. In fact, as the revelations keep coming, I've sometimes caught myself wondering whether this could be the beginning of the end: not of my involvement in the church, and not of the church itself, but of this particular awful chapter of its history.

I don't expect things will get better in the weeks and months ahead. I don't know when they'll get better, and I doubt I'll ever see exactly the church I'd like to have. But I've been thinking about what Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote about not being afraid of tension, and about the way crises can crack a system wide open, starting the process of slow, painful, eventual change.

Maybe it's too much to say that I'm hopeful. But I'm not without hope, either.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Relinquishing the floor

I've gotta admit: my graduate class is kicking my ass. I'm behind in my reading. (Which is okay, because we're even further behind in our class discussions--and because my syllabus has an entire week labeled "TBA" to cope with just this eventuality.) I'm behind in my grading of my students' shorter papers. I'm barely making it through some of the critical articles I assigned, just an hour or so before class.

But you know, it's a good kind of behind--the behind of having too much that I want to do. It's not unlike actually being in a graduate seminar: teaching an M.A. class means I'm responsible for knowing a hell of a lot more about the state and breadth of contemporary scholarship on Milton than I previously had, so I'm falling behind because I keep taking an afternoon to read a few chapters in a scholarly book I'd never previously gotten around to, or because I decide that I really do have to read every single one of the 16 articles my students chose to analyze in their short essays.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I felt a little off-balance in the classroom, as though I wasn't pitching the material quite right. That feeling has mostly evaporated, and though there are a lot of possible reasons, I think part of it is my getting comfortable with not being the center of attention.

Now, I don't exactly think of myself as being the center of attention in my undergraduate classes: they're all discussion-oriented; I rarely talk for more than a minute or two at a time; and when a student asks a question, I almost always turn it back on the rest of the class. However, I am the one standing up at the front of the room or perched atop a desk, and ultimately all discussion is directed by and goes through me. (A couple of years ago, when my Shakespeare class was reading Othello, I had a student declare that Iago's method was exactly the same as mine: I made them responsible for the ideas I guided them toward.)

But in my graduate class, that's not what's appropriate or what I want. I sit in the circle with my students, and I let them talk. Sure, I direct them toward particular passages and I ask questions, but much less frequently. I also listen more; in my undergraduate classes, especially those that I teach all the damn time, I tend to have an idea about what's most important, and what the likely range of student responses to a given question will be. That can be a good thing, by allowing me to frame my questions more effectively, but it can also mean that I slip into autopilot.

So although in my M.A. class the rhythm is much more relaxed--I never feel that I'm on the spot or that I'm performing a complicated high-wire act that might involve my crashing to the floor at any minute--I'm listening more intently and thinking more deeply.

Like I say, it's almost like being back in graduate school. Except, oh yeah: without the terror, despair, and paralyzing self-doubt.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

More archival goodness: digital Donne

Not a day after my last post, I received this link in my email in-box. It's to "Digital Donne," a website that includes facsimile images of a number of early editions of Donne's poems--including three complete manuscript collections. The site is perhaps not quite as easy to navigate as I'd like, but it's an awesome resource not only for scholars, but also for our students.

As it happens, I'm teaching an M.A. seminar on Donne next fall. You'd better believe I'm already brainstorming lessons in paleography and assignments involving editing and collation.