Monday, May 30, 2011

The sorrows of summer school: now less sorrowful!

My intensive summer class is now complete and I'm back from Cosimo's college reunion (on which, perhaps, another time), so I'm coming up for air to think through what worked and what didn't in the two-week format.

To my surprise, this class went really well, producing roughly the same range of grades and the same kinds of markers of intellectual progress that I see in a typical semester-length class. However, it's hard to know how much of that is about the self-selection of the students who enrolled: summer students tend to be more on the ball and are less likely to be distracted by outside concerns than at least some of the students that I see during a regular semester. (If a class demands roughly 40 hours of work a week, students can't ALSO be holding down a regular job or taking five other classes--and if they have kids they have to have partners or reliable childcare). This isn't to say that my students this summer were the best students I've ever had at RU, but they were remarkably focused, enthusiastic, and diligent. I probably lost the top 5% of students that I see in a typical class, but I also lost the bottom 15%. That's not the world's worst trade-off.

So here are the specs:

In a full-length semester, I assign ten plays and two 5-6pp. papers, give a midterm, a final, regular reading quizzes, and a couple of short assignments including a scansion exercise. In this summer class we read five plays and watched two more purely as films (mostly because I needed to free up some homework hours for them to write papers and study for the exam). I had to eliminate the midterm, but pretty much everything else stayed. To make the first essay more manageable, I changed it from a standard topical essay to a close-reading of a single passage, and I shortened it to 4pp.

That was the best decision I made, and one I expect to incorporate in a slightly different form in my regular Shakespeare class: I always begin with an intensive couple of days on poetics and scansion and how the verse provides clues to character and motivation, but in a regular semester, after those first couple of days, I bring up those issues less frequently and less pointedly. However, in this class, because I'd changed the first paper (and because we had so few days to ramp up to it!), I built in lots more focused practice on those skills, and on getting from identifying interesting poetic features to making an argument about how they changed a reading of a particular scene or character.

The good: meeting for four hours a day, every day, although personally draining, was also kinda awesome. I got to know all my students individually, and since we spent more time per play than I usually get to, we did a lot more close work with Shakespeare's language. There was no opportunity to forget what we'd done in the previous class, and I think my students are much more perceptive and articulate analyzers of literary language as a result.

At the same time, we covered a reasonable number of texts. Shakespeare is a required course in part because it's a state requirement for a teaching license, and I believe that there's value in having encountered a goodly number of his plays (rather than just knowing a few of them inside and out). If I teach this class again in this format, I'd still teach five plays and add a sixth on film, though I'd probably eliminate the second film.

The less-good: obviously, there was less time to live with the language and to get accustomed to Renaissance culture and literary conventions, and that's a real loss. There's also less time to recover from an early mistake or two, or a flukey life emergency.

My students did a lot better and got more out of the class than I expected (I was half prepared to hate myself for perpetrating pedagogical malpractice), but I'm sure they would have gotten still more out of a regular-length class and would have had more opportunities to improve, especially as writers. I'm also skeptical about how well they'll retain material learned over such a short period.

However: of my 14 students, three have already signed up for one of the Renaissance lit classes I'm teaching this fall--two of them for Shakespeare. So there's time yet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The sorrows of summer school

I'm a third of the way through my intensive two-week Shakespeare class. So far the pedagogical part has been fine: it's great teaching the subject to such a small class, and they're an eager, participatory bunch. I'm even finding the four-hour class periods totally manageable--there's a relaxed summer-camp vibe that comes from the weather, the small class size, and all the time we spend together.

What I am not finding manageable is the part where this shit happens every single day. Each individual day is rather nice. But then there's another one right after it! I'm spending 8-10 hours on this class, every day (even without, ahem, actually rereading the plays), and that's a drag. It's almost like having a real job.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The archival imperative, redux

I'm starting to pack up the apartment I've lived in for the past five years, and though I have plenty of stuff that needs to be purged, the real problem is my compulsive commitment to paper.

I have a four-drawer file cabinet that's full of paper. Until a few days ago, I had nearly as much paper outside as within it (and that's not counting what's in my campus office). All this paper was well-corralled--in labeled folders, with each folder filed in a drawer, box, or wire organizer--but it struck me that I could probably winnow it down to a more reasonable volume.

Some of it was easy to get rid of, like the folders containing ancient utility bills, credit card statements, and records of oil changes for my car or rabies shots for my cats. But such household files amounted to less than one full drawer. The other stuff was. . . trickier. I had four linear feet of correspondence, dating back 18 years; a file of ephemera such as postcards, fliers, and pages torn out of magazines (label: "Schwee"); every goddamn piece of mail I ever received from my graduate program, including a complete set of letters announcing my TA assignments; and a whole raft of carefully photocopied and organized general-interest articles from places like The New Yorker.

An earlier version of myself obviously thought that I would need all these things someday--and "need" more than "want," for I experience this impulse as being about good record-keeping more than about preserving sentimental souvenirs. Sure, I have three shoeboxes full of old playbills stored atop my kitchen cabinets, but I go through them at least a few times a year, trying to figure out if I've seen a given actor before, and in what role. But with the passage of time, some of my mini-archives become mysterious even to me: I don't know why I thought I'd need an article about McKinsey & Co., or another about divorce laws in Louisiana. Yesterday I found, within a larger storage box, a shoebox with three newspapers and four magazines, all of them dated within days of September 11, 2001. The front page of The New York Times from September 12th is, I suppose, a historical artifact. But what did I ever expect to do with it?

I've always assumed that my mania for paper-keeping dated from my first years of college, when my work-study job was deep in the bowels of the rare books and manuscript library. But although that's certainly where I learned to file correspondence properly (pages unfolded, with the envelope slit to enclose the open card or letter), I discovered last month that this compulsion long predated my arrival at college.

My parents, you see, are selling their house--the house they had built almost 40 years ago and that I grew up in, and when I was out west in April they had me go through some of my old stuff. I knew that I had a bunch of papers in a box in their basement, but I wasn't prepared for what greeted me. Apparently, at some point around age twelve, I started preserving everything I'd ever written: the three books I wrote at age eight. The wacky-ass homework assignments I produced in my early teen years (I have no idea what the actual assignment was that inspired me to create a fake police case file, complete with hand-aged manila folder--but I'm pretty sure it didn't ask for that). And, God help me, the two novels that I started around the same time: hundreds of pages apiece, one a boarding-school novel, the other an attempt at an adult thriller. That box held the complete creative oeuvre of young Flavia, organized chronologically. It wasn't small, and it was full.

I don't think I ever believed that I was destined for greatness--my archival impulse has never been about preserving material for future Scholars of Flavia. But I suppose the impulse is at bottom a sentimental rather than merely a practical one: I might need that. I might want that. And when I do, I'll know exactly where to find it.

So although I did make a major purge, reducing my collection of files by some 40%, I'm still attached to a number of things whose value I can't explain. Yes, of course I kept all my diaries, all my correspondence, and every essay and short story I ever finished. But I also kept those TA assignment letters, and the notes from my DGS on the first draft of my dissertation prospectus, and the letters of welcome from the university where I taught for a year as a lecturer. Maybe in another five years I'll be ready to let those go, too. But right now, I want them. They connect me more solidly than my memories alone to the past and to the person I was then.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Future results

Lately I've been fixated on second books. Not my own second book (as if!), and not the specific second books of specific people, but rather the idea of the second book: that thing one writes totally on one's own, more or less because one can or wishes to--without the guidance of a dissertation director or committee, and not because one needs it for a job or for tenure. And in thinking about the shape of my field and the players in it, I often wonder: whose second book will be better than his first? And whose won't?

I don't wonder this very deeply about specific people, because the point of the question is that you can't know. When you're a grad student, a junior faculty member, or probably even a mid-career faculty member, there's no way to predict the course that someone else's intellectual development will take over time. Some people are very quick out of the gate, and though a few continue at that speed, many don't. Others start slowly and unpromisingly but then catch fire. (And I imagine that still other people are quick starters who stall out for a while and then speed up again.) Some people's brilliant first books might owe too much to their advisors, or simply the fear and inspiration of the job market. Other people's lackluster first books might be the result of already having moved on to the next book, and just pushing this one out for tenure.

So you know, though I'm as quick to judge as anybody--as prone to say "that article sucked! God, he's a moron!" or "this is the new star of our profession! I shall admire and worship her forever!"--I sometimes mutter "second book" to myself, as a reminder that people are surprising, and that, as the investment-market warning goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Random bullets of it's all going to end

  • First off, you guys are depressing me with all your happy chatter about the end of the semester. Don't you know that the end of your semester means the end of my leave? Have some compassion, people!
  • The book revisions are going okay. But I'm at that stage where every time I wake up--to a windstorm in the middle of the night; to a cat's paw on my eyelid at 6 a.m.--it's with a new idea for whichever chapter I'm working on. Sometimes they're insane and nonsensical, but sometimes they're actually rather smart.
  • All systems are go on the home-buying front. We close in early June.
  • Getting married and buying a house means many delicious hours of internet shopping. Mostly I'm just scouting out our options and keeping an eye on prices (for exciting things like a washer and dryer), but I did unexpectedly purchase an entire 72-piece set of vintage china last week.
  • I'll be teaching a two-week intensive Shakespeare course later this month, about whose pedagogical value I am dubious.
  • Its economic value, however, is beyond doubt. Did I mention that in July we're going to Prague (and Vienna and Budapest)? We're going to Prague (and Vienna and Budapest)!
  • I was completely unprepared for this news last night. I'm not sure I ever expected to hear that news.
  • Is it just me, or does Nirvana's Nevermind sound dated in a way that Hole's Live Through This doesn't? I still think the latter a nearly perfect album, though it's also true that post-feminist rage never goes out of style.
  • Eh, fine. Happy end-of-term, everyone!