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T-Minus

I received this letter in the mail yesterday:

According to our records, you are eligible for tenure consideration during the 2008-2009 Academic Year.  If you wish to be considered for tenure, please submit a letter of intent to the Chairperson of the 2008-2009 Committee on Rank and Tenure…

You know what I will be doing this summer.  I of course knew this was coming and have known for five years, but the official notification still makes me nervous.

In somewhat related news, I was nominated for a major teaching award by the student life division.  It means a lot to me to be nominated because it comes from the students, and this nomination seems to show me that I am doing something right when I stand up in front of the classroom.  I don’t know how much influence this might have with the R&T committee, but I am sure it can’t hurt.

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Going South

Tomorrow night I leave for El Salvador for my spring break adventure.  I am a little nervous about this, since I’ve never gone on such a trip before, but I’m also looking forward to it.  There will be four faculty members and fifteen students making the journey.

A delegation goes every year at spring break, and the students who have gone before have passionately explained how it is a life-changing experience.  One of the things that makes me happily anticipate the trip is the enthusiasm and joy that the students are expressing.  One girl going said that she made the decision to take the trip because she will turn 21 during spring break.  At first I thought that sounded like a rather strange thing, since El Salvador is not really a typical college spring break party destination.  But she explained that she wanted to do something different and memorable for her birthday, something where she could come away with a meaningful experience.

Most of the students have similarly earnest desires.  One guy is going partly because of his father, who visited the country during the civil war of the 1980s.  His father, a peace activist and social justice theologian, runs a peace center in Massachusetts.  Another girl wants to be an English teacher (so I’ll be her prof next year when she’s a sophomore) and work in underprivileged areas.  She has dreams of maybe teaching through the Peace Corps or Americorps.  In short, it is a good group of kids who exemplify the best of their age and tear down the stereotypical image of the drunken, solipsistic college student.

I don’t know if I could express my reasons for going that clearly.  Part of it is a desire to have some sort of adventure that I did not have while I was in college.  Part of it is the idea that I should never, ever turn down the chance to see and do new things, even if doing these new things makes me feel nervous or anxious.  Part of it is the shameful knowledge that I, a comfortable middle-class American, do not come anywhere close to giving back to the global society the things I owe it.

Whatever my ideas are now, I am sure that the week I spend in a dusty little Salvadoran town will help clarify things for me.  I’ll have a lot to say, I imagine, when I get back, and I’ll probably post a picture or two as well.  In the meantime, adios.

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Reading and Relating: A Rant

“I just can’t relate to the story,” several students complained.  “The characters’ problems just aren’t real to me.”  I tried.  I worked harder in front of a class than I have in years.  I dug into the story.  I pulled in historical context.  I explained the political situation.  I outlined the social constraints.  I agreed that this novel is a difficult and problematic text, but said that we just needed to probe a little more carefully to get it.  Still.  “I can’t relate.”

What does this mean?  Why do students sometimes shut down when they can’t “relate” to the story?  Reading is about making an effort, about trying to reach out and touch someone who is not you, who is different from you, and find understanding.  Not relating simply means you were not willing to approach the story on its terms.  Not liking a story is one thing; giving up on it because you can’t “relate” is simply lazy thinking.  There are a lot of books I don’t like, books that don’t work for me on any number of aesthetic and intellectual levels, and I am not saying that we have to like everything we read.  I am saying, though, that we do tend to blame the failure on the book far too often.

My area of scholarship is 19th century American women writers–the domestic and sentimental stories.  There is no way that I, a white male born in the late 20th century, could “relate” on a superficial level to the characters in these stories.  I am not an orphaned nine-year-old girl who is taught to deny herself for Jesus.  I am not a young mother transplanted to the wild woods of Michigan.  Yet I can understand and appreciate their stories because I took the effort to understand these characters and their conditions.  In other words, I found a way to relate to them.

The all too common “I couldn’t relate to the story” complaint is sloppy, lazy, and arrogant thinking.  It demands that the characters be like you or you won’t make the effort to meet them on their own ground.  It demands that the stories accommodate you instead of the other way around.  It insists that reading is a passive instead of an active skill.  Reading is not TV.  Reading is not American Idol, where your vote counts!!!  You need to get up off your lazy ass, and get in the author’s face.  When something confuses you, you are supposed to scream at the author, “What the hell is going on here?”

Because when you do that, you will get an answer, and you will find yourself relating.

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More Whining

My writing is gasping.  My teaching is imploding.  My cycling is flatting.  My reading is lacking in adventure.  Essentially, nothing has gone at all well for the last three months.

Deep breath.  I took everyone’s advice and did what I knew needed to be done.  I gave up, perhaps temporarily, on book #2 and started book #3, which I guess means that book #2 is no longer book #2 because book #3 is book #2.  I hate this, but it is probably the right thing to do.  Book #3/2 terrifies me.  I know that I will either finish it or it will kill me in the process.  Never before, not even writing my dissertation, did I ever feel so much anxiety about writing something while simultaneously feeling such a compulsion to write.  So I started the next book today, and I don’t know if it will work, since it is such a deep, close subject and the thought of messing it up nearly paralyzes me.

Teaching.  One student has boundary issues.  Needs a filter.  Tonight she shouted, “No, you’re wrong!” when I was trying to explain a point about how Poe creates his characters’ psychological states.  When I try to stop her long look-at-me answers to my questions, she ignores me and keeps talking, even if I have gone on to the next point.  Talking to her after class has not helped, so thank you anyway for the suggestion.

Cycling.  One ride in two weeks.  Legs:  flat.  Lungs:  not interested.  Heart: not in it.  Bike: noisy.  Roads: squirrel-infested.  I nearly crashed twice because of suicidal rodents darting in front of my bike.

Reading.  BO-ring.  I can’t get into anything new, so I’m back to re-reading old King novels that I have already read ten or more times.  The thought of going to a bookstore makes me cringe.

What happened to me?  I don’t recognize this person writing right now, and I can’t find the real me anywhere.

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Teaching Levity

I am finally comfortable teaching Walt Whitman. For years, I would worry about how to teach the “28 young men” portion (section 11 in the 1881 edition) of “Song of Myself.” How, I wondered, could I explain the line about not caring whom they soused with their spray? I would blush and then die. Tonight, though, I didn’t worry. I read the line with great relish, and then said, “And yes, that means exactly what you think it means,” causing the class to burst into laughter that only got more raucous when one girl had to explain, in significantly more graphic detail and R-rated language, what it meant to the guy sitting next to her.

Whitman is insanely teachable. Read the lines loudly, sounding the barbaric yawp over the rooftops, let the students roll with the ideas, and keep the pace breakneck. I was excited when one of the quiet non-talkers followed my point perfectly and was the only one in the class to realize that what Whitman was doing at the start of section 15 (“The pure contralto sings in the organ loft, / The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp”) was onomatopoeia. She looked so pleased when I told her she was brilliant for figuring that out.

This is a weird class in many ways. They are all English majors, which is good, but there are two unfiltered talkers who try their hardest to dominate class discussion and pull everything into a titanic digression. The rest of the students roll their eyes at these two, and I have to work to keep them under control. At the same time, now that we have become more comfortable with each other over the past weeks, the rest of the class is ready to give the would-be dominators some competition as they vie for my attention. Even more weird is the class frequently teeters on the brink of chaos, especially when we are delving into the Romantics. In fact, I think that many classes work much better when I can keep them trembling over that chasm, finely adjusting the balance between being too stodgy and too freaked out.

One problem with my near anarchic teaching style is that students sometimes forget their boundaries. Tonight, as I was getting ready to wrap up old Walt, one guy (and, incidentally, one of the loudmouths) in the back of the class started a conversation with the girl sitting next to him. I made my loud, dramatic throat-clearing noise, which means, “Excuse me, but would you please shut up?” When he didn’t shut up, I asked rhetorically, “Am I going to have to come back there and smack you?” And then the balance seemed to tip over into chaos.

“You can’t,” the perpetrator grinned at me, “you don’t have tenure!” That voiceless “whooo!” of two dozen breaths rapidly sighing out swept the room. I walked to the back of the class and stood in front of him.

“Do you know what today is?” I asked, looking out the window.

“Uh, Wednesday?”

“It’s October 24th.” I turned to face him. “And October 24th is the day midterm grades are due.” I could hear the awesomely stunned silence as I returned to the front of the class. I picked up my black marker and wrote “I WIN!” on the board, turned, and smiled.

Then, the kicker: The class stood up and gave me a standing ovation.

I bowed and said, “See you next week.” As they filed out, I overheard one girl say to her friend, “See? I told you you had to take his class!” Her friend nodded.

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Who’s Afraid of Henry James?

Henry James intimidates me.  Wordy, erudite, complex, profound, his works tend to make me feel as if I have not really earned my doctorate.  Nevertheless, I have thrown a couple of his works at classes and managed to make sense of them and even convinced a few students to like the stories.  A couple of years ago, I taught The Turn of the Screw to my American Gothic class, and although the result was very successful, I still feel that small crumpling of my ego when I contemplate James.

Last night, I led a group of students to the Westport Country Playhouse to watch an adaptation of James’s Gothic story.  My thoughts about leading student excursions are similar to my misgivings about teaching James–I always feel as if some catastrophe is about to happen, but once it is over, I am always glad to have done it.  I am a past perfect sort of field trip leader.  The group this time around consisted of several students from my American lit classes, a contingent from the English club (I’m the faculty adviser), and some of my regular groupies.

The stage set was spare and gloomy.  On one side, a black spiral staircase rose out of sight, while the other side had an armchair in front of a gauzy curtain.  The floor and walls were painted in splotches of brown and clack, adding to the colorless gloom.  The adaptation was cleverly done, with only two actors playing all of the roles.  Tom Beckett played the benefactor, Mrs. Grose, and Miles, while Charlotte Parry played the governess.  Flora was played by a ghost; that is, she was imaginary, something that was slightly annoying at first but quickly grew appropriately eerie.

The week before we went to the play, I was puzzled over how the director and playwright would solve the problem of the completely unreliable narrator.  In the novella, there are at least three layers of framing and screens to keep the reader guessing about what exactly happened to the governess.  Did she really see a ghost?  Was she insane?  Was she making it up?  By having the same actor portray both Mrs. Grose and Miles, the tale’s uncertainty remains while still allowing for a visual representation.  Beckett does this brilliantly, by the way, showing that he is changing characters simply by changing his posture and voice.

Another strange innovation was having the governess narrate large portions of the story.  For example, we see her stalking uneasily to the front of the stage, and, as she is doing that, she tells us that she is carefully approaching the lake.  At times I found this narration to work well, since it gave us a glimpse into the strange workings of her mind, but at others it caused that fourth wall to slam into place and lock me out.

All of this made me nervous.  I have seen quite a lot of drama, both traditional narratives on and off Broadway, and more experimental plays, so the spare set and unorthodox acting did not bother me.  However, I worried that my students might not like it.  Just as the curtain rose, the students sitting next to me hopped up and down in their seats, unable to contain their excitement at seeing live drama.

After the curtain call, they were just as enthusiastic, with more than one proclaiming the play “brilliant,” while solemnly nodding. They were, not surprisingly, completely fascinated and grossed out by the strange sexual subtexts that pervaded the performance.  They found the set creepy, and more than one worried that the play would cause nightmares.  To my great relief and happiness, they appreciated the play just as one might expect a group of smart English majors to appreciate it.

I know I should have been less apprehensive about the play, just as I should be less apprehensive about teaching James.  Most of the time, if I try something difficult, students will appreciate it and respond well.  I keep finding that I need to learn this lesson over and over.

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I’m Going to Cry

Yesterday I went online and ordered a desk copy of the anthology I will be using in a class this spring semester.  Today I received an e-mail from the McGraw-Hill (and, yes, I’m naming names) telling me they are sending the book.  It was a stock boilerplate form e-mail with my name and the name of the book stuck in the proper places, so this was not a quickly dashed-off missive.  Here is part of the text:

Thank you for your interest in Perkins: American Tradition in Literature, Volume 2, 11/e.   A copy of the text is on it’s way to you and should arrive in about a week.

I’m thinking of calling Lynne Truss.

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Emily Is Awesome

Last week, one of my favorite students came to see me.  She is one of the good ones–smart, thoughtful, nice–and she’s also one of my TAs.  She had decided after much agonizing and soul-searching that she did not want to be a teacher but wanted to follow her true love, which is publishing.  “What do I need to do?” she asked.  I suggested internships might be a good place to start.  “How do I do that?” she asked.  I had no idea.

Then it hit me.  I know someone in publishing, and I know that this someone has connections to a publisher just a few miles from campus.  After jumping to their website, I discovered that they do hire interns.  My student–let’s call her C, shall we?–and I were happy about this.  “Let me e-mail my friend,” I told C.  “Maybe she can give us some insider help.”  I dashed off an e-mail to Emily, who, despite her huge move and worry about her nieces, replied.  The internship contact listed on the website already had enough interns, but another person in the company needed someone.  Emily said she would put in the good word for C.  I forwarded this information to C, who immediately called the new contact.

Today C bounced into my office.  She had the interview earlier in the morning and got the internship.  She loves the company.  She loves the company’s website and online work.  She loves the people at the company.  She is already planning her career there.  “I owe it all to you,” she said.  But she’s wrong.  I’m the conduit, no more praiseworthy than ATT is when you get good news over the phone.  C did it with her obvious talents, and Emily did it, helping out a friend even when she was busy.

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Patience, Grasshopper

I have two sections of American lit this semester.  Each class has a distinct personality, with the night class dominated by a very smart and well-read girl who has some boundary issues; she does not know when she shouldn’t wave her hand wildly and digress to show off how much she knows.  I can deal with her, though.  I gently tease her:  “No,” I say.  “I’m not calling on you again until someone else says something.”  The day class has a completely different vibe, as we used to say in California.  So far, I had been feeling a little down about them–they had no spark, no kick, no interest.  Getting them to talk was like lugging a huge load of cold, wet blankets up a dark, narrow staircase.

Today, though, they came alive, thanks to my good friend, Ralph Waldo.  We rocked and rolled on “The Poet,” and for about twenty minutes, I had to do virtually nothing but point at the next hand that was in the air.  One girl in particular got it.  She is a multiply-pierced goth chick, and I had been getting especially frustrated with her, because I sensed there was something literary burning behind the dark mascara and dyed hair.  She herself writes poetry, and when she raised her hand before I even finished my introductory remarks, I thought, Finally–she’s going to show how smart she really is.  When she made a point on her own that I thought I would have to sweat over for half an hour before I could make the class understand, I wanted to hug her.  Without too much prodding, people were drawing connections between Nature and today’s reading, seeing that because words are symbols of natural facts and natural facts are symbols of spiritual facts, the poet, the namer and sayer, must be guiding us through the path from word to nature to spirit.  Wild.  When Emerson proclaims that the poet is a liberating god (a liberating god!!) we jumped back to “man is a god in ruins” and we ran with it.  We were liberated ourselves.

Patience.  I sometimes try to force things, but every class cannot be golden.  Some groups need to slop through the muck before enjoying the sunshine. Set the stage, prime the pump, cue the music, mercilessly mix your metaphors as Ralph Waldo teaches, and let it happen.  Don’t force it.  Patience.

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Intellectual Geeks

I had a conversation today with one of my colleagues about one of our English majors who has decided to leave our university for another.  We are disturbed by this student’s decision, though we understand her reasons, because she is one of the more talented of the new crop of majors.  However, she feels that our school does not offer her the intellectual atmosphere that she dreamed of when she thought of college.  When she visited a friend at a high-powered New England liberal arts college, all of the things she craved were there–the lofty philosophical discussions, the interest in politics, the acceptance of differences, the fact that it’s cool to be smart.  Here–not so much.  She is tired of the girls calling each other “bitch” and “whore” as if it’s a cool thing as they gossip about how, like, totally wasted they got last night, omfg!  Or how they’re, like, totally into, like, Abercrombie?  And shopping?  And, omg! can you totally believe how stupid that prof is!  What’s with that stupid earring?!  And the hair?

Today, another student came to my office hours to talk about her paper and various other class concerns.  As we were talking, Angela, one of my TAs, dropped by.  Kate was talking about what a true geek she is, because she was very excited about going to a Barnes and Noble with her mom (and, yes, I’m lucky, because these are the students who gravitate toward my classes and office hours), and because she just loves bookstores.  Angela leaped from her chair, her eyes sparkling and mouth open in a huge grin, to give Kate an enormous hug.  Kate, recovering her poise, then asked if we had any book suggestions.  Before I could open my mouth, Angela rattled off three or four must-reads, which Kate dutifully wrote down.

All of which makes me think:  We are somehow failing our students, if being smart in college is still seen as something you just should not talk about.  It’s like an unpleasant odor–it would be rude to mention it, and if we plaster a fake, glassy smile to our mugs and talk about trivial matters, maybe it will just go away.  There is only so much I can do to combat this.  I can try to present interesting and exciting lessons, and I can project an interest in reading and intellectual ideas, but, really the cool factor of a 40-year-old professor is pretty low.  Low to nonexistent.  So I am not exactly the model that the too-cool-for-school fools want to emulate.

On the other hand, some students do want that intellectual stimulation.  I’ve been thinking about how to provide it outside the classroom.  As I was driving home tonight, I had an idea that is either pretty interesting or terribly stupid, but maybe it’s so stupid it’s smart.

This is it:  A bookstore tour.  No, wait a minute and hear me out.  There are a lot of interesting old bookstores around New England, with a couple of them right here in my town.  Why not get a group of four or five interested students and spend a Saturday carpooling to someplace like this, which is truly an awesome, funky, weird, and well-stocked store?  Or this place?  Or this one?  Or make it an epic field trip and go here for 18 miles of books?

What do you think?  Stupid?  Smart?  Missing the point entirely?

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