Mass Media Consumption Day

What have I been doing all day? Was it "finish reading the things on which you'll be lecturing on Monday"?


Was it "offering editorial suggestions for the thesis of the Bachelor C---- P---- of Elkins, AR, as you agreed to do yesterday?

NO! (well, mostly—there was a bit of a lag in the morning before I could off, so I did read most of the rest of it. . .)

Was it "running to the post office to pick up your package from Canada, which contained your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which you then, on receiving, drove straight home, opened, and read through from 9:30 AM - 5:30 PM?"


That's right, friends, I'm now up-to-date on the latest bits of Harry Potterdom. I've learned all about his last adventures, and have come to several conclusions:
This book beats Half-Blood Prince, and while it's true that a dead mackerel coated in polystyrine could have done that, it's also true that
J. K. Rowling has become a better writer over the past 17 years.
This was a much better book: she's got a stronger sense of pacing, for one, and for another, the fact that SPOILER most of it takes place outside of Hogworts frees her up to explore much of the rest of the world. Frankly, that castle was becoming a bit of an annoyance, and it's good she's gotten away from it. END SPOILER.

That said, I'm looking forward to seeing what her post-Potter literary career is like.

I'm also looking forward to some Monty Python's Flying Circus, and probably MST3K's riffing on Ring of Terror.

I'll do the school stuff tomorrow.


At Week Four's End

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: this week has been the start of something early modern, by which I mean I've been reading sonnets for most of the week. The week began, as I mentioned before, with Malory, whose inclusion on this side of the test I justified by claiming that he was going through a bit of self-fashioning. The self-fashioning theme continued through the sonnets of Wyatt (Tuesday), Spenser (Wednesday) and Shakespeare (Thursday), and the works of Elizabeth (Friday).

On Thursday I got a little fed up with the lack of participation, and decided that since they'd had two days of sonnets, and since it was Shakespeare for chrissakes, they could do group work. I split them into groups of three, and had each group select three sonnets. Those sonnets had to be connected thematically—i.e., they couldn't just pick three sonnets that used red as an symbol. They were to spend the majority of class determining how their selected sonnets fit together, and how they might not fit together. How, I asked, did they support or disturb the dominant theme of the group? It went pretty well, I think: I heard from a few students I'd not heard from before, and instilled some confidence in them that they could produce viable, valid readings.

Today, though, there was none of that: I gave them a lecture on Elizabeth. It was, perhaps, shorter than I might have liked, but that's okay. I figure, I've done them the best I could, and if that didn't fulfill today's time requirement, who cares?

But the hell with all that: you're here for the statistics, aren't you? Actually, you're not here at all, but that doesn't matter. The numbers are:

A: 38% (6)
B: 50 %(8)
C: 6% (1)
D: 6% (1)
F: 0% (0)

Still, no-one's failing, so that's pretty good. I did have one student come up to me today and ask me whether it was all right if she deliberately sabotaged her own grade so that she'd get a C. My response was that it was her right to make the grade she wants to make, but that she should do her best; what I didn't tell her was that she would have to nigh on fail miserably on the remaining classwork to make anything less than a B.

Next week: Colonialism and the Other!


Didn't I have a curve somewhere?

So, as promised, I've finished grading. I also delivered a lecture this morning in which I partially used Malory to talk about two key theories: Stephen Greenblatt's ideas about self-fashioning, and Benedict Anderson's origins of nationalism. Both theories are, of course, about periods after Malory, but I am one of those people (you know, those people) who see Malory's text as a step toward English nationalism and toward ideas of the self. Whether that's because it actually is used in the Early Modern age as a tool for moral development, or whether it's that I've decided to read Caxton's preface in earnest:
humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies with all other estates, of what estate or degree they been of, that shall see and read in this said book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and to follow the same. . . . For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee.
In any event, I talked too much today, but that's the way it goes. Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes you're ambushed by a giant lecture. Ah well.

Anyway, statistics: as of this morning I have all the exams graded, and including this morning's attendance, we see the following figures.

Exam Grades:
A: 44% (7)
B: 44% (7)
C: 6% (1)
D: 0% (0)
F: 6% (1)

Current Grades
A: 44% (7)
B: 44% (7)
C: 6% (1)
D: 6% (1)
F: 0% (0)
18 enrolled; 2 withdrawals
16 total current students

I had one 100% A, and frankly, with 88% of the class passing at or above expectations, I wouldn't give a curve for all anything. That said, I was pretty proud of this last exam—but the next will be sneakier indeed.


Numbers Game

Normally, I'd post about this week in teaching, but I'd also like to do that after I've graded the exams. To make matters more annoying, I've left my flashdrive at work, and can't get it again until Monday.

Expect, then, a post. . . then.



From the left, a Challenger. . .
Confessio docendis No. 3*

The classroom in which I teach is angled in such a way that I can approach it from the stairwell without being seen. Doing so today, I heard some students discussing the day's reading (the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, in middle English thanks to Norton's brilliance). Initially, they were in agreement that it was hard to read (no surprise—in a summer course, how much of a crash course can I give them?), and then they complained about my pedagogy. So when I finally rounded the corner, I said something flippant and defensive, and then one of them asked why we needed all this history in a literature course. Would it be on the test?

After the few seconds it took to recover from my internal weeping, I responded that I don't teach to the test (it's not No Child Left Behind, after all), and that while I do realize I don't talk about the text enough, I generally believe that they're smart enough to read the text without me having to explain it to them. Granted, with the Canterbury Tales and perhaps later with the Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost, there will be some moments where syntax or sense runs away from the text, and I'll have to slow down and point at stuff. But generally speaking, in a class full of Junior and Senior English majors, I would expect them to be capable of reading a text, especially one whose language has been modernized, understand the content, and form some opinion of its meaning. My job, then, is not to say "There is meaning in the text," but to say, "there is extra meaning around the text that you need to understand the text further."

For instance, yesterday I taught the second half of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. On Wednesday I had left them with the thought that it might all be an allegory for the soul's journey from perdition to perfection—but then we get to day two, which is, as always, kinkier than I remember.** So, I thought, what better time to explain courtly love? Granted, I needed to take them back a bit and explain its origins, especially given that those origins are so contentious,*** but overall it went pretty well. Once I'd explained how it worked, I took them into the text and demonstrated how Gawain embodies those virtues and how the Pearl-poet challenges them. That, ideally, is the sort of thing I do every day.

So, I explained this to the student, who seemed to accept this as an explanation. Most of my fellow TAs who have heard this story have agreed with me: lectures are for context, not content. That said, I'm not against talking about content if the students are having trouble with it; however, what I want is connections made and understanding brought into focus.

I'm glad someone challenged me, though; most of the time I only hear such complaints after the fact in our evaluations. Getting it here allowed me to articulate it for the class as a whole, and probably staved off a few negative reviews while opening a few minds to the real goal of this course: getting them to think about why we produce literature and to what ends we do so.

Grade Statistics: Week Two:
A: 2 (13%)
B: 7 (44%)
C: 3 (19%)
D: 1 (6%)
F: 3 (19%)
16 enrolled students.
2 withdrawals.
Grade is based on 9 days of attendance. That's almost a curve, really, and it's doing what it ought: most students have been there most of the time, and only a few are really screwing off. We'll see how things are next week, after I get and grade their exams.
* No. 1? The larch. Seriously, you expect me to keep track of this, as if it were some series, here to amuse you?
** Bercilak's wife pins Gawain to the bed and says he can't get up until she gets a kiss. If that's not wonderful, I don't know what is.
*** I did a combination of The Allegory of Love and The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History.


Confessio docentis No 28:
Lecture Notes

So, sometimes I'm pretty sure I've said ridiculously stupid things in class. I don't mean the non-sequiturs, I don't mean random innuendo—not the sorts of things that just sort of jump out when you're not really filtering—but genuinly stupid comments that you don't realize until later. Today, for instance, I was doing the symbolism of Gawain's pentangle (reading without a net, as usual) and something in the back of my brain forgot that the six-point star is not called the same thing as the five-point star, i.e. both are not the star of Solomon. It wasn't until much later that it occured to me that I could have said one brought echoes of the other--but the real critic in the back of my head says "why mention the star of David at all?"

I say this because I've been having some thoughts about teaching with notes, specifically the degree to which each lecture should be a well-researched, multi-viewpoint demonstrating presentation. That, I think, is the platonic ideal of lecture: the sort of brilliant talk given about a text that someone like the other medievalist named Lewis or Fleming or Tolkien would have given. Granted, these people had time, and, as my friend Craig is fond of pointing out, they didn't have television. I tried for that at the start of the term, but after I ran out of notes on Beowulf (i.e. after I'd run out of the things I'd cribbed from Andy Orchard and Bill Quinn), I started having to do research on a regular basis, and between that and reading the text and somehow boiling all that down into 120 minute speech every day, I just sort of fell apart.

So I reverted back to the old way, which is "read the text, make some notes, and come up with discussion questions." The latter usually devolve into rhetorical questions that I have to answer, which I don't want to answer, because I'd like to hear from them. In the end, I get nervous and zip around from topic to topic, and cover things I didn't think about until after I'd got into the classroom. It feels fine, but it also looks, on reflection, like a mess. But I'll do it again tomorrow, and probably on Friday and for the rest of the term. Perhaps eventually I'll have those well-researched lectures, but not today.

Besides, as my occasionally uncomfortable students can tell you, I move around too much to lecture. If I stood behind a podium for an hour, I'd probably explode.


I'll never abandon you, sweet blog of mine!

Don't worry, loyal fan(s), I'm not gone forever now that the "book club" is done. In fact, I'm still around, and thanks to a new part-time job, I'll be chained to a desk for about seven hours a week, so there will be plenty of time for me to screw around at the computer. It's a Mac, though, and it's running an ooooold version of Firefox, so I'm not too terribly sure what I'm doing. Fun!

The first few days have been pretty good. Lectures have gone smoothly, with me doing most of the talking—but I expected that, even planned it that way. It's much easier to get things done if I know where I'm going, and the less dead air (the usual response to questions in these parts) I have, the better I feel. So, lectures it is, even if it kills me.

The lectures, though, seem to be boring some people, to which all I can say is, "tough it out." One woman was even trimming her nails (what disrespect), which to me says, I'm not here to learn, I'm here for you to give me answers to things. Tch. Most of them, however, seem alert if not attentive, and one or two even ask clarification questions and respond when I ask them general-knowledge questions.

So far, the stuff hasn't been too bad: we did a few OE lyrics (The Wanderer, Bede's account of C├Ždmon's hymn, The Dream of the Rood) and now we're onto Beowulf. After that, there will be some more nation-building texts (selections from Anglo-Norman chronicles about the origins of the English), then Sir Gawain, Chaucer, Second Shepherd's Play, then an exam, then some Renaissance stuff I'll probably tell you about later, whoever you are you strange people. The goal for the whole course is twofold: explore the creation of the self (interority, alterity, etc.) alongside the creation of England as an idea (what does it mean to be English? To encounter things that are not English?) Hopefully it will give them some idea of the usefulness of literature. We'll see.


Summer Reading Reviews: Part the Last
The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance

Carol Heffernan. The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. x, 160, two illustrations. $70.00.

The title of Carole Heffernan's work implies a large and perhaps ambitious project, surveying not only Chaucer but all of "Medieval Romance" for traces of "the Orient." Alas, in its scant 160 pages, it does not live up to that promise. Focusing instead on a few of the Canterbury Tales (The Man of Law's Tale and the Squire's Tale), two episodes from the Legend of Good Women (Dido and Cleopatra) and two Middle English romances (Floris and Blauncheflur and Le Bone Florence of Rome), Heffernan seeks to uncover the "remarkable oriental influence" in these selections, and "to call for a reconsideration of the textual exchanges as well as other cultural interactions linking English (and European) romance literature of the Middle Ages and the Orient" (2). Even in this last paring, one can discern problems with this study: a chronological marker—even one that, as Norman Daniel pointed out years ago, is patently Eurocentric—is not equivalent to a spatial marker. For Heffernan, it seems, either the Middle Ages is a place or "the Orient" is timeless.[1]

Heffernan's study is largely balanced in its scholarly approach, though proving that Christians and Muslims exchanged stories where they met seems rather straightforward. Each of the sections discusses a different exchanged story type: the Man of Law's Tale depends on an understanding of the trade networks in the Mediterranean; the LGW selections view the Muslim Female Other[2]; the Squire's Tale is a moment when 1001 Nights-style interlacing comes into European narratives; and the romances deal, in their own way, with the working out of courtly love paradigms. Each argument is on the whole valid; each has its flaws. For example, the discussion of the interlacing of the Squire's Tale is technically right: the interlacing exists and is better done than its analogs and precursors. Yet the context around Heffernan's reading—the "how and why" the technique derives from Oriental sources—isn't well argued: instead, Heffernan spends time talking about the 1001 Nights, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and a number of modern, secondary works without ever driving all the points home.

This is the pattern throughout The Orient: a strong, sometimes faultless reading is combined with a less-than-satisfactory critical apparatus. Indeed, at times the critical work reads more like a literature review than an argumentative synthesis. This, combined with some issues of diction (the repeatedly-used "Mohammedan" is so 19th-century) and a lack of clear linkage between each of the readings leaves this work lacking. Perhaps there is something to be made of the connections between "the Orient," "Chaucer," and middle English romances, but it's not made here.
[1] Of course, as Catherine Brown points out in "In the Middle" (JMEMS 30.3 [Fall 2000]: 547-574), sometimes it is useful to consider the past as a place rather than a time. Heffernan doesn't seem to do that in The Orient, though.
[2] Though both Dido and Cleopatra lived before rise of Islam, this hardly matters to Chaucer; time is static in the Middle Ages, and the past is just a better version of what we have now.