Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The pedagogical Hail-Mary pass

NON-MEDIEVAL ALERT! I just got back from my British Lit II class, in which we were slated to discuss Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads. I've taught these texts many, many times, so I'm pretty comfortable with them, though they're obviously far outside my field. [NOTE: I need to write an entry about the joys and dangers of teaching far outside one's field] I never teach from lecture notes, but I do have some stock comments about these texts and a general approach to the class that has worked fairly well in the past. This semester, however, I'm consciously trying to run a more student-centered class. I've had them writing in class, discussing poems in pairs, etc.. Nothing terribly innovative, I know, but I've tried to disrupt my familiar, comfortable approach whenever possible. Don't want to get too fossilized, after all.

I walked into class with a lot of ideas but without a really clear plan. This strategy often works for me. I ask for questions and then riff off the questions toward the "big ideas" I want to cover. But today was a little less successful. We talked a bit about the "Preface" and Wordsworth's ideas of poetry, and then one of the students wanted to know how well-known Wordsworth was during his own time. Was Wordsworth like a "rock star," he asked. I talked for a while about the contrast between Wordsworth's undeniable influence as a poet and the fact that low literacy rates mean that most English couldn't even read poetry. This idea led me into a meditation on the split between "high" literature and "popular" literature. I think it was when I started comparing Seamus Heaney to the Harry Potter books that I realized I had left both Wordsworth and my students behind. I was losing them fast. I could feel it (and those of my readers who teach for a living know exactly what I'm talking about).

It was a crisis point. A small crisis, mind you, but a crisis nevertheless. I had to get back to Wordsworth, and I had to find a way to engage them again. Then I remembered my secret weapon. I had been keeping this weapon in my metaphorical back pocket for the past several semesters, just waiting for the right opportunity. Now, I realized, was the time. As a segue, I talked for a minute about the influence Wordsworth (or at least Romanticism as a philosophy) continues to have on the way we think about poetry and self-expression, pointing out that most popular music is essentially "Romantic," in the sense that it emerges out of emotional responses to personal experience. This was my opening. I fired up the LCD projector and subjected my students to the following masterpiece of pop culture/high literature fusion:

The reaction was immediate and signficant. I had them back, plus I had gained a few "cool" points for both knowing what YouTube is and having the nerve to show the video in class. Sure, the video had very little relevance to the "big ideas" I had wanted to cover (or even to the tangential discussion which I had wandered into), but I'm guessing that the students will remember it at least as long as they will remember anything from "Tintern Abbey." Plus, the squirrel is really cool.

I will never again question the value of technology in the classroom.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Too much freedom

The best thing about being a community-college scholar (i.e., being active in scholarship while working at a CC) is the freedom involved. Because my college doesn't care about my scholarship, I'm free to produce (or not to produce) whatever scholarship interests me. If I want to work outside of my primary field, I can. If I want to publish all of my scholarship online, rather than in print journals, more power to me.

But with that freedom, as with all freedom, comes certain difficulties. In my case, the big problem is that I have difficulty choosing between the two or three projects I have going at any one time. I've presented three conference papers in the past 18 months, all of which I think could be turned into publishable articles. Were I on the tenure track, I imagine that I would choose to work on the project that would result in the quickest (or perhaps the most impressive) publication. Since I don't have a tenure file to worry about, I have a hard time deciding what to work on. For the past four months, I've devoted what little research and writing time I have to two of these projects, but I tend to work in fits and starts--for a week, I'll work on Project A, then I won't have time to write for a couple of weeks, and by the time I get back to work, I'm more interested in working on Project B. And each time I switch projects after more than a few days, I have to spend a day or two just getting myself back to speed. I fear that I suffer from scholarly ADD.

It doesn't help that I enjoy research a lot more than I enjoy writing, or that I enjoy writing conference papers (which are brief and don't require the same level of commitment) more than I enjoy writing articles. I suppose I could content myself with simply research for the sake of research, but my Ph.D. comes from a big-name R1 school, so I've been raised on the idea that research should be published.

My solution: blogging. If I can spend my free time writing blog entries, then I don't ever have to decide between Projects A and B. Seems to be working well so far.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Alien Culture of Beowulf

I just finished reading an interesting novel, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. It's technically sci-fi, I suppose, since it deals with the idea of first contact with an alien culture, but Russell is an anthropologist by training, so she's less interested in questions of technology than in how we understand cultures markedly different from our own. I won't spoil the book for anyone who might want to read it (or see the film version currently in development), but I will say this: we fail. The main characters in the novel drastically misunderstand the alien culture, with disastrous results. One line in the novel has had me thinking for the last twenty-four hours or so. The sole survivor of the mission to the alien world says, when questioned about what happened:
"We had all the information, really. It was all there. We just didn't understand. I think perhaps that even if we had been told directly, we would not have understood."

It occurs to me that this is the problem we face when trying to understand the literature and culture of a group of people, like the Anglo-Saxons, with whom we share very little, in the way of either material trappings or basic cultural assumptions. I mean it's all fine and good to study Anglo-Saxon history, look at documents, and try, really try, to figure out who they were and where they came from (psychologically speaking), but I think we have to admit that, despite all of the work done in Anglo-Saxon studies in the past couple of centuries, we still have lots of problems understanding a work like Beowulf.

The Beowulf-Unferth exchange serves as an example. Last week I read an article by Britt Mize in the most recent JEGP on the various ways the mind is represented as a container in A-S poetry. He cites lines from the "flyting" scene that contain examples of this metaphor and then argues that the poet is criticizing Unferth in the way he refers to the contents of Unferth's mind. The argument is interesting and well-made. In the footnotes, Mize briefly discusses some of the different takes on the scene, which made me think about the recent film version of Beowulf and how negatively I reacted to the film's portrayal of this scene, simply because it didn't really jibe with the way I had come to understand both the scene and Unferth's role in the poem. But my ultimate reaction to Mize's point here was different. All I could think was, "We've been poring over every syllable of this poem, and looking at all of the historical/documentary evidence we can find, for more than a hundred years, and we still don't even understand whether we're supposed to like Unferth or not."

It was a sobering thought. What chance do we have of ever truly understanding the literary products of a culture so different from our own? Maybe the producers of films like Zemeckis's Beowulf have the right answers. Maybe we should just think about the poem in early-21st-century terms and be done with it. I know many of my students would prefer this approach. They want to know what this poem has to do with their own world, by which they mean, "Why should we ahve to read this old crap?" Administrators and educational theorists are always telling me that we need to find the relevance in what we teach for our students. I usually resist this notion, arguing that we read Beowulf to understand the past, not to understand the present. But what if the past is unknowable, even in the most basic terms?

I know I'm not saying anything new here, and it isn't the first time the thought has occurred to me. But it has made me think. The protagonist of Russell's novel returns to earth a destroyed man. But today, I'm going to the library to pick up the sequel, in which he goes back to the alien world (albeit against his will). Maybe I'll feel better after reading it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

know what's fun?

Picking up an extra class five days before the semester starts. Especially when it's an additional prep. And with a book I've never used before.

It's not like I had anything else going on anyway.


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

inservice blues

I often try to convince myself that teaching at HHCC is, in most respects, not much different from teaching at a four-year school. Sure, I teach five sections per semester, and, yeah, I teach much more comp than most of my colleagues in tenure-track positions elsewhere, but, in the end, we all spend several hours a week standing in front of a crowd of 18-24 year-olds and even more time grading papers that we wish were better. College teaching is college teaching, I tell myself, and the rest is just details. At certain times during the semester, however, I am confronted with the reality of just how different teaching at a community college (well, at my CC, at least) is. And surely the worst of these times is inservice week.

When I first got the job, I didn't really understand what they meant by "inservice." I had gone through the public schools, so I was familiar with the term, but I always assumed that "inservice" days in public schools were simply an opportunity for teachers to hang posters and design ingenious torture devices. I didn't see how either of these activities was relevant to college teaching (which, after all, I had been doing in graduate school for several years without any "inservice"). But at the time, I was so happy to get the job that I didn't complain. In fact, I kinda enjoyed reporting to work a week before classes that first semester. It gave me time to find the library, get my email account set up, and learn which administrative assistants held the true power on campus.

Since that time, however, I have grown progressively resentful of the week we spend in inservice each semester. Don't get me wrong; I really don't mind coming to work a week early. Okay, I mind a little. But the week does give me a discrete chunk of time to get the kinks worked out of my syllabi, clean up my office, etc.. The resentment I feel has to do with the way inservice is handled at HHCC. One of my complaints is that nobody seems to know what is expected of faculty during the week of inservice. For nine years now (eighteen inservice weeks all told), I've been asking about the required hours for faculty during the week. There are no classes, of course, and no real need for regular office hours. Each time I've asked, it's been made clear to me that faculty are expected to "be there" during inservice. Specifics, however, are difficult to come by. One semester I was told that faculty are simply expected to attend any called meetings and should be generally "accessible" beyond that. One semester I was told that faculty should spend a "significant" amount of time on campus during inservice. One semester I was told that faculty are expected to be in their offices from 8:00 to 4:00 for the whole week. Though I found that requirement to be excessive, I was actually relieved to have gotten a straight answer for once. Then I found out that the person I had asked was wrong; no such requirement existed. This semester I was told that faculty must be on campus each day during the inservice week, but that specific hours for attendance were up to the department chair. When I asked my chair, she told me that as long as she didn't receive any complaints about faculty being absent, she didn't care when we were around. The result of this vagueness, for me at least, is an inevitable sense of guilt that I'm not fulfilling expectations, no matter how much time I spend on campus. Fun way to start the semester.

The much bigger problem with inservice, however, is that it highlights the gulf between the things the faculty care about and the things the school (or, more properly, the administration) cares about. One of the only constants in inservice requirements, for example, is the Monday morning session. First we hear from the college president, sort of a state of the union address. This semester, the president's address focused on an upcoming bond election, something that at least nominally interests the faculty. Things quickly went downhill from there, however. We had half an hour on the college accreditation process (though our next accreditation visit doesn't occur for four years). We had half an hour on the registration process (though only a small portion of the faculty is involved in that process in any way). Then we had a short break, during which I entered into a conversation with a couple of other English faculty who are also teaching British Lit II this semester. We talked about what texts we were covering, how we planned on covering them, cool outside resources we had run across, and then...we were called back to the assembly hall for a half-hour session on electronic attendance verification (which we've been doing for more than two years now). It was physically painful to be pulled away from a productive conversation about pedagogy--which we rarely have time for once classes start--so that we could listen to an administrator remind us of things we already know and which are of marginal importance at best. But that's the crux, of course. To the administrator speaking, to the administration as a whole, electronic attendance verification undoubtedly is more important than a discussion about Dickens among a few English faculty members. To us, Dickens (or what that discussion represented) is the ball game.

On the bright side, however, I now feel extremely confident about verifying attendance electronically. And if I have any questions, I should have plenty of time this week to ask them.