Literary Studies, Gen Ed Style

Since most of my teaching load consists of various levels of composition, when I do teach a literature class (at least once a quarter) it often feels like a treat, though since my lit classes are writing intensive a la Dr. Crazy’s, it’s certainly not less work. 

I usually teach the American Lit Survey class, where there are at least some potential English majors/teachers and many of the students have some practice in literary analysis.  But this term is quite different.  No English majors, and only a few of them have taken a literature course in college–almost all with me.  The rest vaguely recalled being asked to read some novels in high school—the names of which they couldn’t recall. Others read widely on their own, but they were just as unfamiliar with the terms “plot” and “setting” as the others. 

Most are non-Humanities majors: nursing, biology, criminal justice and psychology top the list. A few said they had no major yet but they might be interested in teaching Kindergarden someday.  One student has a B.S. but wants to do an M.A. in Education with a Language Arts focus and needs some literature classes now.  At least half of the students have not taken first year composition yet (thus my presentation “reviewing” essay writing is happening tonight), and 1/3 are unfamiliar with using computers (including accessing material in Blackboard). I gave a presentation on that after the first class, at 8pm after starting my work day at 8am (perhaps  not unlike THEIR days, I know).

So it’s a challenging class, not unusual at a communitycollege, but unlike most of the lit classes I’ve been teaching lately.

And perhaps that’s why this class has an odd vibe to it, one that has been keeping me up at night:

  • One student wrote on the first day in response to my question Why Do We Read Literature?: “We read literature because it is a dying art.”
  • Another student, a woman in her 50s, came up to me after class and told me that she has been in seclusion in her house for 5 years after her family was murdered, but her therapist convinced her to get out and try a college class. She chose mine because, you know, chatting about literature is so therapeutic and all.
  • After the first class, what seemed to be a lively lecture/discussion about literature, women writers, food fiction, etc etc., and then a brief overview of all of the writing assignments during the term, 10 students dropped the course by the next morning. However, 10 more added by noon the next day.  Community College students are generally under time constraints so they usually aren’t course “shoppers”–so yes, this was odd. It’s a night class, so I’m running on empty and caffeine, which basically means I’m quite hyper.  This works well with many students, who see hyperness as a form of passion and as somewhat entertaining.  For others, it’s probably scary.

Not everything is odd, however.  There are several students I know from last quarter, ones who are comfortable with me, and who have expressed that comfort by being active participants from the start.  At least 1/3 of the students are over 40, which adds immeasurably to class discussion. There are three men (out of 35) in the class, and they seem engaged. There is one late 50s woman who has a passion for romance novels (a la Nora Roberts) and wants to do her final project on her (and in this class, that works).  I’m relieved that many of them seem excited by the open final project (a paper and a poster session on a woman writer or on a food-related subject–with food, of course, at the final).

So despite the insomnia (I basically rewrote my lecture for tonight last night in my head between 3-4am), this class may prove to be  an exciting challenge, forcing me to grow.  That’s how I’m looking at it now, at noon, after my 3rd cup of tea.

Where No Annie Has Gone Before

So, I go on the first long weekend of my 20-year academic career, rush home on this MLK celebratory day to do a phone interview with someone on the other side of the world on my now-ancient dissertation topic on which I may be one of the few living experts (it was a fabulous interview/conversation, and more on that another day), start three loads of laundry, open the wine, and finally respond to Inktopia, one of my bloggy peeps, who gave me a homework assignment that I think she wanted me to complete on my long weekend, but alas, she had to wait.

So here goes the Seven Things I Haven’t Said on This Here Blog:

  1. I twirled the baton in elementary school, and the rifle in the “color guard” in the high school marching band. For those not in the know, that means very short skirts, and quite the sexy arms.
  2. Yet, I tried to get a position playing the drums for the marching band, but was turned down because, get this, the drums were just too heavy for a girl like me, despite the strong, sexy arms. Sigh. This was 1976, ladies: read it and weep.
  3. I’m the first member of my family to complete a B.A. (one uncle, a cousin, and my brother earned A.A’s). My niece and nephew are on track to be the 2nd, and 3rd. Needless to say it’s a bit difficult to explain what I DO for a living during family gatherings; yet, my family includes vet assistants, bookkeepers, machinists, hair dressers, cooks, firemen, computer techs and at least one mobster. 
  4. I named my first cat after Holden Caulfield’s little sister, Phoebe.
  5. I once lived with a man who looked and sounded like James Spader, circa Sex, Lies and Videotapes and Crash (the sex/car crash movie, not the L.A. one). I loved him. But he had issues.
  6. I do not like to cook. Yes, I teach a class in food fiction, and I love to eat (there are not many foods I will not eat), but cooking? No. Never liked it, never will. I have not so fond memories of my poor mother, herself a reluctant cook, fighting with whatever meal she forced herself to make that night, and demanding that I learn to make a pot roast.  Yes, I remember now. That’s one food I do not like: pot roast.
  7. I painted the walls of nearly every room in the house we bought over 5 years ago: one room is Tuscan yellow, another is a pale yellow; another is a light blue, and two are peach.  But I have never figured out what color to paint the hallway connecting all of those rooms: any advice?

If you’re reading this and haven’t been tagged by someone else in our nearly incestuous little bloggy world, consider yourself invited to play.

Linguini and Lovin’

I have a 2+hour meeting this morning and 20 essays to grade, so probably no new postings for a bit, but I did just read this wonderful poem this morning on The Writer’s Almanac website that is teasing me in oh so many ways this morning.  Food poems, like Piercy’s “In Praise of Joe” –a poem I blogged about very briefly here–is my new favorite literary genre.  I need to repost “Linguini”  here, with credit to Garrison Keillor for introducing me to it and to Diane Lockward for imagining and crafting it!  One of the most memorable events of 2008 for me is the month I spent travelling through Italy with my hubby, and this poem brings back such wonderful linguini and lovin’ memories. 

And that was the interesting thing about the food fiction class, too: how vivid and visceral the connection between food and physicality. While the class last term consisted of 24 women and only 1 male students, it was interestingly the latter who found that connection so clearly in every work. 

The meeting starts soon, so I must depart, but now I get to spend at least part of the meeting daydream about linguini and Italy…

Enjoy the poem.


by Diane Lockward

<!– (from What Feeds Us) –>

It was always linguini between us.
Linguini with white sauce, or
red sauce, sauce with basil snatched from
the garden, oregano rubbed between
our palms, a single bay leaf adrift amidst
plum tomatoes. Linguini with meatballs,
sausage, a side of brascioli. Like lovers
trying positions, we enjoyed it every way
we could-artichokes, mushrooms, little
neck clams, mussels, and calamari-linguini
twining and braiding us each to each.
Linguini knew of the kisses, the smooches,
the molti baci. It was never spaghetti
between us, not cappellini, nor farfalle,
vermicelli, pappardelle, fettucini, perciatelli,
or even tagliarini. Linguini we stabbed, pitched,
and twirled on forks, spun round and round
on silver spoons. Long, smooth, and always
al dente. In dark trattorias, we broke crusty panera,
toasted each other—La dolce vita!—and sipped
Amarone, wrapped ourselves in linguini,
briskly boiled, lightly oiled, salted, and lavished
with sauce. Bellissimo, paradisio, belle gente!
Linguini witnessed our slurping, pulling, and
sucking, our unraveling and raveling, chins
glistening, napkins tucked like bibs in collars,
linguini stuck to lips, hips, and bellies, cheeks
flecked with formaggio—parmesan, romano,
and shaved pecorino—strands of linguini flung
around our necks like two fine silk scarves.

“Linguini” by Diane Lockward, from What Feeds Us. © Wind Publications, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Light and Uplifting Fiction Recommendations Needed (Sigh)

I’m on a committee (actually I’m on MANY committees, but we’ll just focus on one right now) charged with selecting a novel for next year’s community “read” program.  Over the years, our little committee (comprised of community members and pubic library employees and, well, me)  has developed a list of criteria including the following:

  • story (aka plot)
  • literary quality
  • programming possibilities (basically, the author must be alive and lively)
  • accessibility/approachability
  • relevance/resonance
  • and, for this year, lighthearted is an additional criteria

Of course, as all of us familiar with assessment know, we still need to define these terms, but it’s a start. 

Since our last year’s selection was considered a bit too “literary” and not quite as “approachable” for many of our community members who engage the most with our community-read events, we have decided to put a little more weight on that criteria for next year’s selection. 

Unfortunately, I’m the “literary quality” person in the group, and though I certainly appreciate “approachability” as a criteria, particularly when choosing books for my classes, I fear that I naturally am suspicious of, nay bored by, novels that are “too” approachable.

But I’m working on that. My food fiction class one of the first contemporary novel classes I’ve taught, including books that some of my colleagues dismissed as too “light” (I assume they were referring to Like Water for Chocolate, though who knows).  And next year I plan to offer an autobiography course that includes contemporary autobiography as well as bloggy life writing.

But I’m failing miserable as a committee member coming up with novels by living authors (who are affordable) that are “approachable”—a bit more lighthearted than our previous selections (which included The Kite Runner–about 6 months before the book became a best seller).

158_x600_books_rain_rev1I just finished one possibility: Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls–yet, although it is certainly an easy read, and even meets the literary criteria because of his Virginia Woolfian style and tone, it’s not exactly a “lighthearted” read (I do recommend it, however: the frame story is a bore, but the main storyline is told by a woman who is just about to die. She records her life’s story on six casette tapes, but the best part is that her story is focused on 20 photographs–she is telling the story to a blind girl so she describes each photograph in detail and each represents a moment in her own life, and ultimately in the blind girl’s life.)

41wct942bwul__sl500_I’m also in the midst of Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, a juicy 1903 story of a young woman who kills her husband (I don’t know why yet, though I can guess) and runs west, chased by her two red-headed brother in laws. Along the way she meets a various cast of odd characters, and falls in love with one of them.  I see great movie potential with this work, and it just might meet the criteria of “approachability” as well as the unspoken criteria of “lighthearted” and even “literary quality” considering the cover blurbs by Michael Ondaajte , Ann Patchett, and Jim Harrison.  But I’m not done yet, and I can’t quite tell how it will end.

Another possibility is The Art of Racing in the Rain, a book I wrote about racing-coverhere.  It’s a fun, accessible book, also (narrated by a dog), but maybe a little too “lighthearted” (despite the impending death of the dog, and at least one other death).

So, does anyone have any other recommendations of novels that are approachable, while still well written?  Lighthearted, but not innane?  Written by a living author, who won’t charge us an arm and a leg to come to our town and who is lively, to boot?

Fall Term Reflections

Well, writing instructors often make their students write self reflections at the end of the term (Such as,  How many hours did you spend on this class each week? Which of the course outcomes do you think you’ve best met and why?; and, the one they all, rightfully,  groan at, If you were to revise this essay once more, what would you change and why?), so I should be forced to do the same.  Keeping in mind the Sunday night blues, I’ll focus on the strengths/positives of the term:

  • The analysis of a cultural trend assignment was a great success: I actually enjoyed reading those student essays this term.  I can see ways of revising the assignment for clarity and to prevent some wrong turns, but overall, I think it works. 
  • Spending more time having students practice using sources in conversation with each other before doing their researched essays definitely paid off for most students.  I need to develop these brief exercises more, but I was very pleased with the outcome.
  • The Food Fiction  class final projects are a pleasure to read. Students reported on their work during the final where we also ate food that everyone brought to class, food that reflected the work they chose to write about (for the most part: (fried) green tomatoes are not in season in December).  Most students chose the “Cliff Notes/Spark Notes” option where they create a booklet that gives an overview of the novel (analysis of the elements, including pictures of the setting, historical overview, etc); they select two published critical reviews to include in the booklet, after which they compare and respond to them.  One student created what looks like an old cookbook, burnt a bit from a fire, in her Cliff/Sparksnotes on Like Water For Chocolate
  • Although I spent endless hours in preparation, the Oprah’s Book Club speech went well, I thought.  I’m not used to speaking in front of 90 plus people, but really my palms were not too sweaty (though I’m sure my hands were shaking). At the gym this morning I saw one of the community leaders who attended at the presentation and he not only remembered me (it’s not like I look the same at the gym as I do all dressed up to present) but his comments reflected a real engagement with my talk.  A success, I think.

Preaching the Gospel of Reading

Evan Agostini / Getty Images file
Evan Agostini / Getty Images file

I just finished doing a run through of my presentation on Oprah’s Book Club that I’ve titled “Preaching the Gospel of Reading” (not exactly an original title considering all the essays on OBC that use variations on that title), practicing for the Wednesday morning presentation.  I finally found a clear, and I hope, engaging focus, connecting my interest in Oprah’s Book Club with the question of Why Literature STILL Matters.  And while my significant other, who patiently listened to me practice, praised my delivery and gave me only a few excellent suggestions at tightening up some sections, I’m sure he is a little biased.  I’m nervous as hell: why is it that the thought of speaking to my colleagues (and remember it’s early in the morning, so my very under-caffeinated colleagues) makes me sweat tears?

Anyway, I need another day to focus on my presentation (and, at the same time, somehow grade final research papers) but I’m looking forward to distilling some of those ideas here for feedback. 
In the meantime, I’ve gotten several requests from students in my literature class (Books That Cook!) this term for reading lists so that they can continue reading fiction over winter break. First, let me say how much that pleases me, but second, I just love such requests. I’ve been mulling over what sort of list to create for this particular class: one that continues with the theme of food fiction and women writers, but also takes them further.   Don’t worry: I’ll be posting that list here, too, someday soon.

FAF (Friday at Four) and Food Fiction’s Feast

Today is the last day of classes for fall term before finals week  (not that most of us actually have classes on Fridays, but you get my drift), and today at 4pm is our informal department FAF (Friday at Four).  FAFs used to be quite common for our department when I first arrived here nearly 14 (OMG) years ago,  but they were rarely well-attended by our mostly middle aging, parenting or caring-for-parents faculty. 

However, recently they’ve been better attended: as the unannointed FAF planner, I’ve reached out to faculty from other departments (fresh blood) and some of our new part timers find the FAFs the one place where they can see folks they rarely see at 8am or 7pm, or even at noon, since our department is unhappily scattered in four buildings around campus (and sadly will continue to be since the fine folks of our state have voted down another bond measure). 

I enjoy FAFs for the same reason, of course: collegiality is so important to me since my academic life is such a big part of my life.  Only during FAFs do I discover the details of my colleagues lives that I would never have learned from a hallway conversation.  I greatly value the opportunity to get to know something new about the people I will probably be working with for at least another 14+ years.

On another note, my Food Fiction class final “feast” is next Thursday (see earlier post on Books that Cook), and I’m looking forward to what should prove to be a yummy one. So far, here is the menu:

  • pita, hummus and babaganoush (a la Abu-Jaber’s Crescent)
  • pot roast (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant)
  • spanish rice and beans (Like Water for Chocolate)
  • soup (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant)
  • fried green tomatoes (naturally)
  • salsa (red and green) (Like Water for Chocolate)
  • assorted veggies for dipping
  • various breads, tortes and cookies
  • key lime pie (remember, from Nora Ephron’s  Heartburn?)