Happy Birthday, E.L.!

It’s the birthday of author E.L. Konigsburg, author of the 1968 award winning classics, novels that greatly influenced me as a reader, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler and Jennifer, Hecate, McBeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth.

From the Mixed Up Files did to the Metropolitan Museum of Art what Night at the Museum did for the Museum of Natural History: it became the place to be. Siblings Claudia and Jamie run away from home and camp out inside the museum. And no, the statues don’t start walking and talking, but the art becomes alive as seen through Claudia’s eyes and thus mine (we were the same age).

I lived only 50 miles from Manhattan, but no one I knew actually visited the “City” regularly, and no one I knew had actually been to the Met.  That’s right: I might as well have been living thousands of miles from New York City.

But the ex-nun who taught 4th grade at the local Catholic school turned public school by the time I was there, and who had introduced the book to us, made sure we had the chance to see the film version that was playing only (for some reason I don’t know) at Radio City Music Hall.  She planned a field trip to the Museum and to see the film.

A memorable day.

Celebrate E.L. Konigsburg’s birthday (she is still writing!) by sharing this book with a 10 year old girl or boy.  And then take them to the Met for a special Mixed Up Files tour. Make his or her day.

Introduction to Women Writers

Ho hum. The course title doesn’t exactly wow them at registration. (And we’ll see how well it does as a blog posting title!)  In the past I’ve had sexy themes and posters to entice students (most of our students are not English majors), and I generally teach the course in the spring after I have a few terms to recruit. But with the massive influx of students lately, recruitment is no longer necessary: the class will have seats, and they will mostly fill.

What I do need to address is retention. How do I keep students in the class, students who generally do not read? A traditional anthology-focused survey course even makes me yawn. But 3-4 novels in 10 weeks generally leads to 10+ withdrawals by week 3. 

So, I’m thinking of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale paired with Gilman’s Herland.

And I’m thinking of pairing Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with Bridget Jones’ Diary.

And I’m thinking of pairing Alcott’s Little Women with Chopin’s The Awakening.

Am I crazy? Should I focus more on contemporary works (our course description is vague enough to allow for either breadth or depth)? Do you have other pairings that come to mind?

If anyone in the blogosphere is still even checking in on this “humble” (to quote a not so humble blogger) blog, post the works YOU would include in your own fantasy “Introduction to Women Writers” course, paired or not.

A Beach Read…

…if you like beaches with gray sand, lots of rocks, broken bottles, used condoms, hurricane-whipped waves, and rain.

I prefer picture postcard beaches  myself, but since I’m far from a beach, and this spring (summer is not until Monday, right?) has been what I’m calling “the grayest, coldest, wettest spring since I’ve lived in this town” (now 15 years), this book has been the perfect read for sitting on the sofa under a blanket,  wearing winter lounge wear (sweats), and cursing the weather while drinking lots of spiked tea.

Give it a chance: it’s one of those novels that has to gel, and when it does, wow. Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon.

But warning: this is NOT a light and uplifting read (not that I consider this  a bad thing).  It’s a novel about depressed people. Serious depressed. It’s a novel about identity theft that goes way beyond someone digging through your garbage for your credit card number. It’s a novel about obsession (not love obsession, naturally, because these characters are too messed up to ever fall in love).  It’s a novel that someone (like M. Night Shyamalan, or the Coen brothers, or recent Scorsese)  will want to make into a movie–for the ending alone.

The NYTimes compared the paranoid moments in the novel to those of the masterpiece of paranoia,  DeLillo’s White Noise. But unlike in DeLillo’s work, there are few humorous interludes.  Stephen King could have written it, but there are no clowns or dead children (ok, there are dead children but only off stage).

It’s a thriller, with some gore, but not that much. There are three pairs of characters who ultimately converge and it’s in that convergence where the gelling happens:

There is a high school history teacher and his student. A father and son. And twins. You gotta have twins in a thriller.

It’s not a beach read, but read it anyway.

I’m also still reading The Lonely Polygamist by Brian Udall.   The opening was so promising: father of 28, husband of 4 wives, comes home from a long drive and really, really has to pee. But, naturally, all the bathrooms in his big house are being used. Eventually, he finds his way into a storage closet with a bucket. Fun stuff. But now, it’s getting sluggish.  One of his sons has befriended what could only be an odd duck, though polite,  with a fondness for bombs.

Last summer, I read a slew of novels about middle aging males making it the summer of Andropause or Aging Lotharios.  This summer is turning out to be closer to the Summer of the Almost Apocalyptic Novel. Not quite, apocalyptic, since the end of the world characters are in the background rather than the foreground. But they are there.

Obviously, unless I wake up Monday and summer weather is finally here, I need some light and uplifting novel recommendations: any suggestions?

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.

Interim Blog Posting

I was once an “interim” Chair (also referred to as “acting” and then changed to just plain ole Chair once the gig was up and no one else wanted that particular piece of furniture as a title), so I’m well aware of how, well, unsatisfying the term “interim” is, and this “interim” posting is just that: an unsatisfying blip before the “real” posting (that one on how NOT to apply for a faculty position at a community college–it’s in the works, I just need to let it simmer–it’s quite snarky right now).

So, without further ado, here is the Interim Blog Posting, or Random Thoughts After Finally Submitting Winter Grades.

1. Best research paper topics this term:

  • How Technology Makes Us Lazy
  • What IS Lesbian Art?
  • Miracles DO, Miraculously, Exist
  • About Those Aging Supreme Court Justices

2.  With a huge wait list for my spring literature class already in the works, and three e-mails from students claiming that their spring breaks will be just a wee bit longer than the one the college so stupidly scheduled for only one week, Gina Barreca’s poem “This Class is Thoroughly Under Way”  is going to be posted on my website (along with the wonderfully witty Tom Waymen’s “Did I Miss Anything?” poem).

3. I asked my American Literature students to bring to class their favorite novels of all time (not telling them that one of the final exam question topics was to examine that work in the context of the works we had read this term).  What an incredible list of books ranging from The Brothers K to The Brothers Karamazov. Here’s an edited list: the students, while eating cookies, cuties, and chips, shared the book with the class and told us why it was their favorite (note that this was a class that was 75% men, with at least 8 Iraqi war vets, and students from 18-50 years of age–all of the male students chose male authors, and ditto for the women students–99% chose female authors, interestingly):

  • The Notebook
  • Siddhartha
  • Ladder of Years
  • The Hobbit
  • Red Storm Rising (2 votes)
  • Don Quixote
  • The Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • The Deathly Hallows
  • Pride and Prejudice (2 votes)
  • Count of Monte Cristo (2 votes)
  • Portrait in Sepia
  • The Giver
  • Cather in the Rye
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • The Jungle Book
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • A Confederacy of Dunces
  • The Magus
  • The Brothers K
  • Brothers Karamazov
  • On the Road

4. That same literature class: some students chose the final essay topic asking them to explain the value of studying literature in college, using the texts from our class as examples for their explanation.  And as a gift, I received over a dozen thoughtful responses, including many that discussed the idea of “empathy” as a value:  this surprised me since it hadn’t come up that much in class discussion, though I did share Azar Nafizi’s essay early in the term: it must have had a strong impact!

On a related note, Bill Benzon posted Alec Baldwin’s defense of acting to show us literary/humanities types what we could/should be doing in our own ongoing defense of the value of literary/humanities studies.

5. AFT’s National Survey of Part Time Faculty is out: now I need to read it. 

And finally,

6. It’s that time of year again: anyone have a recommendation for a contemporary novel that would appeal to a wide variety of community members, that is written by a writer who is not TOO famous yet, and preferably male?

Random Thoughts on Teaching The Awakening

Last night was the last class discussion on Chopin’s The Awakening.  Next week, I’ll receive their essays on the novel, and I’m so very curious to see what I get. The class has 25 men, and 17 women students. Who tends to speak in class? It’s equally divided between men and women, but for the most part, with this novel particularly, the older students (older than 30) tended to speak more, with men (note: there were  three very articulate exceptions)  more vocal in their condemnation of Edna than the women. 

More next week on that, after I read their essays: after all, not everyone spoke during the full class discussion  (but small group discussions were wonderfully animated). 

 I simply love this class–not just the subject matter but the students: it’s as diverse a group of students one could hope for in a generally un-diverse community (in terms of age, economic class, life experiences, literary background, etc).  As a result, the discussions often go in directions I don’t anticipate, even though I’ve been teaching these works for 20 years.  For example, during the 10 minute in class writing I ask them to do each class, several students asked if I could play the Chopin Impromptu and the Wagner pieces I had played during the last class discussion.  So many more students responded to the musical elements of the novel than in the past.  (Note to self: get a music prof to guest lecture next time.)  And, students in this class were more open to a discussion of economic and social class issues than in the past (i.e. If Edna were working class, would she be more sympathetic?).  The same thing happened during our Huck Finn discussions: there are several students with strong biblical backgrounds, so they were much more conscious of Twain’s biblical allusions and, even better, very willing to discuss the various interpretations of those allusions.  And during every class someone returns to my opening lecture about  “literature”: what is it? who decides what it is? why do we read it? why is the literature we read in a “literature class” often so disturbing?  How exciting to see that framework I set up return so regularly during discussions.

On a related note, I injured my knee. Don’t know how, no doubt it’s running related, but it’s bruised, swollen, and by the end of the day quite painful. Thus I taught my night class with what I assumed was my best theatrical face and demeaner, trying desperately to hide the pain. 

It so didn’t work. One student came up to me after class (a man in his 30s, very engaged in the readings and discussions, and an excellent writer) and asked if I was ok, if there was anything I wanted to talk to him about.

First, I was just a bit discombobulated: I thought I had hid my pain so WELL! But I thanked him for his concern, said all was well, just a little knee pain.  Then I naturally spent most of last night overanalyzing the entire class (and yes, I’m tired now).

The class discussion about the novel was the kind that English profs dream of: multiple interpretations, polite and reasoned disagreements, quoting from the text and the critical reviews as evidence: It was a dream class, but for the many, many students who have not taken a lit class in college, it may have been emotionally draining, or intellectually exhausting, or, if they were seriously angry at Edna, it may have made them feel on edge. Perhaps the student who asked me about my pain was reacting to the discussion by seeing pain on my face instead of his own? Or was I really unable to hide my pain, even though I felt engaged and caught up in the class discussion?

Then I remembered, those damned psychologyand/or interpersonal communication professors. They often ask students to conduct “experiments” like close talking to someone, to get their reaction. I wonder if this was one of those assignments?

More random thoughts in a few weeks, post essay grading. We move on the modern poets next week and then Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  What music goes with that novel, do you think?

Forthcoming, February 2010

As I whined about a few days, I am in the midst of grading.  I have 18 papers left, and, dear reader, my eyes literally hurt. My fingers are numb. My brain has rebelled. The essays are mostly fine, so at least I don’t have constant ogida.  The stress is mostly all of the other stuff I need to do (finish writing several projects; lecture/class prep; search committee business; working on my college’s blog–I’m an editor–etc etc etc).

I did manage to do other things this weekend (a department gathering at a local pub; running both mornings; chores; lunch with the hubby at yet another local pub).

So, this is a placeholder posting, identifying more for myself than for anyone else what postings are potentially forthcoming next month:

  • Mary McCarthy’s 1963 best selling novel, The Group, has been reprinted by Virago Press: I’ve been reading the latest re-views and recently reread the novel, and I have oodles of reflection: who would have thunk it?
  • I finally started using the little Nike/Ipod thingy that tracks my distance and speed when running.  It’s no GPS device, so it’s undoubtedly not entirely accurate, but I’ve got to say that I’m even more motivated to run each morning than even when I was only mildly obsessed pre-Nike/Ipod thingy (note: I actually do not wear Nike running shoes–so this posting will also be a review of the many pouches available to the anti-establishment running shoe wearers). 
  • Amazon has made Kindle software available to PC users: I’ve downloaded a slew of “free” e-books (Alcott, Austen, etc) to test out on my Netbook.
  • The trials, tribulations, and joys of teaching Chopin’s The Awakening in a general ed. survey class where male students outnumber women students (a novel that is on a dream high school reading list that Dr. Crazy has started, but not on very many actual high school reading lists, like Quills, mostly because it’s a beautiful novel about SEX).

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.

Waltzing Toward Literary Analysis

At the start of any introductory literature class I teach, I usually raise several questions that we’ll return to throughout the term, and that I hope will engage those students (usually a good 25 out of 50) who are in the room because there was a seat left, as well as those students, usually about 10 out of 50, who are possible English majors, or the others who are not Lit majors, but who have read an entire book sometime in the last few years: What is Literature? Why do we study literature? Who decides what IS American Literature? How does studying literature in a classroom differ from discussing literature with friends or in a book club? What is literary analysis and the varieties of literary analysis?

All of the questions lead to interesting discussions, except, usually, the last one. For that, I get dead silence.

During class two, we do what Kathleen Yancy calls a “pop up” exercise, slightly altered.  I have students read and annotate Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” using blue or black ink. Then, after discussing their responses with a partner, I ask them to add to their annotations in another color. Then, after discussing the poem as a class, they add more notes in another color, summarizing how their responses to the poem changed, and discussing the varieties of responses, from personal to psychological, for example.

I then show them how I’ve annotated the poem, giving them another model of what they can do to read actively, and usually filling in some other varieties of literary analysis that may not have come up during class discussion.

Then I ask them to do the same thing to the opening chapter of whatever novel we are reading.

We return to the “close reading times three” exercise many times during the quarter. I love this exercise because it allows all students to engage in the literary work, from whatever level they are at, in a nonthreatening way.  And I’ve always started with ‘My Papa’s Waltz” because it so easily leads students to two divergent interpretations–the trompe l’oeil I try to draw on the board usually makes them laugh, too. We discuss why some students are drawn toward one interpretation at first, and while others see the other. We discuss biographical criticism, close reading (so many students see “romp” as a negative word these days, I’ve noticed), and new historicism.  We discuss point of view and setting and character.  It’s a quick tour of literary analysis, without emphasizing any of those terms (though they leave class with a handout overview of those terms, and we’ll discuss them throughout the quarter).

And then, I almost always get an email like this one after class discussion:

Dear Professor:
 I wanted to comment on this poem, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so in class. My father was a verbally abusive drunk. But I loved him dearly. This poem hit real close to home. I saw it as the waltz of a drunken father with the son who loves him unconditionally, but it was the fun side of my dad that I saw in the poem.

This from a recently unemployed 50 something year old man who is both excited and nervous about being in the class.

I love teaching literature classes. Our classes are too big (I think I’m down to 43 students rather than 50 now, having scared off at least 7 with the reading list), but what a rush I get when such a large class of students seems actively engaged for the full 100 minutes, and students don’t start packing up early, even though it’s nearly 7:30pm and the rain outside is icy. And, when I get e-mails like the one above.

Short Pause…

…in which Annie discovers she has most totally over-committed herself for the next two months with “to dos”–the usual academic to-dos in addition to the usual course prep/meeting stuff/applications for future  to dos.

It’s the first week of the new term and I’m swamped. I have 4 over-enrolled classes, with many new students (including an “Annie”!) to get to know and to try to teach something to.  In one class, I had to ask the 15 folks in the wait list to literally leave the classroom to give us some air. My literature class now has nearly 50 students–a horrific number that some ancient members of our department allowed in exchange for smaller composition classes.

I have advisees who need advice about transfer issues, life, including one ex-rodeo queen (really) who has,  after 2 years of a slightly below 2.0 gpa, discovered that keeping a date book is, well, awesome.

I have several adjunct colleagues needing reference letters for their applications to the jobs that are really out there at other community colleges, and I have to decide whether or not to throw cold water on their chances of actually getting those few jobs.

I have an article due soon and two public (local-ish) presentations I need to prepare.

I am still not finished with the book I started on the airplane: John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River, a most amusing book with all its plot twists, repetitions, surprises, and just plain funny characters and plot, if you’re a Irving fan (sort of tedious and repetitive if you’re not a fan). It’s no A Prayer for Owen Meany (his true success) but I’m still reading….

I did just finish Katie Roiphe’s article from the New York Times, “The Naked and the Conflicted” and found it as amusing as anticipated. I met her many years ago at a conference, thoroughly enjoying her company (let’s say we were both enjoying ourselves at that conference), and have read her work with some pleasure ever since.  She’s the thorn in the side of those who allow themselves to be pissed off by her irreverence.  Not that I always agree with her, but this article is just plain funny, and yes, I sort of agree with her this time.

Read it, and discuss. I’ll be back….