Poems and Wishful Thinking

Tomorrow is Poets.org’s annual Poem in Your Pocket Day. The goal is to print copies of your favorite poem and give them out to random people you see tomorrow.

So, random people of the Blogosphere, here is the poem I shall share with you this year (last year, I just gave a list of my favorite poems, so I didn’t exactly follow the rules, but since this year seems to be the year of the annoying series of unfortunate events*, I’m going to follow the letter of the law this time–wishful thinker that I am:

“Washing the Elephant” by Barbara Ras (published in the New Yorker on March 15, 2010).

* And it’s working! As I was typing this very sentence two students came to see me and both thanked me for being such a good teacher! I’m positively glowing right now, can you tell?

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.

Student (Mis)Behavior

ProfHacker has a beautifully timed posting today on Disruptive Student Behavior (*Too Much Skin Edition*).  We are given two scenarios (the peekaboo butt crack, and the 1970s style (is it back??) tube top/mini skirt look).

The question posted is: what would you do, if a bit too much skin seemed to disrupt the class?

Despite living in a climate that rarely allows for tube tops, I do, alas, get a the occasional butt cracks and a few women with cleavage that certainly begs to be showed off (in, say, Stars), but both instances are relatively rare, and not disruptive (at least, no notable disruption—I can’t speak for other types).

What I’ve noticed this week are other types of disruptions, and since it’s only week 1 of the term, this makes me a little nervous:

  • One student, who is named after a famous philosopher (not kidding: first and last name), sits in the front row of a small, 26 seat classroom, and alternatively sleeps/snores, or text messages with his hand between his legs in what can only be described as a very, very suggestive manner.
  • Another student stormed into the classroom late, and while I was in the midst of one of my riveting lectures, interrupted with a breathlessly told run-on story about his car troubles and how he hoped that unlike his other professors I would not stereotype him as the always late student because it was the ONLY time he has been late to class ever, etc etc. The other students merely stared at him in silence.   Once I got over my shock, it took me a while to ask him to please save his tale for after class.
  • One student stormed into my office this morning, visibly angry that I asked the class to print the first short story from Blackboard: she said she couldn’t afford to print the “book” and how could I ask her to do so?  (Meanwhile, she was carrying an iphone, and several very expensive textbooks, including the 3 novels for my class–so part of me did assume she may have felt overextended, but still…..).  When I told her the total cost of printing the story in the campus computer lab would be $3.0o and that I would gladly give her the money, she just stormed out without a word.

Of course, the first week hasn’t been entirely filled with misbehaviors.  My classes seemed engaged already, and eager to dive into the work of the term. My women writers’ class is crowded, but lively, and there are actually 3 men in the class this time around).

And good news: my application for the NEH Workshop was accepted, so I’ll get to be a “student” this summer myself: what sort of misbehavior do NEH participants do, I wonder?

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).

eightysomething essays

Somehow, I managed to plan so poorly this term that on my desk now sits 80-something essays that need to be read and evaluated by next week (40-something literary analysis essays on Huck Finn; 40-something argument analysis essays).

Clearly, I wasn’t thinking.

I’ve just finished alphabetizing them to see who submitted them on time (of the 15 or so students who have not submitted assignments, some have been MIA for 2 weeks; others e-mailed me blank or funky, unopenable attachments; and one poor soul handed me his flash drive to prove that he has his assignment done but was unable to print it).

I decided before I left for the evening I’d read one lit essay, just for kicks. And, in what I hope is a good sign, it’s a fabulous essay: a mostly well written, well supported argument about the humanity of Jim that also refutes several of the objections that were raised during class discussion.

I feel a little less stressed already.

On a lighter note (and a possible assignment for our next discussion on The Awakening):

Office Suite

My still new-smelling office (I’ve been here since September) is in a suite of offices: we five share a vestibule.  In the past, I’ve been in offices along long hallways, so unless the walls were thin (and yes, they sometimes were) I didn’t hear my colleagues’ conversations with students.

But  now I hear them all, especially when their doors are open. And it’s been enlightening, I tell you.

Some colleagues are abrupt and direct, especially when students arrive one minute before a class with a long, tedious excuse story. Of these colleagues, some are better at cutting off long stories than others (and yes, we’ve discussed “rescue” situations but haven’t put them into play yet). Some are fabulously blunt (“you should drop the course”) while others beat around the bush more (“you’ve missed 5 weeks of classes; what do you think you would need to do to catch up?”).

Other colleagues hold long seminars with students who may have just come by to pick up the homework assignment. The student is half way out the door, yet the professor has much more to say about whatever topic they were discussing in the last class…

Others, sit down and have lengthy conversations filled with popular culture references, jokes, the occasional reference to the student’s paper, and ample compliments (to and fro). One might even think they were at a dinner party, and on their second drinks. And there is a line of students waiting to chat with this particular professor, all seeming to take it in stride.  [It is this particular one that led me to blog right now.  The student is quite striking….]

And finally, there are those who are incredibly efficient with students who visit their office, working several of them at the same time.  I’ve done this: once about 7 students lined up to chat with me about their outlines, and now that my office is big enough, I had them all make themselves comfy on the floor (these were all flexible students, promise), I passed around a box of pop tarts, and we had a group discussion about the outlines before pairing up to chat, while I met with one at a time. Seven student conferences in less than one hour: check!

I’ve been nearly everyone of these “types” at one time or another.  But, I just can’t imagine having the leisurely, cocktail party type-conversation with a student: we hold 5 office hours a week and I’m busy every minute of them, if not with live students than with e-mails or Blackboard discussion postings.  I wonder how he does it?

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.