Happy New Year!

2013 wasn’t a bad year or a particularly notable year, though Bullock and I did celebrate 10 years together, and I was named Humanities Institute director. Otherwise, it was a kind of normal year, I guess. We didn’t quite end the year in a particularly good way, though — Bullock had a root canal and Pippi had to be taken to the vet for a foot injury, both on the last days of the year. My two gingers are recovering now.

Professionally, 2013 was solid. The anthology that I co-edited technically came out in 2012, but Spring 2013 was the first semester it was used in classes, and it did pretty well for such a specialized volume. So that’s cool. And I taught our gen-ed poetry class three times in a row (well, two consecutively) to reasonable success. Since this was the first time I’d taken on this particular class, that was good. (But I’d forgotten how much non-majors balk at having to learn technical terms. Seriously, guys, when in Rome!) Oh, and I *finally* finished the Article That Wouldn’t Die (or whatever I called it last) and submitted it to Dream Journal. This is the first time I’ve blindly submitted an article since my very first article submission — everything in between has grown out of something else (like a conference) or been invited in some way (but often still peer reviewed). Scary! Fingers crossed!

2014, however, is already shaping up to be a little more eventful, at least professionally. Here’s what I have planned so far, a list of bullet points I offer in lieu of resolutions.

  • A presentation later this month at a selective, by-application workshop for manuscript scholars that I *hope* will jump start where I need to go next on my in-progress not-quite-a-book-yet research.
  • A trip to Hong Kong for the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes annual conference. I’m looking forward especially to the workshops for directors and for the public humanities, and to being in Hong Kong! I last visted HK in the early 90s, but got sick on the way from Guilin to HK and spent the whole three days of our visit in the hotel room. So I added three extra days in the city — one before and two after — to just be a tourist. The conference and thus the hotels are in Sha Tin, which is outside of the city center in the New Territories (where the university hosting the conference is), but I’m actually kind of looking forward to getting around on public transportation and off the beaten track a bit.
  • A trip to Iceland for the New Chaucer Society. I’ve never been to Iceland, so I’m especially psyched to visit a new country. NCS has arranged a lot of excursions of the kind I might have taken anyway, so I’m only adding on two extra days for being a tourist on my own, especially since, holy crap, hotels in Iceland are freakin’ expensive in high season! Strangely, Hong Kong is cheaper. Even at the non-conference rate, I’ll get to stay in a *swank* high-end hotel with a Tolo Harbor view in Hong Kong for about the same as I’m paying for a two-star, bare basics Reykjavik hotel at the conference rate! (Yes, yes, I realize that the Yuan is artificially controlled and that the hotels in Chinese cities like Hong Kong are probably also partly subsidized to encourage tourist and business travel. But still, it kind of surprised me.) Bullock was going to go to Iceland with me, but when we realized that the two of us could take a non-work-related trip somewhere else less expensive for the cost of taking him to Iceland with me, we decided I’d go solo.
  • And I’m excited about what I’m doing/presenting at NCS, too. My anthology co-editor and I arranged a seminar (something relatively new for NCS — I’m interested in seeing how it goes) on a text near and dear to us both. And I’m presenting on a teaching panel about something I’m doing in my medieval lit class this spring, which brings me to…
  • My awesome medieval lit class this spring! I haven’t been this psyched for a class since I did that awesome ASNaC class in 2011. (That’s Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, btw.) It really deserves its own post. Maybe the next one. Anyway, this time I’m focusing on manuscript collections and anthologies from the Exeter Book to the Morte Darthur (which I’m reading, somewhat atypically, as a collection of sorts), with a bunch of miscellanies in between (Harley 978, with Marie de France’s Lais and Fables — collections in a collection! — and “Sumer is icumen in”; Laud Misc. 108 with Havelok and Horn and saint’s lives; the Auchinleck MS; and so on). I’ve arranged the syllabus by MS collections and paper assignments are all going to be about how we read such collections (e.g., read a work not assigned for class from one of our collections and write about how it fits the whole or works in tension with it). There will be lots of digital resources, too, to give students a sense of the material book. And I think I finally figured out how to give the grad students in a “slash” course a more graduate student worthy experience — they’re going to present their research projects in the two-hour time slot reserved for the final and the undergrads will be their audience and interlocutors (something I can totally repeat in future classes).
  • And the Humanities Institute will be up and running soon! Our first event is the first of our Humanities Happy Hours. I’m still trying to get a big speaker for a major event — important people are bad at answering emails! — but I’m actually more excited for the Triple-H (as I call it) series, which will showcase *our* humanities scholars in a public-friendly way.
  • I’m also going to write and submit my first big organizational (as opposed to individual) grant for our HI. I’m going to start with a regional one and then if that’s a success, maybe aim higher next year. I’m kind of looking forward to this. Yes, I know I’m weird.
  • I’m also writing a short essay on “managing down time” for a collection of essays that Greg Semenza is co-editing as a companion to Graduate Study for the 21st Century. So, um, first I must manage my down time! 🙂  (Seriously, no big plans for the personal life — just the usual making time to relax and exercise and all that. And maybe get back to teaching myself Italian, which I started last summer and then dropped.)

So what are your plans for 2014, professional or personal, or both?

A National Arts and Humanities Month announcement

So, I just learned today, half way into the month, that October in the US is National Arts and Humanities month. Who knew?

Well, from now one I will know, and it will be my business to know, because…drumroll please…I have been named the new Director of the Humanities Institute at Rust Belt University.

Our HI was founded in the 80s, but it’s been defunct for about 5 or 6 years now, so I’m essentially presiding over a “reboot,” Humanities Institute 2.0, an HI for the 21st century. I think I’ll take Doctor Who and Sherlock as my models (though with less of Steven Moffat’s disappointing sexism, thankyouverymuch), since the old HI was pretty beloved here and I want both to do it justice, but also to make it new, to make it useful for the humanities at RBU now. I’m meeting with my college’s dean this week to start the ball rolling — including putting together a steering committee, etc.– and I’m going to work on a draft mission statement today. We’ve only got a small budget to start with, so for our first semester of events and activities, I need to keep things realistic as I also seek out other funding. But my general vision for the Institute is one that makes connections: across humanities disciplines (and with those scholars who do humanities-type work in non-humanities departments), of course, but also between RBU and the wider community. I also primarily want the Institute to be an engine of advocacy and support for the humanities, both within the university and in our community.

So, internet hive mind, if your university were just starting up a Humanities Institute, what would like to see it do?

Blog housekeeping: of blogrolls and future posts

So, I finally got around to manually creating a blogroll for this blog, creating it mainly from the blogs I have in my RSS reader. But I’m sure I’ve missed many people who read this blog and who have similar academic/personal blogs, because I haven’t updated my RSS reader in a long time. You deserve to be on the blogroll, too! So, if you want to be added, just post a comment with a link to your blog and let me know!

Also, I want to post something substantial and substantive before the school year starts, but I’m a little uninspired. I was thinking about something about MOOCs, though. I think I have something to say that hasn’t quite been said yet. Maybe. But do you all really want to read another post about MOOCs?

ETA: The Blogroll is down there at the bottom of the right-hand column on the home page, btw. So if you click through to this post from your RSS reader, you’ll need to go to the main page to see it.

Help me “index” the blog

Hey all. Thanks for all of your comments on the post below, especially from newcomers who have never commented before. You were all very kind and helpful, and I appreciate it. And you’ll be glad to know I’m pretty much out of my funk now. Cutting down on the social media and *focusing* on the work actually really helped and got me excited about it again. Also, re-reading an invited talk I gave a year ago — to get back into the swing of a project —  reminded me of what was cool and interesting about that project. And one other thing that has really helped is using a timer app on my iPhone for the dull parts of one of my projects. Using that, I work on the dull bits for about 10 minutes, then switch to reading some scholarship and criticism for a longer chunk of time or writing or some other task, then go back to the dull work, etc.

Anyway, just thought you might like an update. Meanwhile, I’ve got another question for you all, especially my long-time readers. I want to make a “Best of Quod She” menu on the right, because I’m kind of “coming out” at Dr. Virago in an important context, and I want to direct readers to the substantive parts of the blog. (They are free to browse around at will and admire Pippi’s beauty, of course, but I also want them to see that there *is* substance to the blog.) Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of posts like the “Speaking for the Dead” one, the one on “Debt,” the one from some years ago about the professionalization of the discipline, and then more medieval-specific ones such as the one on why students calling Margery Kempe “crazy” just plays right into the text’s hands. (I’m too lazy to link them here.) Are there other posts that you recall that should get the “Best of” treatment? You don’t have to find the link — you can just say, “Wasn’t there one about blah blah blah? I liked that one.”

As always, your help and feedback is appreciated!

Hey, Ph.D.s, are you better off than your parent(s)?

A conversation in the comments with The Frog Princess on the post below brought up the issue of upward mobility and the Ph.D. (or rather, the potentially false lure of upward mobility and the Ph.D., at least in the humanities). It became clear after a couple of comments that the upward mobility narrative had never even been present for me but had loomed large (and still does, perhaps) for Frog Princess. But I also think it would be safe to say that Frog Princess and I would define “better off” differently. (Frog Princess, disagree in the comments if that’s not a fair assessment.)

So I just thought, out of idle curiosity, I’d ask if you thought you were better off than your parent(s) at the present moment (recognizing that quality of life is a mutable thing). I put the -s in parentheses not only because some people come from single-parent households, but also because some people might choose to define themselves against one parent and not the other.  And though I have “Ph.D.s” in the post title, I’m not cutting graduate students out of the conversation — I really was just aiming for good Google search terms.  One of the things Frog Princess brought up — and with which I agree to some extent — is that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the economic status of Ph.D.s (whether salary of tenure-track professors or the existence of such a large body of adjuncts), and so I thought maybe this blog post might come up if someone Googled “Ph.D.s and upward mobility” or some such.  [ETA:  Oh, and hey, Nicole and Maggie also asked this same question (though not limited to Ph.D.s) a month ago — which somehow I missed or else it slipped my mind — and they got 42 comments (!), so go check it out!]

Anyway, feel free to answer the question and define “better off” in whatever way you see fit. I’m not seeking a one-size-fits all answer here, nor am I trying to put to rest, once and for all, whether or not a Ph.D. provides upward mobility for some or all people. I’m not seeking to do a real study here — there’s nothing scientific here; the plural of anecdote is not data. I just want a conversation. And you don’t have to give you salary to answer the question, either. Tenured Radical once had a post that asked purely about salary, and I think that was enormously useful (and also probably accessible on Google), but my question could be answered qualitatively as well quantitatively.

One thing that might be helpful for context, though, is to state where you are in terms of degree and/or employment status. Are you an early-stage Ph.D. student? ABD? An adjunct, lecturer, or VAP? A tenure-track faculty or tenured? A Ph.D. with an alternative career inside or outside higher ed? An administrator? You might want to define your institution, too. Oh, and MAs in higher ed and MFAs and other terminal degrees should chime in, too, but you might have to redefine the question a little bit.

And like I said, define “better off” any way you want. Also, there’s no judgment here, just idle, conversational curiosity.

I’ll start. Your answer does not need to be as long as mine, of course.

I’m a tenured associate professor with a Ph.D. employed by a regional public university, and I would say that at the present moment I’m better off than my parents ever were, and I’m especially better off than my mother, both financially and in terms of the less tangible aspects of quality of life. My parents were, for the most part, a single-income household. (My mom worked in retail at a hourly rate for some years when I was in junior high and high school, starting during a time of unemployment for my father. But that’s the only paid worked she had.) When I got my first raise in my first job out of college (this was before the Ph.D.), my mom told me that I was making more than my father ever made. (Though, adjusted for inflation, I was not.) That means even as a part-time lecturer my first year after the Ph.D., I was also making more than my dad did.  And believe it or not, my dad had a white collar job.  It was just the most “petit” of the “petit bourgeois” jobs around, apparently. And now, I make roughly 3 1/2 times (in raw terms, not adjusting for inflation) what his highest salary was, judging from what Mom told me. Anyway, when I was about 12, my paternal grandmother died — my grandfather had pre-deceased her — and Dad and his only sibling each inherited some decent assets, mostly in the form of older blue chip investments — enough that Dad took ‘early retirement.’ (Really, he just stopped looking for work, having lost his previous job.) I have less of a handle on how much that actually paid out annually, but I have a hunch I’m still better off income-wise now than my parents were then, and that *is* adjusting for inflation.

Now add the fact that I live with Bullock, who makes about the same salary as I do, and even adjusted for inflation, our household income is much higher than what my parents’ was. Plus, they had four kids and we have none, so our expenses are lower.

And that brings me to what I think the biggest, qualitative difference is between my life and my parents’, but especially my mother’s. All I have to do is look at my life with a feminist lens and I’m a heckuva lot better off than my mom — and she wanted it that way, I should say. I’m financially independent (and was so even at the poverty levels of graduate school) and I’ve chosen a career path and a family life that works for me (including the choice not to have kids) — mom didn’t have nearly as much control over those aspects of her own life. (Dr. Crazy has a comment here about her own mom that echoes a little bit of what my mom did for me, too, so that my life didn’t replicate hers.) I have a committed relationship with a man who is himself a feminist and a real life *partner*, rather than a patriarch like my father, and I had the freedom to be picky enough to wait and wait and wait until I found such a rare creature. (I joked to Bullock the other day that I was pretty damn sure he was the only man in America who had taken feminism to heart and not simply used it to get into women’s pants.) And I’m still financially independent. Even now, Bullock and I keep our finances mostly separate. We share expenses, but not bank accounts. If we were to split up, we’d have to figure out who’d take what big-ticket items we purchased jointly — and/or who’d pay whom for their share — but otherwise it would be much simpler on the financial level than it might for others. (The biggest problem would be who gets Pippi. But we’re not planning on splitting up, so I’m not going to think about that now.)  And it would *certainly* be simpler than it would’ve been for my mother to leave my dad. My dad was (still is) kind of an asshole, and when I was younger I’d try to urge Mom to leave him, but she always told me she couldn’t afford to. I am *definitely* better off on that score, all around.

And I think my life is qualitatively better than my dad’s, too.  As you can probably judge from the bit about the inheritance, above, Dad’s parents had money, and so I think Dad was always unhappy about not having money and the things it buys (mostly for him — he’s extraordinarily cheap where everyone else is concerned). And his dad (Papa), I think, reinforced my dad’s feeling of failure — in part because Papa didn’t bequeath the family business to Dad and because I get the impression that Papa lorded over Dad all his life.  I, on the other hand, was much more influenced by my mother, who had a bit of a bohemian streak, treating money as a necessary evil up to a point and not that important after that point, except insofar as it allows you to see the world and continue life-long learning. And so, because of that influence and that attitude, I’m not motivated by money, per se.

I also like my job and my profession more than my dad ever did. Yeah, sure, morale is pretty freakin’ low all over public higher ed right now, and the way the general public sees us *sucks*. Though my dad never had to put up with such public vitriol in his piddly little job, there are things about my job that make up for that. But if and when the crap outweighs what I don’t like, I believe I’ll have the wherewithal to reinvent myself (I’ll also have a good buffer of savings to do so).

I realize how lucky I am to have won the job market crap shoot, not to mention all the other privilege crap shoots before that — being middle class, white, and born after my mother read Betty Friedan. And I’m lucky to be better off than my parents since these days that seems to be a rarer thing. But I’m a medievalist, so I know a little about a thing called Fortune, and Fortune is a very fickle mistress. Things may change, and, as always Your Mileage May Vary.

So, what about you? Better off or not? And how would you define “better off”?

I need to work. I can’t work. I need to work. I can’t work.

I have a number of things on my plate that are due in the next few months or sooner: that companion piece chapter I mentioned awhile back, a book review essay (on not one, but two books, one of them a collection of essays), the texts I’m re-editing (that is, going over someone else’s editing, doubling checking everything in terms of house style, format, and philosophy) for an anthology for which I am the co-general editor, not to mention class syllabuses and blackboard sites.

But oy!  Ever since I got back from London (where I worked really hard, but I’m still not sure where that damn project is going! ack!), I’ve had the hardest time getting back in gear. I’ve done that fake productivity thing where I clean and organize everything (though that was a legitimate goal for my sabbatical year, at least) but I’ve nearly run out of things to do that with. In my home office, I now have six file cabinets of gorgeously color-coordinated files in jewel tones with neatly typed labels on both the file folders and the hanging folders. And I’ve weeded out my closet and one of my dresser drawers, put my huge collection of t-shirts (now used for dog-walking and hanging around the house) in cubes on a closet shelf, and carted off car-loads of stuff to resale shops and Goodwill. All that’s left are my sock drawer (oh. my. god. what a crazy mess of mostly black socks!) and a big pile of teaching-oriented stuff at the office (where I have promised myself I will not redo the color scheme of the freakin’ files). And even this new blog space is part of the organizing frenzy (as is my recent reorganization of how I do e-mail which is way too deadly dull to explain to you). Oh yeah, and Bullock and I are redoing the main bathroom (damn, should’ve taken before pictures! Well, I’ll take in-progress ones), which necessitates weeding and organizing there, since we’ll have less storage space after.

But I need to do some actual work-related work! I’ve got deadlines and people depending on me! So what’s with me? Got any helpful hints to help kick-start my scholarly self? What says the hive mind?

>Who the heck is the audience for a "companion to" piece??

>I have been tasked with writing a chapter for one of those “companion to” books, one with a *huge* charge: all of medieval British literature. So I’m writing a single chapter on a single very large genre (rather than, say, writing a more focused chapter for a guide to said genre). And worse, its word limit is 7500 words. (OK, that’s 30 double-spaced typescript pages, but still, it’s a big topic!) I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the task before me.

But what most has me puzzled is just who I’m writing *for*. The style guide gives me some help, as it clearly privileges a synthesis of scholarly debates over an encyclopedia-like summary of the primary texts. But then it hilariously says it should be aimed at “undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars.” Um, OK, then who the heck *isn’t* it aimed at? (Well, a “general audience,” I suppose — but I kind of assumed that already.) And though it emphasizes scholarly debates over the primary texts, it also says I shouldn’t assume too much detailed prior knowledge.


Can my wise and witty readers help me out here? I’ve got some ideas, but I thought maybe I could spark some discussion about what is and isn’t helpful in these guides and companions. In the case of my subject, I see non-specialists in it get all sorts of things wrong because they rely on out of date scholarship (i.e., what they learned in grad school or college years ago), and imho, no subfield of medieval literary studies has changed its mind so much about the basic facts as this particular subfield has. So beginning researchers are entering a minefield of bad sources. I think I should perhaps keep that in mind in my writing, perhaps even make that one of the shaping ideas of it. That would be helpful to anyone turning to it for a crash course in the subject. But I don’t want it to sound like my “how to do research” class for first-year grad students; I don’t want to talk down to people.

And on the other hand, one of the problems I have with many of these “companion to” essays is that they don’t start at the beginning, that they do, in fact, assume too much knowledge, especially for undergrads and beginning grad students, so that reading one is no different than diving into any random point in the scholarship. And I don’t want my chapter to be one of those, either.

Oy, what to do? Any thoughts? And if there are models of what you think makes the perfect “companion to” essay, lead me to it. Of course, different series do it differently, but even without those series, there’s a lot of variety, so any model is useful. And if you were trying to bone up on a field, what would you find most helpful?

(Yeah, I’m being vague, I know. But hey, now this post applies to ALL the fields of literary studies!)

>When Chaucer is an intro-level class and other problems with "recommended" prerequisites

>From the nine comments on my last post — not a very good sample, I realize — it seems that most of you want me to write about teaching issues, particularly the inter-related problems of multiple audiences and students putting off “recommended” pre-requisites. And so that’s what I’ll do, mostly through the lens of my Chaucer class from Spring. I don’t really have any answers here, but maybe we can at least start a conversation and share some ideas.

First, though, some background. Our English major consists entirely of 3000 and 4000 level classes. The 1000 level is reserved for composition and the 2000 level consists of general education courses that don’t satisfy the major. To me this seems like an obvious system where each level corresponds roughly to a year in college — 1000 for first-year stuff, 2000 for more advanced general education courses you should be finishing up in the sophomore year, and 3000 and 4000 level courses for the major, which you’re largely doing in your junior and senior years, and where 4000 level courses are more advanced than 3000 level ones. This is partly reinforced in our major requirements where the 3000 level courses have names with “introduction” and “principles” and words like that in them, or where they’re called “X 1” and the 4000 version is called “X 2.” And a bunch of these courses with the seemingly obvious names are specifically required. So it should seem to the casual observer that one is supposed to take those 3000 level “introduction” courses first. Obviously. Or, at least it’s obvious to me, and it was so when I was an undergrad at an institution with the same kind of system. (Where it *didn’t* seem intuitive at all to me was in the major at my grad institution, which had 1-digit, 2-digit, and 3-digit courses, and once you got to the 3-digit level, there was some kind of distinction, but it wasn’t quite clear what that was.)

But apparently it’s not obvious to our students. For one thing, I’m starting to realize that they don’t look at the major as a whole — or few do, anyway. They don’t make a long term plan or think in sequences. That’s not how our students pick their courses. Rather, they do so one semester or, at best, one year at a time. And from what I’ve heard from the advisers in various areas — not just our majors — a lot of them don’t come in for advising from someone with a longer view until their senior year or just before it. And left on their own, they make choices that seem strange to me. I know a lot of them search by day and time, and they use the electronic system that gives them only the course name and brief, general catalog description, instead of consulting the detailed descriptions we write for them in a document that is both mailed to them and available on the department website. Our undergraduate adviser is working on that by developing a booklet that every student will get when they declare the major, which lays out for them the logic and order of the classes and the underlying curricular purposes of the requirements. But I bet that doesn’t stop a lot of students from the short-term thinking or from simply picking what fits their schedule or what’s taught by someone they heard is a good teacher.

So why aren’t there computer-enforced pre-requisites? Honestly, I don’t know. I think this state of affairs is combination of various causes, some of them buried deep in the past. Looking at my Chaucer class, it has three “recommended” prereequisites, one of which is the course I think should be a computer-enforced prereq, and two of which are 2000 level general education classes, which these days we teach not as “gateway” courses to majors but as “appreciation” classes (for lack of a better word) to more general audiences. (Although, honestly, were I teaching them, they’d only be slightly different from the true gateway-to-the-major course. But that’s another topic.) My guess is that once upon a time the faculty wanted to encourage “converts” (those other majors who realized their true love was English after all when they took a particularly good English gen ed course) and wanted them to be able to move into the upper level courses more quickly. Also, if these three courses were originally more alike in conception and the way they were taught, you’d want any one to be a pre-req. Certainly a computer registration system could be programmed to accept an “X or Y” type choice, but that may have gotten all fouled up in a relatively recent switch to a new system. Or maybe it was beyond the old system. I really don’t know for sure, but I do know that our catalog of courses looks in many ways like the accumulation of piecemeal changes, and so the pre-req system (or lack of one) may be the result of that, too.

The other problem might be that the three concentrations within the English major didn’t used to have the same core required courses, and so a student in, say, the creative writing concentration wouldn’t have necessarily taken the same 3000 course that the English lit concentrators all have to take, but might want to take some of the same 4000 level courses, and so a computer-enforced prereq would require an override in such cases every time. (Or maybe such a pre-req wasn’t possible since the computer saw them all as English majors, regardless of concentraion.) But just recently this has changed, and *all* English majors have the same core requirements.

That change is due to our undergraduate advisor, who is also the head of the undergrad curriculum committee, who has been doing a bang-up job reorganizing the major and making it make better sense — that is, looking less like a bunch of accumulated, piecemeal changes. But he’s much more interested in the curricular and pedagogical logic of things than the nuts and bolts, and probably hasn’t thought of things like computer-enforced prereqs (or out of date recommended ones). [Note to self: bring this up with him!]

Then there’s the additional problem of the English-Ed majors. If they were still all English *and* Education *double* majors, it wouldn’t be a problem, but the school of Ed recently devised a single degree option and, frankly, gutted the actual subject content in favor of the pedagogical and curricular courses over in Ed. (The ambitious students still do both degrees, thank heavens.) Those pedagogical courses *are* important, I do realize, but right now the English-Ed single degree requires *no* 4000 level courses. and most of the content is from 2000-level general ed classes. And whoever designed what it does include — without consulting us — put in bizarre courses from the catalog that we don’t actually teach all that often. *headdesk* But more germane to today’s point is this: what those single degree English-Ed students have to take isn’t the same as what our English majors have to take, and that screws up the pre-req system as well.

OK, end of boring background. Now, what does this mean for the classroom?

It means that in Spring’s Chaucer class, as I only learned well into the semester — and in one case, at the end of the semester — I had students who were starting the major and simultaneously taking the intro-level class and mine; English-Ed students who were taking elective English content courses, and had had some English lit courses, but not the core intro class that most of us think of as the foundation of everything after; English majors who knew the ropes already; clueless students only just beginning the English major and taking Chaucer first before anything else; and, on top of all that, MA students of various backgrounds, abilities, and preparation. (Oh, and as a corollary situation, I had two students in my section of the intro level class who had taken all or most of my upper level classes already. They were both smart students who’d managed to find their way through those other courses, but they had a *lot* of eureka moments in the intro class that might have helped had they had that class *before* the others!)

Oy. How do you teach to that mix? In the past I’ve tried various strategies. In the two most recent go-arounds of Chaucer, I’ve redesigned the writing assignments to be a series of short papers that build skills every English major should have and that help students cope with the special challenges of Chaucer. I modelled it on the assignment sequence that Jeffrey Cohen once posted about over at In the Middle. They start with simple translation assignments with reflective essays about what gets lost in translation. Then they move to more complex interpretative assignments — close readings of passages, longer essays. They also review a secondary article (which I pick out, though there’s a choice) along the way, to help build to their final paper, where they mount their own argument in conversation with two articles they find themselves. So, it seems, that I’ve arranged a nice scaffolded sequence of assignments that build skills in relation to the subject at hand — Chaucer — and the discipline as a whole.

But as basic as those first assignments seem — and there were a number of low-stakes close-readings for them to learn from — a lot of them didn’t know what to do even after a *lot* of commenting on my part and dealing with individual sets of knowledge gaps student by student. The kinds of things they didn’t know how to do included a lot of the stuff I drill in the intro class, including: the difference between summary and analysis; the necessity of remembering that characters are not real people, that they’re illusions created by language, that they can’t make choices; the need to turn to the text frequently for evidence, and how to do that both in terms of the mechanics and the logic and argument; the need to *make* an argument; and the most difficult but necessary move from describing what a text does, however prettily, to thinking about what and how it means. Ideally, the upper division classes would be where we talk about that last point the most, and add the various methods and materials and knowledge for talking about that (theories, contexts, genres, etc.). But with many of my students — including, btw, an occassional MA level student — I didn’t get to that last point because they’re just getting the hang of the other issues. There was one student this semester whom I could never get to move past his personal reaction to characters. He wrote weird, angry essays about all the women who were sexually or emotionally unfaithful and claimed — when he had a thesis at all — that his disgust with them was Chaucer’s disgust. I really should have required that guy to come talk to me (I did urge him, but didn’t require him), not to berate him for his misogyny (although that *was* disturbing) but just to teach him that characters aren’t real and that his sitting in judgement over them said more about him than about Chaucer. (Although, in retrospect, I guess it taught me that Chaucer’s women push the buttons of certain kinds of men. OK, duly noted.) It saddened me that he could never imaginatively move out of his own point of view enough to see that maybe Chaucer was saying something very different and that maybe he might learn something from that (such as, for example, that women have sexual desires, which, judging from his screeds, he desperately needed to learn). Had he been in my intro class, he would have had many assignments and activities that precisely talked about how our immediate reactions to texts can sometimes be with the grain of the text or sometimes against the grain, and that one of the first things we need to do to be more analytical is make those kinds of distinctions and figure out what we think the text wants from us (or if that’s radically unclear, so be it).

I don’t mind having to reinforce lessons learned in the intro classes, or needing to teach the quirks of reading older literature (for example, that it rarely, if ever, is naturalistic or a depiction of everyday lives the way that, say, the social novel is). But it’s damned difficult to teach simultaneously to MA-level students with aspirations for the Ph.D. and student who are, for all intents and purposes, coming straight from their high school level lit classes where, appropriate to that level, they do tend to talk about how a text made them feel or if they liked a character or not. It’s hard enough to pitch any upper level course to a broad array of English majors who’ll go on to various careers and lives. And it’s a bit more hard to teach to that body *plus* the MA students. But then it gets a whole exponential level harder to add the underprepared students who are going through the major haphazardly. This has probably always been the case since I’ve been at Rust Belt, but it seemed a particularly intense problem this past semester. There were some “light bulb” moments and I have no doubt that a lot of the students learned a whole lot about thinking analytically about how literature works. If they realize that it wasn’t just about my course, and if they carry that knowledge to other courses, they’ll benefit in the long run. But some grades took some serious hits (and I’m sure my evals did as a result). And it was a harder struggle than usual — it was a Chaucer course lacking some of the joy that it usually has. I think that was partly because so many of the students were dealing with the anxiety that is Chaucer alone — it’s hard! it’s weird! it’s not a novel! — plus the anxiety that my assignments and comments and grades provoked.

And this isn’t limited to my Chaucer course. I had a lot of the same problems in the broader medieval lit course the previous semester, but that semester’s class was weird and wacky in so many other ways because of the personality clashes and dramas going on in it that the usual pedagogical issues were overshadowed by the rest of the nuttiness. And so I’m sure this radical mix of levels and preparation will happen in future courses.

So, what now? We could, maybe, enforce the intro-level class pre-req. We do offer the class every semester and in the summer, too. But what if we can’t? How do I (re) adapt what I’m doing to the various audiences and levels and needs of my students? Do you have any ideas, because I’m kind of fresh out.

>I got bupkis

>I haven’t been blogging because, well, I’m boring. I got nothing. Help me out here and give me a topic. What do you want to know about?

Or how about I give you some choices.

  • Would you like me to write about the experience of collaborating on a class design, which is one of the things I’m doing this summer (though the class won’t be taught until Spring 2010)?
  • Or how about the agony of coming up with new research projects now that the book is done?
  • Or should I write a confessional entry about my frustrations with teaching last semester (note: *not* with my student, but with *my* teaching) and the difficulty of speaking to multiple audiences/levels (English-Ed students, English majors interested in grad school, MA students, etc.).
  • Or maybe I should write about my frustrations with our prereq-light system that means students who haven’t taken the Intro to Lit Studies class take classes like my senior level Chaucer class before they’ve even learned how to think about literary texts at the college level (which I suppose is related to point three, above).
  • Or, on a cheerier note, I could write about how Bullock and I have spent last summer and this one rewatching all of Buffy and Angel (half way through the latter) — though I’m not sure I’ve entirely processed my thoughts on that yet.
  • Or, I could write about how I’m not only planning a class for Spring, but have done my syllabuses for the Fall and am trying to plan ahead not to have a maddening year this coming year in terms of prep and grading.

Or, again, you can suggest a topic, though I retain the right to demure if it’s too personal or revealing or I don’t have much to say on the topic.

>Research/theory question for the medievalists and early modernists

>ETA: Maybe this *isn’t* just for the early modernists! All suggestions welcome!

I’m trying to work out something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, and that I presented a paper about at last year’s Kalamazoo (so if you know me, and you’re so inclined, you could go look up the specifics, since the rest of this post is likely to be vague). I’m starting to be convinced that a particular text, conventionally regarded as having a medieval origin, is actually an imitation of things medieval. I don’t think it’s a fake — I’m not talking about something like Chatterton’s forgeries here — but I am starting to think it’s an early-modern anti-Catholic representation and parody of medieval modes of thought, rhetoric, and genre. (When I presented on this at Kalamazoo, I argued for the parodic elements, but I assumed it was coming from within late medieval debates and anxieties. Now I’m not so sure.)

So, my question for you all is this: if you were writing on imitation or parody –whether or not in the context of early modern polemic against the Roman church? — what theories and texts would you look to to help you think through this (medieval, early modern, or contemporary)?

Yeah, I know, completely vague. But maybe you can still help.