Thursday, May 17, 2007

On the other hand...

I don't want you to think that I'm always miserable and grumpy and making fun of my students; really it's just half the time. So I thought I'd follow up my grade-grubbing complaints with a story of pedagogical success that is happy and fun, although it happened quite a while ago.

Once upon a time (no, actually, this did really happen), I was teaching the course that all English majors have to take to start the major, an introduction to literature and criticism class. After so many quarters of teaching non-English majors in other departments, frustrated with having to teach literature as merely a demonstration of oppression or a transparent historical record, I was thrilled to be back teaching literature in a "literary" way (and as a side note, the more I teach in all these progressive, interdisciplinary situations, the more I become a crabby old traditionalist let's-study-real-literature-damn-it-and-do-close-readings-garumph! person. So anyway.) But years of lit for nonmajors and "teach the engineers how to write!" classes had led me to really dial down my expectations and ideas of what could be covered and understood by students. So where my friend was teaching his dissertation in his wonderfully theoretical and sexy class ---- which, at four eighteenth century novels and most of Pope's poetry, I think was undue punishment ---- my goal was to have them write a paper about a poem, and quote from it directly, too.

So, my class was the ultimate in simplistic close reading, although I approached it from the idea of "craft" and what a poet or writer thought about when writing. (Wimsatt and Beardsley were spinning in their graves the whole time, I'm sure, which makes me wickedly gleeful.) We spent a long time on the idea of "diction," and worked a lot with what happens to the meaning when we change the words or form. Have you heard radio mash-ups, like the remix of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On"? Well you can do it with Whitman and Shakespeare. Or Hawthorne and Hemingway. And for the students to be able to tell you why it's "weird" or "wrong," they have to articulate what makes a writer's style or voice distinctive, and they themselves will start talking about how a poet would never use that word, or break that rhythm, and suddenly they start quoting things right and left in their papers and sit in class pounding out scansion on the table with their fists, trying to figure out if Shakespeare would want his rhythms to be perfectly exact or wanted a little bit of roughness to change things up.

But. That's not the cool part (although I think I might have had way more fun doing mashups than they did.). I was meeting a student in my office hours about her paper, which was on Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (which I did not, but should have, paired with "Lady Lazarus.") She was trying to figure out an argument about the poem and she came in because, as she said, she was worried that, since Keats thought the word "wild" was so important that he kept re-using it, it might have meant something very different to him than to her today. "If only," she said to my rising excitement, "there was some sort of dictionary that not only told you what words mean, but told you exactly what they meant at different time periods, too."

Yes, that's right ---- I had a student not only end up using the Oxford English Dictionary, but spontaneously intuited its existence without me teaching her about it. How amazing is that!?! Of course, it was kind of a letdown that I was so excited about it and showed it to her and she wasn't really that excited or impressed, but she did use it. My colleagues might hate me for sending them students who now like to rewrite famous works or sing them to the tune of "Gilligan's Island," but at least some of them use the OED when doing it, damn it.


Earnest English said...

Sis, now how are you supposed to focus on your own work when you're teaching??? C'est impossible!

Sisyphus said...

Well, you know, I never grade their in-class stuff, so once you've prepped a teaching idea you've got something thrown together to take into any class. It's just grading that takes up time. And without the horror of grading to procrastinate, I might not ever buckle down to my research. Heh.