getting to your good enough

[I was asked to make some remarks at the UH New Faculty Orientation on 8/15/17, and this is a summary of my talk]

Congratulations! You’ve arrived at this job after too many challenges, and you’ve demonstrated your academic excellence in an extraordinarily competitive environment. Now comes the hard part.

What I mean by this is, your challenges up until now were structured around the problem of getting a job.  Chances are, that was a process that took up years of yours lives. Those challenges, however, will soon extend, deepen, and proliferate. In the coming years, the demands of your job will grow more complex, the time-frame will stretch out, and your experience of the classroom itself will become recursive.

In other words, from this point forward, you will be teaching in your discipline repeatedly and regularly, with opportunities for comparing present with past performances. Did that lecture work the way that it did last semester? Do I need to update this syllabus? Or tweak this approach to discussion? As a newly hired faculty member, you now have far greater opportunities to learn from your mistakes.  You may also discover new ways to fail. And all of this will be “mid-stream,” accomplished in the midst of all the other things you are doing.  Reflection, conscious improvement, self-direction are all far more possible now, if you are so inclined. But will you be?

This brings me to the title of this talk: “getting to your good enough.” On its face, getting to the “good enough” seems like a pretty depressing concept, just a way to set expectations as low as possible to avoid judgment. “Yes, I aspire to adequacy.”

But in fact your sense of the “good enough” is the voice of your professional conscience and identity: it is your internal monitor, your quality control, your bullshit detector, your ability to detect and address problems as they emerge. Your sense of “good enough” is at the core of your identity as a professional. You are about to become the most important person assessing your teaching on a day-to-day basis. So how good are you at evaluating your own effectiveness as a teacher?

To develop a more reliable sense of “good enough,” however, you will need to have some curiosity about your students’ learning process, and some evidence of what they are or are not learning and why.

So my first question is, “how do you know when your students are really getting it?” What kinds of information do you need to feel confident about them really mastering a concept or a problem or skill? What kinds of body language, what kinds of questions or answers, what kinds of responses signal to you that you’re succeeding?

And my next question is, “how do you know when a lecture or a presentation is going badly?” (This may be a little easier to figure out) What kinds of body language or verbal cues broadcast widespread confusion or resistance among your students? And what should you do then?

Finally, what do you do when you’re not sure at all how a class is going? From my experience, this might be the hardest scenario of all, because the signals are ambiguous enough that no obvious solution appears to you.

Because this type of uncertainty can result in a lost semester for you and your students, one of the most important things to learn is the mid-course correction. So I’m going to offer you a strategy that I’ve used, called the Midterm Survey. Whenever you feel that your teaching is not connecting, and you’re not sure why, I recommend that around mid-term time you ask your students to answer these three questions in writing, anonymously.

  1. How is the class going?
  2. What can I do to help you learn better?
  3. What can you do to help you learn better?

Collect the answers, note the most prevalent responses, and discuss these with the class at your next meeting. Tell the class what aspects of the class you will change as a result of their feedback, and which aspects you will keep and why. My experience has been that students will generally appreciate any changes you make to help them learn. My students, for example, always tell me to slow down. And I promise them that I will try to be more organized and systematic in my presentation of the material.

There are lots of other ways to assess their learning mid-stream, including low-stakes writing, quizzes, etc., but the point of all this is to get an idea of what they’ve made of the material before they do the high stakes, graded assignments that determine their final grades. That will enable you to direct your teaching towards the most difficult areas and give them the practice or supplementary information that they need.

You should also remember that there are plenty of ways to get support for your teaching on this campus, including the UH’s own FED, your departmental colleagues and peers and trusted senior faculty members, but many people both in- or outside your department may have insights to offer. Any or all of them can help provide you with a reality check when you encounter problems. So take advantage of your colleagues’ knowledge, because no one has ever arrived on this campus and known exactly what to do when they first arrived in the classroom. Every one of us has leaned on our colleagues at certain points in our teaching careers, in the moments when a class goes badly and we’ve got no clue about how to fix it. So most faculty will try to offer whatever knowledge they can to help you figure it out. Don’t hesitate to ask others if you’re unsure of what’s going on or what you should do. I’m here because of the generosity and patience of more people than I could name. And before you know it, you’ll be offering your own advice to incoming faculty.

Thank you.


What is this “despair”? : Marlowe on the London stage in 2016


Kit Harington greeting his fans.    

If you want to feel young in Washington DC, go to the theater.  Now that I am as old as Lady Wishfort, I myself in most gatherings at the higher end of the age range. Theater in DC, however, remains one place in which that is not reliably the case.  Imagine my surprise, then, in attending a production of Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London with hardly any gray hairs and a sea of young people chattering excitedly, checking their phones, looking at phones together, taking selfies, taking photos of the theater, and taking photos of each other.  My first thought was: what a great educational system that so many people under twenty-five get so excited about Marlowe!  As Doctor Faustus began to conjure and demons slinked around the stage, it gradually dawned on me that the other Kit—Kit Harington, who also stars in a television show called Game of Thrones—drew them out.  (I actually had not heard of Kit Harington and never watched Game of Thrones but could sense that the Faustus on stage had another life as a celebrity by the young audience’s particular kind of excitement.  I later confirmed this intuition.  According to Wikipedia, Harington can claim Charles II as one of his ancestors, and he looks, actually, a bit like him.) The restless enthusiasm of the audience shaped my experience of the production.  I was sitting next a pair of young fans from Germany.  The young man did not understand English as well as his companion, so she would translate for him in pretty much a normal speaking voice throughout the production, only slightly less distracting for being in German. “What is this ‘despair,’?” he asked at one point.  A long explanation in German followed.  Then one of them apparently dropped a cell phone.  Both panicked and were crawling around on the floor on their hands and knees, lighting the darkness under the chairs with a flashlight app from the remaining device.  Finally, when Jenna Russell as a steely female Mephistopheles sang “Bat out of Hell”—a highlight of the show—I turned and shushed them, which didn’t help all that much since three American girls behind us were chattering just as conspicuously.  They looked puzzled, offended, and contemptuous.

In spite of these disturbances—although possibly also because of them, a point I will explain—I found the production mesmerizing.  Doctor Faustus begins as a loner in a dingy apartment glued to his television.  He rejects religion, classical learning, and medicine.  He then ceremoniously opens his Macbook, the apple on the lid glowing eerily, to find an easier path to fulfillment.  He seems to be googling something like “conjure Satan,” which yields a set of rituals and incantations, although as Mephistophiles later explains, they mean nothing.  Satan always sends one of his minions to visit those who abandon God.  The devil’s agents, in fact, occupy Faustus’s apartment from the opening scene, slithering around in various states of undress.  Faustus signs the contract in spite of warnings to the contrary and indulges in 24 years as a celebrity magician, surrounded by adoring fans.  These fans appear to us as the same demons slithering around his apartment, but Faustus doesn’t seem to recognize them as such.  When he takes the show to Las Vegas, the demons become his dancers.  Somehow we know that this act looks very different to the Las Vegas audiences, but we only see the demons with their hollow eyes and dirty underwear, without a spangle or pastie in sight.

Reviewers in general did not like this production.  They point to a range of failings: that Kit Harington cannot handle the poetry of Marlowe; that too much blood, shit, and vomit fly across the stage; that too many brains explode.  The main objection, however, seems to be with the adaptation itself, which replaces the enigmatic middle stretch of the play with Faustus’s celebrity career.  The conclusion of the reviewer from The Daily Mail perhaps sums up these complaints: “Why anyone would take out a 24-year contract with Satan to become a Derren Brown-Axl Rose hybrid beats me, but Harington throws himself at this meagre ambition with prodigious enthusiasm.”

There are two ways, then,  of looking at this production.  One would be that the director Jamie Lloyd and the adapter Colin Teevan dumb down Marlowe and feature a television star with insufficient acting credentials in order to appeal to a younger audience. Several of the reviewers mention this as the trademark of this particular director. The other, however, is that the adapter and director asked themselves, what would people now demand in exchange for the high price of their souls?  In other words, perhaps this is a deliberate updating not just of stagecraft and dialogue but also of sin.  Perhaps Faustus’s ambition in this reboot is designed to come across as meagre, a pale shadow of the 16th-century ambition to possess infinite knowledge and power.  (It is also worth noting, of course, that Marlowe’s Faustus plays stupid tricks on the Pope with his newfound abilities.)

This brings me back to the young people next to me crawling around on the floor in search of the dropped phone.  They could have been part of the production, as could many of the audience members snapping selfies and basking in the excitement of seeing their favorite celebrity on stage.  Whether they meant to do this or not, Colin Teevan and Jamie Lloyd suggest a difference between temptations in 1592 and in 2016: if the 1592 Faustus sold his soul out of megalomaniacal ambitions, Kit Harington’s Faustus collapses into narcissism.  This may seem like a let-down, but perhaps this is the point.  While nostalgia for late Elizabethan megalomania would be misplaced, concern over a rise in narcissism has attracted the attention of some academic psychologists as well as numerous commentators on this year’s election cycle. (A witty highlight of the production was Faustus’s conjuring up the soul of Barack Obama for insight in the age of President Trump.)  Jean M. Twenge summarizes such research here, and concludes from a range of experimental data that narcissism has become a more significant social force.

This production of Doctor Faustus, then, could have been hypocritical, as some of the reviewers charged, for exploiting the celebrity of Kit Harington to draw audiences to a play about the emptiness of celebrity and the loss of genuine feeling, illustrated in the production by a now-female Wagner who offers Faustus hope of salvation through her love.  Or, it could have been a brilliantly self-conscious critique of its intended audiences, grotesquely distinguishing between what narcissists think others are seeing and what they actually see, captured as beautiful bodies in sparkling bikinis on the Las Vegas stage vs. writhing zombies in soiled underwear.  By attending the performance, you have already filled the pen with blood.  The good angel doesn’t look much different from the bad ones, vomiting white rather than black, but reminding the faux-magician that God still loves him. In this second possibility, then, the production offers through irony powerful insight into the ways in which temptation has shifted.

I’m going with the latter.


Review of Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

XQWSA_Sancho (1)

Review of Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

Written, directed, and performed by Paterson Joseph

Co-Directed by Simon Godwin

At the beginning of his one-man show, Paterson Joseph addresses the audience directly and confesses that he wrote Sancho: An Act of Remembrance  because he always wanted to star in a costume drama.  He then stops and briefly becomes Sir Peter Teazle from The School for Scandal to make the point.  Joseph wrote Sancho, he contends, to fulfill this costume drama fantasy, blocked in its realization by his skin color, and also to put to rest the myth that there were no blacks in Britain in the eighteenth century.  “But don’t worry,” he assures the audience, the show won’t be too overly political, and he promises to mix entertainment with, as the title suggests, remembrance of the first black man to cast a vote in a British election.


Joseph uses the act of voting, along with the portrait of Ignatius Sancho painted by Gainsborough, to anchor his performance.  The author, director, and star soon morphs into his eighteenth-century subject, first by simply pulling his socks up over his pants to approximate eighteenth-century style.  Throughout the production he dons and doffs various pieces of clothing, but the transformations mainly emerge from posture, gesture, and pronunciation.  Paterson Joseph as Sancho (and as several other characters) is charming and nimble throughout.  He gives Sancho a slight lisp, as Sancho reportedly had a speech impediment, but he lisp also marks off when Joseph speaks as the actor/author and when he speaks as Sancho. In one scene, then, Joseph reads a letter written from Lawrence Sterne to Sancho in the character of Sancho doing an impression of Sterne, thus with both lisp and Irish accent.  In another scene, he has Sancho recall his own brief acting career by reciting the speech from Thomas Southerne’s  Oroonoko in which the royal slave pledges his love for Imoinda.  The speech is not only beautifully delivered, but also, one imagines, not unlike the way actors presented such set pieces on the eighteenth-century stage as feats of elocution.  Joseph takes us through Sancho’s life, playing Sancho as a frightened child; a cooperative but restless adolescent in the household of the three maiden sisters to whom he had been given as a gift; an eager student excited by an education made possible by John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu; a butler in the Montagu household; and then later as a middle-aged shopkeeper with a wife and children.  Joseph enlivens the production with Sancho’s impressions of the people who fill his life: the racist ladies who first own him; his beloved West Indian wife; his five-year-old son.  Joseph keeps up an extraordinarily high level of energy throughout.  He portrays his subject with admiration, documenting his accomplishments (writing, composing), his vulnerabilities (gambling), his losses (his parents; a beloved daughter), and the many injustices he faced.  Joseph suggests parallels between Sancho’s frustrated career on the stage and enduring prejudices over color in casting. His moving portrait of Sancho begins with Gainsborough’s painting to suggest the importance of his subject and ends with Sancho casting a vote in favor of an abolitionist candidate.

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance entertains and educates.  Sometimes the performance felt a little piecemeal, with many wonderful scenes but without a full sense of Sancho himself.  Joseph seems to have resisted the temptation to fill in too much from imagination.  It also seems more possible than Joseph acknowledges, at least of late, to see “costume dramas” with mixed-race or race-blind casting, although that doesn’t diminish Joseph’s point about acting while black.  From the teasers embedded in Sancho, I would love to see Joseph in a full production of Southerne’s Oroonoko—or as Peter Teazle in The School for ScandalSancho: An Act of Remembrance takes part in the crucial project of rethinking our picture of the British eighteenth century not just in scholarly writing, but in more broadly public venues as well.  True to his word, Joseph achieves this with subtlety and charm, offering a memorable Sancho and a memorable performance.

jennie batchelor’s “p-word”: UPDATED

Lady's Magazine 1775

Over at the Lady’s Magazine project blog, Jennie Batchelor has posted about her research team’s deliberations about using the “p-word”–“plagiarism”–in relation to the Lady’s Magazine and its republication of writing taken from other printed sources.

As anyone who has perused the LM knows, every issue contains vast amounts of republished materials, sometimes with attribution, sometime with incorrect or misleading attributions, and often without any attribution at all. This kind of practice would certainly be considered a form of plagiarism today, but should we label it that way in retrospect? This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question.

For one thing, the LM’s republishing of others’ content was never treated as a problem by the LM’s readers or even by its competitors; republication was a widely shared practice in both newspapers and magazines, and given tacit support by almost everyone involved. As Batchelor says,

The fact is that a significant number of contributions to the Lady’s Magazine were originally published elsewhere. The periodical did not conceal this fact from its readers. Often such extracts were published with their original author’s name and the full title of the work from which they were extracted or republished in full underneath the article headers. Indeed, the magazine was quite clear throughout its history that it would serve as a miscellany of works from ‘the whole circle of Polite Literature’ as appeared to the editor or editors to ‘merit their readers’ attention’, as well as providing a forum for the numerous original and amusing communications which we continually receive from our ingenious and liberal correspondents’ (‘Address to the Public’, LM XXIII [Jan 1792]: iv).

Yet the LM’s so-called “plagiarism” has become, for us, a much bigger problem, since we operate with very different assumptions about copyright, authorship, and commercial publishing. To complicate it further, today’s LM readers constitute a scholarly rather than commercial audience, and demand more definite information about the magazine and its sources than a casual reader might have desired during its heyday.

The question then becomes whether the scholarly critic or historian of the LM should retrospectively label the LM’s practice as plagiarism, and what is to be gained or lost by using such a term. For example, does giving up the term also entail abandoning attempts to identify the original authors, contexts, or venues of the writings that reappear in the LM? Conversely, could it be possible to continue using the term while dropping its moralistic overtones, which suggest some kind of “theft,” (of what? from whom?). Instead of fixating on these notions of immaterial theft, then, why not focus on the enormous network of contributors and sources that the LM helped to create?

Apart from the very real problems of authorial attribution that the LM research team is confronting in volume after volume, there is also the prospect of a fascinating conceptual payoff to this work, because both authorship and copyright were themselves undergoing radical redefinition during the period of the LM’s publication (e.g.,. the Ossian and Rowley controversies). Perhaps the editorial work will help us recognize this broader reconceptualization through the LM’s own evolving editorial practices.

Yet Batchelor admits that the already murky questions of copyright and plagiarism for literary genres become nearly opaque when we turn to 18c magazines’ editorial practice. So we are left with scant historical evidence about their ubiquitous borrowing.

My suspicion, though, is that the models for copyright and collective authorship in the magazine probably derived from newspapers rather than genres associated with single, named authors. For that reason, I believe the Lady’s Magazine project should drop the term “plagiarism” and use instead the term “republication,” which feels to me more descriptive of what the LM actually did and how it was perceived in its own historical moment.

Here are my reasons for dropping the term “plagiarism” from discussions of the LM:

The paradigm of intellectual property for the LM is not the single-author literary book, but the collectively generated newspaper. For the LM’s initial reading audience, the general practice for newspapers and periodicals had for a long time been a free and unrestricted republication, recirculation, or reworking of “found materials,” whether these were readers’ letters or printed matter. In an era without professional journalists, 18c newspapers could not have been filled week after week without massive amounts of reprinted or reader-supplied materials. Unlike the book-centered genre that most closely resembles the magazine, the anthology, the serial form of the magazine demanded large amounts of fresh content every month, and so the only practical solution to this limitless need was to capture as much content as possible from other printed sources and one’s readers.

In practice, this meant that any editorial staff (whose numbers rarely went beyond a single editor or a few reviewers) produced only a small percentage of a newspaper or magazine’s content, with the remaining items generated by the uncompensated labor of others, either as “extracts” of well-known writers, or as “the numerous amusing and original communications” written by the LM’s own “ingenious and liberal correspondents.”

It seems clear to me, then, that labeling these kinds of republications “plagiarized” would be anachronistic, given the ubiquity and acceptance of the practice, and the disinclination of contemporaries to label them this way.

“Piracy” might offer a less anachronistic term for republication than plagiarism, but even “piracy” was only rarely, and never successfully, applied to 18c periodicals’ republication practices in legal contexts. Since these uses of others’ material seems to have occurred more at the editorial than authorial level, “piracy”* might be a better, more historically apt term, though I don’t know of any cases where magazines’ republications were successfully equated with this era’s book piracy in this period’s law courts.

Will Slauter, for example, has argued that the 1710 Act of Anne “provided authors and booksellers with an exclusive right, during a limited period of time, to print, distribute, and sell their books. Yet the act made no mention of newspapers or other periodicals, whose status as literary property remained ambiguous well into the nineteenth century” (34). According to Slauter, 18c law courts tended to limit proprietors’ attempts to restrict the reworking or recirculation of their material. This was as true of extracts or adaptations as it was of periodical republications. The Act’s silence on this issue, however, did not prevent some publishers from registering their periodicals with the Stationer’s Company in the hopes of defending their property claims, though these forms of copyright were never formally challenged in court.

Thus, the proprietary claims of periodical publishers were treated with relative indifference by 18c courts and judges. This indifference towards the proprietary claims of periodical publishers, however, extended to the publishers themselves, according to Slauter:

such ownership claims [as patent holders’ printing rights for the king’s addresses] were rare with respect to most of the texts that filled eighteenth-century newspapers and magazines. No printer or editor would have dreamed of prohibiting the copying of paragraphs, because that would have made it much harder to fill his own columns. Politically speaking, it had also become more difficult to claim exclusive rights over news and political commentary. During the seventeenth century, censorship and literary property were linked, and news of state officially belonged to the monarch           . . . . During the eighteenth century, by contrast, news became the property of the public, and in a journalistic culture that privileged the free circulation of anonymous paragraphs and pseudonymous essays, it because increasingly difficult to argue that accounts of current events could be owned” (55).

Thus, the courts, newspapers and writers arrived at a tacit consensus that permitted the widest possible reprinting and recirculation of paragraphs as “the basic nugget of news,” treating those paragraphs as a “textual unit” that

could be easily detached from one source and inserted into another. The type had to be set locally, which gave printer-editors the opportunity to modify texts for their local audience. In the process they often stripped paragraphs of references to the circuitous path that they had taken (54).

Since these paragraphs of “news” could not be considered anyone’s exclusive property, they were allowed to be reworked innumerable ways in order to encourage the broadest possible circulation of news and knowledge.

It seems to me, then, that the brief “textual units” of the LM, though formally and generically examples of short fiction, moral essays, biographies, etc., were nonetheless treated on the model of the newspapers’ “textual units,” as a kind of readily accessible, transformable information that could be extracted or reworked as needed.

The magazine itself constituted a genre with its own conventions governing use and re-use of others’ writing, consuming and re-presenting its constituent genres in its own characteristic ways. Batchelor generously acknowledges some of my work (currently under review) on the key generic features of 18c magazines, which she identifies as its “miscellany content,” and which I have described as its ability to “consume other genres.”

The magazine’s capacity to serve as a store-room or repository for varied things (harking back to its etymological origins as a warehouse or depot or armory) seems crucial to its appeal to 18c readers, who read magazines for their generic and authorial variety rather than intimate or extensive knowledge of a particular writer.Once again, it seems to me that this aspect of the magazine’s use–its ability to convey variety and multiplicity to its readers–seems the best way to understand the LM’s cultural functions at this time.  And “plagiarism” tends to suggest very different kinds of use–essentially, the surreptitious theft of a named property–rather than the free exchanges suggested by “republication.”



*Slauter describes one publisher who “defined plagiarism as ‘the surreptitious taking of passages out of any author’s compositions without naming him’ and piracy as ‘the invasion of another’s property by reprinting his copies to his detriment,'” the better to defend his own practice of printing extracts with the author and title fully identified (48).


Since Dr. Konrad Claes has taken the time to follow up Batchelor’s initial post with a further response to my comments here, let me summarize where I think the discussion stands.

  1. I think we all agree that Slauter’s account of the Statute of Queen Anne leaves the precise legal status of non-book republication ambiguous.
  2. This does not mean, however, that authors and publishers did not sometimes try to protect their perceived property by rhetorically invoking the term, as in the case of Cave vs. Trapp, cited by Claes via Deazley. In these cases, Cave was forced to cease republishing extracts because he could not convince the judge he was not trying to reprint the entire work. Hence, magazines were always on safer ground publishing extracts rather than entire works. However, it seems to me that these extracts easily encompassed entire brief essays or stories, as portions of larger works.
  3. I believe that the distinction between plagiarism and piracy is maintained in the examples that Claes cites, when he shows that plagiarism usually describes an individual falsely submitting a work under his or her own name, whereas piracy describes a publisher like Cave simply reappropriating the work of another publisher. I look forward to Claes’s investigation of how both these terms were used throughout the long run of the LM


CFP for Symposium at the University of Maryland


Call for proposals:

The Restoration and the British Empire:

An Interdisciplinary Symposium

April 29th 2016

University of Maryland, College Park

We seek proposals from all disciplines about the Restoration era’s significance for the creation of the British empire, including theater, politics, literature, gender, war, sexuality, colonialism, dissent, religion, and the slave trade.  For purposes of the symposium we define the “Restoration” as roughly 1660-1688, but also welcome considerations of the enduring effects of this period in later times, on other nations, and in all locations touched by this expanding empire.  We particularly encourage proposals that seek to cross oceans & disciplinary boundaries.

This symposium celebrates the move of the journal Restoration

 to the University of Maryland

Keynote Speaker: Timothy Harris, Brown University

Please send proposals of up to one page along with one-page cv to the co-organizers by Nov 1:

Holly Brewer (History) and Laura Rosenthal (English)

Co-sponsored by the UMD English Department; the UMD History Department, and Restoration


CFP for ASECS 2016 Roundtable: New Departures in Historicism and Historicist Praxis (Mowry, Mazella)

Not the Usual Suspects

This roundtable seeks to reconsider historicism and historicist praxis in the wake of Sharon Marcus’ and Stephen Best’s dismissive treatment of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” in their celebration of “surface reading.” Marcus’ and Best’s intention was to make a clean sweep of literary studies, clearing disciplinary space for a reinvigoration of form and formalism. Yet their indictment of historicist approaches has instead provoked wide-ranging scholarly conversations in which scholars have tried to reactivate the critical potential of historicism in newly redefined domains of literature and literary studies. What made this redefinition possible, however, was a set of historical, extra-literary trends that rendered the domains of literature and literary history more expansive and porous than ever before. Thus, in the wake of phenomena like globalization and digitized scholarship, which permit analysis of their objects at ever-increasing scale, historicists of every type have used this debate to enrich their methodologies and to highlight the rising demand that literary studies become responsive to a “world” viewed increasingly in mediatized rather than exclusively textual terms.

The effects of this mutual reconceptualization of historicism and literary studies are registered in a number of ways. Literary periodization is no longer regarded as a comprehensive, unilinear master-narrative, but as a set of clustered authors, genres, texts, and events that allow synchronic comparisons. Historicist literary scholarship engages openly with a variety of urgent critical presentisms (introducing, for example, perspectives of queers, people of color, or laboring people into its analyses), but without its usual anxieties about anachronism. Scholars embrace but also analyze the affective or reflexive relationships that they develop with the objects of their investigations. More broadly, historicist scholars may begin to question the longstanding yet under-examined distinction between text and context, in order to undo the simplistic narratives of causality that this distinction underwrites.

We invite very brief (5 min) presentations from a variety of perspectives that seek to challenge some of the rigidly dyadic oppositions in which historicist literary studies often finds itself deadlocked (e.g., history/theory; presentism/historicism; affect/knowledge; text/context, etc). Papers might consider such questions as: how do space and time figure in the historical or contemporary archive? Does the current focus on form contribute to the deracination of matter? How do recent theorizations of “temporality” affect our conceptualizations of “history” and “historicization”? How does the presumptive “whiteness” of historical scholarship affect its treatment of race in the past or present?

Please submit abstracts or queries to David Mazella ( or Melissa Mowry ( by Sept. 15.

conversations with Tod Massa about assessment

For those interested in this kind of thing, I storify-ed some recent twitter conversations I had with Tod Massa about the past week’s articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed regarding assessment.

Topics included: measurement’s reduction of teaching and learning into countable, thing-like objects; the role of understanding as object of measure and goal of measurement; why knowledge is not a heap of stuff, however valuable; the risks of indirect measurement; how measurement, when properly pursued, can help us perceive changes over time.


why i hate writing learning objectives*

[*even when they’re labeled “course goals”]

I’ve been puzzling over the course goals etc etc for a new grad seminar in pedagogy I’m teaching this spring, and I think I finally pinpointed the single most frustrating aspect of the language of assessment for me, especially when it’s used to guide, direct, or evaluate instruction. It’s the reversal of priorities it seems to entail, when assessment drives pedagogical decision-making instead of the other way around.

Assessment, if it’s viewed as something that manages or directs pedagogy, threatens to take faculty away from all the stuff that we love and value in teaching (e.g., literature, disciplinary research, students, discussions, interactions etc) towards stuff that we may never love, or only barely value (e.g., quantification, social science notions of data and evidence, standardized teaching methodologies, bureaucratic protocols of compliance).

Yet even with these caveats, I still believe that these kinds of assessment exercises have the potential to improve our instruction, so long as they’re conceived as another form of feedback for faculty to use in the creation and revision of our courses. And I think that any course about pedagogy nowadays needs to introduce future teachers to the complex relation of assessment to one’s classroom practice.

Some of the best, most lucid discussions of these issues can be found in Erickson et al.’s book, Teaching First-Year College Students, which is designed to help instructors of first-year students understand the sheer difficulty and significance of this transition for students. But the book is comprehensive enough to help new teachers at any level understand the challenges of teaching and learning in contemporary universities.

So here’s the paragraph I was using to think about my own learning objectives/course goals, in Erickson, et al., p. 71:

Erickson p.71

The process of drawing up these course goals begins by moving the focus away from the person teaching the course to the students taking the course. In other words, we move from “the course will do X” to “students will be able to do Y”) This is a difficult but useful shift in perspective that I think most teachers would endorse.

What is truly counter-intuitive is the major shift identified in the quote: “indicate the behavior expected, not the state of mind students will be in” [emphasis mine]. In other words, what outward behavior or activities manifested by students would provide visible, or even measurable, evidence that students are indeed “knowing, understanding, or thinking” the content of your course? What kinds of evidence can you provide that would corroborate your intuition that student A knew, understand, or thought better than student B?

I believe that experienced teachers intuitively regard “student thinking” as something that they are able to engage with, understand, assess, or try to improve, even if our intuitions and experience can be shown to be fallible.

Redirecting teachers’ attention strictly to student behavior, however, takes us away from our perceptions of students’ thinking, and often forces our attention on the lowest-level tasks and students’ demonstrated acts of compliance, which are of course the easiest parts of student activity to measure. The extent to which we demand that students “know, understand, or think” seem to vanish from this minimalist depiction of learning. And higher ed teachers are particularly baffled by this kind of goal displacement, when discussions of “critical thinking” or “higher-level learning” ignore disciplinary “ways of thinking” that remain tacit or opaque to outsiders.

Unless really ingenious methods of indirect observations are put into effect, the minimal, behaviorist picture of learning is where most of assessments of the learner and learning remain. They essentially inform us of the number of students attending classes and the number of hours they filled seats and drew upon “resources,” meaning instructor time and possibly attention. In some sense, the “competency movement” represents the instructional model that this kind of assessment and its advocates would move towards, but there are real questions about whether it can be done credibly enough to compete with more traditional educational approaches. But the biggest difficulty for all these externally-focused programs of assessment is that they are uninterested in the quality of those interactions or learning that would define an experience as “education” in our usual sense of the term. There is nothing transformative, or potentially transformative, in these kinds of experiences.

The most infuriating aspect of this situation, however, is when this behaviorist language of assessment, once it has rendered most higher-level work invisible, demands that something called “critical thinking” or “upper-level learning” be taught and assessed using the methods that are least suited to generating or observing them. In this scenario, true evaluations of success or failure are essentially irrelevant to the system getting built, because it is outside the control of the student or teacher to alter.

Having said all this, I agree with Erickson that an integration of pedagogy with assessment (via strategies like provisional, instructor-written course goals) remains a worthwhile activity, because it helps clarify to ourselves and our students what we’re attempting to do. In other words, this integration of pedagogy of assessment should be done to the extent that it improves our teaching or our students’ experiences of learning. And anything beyond that feels like a displacement of our genuine goals and values regarding teaching.


incremental learning (on all sides)

Now that the term is over, I’m doing my usual review of the previous semester, and a question came up in my mind: why is it so much easier to improve your teaching incrementally rather than all at once? Why do the attempted, full-scale reinventions fall flat, when longer-term, more piecemeal improvements seem to work better initially and have more lasting results?

There are trade-offs both ways. Doing it all at once gives you the opportunity to start with a clear conception and see it all the way through.  Tweaking is less risky, because you’re usually beginning with something that you’ve inherited or established that feels at least functional, but often you feel like you could be doing things without really understanding the rationale.  The initial impetus has gone away.  But I can say that my most successful teaching has always been in the long-running courses that I’ve had the opportunities to rework year after year.

This semester in my Swift and Literary studies course, which I’ve previously blogged about, I had some small assignments that seemed to help my students in significant ways.  I created these largely because I was concerned about the reading skills of students coming into this course, the gateway for the English major. Here they are:

1. “Representative Passage” assignment for Gulliver’s Travels. I developed this because I felt that students were reading so much criticism and theory that they tended to focus on very obvious passages or episodes from GT for their final assignments.  This assignment was based on some exercises I found in Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice and Blau’s Literature Workshop (discussed earlier on this blog).

The idea was to get students (most of whom had never read Swift or GT or studied much prose besides short stories) to record some key information for each part of GT, then select a passage related to some question for that week’s discussion. Each week, students individually filled out a worksheet describing their choice of passages, then discussed their selections in groups, with the groups choosing one passage then reporting their choices out to the class as a whole. Afterwards, I’d look at the worksheets and recorded discussions, give them a check, check minus, or check plus credit, and return them. I repeated this exercise four times, once for each part of GT. At the end of term, a number of students mentioned how helpful this exercise was for them to hear about other students’ thinking about the selections. And the final papers did feature a wider than usual range of GT passages than I’d seen before.

2. In-class essays. I originally assigned short response essays on topics in critical theory, but I eventually realized that they wrote better timed in-class essays than response essays on these topics.  Then I started collecting their questions on the theorists to create the in-class exam, adapting them as necessary but still leaving them options so they could choose their questions.  Finally, rather than doing these simply as open book or open notes, I allowed students to create a single typed or printed page of notes to bring to class, on the condition that these were handed in along with the completed in-class essays. These note sheets helped me assess students’ understanding and synthesis of the material on the essay, and like their essays, when handed back with feedback, these sheets became another source of ideas for their final research projects. They repeated this cycle twice, just before embarking on the final projects. I think this kind of cycle (questions, note-sheet, in-class essays, feedback) is a good way to teach theoretical topics that ordinarily only the most self-assured students feel comfortable enough to discuss.

What I’ve learned from this is that incremental, recursive cycles during the semester really help them develop the confidence to learn and discuss what they’re learning, but that this is in effect my cycle, too, as I teach the course from term to term.


blau’s literature workshop: interpretive dependence

Apart from his interesting views about the theory/practice split in literature teaching,  Blau has some good insights into the “interpretive dependence” we help instill and reinforce in literature students when we teach in the conventionally authoritative ways.  (This seems equally true in both lecture- and seminar-style courses, incidentally).

In the conventional scenario, the literature professor usually acts as the authoritative source of knowledge. This kind of professor anticipates student confusions with carefully synthesized prefatory lectures; confidently answers questions (because he* [*since this version of authority is heavily gendered] has  answered them a thousand times before); and spontaneously produces the summary remarks that tie together in-class conversations with the authoritative views of experts.  And hey presto! you’re done.

This is the kind of pedagogical model many of us remember from our own education and would love to emulate, because who wouldn’t want to become this kind of authority?  And I admit that even though I share Blau’s skepticism about this kind of teaching, my bad days with things like groupwork or student presentations sometimes make me wish I had a more traditional classroom.

So what is wrong with this model of teaching?  What we should notice is how the satisfactions and learning end up belonging to the figure of authority.  Its successes are not successes of learning, but of teaching.

Blau points out that this kind of teacher-as-authority has cleared away the precious source of any inquiry, which is readerly confusion.  Though Blau doesn’t quite say it this way, the difficulties we encounter in literary works are not obstacles to understanding, but the best way in to deeper, more refined, better integrated understandings of the works we study, through independent inquiry.  His heuristic principle is that “the only texts worth reading are the texts you don’t understand. Because if you understand a text as soon as you read it, you must have understood it before you read it, so you don’t have to bother reading it in the first place” (24).

From the pedagogical perspective, students need to know that it is the texts they don’t immediately understand that may be especially worth reading, because “the process of figuring it out will constitute a process of advancing or deepening your vision.”  This is his way of arguing the value of unfamiliar (yet canonical) texts to the hostile, skeptical or indifferent student who will blurt out, like one of the students he observes, that “this play sucks,” when the class is reading Shakespeare. (Note, however, that this kind of student resistance happens at least as often, if not more, when reading more recently canonized authors.)

From the disciplinary perspective, though, Blau seems to have identified an important aspect of professional literary study, which we might call the literary counterpart of Wineburg‘s “historical thinking“: “interpretive thinking.”  This emerges from his account of the differences between professional and novice readers of a Thoreau passage, where the professionals are actually eager to find the areas of difficulty or confusion that leave novices frustrated, stymied, or depressed at their own insufficiency as readers (28-32).  And the predictable response of such students is to desire, or demand, that an authoritative teacher clear up those problems that could serve as the beginning of their own learning.

Blau’s alternative is the “literature workshop,” which models to students a collaborative, self-revising, process of discussion and synthesis that will support its members as they work their way towards those more refined understandings.  Students should watch teachers engaged in their own struggles to understand questions and devise solutions, and realize how much individual work and outside feedback is necessary to arrive at a finished piece of scholarly interpretation. Though Blau treats the literature workshop as a way of training students to engage in individual inquiry, it seems to me equally important to persuade students to commit fully to a collective process of inquiry and synthesis of multiple perspectives that will benefit them all.

Blau observes that this process-oriented, workshop model is commonplace in first-year and creative writing pedagogies, but much less common among literature instructors.  It would be an interesting question to investigate: in what ways does the study of literature reinforce the traditional dyad of interpretive authority and dependence? And why might this kind of interpretive authority and mode of interaction be seen as a problem, even by some literature scholars, at this point in time?