Week 1, Spring ’08

My apologies for the light posting over the past few weeks.  After a quick trip to Shady Side to visit my folks, I’ve been doing last-minute preps for my new 1771 course, along with the usual end-of-break rush to resolve things from the last semester.  I won’t even use the metaphor of “clearing my desk,” since at this point what I need to clear is floorspace in my offices at home and on campus.  The impetus for this was my wife’s demand that I remove all the boxes of files left over from the book (the last book) from the house pronto, and either shred or store the files, she didn’t care which, so long as she never had to look at them again.

 After reading this, I reluctantly agreed to start moving boxes out of the house.  After a few trips, though, this project was redefined as just dumping the boxes in my office on campus.  Now my office on campus is beginning to feel a little cramped and claustrophobic, sort of like those tense interior scenes in Das Boot, only without the steam or standing water.  But those guys loved where they worked, right?

  Since I seem to be spending less time inside my office (and who needs to sit down while they work, anyway?), I’ve started gathering some new group commitments, but these feel much more appealing than any of the service I did last term.  Some grad students want to read some texts in the history of aesthetics; the Rice Early Modern Reading group looks like it will be active again; and I just put together a blogging panel with some grad students for a technology showcase on campus next month.

And then there was my first week of teaching.  My 3301 Swift and Literary Studies went fine, as usual.  I’ve got some returning students there, and it looks to be a very bright and talkative group.  My 1771 course, however, is looking a bit more complicated. 

The 1771 course, which has gotten tremendous support from both the library and the college, is going to be a pilot course in undergrad research for the college QEP.  So far so good.  But the prerequisites that were going to ensure a more homogeneous and advanced group (it’s an experimental capstone) vanished with the implementation of a new centralized registration system. 

So a bunch of randomish people who had never attended the class appeared on my rolls after the first week’s meetings.  In the meantime,  the students that I did have in the classroom were either intimidated or confused about the purpose of a course that has moved outside the conventional lecture-format.  It didn’t help that the single-year focus scrambles our usual parameters of author-genre-period-survey.  What’s this about? they ask.  And why are we helping you write your book?  And what’s this about, again?

 But as soon as we started reading Humphry Clinker, with me lecturing again and them taking notes, things settled down.  And then I realized all over again that just to read a moderately challenging novel like HC, we could spend my entire “London” segment concentrating upon purely “literary” questions like plot, character, setting, etc. for a single novel, without ever attempting any outside research at all.  And, to compound the problem, I was having them read HC without covering any other novels beforehand, so that every convention of this highly conventional novel would have to be explained for the first time in the next week or so. 

And this, I discovered, is the chief reason why most undergrad novel courses begin in 1688 or thereabouts, and not 1771.  So now I know.  However, I do have the next 14 weeks to learn more reasons why you should never attempt a single-year course.

Which leads me to my final point.  At MLA during my talk, I became interested in the continual anxiety we feel about the quality and sophistication of the contexts imparted to students, and the feelings of anger, guilt, frustration, regret, etc. which arise when students don’t seem capable of that kind of sophistication in their discussions and written work. 

And I think that undergrad education nowadays is divided up between what I’d call “mimetic” institutions, where it’s assumed that students are indeed capable of reproducing the lectures, and the “non-mimetic” ones, where the whole business of teaching is obsessed with building up their capacities for reproduction.  But I think it’s probably more effective to focus upon how much “use” our students can make of what we teach them (cf. de Certeau), and to worry less about how well they mimic our lectures.  And this is a surprisingly difficult lesson to learn, even after ten years of teaching students in an institution like UH.

Best, 

DM

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