Daily Archives: August 4, 2008

Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man

Once again, I apologize for such an extended absence. New York keeps getting more expensive, so I take on more teaching, and then try to fit degree progress in there somewhere. I’ve found setting unreasonable and frightening deadlines for myself to be just the thing. Currently, I’m getting the dissertation planned out for drafting. It’s the first time I’ve ever really needed to think about structure in a serious way, since it looks to be a rather enormous project and needs cement barricades around each chapter to keep any more texts from rushing in. I will hold off discussing the project any more here until more of it is done, since well-meaning suggestions of more things I could include will result in whimpering, and possibly tears.

For the fall, I’m planning three courses. One is a class at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women on eighteenth-century satire, and I’m very excited about it. Last semester at SCW, I did “The Gothic Novel,” which was an ideal first experience to have at a new teaching job. Nine novels of terror and romance, all about gender, class, race, nationality, religion, and criminal justice? Sometimes with ghosts? I need to do justice to my students, who were extremely smart and passionate, but whatever credit I might take goes to the books themselves. You couldn’t have a boring discussion about Wieland if you tried.

The satire course might be a bit tougher to sell. The material is great, of course, but it’s unnerving stuff. Just teaching Gulliver every semester is enough to depress me for three weeks. And Tristram Shandy is even more dangerous. What does one do if they don’t think it’s funny? Tap dance? Grimly lecture on Locke and then say “Haw, haw, get it?” Joke-explaining is, for me, the least rewarding part of teaching literature, so much so that I have instituted a rule after the first month of classes that I will only explain one joke per day. There is a certain kind of lecturing (and joke-explaining is the worst) that silences discussion instead of encouraging it. I feel it’s going to require a bit more effort on my part to keep the satire class from having too much chalk-and-talk.

Any ideas for making a class on satire more collaborative? I have had some good experiences with group exercises and Swift, but I haven’t taught Sterne before, other than small excerpts. All of my own classes on satire were particularly lecture-heavy, so I don’t have much to draw from.



[image courtesy of Let’s be friends, an interspecies friendship blog with implausibly cute photos]

This has been a productive summer, largely because I’ve been able to get a number of projects going with the help of collaborators.  Most of these are related in one way or another to pedagogy, and most involve the work I’m doing on-campus to improve undergraduate teaching and research at UH.  For some reason, the pedagogy stuff always feels easier to share.  I also think that focusing on the work aspect of it and students’ performance helps disable some of the anxieties I have about research and writing.

First of all, I’m co-authoring an article on my 1771 course with the special collections librarian who worked with me last spring, Ms. Julie Grob.  That piece will be done before the end of summer and submitted to a library journal.  Working with librarians over the past year has really impressed me with their collaborative skills,  because librarians always seem able to work together much more productively than I’ve found with faculty members.

I’m also fortunate enough to have an undergraduate research assistant, SG, who has done a terrific job vacuuming up primary and secondary sources for the 1771 book while getting on with her own research in the 18th century.  SG will be back in classes soon to finish up her final year, but in the meantime I’ll have a nice backlog of materials to sort through for the rest of this school year.  I’ve never directed undergraduate research like this before, but it seems much less fraught than directing graduate work, because it really is focused on the intellectual task at hand, rather than that plus all the professionalization issues that come with grad-level instruction.

Finally, on a more reflective note, I’ve been thinking a great deal about this talk on collaboration and the web by Mr. Clay Shirky.  Shirky discusses the institutional obstacles to collaboration in formal corporate structures (read: academic departments), which contrast with the informal collaborative structures of the web.  (Much of this talk seems to be a rehearsal for his exposition of these themes in his recent book/blog/etc. Here Comes Everybody)  At the same time, this somewhat churlish review by Felix Stalder hammers at some of the self-imposed limitations of Shirky’s approach to the web and its characteristic forms of organization.

While reading Stalder, however, I thought that it would be interesting to revisit contemporary accounts of the European Enlightenment, to see if we could similarly recognize the tension between the social interests of the Enlightenment’s “users,” and the commercial interests of its “proprietors.”  And perhaps one of the key legacies of the commercial Enlightenment lay not in its “ideas,” but in the social, political, and aesthetic organizations used to communicate them all over the world?  Nonetheless, what is more characteristic of Enlightenment thought than its interest in collaboration, and the collective pursuit of knowledge?