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.

One response to “Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man

  1. Dave Mazella

    Hmm. Gulliver’s Travels is one of those works that could be taught in one class session or across two semester’s worth of seminars. It really is an accordian-style literary work that expands to fill whatever time you’ve allotted to it.

    It seems to me, though, that you’ve already given yourself some of the most important pointers.

    1. You’re right: don’t ever explain a joke. You may, however, prepare the class for a joke by laying the explanatory groundwork, then reading, slowly and intelligibly, a suitable excerpt. Part of this is about how well you can tell a story/joke/whatever and hold their attention. The oral component of S/S’s style is incredibly important, and needs to be stressed for these students. So read it out loud.

    2. You’re right: don’t lecture. If glossing/explaining/explicating is absolutely necessary for this class, then throw responsibility onto them with small group annotation exercises, presentations, etc., then have them present to class. Make them responsible for finding the information necessary for understanding the jokes.

    3. Always remember that “intellectual satire” means jokes at the expense of intellect. The point is usually to make fun of erudition and the erudite. This can cut down the intimidation factor that leaves them unsure when to laugh. You cannot treat these figures as authorities and expect anyone to laugh.

    4. Slow it down, if you want them to understand it and therefore enjoy it. Sterne, esp. TS, cannot be enjoyed in a week’s reading. Excerpt it, or do it in two or three volume chunks, the way he was first read.

    5. Depending on the students’ knowledge of literature, you might want to lean on Swift’s affiliations with contemporary political satire (Colbert, Borat, etc.) or Sterne’s affiliations with goofier forms of romance/comedy/sentiment etc.. The value of these analogies is to get the discussion started, by the move from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

    6. Help them recognize themselves in the satiric mirror. A lot of S/S involves fairly extensive satire on reading, writing, intellectual work, etc., with the idea of teaching readers to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit thought. How do they feel exposed when reading it, and how do S/S play with those vulnerabilities in their writing?

    7. Introduce some good, accessible criticism into the discussion, and don’t be afraid to teach them some theory (Freud, Mary Douglas, Said etc.)

    8. Relax, and remember that the effects of this kind of teaching are cumulative. Set up opportunities for returning to the text after their research, and encourage them to revise their former understanding, and reflect upon the difference. Give over a certain number of days in the semester entirely to their questions.