Category Archives: Carrie Shanafelt

The slow drag of spring

It’s been quite some time since I did a teaching post here, but things have finally brightened to the point where I can see what’s been going on more clearly. I’m currently teaching two of my regular British Literature Survey II (late Renaissance to early Modernism) courses at Queens College as well as an elective in the Gothic Novel at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. (The latter is a particularly fascinating and wonderful class, and I plan to post about just that one soon.) It’s more than I’m used to teaching, and quite a taxing schedule, with one of my surveys as a three-hour Monday night class ending at 9:20pm, two hours from where I live.

But this isn’t a pity party! Had I written this last week, it would have been. I’ve been absolutely exhausted by the schedule, the commute, and trying to remember what’s going on with each of my 80 students. I’ve been worried about not keeping up with the flurry of small interactions that make class much more pleasant for them. At both of these schools, spring break is at the end of April, due to Passover, two weeks before the end of the semester. We all need a break, now, and they’re as tired as I am. It shows. Conversation in class often dangles when it should be getting exciting, and the small irritations they have with me and with each other are magnified on their faces.

My friends who teach seem to be facing a similar drag. I’ve heard stories of friends waking up their night classes by suddenly throwing chalk at the ceiling or openly demanding to know what’s wrong with everyone. I find myself teasing my class about possibly not having done the reading for the day, which isn’t necessarily fair. Most of my students are either incredibly overbooked or they’re working professionals with day jobs, and they’re often tired because they were up all night doing the reading and are struggling just to do the bare minimum.

So this week I did what I always do at this low ebb in the semester. I asked them to write me a letter in the first seven or so minutes of class. In this letter (which I ask them to start with “Dear Carrie” or “Dear Professor Shanafelt”—cheesy, I know, but enforcing that sense of a personal communication makes their letters less rambling and more direct), they must address four issues:

1) How is class going for you, in general? (Is the pace reasonable? Are you enjoying the readings and discussions?)
2) What can I do to increase your happiness and productivity? (Would you like more group activities? Should we sit in a circle? Do you want more homework?)
3) How do you feel you’re doing in the class? (What are you struggling with? What do you think you’re doing well?)
4) What plans do you have to improve your written work and in-class participation over the coming weeks?

It’s not like an end-of-class evaluation, in that it’s not anonymous, and they also have to evaluate themselves, so I am aware that I am missing out on some of the more deeply structural criticisms they might have of me and the class. But, in general, I find they’re surprisingly honest about what they need and how things are going.

Over the past few days, I’ve learned that some of my students are shy in class because they’re intimidated by some of their classmates (many of whom, it must be said, would have intimidated me in undergrad, too). Some are quiet because they feel the readings are so difficult and they’re too tempted to just listen and take notes. Many asked that I give them specific questions to think about before they do the reading, as opposed to when they arrive in class. And yes, several asked for optional homework assignments (for practice, not for me to grade) and for more group discussion activities.

They often include notes about which of the readings they’ve particularly responded to, as well as the ones they struggled with. But all of them named at least one major aspect of their efforts they’d like to improve upon in the coming weeks. A few invited me to call on them even when they don’t have their hands raised, because they need to learn to be more assertive about their ideas. Several offered a few thoughts on what they think they’re learning that will be useful to them in other classes, and even a few anecdotes about the ideas from class that they’ve applied to outside reading.

I’m really impressed, every semester, by their bravery in response to this activity. Their criticisms are extremely productive for me as a teacher, never the sort of crass “LESS READING! LESS HOMEWORK!” sort of stuff one might expect from such an activity. They don’t give excuses, either, though I do often learn some personal reasons why they’ve struggled recently. I often don’t know which students can emotionally handle being pressed on a bit harder, and many of them invite me to do so. I’d say only a small percentage exclusively said positive things, but even those were productive. (“I really enjoyed our group activity on Wieland. Can we do a few more of those?”)

I always read these things with one eye closed, waiting for someone to really blast me on something, but they never do. I’m quite positive that some of them aren’t the world’s biggest fans of my class, and that will come out in official evaluations and on RateMyProfessors.com, but on this activity, they’re pretty productive and courteous. I come away learning a lot about how to be a better, more responsive teacher, and they make various vows to become better, harder-working students. All this stuff about their goals might just be lip service, but it’s lip service that’s worth doing anyway.

In the past, I’ve seen post-evaluation classes take a remarkable turn for the better. What I thought were petty resentments turn out to have been mild grievances that are easy to address, or, even more frequently, expressions of self-doubt and exhaustion. Spring has been pretty relentless for all of us. After this evaluation day, we all seem to come to class with a slightly better attitude and a renewed sense of what we’re doing all this work for.

How about you? Do you face this same kind of mid-semester slump? What do you do to combat it? Have you tried a class evaluation day? How did it go?

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Johnson’s letters, scanned

I briefly pop my head up out of an excruciatingly busy semester to note that Harvard is in the process of scanning their collection of Johnson’s letters. From the OASIS website:

This collection consists of 746 letters and fragments written by Johnson between 1731 and 1784, and manuscript transcripts and reproductions of other Johnson letters which are unavailable elsewhere. It is the largest single collection of Johnson’s letters in existence, comprising nearly half of the known surviving letters. It includes 232 letters to Johnson’s most regular correspondent, his friend Hester Lynch Thrale (later Hester Lynch Piozzi), from 1765 until Johnson ceased his correspondence with her in 1784.
Other particularly noteworthy correspondents were actor David Garrick (1717-1779); the painters Frances Reynolds (1729-1807) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792); and novelist Samuel Richardson (1689-1761). Regular correspondents represented most heavily in the collection include Mrs. Thrale’s daughter Hester (later Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith, 1764-1857); friend and protege Bennet Langton (1737-1801); stepdaughter Lucy Porter (1715-1786); and boyhood friend John Taylor (1711-1788).

So far, only a fraction of these letters has been scanned, but they appear to be working through their collection to make them available to the public. If you scroll down on their site, you’ll see links to color facsimiles from this collection. (I’m particularly fond of this one.) And I’ll also put a link in our resources sidebar, so if you’re looking for it later, it will be here.

-Carrie Shanafelt

Cultural Studies and the BABL

The 18th-century cultural studies panel from MLA provided an excellent discussion about the opportunities and limitations of cultural studies as pedagogy, especially in the undergraduate classroom, and has got me thinking about ways to solve, or at least massage, some of the problems discussed on the panel, using some of the resources that are cropping up for instructors as guides for my students. The main problem that emerged during the cultural studies panel and the ECCO panel that morning was the lack of a guide to navigate the wealth of contextualizing sources available to our students, many of whom lack the research experience and intuition necessary to decide what is relevant to the study of a historical text and what may not yield a fruitful contextualization.

One of the resources I’m excited to have accessed is the Broadview Anthology of British Literature’s Instructor’s Guide, which I contributed to last summer. I got a passcode for these materials at Broadview’s display at the convention, and am very pleased to see the materials assembled there, which I can see using quite actively in the classroom. The guides generally provide a series of critical approaches to the authors, a few thoughtful readings of their major works, some questions for discussion, some material on critical responses to the works, and often a nice section of texts that provide some cultural context for the work. Although not all of the authors are covered yet, the ones that are provide a sort of roadmap to criticism and historical sources for many of the authors and texts we teach at the undergraduate level.

Obviously, the guides provided by BABL are limited in that the historical sources they suggest are those chosen by whatever scholar wrote the draft of the guide, but they do offer, at least, positive suggestions (i.e., something like “Try looking here”) as opposed to the negative suggestions we often find ourselves making to undergraduate researchers (“No, that’s probably not going to be a good source; try again”). My own guide, on Swift, reflects my personal interests in popular print culture and political economies, and is therefore quite limited, beyond some suggestions about other topics to research. However, I hope it offers something like what I offer students in class who simply don’t know where to start—a suggestion of a few leads that have the potential to produce an exciting research project, leading to further research more specific to that student’s interests.

One of the most exciting things, pedagogically, for those of us who encourage historical research in literature classes, is that our students may find wonderful sources that we’ve never encountered before, and make excellent connections we haven’t thought of. Those who have a knack for sussing out sources and making interesting conclusions can respond to an open-ended research assignment with passionate inquiry. However, at the undergraduate level, these open-ended research assignments can result, as Dwight Codr suggested during the panel, in a kind of despair.

In my own historical-research wiki assignment, in which I offered 70 narrow topics for research to my students, the results were either inspiringly brilliant or depressingly nonexistent. Quite a few students chose to take a zero for the assignment rather than complete the work, and a great number did only cursory and often inappropriate research (citing other student-made websites rather than primary sources, etc.), despite a great deal of class-time devoted to discussion of how to find and use primary sources. I eventually had to make the assignment extra-credit, so as not to fail a third of each of my classes. I assumed at the time that the project itself was doomed, but now I wonder if the problem was that one must not just teach students to do primary source research; one must model it for them by guiding them to examples of appropriate sources first, not just topics and suggestions for where to look.

What I hope to use the BABL guide for next semester is to mine it for historical sources that I can assign directly to students who do not readily come up with sources of their own, and to assign them the contextualization work suggested by the guides and by my own previous reading experiences. Once they have followed a path that previous scholars have found fruitful, perhaps they can then be more attuned to the kinds of sources they might look for in future assignments. After all, most of us learned to do contextualizing research by reading professional historicist criticism, not by slogging blind through special collections or databases. We learn to do this work largely by example, not by trial and error.

The problem in the past, for me, has been that my reading of primary sources outside of literature has largely been in special collections that my students do not have access to, and little of it has been the kind of stuff that interests my students. While I’d love to get them all interested in the Gentleman’s Magazine or in Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England, I can’t necessarily expect them all to travel from their homes on Long Island to midtown Manhattan to spend four or five hours trying to decipher typefaces totally unfamiliar to them, and expect them to find something critically interesting and relevant to the class, and expect them to then draw knowledgeable and well-written conclusions about those sources that their classmates will then read and use. Out of the past 200 or so students I’ve urged to go use a special collection for their research, exactly one student actually did it, and she ended up citing almost nothing she read there.

Although the BABL guides don’t tend to reproduce entire sources, they do often provide a few pages of contextualizing sources, from which a student could at least get a hint of whether she wants to spend time looking further at that source or not. On a larger scale, one could imagine a resource like the BABL guides, except perhaps in a wiki form, with suggestions by scholars of possible contextualizing sources for major authors or genres and short excerpts, as well as lists of places to find these resources on the web, on EEBO or ECCO, or in special collections. This would take a great deal of time and energy on instructors’ and scholars’ parts, but, if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it’s that human beings are glad to expend energy in a collective way if there is the promise of an output greater than their individual input.

Do we think it’s possible for literary and cultural-studies scholars, a turf-warfare bunch if ever there was one, to cooperate in some kind of project like this? Would it be best to run it somewhat like Wikipedia, with mostly pseudonymous authorship and editing? Would it be a gigantic disaster?

-Carrie Shanafelt

Michael Warner on religion and politics

Last night, Michael Warner spoke at the Graduate Center as the plenary talk for the interdisciplinary “Religion and Sexuality” conference being held today. His talk was a riveting call to restructure the terms of the ongoing debate about the role of religion in secular politics.

His key point was the way in which the language of eighteenth-century evangelical religion, in which one is “a Christian” because of one’s declared faith (rather than, say, adherence to religious law or cultural associations), has been extrapolated in American politics to create a division between all religious peoples (“faith-based initiatives,” etc.) and secularism, which is defined as a lack of faith. He noted the ways in which even non-Christian religions are defined by political bodies as “faiths,” even though faith itself is a specifically Christian-evangelical requirement for religious affiliation. Warner noted that in Stanley Fish’s op-ed columns, Fish has repeatedly opined that he (as a secularist) feels jealousy of radical Muslims and Christians alike because they have “something” to believe in and fight for, while secular individuals have “nothing” to believe in.

Warner argued for a revision of this rhetorical separation between faith and absence-of-faith as a specifically evangelical mindset that neither does justice to non-faith-based religions or to the very long history of secular ethics. One way of doing this, he argued, is not to relentlessly separate the terms of church and state, but to recognize that if churches wish to be considered political entities, they must be analyzed in political terms, in part because the “beliefs” that religions bring into political realms are constantly changing, unrooted in either biblical or ecclesiastical history, and constantly plead self-referentiality. The war against homosexuality, for example, has never been a primary issue of Christianity until recently, when suddenly it has become the very shibboleth by which certain Christian groups assert their faith.

In the end, it seems, extrapolating “faith” to mean “whatever political interests the religion currently serves,” makes it a similarly empty and ahistorical category as secularism. It must not be called to answer for its lack of relevance to 2000 years of Christian ethics, and it also cannot be called to task under the provisions of the Constitution. If “freedom of religion” has come to mean that anyone in the U.S. can do anything and limit anyone else’s rights, as long as they call that impulse “faith,” then secular political discourse becomes totally powerless. After all, the problem with religious control of politics is not that it makes for bad “faith,” but that it makes for unacceptable political positions. Meanwhile, the very terms of “faith” require that all religious-political impulses frame themselves as faith-based, even when non-evangelical religions base community participation on other terms.

It was a brilliant argument and a deeply historical view of religion and politics in the U.S. over the past 230 years. Unfortunately, it seemed to spawn exactly the sort of conversation whose terms Warner was attempting to reset. I was extremely frustrated by the intransigence of the respondents toward a dialogue about the history of the discourse. There is a deep commitment in the secular academy to an us-vs.-them mentality with respect to religion, and a fear of engaging with anything called “faith” as a discourse, or as rhetoric. The conversation seemed to spin out into statements of the deeply-held “beliefs” of secularists, and then into religious audience members’ fear of an atheist-totalitarian state. A few questioners responded to Warner’s talk as it was presented, but his method of analysis seemed, sadly, completely unfamiliar to most of the respondents, who insisted on reasserting a post-1950’s view of what is true and must always have been true about U.S. politics.

NYC-area announcement!

Hello, all! NEASECS last weekend was a wonderful time, especially finally meeting Dave Mazella after over a year of knowing one another as co-bloggers online. We had a great conversation about academic blogging and the purposes it can serve our particular community, as well as its limitations. I had an exciting nine-hour train ride that Thursday, and again on Saturday, providing an excellent break from work here in New York and some beautiful vistas of the Vermont countryside in full fall splendor.

In other news, the Eighteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Group here at the City University Graduate Center will be hosting an exciting event this Friday at 2pm. Paula McDowell (Associate Professor of English at NYU) will be presenting a talk entitled “‘Gently drawn, and struggling less and less’: Media Shift and Agency in Pope’s Dunciad and McLuhan’s Pope.”

The talk and ensuing conversation will take place in the Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library, in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room on the concourse level, room C196.05. The Graduate Center is at 365 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (Please email me at carrieshanafelt@gmail.com if you’d like to attend, so we can give your name to the library security staff.) We will enjoy refreshments and have a nice long chat afterward.

I hope to see you there!

Blogging at NEASECS

In about an hour, Dave Mazella and I will be presenting on this blog and academic blogging in general. If you’re here at the conference, please join us in Haldeman 125 at Dartmouth! If you’re not, Dave and I will probably be posting our impressions of what happened here in lovely foggy New Hampshire soon.

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NYT on the culture wars and traditional literary study

Someone on my student listserv brought our attention to this article, which looks back at Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and its offspring. It’s started an interesting conversation among students about how we feel about “multi-culturalism” and the study of historical literatures. Why are the approaches to historical lit so apparently hostile to the politics of race, gender, and class?

Our conversation reminded me of several times when students in various Ph.D. programs have said they often feel uncomfortable bringing up, e.g., race or gender in the context of Shakespeare or Milton. While some professors actively encourage “political” conversations about literature, there is no shortage of those who assume that to politicize a text is to demean (or at least ignore) its formal/aesthetic value.

This is something I’m obviously interested in keeping an eye on. Beginning graduate students who have studied postcolonial theory or queer theory in undergrad often go on to take graduate courses in historical literature, and sometimes find that their usual methods of analysis are taken as immature or knee-jerking, and instead of being encouraged to apply them in a more historically conscious way, they often feel that the application is seen as inappropriate altogether.

My more generous side wants to reply that historical-lit professors are particularly wary of students fitting late-20th-century terminology to periods in which those categories have not been fully formed. When a student calls attention to a “racist” passage in a 17th-century poem, the professor will usually respond by trying to tease out the history of the construction of “race,” which may, unfortunately, come across as invalidating what could be a very fruitful conversation about colonialism and early modern cross-cultural confrontations.

But my less generous interpretation fears that the unwillingness to talk about global contexts and non-heteronormative sexuality in historical lit is an effect of politics not being within a professor’s particular interests, and that they may feel like these conversations are best saved for contemporary lit classes. Semesters can feel very crowded, and since so much of class time in historical lit must be taken up with hermeneutic and rhetorical analysis, a conversation about politics may feel like a derailing.

The effect, then, is that young scholars who may want to learn how to apply their interests to historical lit feel marginalized to the point that they eventually return to studying late 20th-century texts. (I have an acquaintance who had hoped to do an MA thesis on Defoe and enslavement who got so discouraged by the apparent resistance of his professors that he “retreated”—his word—to African-American Studies.) And I think the early modern period, especially the eighteenth century, suffers from the loss.

We have all seen clumsy applications of gender and race theory to texts in our period, but I’d argue that it’s a problem of failing to sufficiently historicize gender or race, not a problem with the desire itself, and the encouragement to historicize these approaches has to come from somewhere. The white masculinist academy has often sidestepped these issues in historical literature, even when the authors themselves explicitly address them. To politicize a reading of Defoe, in my opinion, is not to ignore what Defoe is doing, but to do justice to it.

The good news is that this is changing. Many young scholars of my acquaintance are starting to see this battle between “identity politics” on the one hand and “traditional literary scholarship” on the other as a false binary. Surely this is because people like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have been troubling it all along by working on queer theory that isn’t just robust enough to analyze Jeannette Winterson, but also robust enough to analyze John Donne. (Post)colonial theory, too, is becoming incredibly useful, not just for Nigerian lit, but also for Milton. This year, Queens College welcomed a new Asst. Professor, Eric Song, whose work analyzes English nativism in the context of early globalization in seventeenth-century poetry.

When I think about the scholarly possibilities that arise not from breaking down traditional approaches to historical lit, but supplementing them with long-overdue political awareness, I get very excited for our field and the scholarship that can come out of graduate students and young scholars over the next twenty years.