Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Know I Said Blogging Would Be Light, But...

I cannot grade. I cannot. I know I have to, and I will at some point, but now, no.

Today was long as shit. The cable access interview thing went fine, whatevs. Then I had to moderate a student focus group related to the work of CTTCCFPD, and it was great. First, the students came up with a couple of great suggestions about how to make things clearer, as well as for what should be included in a course we'd develop should the requirements be changed. Second, they really took the whole "focus group" thing seriously and offered incredibly substantive feedback, even on things that they didn't necessarily "like."

I suppose I was so happy with this because certain people seemed to think that the focus groups were dumb - that students couldn't possibly contribute in meaningful ways to this process. I've got to say, I really think that students generally will contribute in meaningful ways to whole bunches of things if they know that their input is being taken seriously. To be fair, though, participation was on a volunteer basis, and so it was a self-selecting group of smarties whom I know, and whom I know really care about these issues. I attract the smarties to me - what can I say? Engaged smarties who have great things to offer. Sure, they're not "experts" in the field, but their perspective is important and not uninformed and without merit. I've never doubted this - and not because I think we should "just give students what they want." Things like these focus groups allow for us to explain to students why some things are as they are and shouldn't change, and they allow for us to let students have ownership over their education. I think that should really be the goal, although I suppose some might think I'm a "radical" and a "revolutionary" for thinking that students should drive their own educations.

I've got to say, though, that I'm really astonished that those who have been in the minority in these discussions (and whose voices have been loudest and most offensive) didn't persuade more students who are into them to participate, because seriously: if they had, it might have made their position on matters related to CTTCCFPD seem a bit less self-serving. Had I been in their position, I'd have tried to stack these focus groups with students who would advocate for the thing that I wanted. Sure, that would have been totally political and even maybe diabolical, but it's what I'd have done. As it is, those people haven't paid attention to the focus groups (I'd asked for potential questions that we should ask students from these people, because I'm nothing if not inclusive, but they offered nothing substantive in response to those requests) because they don't value the input of students on these matters (I'm paraphrasing, but this is not just conjecture on my part - somebody actually wrote just about that to me in an email - which left me dumbfounded).

So, focus group number two will take place tomorrow, and I've also got some questionnaires coming in from students who can't attend the meetings but who want to participate. I'm excited to see what further feedback comes in.

In other news, I had a very productive meeting with BES, and I'm so proud of the work that she's doing. And I also taught some great poems in my intro to lit class, and the students worked very hard on interpreting them. On the fly, I also introduced them to "Susie Asado" by Gertrude Stein, and it was awesome to see their reactions. "What is a nail. A nail is unison." One of my absolute favorite lines of poetry ever. Ah, Stein. She rules. (I am loving her especially right now because I've been reading Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation as bedtime reading, and I'm wicked into all those expatriate modernists - and am coming around to the feeling that Pound and Hemingway may be the coolest, in spite of the fascism and misogyny.)

You know what's funny? In the process that has been CTTCCFPD, I've been painted by some as this "radical" who doesn't actually care about "real" literature. A "revolutionary" who is about "giving students what they want" (as in, the "customer" is always right) and who is caving to "pressures" from other "factions" - "factions" that don't understand what "real" literature is and who think "anything" should go (note: these "factions" involve people who work on "outsiders" like Melville and James and Toni Morrison). This has been so freaking weird because anybody who actually pays attention to what I teach and to how I conduct my scholarship - including the literary texts that I do scholarship on as well as how I use theory to get to my interpretations and to assist what I want to argue - would typically (I imagine) see me as a weirdly conservative traditionalist. I believe in the canon. Not in canons. I teach canonical texts. I believe in forcing students to read Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and I think that T.S. Eliot's claims in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" constitute some meaningful and important shit even in the 21st century. I advise my students to take courses that give them historical coverage - as in, dude, you need some Chaucer or, dude, you need some Restoration Drama; I emphasize how important defining a broad canon of literature is. I care about aesthetics and aesthetic traditions - and I sort of hate the idea of putting women's lit or multicultural/postcolonial lit into their own canons that compete (and never catch up with) with a dominant canon. I don't want "alternate canons" - I want a canon that includes the best - which means letting some people in who would historically have been marginalized, and which involves excluding some WASP males who aren't so hot, in comparison. I'm a person who took Latin and Anglo-Saxon at the graduate level, and I'm a person who wrote a book on three authors who are central to anybody's discussion of what the "canon" includes. Anybody's. And I'm a person who thinks that using literature to "do" theory, and that to do away with things like close reading and analysis in the service of the "next big thing" is pure stupidity. I care about foundations, and I believe that some texts have more merit than others. Sure. I'm theoretical in my approach to literature. And sure, I think that there is value in thinking about "low culture" texts. But dude: Virginia Woolf is more important than Judith Krantz. All things are not equal. More people may read Judith Krantz, but more people should read Virginia Woolf. Period. I believe in literary periods, and I believe in Literature - Capital L - I think Literature matters. I consistently advise my students that they shouldn't ignore things like the 18th century, for example. (I'll admit, I sometimes support my students when they want to ignore Tennyson, but that's because I'm not into him. It's not like a rejection of the 19th century or something. Dude, ignore Tennyson. Fine. But fuck off if you also want to ignore Elizibeth Barrett Browning and Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell and Matthew Arnold and George Eliot and Walter Pater. Hell, fuck off if you want to ignore George Gissing. That's some good shit.) The point is (and really, I do have a point) I'm not some revolutionary at all.

It's just that I don't believe that literature begins and ends with Shakespeare (to give just one example). I want lots of important and canonical things to count for students. I want for the courses that students take (and that we require) to really show them the field. I want them to understand that historical coverage means covering a large swath of history in their upper-level classes - not just "really old shit" that they take because "really old shit" is required, but also not excluding "really old shit." I want them to understand that both American and British Literature matter - that it's not the early part of the 20th century and that we've really passed the point that Matthew Josephson was at in freaking 1916 when he lamented that "many of his own professors knew nothing yet of Melville or Dickinson and that they disparaged Henry James" (Fitch 232). I've got colleagues in 2009 who could be these 1916 professors. Dude, American literature exists and it's not radical to claim that it matters. We've got to acknowledge its centrality, especially as we live in America. And my specialization is not American literature, but I get that American literature counts and matters. And yes, texts from the 2oth and 21st century count and matter, too. In terms of the field today. Call me freaking Crazy. Clearly believing these things must mean that I'm off my rocker.

What was awesome about the students today is that they freaking know a hell of a lot more about the field as it stands today, and what matters in literary studies today, than some of my colleagues do - in spite of our current curriculum. And they really want rigor that doesn't exist in the current curriculum, in spite of it's circa 1970 requirements. Sure, they want choice, but they want to choose things that I think most professors in this field would call "good." They don't want Judith Krantz. They want people like Dreiser and Faulkner and Hannah Foster and Salman Rushdie and A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch and James Fennimore Cooper and Emily Bronte and Kurt Vonnegut. Seriously. And seriously, who'd want those authors as because they are "easy" or "fun"? Who'd choose them if they were just looking for cotton candy? Students are not saying that they want Dean Koontz. They want real coverage. Really? Those things are "easier" than Dryden? Or Pope? Or Marlowe? Or Aphra Behn? Seriously?

I've read all of the above, and personally I think that Behn is "easier" than Rushdie. But somehow Rushdie is "fun" and Behn isn't? Really? Read The Rover and then read Midnight's Children and report back. See which you think is more "fun" and "easy."

The point is, students freaking rock. And those who think that they have nothing substantive to offer to discussions of curriculum are stupid. Yep, I'm saying that. They are stupid. They are stupid and small-minded people. Not because students are customers that we serve, but because we're teaching them and they're learning and they have really awesome things to contribute. And if you reject those contributions, it's only evidence of the fact that you're a small-minded person and a short-sighted person. Period.

Tomorrow will be another long day, but I'm feeling very positive. Very, very positive. Because students are not idiots and they really have great things to say. That's more than I can say for some (and I should note that this is a small minority) of my "colleagues."


Another Damned Medievalist said...

How about some Delaney and Butler in there, Crazy? or even some Gibson? Or Lovecraft or Wells? (ok, one of those is not American)

Sisyphus said...

Whoah. You've got some weird-ass professors over there, Crazy.

*shakes head in amazement*

Shaun Huston said...

"I cannot grade. I cannot. I know I have to, and I will at some point, but now, no." I know this feeling well. Being on quarters, I am now in the throes of needing to grade, with the Dean breathing down our collective neck to be timely to facilitate student planning for next term. Thank goodness for the internets and its wealth of worthy distractions.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I think you're right about student input and that you're doing a good thing with these focus groups.

The thing is, your repsonses might be very different if it was 'ask the class ______' -- because then you're getting answers from the clods as well as the brilliant ones. I think the input that SHOULD count is what comes from the ones who care enough to show up.

There is a parallel with the 'anti-Dr. Crazy' forces as well -- they don't really care enough to stack the decks against you. That's more trouble than its worth and they don't think student input is important anyway, so why bother? Besides, that kind of arrogance only comes from being SURE you are right and SURE that you have others behind you, even when you don't.

Shane in SLC said...

The point is, students freaking rock. And those who think that they have nothing substantive to offer to discussions of curriculum are stupid

Right on! My students rock too! (But so do my Lit Studies colleagues here, who totally value student perspectives.)

Read The Rover and then read Midnight's Children and report back. See which you think is more "fun" and "easy."

Heh. I just wrapped up a 2-week unit on MC yesterday in my senior seminar. It had 12 really smart senior English majors in the literary studies track giving themselves migraines trying to figure out. Great book.

I'm curious: do the reactionary jackasses on this committee who think that "literature" stopped being written in 1870 also have a very conservative pedagogical philosophy? I.e. entirely lecture-based, transmitting to students the "correct readings" of each text, and then testing the students' retention of those readings through multiple choice tests? In my experience, there's a strong correlation between the two attitudes...

Any chance you'll sum up the students' responses from the focus group for us?

Shane in SLC said...

Oh, and while we're adding authors to your canon, I'd vote for Walcott, Coetzee, Soyinka, and Zoƫ Wicomb, to start with. (I'm not sure Wicomb's in anybody's canon except mine, but she should be, dammit!)