Archive for Teaching

Summer 14 course materials: Introduction to Literary Theory

Posted in Teaching, The Profession with tags , , , , , , , on 25 May 2014 by Ben

This summer, during the June  ‘A’ Term, I will be teaching (for the second time ever), ENGL 2112: Introduction to Literary Theory. You can find the description of my previous stab at it here along with some course documents. This time things will be a bit different, as I am eschewing the “know a few things well” approach that I tried to employ last time even if I am trying not to teach according either to the “canonical theory” or “theory cafeteria” models which seem to prevail in many such courses.

Download the schedule (ENGL_2112_Schedule_2), the syllabus(ENGL_2112_Syllabus), and the daily worksheet assignment (Daily_worksheet_assignment) if you like. Looking them over as you read will be helpful.

So, in what follows I want to explain and perhaps rationalize the schedule and shape of the course. Note that in the last version of the course we read books of theory, D+G’s Kafka book, for example. Here we are using the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Thoery and Criticism as our only text for two reasons. First, cost/efficiency. It’s a spendy book, yes, but it has resale value to students and could be less than five or six university press titles we won’t even be able to finish. Plus, everyone knows where the readings are and what to bring to class every day. The second reason is that by limiting myself to the Norton, just as with limiting myself to post-1980 theory, I am adding a helpful constraint. I don’t have to think about everything. I don’t think of this as being derelict in my duty as I would have to leave things out no matter what, whether I am drawing from ALL of theory or just from the selections in the anthology. I guess I could add another reason, namely that dealing with an anthology offers us a chance to think about the politics of anthologies, a major point of contention in the culture wars of the 1980s. In any case, I know there are drawbacks to the “antho-logical” approach (not the least of which is the appearance of “cafeteria”style theory), but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in this experiment in course design. (I think. I hope.)

More below the fold.

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on trigger warnings

Posted in Teaching, The Profession with tags , , on 20 May 2014 by Ben

A discussion on Twitter (although “discussion” is, of course, a rather problematic concept in that context, natch), prompts the following.

I painted myself into a corner by coming out against trigger warnings on syllabuses. I have no interest in rehashing the conversation in which this happened, and I am pretty sure I was making one or two (or eight) wrong assumptions about what other people were saying when I entered the conversation, which prompts me to think that joining any conversation only happens under a condition of misreading the conversation in its extant form, in the way that Bloom talks about misreading, except for social media rather than poetry (and I suppose that the lyric poem was social media before social media; “Watching the cows again. I am such an I.”)

In any case, I have no problems with professors who wish to include trigger warnings on a syllabus, or who wish to warn students in lecture about violent or other graphic content in a film, novel, artwork, etc. (I assume that sound I am hearing is everyone breathing a sigh of relief). I do exactly the latter when I teach Ballard’s Crash or Ellis’ American Psycho. No doubt I could do so with other texts as well. I offer these warnings because I think it’s good pedagogy for me to do so. As someone on Twitter mentioned, we need to prepare students to read difficult things. That’s part of the job, or maybe just “that’s the job”. At the same time, as other people mentioned (mainly me I think), we need to assume that students have some background that allows them to read difficult material. It seems to me that warnings need to find a balance between such things. As such, it will be (and should be I think) difficult to discern between texts that need warnings and those that don’t (or simply need them less).

Complicating this issue is the fact that students come to the class with very different backgrounds, and not only in terms of education. Such difference defeats our expectations as teachers to the point where having any expectation might come back to haunt us. (A common refrain department meetings, in my experience, has to do with how bad at writing English majors are. Faculty discover this every term, after the first written assignment for the most part and are dismayed, again every term, that they have to teach some writing, that their expectations were not in line with reality. I recall a David Foster Wallace essay on bad grammar and how he winds up turning every course into a writing course after he discovers, yet again, how bad students are at writing after collecting their first bit of written work.) To say as much is perhaps as banal as can be, so I won’t belabor the point beyond saying that it will be difficult if not impossible to accommodate everyone’s triggers a priori. As such, students need to participate in their own education to some degree and help the professor understand what their specific situations are, especially when it comes to texts in those greyer areas alluded to above. I am fully aware that even the students most motivated to such participation will have difficulty in this regard, but on the other side professors have the same difficulty. Of course, I also realize that it’s the professor’s job to deal with such issues, but I also believe that education must be active rather than passive. The blanket call for trigger warnings (which were not being made by my Twitter interlocutors, my misunderstanding to the contrary) seems to go hand in hand, in my mind, with not only a broad sanitizing of culture, but also with the production of passive readers. More on this below.

First, note that the active engagement on the part of students, and their capacity to tell instructors about what might cause them trauma (or offense) opens up a further complication, namely that the classroom experience can begin to cater to increasingly the specific whims of individuals. Lest there be any confusion: Survivors of rape and other violence do not have “whims” about their pasts or their traumas. Their concerns are legitimate and must be addressed. Full stop. Knowing that there are such legititmate concerns in a given classroom will be difficult for instructors, but difficulty here is no excuse to not think or work hard to make the classroom a space of learning rather than one of shock (I believe the latter inhibits the former). As such, it is wise and necessary to prepare students for the material, but again in the name and vocabulary of pedagogy and scholarly inquiry rather than that of “triggers” and the potentially offensive.

However, there are what to my mind non-controversial facts (or what ought to be non-controversial facts) that have become so highly politicized that they can cause offense to people on the other side of the “debate” (you can guess at these if you like). When “affluenza” is a thing, one upon which the outcome of court cases can hinge, how can the individual professor know what is and is not a legitimate condition? (Affluenza is merely an example here from broader culture, not an example of something that will come up in this narrower context.) How can a professor know in every case, or even a preponderance of cases, what texts might need a warning, what representations are so graphic that they need comment? To be clear again: there are many instances of trauma that cannot and should be questioned here. Anyone who questions a rape survivor or someone with PTSD of one origin or another, or who cannot recognize why American Psycho is a problematic text (or numerous others) is beneath contempt. Full stop. But what about the greyer areas? And what about political objections? What about a student who reacts badly to material but who has no previous history or trauma? I realize that I have fallen into “just asking questions” mode, and that is not my intent. I would very much like to know, and am very receptive to thoughts from others, on how to make distinctions between texts that need warnings and those which do not, as well as on how to distinguish students’ legitimate conditions from personal whim or mere belief, however sincerely held (this last point an important one given that several experts expect Hobby Lobby to be successful in their suit demanding their right to deny contraception coverage under the ACA because of their “sincerely held belief” that such a thing is wrong).

To return to an earlier point, and with all awareness that claims about “slippery slopes” should not be mistaken for truths, the increased focus on the trigger warning seems to me part of a larger process by which, on the one hand, culture becomes sanitized and, on the other, readers become increasingly passive. The two issue are directly related to one another. I tend to offer warnings to students when we read texts that have forced me to think hard and in ways that make me uncomfortable. Is Mark Twain racist? Is Ellis a misogynist, or satirizing misogyny? Does Ballard create the very inhumanity he seems to be critiquing? Should we allow ourselves to be educated by difficult texts into new modes of knowing or being, or should we judge them according to older modes? What older modes? How do we know that the time has come for a new one? What power does the new one serve? If I find myself asking these questions, I find myself thinking that students might need a warning and I also find myself knowing that students need to read these texts, with the caveat that some students might need to be excused for legitimate reasons. They need to read these texts because these texts produce active readings, even if that reading begins only with “I hate it.” Asking why one hates something is a productive question and getting beyond “just because” or “it’s stupid” requires and leads to very good conversation (for the most part–someone will always say “That novel was stupid” on the FCQs, even for relatively non-problematic texts such as The Great Gatsby or The Return of the King). When we focus on “trigger warnings” and notions of offensiveness, we move the conversation outside the parameters of education and debate and into the realm of the radical individual whose tastes determine all. Education does not take place outside the context of a we, and a we cannot obtain when individuals do not discuss. I am not referring here to “snowflake millennials” but rather to American culture broadly, in which having it “your way” has become the norm for any segment of society privileged enough to have or afford a way of its own (a segment of society from which a  fair number of college students come) and the incommensurability of the points of view espoused by talking heads on cable news is taken for granted, with the answer always being “in the middle” or a “third way” that is idealized as a view from nowhere but actually never found or produced. Since privileged segments of society–the very ones that claim this view from nowhere–drive the agenda and have become commonplace in my experience as a watcher of news and as a teacher (cf numerous students who have told me in one context or another how they pay my salary), we run a risk of allowing the privileged to not ever confront what they  find offensive to their privilege.

Finally, the idea of the trigger warning seems to me to grant far too much power to representation and, when it is called a “trigger warning,” implies that texts in fact have a certain amount of control over us. I see myself as someone who helps people overcome representation, someone who helps people understand how representations work against implicit and explicit (video games make us serial killers and what not) cultural claims that representations are dangerous and must be regulated in some manner. I am not worried about being censored as a teacher here, and do not think that this issue is one of censorship in this respect. Rather, I think it has to do with the issue of representation itself, how much power we grant it, and the critical tools we need to understand it. This issue seems pressing to me in a time when representations such as “fair and balanced” are asserted and made to be or taken true without regard to any sort of actual truth.

Again, and for the final time, I am not arguing in any way against legitimate trauma as a reason for excusing a student from an assignment or against thinking hard about what texts need warnings. Moreover, I worry very much about my own capacities to make such judgements and about the ways my own very real privileges might blind me to the situations of other people who have lived through such trauma. In the end I too (following someone on Twitter) am arguing for a “thinking harder” about this issue. What I am trying to add to the conversation (I did not see it earlier today on Twitter, although I expect most will agree with me here), is the idea that part of this “thinking harder” includes a contextual shift that focuses on pedagogy and the situation of the “trigger warning” in broader cultural issues having to do with the manner in which culture is made safe and how this safety produces passive readers rather than active ones.

Last set of Cloud Atlas Notes

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , on 5 April 2013 by Ben

These are even more scattered than previous ones. They are the leftovers, notes I took as the reading progressed with an eye towards future lectures. We never did get to these lectures, for one reason or another. I missed a class and had a colleague sub for me, so there’s that. Then we spent the last class having a discussion of whether the novel is pessimistic or optimistic. Hard to say, as one ending (the chronological one) reads to me as very pessimistic and the other ending (the novelistic one) is much more positive. Of course, Ewing doe snot know what is in store for the human race. One student pointed out that, of course, there are more than just two endings, so it’s hard to say this split is real. Oh well, at least I got to trot out my pet theory about how people generally like happy endings (especially those that are earned), but they tend to believe sad endings. Of course, the question at the end of the novel is belief, something I am intrigued with lately after reviewing Stiegler’s Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals, but I can’t get past my irrational feeling that the whole question is hokey, not unlike some of Cloud Atlas.

 

connection between human passing and the desire for immortality

  • major point: these two issues are connected
    • one seems to drive the other
    • they each seem to drive each other

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Cloud Atlas notes part the fourth

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , on 19 March 2013 by Ben

Okay, here are my day four teaching notes for Cloud Atlas. They cover up to and including the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” section. Again, very idiosyncratic. Would really love to know if they mean anything to anyone else.

 

discussion points

  • finishing last time and adding reading and writing “Sloosha’s Crossin’”
  • coming unstuck in time and history
  • connection between human passing and the desire for immortality Continue reading

Even more notes on Cloud Atlas

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , on 17 March 2013 by Ben

So these are the day three notes, but SHHH: day three is actually tomorrow.

discussion points

  • more on textuality: the issue of cohesion
  • evolving subjects of reading and writing
    • this will lead us to a discussion of the time traveler and our discussion for next time
  • next time
    • unstuck in time and history
    • human passing and immortality
  • after break
    • evolving ideas (humanity, power, money, etc) across the novel’s parts

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Some more notes on Cloud Atlas

Posted in Teaching with tags , , on 17 March 2013 by Ben

These were for the second day (having read through and including the first Timothy Cavendish section). They are a bit less complete than I would have liked, which reflects me running out of time.

finish up list of themes from last time

  • the human and its passing
    • see page 3
      • cf Foucault and Crusoe
    • page 6: assumptions about the human
    • 10: the question of civilization
      • it seems eternal, but it will not last
      • it is historical
      • and, it seems for Mitchell, cyclical
    • all forms of government bad (this is Nietzschean)
      • 61
      • all exploit
      • all are human constructions and shall pass
      • Foucault takes this from Nietzsche
      • both are antidotes to Hegel
      • see 62: Zarathustra
    • 76: times change and empires fall
    • 81: hankering for immortality
      • through authorship
      • will it work?
      • we will see something of it in the 1970s section
  • chance
    • especially the references in the second part to croupiers, but also the fact of the way that Ewing and Autua meet, etc
    • chance stands opposed to necessity
    • necessity is a property of the eternal as opposed to the historical, but the two become confused
    • what is historical is, in theories contrary to the Hegelian, what is accidental
    • not that it happened on accident, but that what happens could have happened otherwise or could have not happened at all
  • textuality
    • amanuensis (see page 45)

plural amanuenses, is a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another, and also refers to a person who signs a document on behalf of another under their authority. The term derives from a Latin expression made up of a suffix, -ensis, “belonging to”, and prefix, manu-, “hand”.

 

The word originated in ancient Rome, for a slave at his master’s personal service “within hand reach”, performing any command; later it was specifically applied to an intimately trusted servant (often a freedman) acting as a personal secretary.

    • the issue here connects slavery to textuality as well as to the undecidable nature of the text
      • who writes it?
        • this is an issue in the second part
      • who completes it?
      • who reads it?
    • see also 65: giving up share of authorship
      • cf “His Master’s Voice” on page 60
    • see also the thematic links between Arys’s musical works and the rest of the text
      • page 52
      • untergehen: to die out or to go down fighting
  • love
    • of all kinds, even amongst people who never know one another
  • Romanticism
    • page 59 – 60
  • this last related to the question of the new
    • are classics good?
    • should we try to overcome them?
    • can we, or are we always simply plagiarizing from the past?
    • see 83: daring ideas in old age

 

the problem of fiction and reality

  • we know how we are “getting” the Adam Ewing section already
    • Robert Frobisher is reading it
    • we also know that Frobisher, who is no authority certainly, questions the authenticity of the journal
      • see 64
  • so let’s ask two more questions
    • how are we “getting” the Robert Frobisher section?
      • see 111
      • see 120
    • how are we “getting” the Luisa Rey section?
      • see 156
  • what is the implication of the latter?
    • if Luisa Rey (and Rufus Sixsmith) is fictional, does that mean that Robert Frobisher is fictional
    • if Robert Frobisher and Sixsmith are fictional, does that mean that

 

  • see 119: Cloud Atlas Sextet
    • we know of its existence in the present before we know of its existence in the past
    • implies that Luisa has read more of the letters than we have

 

 

 

Fall 13 Course: Fantasy Beyond Tolkien

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 March 2013 by Ben

This description for this class is nearly identical (with some minor edits) to the description for my spring 2012 class on fantasy. However, that course was called “Fantasy after Tolkien” and this one is “Fantasy beyond Tolkien.” The last one did focus a good deal on reconceptualizations of the genre, but also dealt with generic fantasy. Thus it dealt with the “after” in the double sense of “appearing later” and “following from.” This class more or less exclusively deals with fantasy literature that departs from Tolkien in significant ways, whether its Peake’s world largely (entirely?) un-influenced by Tolkien, Le Guin’s non-epic, Delaney’s deconstruction, or Mieville’s explicit critique of the Tolkien-esque quest. M. John Harrison too.

I would have loved to include any number of other texts here, including a Terry Pratchett novel, Anderson’s The Broken Sword, some of Howard’s Conan stories, more Moorcock, some Fritz Leiber, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Gaiman’s Sandman. The problem with fantasy literature, especially Clarke here: so fucking long. Which novel of a trilogy to teach? Can you teach just part of a novel? Given that much of this reading is easy (with the very notable exception of Peake, and Delaney, and maybe Harrison), can I ask students to read more on a per class basis?

I guess we will see.

ENGL 3060-012 & -016: Modern and Contemporary Literature

Fantasy Beyond Tolkien

Fantasy literature offers something of a contradiction. On one hand, it is a thoroughly contemporary genre. Yes, the fantastic has a longer history than that provided by the twentieth century, but it was the twentieth century that gave the world fantastic as fantasy, magic that no one believed in, monsters that only existed in the imagination. On the other hand, fantasy implicitly and explicitly continues to allude to moments in the past when our understandings of the world were not quite set by science and rationality. The conflict endemic to a great deal of fantasy literature is that of modernity: the passing away of the supernatural and its replacement by the mundane. Think of Tolkein’s elves leaving Middle Earth or Lewis’ children who grow up and can no longer find Narnia.

Considered in this context, fantasy literature offers up a number of avenues of investigation. What happens to the fantastic in the face of the rational? Why is the fantastic so often portrayed according to the tropes of realism? How do various representations of the fantastic allow us to rethink the history of modernity in the United States and the West? This class will read fantasy literature produced in the wake of and against Tolkien as an evolving set of genre conventions and as a literature committed to experimental considerations of nature and history.

 

Reading List

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Samuel R. Delaney: Neveryona

M. John Harrison: Viriconium

Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea

China Miéville: The Scar

Michael Moorcock: “The Dreaming City”

Mervyn Peake: Gormanghast

JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (excerpts); The Silmarillion (excerpts)