Friday, August 31, 2007

First Week, First Stories

I've just finished my first week at Brooklyn College, where I'm teaching The Emergence of the Modern,* The Bible as Literature, and Medieval English Literature (which I'm of course doing as Medieval British Literature: no one can keep me from Marie de France, Gerald of Wales, and Beroul). I'm really loving it. We did Fitt I of SGGK (not this), after an overlong 'intro to the Middle Ages' lecture (do you find that you lecture longer with or without notes? For me, I think it's "without"). where I focused, naturally, on the opening Trojan lines, the humiliation of Arthur's court, and the Green Knight himself. I imagine this is probably the standard SGGK class?

I walked them through order of presentation for the GK: his perfect (too perfect) body [I said it "went to 11": no laughs. Can I no longer make Spinal Tap references in my lectures?]), his perfect clothing (after having introduced them 30 minutes beforehand to the 1363 sumptuary law: bless them, they made the connection), and then, but only then, his shagginess. The red eyes of course come much later. I asked: why hold off on his monstrousness for so long?

And 25 minutes later, I had run out of time. Good! And I got at least one golden comment from my students: "I have to keep reminding myself he's a monster." I just about jumped on my desk; instead, I held myself to gesturing wildly at her, nearly shouting "Precisely!," and then, more calmly, "Why do you suppose that is? What happens when something occupies the place where a monster should go but isn't in fact that monstrous?"

I expect many people here have finished their first week of teaching. Consider this a low-stakes conversational thread to share your own perfect pedagogical moments, places where a class has surprised you (for the good), and where you've been reminded of why you're in the profession at all. Join in especially if this is your first time teaching.

* I didn't come up with the title. It's a "Core" course, in this case, an Intro to Western Lit Course, Chaucer to Woolf, with 1001 Nights standing in for 'the rest of the world.' I've been teaching it as "The Emergence of the Modern?" (Aren't I clever? I started with 'The Former Age,' so you can see how this class will go).


J J Cohen said...

Why does the monstrous have to be opposed to the beautiful? Didn't Medusa turn people to stone because her snaky head was so stunningly aesthetic? Isn't Grendel's severed head wliteseon wrætlic [wrætlic, "artful, ornamental"; wlite-seon, "beauty-sight"]?

But I don't want to bring us away on a tangent: congratulations on teaching such a brilliant first class. I love moments like those, when you feel like your students get it and the whole pedagogical enterprise is worth the labor it demands to do it well. A moment that will stay with me forever occurred when I taught my first "Medieval Lit" class -- actually, my first class -- at GW in fall 1994. I fumbled my way through the semester, but had been open from the start with my students that I was not a very experienced teacher and that I was trying hard to better my craft. On the last day of the course the students spontaneously showed up with food and drinks. We sat around for a long time discussing where'd we'd been, and how all of us had been surprised at the routes we had followed. The class was supposed to end at 5:30, but none of us could bear to see it conclude. We lingered for a long time. That course taught me how important it is to be honest in the classroom, even when honesty makes you vulnerable. It also emphasized for me the dangers of overplanning: there has to be room for serendipity, vagrancy, no matter how many times you've taught the same materials.

Brandon H. said...

The first week went well for me--but I'm without major epiphanies to relate. I am, of course, teaching a freshman English writing seminar, not a literature course, so it's a different type of beast than those described here by Karl and JJC. Two thoughts do stick out, however; the first humorous (though showing the work I may have to do this semester) and the second a proud moment.

In a first-day in-class writing assignment (to obtain base-line writing so I know where students are at right from the start), one student wrote the following:
When I see singular writings such as this [a passage from Susan Griffin's essay, "Our Secret"] that bemoan a problem or sadness I do not appreciate the piece. Metamorphosis by Kafka, from my mildly informed perspective, was about... actually I can't remember what it was about. However, the book thematically complained about a problem without proposing where to go from there.
This presents a humorous moment in the student's writing, but also points to a part of "academic writing" that I will have to probe and discuss in class.

The same student, however, also was one of the first to comment on the first reading assignment (the whole of Susan Griffin's "Our Secret") and the interweaving parts of narrative, small vignettes, and philosophical reflections--and the student's comment was a profound statement about how all of the seemingly fragmentary sections work together thematically. It was a moment when I realized that maybe the students were actually getting the piece and the subtlety of its argument and framework.

Karl Steel said...

Why does the monstrous have to be opposed to the beautiful?

Thanks for the comment, and that's a tangent that will finds it use once we get to the Song of Roland or The History and Topography of Ireland.

Brilliant? Well, it worked... that's a lovely story, Jeffrey, and I've love to hear more.

Brandon, I'm pretty impressed by that student comment. It's a rare thing for a beginning student to make connections to other works of literature, it's rare for a student to admit not knowing, and it's the rarest thing of all for a student to think not in terms of character or "relatability" but rather in terms of literature dealing with problems. It sounds like you have a real gem. If you have more than one student like this, your semester should be great.

Other moments from the first week:

Introducing my Bible as Literature class via: the multiplicity of what counts as "Bible," and the need to keep theology out of this classroom. On this, I gave my background (church 3 times a week for my first 17 years, an atheist now for more than 20 years), and one of my students raised her hand and asked, "Are you personally offended by teaching this class?" Perfect. Again, couldn't ask for a better question for introducing how we'd talk about things in this class.

There's also the subquestion of how much our readings in high theory make their way into the classroom. Nicola has his English 2 class reading parts of The Coming Community (which, as I've told him, I think is delightful...and nuts), and I worked Homo Sacer into my Bible course. How?

Cain travels to the land of Nod. Nod, in Hebrew, means 'Wandering.' It's a place that's not a place at all. There's somehow an analogy between the Wandering-Place and the human reduced to bare life. I tried to work it out, but I think I slipped off the trapeze this time: I'm going to try to work it around tomorrow, when I talk about Abraham and place....