Thursday, April 29, 2010

Snapshot of an ordinary day

[illustration: review session with theme-filled board. Pictured are Lowell, Jessica, Nedda, me, and a student who goes by the name of Roscoe who insisted on being in the picture with us. We were happy to oblige.]

by J J Cohen

As lingering punishment for Snowmaggedon, we at GW have been hit with a Groundhog Day-like succession of Mondays: a natural Monday on April 26, a Make-up Day Monday on April 27, and a Designated Monday on April 28. The first of these three Mondays was my last lecture for "Myths of Britain," a bittersweet moment when I had to say farewell to one of the best groups of students I've had. We began the class by asking the three astonishingly good graduate students who work with me (Lowell Duckert, Jessica Frazier and Nedda Mehdizadeh) to rise so that we could give them a well-earned round of applause. I then showed the class a mashup Youtube clip that I found the year I first taught the course, a video in which things having nothing to do with each other are placed together and become something new (a BBC documentary on Pompeii that intercuts stock footage of volcanoes with live action and photos of plaster casts of those whom Vesuvius smothered; a Canadian songwriter editing and then re-arranging Renaissance spoken word within an inappropriately somber musical setting; and Shakespeare's bittersweet conclusion to The Tempest). Kind of, sort of what the course is about. I then showed a few pictures of my own visit to Pompeii last summer, talked about a haunting moment when Alex, Katherine, Wendy and I found ourselves at the edge of the historical site, no one else nearby. The wind shifted and brought the smell of sea. We glanced up and saw the grey dome of Vesuvius just as that wind became a doleful noise, coursing the empty stone dwellings. Inhabiting the ruins: I spoke to my students about the fragments among which the course had made its home, from a gabled hall in the North to Prospero's island impossibly middled by Europe and Africa and the New World. We lingered over the three words in The Tempest that change the future of the play ("And mine shall"), and the three lines that challenge everything that "Myths of Briatin has been about ("There, sir, stop: / Let us not burthen our remembrance with / A heaviness that's gone"). We wondered about how so much of human history turns on such declarations of feeling, such moments of becoming something one never expected to become. Then our revels ended, the class closed, and I wished the students well.

On the third of these repeating Mondays we gathered again. This time my graduate student teaching partners conducted a lively review session. They opened with a game of "Jeopardy" in which trivia about the course's texts could be chosen under categories like "MOBsters" (short for Myths of Britain, but focused on the characters who are, well, mobsters). Those who answered correctly gained points for their team as well as a lollipop hurled their way by our tallest TA. Despite misgivings that someone's eye would be poked out, no bodily harm was done; one lolly did, however, go badly wrong and leave a ding in the classroom ceiling. The students were then invited to articulate the themes of the course. I may have thought that I knew what the course was about when I composed the syllabus, but as it turns out the class obsessed over: monsters and heroes; defining national identity; human v. nonhuman; male-female relations; defying social norms; legacy -- what's left behind; binary breakdowns; origins and multiplicity; gender and spatial crossings; time and cycles; inside v. outside; finding familiarity in the strange; religion and mysticism (!); objects and significance; community; color; loyalties; material v. symbolic worth; deception; journey and travel; kinship; homoeroticism/same sex relations; retribution and revenge; choosing and narrative. Wow.

At the end of the session the students applauded the TAs again, but Nedda rightly then had the students applaud themselves: they have worked diligently this year. The course is not easy, yet most of them have absolutely excelled.

And so here I am doing that thing all we academics do: we bond with our students, we get to know them well as they come into their own as passionate intellectuals, and then when the relationship is most intense we suddenly say farewell. Yes, some of them will be back, and a few will even after years maintain connections, but for most this really is good-bye. And you know, even though these partings always leave me melancholy, they also fill me with great hope. If these ninety young men and women are in any way representative of a future to come, well then count me an optimist.

1 comment:

Tess Malone said...

This was a great post. Myths of Britain had a totally different syllabus when I took it, but no matter what the syllabus is the course always managed to connect a variety of seemingly diverse texts together in ways that awed me. The cluster chart of course themes from both this year and last always shows just how much that course covers and ultimately teaches it students. MOB was the highlight of my freshman academic year, if you ever need a student spokesperson I will gladly sign up (I am only half kidding here haha).

Also, I find the idea of Lowell chucking lollipops extremely frightening. haha