I am not actually attending the conference, but I did wind up in Chicago post-holidays, so I went to the Hyatt for the blogger meet-up. The first person I saw was a former professor of mine, eating an orange in the lobby before rushing off to a panel—at nearly nine at night! What the hell? Soon the MLA is going to be running 24-hour sessions, either preparing its members for jobs in the service economy, or perhaps as a concession to those who already are in it; and the conversations will go like this:

MeLiA: I got the worst time slot, 5:00 a.m., I’d never in my life been up at that hour before, and the only audience members were horribly hearty morning people on their way to the gym or, worse, on the way back from it.

LiAM: Mine was worse, 3:00 a.m., and the only people there had been out clubbing; they were ALL drunk and half of them heckled with no inhibition whatever and the other half fell asleep and snored.

ALMa: Even noon isn’t what it used to be, because most people there are either exhausted from getting up at 4:30 to go to the gym or else they just woke up, and they’re all cranky and low on blood sugar, it’s just like teaching during lunch hour.

It was fun meeting people. No one looks anything like how I imagined them from blogs (Sisyphus is not actually a talking black cat), except for being much younger than I am. But a couple of people were kind enough to say that since so many bloggers are grad students and junior faculty, it’s good to get some balance from old bags like me the tenured. Good luck to everyone with interviews and papers and networking!

Performing Reading

So, no one’s interested in showing off their languages. Moving on, then.

Stephanie Trigg, in responding to the Books You Loved meme, turned the question around to ways you performed reading in 2007. An excellent question . . . particularly as one of my Christmas presents responds to both halves of the meme: it should be on the original list as a book I loved in 2007 (and which actually came out this year), and I have been performing from it to anyone who will listen (mainly Sir John and the cats). The book is Decca, the letters of Jessica Mitford, and it has me (as the Mitfords would say) in shrieks.

Performing reading comes in two flavors, for me: private and public. Private performance happens at home, when Sir John and I read bits we like to each other (from newspapers, magazines, books). I probably read to him more often than the other way around. We don’t do extended reading-aloud sessions, like some of our friends. (We know a couple who take turns reading a chapter or two aloud every night, often from young-adult fiction.) But snippets are a good way to share our reading interests.

Then there’s public performance of reading, which happens in the classroom. I read to my students, and make them read aloud, quite a lot. In Middle English classes, it’s a way to work at pronunciation and comprehension, demystifying some of the spelling, insisting on the difference made by the Great Vowel Shift. In other classes, I hope to train students to listen to the rhythms of prose and poetry, to get away from reading for plot and hear the language. (Suddenly I am very conscious of the clunkiness of my own prose.) Many students read aloud very flatly, slowly, dully; I aim to change that, to make them lively readers.

I am planning an assignment sequence that begins with preparing a reading performance. Rather than my calling on people randomly in class, students will pick a passage they want to read aloud, and practice it, figure out what its rhythms are, what words should be stressed, what they want to convey, and then read it to us. I guess I’m trying to mimic private reading performance, in this: “Here’s a bit I love and I want to share with you.” I will use the reading-aloud prep to segue into the Close Reading: why did you stress these words, what’s important about them, how do pieces of this passage work together to create the whole?

I hope this will work. I believe in Close Reading as a tool: it’s worth paying attention to details, thinking about all the layers of meaning in a selection of prose or poetry, unpacking metaphors and images. And for some reason, my students have a lot of trouble with the concept. They tend to read for the big picture—plot, themes—not details. Maybe working on presentation first will make clearer why the details matter.

The drawback here is grading. Grading close readings is easier if everyone does the same passage; then I look to see if they hit most of the high points, or at least some of them, comment on writing style and mechanics, and move on. If everyone does an individual passage, papers will take longer to grade. However, hearing them read in class will make me fairly familiar with their passages. I might also do this as an “informal” assignment, checked off rather than formally graded, as a preliminary to a formal paper for which everyone would work on the same passage.

On suburbs, cities, wilderness

I’m doing some reading about city walls in the Middle Ages, which is making me think about where I live.

I grew up in a medium-sized city that was part of a major metropolitan area. Now I live in a town that is less than half the size of my home city, but it, too, is part of a major metropolitan area. I drive about an hour to get to work, which is in a town a little bigger than the one I live in . . . but not really part of the larger area, though it may get there.

I love cities, which has a lot to do with why I commute (as does my two-body problem). I tried living in my work town for a couple of years when I got the job, and found it difficult for a single person who valued privacy over community. It seemed I couldn’t buy toilet paper or tampons without running into a senior male faculty member, which led me to the conclusion that I would drive at least 40 miles to buy condoms. Moving made me much happier in many ways, and allowed me to get involved with the man who is now my husband.

At the same time, I now worry about my carbon footprint. I drive a hybrid, I recycle, I do what I can; but I still drive a lot, and take planes to visit my aged parents, and to do archival research Across the Pond. And so sometimes I think about moving back to the town where I work. This week I spent some happy hours in the library there, enjoying the peace and quiet (though there were quite a few other faculty there for the same reason), and thought about how much more library time I could have if I cut out my commute. That is probably more important to me than the environmental factors, to be honest.

The town has grown since I first moved there. It has acquired bookstores, many new subdivisions with larger houses than the older housing stock, and a lot of chain stores and restaurants. I went to one for dinner before driving home, and didn’t see a single person I knew. It made me think maybe I could live there in reasonable privacy now. My idea of reasonable privacy, of course, depends on other people’s attitudes as much as on actual size of the place. I now live in a townhouse in a set of eight, where I know all my neighbors to speak with but socialize with none. We ask each other to keep an eye on things when we are away, but I wouldn’t call any of them friends. I wonder whether the newcomers to my work town are city people, who keep their distance like my current neighbors, or if they are people who “value community” and would insist on getting to know me in ways that would actually be uncomfortable for me. (I am speaking here as a highly introverted person: I don’t really mean to criticize people who enjoy smaller towns/cities, but they say community and I say fishbowl . . . and you know what the next line is.)

My husband would hate living in my work town, because in order to help the carbon footprint any, he would have to telecommute, and he loves cities even more than I do. And he would not be comforted by the proximity to a research library.

Chain stores certainly make the town more livable, but they don’t make it a city. They make a sprawly suburb, where you may have access to city stuff, but not to city life. What I love most about cities is not the skyscrapers of downtown, but the outlying streets: the compactness of little shops lying cheek-by-jowl, funky little shops that have been there for decades, their closeness to residential streets, houses’ small yards (I disapprove of lawns, but small scruffy ones at least use less water than vast suburban ones), and most of all the sense of contrast: in neighborhoods, people construct their community against the anonymity of the larger city, so that recognizing someone in the coffeeshop is a sort of triumph, rather than an everyday and possibly irritating occurrence. In a sense, the city becomes the wilderness, where the individual carves out an identity through testing experiences.


I’m afraid this became my favorite books: though I did read some fun books that were new to me in 2007, I don’t think I loved any of them. And to quote my tagger, Medieval Woman, “When I read for fun (i.e., not obscure Middle English romances), I read trash. Yep, that’s right. Trash. . . . I also read my favorite books over and over again. 4 or 5 times means nothing to me.” So my responses might be the same as they would have been last year. And may be again next year.

What I mostly read for fun, though, is fantasy, children’s literature, and mysteries. But I think this list will be all the first two, as I’ve been a bit off mysteries in the last year.

1. Susanna Clark, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I read it when it first came out; this year, I liked it even more than the first time. Fantasy with footnotes: what could be more fun?

2. Pamela Dean, The Secret Country trilogy. Not at all new, but topping the favorite list. I originally read it in grad school, when a friend lent me her battered paperbacks. After I got a job, we mailed each other her copies across the country, several times, because both of us are re-readers and for a long time it was impossible to find these books. Finally they were re-issued a couple of years ago. The Secret Country, The Hidden Land, and The Whim of the Dragon. Reading these always makes me happy.

3. Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. And Paladin of Souls. These are brilliant. I love the world of Chalion-Ibra. (I’m also fond of her Vorkosigan series. Not so much the new series—too long-winded and goopy.)

4. Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons. There’s nothing so worthwhile as simply messing about in boats, and being trusted by parents to behave sensibly while you’re camping out, without them.

5. Pamela Whitlock and Katharine Hull, The Far-Distant Oxus. Two schoolgirls were inspired by their love of Ransome’s books to write their own series, back in the thirties. The children in this one imagine themselves in Persia, inspired by Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustom. It’s a little weird to read this now, as the kids shop in “Cabul” for camping provisions. But if you like Ransome, you’d like these.

I’m not sure of the etiquette of tagging people. Should it be those who have commented here? People on whose blogs I have commented? Can it be people I read but haven’t commented on? I am inclined to spread this to the Southern Hemisphere and tag Stephanie Trigg and StyleyGeek. But I don’t think Styley knows me, and Trigg has been here only once, recently.

Intro class/grad class

This semester, I didn’t have a graduate class. I had three undergrad classes: one section of intro-to-the-major, plus huge tracts of Chaucer. (No, not the Parson’s Tale, or only a couple of scraps of it; that was a Python reference.)

But now I feel like in some ways, the intro class was my grad class.

For one thing, the students were pretty happy to be there. The intro course is, of course, required; it’s supposed to be taken in your sophomore year, though this doesn’t always happen. Many of our students are transfers, so a lot of my students were going, “Wow! 4-year UNIVERSITY! The big leagues! I’m excited and I want to work hard and learn lots!” They weren’t cynical; they weren’t trying to game the system; they weren’t thinking that they were about to graduate and knew everything. Several students in this class were non-traditional, in their early to mid-twenties rather than 19-20, and a few years can make a big difference at that age. They were serious, aware of what they were working toward, of what the degree meant to them and, in some cases, their young families. One was in her thirties, getting a second bachelor’s so she could switch careers; she had a completely professional attitude toward schoolwork, treating it as a job, and often doing work that would not shame a grad student at LRU.

I have no control over who enrolls, of course; but this mix was a good one, and I associate that sense of excitement and willingness to work with graduate students.

Another important element over which I have very little control is class size. The intro-to-the-major class is capped at 25; grad classes at 15; but most undergrad classes are 35-40. It’s possible to scare some people off, but that hurts the class dynamic, and you don’t always scare the ones who most need to be scared. So I mostly have classes that are not so large as to require lecturing, yet not small enough to work really well with a discussion-seminar approach. It’s just harder to make a personal connection with individuals in a room with 36 people, compared to a room of 24. That 50% larger thing makes a big difference. Group work and Blackboard ice-breakers help some, but there are limits to what that can do (especially if you get a batch that hate group work). My course evaluations have improved a lot in the last few years, but I wonder if some of my difficulties stem from introvert-awkwardness with groups the size of my usual classes. I would treat a huge lecture (100 or more people) as performance. With groups of 10-20, I can make a personal connection. That 35-40 size, though, feels too big for easy connections, but not big enough to retreat into a performance-persona. So, anyway, the intro class this year was able to bond and talk to each other and to me in the way grad classes do (or should). I didn’t get that sense of cohesion and cameraderie in the Chaucer sections, or at least, only among students who already knew each other.

The intro students also wrote some very thoughtful, insightful papers, and spoke eloquently and intelligently in class about assigned readings—even on the very last day, when they might have felt like phoning it in. Here I will take some credit for assignments that inspired them (though I’m not so much bragging as thinking, “Whew! I got away with it!”). To begin our unit on poetry, I posted song lyrics and we talked about those; then they brought in lyrics from songs they like, and led class discussion about them. I’m sure everybody’s doing this now, but it does work to make students feel like poetry isn’t so mysterious, that they can understand it. And since there’s plenty of popular music that is totally unfamiliar to me, I could let them be the experts on this. Then we spent a lot of time on sonnets, including an assignment that asked them to write a sonnet (on their own or in groups) plus a reflective essay about what they learned from the attempt.

The first big-point paper was on a sonnet we did not discuss in class, one that just appeared in print in the past year; the second one was on a short story, ditto. This is my strategy for avoiding plagiarism: we have a lot of class work and low-point papers practicing skills on poems and stories in the anthology, but for the important papers, students work on recently-published texts. There’s nothing on the internet about these! I love doing this. They always have fresh insights into the texts, because any insight will be fresh—we’re not dealing with hundreds of years of critical commentary, as with Chaucer and Shakespeare. I wondered if this year’s sonnet might be stretching a bit, but they nailed it. They looked up the words, the geographical and art-historical references, and they put it all together. I was really impressed. Same thing with the short story—they saw symbolism way beyond what I’d noticed. My weakest student, in fact, was the only one who mentioned what I saw as a really key passage in the story, one that tied two characters together in an unexpected way. (Which of us does this say more about?) And on the last day, my students were eager to talk about this story, to share their ideas, to argue about the chances for the main character’s future.

So I went into the final grading for my intro students feeling cheerful and optimistic about their chances, the way I usually feel about my grads. And indeed, they performed well on the last paper and quite adequately on the exam. They’ve learned most of what they need to know, and other teachers will pick up where I left off.

I think I have a whole ‘nother post about Chaucer rattling around my brain . . . .

What’s on the exam?

Due to circumstances beyond my control, this year I need to give a very different kind of exam than I usually give in my Chaucer class. Ordinarily, in addition to a lot of writing over the course of the semester, I also give a translation exam in which I simply give my students large chunks of Chaucer to put into idiomatic but fairly literal Present-Day English.

So I’m not used to writing exams that involve multiple-choice, true/false, and fill-in-the-blank questions as a way of testing understanding of Middle English. If you are, might I please hear from you? What kinds of exam questions do you give? How many questions can students answer in a given amount of time?

While the pedagogical philosophy of exams vs essays vs other sorts of assessment could make for interesting discussion, at the moment my interests are purely pragmatic: I must give an exam whose purpose approximates that of the exam I advertised (the chunks of ME) but now cannot use (don’t want to explain why, sorry).

I thanke it yow, gentil readers.

Advice to the privileged

I have a young friend, an undergraduate at the Ivy League U. where her parents (and my husband and I) all did graduate work, who has developed an interest in graduate school in English or a related field. Since no one really likes unsolicited advice, even from people who aren’t related to you, I thought I’d blog mine instead of boring the pants off her.

She is very bright, talented in multiple fields, good at languages and mathematics. In fact, this interest in English is a bit of a surprise. She’s good at it, but many of her older friends and relations expected her to be a mathematician or physicist.

Given this background, I begin the unsolicited advice:
1. Don’t go to graduate school right away.
2. Use your skills in math and languages to get as lucrative a job as possible. This probably means finance of some variety. You want both money and work experience outside the academy: something to fall back on if you don’t get an academic job, and also very useful if you develop an interest in academic administration. People who understand money and the business world are valuable in academe.
3. Work for 5 years. Do not tell anyone at work you plan to quit in 5 years and go to grad school.
4. Save all the money you can. Open a retirement fund immediately and put in all the money you’re allowed to. If people wonder why you’re living way under your means, tell them you’re paying off student loans, or paying your grandma’s medical bills–anything sympathetic and plausible. You want a cushion when you start grad school.
5. This is a good time to get married if you have someone around; then you can stay home with him and save money rather than going out with the high-rollers. Make sure your husband is portable.
6. While you’re working, read all you can. Read novels, plays, poems, drama. Go to plays. Read criticism, too. You’ll re-read a lot of these texts in class later, but you might as well get a lot of reading done now.
7. If you need more languages, start working on them. If you need a modern language, see if you can get your employer to send you to that country to work. If you need Old Church Slavonic or something, that’s more problematic, but still, do what you can.
8. After 4 years, take the GREs, research schools and departments, and apply to the places you want to go. Books and other blogs can tell you how to do this.
9. After 5 years, quit and go back to school at the best place you can get funding. Supplementing your stipend with your savings will allow you to live like a human being. All the reading you did will help you stay on top of things.
10. If you want children, have at least the first one while you’re in grad school. A few older profs may doubt your seriousness, but mostly people have accepted that women can have children and careers. You’re still younger and more energetic than you will be later; your time is flexible; and you probably have friends around who either have kids or would like to, who will help with babysitting. Then when you start a tenure-track job and are worked to death, at least one kid is potty-trained and so ready for pre-school.
11. If going abroad for research purposes would be a good idea, DO IT. This, too, gets harder later. Making contacts now is like starting a retirement account early.
12. Do not leave town to write your dissertation elsewhere. Stay near your advisor so you’ll get attention.

If everything works out right, you’ll get a tenure-track job in your early 30’s and be tenured by 40. This is a little older than the wunderkinder who rush straight through, but not crone-aged by any means. And if it doesn’t work out, you have work experience that will help you keep some perspective on the whole thing. Of course it’s hard to go back to any career you’ve been away from for 6 years or so, but it’s better than knowing only school and having to develop a completely new career path from scratch. You know you can make a living at something else, which will make you more confident, which in turn may help you get the academic job you want.

Obviously much of this advice is specific to someone with a great deal of cultural and intellectual capital. You don’t have to have all of my young friend’s advantages to succeed; you don’t have to follow my suggested career path, either. But in the best-of-all-possible-worlds, such a path seems to me the most likely to lead to a happy, successful, productive life.

Your mileage may vary.