What I Could Do

Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 12/16/12

Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 12/16/12

Dear Students,

You are not six and seven year olds, saucer-eyed, cherubic, believers in Santa Claus. And I am not a 27 year old over the moon with her first job. Or a principal who would dress up in goofy costumes to help students connect with the fun of learning. No. You are in your twenties, and I wear slacks and sensible shoes without worrying too much about whether that will help you wrap your minds around the ambiguities and instabilities of gender.

We will meet this afternoon for your final exam. It is the Monday after a mass killing in which twenty children lost their lives. It is eight days before Christmas. Early in our semester’s study of theories of literature and sexuality, we read a brief excerpt from Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies, a chunk from the introduction usually referred to as “Christmas Effects.” In it, Sedgwick comes at the question, “What’s queer?” by examining the ideological force of heteronormativity. To help explain what she means, Sedgwick begins with a riff on “the depressing thing about the Christmas season” as a moment when all our institutions speak with one voice and seem to be saying the same thing. The languages of church, state, commerce, and media are all lined up in what she terms “the Christmas phalanx.” Among the examples Sedgwick cites to prove the tautological and coercively normalizing force of the holiday is this one:

[A]d-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question — Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas?

You loved this piece when we read it earlier in the semester. Sedgwick’s playful yet probing analysis of the tyranny of Christmas helped you see the point that queer is a way of describing more ragged and less depressing moments/spaces when everything emphatically does not mean the same thing, when things don’t line up neatly and march in lock step. Queer, says Sedgwick, is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.”

I asked you to review these few marvelous paragraphs in preparation for today’s final. I promised to bring holiday cookies to the exam, a double batch of my favorite cookies from my own Christmas-effected childhood. I stayed up late last night, making the cookies and not getting through all the papers I had hoped to have graded by this afternoon. As I delicately rolled the buttery dough into little balls and lined them up on my battered cookie sheets, I thought of you, and all the work we have done together this term in the unlocked classroom of a wide open building. I thought of the umpty-ump people killed and maimed and wondered, not for the first time, if I would be brave and selfless enough to take a bullet for you, my students.

I cannot answer that question. No one can, in the abstract, know the answer to that question. One can only hope that in a moment of crisis one would be decent. And clever. I am reading your papers, slowly and with care. I marvel at your effort. I see the kindness in your faces. Try not to lose that, ever. I made you cookies. It’s what I could do. Yes, Eve, it is a depressing season. Let’s have a cookie and ride it out together.

In peace,

Your Teacher

Swimming and/as Schmoozing

From the balcony of the Caribe Hilton, San Juan, PR. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/16/12.

I won’t lie. I haven’t attended a whole lot of sessions here at the American Studies Association annual meeting in San Juan. The time has felt rewarding and rejuvenating, both professionally and personally, but most of the benefits have come from informal contacts and serendipitous conversations that occurred outside the formal structure of the conference. Should I feel bad about having a significant discussion about  the state of my career with a senior colleague in my own department while bobbing around in the emerald green waters of the Caribbean? Or about spending 45 minutes chatting with someone whose work I’ve long admired while standing at a poolside bar wrapped in a towel? Should I feel less bad if the upshot of the conversation was an invitation to speak at a conference I am hosting in the spring? Oh, and if I extracted the promise of a syllabus for a course similar to the one I’ll be teaching next semester?

Actually, I don’t feel bad at all about how I’ve spent my time here. I offer these reflections in response to a post by Tenured Radical addressing a reader’s queries about academic conferences in suspiciously beautiful places. I”ve attended a few sessions, participated in one — with TR, Historiann, GayProf, and our fearless moderator, the Woman Formerly Known as Goose — and hit as many parties as time and stamina allowed. I am a firm believer in the value of live, person-to-person contact and in getting out of one’s usual routines and habitat as a way of shaking things up. I doubt seriously I would have had quite the same candid exchange with my own colleague over coffee back in Turtle Country. Further, our session on blogging as public pedagogy was lively and well-attended. It sparked a conversation that continued for many of us for the rest of the conference. I suspect it will continue by several means for a long time to come, and if WFKG has her way it will likely lead to a collection of essays on the session theme. Stay tuned, darlings, because WFKG can be very persuasive.

Yes, I had to do some rearranging of life and work in order to be here, and it does mean I am about to be hurled into Thanksgiving week a little further behind than I’d like to be. Still, the journey and the work have been worthwhile, if only because I finally got to meet GayProf and Historiann in the flesh and discovered that they are as delightful and charming in person as they are on screen. I was taken aback that Historiann did not ride in on a horse and GayProf seems not to have flown in on an invisible plane, but I suppose they might have been a little surprised that I was neither a dead dog nor an actual madwoman. I did bring a laptop, though, so perhaps that took the edge off their disappointment.

Conferences are good, and the work at conferences occurs in a variety of ways and locations.

Which is why, my pretties, if you’re still in San Juan, you may find me bobbing around in the emerald green waters of the Caribbean along about noon today. (Our flight doesn’t leave until this evening.) Stop by for a chat. It might be professionally advantageous to both of us.

My Theory Workbook

Or, a Brief Back-to-School Post on Retro Pedagogy

Undine had a useful post last week on tech tools for teachers. I read it, scratched my head over all the cool things I could and should be doing, then sat down to work on my syllabus — and ended up going in the opposite direction.

See that little quip over there in the sidebar about being a non-geek? Right under the pale imitation of an Alison Bechdel caricature? Quip, yes. Exaggeration, no. I blog, I tweet, I have a house and backpack full of Apple devices, but at heart I am a Luddite. And in the classroom, well, when I’m not teaching my blogging class, which I’m not this term, my instincts are strictly nineteenth century. I’ve dabbled in PowerPoint and been forced to make at least limited use of the odious Blackboard, but I’ve never been convinced any of these bells and whistles improved my teaching or, more importantly, my students’ learning. There, I said it.

Oh, boy. Why am I afraid that my good friends over at ProfHacker are never going to link to me again? George, Jason, love ya, dudes! Don’t give up on an old broad yet!

Here’s the thing. I’m teaching a new course this semester, a 400-level course called “Theories of Sexuality and Literature.” I’ve got 25 students, and I’m really, really committed to two important goals: 1. Getting the students to work together and take ownership of the course on a daily basis and 2. helping them overcome their anxieties about THEORY by having them write something about it for pretty much every class meeting. Thus was born the idea of “My Theory Workbook.”

I borrowed the idea from Kate Bornstein’s smart, funny, highly teachable My Gender Workbook, which I have found to be indispensable in helping students navigate the topsy-turviness of postmodern gender without losing their precious little minds. Bornstein is a popularizer, but she writes about complicated ideas in an accessible and often entertaining way without sacrificing all the nuance and complexity. That’s what I’ll be aiming to do in teaching this course, and it’s kind of what I hope my students will reach for, too. The “theory workbook” is a key strategy toward achieving those lofty goals. Here’s how I explained it on the syllabus:

Sex/Lit Theory Workbook: 25% of final grade, due daily and collected as scheduled. Get a file folder. Mark it, “My Sex/Lit Theory Workbook.” Bring it to class with you every day. You should have a new typed entry for each class, focused on the day’s reading. Sometimes I’ll give you a prompt to respond to. Sometimes I won’t. Your entry should focus on identifying key words, major concepts, and important moments in the argument. Identify points that confused you or excited you. Form a question you’d like to discuss in class. Come up with an example to which you think the concept might be usefully applied. We’ll begin class with small-group discussions of the day’s entries, which is why you need to print out your workbooks and bring them to class. I’ll collect them every 2-3 weeks throughout the semester.

The workbook, in addition to helping to frame and focus daily discussion, will also give students a space for launching ideas they might decide to develop into papers. It will also help them to prepare for the final exam, which will be an oral exercise focused on terms, concepts, and major figures. The class will generate a list of 25 terms. On the day of the exam, each student will pick a topic out of a hat and present on it for about 4 minutes. (A number of my colleagues, including the Woman Formerly Known as Goose, have been doing oral finals in the past few years, so students aren’t as terrified by this idea as you might suppose. Also, they truly will be preparing for it throughout the semester, as we build that assignment into our conversations all along the way.)

So, I thought about doing “My Theory Workbook” as a class blog or through discussion board, but I felt that the blog would be unwieldy with 25 students and that the discussion board probably wouldn’t work in the way I wanted it to. Perhaps it’s my lack of creativity or dedication, but in my experience discussion board feels like busy work. Students tend to post perfunctory comments to fulfill requirements, and the exercise usually doesn’t elevate class discussion or even get connected to it unless the instructor goes out of her way to bring it up. When I polled my students on their druthers, they unanimously preferred the idea of producing dead-tree workbooks and bringing them to class every day to posting to discussion board. They all said they were bored by discussion board. (OK, yeah, not a scientific poll, and it’s possible I predisposed them to answer that way with some snarky comment about discussion board, but still.)

Feel free to tell me I’ve forfeited my place in the Cool Kids Club. (Please, honey, I figured that out in the last century and am 100% over it!) Or, feel free to share with us the ten thousand ways in which you have successfully incorporated discussion board into your teaching. I would love for this gizmo to work in a way that made my life as a teacher easier and made my students brilliant, collaborative, and gainfully employable! I promise I am persuadable. In the meantime, I will let you know how my experiment in dead-tree pedagogy goes. My prediction is that the kids will do well with it and that I will have to be hospitalized by the tenth week of the semester from the ordeal of trying to keep up with what I’ve committed to do. Reading day, class! Teacher’s in the loony bin! Yippeeeee!

Peace out, pedagogues. May all your darlings be adorable and educable. And if all else fails, remember the Madwoman’s #1 Rule for Success in the Classroom: Wear Something Shiny!

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