Reading · Teaching

Intro to Welsh: The Back to School edition

The school year has begun. It is not fall in Southern California by any measure but the academic calendar, but officially, fall semester has arrived. Kids are back in school, in air-conditioned classrooms one hopes, and my partner and I are swinging back in to a routine of lunches and carpools and homework and class preparation and grading.

But it’s August. Part of me is still offended.

Or it would be, if it weren’t so fun. It takes a couple days to figure out where classes meet and to put names to faces, and to move past the preliminaries of setting expectations and selling the class and yourself. For me the first week or two are always the most stressful, even though grading and responsibilities increase over the term.

In the first week I convince people to pay attention to me. I sell the class as important, useful, and fun. I sell myself as an authority but also as a person, because I know how much more pleasant a class is if you like your instructor. (This certainly does not always work, but I try. It’s a fine balance to hit—I’m kind of a dork, but an interesting, funny dork. If I push too far, they stop thinking I’m an interesting, funny anything, and all that’s left is the dork. This is impossible to come back from in my experience.)

When I’m teaching an English class, the odds are in my favor. I am largely surrounded by people who love books and have come there to talk about them. When I’m teaching a General Ed class, it varies.

This term I have mostly non-majors in my Folklore course. In the first week there has been a steady flow in and out of my class, as the prospect of all that reading and writing deters some people, or the dorkness proves insurmountable. People trickle in too, adding every day this week, not knowing what they’re in for.

Today I had enough laughing that I predict they will all stay.

We are reading the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of folklore contained in two manuscripts that people agree come hundreds of years after the tales had been circulating. The first hurdle is convincing people to care about medieval Welsh stories. The second hurdle is convincing people to read Welsh.

I don’t give them the text in Welsh, of course, but I do give them a crash course on pronouncing Welsh so they can read the names and places more easily. I’m trained as a linguist; I got this. I break down the names in to sounds and help them pronounce the ones non-native to English. But today just when they got comfortable with short, one or two-syllable names, and were feeling pretty good, I hit them with the YouTube video.

 There is a twenty-second video of a normal, respectable-looking weatherman doing his job that has over twenty million views because he effortlessly pronounces a Welsh town whose name is fifty-eight letters long. Of course he does. He’s from Cardiff. But it’s kind of amazing anyway.

So I sprung this on my students near the end of the language discussion. They were feeling good. They could pronounce Rhiannon with appropriate breathiness. They wrapped their mouths around the double d sounding like the beginning of ‘then.’ Then Liam Dutton commented about the weather in Llanfairpwyllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and they lost it. And I had them.

I know it’s a gimmick. I know it’s cheap. But if it makes them laugh, builds a connection with their fellow students, challenges them to figure out how that word holds together, sparks a curiosity about the language that extends to the literature and culture, and gets me a little buy-in to a fairly kooky subject matter, I’ll take it.

And we’re off.  Happy Fall, y’all.


The Little Things are the Big Things, vol. 2

In June of 2017 I blogged about a new personal mantra, The Little Things Are the Big Things. At that time I was thinking about it against a backdrop of Big Things:  graduations, weddings, births, and other milestones.

But this summer is rougher. This summer I am working harder to maintain my smile. So when I sit and muse on things that make me happy in the short term–things I could classify in my bullet journal under self-care–I come up with a new list of Little Things that I am trying to maximize or cultivate in my life.

The first thing is MORNINGS. My life runs on an academic calendar, so during the summer I am tempted to sleep in. For the first couple weeks I did pretty regularly, and it felt incredibly indulgent. Sleeping in definitely belongs on my list of Little Things that make me happy. But even more than sleeping in, I cherish the mornings I wake up but don’t have to go anywhere right away. These mornings I can make coffee and sit on my back patio. Something about a quiet, cool morning is even more restorative to me than extra sleep. My inner five year old still prefers waking to sleep; I don’t want to waste my time sleeping. But my inner octogenarian values the space and stillness and light and doesn’t need to play.

This morning in Diamond Bar. I have a sunflower pinwheel and caught a flock of birds on the wing.

The next thing is BOOKS. During the school year I read a lot, but it’s mostly texts for class, research, and email correspondence. I choose my books well, so I enjoy a lot of this, but email correspondence is rarely soul-stirring. In the summer I can read poetry with abandon, read novels I store up all year, sink in to non-fiction and learn something completely different. I do more internet reading than I ever plan to, but I also find something wonderful and unexpected every summer. In truth, I didn’t even get to the novels I put aside this year. I found more books and articles and comics serendipitously and read what I stumbled across instead. Maybe next summer.

DRINKS. During the school year, coffee is consumed like a vitamin. In the summer it gets to be an event. And I seriously had multiple tea parties this summer. I drove my kids to Camarillo for a formal one, but we also just had several times where a pot of tea was a focal point and everyone sat and enjoyed it together. I found myself chatting with friends and welcoming a new colleague with wine several times over the long, hot days, and my partner has started brewing his own beer, so home-brewed milk stout was a new delight. I did not see that coming, but he’s having so much fun and being so adorably industrious, everything about it is a small, good thing.

Lastly, which should be first, no doubt—PEOPLE. The generosity of friends and strangers never ceases to amaze me. People have sent me links and stories, jokes and support on social media. One of my favorite things about social media is how easy it is to be generous and thoughtful. How many more birthday wishes do we get now, for instance? And that’s just one aspect. Literally as I’m writing this, a friend recommended that I follow a favorite nature photographer. She thought of me and reached out, and on the one hand it’s a very little thing, but on the other it is not at all; someone I admire thinks fondly of me and knows me well enough to recognize something will give me lots of little moments of joy. That’s huge, actually.

Virtually-transmitted generosity (shall we call it e-generosity?) aside, I have also been the recipient of much very practical, physical goodness this summer. Sometimes it’s a small business operator adding a bonus to my purchase (I’m thinking of a lovely artist whose work I’ve bought before, and who this time included an extra piece for free). Sometimes it’s the really random fact that three separate women from quite different places in my life all gave me a big supply of cardstock. My hobby is papercrafting, and for no good reason at all, within a month I got so much raw material, I am thunderstruck—glimmery cardstock, colored cardstock, some scored, and envelopes of all sizes–all freely given to me with the hopes I could put it to use. I will. I promise.

All of this is to say that I feel very lucky, very fortunate, very blessed—however you conceive of that emotion. At a time when I’m deeply discouraged by the greed of institutions and people in power, countless individuals are working non-stop, like little unpaid elves, conspiring to bolster my faith in the magnanimity of my fellow humans.

There are many more examples, even from this summer, but I’ll stop there and invite you to take stock of the gestures of good will you have been shown this summer. May they be many. May they lift you up and lighten your load, and reveal themselves to be Big Things in Disguise.

Living · Writing

Candles and Flames

This is the summer of non-blogs. And I’m a day late again.

I thought of not posting at all again, but that seemed a cop-out.

I’m not posting readily this summer because while my summer has had bright spots I would normally post about (a card-making crop, some great books, and some other wonderful moments), this summer has also been plagued with ICE raids and mass shootings, and it seems flippant to say it’s a lovely summer when it’s not.

I am torn. I am doing what I can to help, but it doesn’t seem like enough. I am trying to keep myself strong so I can lift up others, and I am sending more cards to people just to cheer them up than ever before, but I’m not blogging consistently. The kinds of blogs I tend to write threaten this summer to make me sound like a tone-deaf happy-ass. I am a happy-ass. I hope I’m not tone-deaf.  

I don’t know what to offer here this week, but I will say I squarely still believe in humanity and in the power of little things to overwhelm the world with goodness. I also hope we can get some big things straight in terms of more humane policy in the near future, so there’s not quite so much pressure on the little things to make us happy.

Meanwhile, I wish you all strength and hope and light above all. Shine on, you beautiful people.

This is one of the ways I imagine hope.

And before I leave, here is a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti entitled “Poetry as Insurgent Art.” Enjoy.

“I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….”

Reading · Teaching

The Modern Medieval Commentary

It’s summer, and I’m shaking things up again.

Fall semester is right around the corner, and I’m sitting here reading medieval commentaries and having Eureka! moments.

I regularly teach excerpts from Macrobius’s Commentary on The Dream of Scipio—the passages where he delineates the different kinds of true and false dreams one can have–and I’m wondering why it hasn’t occurred to me before that it’s a useful genre.

The medieval commentary tradition is a wonderful thing, really. There are many commentators like Macrobius—well-educated, well-intended, and busy saving the works of antiquity from oblivion. Macrobius uses the Roman orator Cicero’s text as a vehicle to collect or “compile” classical knowledge and package it for a Christian audience.

The text of the Dream of Scipio is included, of course, all eight pages of it, and then the Commentary of Macrobius adds upwards of 150 pages. It’s very medieval of him.

He collects other information in order to help explain the Dream. Scholars have spilt considerable ink deciding what texts he used as source material for which passages, but the point here is that he did. He used other texts to understand this one. He gathered outside information to clarify the context and associate the content with other, comparable texts. He isolated passages and looked closely at them, using all his faculties and all his resources to do justice to the subtleties of the text.

In short, he did literary criticism. But he did it in a medieval way.

Medieval authors valued authoritative texts. When I teach Chaucer, we talk about how he repurposed old tales for his Canterbury Tales rather than making things up ex nihilo. Originality meant going back to origins, not being novel. So a commentator would do that very important medieval writing task of compiling materials and putting them in conversation with one another to learn new truths. A compilator was not an auctor, an established authority and the root of our modern ”author,” but the job was vitally important nonetheless. A compiler made it possible for readers to gain fuller understanding of the auctor. A compiler opened doors, shone light, brought clarity, and most importantly, inspired the reader to deeper appreciation of the text.

This is where I’m headed in the fall.

I’m not going to make my students write hundred-page theses explaining flash fiction, but I am going to introduce them to the process and purpose and pleasure of the commentary.

In a modern classroom, a commentary may include annotations, summaries of parallel or illuminating texts, historical context, analysis of language and style, and may very well include illustrations or other visual elements. I’m thinking it will be a notebook devoted to a single text that students work on all term—an interactive account of their experience reading their chosen text.

I can already imagine them knocking my socks off.