Reading · Uncategorized

Journey to the Center of the Real World, Part One

My son and I exchanged books on Christmas. Uncle Gerry had given me a copy of Norwegian Folktales, and him a copy of John Muir’s short works. They were thoughtful gifts—he knows I love folktales, and my son had talked with him at length about John Muir on several occasions.

But he underestimated the size of my library, and overestimated my son’s interest in reading nonfiction.

To be fair, I wouldn’t ask anyone to buy me a book of fairy tales unless I gave them an ISBN. That is one genre very well represented on my shelves. I teach folklore (because I love it), and that has given me an excuse to buy widely. Also my daughter and I make an annual pilgrimage to Solvang, where there is a Hans Christian Andersen museum and a well-stocked bookstore we visit dutifully.

All right; I’ll just say it. He bought a classic collection, and I already have three different translations of it. So I traded with my son for John Muir.

My daughter also received a book of environmental nonfiction: Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land. She gave it to me for “safe keeping.” By my count, she should be ready for it about twenty, maybe twenty-five years from now. This is speculation, of course, but informed speculation.

My daughter reads fantasy. My son does too. When they’re reading for pleasure, which is pretty frequently for American teenagers, they read fiction and some poetry. I remember this. I once told my mom (a biography nut) that there was no point in reading about real people; real people are boring. And I told my dad at the wise old age of 16 that nonfiction was useless. The real world was taking place all around us. If I was going to read, there should be dragons.

So I’ve seen this sort of thing before. But my kids are doing it a little differently. My son is reading that new folklore book with the intent of plundering it for content for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures. My daughter does this too. She likes novels with well-developed worlds and accompanying maps, in part because she draws her own maps for her D & D campaigns.

Where my experience and my kids’ overlap is in territory they’re not paying attention to yet, but I recognize it. While they read about all these magical places, they’re putting them to immediate use. But what they don’t see happening is the building of their own internal landscapes. They are stocking their brains with fantastic settings and spectacular characters whom they speak of as friends. These images and scenes are building up their framework for understanding the world—their frame of reference from this time forth. That is huge, and fantasy will do the job.

There must be families somewhere who like nonfiction as kids, but where we live, reality can wait. We have lots of years of Narnia and Hogwarts and Wonderland and Discworld before they can be tempted away by the majesty of the real world.

In other news, I have arrived at the age of loving nonfiction. And it is breathtaking.

Teaching

It Takes Twenty (or Thirty) to Tango–In Praise of Students

I teach two classes in the morning and then have office hours, and do another class in the afternoon.
Last Friday I was dead tired, and as I slouched in my office before dragging myself to the last class of the week, I was thinking I wouldn’t make it. It’s a General Education class (so a mix of English majors and lots of other folks) on folklore and fairy tales, and for that particular meeting, we read two essays on how folktales work. There was no magic or jokes inherent in the text to help me. I figured I’d do my best to lead to them through the essays they read for class, and let them go a few minutes early. There are some perks to university teaching, and I am grateful.
We went over time.
Not because I’m a good teacher; I was not on my game Friday. Because I have amazing students.
I think students place too much emphasis on the instructor when it comes to thinking about how successful a class is. I often hear them in the hall (or in my office) gushing about their favorite classes, and how fantastic the professor was.
To every student who ever thought your class was awesome (or terrible) because of the professor—I charge you to think about the rest of the humans in that class. The best planned class falls flat if the students don’t come to the party. And the best students can lift a peaky prof right out of the doldrums.
We started with an essay by folklorist Alan Dundes that describes how folklore differs from authored literature. They loved his grouchy attitude, and when I gave them a bit of context and biography, they loved him even more. They defended his defensiveness, sympathizing with his marginalization by more traditional, ivory tower, literary scholars. They kind of loved his personality as they saw it filtered through his argument. And they came up with the longest, subtlest list of distinctions between folk and literary tales we’ve ever produced, in all the years I’ve taught this class.
I love my job.
I love that every class is different, composed of entirely different humans, with different experiences and backgrounds, in a different mix each time. I always have certain things I want to cover, certain things I want to say, but if I’m honest a huge chunk of each class session is pretty unscripted. I react to what they like and know (and don’t know and don’t like), and we talk about what needs understanding until the time is up.
Whenever students ask what they missed, I refer them to another student for notes. I can and do sometimes supply an outline for what I wanted to accomplish, but I only take in a page of notes on any given day, and it’s only a starting point. It only scratches the surface of what we end up doing and thinking and learning.
My favorite thing to write in letters of recommendation for former students is that they “contributed substantively to the success of the class.” They did. Without them, I’d just be a reader.