Living · Reading · Teaching · Uncategorized

Ode on a Shortened Summer

The most glorious myth of academic life is the summer vacation. People who don’t teach sometimes assume the summers are one long, three-month margarita party. That’s never the case, of course, although some may start out that way.

Alas.
Instead, those who work at state universities, at least in my experience, spend a significant chunk of summer doing the research or creative work they don’t have time to do during the school year. Then there’s the planning of next year’s courses. This year that was dramatic and demanding, as my school converted from a quarter system to a semester system, so even people who have been teaching the same things for some time had to reconceive their syllabus, reading lists, and teaching strategies.
There’s also a very real need to rest one’s head and do something different for a bit, so you can come back strong. I try to reserve time to read things I will never have occasion to teach. I wrote a beautiful list and made a stack of books at the beginning of summer. In addition to three more novels in my lovely, pulpy, mystery series, I intended to read twelve books, mostly fiction, one a re-read of a book I haven’t read since college (Kamouraska by Anne Hebert).
This year’s haul from Solvang. The Book Loft always has the best new fairy tales.
Looking at my list now, I only read four, started four more, and don’t know exactly what happened with the others. I never even pulled the mysteries off the shelf. I did, however, read a tall stack of new fairy tales I bought on a trip with my daughter, write a handful of blogs and a pitch for a children’s novel, and now I am plowing through three non-fiction books I just HAD to read before school starts.
I guess what I’m realizing that what’s valuable about summer for me is the ability to plan and then pitch the plan entirely.
From September to June everything has to be very carefully orchestrated. I keep list after list and plan and organize, so that all goes well in my classes and professional life. Summer is a welcome rest for my brain not just because I’m not prepping, teaching, or grading, but because I can afford to go unscripted for a while. It’s very liberating.
This summer, because we are shifting from quarters that ended in June to semesters that start in August, our summer is about seven weeks instead of eleven. And scripted or not, it has been jam-packed. We’ll be ready, because we must be, but we might all be starting out a little tired, which we usually don’t, I think.
I resisted this conversion for a long time. I voted against it. I grumbled when our vote was ignored, and we were simply told to convert. But now, staring down the barrel of my first week, I’m not worried. I’m glad I’ll have sixteen weeks instead of ten to get to know my students better. I’m glad to have more time to go deeper in the texts I teach and to assign more writing and more revision. I’m part of an academic family, so I’ll be glad to have more holidays match up and have some more time off in the winter. Mostly, though, I’m just always glad to go back. That’s the real perk of this job—not the summer break, but the fall return.
Reading · Teaching

Slow Reading: How What We Read Becomes Who We Are

I went to my annual conference last week. I have spent twenty-two long weekends in May in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the biggest annual international medieval conference in North America. Coming from the West coast, I always think it should take me half a day, and the last few years it has taken upwards of 16 hours. This time I pretty much decided I’ve had a good run, but I don’t have time for the chaos of travel.

So it was important that I got good stuff out of what might be my last run. So the universe obliged me. This time I came home thinking big thoughts about Slow Reading.
As my university converts from a quarter schedule to semesters starting in the fall, we are all thinking about how our courses will change. Mostly, as a literature instructor, I’m looking forward to adding some texts back in to my syllabus. I certainly took things out when I moved from fifteen-week semesters to ten-week quarters.
But as I think about my Chaucer class, and as I met with Chaucerians and other folks who teach literature (I went to a particularly great session on teaching literature in translation), I think I won’t add text so much as add depth. I’m going to embrace, model, and flex my Slow Reading skills.
My session was a workshop on pronouncing Chaucer’s Middle English. We spent 90 minutes on 220 lines of the Wife of Bath’s prologue. It was awesome.
With that much time, you can figure out what everything means, then figure out how reading it different ways changes that meaning. You can talk about performance issues—tone, pacing, what words you stress or scumble, and what all that does to build an understanding of the character.
I’m just getting my head in to this mode, but since a recent article tripped across my social media feed reminding us that “slow reading” helps us think deeper and cultivate empathy, I started a list of things I want our slow reading to do.
Here’s the preliminary list.
Slow Reading is:

Knowing what every word means and does;
Looking at connotations in double entendres;
Understanding the context of the work;
Reading with attention to sound and visual rhyme;
Reading for musicality;
Reading for voice/persona;
Knowing your language;
Knowing your lit;
Knowing your history;
Knowing your shit.

Ok, I got a bit carried away at the end. It’s a work in progress. But it’s important, and I’ll keep thinking about it and working on it. This is how the words become a part of us. Skimming doesn’t do it. We need to read some things really deeply and let them change us. We cannot overstress the importance of the process of reading.
I’m starting to get really excited about semesters.
(The article I was referencing above is “Reading Literature Makes us Smarter and Nicer” by Annie Murphy Paul, published in Time, and available here: http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/)
Teaching

The Once and Future Course

When I started my job, there was only one medieval course on the books: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I was to be the only medievalist, and in fact, even more than that. My job description was technically “Medieval and Renaissance Non-Dramatic Literature,” which meant that we had two Shakespeareans, but I could have Spenser. So in my first few years, I designed courses that fit my interests and Cal Poly’s needs. The Epic. Myth as Literature. Arthurian Romance.
Now that we’re shifting from quarters (which has the advantage of more, if shorter, classes), I find myself facing down my last King Arthur class. Poor Arthur didn’t make the cut to conversion. That’s a hazard at a school with only one medievalist—there are a number of courses that no one teaches but me, and if I’m teaching fewer courses, well….
This makes me pretty sad, but I’ve had a good run.  King Arthur is a subject, a whole field, really, that doesn’t get old. It’s an incredibly productive mythos in Western literature.  From 9th century histories to this summer’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it’s still alive and well in our imaginations, and for good reason.

It starts with magic—with Merlin helping the impassioned King Uther in to another man’s bed, in a move that curries favor and power, but banks it.  Merlin is patient and can wait for Arthur to grow up. In the middle, there’s the rise of Arthur and the Round Table, from his pulling the sword from the stone, to the establishment of his court of champions, all the iconic episodes of which have been told and retold. Perhaps the peak is the unifying (but ruinous for Camelot) Quest for the Holy Grail. And finally, the fall of Camelot, set in motion by the love affair of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.
You can see why it’s productive.  It’s bloody brilliant, really. First, the life of Arthur is mythically heroic. I mean he fits the model of so many heroes in world literature, with his supernatural birth, his noble roots but obscure upbringing, and so many other mythic traits.  He is an epic hero in the truest sense.
And then he establishes a court. Several of his knights have their own iconic adventures—Gawain with the Green Knight, Percival and the Grail, Tristan and his tragic love for Iseut.  From a marketing standpoint alone, that’s gold.  Arthur has 150 knights.  Their tales could go on forever.
And the Grail thing.  Just think how productive that has been. We use it as a generic magical object now; it’s the Kleenex of questing objects. It was also a quest that united all the court—everyone went. But not everyone came back, and only a few got close to achieving it. A quest like that is like the Expendables franchise—a greatest hits roster, made for fans who will go nuts to see them all together.
And the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere. We don’t even need Arthur anymore. He’s just the center of the circle, holding the tales together. His knights and now even his wife have moved on, but they’d have been nothing without him.

As I teach this course one last time, I’ll focus on that center of gravity that Arthur represents.  And who knows, maybe one day in the future, I’ll work him back in to the curriculum.