Living · Teaching · Writing

The List of Lists

Summer for a teacher is a weird thing.

My Writing Journal, Italian Journal, Creative Journal, Bullet Journal, and Bird-Watching Journal. Or, Summer on a Shelf.

On the one hand, we need to rest; teaching is exhausting both intellectually and emotionally (in addition to physically). On the other hand, as a group, we’re not particularly good at it.

There are conferences to attend, research to pursue, classes to update, texts to consider, lessons to plan, and administrative work that does not end when the students go home.

See? I have already started. Summer, for me, is about lists.

I have begun. I have made the List of Lists for this summer. It is inclusive, if not exhaustive, of all the things I want to do in the next two months.

For work, I will write an article, choose and prepare lessons for a new book, meet with Teaching Assistants to orient them for their first semester, and prep a class I haven’t taught in a while. This class needs to be updated for semesters, which includes finding a couple of additional books and planning lessons for them and shifting the entire syllabus, since my school’s switching from a Quarter system to a Semester system changes… everything. And then there’s the more intangible “work” I don’t get paid for, which include writing this blog and pursuing that dream of being a novelist–by finding an agent for the first book and getting past chapter three on the next one.

So much for the myth that teachers have summers off.

All those items are handily subdivided in my bullet journal in tangible, “actionable,” bite-size pieces.

After work, of course, there will be other lists. I’m still working on learning Italian, but my conversation partner is in Russia for the summer, so there are lists of movies to watch, verbs to study, books to read with a dictionary close to hand, and levels of language apps to power through.

What is that? Is that work? It will help me teach Dante. Is it Self-Care? I’m staving off dementia, you know. Is it relaxing time? Sure. But also no. Whatever. There’s a list for it.

Summer is also time for home. We have some Home Improvement-type projects going, including fixing the infamous Bee Pillar for real. It is functional (read: it keeps bees out) at present, but it is not pretty. So the first item on the list is Prettifying the Bee Pillar. In fact, if we kept the list just to Finishing Projects We Started Ill-Advisedly Before Summer And Had to Abort, we would fill our summer. But we’re optimists, and we have an idle-ish pair of teens, so we’re overstuffing that list as well.

I also do a Summer Purge, where I go through a room at a time and find stuff to donate and “share” with friends and fellow teachers (mostly books for understocked classrooms). There are lists for that, and officially, the whole purge is just one item on the Master List.

And we really should do some of that stuff they call Self-Care. In fact, it probably should be first. Things that refuel me at the end of the year include sleeping well past 6 am, staring numbly at the wall—preferably while holding a cat, reading pulp fiction and Other Books I Never Intend to Teach, and doing Crafty Sorts of Things.

I should also have a list for Health. So I do. I have every good intention of improving my diet (that’s worth a whole page in my bullet journal), maintaining my water intake when there’s no built-in measure of “a bottle per class,” upping my normal routine of dog-walkies to include elliptical training, and stretching my stupid Achilles tendon ten bloody times a day to combat my tendonitis. Yes, some of my lists are written for me.

It’s ok, though. Every time I generate a list, I relieve a little anxiety. Right now, with my summer neatly organized in a series of headers with cascading columns of items to check off, I am cool as a cucumber.

Bring on the heat, So-Cal. I’m ready.

Reading · Teaching

Teaching Lies, or the View from the Front of the Class

One of the biggest lies of teaching literature is that if you’ve taught a text, you are prepared for what happens the next time you teach it.

In truth, though, every batch of readers is different, so every time through a text, even a short and relatively straightforward text, is a different conversation.

Last week I taught a short essay by Italo Calvino called “Why Read the Classics?” It’s a perfect introduction for lit students to Calvino because he’s talking about what they think is important—good books—and, in a series of definitions that tighten like a noose, he talks them through why he thinks reading classics is important.

I taught two sections an hour apart. There was virtually no overlap in the discussions.

In the first class the student leading the discussion was of a fairly conservative educational mindset, and we spent most of our time trying to articulate the advantages of reading a shared literary canon. (And this, even though we failed in that class to find one text every person had read.) Topics ranged from the influence of ancient and medieval classics on modern masters to the structural and plot similarities of old texts and new, to the realization that human emotions and reactions haven’t really changed in 3000 years.

I tried a couple times to broach the subject of Calvino’s argument for ‘personal classics,’ but I didn’t get much traction, and the conversation kept veering back to a canon—a widening canon, to be sure, including women and authors of color and other underrepresented writers—but it was generally agreed that a list of books that well read people know was a good thing. It forms bonds between people and creates a sense of shared ownership of an intellectual past. The more cultural history we share, the more jokes we get in movies and books.

The second class never mentioned ancient texts at all. The student leading that discussion responded to the idea of Personal Classics like a kid in a candy store and opened up a discussion of favorite books and how they shape us, regardless of whether anyone read the same ones. In this class Calvino came out looking like an iconoclast, which is fair, but he’s an iconoclast steeped in Ovid and Dante, Shakespeare and Dickens.

I have had classes that met somewhere in the middle—nodding in the direction of our literary forebears and then careening off on our personal trajectories. I have also had classes who spent the whole time niggling with either Calvino’s list of definitions or his list of accepted classics.

But no class is the same. The more times I teach a text, the better prepared my opening comments are, and the larger my range of responses to topics that come up with some regularity, but really, truly… we could go anywhere. Giving students the reins in this way is not so much an act of bravery as an exciting spectacle—an intellectual event.

After nine pages of refined definitions and compelling exceptions, Calvino’s conclusion can feel like a bit of a cop out. We should read the classics (the accepted canon and our personal favorites) because it is better to have read them than not.

But he’s not wrong. We define ourselves and construct ourselves in affinity with or in opposition to what we encounter in the world. That means the more we encounter—the more characters we meet and situations we seen navigated—the finer we can tune our personalities. And the more fun we are at cocktail parties. And the better we react when classes or conversations go places we’ve never seen coming.

Read. Think. Talk. And grow. Have fun out there, y’all.


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.
Living · Reading · Teaching

Wandering Back to Old English

I am teaching Old English for the first time in several years, and I’m so excited! It’s like revisiting an old friend. For a variety of reasons from the lows of a medical leave to the highs of a sabbatical, the survey of British literature has not fallen in my lap for… too long.
I thought for a while I might be an Anglo-Saxonist, which goes some way to saying how much I enjoyed the language and the culture of that Germanic, heroic, fatalistic poetry. It was the first dead language I studied, and I was entranced by the strangeness and the similarity to Modern English and American culture. Hwaet! Mead. Warrior-companions. All of that was awesome. I wrote my MA thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand.
Then I went on and discovered Chaucer, and my world shifted again, but part of my heart burns a candle for Beowulf and all his charming imperfections.
When I teach Beowulf, I build up to it. We look at the conventions of Old English poetry in small texts like “Caedmon’s Hymn,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Battle of Maldon,”, and then Beowulf brings them all together. Today, though, I’m stuck on the Wanderer.
“The Wanderer” is a brief poem, mostly a soliloquy, but framed by a narrator (lines added by a well-meaning monk? We will never know) who explains the speaker’s state of mind. He’s sad. He’s lonely. He longs for grace. He has lost his lord and kinsmen and finds himself alone in the world.
And this time, after a four year hiatus from Old English during which both my parents died, I read those words in a way I never imagined before. The Wanderer sounds like a man slipping in to dementia.
It’s not, of course. That’s me imposing a fragment of my life, or my father’s life, really, on the speaker. But I did not see it coming, and it rings this time through with that truth that works of literature change with us; as we age and our circumstances change, our experience of the text changes, because we are half of the equation—the reader.
The Wanderer gripes a bit. It’s usually called an elegy, but I entertain other genres, and this feels more like a complaint or a consolation poem, since he’s resigned to his fate at the end. He is frustrated by his circumstances and trying to get through by turning inward.
He has lost his relatives and his lord. Maybe there was a battle, and he is the sole survivor. Whatever the case, he has lost everyone. This is how my dad felt, as he saw people he couldn’t remember, when he could still recognize that he should know them. He began a slow descent in to exile—separated from everyone he loved.
The Wanderer learned “that silence is noble and sorrow/ Nothing speech can cure” (ll 13-14). Dad seemed to learn this too, withdrawing more and more in to his head, but not being able to articulate why. He seemed to have moments of calm when he was quiet, but got confused and flustered when he tried to sort things out. Hideous, debilitating cause aside, he would have made a good, laconic Viking.
I have read this poem twenty times. I know it’s not about dementia, and it’s not about me. It’s about the abject fear people feel in a culture plagued by cold and famine—a primitive, instinctual fear of being alone, not just because of loneliness, but because communities survive where individuals die.
But whenever we willingly enter the world of a poem or other text, it is in some ways about us. And this time, I was delighted to see it was about my dad. It was nice to see him.
I’ve just decided it’s a consolation poem.
(This translation is taken from Burton Raffel’s Poems and Prose from the Old English.)
Living · Teaching

How We See Changes What We See

I took my kiddo to get his senior portraits taken last week. He was every inch the contradiction that we all are on the hybrid space where childhood flows in to adulthood. I wanted him to dress up; he wanted to wear a tee shirt.The props he wanted to bring were a thousand-page novel and some pieces from some games he plays. He wanted me to stay in the lobby, but he welcomed me back when I intervened to tell him to go ahead and switch to the casual clothes. He couldn’t decide on a smile.
But the photographer was terrific. We knew him, which helped. In fact, he was my son’s photography teacher last year. As I was watching the last few minutes of the shoot, I was struck by the photographer’s style and process. I could tell he looked at my son differently than I did. He never stopped imagining him in the next pose.
I’m pathologically curious, so I asked him about it. Does he just go through the world looking at people and framing them in his head? Yes. Yes, he does. He’s always interested in what the lighting of a particular setting does to a person’s image. Photography is all about light, and he sees the world in light and subjects, and has trouble turning off that vision.
Recently I had a similar conversation with my massage therapist, who I am certain is a genius, and who invariably sees people out of joint in her daily life—a man at the bank with a foot twisted inward she can see stems from the hip, or a woman who hunches and just needs to loosen up her neck and shoulders—and she can’t help thinking about what she would do to fix them. It’s a completely different way to see humanity, as so many imperfect machines in need of various levels of tuning up.
And both of these make me wonder about how we learn our perspective. Is it training or disposition? Are we inclined to view people in a particular way, or do we learn it in school or work? I think I was trained to think about literature like a critic, but I think I had a natural orientation toward language—what some of my teachers over the years called “having a good ear.”
Whether it’s innate or trained (I suspect both, really), the way it manifests in my head is that every new book I read, movie I watch, song I hear, or even news story I see passes through the filter: Could I teach this? How? In which class? With what comparable texts? That’s the part of my head I can’t turn off, and the part of my job I can’t leave at work. Yes, there’s the grading and the prepping, but deeper and more importantly, there’s my orientation toward the world as an opportunity to find a teachable moment.
I include all these various examples of people I consider artists because I want to add teaching to the list of arts that give one a particular lens on the world that becomes more inherent the longer one works. Just like a painter tries to capture what she sees in paint, or a playwright uses actors and scripts, we pick our medium and try to share what we see with others.

My desire to help others see what I see is just my particular artist’s effort, to help people see what I see —that medieval literature is funny, for instance, or that the connections between languages are cool. And after this past horrible weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, I want people to notice that some stories keep coming back and we can find strength and strategies in our past history and literature to help us win again.