Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Learning 'Creepy White Men': or, A Pedagogy of Humor

Yesterday in the survey class (after two classes out for snow), we tackled Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, specifically, "Porphyria's Lover," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," and "My Last Duchess." If we'd had time, I would've also assigned "The Bishop orders his Tomb," but there just too much to cover already.

This falls into the middle of a unit on Victorian literature that focuses on the idea of masculinity: the terms set up for ideal visions of masculinity, the anxieties present about the failure of masculinity, and the ways that masculinity is tied up in national and imperial projects, and so we discuss Tennyson, Browning, Kipling, and Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde in this unit.

Browning day is one of my favorites because I'm a drama guy, and so the dramatic monologue form is right up my alley. We can talk about the ways that is presages modernism, the way that it shifts away from the lyric mode, how it provides interpretive space between author(-function) and narrator for critical reading. Plus there are the voices.

I do voices when I teach Browning. As we move through sections, I read the monologues "in character." The ridiculousness of "Cloister"s angry monk, the psychopathic rationalization of Porphyria's lover, the oily haughtiness of Ferrara are all ripe for comedy--as an entry strategy (more about that later). I particularly love "Spanish Cloister," for any poem that has a growl in the first and final lines is good enough for me. And I've got jokes planted all over the place there. As, for example, the speaker eyes up the lustrous hair of Brown Delores and Sanchicha, he displaces his own lust onto to his rival, who he claims eyes up the women like "a Barbary Corsair."

Me: What's a Barbary Corsair, guys?
Them: uhhh, a pirate?
Me: Right. And what does a pirate want?
Them: Treasure?
Me (deadpan): Booty.

Thank you! I'll be here all week! It gets them every time. Believe's all in the timing.

And yet, I have been a bit worried of late that I am relying on humor too much to get me through these lessons, particularly with the larger, less-discussion-ready second section. While discussion prompts blow over like a lead zeppelin, the funnier lectures go beautifully with this group--they're a great audience in that way. But I'm a teacher, not a comic, so I want a class, not an audience (although I recognize that the distinction is hardly clear).

At any rate, I want to work through some of the problems here, in argument/ counter-argument form, and I'd love to hear responses.

1. Argument: This method creates passive learners. Counter-argument: This method engages students initially in a passive way, but gets them interested enough to be more active learners later on down the road.

I am really torn on this tension, personally, because I despise passive learning strategies, especially at this University, where my experience is that passive learning is not only a function of lazy learners, it's also a function of historically privilege-deprived learners. Many of my students don't know that they should engage the material because they've been taught by-and-large that the powers that be act upon them, and they may only accept or resist privately. So as much as these students may adore my humor, it does nothing to help them learn to respond publicly to what they're hearing. But I tend to hope that lessons like this grease the skids a bit for Thursday's lesson on masculinity and empire (Tennyson's "Ulysses," Henry Morton Stanley, Kipling's "White Man's Burden," where I ask them to imagine the milieu for empire and racism that is easy to condemn from this vantage point, but is much more complicated when we set it in its historical moment.

2. Argument: Humor in the lesture distracts students from the richness and complexity of the texts we're examining. Counter Argument: Humor introduces complex issues in a palatable way for deeper consideration. Counter-counter Argument: But they only remember the funny.

What I do, for example, is to talk about how creepy these characters are, and I get some comic mileage out of saying the word "creepy" many many times. It becomes a running joke. And yet, we begin to interrogate what's creepy about these characters, which inevitably leads to a discussion of how they all use class status or moral piety to mask or even justify sinister behavior, rather than as a defense against sinister behavior, which is what the ideal imagines it to be (i.e. Tennyson's King Arthur). Which leads me to the next issue:

3. A lot of the available humor revolves around sex/gender roles. This reinforces retrograde notions of sex, gender, and sexuality. Counter-Argument: Not always, since the humor is often at the expense of retrograde gender roles, and as above, often incites a discussion about these issues in these texts.

I finished the lesson yesterday asking whether people were concerned with the women in these texts--women objectified (literally, in the case of "Duchess"), murdered, even a victim of necrophilic activity in the case of Porphyria. It began a discussion of whether based on these poems Browning is being dangerously sexist, critiqueing such dangerous sexism, or just revealing the uncomfortable tension around what we might now call a dangerous sexism. I feel like the end result here is that we've interrogated gender far beyond ways that the humor might reinforces traditional gender codes, but I'm interested in hearing arguments about that.

In the end, I think that being funny is useful as long as it's a beginning point, not an ending point. But of course, it doesn't always work. My 8:30 class, with 7 students present, didn't really think I was that funny, and so the discussions went on without the humor, and proceeded, well, ok. The second class, bigger, more passive, ate the stuff up, but the discussions, while better than normal, still weren't as uniformly engaged as the first class'.

I do worry for the same reason Flavia worried a few days ago, that my schtick supersedes the objectives the schtick is meant to further...when humor is the schtick, that danger seems doubled...

ETA: Flavia also talks today about vulgarity in the classroom, which is totally related to this post...hunh...


Flavia said...

This resonates with me so much, as you can imagine, and I share many of your worries. But I'd add a few points here:

1) in some cases (though obviously not in all), having a shtick where you're the funny, energetic, slightly profane prof means that you get repeat customers. That's no small thing when you're teaching courses in a field that students reflexively dislike or are scared of--and if you're not an easy grader (as I know you're not), that also means, I think, that students are challenging themselves even if they're not fully aware of it.

2) even those students who don't become repeat customers and don't challenge themselves to meet your standards--those who are just fulfilling a major requirement, let's say--are likely to come away with a neutral-to-positive impression, however fuzzy and indistinct, of the subject you've taught. Maybe they won't be more skilled readers of poetry after you've taught them Browning, but if they're able to remember having enjoyed a poem by some dead white guy--or even if they only remember that you, their seemingly cool and hip professor really dug on poetry--that's not nothing. It's more than many English majors come away with, I think.

3) what's the alternative to being funny? Really? Your best students will still like you and do well if you take a more earnest, self-consciously rigorous approach, but you'll lose some of the students below that level, who have the potential to become better readers and writers if they're made to laugh and become engaged in the material. (And as for the lowest tenth or whatever, who cares? They're not going to put in the effort one way or the other, and although it may seem unfair that they get to be amused by your shtick without learning much, they wouldn't learn much anyway.)

And I'll say this: I'm probably a Miltonist today thanks to the lecture that I took as a sophomore with a sweet, brilliant, and completely and hilarious prof who did things like refer to God as "that great orgy-meister himself." He taught a 100+ person Milton lecture, every single year, because the students loved him so much. And yeah, that's INRU--but I can't think of a school of comparable caliber and size that supports an annual, full-capacity Milton lecture. And I love the fact that every year hundreds of students are graduating and going into the world--in careers in law or banking or elementary school education or whatever--loving Milton because of him.

I doubt I'll ever have the opportunity to have that kind of effect, even if I had the ability--but if I can do something similar with even a dozen students a year? Worth it.

Bardiac said...

I think doing voices is an especially good way to help students understand the way Browning's dramatic monologues work. In my experience, most students don't read aloud much, nor do they have a sense of how dramatic dialog OR monolog can work. Hearing the utterly creeptastic Duke helps them realize exactly what's happening. They're missing hugely if they aren't creeped out.

Sisyphus said...

Grr ... water your damned flowerpots, do!

I loved Browning as an undergrad. Even now I still occasionally satisfy my illicit Browning cravings. :)

My suggestion, specifically for Browning, would be to play up the drama-ness of the dramatic monologue more, rather than less. Try to reel them in with the humor, and then have _them_ do some reading aloud or performing, which brings in the "active learning" stuff you are wanting. I've had teachers assign everyone the task of memorizing and reciting a poem of 14 lines or longer; others who made people round-robin read a long poem until everyone had read some of it, and even a couple who made everyone stand and read the poem in unison (but that made it feel like church in an icky, creepy way). Or have some people stand at the front of the class and act out as you give a dramatic reading of the poem. It would make the creative type people very happy and the shy and uninvested ones will appreciated it much later after the whole thing is done ... and probably hate you at the time. But it's all good; it might be the one clear memory they have of a foggy vague undergrad experience, years later.

undine said...

Using voices and humor is just right for these poems, and I agree with your other commenters. There's always time for earnest discussion, but since not every work lends itself to the kind of techniques you're using here, using them when you can is great.

Mel said...

I use humor fairly often in order to disrupt students' expectations -- to help them engage, or to point out the ways that the text is both familiar and wholly unfamiliar. Teaching (humorous or not) is always a little weird with multiple sections, because nothing ever goes the same way twice. But I really doubt your students are made more passive or less engaged by your jokes. When I was a student, I always appreciated the effort some faculty made to be funny, casual, etc, even when it wasn't wholly successful.