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?
Me (deadpan): Booty.
Thank you! I'll be here all week! It gets them every time. Believe me...it'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...