Monday, September 19, 2011

Why not to major in English

So this semester, I’m teaching two sections of intro to the major, a course that is often a “service” course, but since we’ve just recently introduced a foundations component into our major, I’m one of the folks who are really piloting it as a key component of the curriculum. So functionally, nearly half of the class of 2014 in the English major may have ended up taking this course from me.

I’ve designed the course around three papers and a series of 20 written exercises. Some of these exercises are analytical stepping stones for their papers, some are creative-writing responses to texts we’re reading, some are reflections on their favorite pieces of writing, etc.

The standard analytical prompts (e.g. “choose a concrete image in this poem and in a 5-8 sentence paragraph, make and support a claim about how that image contributes to a specific theme in the poem”) have posed few problems, but the less analytical ones have been a mixed bag. Now, I stand by these different types of prompts.

Not only do I want to introduce them to the different tracks within the major, but I want to introduce some metadiscourse about the field, one being the idea that literature is itself a way to think through issues—analogically, polysemantically, allusively, etc—a claim advanced by Marjorie Garber in her recent book The Use and Abuse of Literature which we’re also reading in this class.

This last creative response (in your own creative text, re-work a metaphor found in one of the poems for this week, using the metaphor in a new context for different, though perhaps complementary, effect) seem to bring out the drama, though. One student’s response is a straight up journal entry about depression and the help she’s been getting. OK. But how do I grade that? Uggh (answer: I didn’t. I responded with a long, supportive note, and a request that she try something a little less personal for the assignment itself. Extension granted.)…

The one that really got me was a poem that reworked a Harlem Renaissance text as a poem about the power of positive thinking. Deferring one’s dreams, it seems is only the result of a poor attitude. Not, you know, centuries of virulent racism.

But then, at the end of the student's explanatory note (I ask them to contextualize their choices), I get a long rant on how this student just isn’t a fan of poetry. After all, why bother with burying your point in flowery language? To quote: “I believe all of the metaphors are a silly guessing game. Interpreting these poems because the authors were too complicated to express their feelings in a straight forward [sic] manner frustrates me to no end.”


And so my question: Why are you an English major?

No really. I believe that the skills we teach are important, and that the critical thinking skills we teach here are crucial, but when you believe that nothing less than artfulness is the obstacle to your sense of the language, why would you choose to be in a major that revolves, frequently, around artfulness of language?

More to the point: one of the goals of the class is to provide a clearer entry point into our field, and thereby work as a bit of affirmation for our new majors. But what about this student? Would it not be in everyone’s best interest to say to this child, “I really don’t think this is right for you”?

The student wasn’t in class today, so it’s quite possible that that last outburst was a parting shot before she withdrew from the course. While I usually don’t like to have students drop my classes, in this case, it may just be the best thing possible.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Oh, yeah, how about that?

I neglected to mention: It's a bit of a new stage here at D&I. Since I'm now officially a Tenured Professor, and I've mailed that revised book ms. off to the press, where it is now officially somewhere In Production, I have now achieved My Goals (all obnoxious boldface intended).

I suspect there's a deep an vicious post-tenure malaise sitting out there somewhere (probably during my Spring semester sabbatical) and maybe some kind of other-shoe-dropping thing, but for now, glorious vistas of...something or other.

The other big deal is that Willow is now, for the first time since we've been here at BRU, fully employed. In the intervening 6 years, she was writing (quite successfully, but not yet profitably), completing and MFA and teaching with that, and then for the last year or so, underemployed while she substitute-taught, adjuncted, wrote, and other things. The employment issue was big deal though, because her options were limited here, and the kinds of positions she was sometimes in contention for were here in the department, where some of you, dear Readers, are also employed. The not-being-able-to-talk-about-that has really driven me away from blogging, since it was the single biggest stressor in our lives, and much of What I Had To Say revolved around things like partner hiring was inappropriate to be blogged here and then.

But the new statuses (tenured, employed) mean I'm in a new posting place. Whether I'll actually post or not remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Which Pond I'm In

So, after 6 years here, one degree program, and an unnecessarily humiliating turn trying to get a job in the public school system here, Willow has secured employment. Insofar as she is not teaching literature or creative writing, or, for that matter, anything, at the moment, it is not an ideal job, but it is a good position that pays well.

She is working as an executive assistant to a very highly-placed official on our large (30K students) campus, and so in her first week she has been very, very busy, and seems (if I may speak for her) both energized and exhausted by the work.

She has also met, very quickly, the most important people on campus in a very short time. And while her job is, as she put it, "to hold their sandals," the sense of access that she has serves to underscore just how little access to big decisions any of us has at any time. So on the one hand, I'm tenured faculty at a Carnegie High (very high? I can't remember. Borderline, either way) Research Activity University, with a comfy teaching load and humane publishing requirements and a rising, if not firmly established, reputation in my field.

And yet how small I felt just from hearing her rattle off the names of the people to whom she was introduced on her first day. It was such a curious feeling, and the vertigo of privilege and influence that it has initiated (admittedly, not all consuming, but definitely perceptible) has me questioning a number of things: how much I imagine I can accomplish in a career, how significant (or not) my idealistic and utopian visions of academia might be in enacting change.

There's an exchange in the film The American President between the Chief of Staff (Martin Sheen) and the President (Michael Douglas) in which Sheen tells Douglas that without him, Douglas would "be the most popular history professor at the University of Wisconsin." Ouch.

And as not-even-the-most-popular English Professor at an institution further downstream, having just secured most of my tangible career goals (tenure, book) I am wondering: where to from here? Do I aspire to work in the fancy building with the busy staff? I imagine I can get there, but would that be aspiring for the sake of aspiration? Would I be happier where I am? Would my sense of integrity (hardly unimpeachable, but trying) and idealism (ditto) be put to better use on some further path, or is it best placed here?

From the new perspective provided by Willow's new job, the pond I'm in suddenly seems smaller than before, a small departmental inlet off of a minor university pond. But I'm not yet clear on whether I'm better off in another pond, or cove, or whatever. At the moment, I'm feeling just slightly....adrift.