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...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


As seen at Dr. Crazy's and so creepy I'm hesitant even to post this...

ColorQuiz.comHorace took the free personality test!

"Wants to make a favorable impression and be reward..."

Click here to read the rest of the results.

Violet Pastilles

You've seen them at gourmet groceries and the like: the little oval tins with purple flowers adorning the tops. I was introduced to the Flavigny Violet Pastilles as an undergraduate and have been vaguely obsessed with them since.

I know. They taste like perfume jawbreakers. But I love them, and I'm now eating them for the first time in ages. Since we moved to BRU, the gourmet options have been, shall we say, limited. What we wouldn't give for a Whole Foods, or a Trader Joe's. There is a little gourmet wine and chocolate store, but they're waaaay overpriced, and only really useful when you need such an item and don't have time to get it properly delivered to your home.

Willow and I were in sucha pinch earlier today, though, when we noticed that they had a table displaying both the Flavigny Pastilles and some of our favorite candies not available in the states ( I am obsessed with the Aero mint chocolate bar, which I've until now only been able to purchase in Canada). So I casually picked up an Aero, and a tin of violet pastilles, and sauntered casually to the counter. It was going to be a good afternoon.

I wolfed down the chocolate bar by the time we had gotten to the car, but I am savoring my pastilles, which, years ago, inspired the following song:

To the tune of "Cruella De Vil"

The Violet Pastilles,
The Violet Pastilles,
They taste just like flowers,
yet that's not how they feel.
But the feel is not the source of their ap-PEAL!
They're Violet, they're Violet Pastilles...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Evil Genius, Chocolate Evil Genius

So my last post suggested that I was the true connoisseur of fine desserts in our home, but I neglected to mention that my spouse Willow takes my chocoholism to a whole new level.

Now, we both easily eat chocolate once a day. But she restricts herself generally to the good stuff, whereas I will eat a Twix in a pinch. Or if there's one close. Or in the building. She also eats almost exclusively dark chocolate, which means the Twix is usually right out.

All of this is to say the following: I am a chocoholic. She is a chocolate evil genius.

Willow's mother was a chemist, so when she taught Willow to cook, she taught her the chemistry behind the baking, which means Willow can, you know, fiddle with baking recipes without disastrous results. I consider myself to be a mighty fine cook, but I am no baker, and for this very reason. But Willow, in her quest to become a chocolate evil genius, has exploited this history (and honored the memory of her mother, herself a bona fide chocoholic) to the fullest extent imaginable.

In her quest for the perfect brownie, she has easily tried over 20 recipes. The ones she likes are flatter, gooier, moister, richer, and much less sweet than the typical brownie. Sometimes, when she's feeling particularly evil, she adds cayenne and cinnamon.

In her quest for the perfect chocolate cake, she has easily tried over 40 recipes, if you count flourless, molten, and individual varieties. Over 20 if you just count traditional chocolate cake. The one she swears by as her base recipe is a slight variation on, I kid you not, the recipe on the side of the Hershey's Cocoa canister, with coffee or espresso substituted for the hot water, and buttermilk for milk. There is also this item called black cocoa (they say you should blend it with Dutch process cocoa, but blending is not something that an evil chocolate genius does). It makes it into the cake sometimes.

Then there are the frostings and flavorings. In December, she made three of these things with a peppermint buttercream, with some peppermint oil in the cake. I easily ate a full one of those cakes, if not one and a half. Sometimes she makes a chocolate buttercream. This is more chocolate than is legal in at least four states, including the one we're in.

So all this leads up to the following: While dining with the kids at a chain establishment the other day, she noticed a dessert with a chocolate crumb topping, and said to herself, "I can make that," came home, found a crumb topping recipe, altered it, and checked in with me about her nefarious plans...

Saturday evening, she served our guests a chocolate cake, frosted on the sides and in the middle with a chocolate buttercream, and layered in the middle and on top with chocolate crumb topping.

We are all now her slaves, in thrall to the chocolate. She tells me there's one piece left downstairs. She saved it for me.

It's love.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Me an Enigma, Wrapped in a Riddle, Covered in Chocolate Sprinkles

As seen at Scrivener's

You Are Cookie Monster

Misunderstood as a primal monster, you're a true hedonist with a huge sweet tooth.

You are usually feeling: Hungry. Cookies are preferred, but you'll eat anything if cookies aren't around.

You are famous for: Your slightly crazy eyes and usual way of speaking

How you life your life: In the moment. "Me want COOKIE!"

Friday, February 16, 2007

Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Getting Known...Getting Known..."

So utters Beckett's titular character from his play Krapp's last tape, as he tabulates the mere handful of purchases of his "magnum opus."

Yesterday, I learned of another citation of one of my articles (Thanks Nels!), and got in contact with the author whose work is fascinating, and very much in line with some things I've been thinking about.

On the same day, a journal I've published in (indeed, the highest profile journal) emailed me to ask whether I'd review a manuscript for them in an area I am just establishing my credentials in.

On the one hand, these pieces confirm a growing sense that my work is actually entering the conversation, and that I'm developing some ethos in my field. On the other hand, I've got a growing sense that I need a more substantive contribution to my field circulating in that conversation: my book.

Because of our article-oriented tenure requirements, I've been focusing recently on shorter arguments, but the time is ripe for the book (three collections published recently on related topics, but no monographs that represent a sustained argument and analysis of the subject). I'm hoping that by this summer, enough other work will be in the mill that I can sit down and really work the book manuscript to get it circulating among publishers in 2007. That's the goal.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What Kinda Weird Bell Curve is This?

Grade breakdown from the first exam: 8 points of possible extra credit
A=21 (10 over 100%)

Ok people who have taken statistics...what does this tell me about the exam design? Because I have no freakin' idea.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I'm teaching a 300-level course next semester in Commonwealth literature, where we will be studying, in order:
Rudyard Kipling--a few poems
Joseph Conrad--Heart of Darkness
Ngugi wa Thiong'o--excerpts from Decolonising the Mind
Chinua Achebe--Things Fall Apart
Wole Soyinka--Death and the King's Horseman
Derek Walcott--See below
Aime Cesaire--A Tempest (I know, not Anglophone, but responding to Shakespeare, so I might just fudge it)
Jean Rhys--Wide Sargasso Sea
Salman Rushdie--See Below
Arundhati Roy--The God of Small Things
J.M. Coetzee--Disgrace
Zadie Smith--White Teeth
A film: Stephen Frears/ Hanif Kureishi--See below

So, here's where I need your help, feedback, advice: For Walcott: Pantomime? or Omeros?

For Rushdie: Midnight's Children? Haroun? Stories from East, West?

For the film at the end: My Beautiful Laundrette? Dirty Pretty Things?

Plus, I'm packed to the gills, so anything you think I could/ should cut? glaring omissions?

Pros? Cons? Unsubstantiated hunches?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Heat Wave

My computer tells me that the temperature has just hit 33 degrees for the first time in over a week. Today's high is 39--Balmy!

Tomorrow, we sink into another week-long sub-freezing snap (next Monday's high of 34 is the next predicted day of "warm" temps). What was that the groundhog said?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Ah! a Weekend!

Since we've moved out here to By-the-River, we've had lots of people visit us, and had lots of opportunities for babysitters to spell us for an evening to go out and be adults. But thus far, this has always meant returning home for bed, only to expect a pre-7:00 wake-up from one child or the other.

Tonight, though, my folks arrive with the express purpose of giving us an overnight reprieve. Tomorrow, we put the kids down for their afternoon naps, and we get outta town. Me might go shopping, then we'll check into a B&B about 45 minutes away, take a nap, and prepare for an amazing meal at an excellent restaurant named after an absinthe-loving artist. Afterdinner, we will crawl under a big quilt and sleep...until...we wake up. Not when we hear singing over the monitor, not when we are greeted by a green bear and a brown bear tossed unceremoniously into our bed, not when the demands for juice and breakfast rips us from the warm covers.

I can't wait.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


I was sitting in the rec center the other day, waiting for Willow to pick me up, reading a book (shocker there, eh?), when a young man taps me on the shoulder and hands me something and says, cryptically, "you're not too old for comic books are you?" and saunters away looking pleased with himself.

The pamphlet he hands me is a good old-fashioned evangelical tract, with a graphic narrative of a mean-looking, balding, hairy-shouldered, wife-beater-clad, cigarillo-smoking trucker, who, while strolling through the parking lot of his favorite truck stop, comments on the "gutless idiot' with a "Jesus Saves" sticker. Well of course, a handsome, masculine man swings down from the rig, looking not unlike Johnny Cash on 'roids, and says "I heard what you said about Jesus being a sissy!" goes on to convert the two wayward truckers to the path of Muscular Christianity.

I have so many thought on this, I can hardly tell where to begin, but:
  • Too old for comic books? How old do I look, exactly?
  • When I was a kid, and in high school, these tracts occasionally circulated through my hands, Jesus-camper that I was. Even then I doubted their effectiveness as rhetorical tools, but Chick Publications of California still keeps pumping these things out. Do these things ever actually work to effect conversion? As conversion narratives, how do they fit historically (Erin Kelly, are you reading?)?
  • The cultural work being done here is fascinating, particularly (and obviously) around constructions of masculinity, something I've been thinking about a lot since moving here to the mountains.
  • A) The "It's a man's world" mentality of Duke, the hairy-shouldered trucker, is one of bravado and machismo, but is trumped by another version of masculinity, one that is decidedly clean-cut, understated, but buff as all get-out.
  • B) The superior version is not obviously classed, as the clean-shaven, vitalis-coiffed trucker, but Duke, the Hairy-shouldered one, (and his scrawny sidekick Billy Joe) are clearly classed.
  • C) When the Evangelist swoops down from his rig, he calls Duke, "Little fella" even though that character is heretofore depicted as a brawny man, so while more understated in his masculinity, the Evangelist is clearly establishing Christianity as a superior masculinity to other more ostentatiously brutalist masculinities.
  • D) The notion that Christianity needs to be defended against charges of effeminacy at all strikes me as being a particularly curious move. I get that historical discourse around Christ's body often participates in reading that body as feminised, but the "sissy" moniker strikes me as raising a spectre of homoeroticism that would likely strike the tract's distributors in deeply uncomfortable ways. It is all elided so quickly, and established in the title, THE SISSY?, by picturing Duke, our hairy trucker, next to that question.
  • In the end, as much as my own past is implicated here, I found the whole thing to be almost amusing in its hubris. I wonder if someone like me, someone not afraid of being a sissy, for example, can ever be an audience vulnerable to this sort of rhetoric. Clearly, the student who handed me this thought I would be.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Bullet Dodged

In my RBOC the other day, I insinuated that I might be in a position to have to room with a student during the London trip this Spring. The situation was this: Students paid for the trip based on a double occupancy, and my room (and indeed my entire land package) was supposed to be a courtesy. The problem was that with an odd number (1) of male students, there had to be a single occupancy, and so there was going to be an extra charge not built into the budget.

Of course, this student didn't ask for a single, and he didn't have the option of a double, so it seems unfair to make him pay more than his classmates. On the other hand, I don't want to room with a student. I can hardly imagine a less comfortable situation. There's the possibility that there will be some wiggle room in the budget for this sort of thing, but that is supposed to be a hedge against the weak dollar.

So finally, the department offered to pony up the remainder if no other funding sources could be found. Disaster averted! My dignity saved! A bullet dodged!

Annual Evaluation Results

OK, so regular readers know that I've been on the committee that evaluates annual faculty reports and handles T&P. Of course, despite being a member of that committee, I knew what to expect on my own annual evaluation, even though it was my first full year (which is the big advantage of having junior faculty sit on this committee), but I didn't know how the language was going to come out.

It's funny, in her comments to my last post, Tenured Radical said, "I promise to be 100% supportive." And I think that I too was expecting--even dreading--something I myself hadn't thought of, something that would mean I'd need support, or that, like my grad evals, this report would phrase something that I knew about in a way that I hadn't been ready for.

But the news was shockingly, almost embarrassingly good (not so embarrassingly that I'm not going to report it here, though). I received two evlauations, one from the chair and one from the committee. Both offer three descriptors each: on Research, Teaching and Service. And from each I received "Excellent, Excellent, Good," respectively. And I'm hardly miffed at the "good" for service because it's hard to get that much service in your first year, even if you're looking for it (as I, masochistically, do), and since I'm all but guaranteed and excellent for this years service cycle.

But it gets better. The chair writes that the work I've produced in that last year "suggests that he will soon emerge as one of the department's strongest researchers" and that he was "impressed with his thoroughness and dedication as an undergraduate teacher."

The committee itself "congratulates the indefatigable Professor [Horace] for the success of his research endeavors," and my favorite: "One . . . student does complain that Professor [Horace's] tap dancing skills are mediocre, but apart from this grievous failing, he is clearly delivering the goods."

So I'm excited. I'm thrilled actually. I've been waiting for this level of affirmation my entire career, but have never actually been the rockstar of my peers at any level: always very strong, going to go places, doing good work, bright, etc. But I've never worn the mantle of expectation the way that I read these comments as offering.

And frankly, as much as I am thrilled, I am also terrified and deeply confused. Several posts, notably Flavia's and Tenured Radical's have addressed the need for young scholars to figure out what sort of career they hope to carve out, and work toward the conditions that will best facilitate that sort of career. And also, at the same time, I am put to mind of another post from TR about a junior colleague who received good students evals, and then felt paralyzed by the heightened expectations.

I am three and a half years beyond the diss, in my second year on the tenure track. By the end of the summer, I will likely have enough material accepted and forthcoming to secure the minimum tenure requirements, even though my critical year is 2010-11. The hurdles are, for all intents and purposes, cleared. Sure I want to get my book published, which is not required, but would be great, and sure I want to continue to inspire and educate my students. But generally, the space is wide open to become the sort of academic professional I've always wanted to become, which is . . .

I have no idea.

Up until this point, I've defined myself against the hurdles, with more attention devoted to clearing them than to landing gracefully. These evaluations suggests that I'm clearing the hurdles just fine, and they expect me to land and keep running. But which direction? Toward respected theorist and critic? toward cult-followed undergrad teacher? Toward dynamic and beloved department chair? Toward innovative dean? Of course, one of these may be actively attainable, and I may also choose to pursue multiple trajectories here. But for the first time since I started my M.A. the act of running is easy, but the direction is unclear.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Random Bullets of Snow Day

I've not had time to post lately, which means of course that I have about fifty things to blog about. So let this be a post about what's coming up:

  • My lunch with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein Graff,

  • My reaction to reading the Tony-Award-winning play, History Boys,

  • The evangelical tract I was given in the Rec Center the other day, entitled, Sissy?,

  • The evaluation letters I received from the Evaluation Committee and from the chair,

  • The prospect of having to room with one of my students in London,

  • The pros and cons of unit exams vs. cumulative midterms and exams,

  • A book idea I have about the masculinity of self destruction,
That and SO. MUCH. MORE!

Stay tuned, and let me know what you want to hear first...