Reading Classics: Challenges and Ideas

I am not likely to meet a goal/deadline: I wanted to finish reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes by the end of October. It’s got really pretty, literary writing, but I’ve had to sometimes force myself through certain parts when I get bored or lose focus. This got me thinking about the struggle to read something because you have to or feel you should. I’m planning to teach something that takes inspiration in part from Bradbury’s novel, plus it’s a classic work by a canonical author which I’ve never read. The thing that’s causing me some trouble here is I suspect that I want the story and the style to work better together; for me at least, I’d like to be able to enjoy the two things together, but it’s been hard so far to do that. Mostly, I’ve only been able to focus on one or the other. If I, who have lots of academic literary training have a hard time with something that’s supposed to be a classic, then what must students sometimes feel when asked to read things like this, or things even less familiar in terms of language and/or cultural background?

For commonly assigned longer readings, like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Canterbury Tales, I have found that students have often already read at least excerpts, and thus get bored, or they find the material and style too difficult, and give up on actually doing the reading. I noticed pretty quickly that when I included Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on syllabi for World Lit and Brit Lit 1 surveys that a lot of students had had to read at least some of those texts in previous classes. One problem is that it’s difficult to introduce some of the more intricate issues and interesting problems of either one of these two texts when about half the class knows the story but the other half does not. Issue two is that in most surveys, reading the entirety of multiple longer poems like this can be difficult to get students to actually read, as opposed to the Shmoop, CliffNotes. Grade Saver, etc. summaries. Some of that kind of thing is inevitable, but when students get tired of struggling with the style, that makes considering some of the features of the actual poetry more difficult, and those are some of the things that most survey students are not as likely to have encountered before.

This is something I can relate to from Something Wicked This Way Comes because the style is so much the point of the book, more so than with an average novel at any rate. I have to admit I looked at some of the supplementary materials in the edition I have and found out enough that I can already summarize the entire plot without having read half the novel yet. On one hand, now that I know the story I can focus a bit more on the style and more literary elements like foreshadow etc, but on the other I won’t be able to follow the gradual building of the characters and the world as naturally.

Something I’ve been considering doing is switching to some lesser known texts that cover many of the same literary and cultural elements as the commonly taught ones. For example, instead of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon contains a lot of the same warrior culture stuff and literary elements, and has the added bonus of being relevant to actual history as well as the Vikings. One assignment I personally would enjoy would be to have students write their own endings and/or introductions to the story since we know the history for guidance but enough of the text is missing that students could get creative.

Instead of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I think selections from a sister text like Pearl might be an interesting option. As with the Old English texts, there remains a lot of cultural and historical and poetic room for exploration and interest. I taught excerpts of Pearl in a Middle English language and culture course one summer, and I was surprised a little at how much some of the students took to Pearl. I have not really looked, but I have to wonder if there is a passable translation readily and freely available for students to use. I know for a fact such things exist for The Battle of Maldon, so I have some hope for Pearl. Maldon is short enough that it can be done in its entirety, and wouldn’t be too much of a burden on someone’s attention or interest if it turns out this just is not something they can get into; for Pearl, I would imagine that the opening sequence and the conclusion would provide enough for students to work with and appreciate, but likewise not be overly difficult to get through if again it turns out this is just not something a given person gets into.

This brings me to another related idea; when you are told something is canon, classic, or traditional, it can give the impression that you must like it to demonstrate you are a person of intelligence and/or taste. I would like to figure a way to allow students to dislike something as long as they can explain why in more depth than “Boring”, “Too hard”, “Too long”, etc. I hesitate to use examples of my own personal taste because then students are apt to go with the strategy of “cater to Prof’s personal interests”. However, I do think the general idea has some merit. I don’t especially care for Leaves of Grass, but I can explain why in terms of technical details of poetry. I also cannot stand a lot of traditional chivalric romances, particularly those in the Arthurian tradition. A lot of Crétiene de Troyes’ works annoy me in a fairly visceral way and I absolutely cannot stand Le Morte d’ Arthur for their overly melodramatic and soap-opera-esque characters and plot-lines. Nevertheless, these things do have cultural and historical interest to them, and a lot of people are likely familiar with some of the basics but not as much with the original stories or versions.

To the original question of what to do about classic works and the perceived need to read them, there seems to be a bit of a stalemate: one the one hand, students should have at least some basic familiarity with the literary canon in order to consider where current trends (literary, historical, cultural, etc) might have come from and they might actually discover a surprising interest, but on the other the majority of the time, reading such things can be burdensome when forced, making it far less likely a person would be able to appreciate anything about a particular text. This is why I’m thinking of changing a few things out to see if it makes any difference. As for Bradbury, I will finish it in part because it would be professionally useful for me since I am planning to teach a novel with direct literary debts to this canonical original. Whether or not I end up enjoying the original is still unclear, but we’ll just have to see.

Teacher and Student Struggles with Citation and Research

Scholarly research and citation are things commonly taught in most every English course, particularly composition. I saw a post on social media recently suggesting that focusing too much of Works Cited formatting might scare students off. But then again, students do really need to be able to cite accurately no matter what their post-school goals might be, even if the formatting rules might vary by profession. Even if students practice and review, it seems like the majority of the time most Works Cited in a batch of essays have noticeable errors. Students know citation is important, they can explain why it’s a good thing, yet why is it that it seems so difficult to remember to italicize or indent?

I have taken to trying to explain why those things are part of the formatting to help students realize that these formatting details are not just there for looks. I think it helps them understand, but I’m still no closer to figuring out why so many can’t quite manage to format basic book or article citations properly. I know of the problem is citation generators, but even that does not fully explain. Maybe it’s also because the rules seem to change a bit every few years, but most composition students have really only had to work with one set of rules, possibly two. MLA 8 has been the standard in most English composition classes for long enough now that the changes should no longer be much of a challenge.

As someone who has been through MLA 6, 7, and now 8, I have to say an adjustment period should not be years long. There were some substantial changes between MLA 7 and 8, many of them good and necessary, although the revision of the structure on the Handbook itself was one of the worst pedagogical decisions made by an academic group in recent memory. I have serious doubts anyone who was seriously involved in that process has had to work with actual students much, or at least not aby other than top tier very above average ones. I was and am a good student in the traditional sense; I’m good with details and traditional schooling has not been something difficult for me. But I have had trouble trying to figure out how to cite something even slightly less than common using that manual. The style itself is not the issue; it’s how the book is set up, and how over-generalized it has become. MLA 7 let you look up exactly how to cite things, while MLA 8 tries to use the same basic paradigm for everything and it only makes a process confusing for students even worse.

Every now and then, I seem to run into something that reminds me of what it might be like for students who struggle with Works Cited and formatting. I realized that I needed to cite a digitized manuscript but had not idea of whether to treat it as an e-book or as a manuscript, which require two quite different formats. The journal I’m aiming for requires MLA citation, and the MLA 8 Handbook was not helpful for something this specialized. While I’m advanced enough as a scholar to know that sometimes the rules are not as set as one might think, it’s still a mildly vexing problem since you don’t want to submit something to a professional journal that has basic level errors like a faulty Works Cited; that’s just embarrassing even if the peer-reviewing is done blind. It’s especially bad if the particular citation is something incredibly well-known, like the Ellesmere Chaucer or the Findern manuscript.

One of the other common struggles with composition is trying to get students to take the time to actually find the best possible sources for their projects, and not simply the most convenient. Some of this might be attributable to the rise of the digital age, and the fading of patience to spend an hour working through an index or bibliography of a given subject. I’m sure there’s plenty of research about this sort of thing, but none of it helps with figuring out how to show students the value of in-depth research for a researched-based writing assignment. This complaint is all well and good in theory, but when it comes to practice some student problems are more relate-able. When the main campus library only has about half a floor worth of books on shelves, students might be quickly discouraged from the stacks, and when the accessible databases either don’t have the most current or relevant sources, again, it would be easy for an average student to get discouraged. Thankfully, my institution has great people in our ILL area, but getting students to use that system also has challenges. Even for me, having to wait a week to get a source is aggravating since I might have had time for the work when I requested the book, but may not when the book actually shows up. Or as a colleague noted, it might be difficult to remember exactly what the new arrival was needed for. If these things are troubling for someone with research experience and who learned how to use things like physical book-length bibliographies and indices, then I can only imagine what such difficulties might be like for someone who does not have the same level of expertise or experience.

Then comes the problem of fully reading and understanding things like academic sources themselves. I remember as an undergraduate being quite excited to find a journal article that I could fully read and understand. I saw on social media recently a post along the lines of “If you run into an academic source that you can’t read, that does not mean you are stupid; it just means you are not ready for that source.” I like this sentiment, but I have to wonder if the average student would accept this or feel more like they were being talked down to or possibly dismiss the idea as a feel good palliative.

So where does all this leave me? For now, students know that formatting counts on a Works Cited but is not a major part of an essay grade overall. I’m experimenting with a few things this semester in Composition 1 to see if some work on finding and citing sources outside the context of the middle of a major research assignment will be helpful. I also try to use prompts that are open enough that students can tailor their research both their own interests as well as the current resources available to them. We’ll see in December how everything works out.

Academic Vs General Public Book Gatherings

Over a recent long weekend I went to my second ever non-academic book festival (the Decatur Book Festival), and this second time I really noticed a couple of things. First, there’s the question to authors of all varieties “How do you get your ideas?” Two writers, one I knew of and one I didn’t, on different panels on very different styles and age ranges, gave almost the same answer: ‘I wrote what I {would have} wanted to read when I was {that age}”.  Both authors have been and currently are best-sellers in YA and kid’s lit, and one of them has done that in adult novels as well. Both were apparently rather nerdy as children, getting into science fiction or fantasy, Star Wars and Harry Potter were what they named as the thing that really inspired them.

There is an entirely different atmosphere at this type of gathering than at academic conferences even though there are similarities, at least on the surface. Attendees at both types tend to like to read and/or write, and both have a high number of people who either do or want to do the writing and reading in some sort of professional capacity. One kind of funny, in the sense of vague irony, thing I noticed that really does show the difference in atmosphere is that when it was discussion time, at a major national academic conference I was at about 9 months ago, there were constant reminders to attendees that “questions” should be no more than a few sentences and end in a question mark. To someone who has been to any kind of academic conference, this is at the same time silly but also necessary since there always seem to be people who want to talk about their own work and its relevance to everything instead of focusing on the content of the panel in front of them. At the public festival, there was no need for such reminders. It’s like the people were genuinely there to learn about the subject-work-person in a far more genuine way.

The panelists at the public festival also seemed more interested in each other and in connections between their work than at the academic level. On one panel, the two lady authors, both of whom wrote best-selling fantasy for YA/adult readers, but were there to talk about new middle grade books, started conversing and the moderator let them do it, staying out of things for almost 10 minutes. I have never seen this sort of thing happen at an academic gathering, although sometimes panelists do ask each other questions, but it never really seems to develop into extended conversation.

The other thing that I noticed, besides the general tone, was that even for a general interest book festival, at least some of the panels were reasonably intellectual. The first panel I went to was on wit and humor and I was kind of surprised at how well some of the theories brought up matched with some of the ancient and medieval definitions that I’d recently been working with. At this panel, one of the presenters argued that the key to successful wit or humor was to have to allow the audience to make some of the connections and jumps in meaning, sometimes invoking a bit of misdirection for effect. For example, in an essay discussing the definition or identification of humor in the Middle Ages and Early Modern eras or Western European literature, Albrecht Classen argues that, the comic “results from a conflict between norms, their breach or transgression, though mostly not too egregious to hurt or insult badly”.[1] This idea suggests that the audience would then find the humor by having to fill in the incongruity through a jump in reasoning otherwise making the connection between the conflicting ideas, nearly a repeat of the current scholar of wit and humor. Puns were one of the speaker’s key examples, and to illustrate, medievalists of a certain persuasion should likely be able to spot the one in my title.

Lastly, it may have been some of the particular panels I went to, but there were a lot more children than I’ve ever seen at an academic conference. Occasionally, someone might bring along a spouse and young child, but neither are often seen, and never during the actual panels. Granted, a general interest presentation geared towards things children might be interested in, like books they know and like in terms they can understand, would attract parent with their children, as opposed to a panel talking about the academic theories and interpretations of the same. Even so, there was a child at the book festival complaining to his mother, “This is sooooo boring!”; I’m guessing he was about 5 or so. Another reason you may not see too many children at an academic conference is that, it’s bad enough to have to tell your child in a situation where it might be expected “Don’t kick the person in front of you! Say ‘sorry’!” {child mumbles the apology, and the person nudged never acknowledges either being kicked or apologized to}. These sorts of things would probably be considered far too distracting or interrupting at a more academic event, but it does make the tone more real. That’s real kid, as opposed to listening to people talk about for example the levels and variations of morality or ethics in the same book these two kids were apparently present to hear about, the latest in a series called The Last Kids on Earth; this was not something I’m familiar with, but I’m probably out of the loop on the most current trends and what’s popular, not having kids within the target age range myself.

There’s a certain level of artifice present in the academic world in terms of writing and reading that was just not there at this non-academic festival. People actually wanted to be there for the most part and enjoyed it. Academic conferences can be fun if you know people and/or like to meet new people, but it’s still more like work, and that can take some of the joy out of it.

Circling back to the beginning for a moment, when the author of this series mentioned he was a Star Wars fan-boy as a child, I was reminded of how many people in their late teens through early thirties have said that the Harry Potter series was what really got them into reading and maybe even writing. I was slightly above the target age range when the first few books came out, and was unaware of them until not long after the third novel was published when I was a senior in high school. I re-read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for another project not long ago, and some things really stood out to me. It’s so well written and the world and characters building are so detailed and well done without a lot of the tropes that get old, like the info dump speeches from one character to another (not that I mind these, it’s just that they’re pretty common). After book 3, when the books doubled to tripled in size, the writing was less witty and the story was less about the world and characters and more about action plot things and angst. I’m not the first to point to the differences between books 1-3 as a set and 4-7, but I feel it more upon a reread much removed from the first time through. Anyways, with these novels being so influential on the current starts and rising stars of the fiction, especially fantasy and sci-fi, it’s going to be interesting to see how much things change if these writers are going to write what they wanted to read other than Harry Potter.

[1] “Laughter as an Expression of Human Nature in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period: Literary, Historical, Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Reflections. Also an Introduction.”  Laughter in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times. Ed. Albrecht Classen. De Gruyeter, 2010. Pp.1-140. Here p.5.

Reading Motivations

Motivation is important. In order to motivate yourself, you need to know what motivates you. Me, I like challenges, especially if there’s a reward of some sort at the end. Sometimes, competition works too.

It seems like every New Years for the past few, I’ve something in my resolutions about fun reading. First, it was spending more time at it, then it was focusing on books I already had, and most recently (ongoing for 2019) it was to finish the several things that I had started the year before before I started on anything new. I’ve only been half successful with that. There’s one thing I really need to finish that I bought when it came out, started about two years later, and two years after that, haven’t properly finished. But that’s not the point here.

My point is that over the past 2 ½ months, I’ve made a visible dent in my TBR (to-be-read) shelves. Why? Thanks mostly to 3 challenges, one ongoing that I’ve participated in for about four years, and two new.  Two are related. The ongoing previously done challenge is a book review group/website that’s an offshoot of Pajiba, the pop culture site, called “Cannonball Reads“. Basically it’s a challenge to read and review 52 books in a year (or a half-cannonball at 26, or a double at 104). It all started as a way to honor a founding member who passed away from cancer, and to raise money for cancer research. I found out about this from a friend from graduate school, and then enrolled myself after finishing my degree as a way to get back into pleasure reading; those years are the main reason why my TBR shelf was actually shelves. I’d purchased things I really wanted to read, but didn’t have time for at the time, on the assumption I’d eventually have time. The goal setting is not really competitive here; it’s more of a social thing, and a way to raise money for a good cause. This year, I think I finished my 52 earlier than I have in years past. Part of this I’m reasonably sure was thanks to new challenge #1.

I found out from a colleague that the local library system was running a summer reading program, not surprising in itself, that included kids, teens, and (surprisingly) adults. If you signed up, read so many hours between May-June-July, you could exchange your reading log for prizes. For the adults, that meant a clip on reading light for 15 hours, and a tote bag for 25 hours. I am one of those people who will do a ridiculous amount of work for small prizes if the work is something I like or is somehow beneficial (including things like a t-shirt for a 5k race or attend so many fitness classes in a month, etc). I wanted me my tote bag. I got me my tote bag. The funny thing is, that I’m pretty sure I actually underrepresented the hours I spent on each book I worked through for that challenge. In any event, some of the books I read for that were recent releases, but quite a few were things I’d been wanting to get to for a while.

Challenge 2 is new to me in the sense that I’ve not tried doing it before, but it’s been running for a couple of years now I think for Cannonball Reads people, and I’d known about it before. I think the momentum from the library challenge stayed with me long enough and they two challenges did overlap by about a month; I may have double dipped a little. Anyways, basically it’s a Bingo board with various categories that you have to read and review a qualifying book for. It’s not a race or standard Bingo in that whoever fills a line first wins; it’s whoever gets a Bingo gets an entry into a drawing for books stuff (I’m honestly not  sure of the specifics for this year, but that doesn’t really matter anyways), and more lines filled equals more chances. The added challenge here is of course the requirement that the book be reviewed. The reviews are often informal, personal, and usually not that long (350-500 words is average). Since the challenge opened in early July, I’ve been trying to average 2-3 books per week, since once school gets back in session, my free time will probably be more limited. I honestly haven’t been all that strategic about planning what to read next as long as it fits somewhere on the board, and so far I’ve got 1 Bingo and probably 4 other possible full lines halfway done.

Not only have I made a dent in my TBR shelves thanks to these 3 events, to the point where there’s actually room for new books, I’ve rediscovered popular non-fiction, found a new series or two, and picked up some things I may not have otherwise.

So, what’s to be gained from all this? Knowing what motivates you helps you read sometimes. Why does this matter? Classroom tactics. I’ve seen plenty of articles and studies bemoaning how difficult it is to get undergraduate students to actually read things, and how few of them are likely to actually complete something that’s assigned. Granted, personal motivation is different for everyone, and there’s realistic way to ensure that every individual in a class group will want to participate, but as I’m starting to set up for the fall semester (which starts in just over a week), I’m starting to need to strategize. Incentive 1: less homework, but more focused and in-depth homework. Incentive 2: possibly some kind of silly competitive game for part or all of the semester. Incentive 3: trying out more interesting, relevant, and/or recent readings. Incentive 4: trying to match readings to skills and outcomes. Basically, try to have the reading be something that models or is otherwise applicable towards a graded assignment.

As already noted, I’m only now getting around to some of the more specific aspects of planning out the semester’s calendars, so some options aren’t fully realized, and I may come up with more. Suggestions appreciated, and we’ll see how this all turns out.

 

On the Arts of Notebooks and Conferencing

I saw a thread on Twitter started by someone asking what the most necessary thing to bring to major overseas conference might be. I found the resulting thread interesting. Some things noted were expected like a converter or running shoes or a copy of the program. Then there were some surprises. One of the most mentioned was stationary, including pens and notebooks. This first reminded me of a colleague who said that the last time she attended this particular conference (last year -2018) she had filled whole notebook. Then, came some mild disagreement (internal). Yes, you certainly need a pen or few and a notebook, but why not get those things at the venue or area as souvenirs?

I also noticed that surprisingly there were not many mentions of things like a novel for fun reading; even if you end up with not lots of downtime planned, you definitely will have some during travel, and quite frankly if you’re not a night-partier/socializer (and I’m really not, not even a little) and you don’t have tv or access to your Netflix etc. (overseas licensing stuff often blocks US streaming US stuff), you’re going to need and want something else to do with a few hours most evenings. There’s also the question of securing technology for phone/data use (at least GPS), and figuring out work/communication strategies for any work related projects or classes currently ongoing.

Back to the notion of The Conference Notebook. I have noticed that a standard size (80-100 pages, college rule) for one conference doesn’t work since I almost always only fill part of it. The problem then becomes what to do with the rest, unless I know I’m planning to make that paper into an article. A small notebook can work, but those are easier to lose on a desk full of books, grading, etc.; notepad freebies from hotel or vendors are often too small or flimsy. Then there’s also the problem of what to do with handouts (still a thing) and keep the relevant one with corresponding notes. Full sized notebooks allow better space for adding inserts. Folders are too easy to lose or get separated from the notebook.

This year I decided to try using the same standard notebook for all 2019 conferences. We’ll see how this goes since there is still to go (MMLA) after 4 down (MLA, CAMWS, Sewanee, Leeds). I have started using it a bit for researching/trying to finish something from last year too. SO far this loose organization seems to be working out.

I’ve also started something similar for teaching. I essentially have color coded my commonly taught classes, and have been using the same pink notebook for Comp 101 for the past few terms, purple for Comp 102, and green for World Lit 1; I’m close to filling that last one. This seems to be a good way for me to keep track of lesson plans and what’s been working, what I’ve tried out, and what might need some changing next (which there will inevitably be).

I remember a similar issue to when I was a college student and didn’t fill a notebook for a class.  If you keep such things (and I have), it’s a waste of paper to stop using a notebook before it’s filled but then again if you’re using the same notebook for 2 different things, it can  get hard to keep track of what’s where.

Back to conferencing advice. I have found that it’s a good idea to try and plan to get to the conference venue at least one afternoon before the conference gets going. This allows you some time to figure out where key locations are, and in most cases recover a little from the strain of long distance travel. It also is potentially the one chance to explore a little bit if you haven’t been to the area before. I have not been to the International Medieval Congress at Leeds before, and that first evening was about my only chance to explore dinner options off campus since most other evenings would be booked with conference activities. I discovered a really good restaurant within walking distance (an Asian place called Fuji Hiro- really good veggie ramen!) as well as two bubble tea shops, two non-chain coffee shops, and the local grocery store where I stocked up on UK junk food not easily available in the US.

I also find that it’s a good idea to know where several of the tea/coffee stations are if you’re at a larger conference like IMC Leeds. That way if one is super busy and you’re on a deadline to get to another session, you can hopefully swing by another station and get your caffeine or water there.

Penultimate-ly, be ready for surprises. These are often good, although there are also the inevitable snags; occasionally one even ends up being the same thing. For example, your dorm building fire alarm going off at 2:30am and again at 4:30am one night/morning is on the one hand highly irritating and disruptive, but on the other hand, it’s an opportunity to meet your building-mates all at once. Good surprises are things like finding out on the final day of the conference there’s a food-stall market on the premises along with the expected medieval performances and demos of things like falconry and armor (complete with people on horses).

Lastly, promise yourself to try at least one new or unusual thing for you. I mentioned earlier that I don’t often attend late evening social events. I found one that sounded interesting and made myself go. It turns out that medieval court and folk dancing is a little more complex than you might think. I was also definitely not the only novice or newbie there, which was nice when we were told to form groups. I still have one of the tunes stuck in my head a few days later, and will not be forgetting the little shoulder shimmy move that looked surprisingly modern.

How to Learn or Explore the Comedy of Good Omens

I chose to assign an intro to lit class Good Omens; this decision was made before I realized the timing of the release of the tv version. The resulting assignment is a research paper looking into basic tropes and how the novel applies, ignores, tweaks, or generally deals with said set of expectations and conditions. The beginning of class very nearly coincided with the tv release, so there was a good bit of media attention to both the pending tv release as well as its source novel. Two particular themes kept showing up in the reviews and predictions: the comedy (success, failure, possible dated-ness) and romance/gender (especially the nature of Aziraphale’s and Crowley’s relationship, and the presence and treatment of female characters). The thing with the comedy got me thinking about how a group of early-ish career college students in a not-large urban-ish area in the Southern United States were going to be able to appreciate nearly 30-year old British language and comedy. Never mind the possible research subject, I was starting to wonder about just following the story.

We haven’t gotten to this point in the course yet, but I’m wondering if a review on general British comedy might not be in order. Starting with medieval riddles, fabliaux, and drama would be something fun to look into. One of my favorite things to do when teaching Chaucer, in both surveys and upper-level literature courses, is to surprise students with some of the lower level comic bits. It always amuses me that students don’t realize how old the word ‘fart’ actually is, and that they (farts) have been funny since before the Middle Ages in Europe. There is a surprising amount of scholarship on the history of farting and fart-based humor in the Middle Ages (and a good bit for even earlier times). Just search Google for “medieval fart”; you’ll end up with academic and non-academic links and some videos about comic performances involving farts, significant and often untimely farts in history, ancient and medieval medical practices involving farts (often capturing them in various ways for various reasons), farting and early music, and more. Then there’s the “Christmas” song sing-along in the morality play Mankind; again students are often surprised that that kind of thing was actually A) done that long ago, B) was considered (by most) to be funny, and c) involved “bad” words modern students both recognize and (probably) use. I am actively trying to avoid the word ‘humor’ here since that word had a much different, and broader meaning pre-seventeenth century. To show a little continuity, I’m thinking some of the British poetry in the section of class (before drama, which is before the novel) might be helpful. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” along with John Donne’s “The Flea” might be an entertaining paring. Entertaining and potentially educational though this sort of thing can be, this is really not the same style of comedy or entertainment that appears in Good Omens. But it does provide a baseline for comparison, especially on the level of British vs American language.

One of the dramas currently on the reading syllabus is Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. In terms of style and type of comedy involved, this is the closest we get to Good Omens before the actual novel itself. Father Ted or Keeping Up Appearances, or The Office (the first, British one) might also be points of reference students can easily look up via places like Youtube, Netflix, etc. that give a similar flavor of the language and style. The level of absurdity is debatably a touch higher in the play than in the novel, but I would argue not by all that much. I hesitate to consider Monty Python here simply because the more theologically inclined of the movies (Life of Brian) is not something I think would be terribly productive. It’s not that I don’t think my students can’t be open-minded (I know for a fact many of them can be) but rather that it would be difficult for many of them to fathom the possibility and nature of the language used and the tone of the satire, meaning we’d spend too much time trying to figure out/explain the Monty Python, and lose track of the Pratchett/Gaiman. Holy Grail would be a better candidate both in terms of comfort with basic content (most everyone has at least heard of King Arthur et al.) and also for satiric-parodic meaning, but not as directly relevant in terms of content and potential meaning. Either way, the biggest problem has little to do with content and more with the language and cultural background. I’ve noticed in the past when using video clips of British performers doing Shakespeare or Stoppard, that many of my student struggled with the accents and vocabulary they were hearing. Add the cultural knowledge required to catch the comic intent, which in an introductory class isn’t guaranteed students have beforehand and would have to be provided, I’m wondering if it won’t be struggle enough to get through Good Omens itself, never mind the comic strategies at work; then again, the comedic elements are a major part of understanding the novel, so they can’t rightly be ignored.

There is some good theory and history out there that I could point students towards, since British tv and dramatic comedy has been well studied both in terms of works from this century and those past. Titles such as Comic Persuasion: Moral Structure in British Comedy from Shakespeare to Stoppard (Alice Rayner, 1987) or British TV Comedies: Cultural Concepts, Contexts & Controversies (ed. Jurgen Kamm, 2016) provide a good background in some of the theory and history behind a lot of things students are likely to be working with. A problem with using such books and article collections though is that my institution library does not carry many such titles, which means accessing useful material could be somewhat difficult.

The big problem I’m facing really isn’t even the lack of specialized resources; it’s the lack of time. The novel is scheduled to take that last 2 ½ weeks of class, which needs to include time to read, time to research, lectures and  classwork on how to do all that, and finally, write the research paper. A lot of what I’ve reviewed above would be a struggle to cram into a full-length semester course, never mind a shortened summer term. Comedy will be simply an option along with a host of others including Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Armageddon, Biblical/Christian fiction, and fantasy. It’ll be interesting to see what members of the class choose to focus on.

To be continued….

 

This Year’s New Technique To Contemplate

So far this year I have not come across a new composition trick to try, at least not borrowed from someone else as I have in years past. Recently, I have realized one of my own which I intend to keep as an experiment to see if it bears sharing or implementing in composition classes starting this fall.

As usual, the last few weeks of the semester are busy with writing exam and study guides, and grading. For most instructors, I imagine, this time of the year involves putting one’s own projects either on hold or slow-down mode. In my case, I was holding off on spending sustained amount of time on a book review, drafting a conference paper, researching and drafting a second conference paper, and 4 CFPs (two due within the next week, the others not until fall). There’s also a writing project to pick back up, but that’s part of another story, as is the design of a summer syllabus. On top of all this, I had some family in town.

The past two days, I have been getting back into my usual pattern of being able to spend more than 30 minutes at a time on a particular project. I started to notice a trend. My grades were due two weeks ago Wednesday, but then the next two days (Th-Fri) I was struggling a bit to get back to work, which was a problem because of some looming deadlines. I took that first Monday off, mostly to get family to the airport, and then the next two days I was suddenly able to get productive. Part of this might be the day or two off, but I think it was more due to how I was spending my self-imposed work time.

In two days, I was able to draft 1 CFP, complete the book review and send it off, and draft the first conference paper (due to be given Friday- as in 2 days from now), in addition to getting some outlining done for my summer course. Not to mention only spending about 5 hours per day in my office and not doing scholarly-type work at home; a much needed spring deep clean of the home is currently underway, plus I have really started to get attached to the idea of keeping home for myself and not work if at all possible.

Here’s my new (to me at least) composition/scholarly technique: work on one thing until it starts to get difficult, then switch over to another thing for a while, and when that gets to be a struggle, switch to something else, etc., coming back to the first thing the next day with fresh mind and eyes. While I admit that sometimes just staring at something for a while can be effective, more often than not, that can be a waste of time, just like fighting the sleepies for an hour vs a 30-minute nap.

Another version of this is spend an hour on one project, then switch to another, etc., and repeat the cycle the next day. This way progress is continually made on multiple items, and there isn’t as much frustration about getting stuck on something even if a deadline is getting close. Avoiding some of the mental fatigue like this also seems to help keep the temptation to take a brain break on social media at bay, which can turn into a big unproductive time-suck as well.

The more I think about it, this seems to be related to several well-established bits of time-management-when-it-comes-to-studying advice. First, there’s the idea that cramming is less effective than frequent short bursts. Then there’s the idea of stopping just before you’ve run out of ideas so that you have somewhere to start next time. Lastly, there’s just listening to yourself and knowing your mental status, and what’s possible as a result. If I need to write both a paper and a course, if I feel more like one than the other, then why not work on what feels better if both need doing on similar timelines?

Another benefit of such a practice is that you have an automatic reason to get up and move at least a little after each hour or so. This is probably as good mentally as it is physically.

Last but not least, I would note that there will be days where any particular technique just won’t work. Maybe you’re just tired, or not feeling as good as usual, or just not focused for whatever reason. The key to any good system is flexibility, and some days you might just start something and be able to easily keep going for hours. I find this often happens more with repetitive tasks, like looking up and recording all instances of a certain word in Chaucer’s corpus in preparation for starting on a conference paper or setting up a class website in a course management system. It’s monotonous, not creative, often dull, and necessary prep work that has a definite deadline.

For now, I’m going to see how well this works out, before I start figuring out ways to adapt this into classroom settings and scenarios. But that’s not to say I can’t/won’t be noting ideas or possibilities. Composition techniques like this don’t seem to work well as general recommendations presented in lecture; they’re more likely to be effective when modeled in class and then tied to possible outside of class uses. Or alternatively, modeled in a homework or out of classroom assignment, then discussed in class. I don’t have anything exact in mind yet, but I’ll be working on that the next week or so when I really get my summer course calendar built up beyond its current outline state.