Sunday, March 30, 2014

Political Discourse in the Midwest

We've got an important local election coming up.  There are a couple of referenda (is that the plural?) and city council stuff.  But the political discourse, even of the candidate I favor, is all about growing up in the area and family.  At least I didn't see the church reference.

The candidate I don't favor adds a bit about making the community "safe" (for raising kids) and "affordable."  Now we all want people to be safe in our communities, but I think this is coded.  And the "affordable" is about lowering taxes even more.

How can our communities be "safe" in the long run if we don't tax ourselves to support schools, roads, parks, and so forth?  Yet another reason why I will never be in politics!

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Power of the Internet

When I posted about trying to make Hamlet unfamiliar to students who think they really know it, Fie upon this quiet life shared an idea about having students trace a few words through the text.

It sounded like a good idea, but it wasn't.  It was a GREAT idea!

I did it the next day, using "fear," "revenge," "sleep," and "noble" (and asked them to also look for other forms).  It gave me the chance to talk about concordances, and on-line concordances, and to show them how to look stuff up.  It also reinforced their sense of the instability of the text as a text.

And they mostly did a fine job teasing out how their word worked, and how it changed.  The best was the "fear" group; "noble" worked the least well, I think.

So, thanks, Fie!  You made my day way better!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Midterm Grades

We're required to give students a midterm grade report here at NWU.

So I use mail merge to write a short letter showing what grades they've gotten for what assignment, and putting it all together.  Handily, this time it worked out so that they've done just under 50% of the total graded work for the class already.

I'm filled with despair at how many students can't figure out basic percentages.

And I'm filled astonied at how many students are totally and completely flabbergasted at where their grade stands at this point, even though I've given back every single graded piece of work and my syllabus lays out how much each assignment is worth.

The good thing is that the estimate right now tends to underestimate their grade a bit, so they can improve if they finish the short assignments well.  So I can reasonably comfort some of them who are aiming for As and will probably get there, and some of them I've given a realistic sense of alarm, so maybe they'll work a bit harder.

I'm also irritated that our administration doesn't think our students are capable of keeping track of their grades.

(And yes, I know that some instructors are woefully bad at returning graded work in anything like a timely manner.  I do indeed think that students need to get back work reasonably quickly, and that instructors need to explain how they grade.  I just think it's not unreasonable to expect college students to do percentages.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Teaching Hamlet

I'm teaching Hamlet for the first time in a while, and yet again it strikes me how difficult I find it to teach Hamlet.  It's a huge play.  There's so much going on, so much to it.  But the bigger problem is that a lot of students have read it in high school, and thus seem to think that they have the final answer, and so, to every question, they want to answer whatever thing they learned in high school:  it's passion!  it's Oedipal!  it's all soliloquys all the time!

This time around, I've been trying to start by defamiliarizing the play (I'm teaching it in two classes right now, by odd luck and careful planning, but I have a couple students in both classes, so things have to focus differently for each class).  In one class, I'm trying to defamiliarize by having them talk about Q1 and Q2 parallel speeches (the opening works!), as do some more famously different bits (there's the point!).  In the other class, I've started with more historical and generic contexts.

In both classes, only about a third of students raised their hands when I asked if they'd bothered to reread the play.  And then I encouraged the others to reread because what they'd learned in high school wasn't going to cut it.

How do you find teaching Hamlet (or other super familiar texts)?

What do you to do get students to take these texts more seriously at the higher level?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Piano Lesson

On my facebook feed, someone I know posted this weekend about how disagreeable it is to make their kid practice piano.

I know a number of people who insist their kids take up an instrument and keep at it, though the kid doesn't seem to enjoy it at all.

And the parent doesn't enjoy nagging the kid to practice.  But then the parent relates that they were forced to practice as kids, too.

And then you learn that no, the parent never plays now, doesn't practice, nada.

Why are they so invested in their kid's playing if they had lessons and could practice and play if they wanted to?  I mean, I understand that practicing isn't fun, and that it takes a lot of time.  But if the music's important enough to you to spend all that energy nagging your kid, why isn't it important enough to you to play yourself?

At what point do you let the kid decide not to play the piano (or whatever) anymore? 

(I think getting an opportunity to learn an instrument is great, and certainly learning to read music is good in all sorts of ways.  Even better is the subtler learning that focused practice leads to improvement.)

(Disclosure:  My parents took me to community music stuffs from the time I was little, and I wanted to learn an instrument, so I was given lots of opportunity.  But my parents didn't much consider it their job to tell me to practice, nor was I a great practicer, nor a great musician.  But I did enjoy a lot of my experiences in high school band, which made the whole high school horror a bit less horrible.)

Meanwhile, break is over.  Back to classes!  I got a lot of stuff done, though not everything.  I did relax a lot and rode my bike, even (outside!).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

If Our Minds Be So

Last night, I was sort of in a panic about how fast break has gone by, and how little I've gotten done.

This morning, things look brighter.

I've finished all the grading, and entered grades.
I've done my taxes.
My bike has had its spring tune up and is ready to go.
My car's in the shop for its 100K tune up stuffs, and to fix a small oil leak (before it gets bad).  But I have a loaner.
I'm about half way through rereading Hamlet (which I don't teach often, because it's so darned huge), and thinking about how I want to teach it in class this semester.  (I'm using the Arden 3 edition, and it's masterful, very smart, very interesting and well-explained.)

Still to do:  errands: hair cut, etc

Choose texts for fall courses.  Holy cow, how can that be?

I'm teaching an Ecocriticism based early modern seminar next fall (at least, that's what I'm thinking), but still have to choose texts.  What texts would you teach?  (It can be anything early modern.  This is going to be a challenging seminar for me!)

I also have to figure out my theme for the composition course.  I'm thinking maybe "liberal arts."  Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Other ideas?

I went birding a tad while I was away for a couple days, hoping to see a gyrfalcon reported.  But I've examined my pictures, and the bird I was hoping might just be the gyrfalcon is a rather beautiful Northern Harrier.  I saw a bunch of Northern Harriers, and it's good, because I've got a much better idea of what to look for beyond the white rump.

Four more days (including today) of break!  Off to get stuffs done and ready!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Nearly Perfect

So far, it's a great start to the break.

I went for the first outside bike ride of the season, and it was great.  I was slow as molasses, but it was great because I was outside, and pedaling.  It was just about freezing, so with good clothes, I was pretty much warm enough.  And did I mention, it was GREAT!

(You'd have to try hard not to be aware that riding a road bike in biking gear is a pretty privileged thing, but it's especially noticeable in colder weather when the homeless folks are out during the day trudging, wearing many layers, and I'm out in the cold for fun.)

I tried to take a nap, but didn't fall asleep.  Still, being able to take a nap is pretty luxurious.

And now I've just about finished grading a set of midterms.  That means I won't have to grade this set of midterms later in the break!  I still have a makeup set to grade (some students needed to take it earlier), but that's only three exams.  That means, yes, I have almost no grading to do for the rest of the break!  For once, procrastination didn't win!

A nearly perfect start to spring break today!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Place of Shakespeare

Some of the responses to the last post got me thinking about how different departments organize curriculum, and how differently we Shakespeare folks teach in response.  And that got me thinking about Shakespeare in the curriculum.

When I was interviewing for this job, one of the interviewers asked me if I thought that Shakespeare should be a required course for English lit majors.  Now there was a time when the vast majority of English phuds would probably have answered with a certain and sure "yes, of course!"  But that time is not now, and that time was not even then.  At least not for me.

I answered that I didn't think it should be a requirement because there were lots of good literatures and texts, and that what we should focus on was helping students learn to really read and analyze texts, and understand them, and that students could learn those skills well with Shakespeare, certainly, but also through lots of other texts and literatures.  I still feel that very strongly.

I can't speak to the situation at very elite schools, but for our situation, we really aren't preparing our majors to be graduate students in English literature.  And we shouldn't be.  What we're preparing them for is a lifetime of being able to read critically, to analyze, to solve problems, and so forth, and hopefully, also, yes, to find joy and pleasure in literature.  Our majors graduate relatively poorly prepared to take on graduate work in earlier British lit.  We just don't have many opportunities for them to take earlier British lit courses; a lit major might, with real care and luck, be able to fit three earlier British lit courses in a curriculum here, but it wouldn't be easy.

Partly, this is a matter of curricular design.  We don't require many specific courses, and those we do are skills and theory focused rather than focused on geography, chronology, or specific authors.

When I got here, I learned that the department had made two hires in Shakespeare/early modern, to replace two retiring faculty members.  Those to faculty members had pretty much divided up Shakespeare (which was required of all lit majors) into two courses based solely on which plays each person like to teach most.  (Evidently they'd gone through the canon together and chosen their "teams" and that was that.)

Among the first votes taken when we got here was a curricular question about whether we should require Shakespeare, and that requirement went away with overwhelming support.  (I sometimes felt, when I'd see one of the retired folks, that they were both very disappointed that we new Shakespeare faculty hadn't fought tooth and nail to keep the requirement.)

We two set about revising the Shakespeare courses, and made one a sophomore level surveyish course, where we agreed to teach across genres, 8 or so texts, and another junior level topics course, where we would teach some topic in Shakespeare.  That was almost 15 years ago now, and I've taught the topics course I think twice, once Roman Shakespeare and once Shakespeare's and history.  (I thought I'd get to teach it more, but things haven't shaken out that way; my colleague has taught it maybe one or two more times, but certainly neither of us teaches it very often.)

At about the same time, the department as a whole worked through a massive curricular change. 

And now we're thinking about some new changes.

And as a Shakespeare person, I'm thinking about how Shakespeare and earlier British lit might fit into those new changes.  So I'd love to hear from others about how Shakespeare fits in their curriculum.  Is it required?  Do most students take it if not required?  Is it mostly thought of as a general education course or a strictly majors course?

And broadly speaking, how do you think of a literature major?  What's the point of a lit major?  And how does Shakespeare fit that point?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

And Then There Was One

I just finished teaching Troilus and Cressida today.  That leaves me with one Shakespeare play still to teach to reach my goal of having taught all of Shakespeare's plays during my career.  That one play?  Timon of Athens.  It's been ages and ages since I've even read Timon, but I may just put it on the syllabus for next year, and then I can retire!  Well, not really, but still, that goal will be done.  (I've even taught the maybe but probably not by Shakespeare Edward III.)

I'm not especially happy with how I taught Troilus this year, but then, when I think about it, I usually take at least two goes teaching a play before I feel like I've really done a good job with it, and the plays that I've never seen someone else teach seem harder that way.

I feel like I couldn't really make it cohere, either for myself or my students, so it was sort of jumpy, between camps, between thematic issues, between plot lines.

Any thoughts on teaching Timon to help me brave that?  It's sort of hard to imagine teaching Timon in a Shakespeare surveyish course, since there are so many very fine tragedies to choose from. 

It might be fun to teach a Shakespeare representing war sort of class; I think I could make Troilus fit well in there.

Spring break is almost here!  The professional bike racing season is well on, with two fun stage races this week!  And everything in the upper Midwest is melting!  (Which may bring floods, alas, but it's so good to feel that spring may someday come!)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Check This Out!

Jonathan from the Shakespeare Prison Project commented on the last post, and as usual, I glanced over to see his blog, and it's really, well, interesting and great stuff!

You should all go visit:  The Shakespeare Prison Project.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Watching the Old Doctor

Since I subscribed to streaming tv, I've been watching different programs folks have recommended, or that I'd gotten interested in.

I've watched all of the Portlandia episodes, and really enjoyed them.

And yesterday, I finished all the rebooted Dr. Who episodes.  So I started on the classic episodes.

There are maybe four or five episodes on the service with the first doctor, and boy is he creepy; but he really doesn't seem to dominate the screen the ways the rebooted doctors do.  I started into the second doctor; I'm afraid he reminds me of Moe in the Three Stooges, so I keep expecting him to smack one of the sidekicks.

Color and better special effects in the rebooted version make a big difference.  I wonder what the heck people thought of the originals right off.  But then, I also wonder that about The Prisoner, which confused the heck out of me as much as it fascinated me when I accidentally found it on tv as a teenager.

Meanwhile, watching one of the last of the #11 episodes, which was sad ("The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe"), I went to wipe my eye (which, you know, had gotten a speck of dust in it!), and popped out my contact by mistake.  And lost it.  Doh.  Fortunately, I have an old set, so I put the contact from the old set to soak over night, and used my glasses.

But it did get me to thinking.  I think in 33 years (about) of wearing contacts, I've lost maybe two lenses.

One I lost at home, and then (after I got a replacement) it was in the dryer, sparkling in the lint.

One I lost in a swimming pool (because I thought I'd been told that they'd stay on.  They didn't.  Don't try that at home).

If I've lost others, I don't remember doing so.

Meanwhile, what tv series should I think about watching (that's available streaming), or even relatively recent films?

Friday, March 07, 2014


You know how when you discover something about yourself, maybe something you should have discovered a long time ago, but didn't,you may be really disappointed?  That's me.

I like to think of myself as reasonably able to cope with things not going to plan, but I'm beginning to think I've been deluding myself.

It wasn't like there was horrible stuff, but little things just disrupted me yesterday way more than they should have.

The copier for the departments (we share) wasn't working.  So I had to put off trying to prepare my exam.

A colleague who was supposed to have completed something by Monday hadn't, so I sent a reminder, and finally, zie did the thing, but with a bit of condescension thrown in for my benefit.

And then the printer wasn't working, and the other printer wasn't either.

And then the copier was, but someone was copying a ton from a book.

And then a notebook I need for a committee job was missing, and no one seemed to know why or where.  (It still hadn't turned up this morning.)

And then the copier was free and working, so I made my copies. 

And I contacted someone and got the most vital stuff that had gone into the notebook emailed to me, and made that available to the committee in another notebook.

But seriously, I shouldn't have been so disconcerted by a few little things, and I was.  Maybe I'm more a person who's disconcerted by little things than I like to think?  (Maybe my friends could have told me that 20 years ago or more.)

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Winter Art!

Grumpy Eleanor of Aquitaine (look her up on effbee) has posted some art; I looked it up, and found a new favorite procrastination tool!


You can play, too, at the

I want to see some grading ones!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


One of my Spanish professor colleagues was passing in the hall a few minutes ago; we're friendly, though we don't know each other well.

I took the opportunity to ask him for some help understanding what's happening in Venezuela, and he explained a bit, which really helped me.  (My Spanish isn't good enough to follow a political discussion in print, even.)

I think that's one of the best things about being at a university: there are lots of smart people who know stuff around, and they're often very willing to answer questions, and they're often very good at explaining things.

Monday, March 03, 2014

THAT Student

I got an email from one of my advisees today, one who's pretty much that student.  By "that student," I mean the sort of student who isn't horrible, but who's an energy sap, who always wants some special thing done, but who, at the same time, does minimal work with minimal (apparent) effort, and doesn't seem to care much, that is, until zie needs that some special thing, and then it's all about hir.

We have this requirement, a sort of outcome based requirement where students are supposed to figure out the outcome they want, and then do something, and then demonstrate that they've achieved the outcome.  Most of our students just do it.  Some do it in extraordinary ways.  Most do it, and they learn something, and it's done.  But not my special student.  Zie wants to designate something zie did a while back for the requirement, and then do the paperwork backwards, I think.  I don't know if the office of the special requirement will allow that.

And then zie has another graduation requirement problem.  That's mostly what zie emailed me about today.  So I looked in hir folder, and lo and behold, in my advising notes, I have that specific issue at the top of the page as one of three things zie needed to take care of.  But I think zie is going to try to blame me, or some other advising person, or graduation requirement person.

And yet, if zie weren't the sort of person who does the minimal for everything, there'd be no problem.  This just isn't the sort of graduation requirement that most students ever even notice because they fill it without thinking about it, just by doing more than the minimum.

Sunday, March 02, 2014


Sunday, the day to prepare for Monday.

There's steel cut oatmeal to premake.

And a roast to roast so that I have lunch stuffs ready to go.


And grading.

And class prep.  We're starting Troilus and Cressida tomorrow, and I've never taught it before, though I reread it over break to be ready!

So much for a day of rest, eh?

I have another ten papers in this pile to grade, and if I finish, I will nearly set a record (since I collected them on Friday), and make my week so very much better than it would have been.

I really, really need to finish this pile.

At the same time, I'm tired of grading this pile.  At least the talking to on Wednesday seemed to have made them aware that they did need to dig in on this paper.  Only one has been really poor, but that's poor because it doesn't really address the assignment.