28 November 2015

Thinking Back with Our Foremothers: For Jane Marcus

It is far too early to tear down the barricades. Dancing shoes will not do. We still need our heavy boots and mine detectors.
—Jane Marcus, "Storming the Toolshed"
1. Seeking Refuge in Feminist Revolutions in Modernism
Last week, I spent two days at the Modernist Studies Association conference in Boston. I hadn't really been sure that I was going to go. I hemmed and hawed. I'd missed the call for papers, so hadn't even had a chance to possibly get on a panel or into a seminar. Conferences bring out about 742 different social anxieties that make their home in my backbrain. I would only know one or maybe two people there. Should I really spend the money on conference fees for a conference I was highly ambivalent about? I hemmed. I hawed.

In the end, though, I went, mostly because my advisor would be part of a seminar session honoring the late Jane Marcus, who had been her advisor. (I think of Marcus now as my grandadvisor, for multiple reasons, as will become clear soon.) The session was titled "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Feminist Revolutions in Modernism", the title being an homage to Marcus's essay "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers" from the 1981 anthology New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, itself an homage to the phrase in Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Various former students and colleagues of Marcus would circulate papers among themselves, then discuss them together at the seminar. Because of the mechanics of seminars, participants need to sign up fairly early, and I'd only registered for the conference itself a few days before it began, so there wasn't even any guarantee I'd been able to observe; outside participation is at the discretion of the seminar leader. Thankfully, the seminar leader allowed three of us to join as observers. (I'm trying not to use any names here, simply because of the nature of a seminar. I haven't asked anybody if I can talk about them, and seminars are not public, though the participants are listed in the conference program.)

Marcus was a socialist feminist who was very concerned with bringing people to the table, whether metaphorical or literal, and so of course nobody in the seminar would put up with the auditors being out on the margins, and they insisted that we sit at the table and introduce ourselves. Without knowing it, I sat next to a senior scholar in the field whose work has been central to my own. I'd never seen a picture of her, and to my eyes she looked young enough to be a grad student (the older I get, the younger everybody else gets!). When she introduced herself, I became little more than a fanboy for a moment, and it took all the self-control I could muster not to blurt out some ridiculousness like, "I just love you!" Thankfully, the seminar got started and then there was too much to think about for my inner fanboy to unleash himself. (I did tell her afterwards how useful her work has been to me, because that just seemed polite. Even senior scholars spend a lot of hours working in solitude and obscurity, wondering if their often esoteric efforts will ever be of any use to anybody. I wanted her to know that hers had.) It soon became the single best event I've ever attended at an academic conference.

24 November 2015

On Teaching Writing

Jan Steen, School Class with a Sleeping Schoolmaster

A writer recently wrote a blog post about how he's quitting teaching writing. I'm not going to link to it because though it made me want to write this post of my own, I'm not planning either to praise or disparage the post or its author, whom I don't know and whose work I haven't read (though I've heard good things about it). Reading the post, I was simply struck by how different his experience is from my own experience, and I wondered why, and I began to think about what I value in teaching writing, and why I've been doing it in one form or another — mostly to students without much background or interest in writing — for almost twenty years.

I don't know where the quitting teacher works or the circumstances, other than that he was working as an adjunct professor, as I did for five years, and was teaching introductory level classes, as I continue to do now that I'm a PhD student. (And in some ways did back when I was a high school teacher, if we want to consider high school classes as introductory to college.) So, again, this is not about him, because I know nothing about his students' backgrounds, his institution's expectations or requirements, his training, etc. If he doesn't like teaching writing where he's currently employed, he shouldn't do it, for his own sake and for that of his students. It's certainly nothing you're going to get rich from, so really, you're doing no-one any good by staying in a job like that, and you may be doing harm (to yourself and others).

Most of the quitting teacher's complaints boil down to, "I don't like teaching unmotivated students." I think it's important to recognize, though, that there are lots of different levels of "unmotivated". Flat-out resistant and recalcitrant are the ultimate in unmotivated, and I also rarely find joy in working with such students, because I'm not very good at it. I've done it, but have not stayed with jobs where that felt like all there was. One year at a particular high school felt like facing nothing but 100 resistant and recalcitrant students every single day, and though the job paid quite well (and, for reasons I can't fathom, the administration wanted me to stay), I fled quickly. I was useless to most of those students and they were sending me toward a nervous breakdown.  I've seen people who work miracles with such students. I wasn't the right person for that job.

But then there are the students who, for whatever reason, just haven't bought in to what you're up to. It's not their thing. I don't blame them. Put me in a math or science class, and that's me. Heck, put me in a Medieval lit class and that's me. But again and again, talented teachers have welcomed me into their world, and because of those teachers, I've been able to find a way to care and to learn about things I didn't initially care about in the least. That's the sort of teacher I aspire to be, and, for all my fumbling, seem occasionally to have succeeded at being.

It's nice to teach courses where everybody arrives on Day 1 with passion for the subject. I've taught such classes a few times. It can be fun. It's certainly more immediately fulfilling than the more common sort of classes where the students are a bit less instrinsically motivated to be there. But I honestly don't care about those advanced/magical classes as much. Such students are going to be fine with or without me. At a teaching seminar I attended 15 years ago, the instructor described such students as the ones for whom it doesn't matter if you're a person or a stalk of asparagus, because they'll do well no matter what. I don't aspire to be a stalk of asparagus.

There's another problem, too, and that's the problem of pedagogy. Many colleges and universities are terrible at providing training for teachers. There's an unspoken assumption that teaching is something anybody with an advanced degree can do. This despite the fact that anybody who's spent more than a few days in a college or university knows there are plenty of people with advanced degrees, people who may be brilliant at all sorts of other things, who can't teach at all.

Teaching writing is a particular skill, especially when teaching unmotivated students. I'm lucky to have spent some undergrad time and now some PhD time at the University of New Hampshire, where the teaching of writing is taken really seriously because writing teachers at UNH have long been interested not only in writing, but in the art of its teaching. The ghosts of Donald Murray, Donald Graves, and Robert Connors still haunt our halls. I continue to draw on things I learned in a Teaching Writing course in my last semester of undergrad. In my early years of teaching, I read every pedagogy book I could get my hands on. I still pick them up now and then, because I'm still learning to teach.

10 November 2015

Let's Do the Twist: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

I've been meaning to catch up with Ali Smith's novels for a while now, having previously only read Hotel World, and so when it came time this summer to formulate reading lists for my PhD qualifying exams, I stuck How to Be Both on the fiction section for the Queer Studies list. (This also explains why I was writing about The Invaders recently...)

How to Be Both turns out to be even more appropriate to my Queer Studies studies than I'd suspected from reading reviews, and it shows how the structures of fiction can be at least as provocative and productive as certain types of social and political philosophy. How to Be Both is generally a very readable, enjoyable book — in some ways deceptively so. In that, it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's best books, which manage to play with some complex ideas in light, entertaining ways. (Smith's novel would make a marvelous companion to Vonnegut's Mother Night in a course on the novel and history...) How to Be Both does quite a lot to challenge ideas of time, history, language, and various normativities, but it does so without collapsing into vagueness, abstraction, or pedantry; quite the opposite. It bears its own paradoxes far better than many works of vaunted critical theory, which end up, at their worst, sputtering out in abstraction and self-parody, like a Mad Libs version of an Oscar Wilde epigram.

Over the last ten years or so, there's been discussion among Queer Studies folks of queer temporality and historicism — the effect of contemporary vocabulary ("queer", "gay", "lesbian", "homosexual", "transgender") on a past that used different words and ideas; the relationship of past behaviors and ideas to present ones; the political power of the past for the present; the similarity or difference of past worlds to our own; how we express such similarity/difference; the experience of history as a queer person; etc. (Of course, the roots of this conversation go way back, but there have been particular spins on it recently.)

In 2013, Valerie Traub published a significant response to some of the more prominent discussions of these ideas, particularly among Renaissance scholars: "The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies" (to which there was more response later), which is a relatively accessible entry point to some strands of discussion. Here's a bit of Traub:
Rather than practice “queer theory as that which challenges all categorization” ... there remain ample reasons to practice a queer historicism dedicated to showing how categories, however mythic, phantasmic, and incoherent, came to be. To understand the arbitrary nature of coincidence and convergence, of sequence and consequence, and to follow them through to the entirely contingent outcomes to which they contributed: this is not a historicism that creates categories of identity or presumes their inevitability; it is one that seeks to explain such categories’ constitutive, pervasive, and persistent force. Resisting unwarranted teleologies while accounting for resonances and change will bring us closer to achieving the dificult and delicate balance of apprehending historical sameness and difference, continuism and alterity, that the past, as past, presents to us. The more we honor this balance, the more complex and circumspect will be our comprehension of the relative incoherence and relative power of past and present conceptual categories, as well as of the dynamic relations among subjectivity, sexuality, and historiography.
Ali Smith's novel explores and even embodies this discussion, and does so in many ways that both the unhistoricists and the historicists seek to valorize. And it's more fun to read than their essays.