A Decade of Archives 5: 2008

This is the fifth in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Posting in 2008 began late because in December 2007, my father died, leaving me not only with the emotional and psychological challenge of a dead parent, but also with the challenge of now being the heir to a house, property, and gun shop 300+ miles away from where I was then living. By the end of the year, I had quit my job, moved back to New Hampshire, gained a Federal Firearms License to sell off the inventory, and started work as an adjunct professor at Plymouth State University in the English Department and the Women's Studies Program. The year ended with a post noting that George W. Bush had done a wonderful thing for New Hampshire, making our sole contribution to the U.S. Presidency, Franklin Pierce, look better.

It was a relatively thin year for The Mumpsimus — understandably, given how much my life changed over the course of that time. The whole period from summer 2007 (quit my job of 9 years, moved to New Jersey for a job that turned out to be an exhaustingly bad fit for me) to my father's death in December to getting my feet back under me in 2008 is the most difficult period of my life, a life that I now habitually think of as breaking into two periods: before-that-time and after-that-time. The struggles and shocks of that year and a half or so pretty deeply changed what it feels like to be me. It changed my writing (I simply stopped writing for a while), it changed a lot of my desires and perspectives, it changed just about everything I think of as myself. The person I was before that time seems very remote from me, someone I am connected to but do not really know anymore.

What I want to focus on here are a few posts from that year that I think are worth preserving, and then offer some thoughts on my first experiences of teaching college.

Worth preserving: A post on a Coetzee novel that could have been the title for my life: Diary of a Bad Year; a post about Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream; a note mentioning my long Quarterly Conversation review of Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six [some of the only long-form reviewing I did that year, and probably the best]; a post on the great novel Stoner by John Williams; a reflection on five years of blogging; a post about the abortion documentary Lake of Fire; a consideration of the extended cut of one of my favorite movies, The New World; some thoughts on Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K; and an obituary for John Leonard, whose work had a profound influence on my reading and writing.

My first substantive post about teaching college was "The Outsider and the Syllabus", written in May. I put on a good show of pretending to know things about teaching college in that post, but I chuckle at it now. At the same time, I shouldn't chuckle, because all of struggles that post evinces are ones I continue with, particularly the struggle of trying to figure out how much reading to assign and how comprehensible it will be to the students. I didn't write a reflection on that first term's teaching at its end, but what I most clearly remember being surprised, even broadsided, by, was the students' general lack of reading and writing skills. This was because having taught high school for ten years I had a fanciful idea in my mind of "college" as somehow far more than just Grade 13. But high school graduation is not a magic wand that immediately turns students into scholars, nor does it suddenly make them great readers who are fascinated by all the manifold possibilities of textuality. Because I was teaching general education courses, I mostly got students in their first and second years, and I got students of many various majors (or undeclared). It was like high school, but with a different schedule, no parents calling me at all hours, and considerably less structure and supervision of students.

The books I ended up assigning were mostly the ones I mentioned in that post: Woyzeck, Life & Times of Michael K, Nervous Conditions, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Venus, and China Mountain Zhang, plus the anthology The Art of the Short Story. It was too much, but not unbearably so. The choice of texts was the real problem. Venus proved to be utterly incomprehensible to the students for various reasons and despite my best efforts to help them with it. At least there was a theatre major in the class who loved it. Woyzeck, too, proved challenging, but there I could show them Herzog's film of it, and that helped. The problem with both texts is that they are plays, and I really needed a simple script to start them off because many of the students simply had no idea how to make sense of a play. Venus would be great to use in a theatre class, but I would never use it in a gen ed course again. Which makes me sad, because it's a brilliant play and Suzan-Lori Parks is a genius. Of the texts, only China Mountain Zhang had many fans among the students, and yet many students didn't enjoy it because it was science fiction but not like an action movie.

The other course I taught that first term was The F Word: Feminism in America, which had the most overstuffed syllabus I ever created. It's nuts — graduate students would struggle with the amount of reading I planned on for some of those days. But I'm still actually quite fond of that syllabus, even though in practice I had to cut it down to the bone for class because the students were reeling. Here's a link to it, for the sake of nostalgia or a good laugh at my inability to understand that students might not want to spend every waking hour struggling with work for my class.

That course went fairly well, though, and certainly better than The Outsider, because students generally enjoyed the material, especially once I cut it back to the essentials. I taught it about five times before dropping it so I could teach some courses for the Communications & Media Studies department, and I think overall it's the class I felt most successful with by the end. Certainly, it felt the most consistent — I had good terms and bad terms with all my other courses, but I never had a truly bad term with The F Word, and a couple of times it was a wonderful, powerful experience for us all.

I never gave up on the idea that college should be more than just Grade 13, but I stopped expecting it to be. I knew that I assigned more reading than any other teacher of gen ed English classes, and I always told students this on the first day and repeated it just before the add/drop period ended. The real challenge in making my desire for them to read a lot and read frequently work was to pick texts that would meet the goals and yet not be entirely alienating to young students who are not English majors. I got better at this. Not even remotely perfect, but better. (See my various more recent syllabi for how that changed.)

Because I'm headed off to start work on a PhD at UNH, I'll only be teaching one class this fall, a section of Composition. It will be a new experience, as I've managed to avoid ever teaching Comp during my college teaching career. Ten years of teaching high school is good preparation for it, though, as so much of the course is about formulating arguments, doing research, practicing basic writing skills, and we did that a lot in high school. They're complex tasks and require lots of practice and reiteration. I will miss teaching lit classes for a while, but it will be interesting to see what this group of students is like, as UNH is a much bigger school than Plymouth State. I don't know how much I'll write about it here; probably not a lot, if at all. But I'm glad I at least wrote something here about the first college classes I taught, because it's nice to be able to look back and remember both the triumphs and the disasters.