Friday, January 20, 2012

Is there a teacher in this class?

Yesterday I had an unusual first day of the semester. I have never felt so prepared, never so calm, about a new class. I've had the syllabus printed and collated for a couple of weeks, the library workshops booked, the books in the bookstore, the e-reserves online and the films ready for streaming. For the first time, I had really thought of everything. I didn't have a single teaching anxiety dream. The morning of my first class I pondered whether this lack of anxiety was a bad sign or whether it simply meant that I had finally figured things out. I hoped it was the latter. I arrived in class a few minutes early, but not so early as to make the students nervous, and I made comfortable first-day chatter as I handed out my carefully-planned syllabus. As I looked up, I noticed that every single student in the room was giving me a strange look. One brave student finally raised his hand and asked what class I was teaching. When I answered Freshmen Writing, all of the students raised their hands and informed me that they were here for German class. If I had been in a good humor, I might have gotten out my copy of Beowulf and joked that Old English was close enough to German. Instead, I quickly and quietly gathered up my things and moved into the hallway. What I discovered after a few phone calls is that there had been a miscommunication about the class time. I had been told one time and my students had been told another. Further, my students had been told an earlier time -- I had missed my first class altogether.

Even at the time, I knew that this would shortly become a funny anecdote. I wrote my students an email explaining what had happened, and I was aware that it would be OK. Yet what I can take from it is that no amount of planning can account for everything. Part of being a good teacher, I think, is the flexibility to adjust to the situation rather than trying in vain to make the situation fit to a preconceived notion of how things should go. Not that good planning is a bad thing, but that in teaching, as in life, we simply cannot control all of the variables. And that's OK. This will probably be a much more memorable first day than any I've had thus far. If I spin it well, it might even provide us with a shared joke that could speed up our rapport as a group. My class theme this semester is dreams in literature and film, so maybe the feeling of displacement we all experienced will put us in the right frame of mind (I know my pneumonia-fueled fever last semester helped me identify with some of the crazy texts I was teaching). If nothing else, I can feel connected to the dream theme in that showing up to the wrong class on the first day is a classic teaching nightmare . . . Happy beginning of the semester, all!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Celebrating Joan of Arc's 600th Birthday (whether she was born on that day or not)

Happy 600th Birthday, Joan of Arc! Although it's a bit too convenient that the Saint happened to be born on the Epiphany, and it is more likely that her birth date is simply unknown, I still like the idea of celebrating Joan's birth. Her death date is, of course, quite certain (30 May 1431), but she was many things before she was burned at the stake. She was a pious girl, an outspoken woman, a battle leader, a key participant in a king's coronation. She was a woman who refused to wear a dress, and a peasant who refused to be silenced when she had something to say. She demanded that the people around her listen, and, quite surprisingly, they did. She wouldn't have been tried and executed in such a public manner if she hadn't made a lot of people very nervous. She was barely more than a child, and she would probably have lived a quiet life completely outside of the historical record if she hadn't stood up and made people take notice of her. She insisted on entering and changing the course of history.

So often we define Joan by her death, and it is true that her death was so spectacular that we could hardly forget it. Not only was Joan the only person in history to be both convicted of heresy and canonized by the Catholic Church, but her manner of execution was horrific even by the standards of her time (perhaps even more so by the standards of her time). Her body was burned twice and her ashes were thrown in the river -- not a sight that people could forget. Representations of the saint in film often focus almost exclusively on her trial and moment of death, and movie posters show larger images of Joan engulfed in flames. To the left, Ingrid Bergman screams in pain amid technicolor flames with the caption, "Greatest of all spectacles!" Her death holds a morbid fascination; it is the culminating point of her story. Yet she would have been neither executed nor canonized if she hadn't led an extraordinary, though extraordinarily brief, life. And, as I've written before, her story has continued beyond as well. Her story has been appropriated by every possible political and religious and ideological agenda, and it is hard to extract her from the complex web of retellings and associations. But the very fact that her story has taken on such a life of its own indicates that many found her life, as well as her death, both fascinating and inspirational.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Twelve Days of Dissertation Chapter Editing . . .

Given that we're right in the middle of the twelve days of Christmas, we decided that a special present was in order for all of our lovely readers. Kate has been toiling away on her Arthur and the Crusades Chapter, and submitted it to her advisor before the holidays. While lamenting to Kristi over its decrepit state, the two of them began discussing the ups and downs of the writing process, and the fruits of that conversation can be found (in story-book form) below. It is, in part, an homage to one of our all-time favorite blogs, Hyperbole and a Half, but also the best way we knew how to cope with and describe the highs and wretched, wretched lows of the dissertation process.

And so, here is your Christmas story.

-- Kate and Kristi


Day 2: Photocopy the mother******* articles like an adult! (censored for the children).

Day 3: Sharpening Pencils (I mean business!)

Day 4: Despair, Part 1 (What does my introduction even MEAN?!)

Day 5: Stalling (Icecream and Netflix!!)



Day 7: Cut and Paste?!

Day 8: Senseless Destruction or Sensible Destruction?

Day 9: Despair, Phase 2 (Control, Alt, Delete?)

Day 10: Purchase oddly appropriate t-shirt that mocks your crushing sense of inadequacy. 

Day 11: After copious revisions (and assurances from your fire extinguisher-wielding partner in ice-cream misdemeanors), send to advisor. 

Day 12: Holiday party -- advisor says he's received chapter and your knee-jerk response is "I'm sorry . . ."