To Strive, To Teach, and—might we hope?—To Learn

I began planning for next semester’s teaching syllabus months ago with two strong “topic” ideas, namely cannibalism and hair. In first-year writing courses, I have to admit that we often tend to begin with thematically linked readings before we develop the specific goals of writing assignments but, in the case of my first two units for the spring, what encourages me as to the appropriateness of these ideas is the multitude of texts one could choose to teach. I have written on cannibalism in Canto II of Byron’s Don Juan before so it immediately suggested itself but my decision to couple this section of the poem with Swift’s A Modest Proposal—an extremely common text in UConn’s writing program, partly due to its inclusion in our now retired Writing Through Literature anthology—and an episode of The Walking Dead from the season that just aired was far less directed by my own research interests. Similarly the unit on “hair” will include Victorian poetry—namely, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “Body’s Beauty” by Browning and Rossetti (the male ones) respectively—but will also feature the Biblical narrative of Samson, the fairytale of Rapunzel, and bell hooks’ piece, “Straightening Our Hair”. In both units, I intend for the class to pose key questions about how the body is implicated in social structures, tackling Cartesian dualism and any concomitant hierarchies. Cannibalism’s status as a taboo will focus the students’ first essay while I hope that the role of hair in the broader debate will allow them to develop lines of thought beyond their initial ideas as we progress into Unit Two. While I have chosen a selection of cultural—indeed, predominantly literary—texts without perhaps intending to, there is a wealth of material an instructor could introduce students to with the same key assignment tasks in mind. (More importantly perhaps, students may also be able to think of other texts or examples and thus bring in their own knowledge as incipient cultural critics.) Does this mean I am not guilty of focusing on reading at the expense of writing? Of course not, but I look forward to seeing how my students tackle these cultural issues as they develop their skills of analysis and argument.

In drawing together these groups of texts, I have kept in mind some salutary lessons from previous semesters of teaching first-year writing. Coupling Byron and Swift will no doubt prove problematic in again confronting students with the immense difficulty involved in puzzling out satire. Much of my own research tussles with what exactly might be the point of an author’s joke and this line of interest stems from Dr. Eric Griffiths’ rigorous demand for a rather too serious minded young undergraduate to pay attention to Byron’s barbs of wit. Beginning a semester of writing with verve and humor is a deliberate ploy to ask students to be careful readers and thinkers, trusting them to reach beyond the obvious. Particularly evident in my second group of texts is the desire to work across a range of periods and genres. For too many students at the beginning of their college careers, the need to historicize emerges through two claims that I find frustrating: that a writer’s biography reveals the “real” events or emotions that form their works and that a writer always reinscribes the ideology of their period, an ideology that remains homogenous in many twenty-first century estimations. By tracing an issue such as cannibalism as the most extreme characterization of any moral vice or hair as the means by which gender and sexuality are policed, the durability of such motifs, as well as their shifting significance, is intended to permit students to perform the impossible: to make a specific claim with more general implications.

As always, my projections for this semester feature a purely imaginary construct known as “my students” but I am eager as well as apprehensive for getting to know their stubbornly unique and material counterparts in January. Now I have merely a list of names, majors and ID photographs (notoriously unhelpful in actually identifying anyone), suggesting nothing more concrete than a slightly skewed gender distribution. Hopefully the most salient observation on my class once we’ve met for a few sessions will not be that I am only one of two women in the room. Ironically, while I’ve been reading Megan Marshall’s 2013 biography of Margaret Fuller over the winter break, I’ve been intrigued by Fuller’s pedagogical method, most famously promulgated in her Boston “Conversations”. Having introduced Bronson Alcott’s use of Socratic dialogue as well as Elizabeth Peabody’s distrust of it (perhaps prefiguring David Bartholomae’s discounting of “the pedagogy of recollection”), Marshall describes Fuller’s approach while at the Greene Street School in Providence during the late 1830s:

she pushed the girls to express their thoughts vocally and in their journals each day—girls whose “hearts are right” but whose minds had previously been “absolutely torpid”… The rule was simple: in order to remain in the class, each girl must be “willing to communicate what was in her mind.” (109)

Regardless of how I entice and cajole them, proffering a tract on eating babies (!) as the first reading of the semester, such torpidity is exactly what I fear as I plan for my class in the spring. As the break continues, I can only hope such rest and relaxation provides the deep resources of enthusiasm and vigor I intend to bring with me to the classroom in the new year and which, on the best days of teaching, will be more than replenished by the energy of far fresher minds than mine.