Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Freshmen are Coming!

I have two separate thoughts about the start of the school year, and specifically about my responsibilities with respect to freshmen. Last year was my first year teaching at NYU so I (obviously) wasn't involved in any of the new student orientations because I was still getting oriented myself. I was also, owing to the somewhat unusual circumstances of my hiring, only teaching seminars for upperclassmen. This year, though, I will be leading a discussion group for freshmen during what's called Welcome Week, I will be teaching a new intro course that we've designed to introduce freshmen and sophomores to the major, and I will be thinking about how to redesign a seminar that I will be teaching for the second time as a lecture course that can be given in future semesters under the auspices of the freshman curriculum here. I have freshmen on the brain.

So, thing the first (which is not strictly about freshmen): NYU (like Cornell and lots of other places) assigns all new students to read the same novel over the summer so that they all have something substantive to discuss with the thousands of strangers with whom they suddenly find themselves thrown together. This year it was Collum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I've always been intrigued by the idea of this type of communal reading program and although Cornell graduate students were invited to participate as discussion leaders, I never did; and if this year's pick at NYU hadn't been a novel I had wanted to read anyway, I'm not sure I would have signed up here, either. (I might have, though. Counterfactuals are so hard to assess.)

At any rate, I'm not all the way through the book yet (I have until Thursday afternoon, when we have a faculty prep/discussion session), so I can't write a full review. But I do have this observation: The opening vignette of the novel is completely masterful. It is set on the morning of Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. And it is skillful in the way that The Crucible is skillful: The description of this episode from 1974 evokes all the famous images from ten years ago without ever leaving its native setting, speaking clearly without being overwrought or overwritten. It revives the prematurely dead metaphors in a way that is at once devastating and subtle, making its reader flinch but stopping short of striking her with the hard truth it conveys.

It is inevitable that in the next month we will all be confronted frequently by the fact of the upcoming anniversary. I would imagine that this could be a difficult first introduction to New York City for the incoming freshmen (although obviously I hope it won't be). McCann's novel is a completely useful framework for thinking about the anniversary, if for no reason other than as a demonstration that there is a manner of speaking that is all the things it needs to be: moved and moving, lyrical, emotive, effortlessly sensitive, and truly memorial of everything that was lost.

(Edited on 9/6/11 to add this link.)

And thing the second: The Beloit College Mindset List came out this week. For those who aren't familiar with the premise, the Mindset List ostensibly aggregates items of current events and popular culture that have obtained for the whole lives (or at least the whole consciousnesses) of a given year's incoming college freshmen. So, for example, this year's list notes that DADT has been in place for the whole lives of the members of the class of 2015 and that they were born after Britney Spears quit being a Mouseketeer. I read it through once with some interest, wondering what my future students' view of the world might be (and, perhaps influenced by my reading of the above-mentioned novel, letting my mind wander briefly to the day soon coming when the incoming freshmen will have no first-hand memory of the fall of 2001).

And then, suddenly, I remembered being a completely outraged twelfth-grader who couldn't believe what some old statisticians or sociologists or somesuch at a college in the Midwest were trying to tell her college professors that she and her classmates were like. I remember finding two categories on the list for my year to be objectionable: 1) Points that were just plain inaccurate; and 2) Points that were phrased in such a way that suggested that we were solipsistic, uncurious and completely unaware of the world immediately and effortlessly observable around us.*

In the first category is "29. They have always had access to email." Just because email may have existed in some form or other for our whole lives doesn't mean there was any kind of ready, consumer-end access to it. I remember when Prodigy first came out when I was in second or third grade, but I didn't know anyone who had it. And I remember when we first got internet access at home and when I got my first AOL account in seventh grade. I've definitely not had access to email my whole life and I don't know any contemporary who has. This category also includes "41. Major newspapers have always been printed in color." The New York Times printed its first color front page in October 1997. We were fourteen then. Yes, it was the last one to change over, but it was a big deal and we were definitely aware of it. The second category includes "25. Sarajevo was a war zone, not an Olympic host." Yes, that's true since we have become aware of the world, but its phrasing also assumes that nobody my age cares about winter sports or has any kind of awareness of the Olympics. It also includes "36. They do not know what the Selective Service is but men routinely register for it on their financial aid forms." We all knew what it was. We were all rattled by our awareness of the fact that our friends were signing up for the "draft," even though it was more than six months before we had any inkling that the country could go to war. And we even talked about whether it was fair that registration was not required of the girls.

 Part of the problem stems from the list authors' seeming desire not to use repetitive phrasing. So for example, points that begin with phrases like "for their whole lives" or "since they were born" can be declarative and factual statements of what the world has been like during our lifetime (except for the ones that are flat-out wrong). But rather than repeat those formulations, the list authors move on to phrases like "12. There has always been Diet Coke," which easily suggests that since Diet Coke was formulated before we were born, it had never occurred to us that there was life before it.** I didn't grow up with anybody who thought (or even formed assumptions on the idea that) the world began in the year 1983.

The other problem is that it takes itself far too seriously. The list's website offers this explanation of its raison d'etre: "What started as a witty way of saying to faculty colleagues "watch your references," has turned into a globally reported and utilized guide to the intelligent if unprepared adolescent consciousness."  If it were still the former, it would be problematic but neither totally useless nor offensive. But having increased its own scope and ambition it did itself in. By trying to be and sound like an absolute arbitration of the knowledge and awareness of an entire generation it negates the possibility of curiosity and observation.

So, fully a decade after my twelfth-grade self read the list with righteous indignation, I will meet students who are smart and curious and (42) actively remember life before the advent of the electric car, know that (52) their parents haven't always been able to write their wills online, and have, indeed, (56) heard of Michael Jordan, even if they have never seen him play basketball. I'll walk into my classroom knowing that this list tells me more about the mindset of a couple of old white guys and their image of proverbial kids today than about my students' broad and open approach to their world and mine.

*I suppose there's also a third category, perhaps a subset of the second, which includes things that are completely irrelevant: The second point on the list notes that for people my age, Laura Ashley has always been dead. I don't think I knew that Laura Ashley was even a real person and not just a brand of floral fabric. (And in fact, I didn't remember that she was until I returned to this list this week.) And thinking about it, there is even a fourth category of flawed points, namely those that fail to distinguish between this year's freshmen and those from many years previous. Just like it is alleged that the members of the class of 2015 have no memory of (28) Jimmy Carter doing anything other than supervising elections and making speeches about peace in the Middle East or of (32) Justin Timberlake donning Mickey Mouse ears, neither do members of the class of 2005.

** Actually, this isn't the only place where I take issue with the phrasing and tone of the list. The first point on this year's list is "There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway." Any other infelicity aside, who talks or writes like that?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Spiritus Mundi and Synchronicity**

I caught myself using a Metropolitan Transit Authority metaphor to explain stanza 2470 of the Libro de Alexandre (and specifically the reference to the "quinze cabrones") in a lecture that I am writing for my fall introductory class.* I tend to get nervous when I'm presenting, and that, combined with the fact that this is a brand new class for me (actually, it's just a brand new class, period) means that I'm seriously overplanning. I'm writing out all of my lectures, even the ones like the walkthrough of the Great Mosque of Cordoba that I could give in my sleep at this point. And I'm even planning, down to the minute, all of the metaphors and jokes I intend to use to make the material more accessible to my students. Even so, I stopped to reflect after writing this part of a paragraph, in which I am talking to my students about using intratextual references to history and to material culture to place a literary text more firmly in its context (please bear in mind that this is essentially lecture notes, written in a style meant to be spoken):

We know that this poem was written after the scribe who wrote it down could have chosen between paper or parchment. The poet is making a point of telling us that he (or his scribe) chose parchment, the luxury item. People tend not to comment on things that are common, typical, everyday, or obligatory. If there’s only one subway route you can take between campus and where you live, you’re not going to tell people that you took the F, specifically, to West Fourth Street. You’re just going to say you took the subway to campus. If you had lots of choices, though, then it becomes a noteworthy detail whether you took the F to West Fourth Street or the 6 to Astor Place or the N/R to 8th Street. If the Alexandre poet had no choice but to use parchment, he might not have written that verse the way he did. He’s making a point of telling us that he chose, and that he chose the luxury good. And so indirectly, he is telling us the high value of the text. He chose not to use paper because this poem was worthy of being written down on parchment.

I paused when I wrote this and first thought to myself that it must mean that I'm really a New Yorker now if I'm working detailed subway analogies into my introductory lectures in between the Libro de Alexandre and Judah Halevi. And then I got to thinking about whether the most effective way to explain the significance of the "quinze cabrones" reference was in terms of the modern. And that question, the value of making the medieval relevant by means of the modern, is the one that I want to explore a bit further here.

I was reminded of an interesting blog post (albeit one with a truly bizarre non-sequitur about horseshoe arches in the Great Mosque) that was aggregated via the medieval Iberia page on Facebook. The post was written by a modernist and describes a class session in which she taught her students about the kharjas, the colloquial couplets that are literally the "exits" from longer strophic poems written in classical Arabic or Hebrew, and that are generally, unlike the body of the poem, written in the voice of a woman. This blogger described the kharjas to her students by explaining that they were a bit like facebook status updates from the middle ages. Reading the post, I was uncomfortable with the analogy initially because it divorces the kharjas from the muwashshahat. (To be fair, the author hints at the fact that she is (obviously) aware of the debate and of the idea that there is another way of reading, so focusing in on the kharjas may just have been a question of the limitations of how much tangential explaining one can do in an introductory survey class for undergraduates.***)

But in spite of my initial discomfort, there's also something charming about that analogy, and I don't know that I can really, honestly differentiate it from any of the ways that I, as a medievalist, draw sometimes-flawed comparisons with modernity in an attempt to make the material make more sense to my students. I caught myself while writing the previous sentence because I had been about to say "to explain the material better" to my students. And that's the crux of the question. Is it better this way?

I don't actually think there's any way of getting around drawing good, bad, ugly and silly analogies in classes when introducing dramatically unfamiliar material to students, particularly non-majors or students who are just beginning their major, nor should there be. It's best, perhaps, to draw on the familiar (as long as one makes clear the places where any given analogy may be flawed) and make sure that there is a sensible frame of reference for what is going to be, let's face it, very foreign and esoteric material to the vast majority of students. (I suppose that one could argue that drawing on modern material to contextualize the medieval is in some way equivalent to asking the humanities to justify their existence in terms of what is relevant to the real world; but I don't think it's nearly as pernicious as that.)

But this does raise the more interesting and potentially thorny issue of diachronic reading and its place in teaching. If we can use blogging and facebook to make sense of muwashshahat and kharjas, and the F train to drive home a point about the Libro de Alexandre, what about using The Moor's Last Sigh to teach the Poema de mio CidDiachronic reading is something that we do as professionals. In other words, this isn't a question of dumbing down or distorting the material for the introductory level; collectively we (or some of us, at least) have accepted that modern life and modern reinterpretations (and certainly early modern texts) are not invalid or useless ciphers for our interpretations of medieval texts. So by doing something like drawing a subway metaphor or asking my students to read Rushdie alongside the PMC, I'm teaching them one of the tools of the discipline, just like I teach them how to read closely or to formulate a research question. But I think that in the future, I'll be much more careful about explaining why I believe it is okay to draw in modern analogies, examples and metaphors. But perhaps that explanation (and a connected, wider discussion of diachronic reading) itself should be the subject of a separate, future post.

*Hey! I'm footnoting my blog posts! (Ahem.) I anticipate writing mostly for a medieval Hispanist audience. But my definition of Hispanist is quite a bit more expansive that most, and furthermore, I anticipate there being many discussions were scholars in other fields could participate fruitfully, so I'll just provide a bit of apparatus when I refer in shorthand to texts that might not be familiar to everyone. Stanza 2470 refers to all of the wondrous things that Alexander and his men saw, and then notes that if one were to write down all the details, they wouldn't fit on the skins of fifteen goats. I'm referring to it in the context of a lecture on the role of paper and parchment in medieval Iberia.

** With apologies to Sting and the Police.

*** I was also more uncomfortable with the analogy once I read through more of the blogger's posts, particularly one in which she was completely dismissive of the literary value of U2 lyrics. Without turning this into a referendum on U2 per se, I would just like to note this: Like modern song lyrics, the kharjas are not necessarily great literature but are literary and are also, like modern song lyrics, very real snapshots of the language and the culture. It absolutely does raise the question of whether and why medieval literary ephemera is of greater literary value than modern literary ephemera, and that might be something for me to address in a future post. But I mention it now because I'm also not sure that I'm prepared to accept an interpretation of the kharjas that is juxtaposed against an absolute arbitration of what constitutes literature, and an arbitration that seemingly excludes literary ephemera, at that. (Edited on 9/4/11 to add: In my original version of this post, I had linked to the post I referenced in this paragraph. I have since decided that not only can I not keep reading the blog that contains it, I'm also disinclined to link directly to it because of the extent to which the author drives the comment threads to deteriorate into a series of ad hominem attacks and then defends them as good rhetoric that simply can't be appreciated by us, the benighted Americans (among a variety of other justifications)... I'm happy to share the link with anyone who asks, but I'm no longer willing to, in effect, endorse the blog by keeping the link embedded in my post.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Philosopher's Proemium

This is the beginning of my commentary but is not of my commentary: A meta-post that will set out my goals and ground rules in blogging the life medieval.

I have long been fascinated with the academic blogosphere. At a gut level, it just seemed like a very cool community of people who talk informally about literature, history and teaching because they genuinely care about those things and about increasing their horizons with respect to them. But cool isn't necessarily a very professional response to anything. So to put it in more considered terms, the academic blogosphere intrigues me in that it seems to prolong and extend what is sometimes the most beneficial part of attending conferences, namely the chance to talk informally with colleagues about one's own ideas and theirs. And in a profession that can so often be a long, solitary slog, increasing the opportunity for colloquy seems largely positive.

But many of the bloggers I've read blog pseudonymously, and that is one aspect of academic blogging that I have been wrestling with as I have been finding myself nudged inexorably towards joining the twenty-first century. Some do blog under their own names, but it seems that a majority do not, making it difficult for them to discuss their work and leaving them instead to write about the process of submitting articles to journals, of procuring book contracts and of navigating life in an academic department. These kinds of posts have been interesting and valuable to me; but I do not want to emulate them in this respect. I want to be able to write substantively about what I am thinking about in my professional life rather than giving my field a pseudonym and desperately trying to make sense while speaking in delphic metaphors that substitute "underwater basketweaving" for Arabic translation in al-Andalus. (To be fair, I do really like some of the blog-pseudonyms I've seen for various academic fields; "kazoo studies" and "complexification studies" come readily to mind.) And I don't want to have to worry about inevitably getting found out. So I have decided to blog under my own name, which you will find in the sidebar at the right, and at the bottom of each post.

That's how I don't want to use this space; so what do I want to do here?

1) Think about and rethink how I present material to students.
I already keep a teaching journal. Posts that fall under this category will, more or less, come from the same source. I find it useful to make notes about what worked and didn't in any given class session or with respect to any given text, as well as about ideas for how to try things differently in the future. I am hoping that by opening up both triumphs and doubts in the classroom to discussion, I will be able to gain additional insights and strategies into teaching and share my own.
2) Think 'aloud' (ablog?) about challenging and interesting spots in my research and professional writing.
This one will be a bit tricky, I think. The potential for an academic blogger to undermine herself seems great. The goal will be to write substantively about what I am working on without sounding half-baked, but also without writing in a way that is so close to something publishable that I would inadvertently scoop myself and, in the process, make the idea unpublishable for having already appeared in another form.
3) Exercise the writing muscles.
Fairly self-explanatory. I find it helps me get my head into my work in the morning if I do some low-stakes writing first thing; I'm hoping that by doing that low-stakes writing with a specific purpose, the benefit will increase.
4) Practice writing for a more general audience.
I assume that my audience will, for the most part, be other medieval Hispanists, Mediterraneanists and Islamicists. However, I hope occasionally to write a post that explains some aspect of my research to a lay audience. At some point I think I might like to write a book for such an audience, so this will be a good trial run. Additionally, by practicing the kind of clear exposition that is required to write for non-specialists, I hope to keep my proper academic writing relatively clean and free of the jargon and academese that can sometimes creep in when that is all a person writes.

5) And (finally, and perhaps necessarily) consider and converse about the use of technology in medieval studies.
Also pretty self-explanatory.

But connecting this blog with my professional face does raise the question of appearances, in two respects:

1) The first is the question of the frequency of posts. I'll admit that I myself am guilty of reading some of the most-frequently updated academic blogs and thinking to myself, "When does this person have time to get his/her work done?" Far be it from me to judge another's work schedule, since it is a very personal thing how and when one can work productively; and ultimately as long as the work gets done it doesn't really matter. But there are still two issues at stake here: One is the fact that I'm writing for an audience of my colleagues and so even if I am contemplating about how best to present material to students or just musing about some aspect of my research, I'm going to polish my posts pretty highly. And knowing my own work habits, I don't suspect I'll be able to do that more than once or twice a month. I like the idea of working on lower-stakes writing in the mornings to get into the game, a sort of appetizer for the high-stakes stuff, but I certainly don't want to let it take up all day. And the second issue at stake is the fact that appearances count. I don't want to look like I'm skiving off, especially since I'm not. So in general, I expect that on average I'll post here around twice a month. As I get more proficient at and comfortable with writing for this audience, it's possible that I'd start posting weekly, but certainly not more than that. And there's a better than outside chance that I'll only end up writing one post a month and hope that such a schedule won't dampen the opportunity for opening up conversations.

2) And the second is the question of comments. In part to avoid spambots and in part to prevent discussions from getting out of control, I have enabled comment moderation, which means that any comment that any reader posts will go into a queue until I have a chance to review it. I see that many bloggers have very liberal policies of what kinds of comments they will approve with respect to tone and content. That is another norm that I do not intend to adopt. Again, because this is connected with my professional face to the world, I will have a fairly high threshold for what constitutes acceptable discourse. I will absolutely post comments that disagree with me and challenge things I write here; that's part of the whole point. But any post, whether it agrees or disagrees with what I've said, that is unprofessional in tone or content will disappear (at the risk of mixing metaphors, or at least geospatial constructs) into the abyss of the queue. I'm optimistic that this will be less of an issue on a blog written under the blogger's own name and about a very specific topic than it seems to be on pseudonymous blogs that are more general in their discussions of academic life.  Short summary: I'm not going to let people comment on my blog in ways that I wouldn't let my students express themselves in class or in ways that would make me cringe if they were said by someone sitting next to me during Q&A at a conference. It's not that I don't want to foster spirited debate; it's that I want to foster spirited debate that concerns relevant topics and that conforms to some basic rules of civility.

Wa-amma ba'd.