lundi 15 août 2011

Syllabus of Errors

Since I started teaching, I seem to have gone inexorably in the direction of pop culture. I first taught courses on mystery novels. Even though it was my first choice among the classes I may teach as part of my grad school requirement, I'd never really been a reader of mysteries. In fact, I'd read just about every genre but, spending most of my undergraduate life reading over serious novels and poems of the literary variety, and most of my life since reading sci fi, fantasy, horror, etc. When I was a teenager I read angsty bildungsromans and Stephen King. The last "literary" novel I've read (that I wasn't teaching) was probably A Prayer for the Dying, by Stuart O'Nan. That novel was set in the 19th century told to (2nd person, y'all) a combo preacher/mortician/sheriff about his town being on the brink of devastation from diphtheria and fire. And though it is certainly literary (it's experimental p.o.v., the lyrical sharpness of its sentences, the depth of characterization, etc), it was more or less a western. A really awesome western. I read it as quickly as I read the latest Harry Dresden novel Ghost Story. Which was really fast.

Other novels I have loved in my adult life: The Brothers Karamazov, White Noise, Confederacy of Dunces, etc. But I don't need to make a case for them. If nothing else, it seems pretty pretentious to list them as my "favorites." And truly, they're not. When I fell in love with reading was when I immersed myself into Midworld of the Dark Tower Series. This was freshmen year of high school, and my life was perfect. I had an older girlfriend, a job in Cocodrie, which is the "exotic" end of the road in Louisiana on the marshy coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This was before I started smoking or even started drinking alcohol. I listened to Nine Inch Nails's The Fragile everyday. I read the Stephen King novels every night and wanted to be a postapocalyptic gunslinger who found himself in a Browning poem. Now, I read George R. R. Martin and Jim Butcher, Kelly Link and Margaret Atwood. Stuff that's speculative and engaging.

When I began writing poetry, I wrote in an ars poetica essay (assigned--I'm not quite that full of myself, not even when I was 19) that talked about how I wanted to create a world that I preferred to the real one. It doesn't have to be one that is full of fantasy, but it has to be good. I'm still looking for a world to believe in. And so I teach worlds.

But what I'm actually teaching, seems to be up for debate. Despite the fact that Buffy was clearly on the syllabus of the class, I was critiqued by a student that I spent valuable class time "gossiping about Buffy." OK, fair observation. We did spend three to four weeks on Buffy. And despite the fact that pop culture texts (and not just Frankfurt school theory) have been taught since at least the 80s (see White Noise), some students still don't recognize the richness of the texts that we navigate everyday. They want the class to be more utilitarian, they want me to be the vendor of a useful sort of knowledge that they can consume and lose once a satisfying final grade is delivered. Well, I'm calling bullshit.

As a writing teacher, I teach that to write, one must be a hungry reader. Surprise! You don't learn to write because of a formula a writing teacher gives you, some handout that reminds you on where to place a thesis sentence, on how to introduce your arguments. I'm guilty of giving handouts like that, but I can't believe in them. Students expect them. As does the department. But do they transform writing from unsophisticated to stellar? Do they give essays or whatever some kind of fire that you can read by?

They don't. And so, I design my course around subjects I'm passionate about, and we discuss that content in the hopes that the students find something that wakes them up to something other than the everyday reality of being an adolescent and a college student. Something that makes them want to be ambitious in their imagination. Along the way, we deal with craft, making sure that students avoid obvious errors so that the wealth of their thoughts actually has a chance to do something, whether it is to tell a story, argue a point, or make some kind of emotional speech act.

And so in my freshmen writing seminars, I teach what I love--pop cultural texts. This fall, I'm teaching Wonder Woman, Promethea, Jean Grey, and, of course, Buffy. The class has the word "superheroines" in the title so maybe there will be no confusion as to what we'll be gossiping about. And hopefully, these characters will inspire my students, not just to live some kind of ideal (though that can be right sometimes), but to write worlds of their own. Ones that might be as simple as their own. The class is an essay class, but an essay class that is all serious can make for some pretty lackluster writing. For me, the main goal of pedagogy is to create a context where students create for themselves, come to realizations on their own, to do for themselves.