There is No Joy in Mudville

Not-so-mighty Ted has struck out. (google it if you’re too young to get the reference).

While the professor made encouraging comments at the end of class about how good we are doing on assimilating, supposedly processing, and regurgitating both Scholes and Hemingway, I have a different take on my progress: blech (more polite version of what I’ve been saying to myself for days).

Last night’s class began with, to my mind, a much more fun and practical exercise: Dr. Beth Young joined us for the first hour, a rollicking good time of Q & A on grammar and (be still my heart) sentence diagramming, ala Reed-Kellogg via Kolln. This is not sarcasm: I am a grammar geek; how I can use the rules to improve my writing’s clarity is important to me.

Then, she left, and we launched into The Frustrating Adventures of Teaching Hemingway (it really should be a book). My struggles in this class began day one: other than the vague direction offered by the title–Teaching College Literature–I have little sense of what I am supposed to take away and how I can demonstrate proficiency. Add to this the great joy I find in literary criticism (Now, that’s sarcasm!) and, other than “to finish my coursework,” I really wonder…

One of the driving forces in my life is a variation on “First, do no harm,” and that is to avoid causing others pain. However, when taking literary-criticism-based coursework, I find myself in such agony that I must spend all my effort to keep from lashing out. And still, my whining and moaning (or bitching and ranting) will out. My words below are as tempered as I can make them; I apologize in advance for any hurt they transmit.

If I were King of the World, I would erase the vast majority of literary criticism since the beginning of time. I have little or no use for the so-called search for knowledge that is deliberately obtuse, couched in language that even the writer struggles to understand on re-reading. The theory I appreciate and can somewhat understand is than involving “putting on another pair of glasses”–feminist, Marxist, queer, post-colonial–and trying to see things from another’s point of view. This helps me be a better writer, to avoid hurting or offending readers inadvertently.

But for most theory, I envision a group of “monks” (though hardly monkish in their personal lives), cloistered away in their mountain-top fortress, counting the metaphorical angels dancing on the head of the pin, while below, in the “real world,” people are starving for what these pundits could provide if they so chose. The so-called “genius” argument, that the subject matter is so gravely important learners should have to fight their way through, holds no merit for me. Jared Diamond, Jaron Lanier, and Frances Fukayama, are all true geniuses, and they are accessible, deliberately so: they seem to believe their respective messages are important enough for them to work at being understandable.

Versus Derrida and the rest of that bunch?

So, what would have helped me in this class? It seems that much of the past 8 weeks could have been boiled down into 3-4 pages of handouts instead of having to slog through the texts. For example, I still don’t have a clear grasp of the so-called “Hemingway Themes” or tropes or devices–I’ve read his work for 35+ years but never “studied” it (ie. drain the life from it, dissect it, put it under a microscope, and complain about it, a la most of the critical reading I’ve found). In the interest of being a “good” future teacher, I would have been better served to read and reread the literature and then discuss the pros and cons of the supposedly commonly-known tools  (e.g. iceberg theory, from my imagined handout). Instead, we’ve all taken our varied but clearly limited experiences, mixed them with hard-to-grasp textbooks, and tried to somehow explain the resulting mess to others in the same circumstance. My stress level, at understanding (or not) the texts, preparing my own “mess,” and then trying to think of something useful to say about others’ presentations, has effectively eliminated most learning I might have enjoyed and has bled over into accomplishing even the simplest of other assignments, like this blog.

Since coming to this university, I have struggled in several other grad classes (curiously all involving theory): the 12-week GTA workshop run by the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning was tough, as was Dr. Wardle’s Rhetoric and Composition course; however both clearly showed in some way how they would be useful in teaching others. Both involved guided analyses of my writing and teaching processes and those of others in the class. The stress was directed somehow into shaping the learning, a tool I only barely understand as yet (and covet).

Enough. I appreciate the professor’s love for the literature and desire to raise up good teachers–these come across fairly well–but my inability to understand what I’m supposed to be learning and doing outweighs these positives. Sorry.

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