Friday, August 12, 2005

Lit .. ur .. a ... ture?

Here's a standard professorial joke that pretty much works well for any of the liberal arts (just substitute crucial text of given discipline for Twelfth Night, say, The Republic for philosophy, or See Spot Run for sociology):

PROFESSOR A: Have you read Twelfth Night?
PROFESSOR B: Read it? I haven't even taught it!

This particular little joke is hitting kind of close to home as I start to prep my classes for the coming school year -- on one hand, a 3rd-year course on American drama, and on the other an introductory survey course that takes you from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. The first is more my speed, but the material for the second is mostly made up of stuff I haven't read (a) since I took a first-year survey course in my undergrad, or (b) at all. Right now I'm trying to decide on whether to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one or two of the Canterbury Tales or Beowulf as the representative medieval text. Sir Gawain would be the easiest for me, but I don't like it; Chaucer would be the most fun, but my middle english is shaky; and I've never read Beaowulf.

Yup. Never read it. I don't know what's more embarassing -- the simple fact that, as a professor of literature I never got around to it, or that I was able to go through three degrees in English without having to read it. But then, I went to York for my BA. A lot of theory, not so much canon. It all makes me think of the scene in the novel Changing Places where a visiting British professor at a big American university teaches the faculty the game "Humiliation" in which you take turns admitting works of literature you've never read -- more points being awarded to the more canonical works.

One professor doesn't get it at first and keeps naming obscure little pamphlets; but when he finally understands the point of the game, he wins it at one go when he admits he's never read Hamlet. His triumph is short-lived however -- he's denied tenure the following week, principally because the department can't see fit to grant it to someone who's never read the Danish play.

And no, I won't be initiating any games of Humiliation at MUN.

Actually, it's a bit weird to be teaching exclusively literature this coming year -- in my four years as a sessional at UWO, I of course taught anything I could get my hands on (part-time profs are a little like migrant workers standing at the roadside hoping against hope that the farmer in the pickup truck will come by and offer them work) ... which ended up being a lot of non-literary courses for film and media studies. Let's compare the lists:

LITERATURE-BASED COURSES
Shakespeare (x2)
American Literature
Modern Drama
The Postmodern Novel
Children's Literature

NON-LITERARY
Conspiracy Culture (x2) (Media)
Screening Postmodernism (Film)
Popular Culture (x2)
Cynicism (Media/Film)
Alternative Realities (Media)

And then there are two that don't quite fit -- a course on Shakespeare on Film that was cross-listed between English and Film, and Writing 101.

The second list are the kind of courses that get vilified in the conservative press -- that yearly series of op-ed pieces by people like Margaret Wente who ridicule them, asking with rhetorical
heaviness "Is this what university education has come to?" So I'm naturally more proud of them. And after all, the real question at the end of the day, to quote George W. Bush, is "Is our children learning?"

3 comments:

queen B said...

Okay, first of all, I just want to say, that I had to sign up for a blog (I kick it old school and write in a notebook--it's for everyone's own good, really), just to be able to post here. So I'm making the most of this posting and responding to a couple of your posts all at once...okay?

Maybe the kid at the cheese counter was looking for provolone??

A zombie movie? Nononononono. You're in a new apartment--which probably hasn't even been monster-proofed yet. (Have you checked under the bed? All the cupboards and closets? Behind the shower curtain? In back of the stove?)

Nine words for you: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Godfather or James Bond.

There's always the classic "Roller Boogie" starring Linda Blair (of Exorcist fame) as a flautist who falls in love with this awesome
roller-skater-guy and enters the Beachside Boogie Contest, much to her mother's chagrin. Another roller-skating classic is "Xanadu" it's got Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and a soundtrack by ELO. Nothing scary about roller-disco...

Whatever you do, no obvious kleneex-soakers like "The End of the Affair", "Splendor in the Grass", or "Casablanca". Sheesh.

There's always Moulin Rouge.

I have to point out that I did one year of my undergrad at York, and studied Old English and Lit ... actually learned to speak and read Beowulf in the OE.

I *adore* Twelfth Night!

Margaret Wente's columns generally piss me off.

Big hug from B. xox

jo said...

Not like Sir Gawain? What's not to like?! Beowulf also rocks, and as for Chaucer . . . you've got an embarras de richesse there, b'y. Anyway, you don't need to like a work to teach it--I've never liked Conrad's Fart of Darkness, but it always seems to go over well with first-year English classes.

Scariest movie to watch on your own in an apartment or condo: Repulsion (dir. Roman Polanski, 1965), starring a very young Catherine Deneuve.

Margaret Wente is Grendel's mother (read Beowulf to get that erudite allusion).

Try those Purity jam-jams.

mr. tomas ubik said...

those damn newfies are getting two of the coolest classes i took in my four years....im starting an western revolt...whose joining the steal lockett back pilgrimmage? thats not how you spell that word is it?