Saturday, February 18, 2012


On another blog I maintain, I make a point of providing examples of the kind of work that I would like to see my students do.  In part, this is because I have been taught that a part of good teaching is the modeling of the kinds of behaviors desired.  My own experience in the classroom, both as student and as teacher, confirm this.  Some comments I have had from students also serve to confirm it; a number have reported to me that looking at the examples I provide has helped them frame their own arguments--and I even believe them, not just from vanity (although I am egotistical enough that it bears in), but also from the fact that they bring annotated copies of the examples with them to class, as well as in the content of their writing.

I have noticed that, even so, the students often do not allow themselves to indulge in the kinds of topics that I do.  This term, in the four sample papers I have written for my students' use, I have treated a sitcom character and a comic book character, poked fun at myself, pointed up the flaws in Arthurian knighthood, and explicated the citizenship of characters from two major science fiction continua.  Only one--the Arthurian piece--treats "legitimate" work; the rest are pop culture references or geek/nerd subculture references.  (I am sure that some of my more ethnographically-minded friends will have some dispute with my choice of terms here; I welcome the discussion.  I also know that popular culture has a variety of scholarly resources applied to it.  But I also know that there remains something of a disdain for much that lies outside of the traditional canon, even so.)  Certainly, I am not a "regular" topic "worthy" of scholarship (yet; I did note that I am vain, yes?).  And examples from earlier terms have been very much in line with this term's thrust; I have ranged from laundry to role-playing games (which got me into graduate school) to progressive rock to Donaldson, and there is not necessarily much scholarship aimed at any one of them.  The question of why I would turn to such things as I do to put together examples becomes an easy one to ask, then (as though it is not always something easy to ask--and which well ought to be asked).

The question has many answers.  One of them, and one wholly pedagogically legitimate, is that in treating mundane matters rather than the rarefied, sacralized "great" works, I am bringing the tasks I assign my students more nearly into that cognitive space which Vygotsky calls the "zone of proximal development" (discussed, among others, here and here).  By demonstrating that the methods I teach are applicable to the mentally nearby, I try to show the students that the tasks required of them are much more accessible than is often presented.

Another reason, one grounded in my research agenda (or one, as I have several), is related: bringing scholarship to the masses.  It is one of the more sustained pet projects of mine, one I discuss in my actual personal life (when I am around people who are not already involved in study, which is not terribly often, even in the dojo--we have a high number of teachers and professors on the mats).  I also have gone on about it at some length in this blog (see this entry, this entry, this entry, and this entry).  I find that one way to do so is to apply scholarly methods to commonly accessible materials, and to explain how the application happens.

Yet another reason, which seems to be still related, as well as to tie back to an above aside, is that what is "worthy" is not nearly so inclusive as it ought to be.  I know of at least one journal that made a go of looking at the mundane, so I am far from the only one who thinks that there should be more attention paid to the quotidian.  Indeed, one of the sources I reference in my dissertation, Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch's "Robert Southey," remarks that "it is often precisely the minor, noncanonical writers who initiate, and typify, what the major figures perfect and thereby transcend"; the unmarked depicts what is going on in the broader social consciousness, and so it ought to be studied by those who want to know what is in the hearts and minds of the people--something in which all of us have interest.

Fundamentally, though, my reason for my topic selections is the one that I hope (often in vain) that my students will deploy: I write about what I write about because I like it.  I have written before about my agreement with Mark Edmundson, that those of us who enter into the scholarly life often do so because of our joy in what we study, and that it behooves us to show that joy in our work.  When I remark that it was the role-playing game which got me into graduate school, I am not joking; my undergraduate thesis centered on Legend of the Five Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, largely because I enjoyed them and I wanted to find a way to bring what I loved to do and what I had to do together.  I wrote my first scholarly publication and my master's thesis on Robin Hobb because I love to read what she writes.  My dissertation is on Arthurian legend because I have long enjoyed reading it.  And I like to read comic books and to watch sitcoms; I certainly am fond of myself (I did mention that I am vain, yes?).  Is it any surprise, given how much of my other work is on stuff that I like, and for no reason other than that I like it, that I would turn to what I like to set up examples for my students?

Works Cited
~Bernhardt-Kabisch, Ernest. "Robert Southey." Dictionary of Literary Biography 93. Detroit: Gale, 1990. N. pag. Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 March 2011.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Earlier today, I finished reading the most recent novel by Robin Hobb, City of Dragons.  It is the third volume of the Rain Wilds Chronicles and the twelfth novel set in the Elderlings milieu.  Those who know me know that I have long been an avid reader of Hobb's writing; my first scholarly publication and my master's thesis are based upon her works, as are at least two conference papers I have presented at the South Central Modern Language Association conference.

Like the earlier two volumes of the Rain Wilds series, City of Dragons is a relatively slim volume, only slightly over three hundred thirty pages.  In it, however, Hobb, adeptly furthers a multi-threaded narrative that displays continued engagement with and evidently evolving opinions on a number of issues that have pervaded the books set in the Elderlings milieu: homosexuality, gender relations and normative gender roles, and globalization come to mind.  As a scholar, I am pleased to see that Hobb persists in addressing those themes; a number of possible papers suddenly have a lot more material with which to work, and since I am coming up on having more time to write papers (with the dissertation thankfully in its final stages), I look forward to going forward with additional materials.

In addition to my scholarly persona's delight in the book, my fanboyish side was pleased to see some of what goes on in the pages Hobb has recently released.  In her Tawny Man trilogy, Hobb makes efforts to address divergences of perception between her Farseer and Liveship Traders novels, which both take place in the Elderlings milieu but which take different approaches to some of the same materials.  The differences between the two series can be accounted for in part because of their order of composition; it is to be expected that an author's ideas will change as the author moves ahead writing.  But the way in which Hobb tries to paper over the divergence in the Tawny Man series, which unifies narrative threads from the Farseer and Liveship Traders trilogies, is heavy-handed, smacking of the retcon that so offends a great many of speculative and fantastic fiction's core fanbase.

I love what Hobb writes, so I hate to admit that I saw it as a flaw.  But I did.

City of Dragons draws a narrative thread out of the Farseer trilogy, serving to integrate the Elderlings milieu books into a more cohesive whole in that it does so more gracefully and subtly than is the case in earlier books.  I have no intention of offering spoilers, so I will not point out the details of it, but there is a scene which takes place in a location familiar to readers of the Farseer trilogy and, in fact, works with the unintended consequences of the Farseer visit to the location.  Those who remember the earlier novel will be delighted to see the nod to that work, while those who are not will not be shut out.  It makes sense in itself, without recourse to Hobb's other works, which I appreciate for the greater craft it takes to provide such a reference as can be seen by those who know but does not exclude those who do not.

Overall, I found the book to be an excellent read, and I look forward to the book which is, from the ending of City of Dragons, certain to be on its way.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


I commented about Michael-John DePalma's  "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief," which appeared in the December 2011 CCC.  In a Jungian synchronicity (about which term I am sure better information can be found, but I am not going to do it at the moment), not long after I made the blog post, I started teaching a class in which a student is enrolled who is quite a bit like the focus of DePalma's case study; the student is firmly rooted in a faith tradition and appears to filter experience through the lens of Scripture.  I thought that I would be able to try out some of what DePalma discusses and maybe have some productive engagement with the student about faith and use it as a springboard to stimulate further thought and inquiry.

For several reasons, this is not working out.  Some of the difficulty comes from behavior issues; the student has a mouth, and while I am hardly in a position to condemn a student who gives voice to opinions that differ from and even challenge my own, I do take issue with the student turning to another who asked "How do you know all that stuff?" and saying "He doesn't."  And that the student does not believe that I know what I am talking about, that the student gives every evidence of believing the exact opposite--not just that I do not know, but that I know wrong, is worse.

I suppose that I do have it coming.  There were a few (a whole damned lot of) times in my earlier education when I made similar comments at my own teachers, and so the idea that I am paying my penance now--or that I am being given a lesson in sympathy, for a more positive spin that is more in line with my avowed Christianity--did arise.  But while I am learning my lesson, I am not sure I am able to teach this student those he needs to learn--and they are many, not just in terms of the overt materials of the class.

Those who know me know that I am willing to accept correction in the face of superior evidence and reasoning.  Even in matters of faith, I am willing to do so, and it is easy for me to find superior knowledge of theology, given that I go to church with a great many current and former seminarians and seminary professors.  Also, my dissertation has forced me to acquire a lot of information about how texts change over time--a significant portion of my core argument bases itself on that very point.

I try to foster the same attitude in my students, and I am self-aware enough to know that I am sufficiently vain to think that I in many cases have superior knowledge and am more adept at reasoning than they.  I should be, else why am I the one at the front of the classroom?  But I do not know how to get to this student; it is obvious to me that he spouts off things that are flatly and demonstrably wrong, yet there is no persuading him of that wrongness--even from the evidence of the very text he claims to prize as the root of knowledge and understanding of the world and what is beyond it.  And when I have done as my inclination and the models of leadership I grew up with would indicate to curtail a situation growing out of control, one in which the surrounding students are being cheated of their opportunities to learn and so one that I  have an ethical obligation to rein in (before people begin to accuse me of being oppressive merely and only for the sake of my ego, although I will confess that there is some influence of that), the student acts as though he is being martyred; the very fact that I call him down justifies him as correct in his beliefs.

I do not want to write off the student, at least not yet.  I have done so too hastily in the past, and it nags at me.  And I do think that DePalma is right, that students' faith traditions can prove illuminating and means of progress into critical thought such as is valued in coursework and in the processes of investigation and discovery that have supplied the technical college at which I teach with the materials upon which its curriculum centers (I do not privilege that knowledge above that of my humanistic training, but neither do I condemn it, since I benefit from it severally).  Indeed, the traditions of scholarship in which I work are derived from those of faith, and expressions of faith loom large in what I study.  But I do not know how to reach the student, even so.