Adult Swim & "The Future of the Book"

Last night I attended Johanna Drucker’s talk entitled “The Future of the Book.” Looking for the new Visual Arts Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I followed a line of people through a set of doors and thought I was there. As I held the door for an older gentleman who seemed to be following his grandson, I asked him if he was going to hear The Future of the Book lecture. He giggled and replied, “We’re going to young scholars’ night. You’re in the chemistry building, dear.” Whoops. Some zig-zagging later and I found the VAC, my academic-looking crowd, and my seat.

I had never heard Drucker talk before, and knew only generally about her work and her most recent book, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, but that was enough information to charm me to the presentation. Her presentation attracted a somewhat-diverse humanities crowd: I saw several of my peeps from the English department (among them a Chaucerian who also studies comics; a Renaissance scholar; a new media scholar; a postmodernist; and a poet), and detected groups also from the visual arts, history, education, media studies, and librarians and archivists. Individuals ranged from professors to grad students to elderly members of the public to sub-ten-year-old children accompanying their parent. One little girl came with a mini suitcase of organized markers and paper, and colored quietly and diligently for the entire talk.

The little girl coloring seemed to have her marker-smudged fingers on the pulse of Drucker’s talk, as did the Young Scholars’ Night crowd I accidentally joined. Though the speaker’s material presented a very serious look at the history of the book and used that information to make a prediction about its future (or rather how we humanists can shape its future), her style was playful and, in fact, provided a serious message of the importance of “play” to the evolution of authorship, readers, and texts.

Drucker folded examples of play, humor, entertainment, and recreation into her talk with a subtlety that seemed not to phase the scholarly vibe of the majority of the audience.

The first slide showed Keanu Reeves in The Matrix–in order to illustrate the fantasy of a disembodied virtual utopia. Juxtaposing the intelligent virtual and Keanu drew chuckles round the house, and Drucker was just getting started. She also showed slides of e-readers in different shapes, including the form of newspaper pages large enough to shield the privates of a guy on the john. She then addressed the history of print and dove backward in time to Gutenberg’s press and figures like Tyndale, where she made the requisite “he had a lot at stake” joke. We then saw slides of early playing cards and learned how printers were asked by the church to stop producing them, as the populace took too easily to gambling. After other examples, she ended with a vision of the way a “novel” of the future might work: Drucker describes a narrative that seems folded into news in realtime that reaches you through mobile devices and that changes as you make decisions about how to interact with the narrative. It is multimedia, multi-player, and multi-platform. It sounded a bit like the Michael Douglas movie The Game, and also a little bit like Stranger Than Fiction. Serious play, in which our concepts of fiction and real life blend and disrupt each other in new ways.

Maybe I’ve just been studying for comps for too long and neglecting proper recreation, but I couldn’t help but find the message of seriously play–or “adult swim”–in Drucker’s talk about the future of the book. Her presentation suggested to me that the meaning of play, play-ers, play media, and conversely the definition of “work” (noun and verb), have a giant impact on the way we treat reading technologies now and will treat new reading and authoring technologies in the future.

"But when in other habits you are seen"

It is late October, and despite my academic commitments, teaching and reading which persist in intensity even as the season is dying down, I cannot help but think of Halloween.  I still afford it no small measure of priority.  Surely, my fondness for ghouls and ghosts as entangled with gourds and cider partakes of some nostalgia.  I recall the youthful enticements of sweets and neighborhood sociability, and the thrill of becoming, for an evening, a licensed hellion.  But I suspect the appeal of the holiday has grown along with me.  Perhaps, in a profession for which self-branding is such a dominant and ever-present concern, one night a year of masquerade is a welcome, even a necessary diversion.  Though I may, in fact, recite “Tam O’ Shanter” at a Halloween party, or in a mellower moment “To Autumn,” on October 31st I need not be a Romanticist.

But what shall I be?  What an agonizing decision this can be for us self-fashioners.  We cannot merely decide what we will seem like on Halloween, we also must decide what we will be.  We decide upon the costume based on what it says about the submerged identity.  I find myself torn between several possibilities.  First, the Sublime.  In this costume I dress as normal, except I wear a cap with a lime glued to the bill.  I am sub-lime.  But who am I sub-sublime?  Clearly I’m intellectual: I’ve dressed as a concept for Halloween.  But I’m also flippant—I’ve reduced a complex philosophical idea about the limits of perception and expression to a fruit pun.  Don’t worry about me; I don’t take things too seriously.  It appears I have a wry sense of humor.  And there’s more than a little exclusion to this costume; depending on what Halloween party I’m going to, I must expect that there will be some who don’t get the joke.  But I’m comfortable with that; in fact, I wouldn’t mind having to explain the joke.  Perhaps this costume also says: “I’m fairly casual when it comes to Halloween.  You’ll not confuse me for a Halloween enthusiast.”

Or there’s Jareth, the goblin-king, from the movie Labyrinth.  This one’s primarily nostalgic and a bit more earnest; it gazes fondly on the same childhood that engendered my love for the holiday.  It took some assembling and, unlike the sublime, is not dismissive of the festivities.  With its revealing tights it’s also a bit more daring—a flamboyant statement of personal bodily comfort.  Or there’s Bill Compton from True Blood: pop-culture savvy, less exclusive than the sublime and less nostalgic than the goblin-king.  This one announces, “I participate in my own cultural moment.  I am not too cloistered to Pop.”  There is also a whole host of possibilities already discarded for the undesirable personas (undesirable at the present time) they manifest.  The perennial dead celebrity costume is too callous and may gesture towards an unoriginal sense of humor.  Ditto, the ironic disaster costume.  And while historical, literary, or political personas are not off the table for Halloweens in perpetuity, each would announce affiliations I don’t currently feel compelled to own.

This year the problem is complicated by the fact that I’ve invited my Shakespeare class to attend on Thursday in a Shakespeare-themed costume.  I’ve devoted some time at the beginning of the period to having a costume contest, judged on cleverness and creativity.  And I should probably participate, for what kind of person wears no costume.  Now I must fit the costume to a new context: the classroom.  It will not merely generate an identity, but an identity-as-instructor.  The possibilities repeat themselves: do I go as a character (perhaps Malvolio cross-gartered), an absurd detail (Titus Andronicus’s disembodied hand), a genre (comedy).  So many possibilities.  How will I ever settle upon one?  Have I properly considered the pedagogical repercussions of each?  Beset by such a plethora of identities, how could I not despair?

Except, it occurs to me, I have already worn costumes to teach because, in some degree, this is what the “teaching persona” always is.  And as assiduously as we focus on the “seems” of the persona, we take for granted the “is” that we are constantly constructing.  Underlying each in-class tic and foible is an out-of-class phantom identity.  Have you ever gone to class dressed as the “wise fool”?  This persona is often characterized by a self-deprecating humor that never spills over into buffoonery.  The fool’s prerogative is the juxtaposition of gravest truth and levity, and as such the fool often pitches its voice into mock gravity when reading, or transports high literature into foreign contexts to absurd effect.  This persona announces an identity capable of unserious engagement.  It attempts to bridge the various gaps between students and instructors by transmuting all concepts into their least-threatening forms.  The out-of-class fool must be approachable (because harmless), lighthearted, jovial, a committed ironist.  At the same time this persona secures its self-assuredness by asserting, in a move surely crafted to anticipate the myriad ego-battering dangers of teaching, “you cannot make light of me, for I have already made light of myself.”

A related but distinct persona is the “comedian.”  Also operating by humor, but relying less on the diminishment of seriousness and more on a carefully crafted comic timing, the comedian is more charismatic than the fool.  Then there is the “lover of literature.”  In class this persona will sometimes be overcome by the course texts, even to the point of being (strategically) unable to articulate how impressive or important the text really is.  Sometimes too this persona allows the effects of textual sentiment to play upon its countenance.  All of this is a calculated performance to establish the passion of the out-of class identity, as well as its seriousness.  Also worth considering is the “authoritarian,” who makes much, in class, of the rules and expectations of the course.  Conspicuous about the authoritarian is that, rather than communicating an out-of-class identity, this persona assures the students that such an identity exists, but that they will have no access to it.  Another fairly common persona is the “molder of minds” who demonstrates a strategic disregard for the stuffy conceptual detritus that accompanies literary formalism.  This persona communicates to the students that it is less interested in filling their minds with literary facts and more interested in activating their potential.  As such, in-class conversations wax philosophical or broadly cultural.  As with each other instance, this persona creates its corresponding identity: one approachable for its worldliness, for its broad range of ideas, for its commitment to spilling outside of the boundaries of the traditional.  In each case, the implied identity serves as the truth-of-personality that allows for today’s student to identify with an instructor he or she knows almost nothing about.

No doubt, I have not exhausted the list of possible personas.  And I suspect that very rarely does an instructor or professor pass even an entire week dressed solely in one or another pedagogical costume.  Where Halloween lasts only one evening, teaching is most often a lifetime commitment.  It may be tempting to presume that the personas we adopt in-class arise from our innermost personal convictions, but it is far more advantageous to consider that the identity comes after the persona, a means of backstopping the complex of rhetorical and pedagogical decisions that we make every day.  One class may respond better to the assured confidence of the comedian, while another warms to the affable stumbling of the fool.  In a moment of weakness any class (and perhaps many instructors and professors) may need the alienating distance of the authoritarian.  Considering these personas, and even the communicated identities underlying, as so many interchangeable strategies helps to keep us from being entranced by our own costumery.  It is, after all, when we believe that the failures of any given persona to connect in the classroom arise from an inborn character flaw, rather than a rhetorical or performative misstep, that we fall into pedagogical despair.  It is when we assume that a persona has blossomed from some incontrovertible aspect of our stable selves that we are deprived of the fluidity necessary to good teaching.

Such a mistake would be tantamount to imagining that my Halloween costume reflected who I was, rather than who I had decided, for the evening, to be.   That would in turn mean dressing in the same costume year-in and year-out.  And while I have, in bygone busy years, over-relied on the at hand ease of the cowboy costume, I would hate to be doomed to the poncho and Stetson for all eternity.

Conferencing It Up at the RMMLA

Confession: I have not always loved the Academic Conference. My first few conference experiences as a Master’s student left me confused and jaded: what was this strange ritual of the ivory tower? It seemed a desperate and pathetic attempt to fend off self-doubt through an incestuous validation of academic existence.  I believe there’s wisdom in the “fake it till you make it” approach, but at my first couple conferences, I felt we were all still faking it.

Last weekend, though, I attended the Rocky Mountain MLA conference in Albuquerque—and knowing I’d be writing this blog post, I began to reflect on how things have changed since then.  I’m happy to say that by and large, I’ve really begun not only to appreciate what conferences can do, but also to enjoy attending them—and for their own sake, not for the exotic locations. Thanks to my background at three universities, I now peruse online conference programs looking for names of friends, professors, or the occasional star. I usually find many sessions of interest and lament my inability to attend concurrent panels; when I attend, I’m more engaged as a listener, more able to follow ideas, and much more eager and willing to ask questions afterward.  Simply because I’ve read more stuff than I had as a beginning MA student, more talks make sense, and the interconnections with my own interests become much more clear.  And I’m much braver about introducing myself to strangers, and offering my hand for a handshake.

The difference in my conference experiences may rest somewhat in the conferences themselves, but clearly it has more to do with me.  When I entered my PhD program two years after finishing my MA, plagued by feelings of inadequacy as I watched the whip-smart students around me, a wise ABD friend told me to “trust the process.”  And she’s right: I’m still in the middle of it, but I can see my skills growing, and in consequence, my confidence, genuine intellectual interest, and enjoyment.  So if any of you readers out there are anything like I was, take heart.  It really does get better.

I had wondered whether the RMMLA would spread itself so wide that few panels would catch my interest.  While certainly it’s nothing like the awesome focus-group one finds at NASSR, turns out that variety can be just as stimulating as specificity. The RMMLA reminded me in the best sense of being an undergraduate, back before I had determined my specializations and could nibble from any dish that looked appealing—only now the banquet is tastier, because I’ve learned to appreciate new foods. My own interests center on early 19th-century women and gardening, but in attending panels that seemed only tangentially related (or ones I went to just for fun), I marveled often at the threads of connection!  Listening to readings from RMMLA prose authors rekindled my interest in creative writing; bumping into an old professor took me to a panel exploring women in Italian and Spanish literature, and my favorite panel (on “The Meaning of Food”) brought together a children’s lit expert, a 19th-century agricultural lit expert, and an exploration of advertisements from Trader Joe’s.   One keynote speaker offered thoughts on Chinese poetry, another on the psychology of Beauty.  I listened, took notes, and chatted…and the best part is, I wasn’t faking it.

It’s true that I didn’t see much of Albuquerque, other than the view from the shuttle window and my walk between hotels.  I did, however, spend a weekend listening to new ideas, becoming acquainted with new people and interesting ideas, and retiring brain-tired and happy each night.  Despite the genteel poverty that often accompanies graduate school, I can’t help but appreciate the luxury of spending my hours learning and pondering interesting stuff.   That, plus some good friends and really great Mexican food, made this conference a success.

Though I had intended to post notes from the Graduate Student Forum (advice on CVs, cover letters, interviews, etc.), I’ve waxed poetic and won’t tire you with further musings.  It will appear in my next post, though – and as fond as we all are of Romantic reflection and soul-searching, I promise a distillation of thoroughly practical advice!

Happy Monday,

-Kelli

Making Means Meet: The Prelude and Risk in Retrospect

This blog represents a “jump-for-joy” moment in my studies where my reading relates directly to an activity that I dearly love: rock climbing. In the process, the news to me was how the act of close reading this small passage in The Prelude that taps into my adrenaline-performance-junky self became more about language and representations of identity. More specifically, it became about how Wordsworth lays bare the way in which the process of *writing* about memories changes them and merges selves in ways that logically conflict, and that teach.

* * *

Yesterday I reread a bunch of books in The Prelude as well as book 1 of The Excursion, and right now I’m rereading (for the first time since a sophomore year poetry class with Robert Pack at Middlebury College) “Michael”. In the process of diving back into all this Wordsworthian juice and joy, I’ve been thinking about individual connections to language, activity (mostly bodily), and histories.

It seemed to me while working through the Prelude, that one important pivot for WW is the body: its a place where outside (nature, society, history, words on a page) meets inside (nature [again], imagination, identity, desire, memory). It is a locomotive human frame that interacts with the motions of nature and that contains the whirrings of ideas and blood. In a very Lockean sense, the body is the gateway to thought and perception of the world at large.

I’m an avid rock climber, and this passage made my palms sweat (Book I (1850) ll. 326-356). Finally, my two worlds — academic and athletic — were colliding in my work. Like free gelato, it’s just too good to be true. (Why didn’t this passage catch me in previous Prelude readings?)

Nor less when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth — and with what motion moved the clouds!

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have been borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

The emphases on the “means” are mine, of course. My first thought when reading this passage was: I know exactly what he means when he describes the sensation of being quite high off the deck, “ill-sustained” on “slippery rock,” barely hanging on by half-inch fissures and protected by a bunch of knots (hopefully cams and/or nuts would be involved as well, but not in the author’s time!). Your senses pick up on the most interesting things when you are relaxed mid-route and can observe the vertical environment without being concerned about gear or falling. You find birds nested in cracks (who might poop on you); you notice the “exposure” or the “airy” feel of being up high and having a panoramic view, as if from the side of a tower; and you might notice how your shadow moves with you on the adjacent rock wall.

But in this passage, WW is not relaxed: he’s nervous, hanging by “grass” knots, on a “perilous” ridge. When that’s me (and I use a really good rope, not grass!), I am so NOT listening to the utterances of the wind, I’m not noticing the sublimity of the sky, and I’m definitely not tracking the motion of the clouds unless a storm is rolling in. I would be focused on executing the moves and placing/clipping gear to make sure I reach the top without taking a bad fall, (though I also happen to find this fun).

So WW here is taking a moment of real, physical danger, and mentioning how he notices the natural world in which he is suspended. The rock and the climbing are just a means to an end: that of gaining a different perspective on the elements, one that makes the climber feel incapable of falling, like the birds, and supported by the wind. The question becomes for me: how can the knowledge of bodily peril and discomfort and serene appreciation and enchantment by the motions of the wind and sky exist together? I argue that they can’t (unless you’re comfortably hanging out on a nice, big ledge, or belaying, or celebrating on the summit!). The body’s survival mechanisms don’t readily allow for those separate feelings and emotions to coexist simultaneously. And yet somehow they do in that stanza … Here’s some real-life evidence:

Focusing on climbing so that I can ...
... look around and appreciate the view from the summit!

In this moment, as a poet, and due to his engagement with his changing self, his history and his memories, WW can’t help but write or record tenuousness and fear-factor into this passage. As a kid playing around on steep, slippery, probably potentially fatal vertical rocky terrain, he was fearless (and stupid) and therefore could look around while dangling from a cliff. As an adult, both W and I would find it hard not to think about the painful ends – possible consequences – of falling.

In the next stanza, WW goes fairly “meta” and comments on the fusion of his child and adult perspective and language in the preceding stanza’s moment:  “there is a dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements, makes them cling together / In one society.” Suddenly, we’re not rock climbing anymore: were thinking about *writing about* rock climbing long ago. The “discordant elements” of fearless child’s play and adult awareness “cling together” as if hanging onto the rock for dear life. Crag meets poem, nature meets society, past meets present, reader meets poet. They don’t get the job done on their own.

The “means which Nature deigned employ”: he gives thanks to them, but precisely for what? For not killing him? Nature seems to encompass the narrator’s reckless desire to climb this rock, the rock itself, as well as an idea or a construct that exists in the author’s memory that urged him to do things that would make an impression on him (or break his leg). Even if the impression is only understood later (like the way in which his books from Cambridge mean more to him in later years than they did while in school). And what means? Why “deigned”? Nature is billed as a teacher here – but one whose lessons you have to learn while potentially soloing a crag and then live on to tell the tale. And nature is stooping to teach you. But doesn’t that sortof mean that we are stooping to teach ourselves, since we are not only affected by, but also create the natural world that we exist in? Is WW learning nature’s lesson not through climbing, or remembering climbing, but through writing about remembering this climb?

Does his attention to the work of writing poetry about memories then, which brings back all the risk that he never encountered in the moment, go hand in hand with an inherent realization of risk? Perhaps the risk in writing about memory is somewhere in the lacunae between now and then, the inability to ever fully return on our own, and the reliance upon readers or audience to make an imaginative “leap” (or climb) in order to attempt to preserve these things which do not endure. The risk infused in the climb was also, perhaps, the risk in recording it.

On the NGSC Blog: Why We're Here

Clearly, we started in medias res: our blog content and authors need an introduction, a prospectus if you will, for our project. But maybe it’s apropos that we jumped right into the thick of things …

There is a unique relationship between Romanticists and the digital that I have yet to put my finger on theoretically. With such enormous contributions to the digital humanities field made by Jerome McGann, Alan Liu, Laura Mandell, Romantic Circles, The Blake Archive, NINES, 18thConnect, The Poetess Archive and Journal, RaVoN, and other important Romanticists and projects too numerous to list, there must be something that draws scholars in our discipline to “half-create” and “perceive” in this digital textual research and writing environment. Here’s our half (or quarter).

The NASSR Graduate Student Caucus members in our earliest meetings wanted to construct a web “hub” that would connect our grad colleagues in discussions and issues relating to reading and research, writing, professionalizing, teaching, and braving the job market. One small piece of the hub is this blog.

We hope our posts will engender a sense of community among grad student Romanticists. At every conference I attend, I meet other PhD students in Romanticism who present their research on unique and important topics and engage with similar questions about the profession. (We’re also usually slightly less socially comfortable among the masses of chatting professors at conference events, unless we’re lucky enough to know another graduate student or professor at the conference — but that also makes it easy for us to spot one another.)  We’re thinking of this blog as another venue–one that is accessible and doesn’t require travel expenses–to talk to one another about Romanticism scholarship and teaching from our point of view. Not that our posts necessarily must address Romanticism–my first post on analog reading technologies obviously did not, Michele’s post on forming a reading group takes a geographically and chronologically capacious view of the field, and Kelli’s post on emotive reading uses her experience teaching Frankenstein to rethink pedagogical approaches to teaching close reading.

As a large and dispersed body of grad students of Romanticism(s), teachers, writers, readers, and probably aspiring professors, we will have this blog and our forthcoming website as a shared space of praxis, networking, problem solving, and collaboration.

The Blogs:

We bloggers include PhD students of Romanticism at varying stages in our degrees; studying a wide range of authors and subjects from flower books to Byron; and teaching different courses that include Shakespeare for Non-Majors, a survey of Women Writers, and Masterpieces of British Literature. We aim to blog on the issues that affect us, rile us, and inspire us as we novice professionals learn to navigate the field and establish how we will contribute to it. No bloggers have any pre-set categories or topics on which to blog, but surely our interests will drive our content. Our topics will include questions, challenges, and solutions to pedagogical issues as well as research, reading, and writing methodologies. We’ll blog about what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it, what we’re reading or re-reading in the field that we find useful and exciting, as well as what professional activities we participate in (reading groups, planning conferences, attending conferences, trying to get published, etc.).

In sum: we hope that reading/skimming/glancing at our blog will engender connections at some level between those of us in the field that will make our work less solitary (perhaps even collaborative), and that will trumpet our victories as we leap ballerina-like through shrinking flaming hula-hoops and land–only slightly singed but hopefully employed–on the other side.

Belated introduction complete! Now, back to work.

Entrancing the Soul: a Call to Teach Emotive Reading

Hi.  This is Kelli T. Jasper, secretary of the NGSC, checking in with an only slightly self-indulgent reflection on the vicissitudes of teaching literature.  My regards to all of you out there who, like me, are still figuring it out!

-K

It’s Monday, and the end of September. The euphoria and excitement of starting new projects begins to wear off, and tiredness starts to kick in.  I return my first round of graded essays to students, and along with my lengthy critiques sinks in the reality that we’re going to be together for a long, long time.  For me, at about this point every semester doubts appear. Perhaps I’ve been too ambitious?  Perhaps I’ve assigned too much work?  I begin to notice my own teacherly rollercoaster—exultation at gorgeous moments of discovery in class; reservation about the structure I’ve set of for the course; discouragement over the students I can’t seem to reach or who already hate my guts; frustration at the disconnect between short class periods and rich, lengthy texts; and gratitude for those students who flatter me with their enthusiasm or their compliments on my shoes.  I take comfort in the regularity of this crisis, and solace in the way it prompts me to reflect—constructively, I hope—on where we are now, and where I want us to go.

This is a semester of firsts for me: first time teaching a literature course, though I’ve taught composition and humanities in the past; first time teaching Milton and Shakespeare, as required by the course; first time reading Paradise Lost, a risk I took alongside my students; first time preparing to take my comprehensive exams; first time contributing to a blog.  All things considered, I suppose it’s only natural to feel a bit unsure of myself.  And the upshot is that, as sometimes happens with steep learning-curves, I feel some of the various planets of my academic life aligning—or if not aligning, then at least constellating into something as yet ineffable, but still awesome.  I’ll do my best to explain.

For my comprehensive exams, I’ve been reading Frankenstein—another first, though how I got to my third year as a PhD candidate without ever reading this book is a mystery.  I’m struck by how much of the story revolves around the transformative power of reading: after a failed career as a poet, R. Walton’s reading prompts him on a voyage to the North Pole; reading Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Magnus sets Frankenstein on his path toward animating life; the creature discovers Volney, Plutarch, and Milton, producing in him “an infinity of new images and feelings.”  As I try to define for myself what exactly it means to study Romantic Literature as well as what it means to teach literature at all, I wonder how to help my students access this kind of transfiguring reading experience.  Have they ever, like Walton,  “perused […] those poets whose effusions entranced my soul, and lifted it to heaven”?  More importantly, have I?

At times I feel that my own reading experiences have become so focused on analysis that I forget to feel transported.  I’m told that as an English teacher it’s my job to teach close reading, and while I agree, it’s so often a tough sell!  But today, I had an epiphany.  Perhaps in order to teach close reading, I first need to teach active, performative reading. In my class we have been performing short scenes from Richard III. I borrowed the lesson plan from a friend, and had the students break into small groups, choose a scene of about 100 lines, and then stage it for the class—handing in to me about 500 words’ worth of “director’s notes” explaining their interpretive choices.  We worked quickly, and having no drama training of my own, I gave them none; I simply asked that they read their parts in a way that conveyed a clear sense of the meaning to the audience.

The results have surprised and inspired me—not because the students were all amazing readers, but because so many of them were not!  They could pronounce most of the words correctly, and could pause when they came to periods (that is, they’re certainly literate), but very few of them seemed to read with intentional, interpretive emotion.  What a fascinating disconnect! When I read in my head, the characters take on voices in my imagination—they intrigue me with their personalities, and I delight in the visions of their rages or reveries that are somehow conjured in my mind from the words on the page.  Having felt relatively comfortable with Shakespeare for many years now, I forget that such conjuring does not happen automatically for most students.  Lacking practice in active, performative reading, it’s no wonder they prefer more obvious writers like Stephanie Meyers, Dan Brown, and Nicholas Sparks.  While students seem to have no problem connecting emotionally with plotlines (thank you, Sparknotes), it seems to me that the average non-English-major needs training in order to connect emotion to written language—particularly the slightly archaic language found in pre-20th-century texts.

In pondering these ideas, I find myself rethinking the philosophy of my course, and planning future courses exclusively around reading, writing, performance, adaptation, and interpretation.  According to Thomas Tanselle in A Rationale of Textual Criticism, written texts provide only the blueprints of a “work” that must be reconstituted by the reader.  “Close reading” is simply the term we’ve given to the process of analyzing our own acts of reconstitution—but if we lack the skill or practice to reconstitute effectively, then what is there to analyze?  I therefore commit myself to helping students become emotive readers as a means to becoming close readers. Richard III obviously lent itself well to performance, but now as we move on to reading Fanny Burney’s Evelina, I’m envisioning much more reading aloud, and much more discussion about how we as readers might perform these characters.  These discussions might propel us toward an exploration of writing as performance, whether it’s the author writing the work, or characters within the work writing/reading/performing.

I know that none of this is headline news.  Reader-response theory has been around for a long time, and I’ve learned in pedagogy classes how useful it is as a framework for teaching literature.  Yet still, somehow, these concepts have gained substance this week in a way I’ve never experienced before.  For the moment, my own “soul is lifted to heaven,” and I think I catch a glimpse of how to help my students rise above the clouds as well.  So off I go to make a lesson plan and design a new unit project.

Take that, September blues.

Notes from the Undertow: Transatlantic Studies Reading Group Inaugural Meeting

According to the OED, undertow can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. Sporting Magazine (1817) refers to “A current,… at times counteracted by means of a strong opposing ‘undertow,’ as it is called.” If this first phrase touches upon the register of physical operations, the next lies close to that of myth and (ominous?) portent: “The recoil of the sea, and what is called by sailors the undertow, carried him back again.” The first example identifies a general dynamic of fluid directionality, describes strong flows and pulls, and suggests inconsistent, unstable forces. The second describes a geographic, biotic entity (the sea) grown quasi-monstrous, recoiling, carrying sailors “back again,” but how far? To where?

Formulating a transatlantic studies reading group at the University of Colorado at Boulder shared much with my childhood bouts with the Pacific, especially those times when the water won. Calling oneself a romanticist stakes out a somewhat reasonable or at least recognizable critical terrain. But epistemologically stepping into the oceans and seas to orient one’s work around aqueous and landed flows immediately leads one to the potentially hazardous and/or freeing problematics of how far to go and most importantly, to where—to what critical end?

When the undertow takes down even the strongest of swimmers, it’s just as disorienting and humbling as the above sentences from the OED suggest. Being sucked beneath the surface aptly parallels the problems I faced (and cannot conquer) in establishing a forum for exploring the current state of transatlantic, circumatlantic and hemispheric studies. How far back or forward in time should the readings go? What if the group’s reading selections only come from what qualifies as either British sources or literature attributed to the United States, and so the group navigates itself to the much-maligned realm of trans-national literary studies? To be completely honest, the most muddled and pressing point for me personally, is why, and if, I should be engaging in such methodological pursuits as a student committed first and foremost to the study of romantic literatures.

Our First Meeting:
Now having brought the group together for its inaugural meeting last Wednesday, we’ve proved that at least fifteen graduate students at Boulder are deeply or trepidatiously committed to throwing themselves into the fray. We are ready to see what considerations of the Atlantic and other bodies of water as well as other flows of bodies, organisms, ideas and objects will do to us, and perhaps even for us, given some amount of steadfastness and willingness to thrash about methodologically for the year. We read Melville’s Benito Cereno as our initial primary text and an article by Amanda Claybaugh on Dickens’ American book tours, which analyzes intersections between social reform and transatlantic reprinting/plagiarizing prior to the 1891 transatlantic copyright law that forbade such intellectual borrowing and trading.

For two hours we discussed things colonial, national, material, theoretical, and narratological—and speaking as just one of those who agreed to getting more than her feet wet, it was just as difficult and rewarding as getting lost in pull of the undertow while still being able, finally, to come back up for air, and for more. Next month, we’ll be making one of our great moves back in time, shifting away from the space of the slave ship and the triangular trade to discuss Locke’s Two Treatises on Government and an article by the well-known scholar of transatlantic and Native American scholarship, Kate Flint. We will close out the semester with a turn to the spaces of the Caribbean, reading the anonymously published The Woman of Colour, and will consider Elisa Tamarkin’s critical work on “Black Anglophilia.” Perhaps at its best, it would appear that these more geographically-sensitive modes of analyses might help us to engage “currents,… at times counteracted,” but that might otherwise be easy to ignore, and thus most simply reminds us to perform due diligence. Onward, to the next recoil.

The Technology of Sticky Flags

My name is Kirstyn, I’m the NGSC webmaster and a digital humanities (newbie) scholar and a sticky-flag addict. This post and confession was inspired by a ProfHacker article I read this morning.

Every scholar has his or her own particular way of marking the parts of a text that interest them most and responding to those passages with ideas, connections, hypotheses, comments, and the occasional cranky quip in the margin. For me, the e-reader development craze is not just about saving paper and being “green,”  e-ink reading comfort, battery life, page “turning” time, and feel of the device, but perhaps more important:

(1) the ability to access the 18th- and 19th-century texts I’m working with, and

(2) how to mark that text with “flags” (digital equivalent of the Post-it flag) and comments.

I want to spend my introductory blog thinking about the way in which we scholars typically mark physical books (not e-books … that’s my next post!). The book has a technology of its own, and casual readers and scholars manipulate and mine that technology in different ways. For example, I’m studying for my comprehensive exams right now and am note-taking in too many ways, if you ask me: in/on the actual texts, in notebooks, and on my computer. It’s a distillation of the transformative (and sometimes confusing) technological moment we’re reading, writing, and teaching in. Continue reading The Technology of Sticky Flags

Resources for Graduate Students of Romanticism