Archive for ‘teaching’


“Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!”

When you teach Chaucer or 19th-century medievalism, no one clamors for a preview of the syllabus, but when you tell people you’ll pulling together a course on modern fantasy and science fiction, everyone has opinions, questions, recommendations, stories, and gripes—and everyone wants to see the reading list.

So here it is. From the start, I tried to avoid creating one of those “sources and analogues” courses where Poe ballads and old French werewolf yarns implicitly apologize for the presumed deficiencies of modern fantasy. (It’s a valid approach, but spending so much time studying where something comes from leaves little time to study the thing itself.) We’ll talk about Lucian of Samosata, Thomas More, and Mary Shelley, and we’ll give H.G. Wells his due, but we don’t need to disinter their corpses for caryatids; let’s see if recent works can stand on their own. If they can’t, their collapse will at least raise an impressive dust cloud from afar.

This list balances several competing goals: sketching the histories of both genres to 1990; showing their ideological ranges by intermingling fan favorites with academic darlings; assigning works not for their coolness quotient or erstwhile popularity but for their ability to prompt discussion; and selfishly finding slots for a favorite or two of my own.

Plenty of worthy authors, books, and short stories didn’t make the cut—it’s impossible to be comprehensive in thirteen weeks—and this course was, I think, harder to prepare than any of the medieval-lit courses I’ve taught. I’m not used to being so spoiled for choice.

Isaac Asimov, “Nightfall”
Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God”
Robert A. Heinlein, “The Roads Must Roll”
Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations”
Lester del Rey, “Helen O’Loy”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
Samuel Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah”
Ray Bradbury, “Way in the Middle of the Air”
Frederik Pohl, “The Day After the Day the Martians Came”
James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”
William Gibson, “Burning Chrome”
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Joanna Russ, “The Clichés From Outer Space”
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Liebowitz
Henry Melton, “Catacomb”
* * *
Ludwig Tieck, “The Elves”
William Morris, “The Folk of the Mountain Door”
Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”
James Branch Cabell, “The Thin Queen of Elfhame”
Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”
Robert E. Howard, “The King and the Oak”
Robert E. Howard, “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming”
Jack Vance, “The Loom of Darkness”
Fritz Leiber, “The Bazaar of the Bizarre”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Terry Bisson, “Bears Discover Fire”
Ursula Le Guin, “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight”
Lucius Shepard, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”
Gary Gygax, “The Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D Games”
Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”
Italo Calvino, “The Distance of the Moon”

“…’cause the only thing misplaced was direction…”

The books are tired: They let themselves yellow, they reek of teenage habits, and they laze around the shelves as if they own them. Stone-faced, you say: You there, all of you: Goodbye. With soft groans, they sprout little legs, stumble down the stairs, and march away. You admire their sense of duty; you commend yourself for knowing how to treat them.

You wonder where they went only years later, when an email asks: “Would you like to teach Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction?”

Thus begins the blur: creeping through library basements, climbing over warehouse piles, swinging a sun-bright shopping basket where books replace groceries in long, looming rows. Look: A spaceship reminds you of a long-lost friend, the guy who once loaned you this book. Over there is the novel you never quite got; its crude, trippy cover still mocks you. A fantasy trilogy leaps from a shelf, desperate to be held again; years ago, you all spent a week at the beach. Paperbacks peep and cry out sideways, and people gawk as titles start to blur: Axaxaxas mlö, dhcmrlchtdj…

You bring them home in plastic bags.

That face you make as you drive? It’s the thousand-year stare, the result of looking too long at the Middle Ages. The cure is a holiday, a summer spent sniffing ’round the future—but when you come home and toss those bags on the floor, they rustle, and you look down. Some books squeak and hide under the sofa; others dance and do flips before clambering onto your shelves. In the chaos, you catch a whiff: musty, sure, but sweetly familiar, and you know that you’re not in the future at all. You draw a deep breath and you think, Well, I’m back.

“Ran down, and the lady said it…”

When the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp tomorrow to honor Anna Julia Cooper, she’ll be remembered, rightly, as a remarkable woman. Born into slavery around 1858 in North Carolina, Cooper earned a degree in mathematics but also taught Latin and Greek. As principal of the nation’s best public high school for black children, she fought for high educational standards and prepared her students for top universities. In essays and lectures, she addressed racism, the concerns of black women, and other issues of the day. When women’s rights groups turned out to be white women’s rights groups, she started her own.

But Anna Julia Cooper was also a Charlemagne buff—and an inspiration to exhausted grad students everywhere.

From 1911 to 1913, Cooper spent summers studying French literature and history in Paris. In 1914—at the tender age of 56—she enrolled in the Department of Romance Languages at Columbia University with plans to earn her doctorate. Scholars of medieval French literature were clamoring for an accessible version of the epic Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne to replace a hard-to-find German edition, and Cooper gave them one, but Columbia didn’t grant her a degree. As a widow raising her dead brother’s five children while holding down a full-time job as a teacher and principal in Washington, D.C., she couldn’t fulfill the one-year residency requirement.

In response, Cooper sought out a university with no such requirement. The Sorbonne accepted her credits but her work on the Pèlerinage didn’t meet their dissertation requirements, so Cooper wrote a second dissertation. In 1925, she earned a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and found a Parisian publisher for her edition and facing-page translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. She was 66 years old.

Cooper’s Pèlerinage was never published in America. When she offered the book and all its proceeds to her alma mater, Oberlin, the school hemmed and hawed—and then nervously declined. Even so, the book was the standard edition and translation for decades, American libraries and language departments sought it out, and several pages were included in an anthology of medieval French literature reprinted as recently as the 1960s.

Beyond its manageable size, it’s not clear what drew Cooper to the Charlemagne project she cheekily called her “homework,” but few American teachers have so aptly encouraged students, then or now, through indefatigable example. Cooper, who lived to be 105, understood the pedigree of that tradition:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Alcuin wrote that. It’s a Carolingian sentiment, but one that Cooper, a proper medievalist, could easily endorse.

“And a strange dust lands on your hands, and on your face…”

When the sun is shining and the world is all a-green, it takes a tendency toward Tennysonian drear and a special leap of faith to study—and to teach—the Idylls of the King, especially Arthur’s “last weird battle in the West,” which falls on “that day when the great light of heaven / Burn’d at his lowest in the rolling year, / On the waste sand by the waste sea.” You’d think a week of rain would set the tone, but the present gloom is undeniably springlike. A sad tale’s best for winter; even in the stormiest May, students want to see suntans and beach umbrellas, not a despondent Bedivere sobbing on the bleak December seacoast.

Fortunately, Tennyson is a poet for all seasons. Arthur’s climactic rush-and-push against Mordred offers hardy perennial advice about facing a final exam:

Then spake the King: “My house hath been my doom.
But call not thou this traitor of my house
Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me.
My house are rather they who sware my vows,
Yea, even while they brake them, own’d me King.
And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,
When all the purport of my throne hath fail’d,
That quick or dead thou holdest me for King.
King am I, whatsoever be their cry;
And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see
Yet, ere I pass.” And uttering this the King
Made at the man…

My students, sharp and studious, will know whether Arthur is exhorting them to end on a note of defiant triumph or advising them to fail with dignity. This week, they’ll free themselves from my Vortigern-like tyranny, and they can remember the Mabinogion and William Morris however they like. I’ll remember them as the first group in ten years to find notes of perseverance and hope amid Guenevere’s severity. Generous and unexpected, that sort of personal response refreshes a tired-out teacher.

In Arthurian legend, when the old order passes, the world doesn’t end; instead, it gives way to something new. If Bedivere can watch the sunrise on the coast after the winter solstice, then melancholy at the end of the semester makes sense even when, as Tennyson puts it, “the world is white with May.” My students can tell you that there’s no more conventional month to revel in medieval romance; maybe there’s nothing inherently un-Arthurian, also, about going to the beach.

“I like hammering nails, and speaking in tongues…”

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” The Internet, in its collective wisdom, attributes this chestnut to Charlemagne, even though the old emperor seems to have uttered it no earlier than a UPI “thought for the day” distributed to newspapers on April 2, 1989. (A 1920 article about the study of French inexplicably attributes this same saying to “the great Spanish monarch, if it be he.”) Like other things Charlemagne supposedly said, it’s the sort of thing Einhard or Notker might have wanted him to say, and several quotation dictionaries and educational treatises have accepted that he did. People love this quip because it seems to say something profound. I’m just not certain it’s true.

Ten months ago, I decided it was time to learn German—not dabble in German to pass a watered-down reading exam, not fake it by squinting at German hard enough to sweat out the Old English cognates, but really learn the language at the fastest pace my schedule and the local curriculum allowed. Since then, I’ve taken classes that have raised my fluency from “feeble” to “mostly feeble,” I’ve learned love songs, hymns, and party tunes, and and I’ve looked upon lists of irregular participles and despaired. I’ve also remembered what it’s like to be a student.

After you spend ten years as an adjunct, familiar texts come around just often enough for an awkward reunion; they’re the old friends with whom you have too much history but also too little in common. Meanwhile, you stare past those piles of personal reading: novels that somebody forced on you; books bought on a whim; discards from strangers who passed through your life. Back then, the thrill of ignorance made everything a mystery, and each new book promised wisdom. Now, folded pages lead you back to useless secrets: verses and lines that were, for a while, the language you shared with someone who probably doesn’t remember. Trace a swirl in the dust; whole shelves smell like bookstores that long ago closed.

And so, ich lerne Deutsch. I download old pop songs that torture German ears; they’re fresh and intriguing to me. I despise crosswords—but I finish my first childish kreuzworträtsel in German with pride, having done what I couldn’t do a year ago. I flip through collections of Rilke, dictionary handy, wandering with pleasure through century-old poems that carry no personal associations, only the ones they acquire today. Sometimes I’m stopped by an opening line: Ich glaube an alles noch nie Gesagte…

The books on my syllabus all seem a little more strange to me now. Thomas Malory, William Morris, Tennyson—to my surprise, they each have something new to say. They tell me that Charlemagne had it all wrong: A new language doesn’t give you a second soul; it refreshes the one you’d forgotten you already had.

“He sits in the canyon with his back to the sea…”

Every few years, I’m asked to teach Arthurian literature, a gig that’s led to a curious custom here at “Quid Plura?” headquarters: In the week before we talk about The Mabinogion, I fly the Welsh flag above my television. When the week is over, the flag gets folded and stowed, but not before I’ve caught up on several years of Welsh news, reread the relevant scholarship, and startled myself daily with the sight of a huge red dragon by the bathroom door.

What more can I say? Y Ddraig Goch ddyry gychwyn! Let the red dragon show the way to this dubious assortment of Welsh-themed links.

Amazon user G.R. Grove has kindly compiled a list of novels set in medieval Wales.

Watch the first part of an eight-part BBC documentary about Owain Glendywr.

Need a fix of Welsh? Listen to BBC Cymru, partake of their “Learn Welsh” Web site, or dabble in the language with the Cardiff School of Computer Science.

The Digital Medievalist has a FAQ on learning Middle Welsh.

Last year, locals officials made a wonderful mistake on a Welsh-language road sign.

What’s more Welsh than a male voice choir singing the national anthem? Possibly a male voice choir singing “Myfanwy.” (You’ll find the lyrics here.)

If you ever need accommodations in Snowdonia, pop over to the Plas Gwyn Guest House. The proprietor cooks a fine breakfast and stocks a nice library of maps for the overzealous hiker.

While you’re there, gawk from the highway at Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern supposedly tried to build his tower on the shakiest of foundations.

If you want to follow in Patrick McGoohan’s footsteps and be chased by a giant inflatable white ball creature thingie, Plas Gwyn isn’t far from Portmeirion.

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a “Welsh language hip hop 80s style badminton video.”

To my knowledge, there’s only one song about a wheelchair-bound savant who takes a break from starting World War III on his cell phone to wax nostalgic about his Welsh upbringing. Here it is.

“Back to school, it’s a bad situation…”

It’s back-to-school time for teachers and students alike. If you stroll along Massachusetts Avenue looking for inspiration, you’ll find this fellow at the Embassy of Croatia.

It’s Saint Jerome, who’s clearly immersed in his work. If you’ve ever grappled with Jerome’s page-length Latin sentences, you’ve probably made this gesture, too.

For many of you, the coming weeks will call for much sighing and staring at tomes. Whether you’re a teacher or a student, here’s to a pleasant and productive semester—without too much hieronymian clutching of the forehead.

“When you were born, they looked at you and said…”

The academic year limps to its grave, ashamed. May brings commencements with long-winded speeches, hung-over students, the swinging of ceremonial maces. Oblivious meatheads all saunter toward debt; they’re destined to bung up society’s drains. The terrible truths are recorded by bloggers, decried in the op-eds, and whispered in lounges: biased curricula, underpaid adjuncts, incurious students, a farcical pageant of evil and wrong.

Is that how you feel about graduation season? Then here are three people I’d like you to meet.

If you can’t imagine a household where books were forbidden, then Kay has a story to tell you. As a child, Kay was told that reading would poison her mind; then she was shipped from England to Pakistan and forced into an abusive marriage. But, as those of us who know her have discovered, Kay is a true force of nature. Innately rebellious, selectively shy, Kay overcame her unlucky beginnings to become valedictorian, honor society president, and winner of national awards. She’s now a teacher in training, and I envy the Maryland schoolkids who will share in her passion for Shakespeare. Kay officially graduated last winter; tomorrow she’ll walk and receive her diploma, rebuking the fools who forbade her to read.

Utterly atypical of his high-strung generation, my cousin Mike is a perceptive writer in the making. While his classmates sought internships in Manhattan offices, Mike pulled on his steel-toed work boots and learned how to repair cast-iron stoves, stack chicken cages, and tar driveways. For much of his college career, Mike worked as a janitor on the same campus where he studied history, always eager to find something worth observing in places his peers were inclined to ignore. Next Saturday, Mike will graduate from Rutgers. His decency, work ethic, and easy composure put him way ahead of his classmates—and some of us, too, who are quite a bit older.

For more than 20 years, I’ve watched Dave seek his fortune on the west coast and live through history as a Wall Street techie during the dot-com boom. While working as a reporter and raising two daughters, Dave finished his college degree. When he and I met, we were shmoes from New Jersey with local horizons; the notion that we’d later enjoy discussing Constantine and Charlemagne would have confused—and probably horrified—our limited, 16-year-old selves. On Sunday, when Dave graduates with honors from Villanova, I’ll be cheering from the bleachers. We’ve seen, through the years, many others burn out; Dave, now in grad school, just keeps burning brighter.

Our universities have problems, but let’s not pretend we can really perfect them; we ought to remember that fixing a problem is bound to make others arise. We can only teach well, take pride as the people around us succeed, and maybe remember what Alcuin said:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Even in his grim and troubled era, a great teacher knew what we often forget: that flawed institutions can still make us more than we are.

“And he threw away his looking-glass…”

Before finally filing your grade sheet away, you take a glance back at your students: the hagglers, the flatterers, folks who can’t spell; the brilliant readers, who see patterns you never imagined; the passionate few, who discover the works of a lifetime; the ghosts, who drift into the classroom with hollow-eyed stares and who float out again just as empty; the religious and the irreligious, who shock each other with their very existence; the lazy, who are stunned when your deadlines disrupt them; and the sensitive poets who wish they were jaded, who work to be altered by nothing at all.

You also remember the doomed. Some, in the end, cry out like Faustus at midnight. Others, too few, clamber like Brunhilde onto the pyre, restoring their honor and earning their human dignity, if never a passing grade.

At the same time, the Christmas cards arrive. Some come from strange new places; most bring news of career advancement and snapshots of happy babies. Your horizon, still full of students, widens well beyond the back rows of any classroom, and you remember why Alcuin wrote these words to King Offa:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Alcuin knew: teaching asks more of you than mere lectures, discussions, and hours of rote emendation. The futures of others now fall in your hands. That grade sheet, he’d tell you, is blind to your days of frustration. It recorded the trust that you dared to assume; it’s a plain declaration of hope.