So my question for you is this, what are some of the things first year English students struggle with the most, and what (if anything) could high schools do to better prepare them?
Tamburlaine the Great
Author: Christopher Marlowe
Reading Date: 29 January @ Wilf’s
Tamburlaine the Great was Marlowe’s first great foray onto the public stage as a playwright and it is arguably his most influential play. It tells the true story of Timur the Lame, the shepherd who, through conquest, became the most powerful despot in central Asia since Genghis Khan. Over the top, full of bombast and stupendous arrogance, Tamburlaine is a larger than life character who influenced a whole generation of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers. This was, after all, the play that pioneered the use of blank verse on the stage and established the theatre as a site where great poetry could be performed.
The barbarian queen who cowed the Romans into submission, only to be destroyed by those closest to her. The story of the flame-haired Celtic queen Bonduca revenging her daughters’ rapes by laying waste to the Roman occupying forces resonated in the years following Elizabeth’s death.
The Roaring Girl
She drinks, she smokes, she swears, she ROARS! Based on the actual historical figure, Moll Cutpurse, the main character in this City Comedy was a swaggering woman in breeches, fighting her way through a world that would really have rather much preferred if she would please put on a skirt… I mean, think of the children!
Arden of Faversham
An Elizabethan era true crime story! The murder of the middle class Thomas Arden by his wife and her lover was not merely a cautionary tale for the period – it was a salacious scandal that rocked the nation!
Who to contact:
Every year at the beginning of the semester, I have administered what I call a Classroom Culture Quiz. The quiz is designed to get students to think about what it is that they want out of their classroom experience. It is a way of ensuring that students who might otherwise not speak up or would sit back and let the class wash over them, actually get a chance to help shape their educational experience.
This version of the quiz is twenty questions long – a bit longer than the regular quiz – because it is available online and one can go through it fairly quickly. The questions range from how the student conceives of the role of the professor to whether or not cell phone should be allowed in classrooms.
Because I don’t administer the quiz with a request that students allow me to use their responses in research, I can’t actually use the information that I have gathered over the years in a published article, which is a real pity. I can, however, use this information for private dissemination.
If you are interested in using this form or a variation on it, please let me know. I’d love to chat more about ways of helping students to take some control over their education. Heck, if you have any questions you want to add to the quiz, please get in touch in the comments below!
So, I’ve tinkered with my Social Media Policy a little more in recent months. Anyone out there have any suggestions on what I should do with it to make it better?
Social Media Policy
As you can see, you are perfectly welcome to add me to your Twitter, facebook, tumblr, and Skype, as a courtesy to make myself easier to contact. You ought to be aware, however, that this comes with certain caveats.
- Replying: Turn-around time for electronic contact is usually about 48 hours, though it may be more. Whether that contact be an email, direct tweet, or what have you, I reserve the right to take my time to get back to you. This is partially so that I can protect my privacy and partially so that I will be able to answer your questions to the best of my ability.
- Manners: Etiquette online is always necessary. I am not your friend. I am your friendly professor. Please ensure that all communications, whether with me or with your fellow students (through online discussion boards, etc), maintain a professional level of decorum. Success or failure to do so will reflect in your participation grade.
- Following Me: If you follow me on twitter or what have you, I will follow you back, so as to ensure that you are able to send direct messages.
- Professionalism: The fact is that your social media account is already a professional account. 90% of hiring managers will go through your social media footprint before bringing you in for an interview. What any of us do or say online is not private or anonymous. I am just as subject to this as you are. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use it for personal announcements anymore or to put up pictures of yourself at a party, but it does mean that you should be judicious about the things that you post. Remember, you are always subject to the Student Code of Conduct, even online. If I discover instances of behavior online that breaks the Student Code of Conduct, I am obliged under university policy to report it. From previous experience, I would strongly suggest that you avoid such content as the following:
- Posting racist or sexist content (or any content that violates the Student Code of Conduct);
- “Oversharing” your personal life (ie. I don’t need to hear about your sex life);
- Posting links to free essay sites or other sites devoted to aiding students commit academic misconduct.
Remember, regarding professionalism… both you and I are in the same boat. As you are being policed by me, so I am being policed by you. I promise you that I will behave on social media with both professionalism and tact; I expect nothing less of you.
That said, I’ve found using twitter and other social media to be a remarkably useful tool for pedagogy. Basically, so long as you treat the online world with the deference that you would treat the real world, it is a wonderful place. If you don’t, it descends into YouTube comment feeds with startling speed. Treating each other with deference doesn’t mean not having fun, it just means, to quote Bill and Ted, “be[ing] excellent to each other.”
The following was inspired by reading this Guardian article on the number of women in higher education.
The feminization of higher education is following the same trends and patterns that were at play in the feminization of general education fields at the beginning of the twentieth century. What I mean by “feminization” is the dual effect that occurs when women begin to outnumber men in a particular discourse or activity in a patriarchal society such as our own.
First, the activity or discourse becomes less valued by the culture in measurable terms – lower wages, longer hours, more responsibility, increased precarity of employment. Second, the activity or discourse becomes a site upon which masculine identity can be asserted through recognition of difference. For example, take a feminized discipline like nursing; hegemonic masculinity constructs itself in opposition to the characteristics associated with nursing.
Throughout the nineteenth century, education at all levels was largely (if not wholly) a masculine discipline. As universal education legislation became standard across Great Britain, the US, Canada and so forth, more young women were educated because, by law, they had to be. As these young women grew up in the system, they began to move into the position of teacher. By the turn of the twentieth century and the rise of the High School movement in the US and Canada, more women were educators than ever before in history.
By the mid-twentieth century, elementary and high school teaching was largely a feminized occupation. More women than men were enrolling in Teacher’s Colleges and Normal Schools, while at the same time, the job was becoming almost laughably precarious. The radio and TV show Our Miss Brooks, though in no way a documentary of the lived conditions of women in education at the time, is one of my personal favourite representations of education in the period. Constantly impoverished, working with an uncaring and blustering (yet impotent) administration, and cutting corners on assessment whenever she was told to, Connie Brooks’ position is startlingly familiar to any adjunct professor now-a-days.
Teachers unions come under particular fire from social and fiscal conservatives and I think part of the reason for this is that the unions are trying to work against this feminization of the discipline by ensuring that pay structures, work hours, and so forth are at least somewhat regulated. Further, educational theory since the mid-twentieth century has tended to focus on the development of feminized characteristics (e.g. social skills) and feminized social qualities (e.g. “togetherness” over “competition”).
At the same time, by the mid-twentieth century, young women were outstripping young men in terms of high school graduation rates. Indeed, since 1970, graduation rates in the US have stagnated and this is in part due to the fact that young men opt out of the education system.
Young men are being told by their patriarchal culture that to be an adult man is to have access to special privileges and that to be a man one must perform that masculinity. At the same time, they are told to go through an education system that the patriarchal culture tells them is feminized and which itself values feminized characteristics. It isn’t surprising that those young men then see the easiest avenue to perform adult masculinity is to stop their education.
Please note, I’m not suggesting that we import more traditionally masculine forms into education specifically to appeal to young boys, as some schools have done. I’m not suggesting we import, say, competition or gender-based clothing regulations into the system just because it is traditionally masculine and therefore will keep boys in school longer. Doing that would only reify the gender roles that we are trying to undermine as good feminist thinkers.
I do, however, believe that something is going to give, but not for the right reasons. That is, the system that has developed in the West over the course of the twentieth century has it that that young men perform their patriarchal privilege by opting out of education, at the high school level and in higher education. Education, however, by its very nature, is a system of training individuals into social privilege insofar as education encourages and allows those individuals to access higher status, wealth, participation in the political system.
Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think the patriarchy is going anywhere anytime soon. It’s proven itself too resilient over the millennia for that to be believable to me.
Instead, what I think is going to happen is one of two possibilities:
- The Know-Nothing form of masculine performance will cease to exert its influence and the education system will be re-masculinized. There are cases throughout history of disciplines being masculinized; most notably, medicine in the Renaissance and Enlightenment moved from the practice of midwives and wise women to a masculine discipline. It seems perfectly possible to me that the education system will be taken over by men again as a way of re-asserting masculine privilege.
- If education is, at present, the key to gaining social status, privilege, and participation in the political system, then that will cease to be the case as other qualities will become more important to gaining that status. This too has happened in the past. In Imperial Rome, education ceased to be an avenue for social advancement. It just stopped figuring anywhere on the cursus honorum. Other qualities – whose family you were born into, where you were born, what religion you subscribed to – simply mattered more to your social position and access to power than your knowledge or training. The late Romans, especially the land-owning “nobility,” were suspicious of education and anyone who was too damned crafty for their own good. In that way, they remind me of Donald Trump supporters.
Now, I’d be overjoyed if I thought for an instant that what is happening in higher education and education more generally were a fundamental shift away from patriarchal systems of control, but I simply don’t see that happening. A masculine-figured administration has neutered and rendered impotent a feminine-figured faculty. Patriarchy isn’t being dismantled, it is being reasserted in a different form than the one that existed at the end of the nineteenth-century. After all, Victorian laws on universal education were, in part, a way of dismantling a pernicious and toxic form of patriarchal control. What we are seeing now is just another head of the hydra of patriarchy.
Do I have any solutions for this? No. Not a clue.
I do however think that both of the two scenarios that I just laid out are so horrific in their consequences that we have to find an alternative.
Of course – I could be completely wrong. Let me know in the comments.
OK, this post is for all the undergrads out there who will be writing English essays for me (or frankly for anyone else) in the future. There are a few words that you really need to eliminate from your writing in order to make your prose more concise, analytically rigorous, and meaningful. Of course, I can only speak to my own experience as a professor here, but damn, these words are meaningless. Don’t use them.
This word crops up a lot in papers on poetry and Shakespeare and I am always a bit confused as to what it means. It usually crops up in two ways. First, as a kind of disingenuous intensifier; second, as a way of signalling basic comprehension of the text.
The problem is that “effective” actually can be a term of analysis when you start applying it to basic rhetorical analysis. That is, it makes perfect sense to say that Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar was not effective. Why not? Well, it didn’t convince the Roman people, but Mark Antony’s speech really did rile them up.
|And just look at how pretty he is… that is part of his effectiveness… no, seriously!|
Thus, you can use “effective” as a way of opening up a discussion about the rhetorical distinctions between those two speeches. One posits the audience in this way, the other posits the audience in this other way; one uses metaphor in this way, the other uses metaphor in that way. This form of analysis is always looking to the audience, investigating the relationship with the audience and what “the audience” means.
Too often, however, “effective” in papers ends up presuming that “audience” is identical with “me, the student writing this paper.” To such a student, a text therefore becomes “effective” if that student comprehends the text.
Well, yes… sort of… but that, at best, is only showing that the student has reached the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but is trying to sound like something more advanced is going on.
|One version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.|
In university, it is great that you “get” the text. But so what? Now that you “get” it, what are you going to do with it? The point of literary study after all isn’t just to memorize texts and their basic meanings. We do things with words. That’s the fun part.
This is another of those cases where the word sounds like it is signalling some form of analysis, but really all it is doing is saying “look, I understood the words on the page!” Again, that’s great, but there’s more to university literary study than simply “getting” a text.
When I’ve seen this in the past, it has come up in regards to the terms of representation. That is, all texts are representations, and representations have a fraught relationship with reality. Indeed, there might not even be an accessible reality underneath it all, if the post-modern theorists like Jean Baudrillard are correct. Dealing with representations, where those representations are not derivatives of a prior, authentic, “real” original is a hard concept to wrap your mind around, I know.
|It`s so much easier to think in terms of `truth`and `lies.`|
So it is not surprising that people want to say things like “Shakespeare`s representation of gender in the early modern period is accurate.” That said, what the hell does that even mean? Does it mean that Shakespeare in this text provided a completely descriptive model of what “gender” meant in the early modern period? Does it mean that he provided a partially descriptive model of one aspect of gender, which may or may not be complicated or refuted by other aspects of gender in the early modern period? Hell, for that matter, what do you mean by “gender”? Gender presentation? Policing? Gender bending? Gender as power? Gender as… well, you get the idea.
It’s almost like trying to say there’s a reality that is X. There is a representation that is Y. Now write a compare and contrast between X and Y. Wow, they overlap! I guess Y is accurate.
The problem is that there is no reality that you have access to as a student. There is ONLY representation. Every book you read is a representation (of a historical moment, of a poem, of an individual), even the history books aren’t the real events themselves, but representations of history. So at best, what you end up saying is there is this representation that is Y. There are a bunch of other representations, A, B, C, that all say the same thing. Well, Y is accurate.
That’s not accuracy. That’s intersubjective agreement. If you want accuracy, go to Engineering.
A personal pet peeve of mine.
Never say something is important. It wastes words and says nothing.
|You may as well just write this.|
One (very old-school) way to think about an English essay is that you are being asked to show how a text works. It’s like being told to explain how a car works. Now, you can talk all about the car and all the details of it, but if you say “the brake is important,” then that’s just wonderful, but what the hell does this “brake” thing do? How does it work? Is there one component or many? What does it add or take away from the overall purpose of this “car” of which you speak?
|Also, which part is it?|
Texts that we study in university are usually as, if not more, complex than your average VW Golf. If all you tell me about Isabella Whitney’s use of geography in her poetry is that it is “important,” then you’ve done no real analysis. On the other hand, if you tell me that it is important and here’s why, then why did you need to say it was important?
That is, if you explain what a “brake” does in a car, it is self-evident why it would be important for the functioning of the vehicle. You don’t have to then add “isn’t that important?!” Similarly, if you show how geography informs Isabella Whitney’s poetry, then you don’t have to add how important it is. It is self-evident from the explanation.
|Seriously, read Isabella Whitney’s Last Will and Testament. She’s awesome.|
Finally, there is another reason why you should avoid saying “important.” I said above that in university literary analysis we do things with words. We tear them apart; we put them back together in new ways; we burrow into the different ways that they are related to each other; we fill old words with new meanings; we trace the changes in meanings of individual words… we do a lot. None of it is “important” – but then nothing is. That isn’t to say you should dive into the depths of existential despair, but that without being tied to the idea that what we do is “important,” we can play. We can seek Jouissance.
This is closely related to all the other ones insofar as the use is predicated on a misunderstanding of texts-as-representations. That is, what does it mean for a text to be “successful”?
When I get this, usually students aren’t talking about sales or box office, so that metric is out the window. Usually students seem to talk about a text being successful if the text communicates some larger thematic concern: “Macbeth successfully depicts the struggle between good and evil.”
|Is this what it is to depict the struggle unsuccessfully?|
Of course, all this actually means is that the student has identified a certain thematic element within the text and wants to communicate that. Whether or not those thematic elements are, in fact, in the text is another matter entirely.
Another way to think about why this word doesn’t work is to ask, why is one text successful and another not? I’ve seen this word attributed most often to Hamlet, to be honest. Undergrads seem fairly certain that Hamlet is a successful text. OK, fair enough. But why is Hamlet successful and, say, The Room is not?
|Really, how different is this from “O that this too too solid flesh would melt…”?|
When you start exploring that question, you have to start looking into how texts produce meanings and shape them, as well as how those meanings are determined and shaped by certain cultural moments, generic proscriptions, and audience expectations. Suddenly, the interest is not about how one works well and the other doesn’t – a matter of taste – but how both texts work in terms of what they do and how they do it.
Ultimately, as a professor of English, I don’t care about your taste. Like Shakespeare, don’t like Shakespeare; either way works for me. Tell me that you think he’s successful, sure, fine… I don’t care. What I do care about is that you are seeing how the text is both shaping you and shaped by you. I want you to move beyond knee-jerk aesthetic judgments and into analysis of the text that isn’t a matter of “success” or “failure.”
After all, as far as I’m concerned, all texts fail to communicate. In fact, that’s the most interesting part of them. But that’s probably for another time.
So, the social world echoed the cosmic world echoed the domestic world echoed the internal world of the individual. This is an example of what can be called allegorical or analogical reasoning.
The medieval and early modern periods understood the world (and of course this is a generalization but it is a justifiable one) in terms of analogy. The best minds of the day understood the world not necessarily in terms of discrete bits of matter and/or energy interacting but as composed of mutually sympathetic materials that echoed each others states. That is, if you are a Scorpio, like me, and Mars (which rules Scorpio) is in the House of Cancer (which is a domestic sign, but also a water sign), then today might be a good idea to take on some plumbing tasks around the house. The sympathy between my birth sign, the element of water, the association of domesticity all come together to create an auspicious relation for the early modern mind. Because they understood the world in terms of analogy, relations between the cosmos and the individual, the astronomical and the microscopic, the domestic and the international were fundamentally aligned in ways that we might not recognize today.
In this play, the representation of the body, and in particular of Mak’s body, is informed by an interpretive system that saw any particular body as being an analogy to the cosmic or transcendent body of Christ. That is, given the immense importance of the body of Christ within medieval culture and within the Feast of Corpus Christi specifically, we really have to pay attention to how bodies are shown in this play. What happens to them? What can bodies do? How do bodies act?
When we ask these questions, we start to see how Mak/Mak’s body as the representation of all that is wrong with the fallen world, and the body of the sheep, as symbolic of Christ as sacrificial figure, are almost grotesque or cartoonish figures of the need for redemption in the world.
How to read Mak’s body is put front and centre in the play when he arrives on the scene as Mak initially tries to pass himself off as one of the functionaries of a landowner or yeoman of the kind that the first shepherd talked about in his opening monologue. Mak speaks with a “southren tooth” (215); that is, at this time in England the accent in the south, around London, used “ich” for “I” and used “-eth” endings for what are now “-es” endings. When Mak appears around line 200, he is misrepresenting himself as a southerner.
What! Ich be a yeoman, I tell you, of the king;
That self and the some, sent from a great lording,
Fie on you! Goeth hence!
Out of My presence!
I must have reverence.
Why, who be Ich? (201-207)
The shepherds are immediately able to read Mak’s body and identify him as the local ne’er-do-well, Mak, but that sequence centres our attention on bodies and how they signify in this play. Mak, rather than being a rich southerner, is in fact a poor man. The fact that the shepherds share a meal immediately before Mak’s entrance suggests that Mak, perhaps, is unable to afford to join them in their meal. That is, Mak is hungry and poor, yet tries to present himself as a nobleman. He tries to make his body signify in ways contrary to its “natural” signification, though the shepherds see through his subterfuge.
Later, when Mak has stolen the sheep and Gill is pretending it is their child, the shepherds still see through Mak and Gill’s attempt to re-coordinate the signification of the body of the sheep. The implicit comparison between Mak and Gill’s sheep-baby is with the reality of the coming Christ within the Nativity sequence, of which this scene was a part. The sheep Mak stole is a stand in or an uncanny double of the coming Christ, who was called the Lamb of God. Both the stolen sheep and the newborn Jesus in the play are called “little day-star” (577 and 727). Even the suggestion Gill makes about eating the sheep-child is an oblique reference to the ceremony of the Eucharist where Christians were expected to eat the literal body of their saviour.
In other words, the body of the sheep, like the body of Mak, is presented as a complex signifier. Whereas Mak’s body is subject to punishment (like Jesus), this is a world where the punishment doesn’t take the form of crucifixion, but tossing Mak around in a blanket, like a carnival game. Whereas the sheep is explicitly and implicitly compared to Jesus as the Lamb of God, in this world, the sin of the theft of the sheep is righted by the coming presence of God. The presence of God, which could be felt for every Christian in the Eucharistic wafer that was at the heart of the Corpus Christi feast.