January 12, 2006

Back to work

I've been in vacation mode for weeks now, hanging around the house in fleece pants and a hoodie, watching DVDs on my daughter’s laptop, eating whenever I felt like it, and not even thinking about my job. But classes start again next week, so today I finally sat down to take a look at my syllabi and rearrange the reading schedule I plan to hand out next week.

On the last day of class last May, I asked my students what things they would change about each course. They had all kinds of ideas, which I wrote down on a yellow legal pad and stuck into my desk. I pulled it out today, reading through to see which changes I want to make to my courses. Just looking at it made me remember some of the students I had last spring: the biology student who kept talking about primate behavior, the young man who drove an ambulance on Thursday nights and always brought us exciting stories on Friday mornings, the woman who brought her guitar to class one day to play me Joni Mitchell songs, the architect student who taught us all about city planning, and the young military guy who is now over in Iraq.

In one of my literature courses last year, I used an anthology of prose, a book of non-fiction, and an anthology of poetry. I taught the books in what I thought was a logical order, which meant that the last third of the semester was devoted to poetry. My students told me that a whole month of poetry was more than their scientific minds could take – and that this year I ought to spread the poetry out, making every Friday poetry day. I'm willing to give it a try. So this semester, we will be talking about prose every Monday and Wednesday, and Friday will be poetry day. I am curious to see how that will work out.

I like seeing the next four months carefully planned out on paper. I've got a long weekend at the monastery planned for early March -- and later in March, the FourSeas Conference in Big Midwestern City with the Baseball Team that Always Loses. Getting out the books, rearranging the due dates, figuring out which texts to teach when, and looking through course materials always gets me excited again about teaching. One of the coolest things about my job is that I get to teach literature that I love. And it will be good to be on campus again. My office is just off the main room of the library, which means that I am always surrounded by motivated young people, talking, studying, and reading. I love that.


peripateticpolarbear said...

A month of poetry is a lot of poems. I wonder which you'll like better---poetry as the dessert of a semester of prose, or getting a little dessert every Friday?

negativecapability said...

It's funny...I think of poetry as being as "scientific" as literature can get, at least in terms of the way that you can analyze how structure and form contribute to meaning. My scientific mind can only take poetry and philosophy - I'm not as good with novels, short stories, and especially essays.

I agree, though, that spacing it out sounds like a good idea, and might help them see that the elements that drive poetry are in many ways no different than the elements that drive other forms - just more condensed, more visible (or audible).

terry said...

Gaahhhh! Now I want to go back to school and take a Lit class! Thanks, thanks a lot.

Too many things, too little time.

Scrivener said...

Yeah, it's always nice to look at that nicely-planned schedule of readings and to look ahead to all the young, motivated, excited students taking part vigorously in class discussions and eager to learn.

Then the semester actually starts. ;-)

Jane Dark said...

Ooh, does that mean that you have 24 hour library access? If so, I'm supremely jealous.

susan said...

I think poetry Fridays sound great!

I'm reading blogs to decompress after my first day teaching. I'm happy; things seem good. And I like the rhythm of the spring semester, with FourSeas so conveniently timed (I'll be there, too).

Cats & Dogma said...

You might also try the approach of Billy Collins' Poetry 180 (I think is what it's called), a high school program designed to simply have poems read aloud daily, and not discussed--it becomes part of the daily sound of life then, and not something difficult that we must brace ourselves up for.

I am already back to school, and after reading your skinny dipping post, am wishing that I could have precisely that kind of evening to slip out of my skin.

jo(e) said...

Jane Dark: Yeah, I guess I do have 24 hour access to the library -- I never thought of it as a huge advantage. The building is kind of dark and creepy on weekends so I don't usually roam the stacks.

Cats & Dogma: Yeah, sometimes we do that with poems -- just read them and respond with appreciative silence -- I don't want my students to think every poem has to be analyzed to death.

Susan: A bunch of bloggers will be at the conference -- all kinds of blogger meet-up opportunities. Send me an email.

susan said...

I just e-mailed you, Jo(e). A meet up would be great (my first!).

Last fall, I had a night class, and I tried to end every night with a poem (it was a course that had nothing to do with the study of poetry, but it was fun to try to find poems that connected to the theme of the course or the rhythm of the semester in some way). Kind of a parting treat for those who stayed to the end.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I am digesting what you said about every poem not needing to be analyzed to death.

I have always felt not smart enough for poetry. I love love love reading, but am less than great at discussing the stuff. When I try to talk about a piece of lit, it feels like it slips through my fingers. Sort of like the more I talk the more the meaning gets away. I have this experience with prose. I don't even attempt to articulate my experience of poetry.

For example, I have no idea what Bob Dylan's lyrics mean, but they are poetry to me. Some of them make me cry, but I can't put into words any reasons for that. Not really. If I try, the words I say don't sound right.

I think that's a bad sign.


jo(e) said...

SuperB: I think it's a good sign actually -- a sign that you are getting the poem. Poets often try to capture what can't be put into words. So naturally, to take a poem and try to put the meaning of it into prose will almost always be a futile gesture. Especially if it's an amazing, moving poem.

I absolutely love the poetry of Audre Lorde, for example, but I have a hard time talking about her poetry because mostly it hits me on some kind of emotional level. My students often have the same experience. So we read her poems aloud and sometimes we talk about some of them, but we don't even pretend that we can ever understand the poems completely.

Reading poetry is like falling in love. It never makes complete sense. You can't totally understand it ... and maybe you wouldn't want to.

jo(e) said...

Susan: I love the idea of using poems as a treat at the very end of class. I used to do something like that when I taught technical writing.

kathy a said...

i like reading poetry because of the emotions and moments captured, but -- unfortunately, most of the times my classes studied poetry, the focus seemed to be on analyzing it to death, sometimes brutally, and often incomprehensibly.

literature generally, i adored and still love passionately. the stories and moments are windows on whole worlds. so many ideas are woven in -- so many times, so many places, all those thoughts and actions of various people. sigh.