Dispatches from the classroom

Oh the illusive “ne…que” Why is it a negative when it’s stating a positive fact? Why??? This is something that can only really be taught by example. (And by “only really” I mean only really if you teach somewhere whose reputation for immersion learning must be kept intact…at all costs…don’t speak any English…EVER…do you hear me?…seriously, we’re not kidding about this… … Whatever it’s fine…)

Somehow, this example stuck with them :

“Etudiant X, est-ce que vous avez trois oreilles?”

“Non! Je n’ai que deux.”

“Etudiant Y, est-ce que Van Gogh a deux oreilles ?”

“Euuuhhh, oui ?”

[“Ach! Zut! Merde ! Mais qu’est-ce qu’on t’enseigne dans ces putains de lycées ???”]

“Etudiant Z, vous pouvez l’aider ? Combien d’oreilles a notre ami Van Gogh ?”

“Madame…je pense…que…Van Gogh n’a que…une oreille !”

And then, just to see how much knowledge has been downloaded from the internet onto their brains, and to réviser nos temps de verbes, we did the wives of Henri the 8th (il n’y avait que 6) Die Hard films (il n’y aura que 5) senators per state (il n’y a que 2) continents (7) ingredients in a PB&J sandwich (discutable) and children of Brangelina. (Ils n’ont que quatre…et ça suffit.)

S/Z, or, the “if you give a mouse a cookie” of theory

S/Z is the first work of proper “lit’r’y theory” I ever picked up. It was a required course for comp lit majors, and I have my suspicions that this was the first work listed on the syllabus precisely so that we could take the appropriate advantage of drop/add week. Years later, and after having read much more of notre cher Roland, I came back to it, and I have a theory of my own. That it’s probably the most important book you could ever read if  you are invested in the study of literature. Particularly if you want to teach literature. This theory has a secondary component, which is that S/Z can also devolve pretty significantly if not done correctly.

Barthes claims that the author is dead. But there is a responsibility that comes with believing his claim. And if you neglect that specific responsibility, you will slowly but surely (or, in fact, quite quickly) unravel the possibility of any contextual knowledge.

Remember that story “If you give a mouse a cookie”? All about the inescapable and uncontrollable series of events that come disastrously to pass with the smallest of acts? There’s a trajectory that one can trace, should one have a relationship with Barthes, that follows a similar process of cause and effect. Allow me to demonstrate…

Continue reading “S/Z, or, the “if you give a mouse a cookie” of theory”

keita, the canon, and what the hell does “interdisciplinary” mean anyway?

[Disclaimer: this post  is not “finished” in any sense. I wanted to publish it, because I think that it deals with some of the underlying threads we should consider as the battle between the legitimacy of the humanities and the bottom lines of the administration continues to wage throughout the country. But I really, really, really have to get back to studying for my quals, so I’ve got to stop editing. PLEASE, if you think something is unsaid or said badly, I invite your comments. Also, I realize that it’s a little narration heavy – you can skip that and go to the end if you want. No big deal.]

Last week, I did about fifteen minutes of the film Keita * with my students. This was prompted by a short introduction to a West African folktale in their textbook, which claimed that the griot in West Africa is a bard specializing in moral tales about animals for children. While I applaud the inclusion of such culture lessons from the francophone world, and while this description of the griot is not totally wrong, I could not let them leave my classroom thinking that the griot is some kind of Aesop Uncle Remus who lives on African Sesame Street and plays a large ukelele. **

Kouyaté’s film focuses on the education of Mabo Keita, raised in the French colonial school system, whose family’s griot is charged with the task of instructing the young boy in the history of Mandé people(s). Which is pretty significant for this particular family, since its ancestral line links directly back to the founding the Malian Empire.*** The action revolves around this epic tale, but the more subtle circumstances are the tug between Mabo’s French education and the instruction of Djeliba, the griot.

When I watched this film as an undergrad, I remember forming a distinct impression that French literature was inherently bad, and that African oral literature **** was inherently awesome. Which pretty much continued to guide the next…what’s today?…the 18th?…the next nine years of my own education. I had an intellectual swagger. Old white European guys? Psh, who needs ’em? Why don’t you run along back to your Proust.***** I stopped swaggering a long time ago, but I never quite gained the passion for French literature that was supposed to be pounded into me.****** Nos ancêtres les Gaulois ??? Screw ’em – they weren’t mine. But then…neither was Ousmane Sembene… Continue reading “keita, the canon, and what the hell does “interdisciplinary” mean anyway?”

what to do with a pesky sense of entitlement…

The day before yesterday (oh, gruesome day…) she sat in the office, amid vain attempts to plan a grammar lesson. (The location is important – it is the sort of location where hard work and an open door are often at odds.) She and a colleague were chatting, a conversation in the genre of, “Wait, what are you doing in class tomorrow? Should I show the video? Did we move on to the present tense?” (This kind of conversation usually devolves into youtube-ing kittens…but is often productive.)

A young man walks into the office and announces that his professor has just assigned a text, in French, that the class should translate for homework. Something struck them as being amiss…

“Is it a French class?”


The one hint that this professor gave the poor souls, was that they might have a difficult time with Google translate or other such sites, because the text was in 18th century French. (Hint : that is not true.) He asked if either of them would have time to quickly translate a page of French for him? And it would also be lovely if they could give him an idea as to its origin and context. Continue reading “what to do with a pesky sense of entitlement…”

teach standing up

When I began my current doctoral program, I was told that a good-looking CV has four conference papers, three articles, a wide range of teaching experience, and a couple of research grants. If that seems a little outlandish to you, that’s because it is. Who has the time? Because of my teaching load, not only do I not have time to complete the reading for my courses, I certainly do not have time to do the research above and beyond, in order to keep up to date with my field and all of the brilliant scholarship that is coming out. Let alone write articles and go about getting them published. And I make time. I don’t sleep very much. I haven’t had a weekend in two years. I read during the breaks. I cut back on the oh so necessary decompression time affectionately known as “happy hour.” And still… Never quite enough, is it?

In case you haven’t picked up on this, let me clarify that I currently have the pleasure of being a graduate student in the humanities. Which means that I am a very sad person, most of the time. And even more so recently, with all the many signs of an intellectual End Time, galloping toward me. From what I understand, graduate school has always been a simultaneously exciting and debilitating state of life, and one that is difficult to discuss with normal humans, assuming that, as a graduate student in the humanities, you encounter any of these. But recently, this particular career path has become, in addition to stressful and somewhat unrewarding, actually frightening. We’re flocking to the university in droves, and the universities are, for the most part, letting us. They need the cheap labor that we provide as instructors (and many of us actually teach the classes – gone are the days when you were expected to grade exams and shadow a tenured professor – now we’re actually being tasked with writing our own syllabi and constructing curriculum) and, to be fair, we are compensated, though inadequately. But while it’s nice of universities to admit us and sometimes even give us funding, they’re not making room for any of us once we’re ready to become professors. The most striking difference between our experience and those of the older generation by whom we are taught is that now, there is no promise of a job waiting at the end of a long (averaging around ten+ years) commitment to a discipline. I firmly believe that you can suffer through anything if you know it’s temporary. We don’t have that knowledge anymore. The hopelessness of the future infiltrates the present, every minute of every day. And this is pretty bad for morale Continue reading “teach standing up”