Tuesday, 04 October 2005

"I Got a Good Mind to Join a Club and Beat You over the Head with It" More positive press for the Valve (and, I assume, its contributors) from Henry Farrell in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education: The recent debate on the Theory's Empire anthology, organized by the Valve, demonstrates how blogospheric argument can work. Theory's Empire is an ambitious volume, which seeks to provide a dissident's version of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and to argue against the perceived pre-eminence of "theory" in literary criticism. The book is now beginning to attract attention from the mainstream media and will probably be the subject of symposia and debates over the next couple of years. A semi-organized symposium on the Valve, the blog of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, allowed a wide-ranging and active debate on the book within several weeks of its publication. The debate included responses from authors of pieces in Theory's Empire, as well as from prominent academics like John McGowan (an editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism) and Michael Bérubé, both of whom have successful blogs. But it also included, on an equal footing, responses from nonspecialists, like the Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong, and from nonacademic bloggers with an interest in the topic, like Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly. The result: an unusually high level of intelligent discussion around a topic more usually associated with stale pro- and anti-theory polemics. As McGowan describes it, "This is not yet another round in the culture and theory wars. ... Is it possible that academics interested in such questions have won their way through to a place where they can be discussed and examined calmly? As someone whose most usual stance has been a plague on both your houses, I am hopeful." Yes, I realize Farrell and Holbo both post on Crooked Timber; and yes, I realize that Farrell's commented here recently as well; so yes, I realize that we're all patting each other on the back in some respects, and that there's something uncouth about it all, but positive play is positive play. If I hadn't written this entry, people would've read that article thinking the praise unvarnished and entirely deserved ... which it is, despite recent evidence to the contrary. (In the aforelinked conversation, everyone reserves the right to talk past everyone else and demands the right to be offended when anyone talks past them. In other words: not with a ten foot pole.)
On Courseblogs, Update II; or Tales of a Teaching Carny Quickly: I hereby tag thee Teaching-Carnival. On to the actual post: For the second time this week, I fulfill a promise to post about a given topic; namely, my courseblog. (Regular readers know what I'm talking about. Those drawn here by the carnival can read my initial musings here.) I've been meaning to talk about how this experiment proceeds, but life has intruded. Now that I'm living it at its proper remove again, I have time enough to say that courseblogging works. I'll discuss the benefits first, then share a few reservations. Class prepartation My old class preparation routine consisted of re-reading the essay I'd be teaching the next day and considering its place in the course. If I'd taught an article before, I'd look over my old notes to determine whether they're still germane. If they were, I reaquainted myself with them; if they weren't, I worked up new notes. Now I sit down, open my laptop, look over my notes and determine what aspect of the essay could benefit from careful dissection. For example, before teaching John McPhee's "Atchafalaya" on Monday, I spent Sunday morning piquing the students interest in his characteristically revealing metaphors. I did this despite knowing that I would spend the majority of Monday's class discussing his research methodology and structuring techniques. One blog post allowed me to accomplish two days worth of teaching in a single class period. It also relieved the pressure we all feel to cover everything in a single period. Of course, in addition to supplementing the assigned reading with extended discussion, I can also supplement the course itself with readings I didn't assign but think the students ought to read. In addition to the extensive list of resources scrolling down my sidebar, I've also posted emails from Pulitzer Prize-winning on the subject of foreshadowing and exceptional works of literary journalism published that week, like an excerpt from Joan Didion's latest book or her 2002 profile of Martha Stewart. (Lest you think the students don't read the supplementary material, here's a comment in which a student incorporates it into her argument.) The Actual Class Because I had analyzed McPhee's metaphors in a post they had already mulled over, I was able to discuss them with a much higher degree of sophistication. The responses from the students were correspondingly higher. Because we will be talking in more detail about literary journalists' special relationship with metaphorical writing, I didn't need to (nor did I) discuss McPhee's at great length. However, in today's class the students brought up Susan Orlean's metaphors in "Lifelike" and compared them to McPhee's in "Atchafalaya." That means when I address the subject formerly in Week 5, the students will already have been processing the subject in a sophisticated manner for four weeks. The corresponding benefit is that when we have the formal discussion in Week 5, it will be far more informed by the reading they've already done than past classes have. Why? Because they've been processing the information...

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