Wednesday, 16 February 2011

is this funny?

My no-nonsense friend, N., told me a while ago that she cannot understand why people read depressing literature when life can be so depressing anyway. I take anything my friend N. says very seriously because she is the person I would like to be. She deals with ambivalence in a very non-ambivalent way. The question never really left my mind and i came up with several possible answers, both from theory and experience, all of them valid and satisfactory, but the consideration of such an issue left me with a feeling of guilt when i realized that i am not simply a reader of depressing literature, but a teacher of depressing literature. I think that there is humor in my syllabus; when, for example, Goldberg and McCann interrogate Stanley in The Birthday Party and ask him why the chicken crossed the road, among other things. Or in Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? when Martha says about George that if he existed she'd divorce him. One of my personal favorites. But it is pretty nasty.
So i decided to explore the issue with my students, ease the pangs from my conscience that told me i was making them suffer under the weight of great literature, of classics that would enhance their understanding of art and of the human condition and on Tuesday evening i went through my shelves looking for something funny i could share with them. My search revealed Woody Allen and David Sedaris and a copy of Henry Hemming's In Search of the English Eccentric. What the results of the search tell about me or humor is another story.
I went for a Sedaris story. I have been a great fan of his since my friend Kostis Kourelis introduced me to him and so i was very familiar with his sense of humor. I know why i like him; will my students like him too?
It turns out they do. They enjoyed the story i brought in for them and i read them a second one. We read In the Waiting Room where the main character is in France and basically finds himself agreeing with whatever he is told because his French is not good enough and he is too embarrassed to live up to this. The climax of the story is when he finds himself sitting in his underwear in the waiting room of a french hospital. My students said the following made the story funny:
1. the main character's cluelessness and awkwardness
2. how ridiculous the situation was and the reason why he agreed to everything
3. the character's analytical and neurotic temperament
4. the character's self-consciousness, as well as his imagination.
When asked what they find funny in general, they went on to list TV series or movies they watch, only two of which i had watched myself. The question morphed from "what do you find funny?" into "how important is funny in your life?" (i kept using the word "funny", to avoid definitions of "humor" and "wit" and "sarcasm" that could possibly distract us), which brought me back to the original question.
I may have opened a can of worms for myself, but the element of humor remains an issue that i feel educators should not ignore. Despite cultural and genealogical differences, the list above shows that there is possibly a sense of humor shared by my students and myself and all socio-psychological explanations aside, it is worth noting.
I had fun with my students and i hope that N. realizes that i always, always listen to her. One should always listen to their friends. They talk sense.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Feb 14 or any day

When you go

by Edwin Morgan

When you go,
if you go,
And I should want to die,
there's nothing I'd be saved by
more than the time
you fell asleep in my arms
in a trust so gentle
I let the darkening room
drink up the evening, till
rest, or the new rain
lightly roused you awake.
I asked if you heard the rain in your dream
and half dreaming still you only said, I love you.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Werther is middle-aged

The doctor benched me for a few days. I did try to tell him that it wouldn't do anybody any good, but he had a point. Anyway, doctor's orders left me with a little time on my hands, which only activated that giga-tiny voice of restless mental preoccupation that resides somewhere in my brain (and/or mind). The result? At 11pm on a Saturday evening i was in the library checking out Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, as part of a second-reading on-going project.
I read the book a quarter of a century ago. As soon as i finished the Goethe original, i went on to read Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, a book that was for me a revelation, at that time. What Barthes did in his book was to simulate the lover's discourse, by a process that involved the I of the lover without the crutches of a metalanguage for the presentation of the consciousness of the amorous subject. Barthes's A Lover's Discourse had a profound effect on me, as it legitimized the consciousness of the amorous subject as a practically self-defining entity and confirmed the ultimate alone-ness of the lover. I had personal reasons to identify with the amorous subject, especially when the license to identify came from no other than Barthes himself.
My second reading of Werther is very different; a quarter of a century later, young Werther seems neurotic and narcissistic. I have yet to decide whether he is mourning the loss of the loved object (which he never had) or the impoverishment of his ego. But it's not really the second reading that comes as a shock to me; after all, my ToK students did 'accuse' me recently of believing that love is just another brain chemical. It's the total disparity of my two readings that i find shocking.
Interestingly (and in my defense), Goethe distanced himself from Werther, a work that brought him fame and success. It is possible that the autobiographical elements of the work were a source of embarrassment for Goethe after Werther became popular. Or maybe the middle-aged Goethe had to distance himself from Werther which did not show "the mastery that is revealed only in limitation, the freedom that law alone can give us."
Maybe by writing this entry, i am trying to distance myself from my first reading without any embarrassment, justified or not, about how i felt back then since, to quote Goethe, "it must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him" (or her, i add).
Having just passed the Goethe test, all i need now is for the doctor to let me play ball again. With my students, not with Werther and myself.

Monday, 7 February 2011

On another level

Last Friday my HL students took the analysis to a whole new level when discussing Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy. They navigated effortlessly in the identity mazes of the book and followed the characters around in the streets of New York. The predicament of the author did not seem like an unfamiliar topic to them. In fact, one of them said that this, i.e. The New York Trilogy, is their kind of book. Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia was also voted as their kind of book. The book that got the most rotten tomatoes was Virgina Woolf's A Room of One's Own. The discussion that was triggered by (only) three open-ended questions; identity, chance and spaces, gave me a lot to think about. It is possible that The New York Trilogy is 'their kind of work' because they can relate to the proximity/exclusion contradiction of the cityscape. Unlike A Room of One's Own that focuses on an argument very much obsolete to them (whether i can prove to them that in reality it may be far from obsolete is another story). I did not find it surprising that two of the novels they described as 'theirs' are concerned with the individual's identity albeit from very different perspectives and in very different settings. What struck me as surprising is the ease with which they discussed concepts such as author's experience of writing, his/her intentionality and his/her death. In fact, most of them seemed to have a formed opinion about these. When did this happen? Ideally, i would like to give myself credit for such a development, but i can't. Because it did not happen in my classroom. What happened in my classroom was that i witnessed the demise of Virginia Woolf, an authority on authorship. My students reacted to this kind of authority; instead, they responded to Auster in a way that included their experience of the new authorship, observer and observed at the same time, emerging from the new media, validating each one of us as a creator of personae.
This took place on Friday. That same evening an SL student posted the sign in the picture on her window across the alley from my house: "Is English tomorrow HL only?" Yes, we would continue our discussion of The New York Trilogy and i am sure she felt as much gratitude for the free periods as i did for her being thoughtful and sending me a window message instead of knocking on my door. On Saturday morning, however, the students seemed to have run out of profound and significant comments. I am sure Auster would understand why that was so.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

the end of world literature

It's the time of the year when IB schools prepare to send their students' World Literature Assignments to examiners. World Literature is a component of their A1 course and because assignments are borne out of the teaching of the World Lit texts this gives the component a beginning a middle and an end, making it a product-driven process. For this reason i have to suffer the same loss every year. The end of World Literature.
Luckily, the IB has come to my rescue and i have the chance to remain part of the World Lit process after my students' work has left the nest, in my role as examiner. What is more, the IB seems to be looking at the teaching of World Lit a bit differently these days with the introduction of the new syllabus. In the new order of things, the World Lit component will not be so much product-driven, although the final production, i.e. the assignment is still required, but will focus more on the teaching/studying of the works. To the IB's credit, the new syllabus gives the teachers the option of including up to three more World Lit texts than the number required in their syllabi. And wait, there is more. Works from the Prescribed Literature in Translation will be included in both the new Language A courses. It is a new dawn for World Literature indeed. I will not have to do without World Lit ever again.
For the first time, I feel that someone out there heard me pondering and musing and wondering and sent a response of some sort to my question: "What is World Litearture?" Let me count the ways in which i can approach this: 1. literature from all over the world, i.e. from any part of the world, 2. for a specific time and place, literature from another time and another place, 3. any work of otherness, however that is defined, 4. (almost) any evolving text form.
Well, the IB did not really respond to my question, but they did acknowledge the validity of it and the level of interest in the matter for IB stakeholders. Beyond IB purposes and planning, however, the question remains, with its conceptual loops and perceptions with a political aspect. The state of affairs is very different from the first use of the term World Literature by, for example, Goethe, who saw his work reflected back to him by the foreign press. He saw Weltliteratur as a matter of national pride which he invited his fellow counrtymen to join. The mirroring principle that Goethe experienced originally led him to understand the world as an expanded version of home. Interestingly, after several readings of non-German texts, he notes, in Conversations with Eckermann the kinship with other writers, but also remarks on the range of distinctive features in their practice. The two ideas do not need to be mutually exclusive. They involve a contradiction that is also symbolic of the human experience, otherness could be a question of degree. Goethe's paradox is not perceived as such by my students. Is this the impact a common language, i.e. English, has on them? Is this a sign of cultural or literary de-sensitization? Or are distinctive cultural and literary features taken for granted, so much so that they are not really noticed?
The debate has significant depth and range and my readings on this are fragmentary. It is fascinating to read Stephen Owen's criticism of a new World Literature that is too westernized in What is World Poetry: The Anxiety of Global Influence (1990) and Rey Chow's response that the problem is not the writer, but the anxiety the Western critic feels due to his loss of authority in Writing Diaspora (1993). Right now, i am in no position to take a side and claim that writing is falling victim to global consumerism or that the euro-american critical status quo is feeling threatened. Maybe i will be able to express an opinion in the future. To me, what is fascinating, and intriguing but also, in a way, more pertinent to the learning experience in the classroom is the predicament, relevant to World Literature, that Salman Rushdie discusses in Imaginary Homelands when he says: "Many have referred to the argument about the appropriateness of [English] to Indian themes. And I hope all of us share the view that we can't simply use the language in the way the British did; that it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free."
Thank you, Salman. Thank you, IB.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

why blog?

A week ago, while i was teaching and going through the forest of post-its that cover my book, i came across a piece of paper that said "The Dave Weckl Band --- Rythms (sic) of the soul." I stopped mid-sentence, mid-argument, mid-class. I remember who recommended the album to me; a student who graduated in 2004 and went on to study Philosophy. Against my advice. That was in another life, in another universe. But i am still teaching. So i thought it would be fitting to start my blog with a mention of this little note by K.S. (a former student turn fb friend) as a token of the continuity of what i do (or try to do), and maybe i will even attempt to document some of the coherence that i perceive but often find hard to explain.
I will be blogging for my students, friends and colleagues. I will be blogging for myself.
I will be blogging about teaching, books, my life as a boarding mentor, syllabi, nostalgia, workshops, linguistics, education in general, and the new course i'll be taking.
The little note by K.S. was wedged between pp 316 and 317 in Donna Tartt's The Secret History.