Thursday, November 17, 2011
November 17, 2011: Kids Say the Darnedest Things 4
[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This is the fourth in that series.]
In the early summer of 2006, at the end of my first year here at Fitchburg State, I had the opportunity to teach for the first time a graduate course (as part of our English Department’s Master’s program). As I told the 19 students on the last day of class, I had been thinking for many years about precisely that opportunity, and this course represented one of those very rare times when something about which I’ve thought for years actually lives up to, and even exceeds, my expectations for it (in fact, as I told them, there had only been four other such times—seeing The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, my first Bruce concert, my wedding day, and the first time my older son smiled at me). Part of the reason for that was undoubtedly the subject matter, both broadly (the course focused on American historical fiction across the last couple centuries) and specifically (the syllabus includes three of my very favorite American novels: The Marrow of Tradition; Absalom, Absalom!; and Ceremony). But, without question, much more central to the course’s success were those students.
Just about every day and conversation and aspect of the class would provide evidence for that statement, but I’ll focus here on two. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was pretty concerned going into the first day with Absalom (each main text got two days, although the second also included an excerpt from a second novel and a couple short scholarly/theoretical pieces)—Faulkner’s novel is, as I wrote in that earlier blog post and as anybody who’s read even the first page knows, one of the most dense and demanding and frustrating works of American literature; by 2006 I had read the novel four separate times and even published an article (my first) on it and still came away with plenty of questions and uncertainties and struggles. The students came to class with plenty of those as well, but also with three other, complementary and equally vital things: determination that had allowed them to get through the whole of the novel in only a handful of days (due to the condensed summer schedule), those ongoing confusions notwithstanding; a willingness to keep doing that kind of hard work in our communal conversation; and a whole range of really interesting and effective starting points, specific moments and details and ideas about the novel. What could have been one of the most frustrating class discussions of my career—understandably, and it wouldn’t have been their fault if it did—turned into one of the very best, both in its specific developments about the text and in its inspiring example.
Then there were the final papers. As I later wrote in the Introduction to our graduate program’s biannual journal (for which we collected about 10 of those papers), I assigned the students an impossible task for those papers: coming up with their own definition of American historical fiction, one connected to at least a few of our primary texts and in conversation with at least a couple of our scholarly voices. Sure, I had come up with my own such definition in my dissertation/first book, but I had done so over years and in many stages and after having read hundreds of primary texts and at least as many scholarly ones and etc.; I was asking them to do the same over a few weeks and with four novels (and pieces of four others) and eight scholarly voices in play. And yet they delivered, on two very key levels: their papers were very effectively and convincingly grounded in the texts, in the use and analysis of specifics from the novels and in response to the scholars; and they advanced unique and striking main arguments and definitions, including at least two (a connection of American historical fiction to the land; a thesis about images of history as either an upward or a downward spiral) that have informed my own ideas and perspective ever since.
More tomorrow, the last in this series,
PS. Any scholarly experiences (whether classes, writing, research, or others) that have met or exceeded your expectations or ideals?