Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Guilt, Grading, MacDiarmid

Why do I post so little? Guilt, I think. I stopped posting regularly as the projects began to pile up last year, and although the stack is down considerably--from a high of 27, if memory serves, to a manageable 10 or dozen or so--I still owe essays and editing work to some very patient comrades-in-arms (Laura, Sarah, Herb), and that makes it hard to steal time for blogging.

Now that I have a few weeks off from teaching, though, I'm going to throw myself hard at those projects, try to break a few logjams. And, en route, to post a few things here--the usual mix of personal update and professional musing.


Finished grading Tuesday, down at the office, & left the papers and grade sheets there on my desk, glad to be rid of them.

By the time I got home, this email was simmering in my inbox:
Hi Professor Selinger,

I'm just wondering if I could have a rundown of why I received a B plus in your class. I was anticipating a higher grade after re-writing my papers and attending every class, participating, and never leaving early.

If you could let me know where I went wrong, I'd appreciate it.
A few years back, this would have sent me through the roof. And I'm still a little miffed. Rewriting the papers got this particular student into sight of the B+; one of them was a C+ paper to start with, raised to a B after I changed the syllabus to allow for revision. ("No good deed," as Elphaba says.) As for attendance, the syllabus said that missing classes would lower your grade; the converse isn't necessarily true, is it?

But, as I say, this time the complaint didn't send me through the roof. I just wrote back, explained what I said here, and promised to take another look at the student's final exam on my return from winter break. *Shrug* Maybe I'm just too old to fret about such things the way I used to. (Or to care?)

Something sad about the "never leaving early" bit, on reflection. It's as though the student really wanted to cut out halfway through--as some did, it being a night class--but forced him / herself to stay in order to get that top-notch grade. This is supposed to move me?

(Anyone else out there remember the old essay about "cow" and "bull"? It seems on point, somehow.)


My "Modern Poetry" survey this quarter--the one that B+ email comes from--was, I fear, less successful than I'd hoped. My plan was to give the students oodles and oodles of reading, drawn each week from both volumes of the Norton Modern and Contemporary Poetry anthologies. I organized the class thematically, rather than chronologically or by author or movement: a week on war, a week on gender, etc., with some poems (like The Waste Land and Mina Loy's Songs for Joannes) showing up repeatedly, in several contexts. Why? Partly because I'm tired of telling the same old stories about Modernism, stories that I'm no longer sure that I entirely believe; partly to try and restage, on the undergraduate level, the thrills of my recent graduate courses, in which I've simply assigned whole anthologies, reading them at about 100 pages a week. (This way, my students don't simply imbibe my own interests or biases--they get to, have to discover the poets and poems and movements that interest them.)

Most of the students seemed happy enough with the results, and I got some lovely notes from a few about how much they liked the class. Me? Not so much--I would dearly love to find a good prose guide to modern poetry, something as well written as Hugh Kenner's venerable introductions but a bit more inclusive. (Suggestions, anyone?) Still, a few highs and lows are worth noting:
  • Pound is getting almost impossible to teach, here at DePaul, at least without devoting several weeks exclusively to him. The student resistance and fear needs to be a subject all its own, and I'm not passionate enough about the work itself these days to carry me over those shoals. We'll see whether the grad students do better with him next quarter, taught out of Cary Nelson's Modern American Poetry antho, with the companion website.
  • Lorine Niedecker, on the other hand, taught extremely well, as did Yeats, Robinson Jeffers, May Swenson, and Adrienne Rich.
  • Ginsberg remains extremely popular--enough so that I should probably go back and teach him at length again, since he's surrounded by a lot of very vapid cliches (about history, form, and the like) that I might enjoy dispelling. I'm not sure, though, that I want to spend 10 weeks with students who want to spend 10 weeks on Ginsberg anymore.
  • Denise Levertov's "Song for Ishtar" was a big hit early in the quarter:
The moon is a sow
and grunts in my throat
Her great shining shines through me
so the mud of my hollow gleams
and breaks in silver bubbles

She is a sow
and I a pig and a poet

When she opens her white
lips to devour me I bite back
and laughter rocks the moon

In the black of desire
we rock and grunt, grunt and
Students liked that more than Mina Loy's "hoggerel," although we did well with Loy by the end of the quarter.

The big surprise, to me? I'd never taught Hugh MacDiarmid before, but took a swipe at teaching "O Wha's the Bride" on the day I called "Against Empire as Such," which focused on modernism and insurgent regional / ethnic / post-colonial poetries. My accent needs work, but the sheer melodious strangeness of the piece carried me through. Since most of my students have never encountered ballads as such, or at least not recently, they struggled a bit, but I was quite enraptured--here's a poem, and a poet, I'll need to come back to:

O Wha's the bride that carries the bunch
O' thistles blinterin' white?
Her cuckold bridegroom little dreids
What he sall ken this nicht.

For closer than gudeman can come
And closer to'r than hersel',
Wha didna need her maidenheid
Has wrocht his purpose fell.

O wha's been here afore me, lass,
And hoo did he get in?
-A man that deed or was I born
This evil thing has din.

And left, as it were on a corpse,
Your maidenheid to me?
-Nae lass, gudeman, sin' Time began
'S hed ony mair to gi'e.

But I can gi'e ye kindness, lad,
And a pair o' willin' hands.
And you shall he'e me breists like stars,
My limbs like willow wands.

And on my lips ye'll heed nae mair,
And in my hair forget,
The seed o' a' the men that in
My virgin womb ha'e met....

Anyone out there ever teach MacDiarmid? What, how, why?


Laura Vivanco said...

Hi Professor Selinger,

I'm just wondering if, in the light of the current economic climate and the cuts and reorganisations taking place at a number of publishers, whether this would at some point start to affect academic publishing too. I was anticipating high sales after carefully editing my essays and attending to every detail, participating in the romance scholar community, and rarely leaving a romance unfinished once I'd started it.

If you could let me know where and why the economy went wrong, I'd appreciate it. Will it affect our final sales totals? Would it be wise to delay publication a few more years, until the economy is in better shape?

Yours, looking on the bright side of procrastination,


E. M. Selinger said...

Dear Dr. Laura,

Many leading economists have said that a truly impressive book on Jennifer Crusie might spark a new round of consumer spending, with shock waves (of joy, natch) rippling throughout the markets.

Clearly more than a few jobs are on the line, and I'd best get cracking!

(Worked on the introduction today, and will broach the essays themselves tomorrow. Over the weekend I'll drink myself maudlin and compose dedications to Shemp, although your Wordsworth parody will be hard to top!)

So tell me, what do you all think of MacDiarmid in Scotland? Is he grade-school fare? Dismissed? My students found his "synthetic Scots" only slightly less difficult than Pound's untranslated scraps of Greek.


Laura Vivanco said...

Hi again, Professor Selinger!

Your economic predictions make me feel as though I'd just been awarded an A+ when I'd been expecting a B+ . I'm so glad to know it's my patriotic duty to read lots of romances and then write lots more essays about them.



P.S. I'm glad to know you'll be keeping Shemp's memory alive in poetry and prose.

P.P.S. We did study at least one Hugh MacDiarmid poem at high school, I think. We worked our way through quite a lot of poems in an anthology called Gallery: Poets Past and Present, edited by John Blackburn. Looking through the contemporary poets in the volume, though, the poems we studied by Betjeman, Edwin Muir, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig ring more of a bell. And I'm fairly sure we got to hear one or both of Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig in person. Definitely Edwin Morgan, because we got to learn about cottaging and I think I can remember (very vaguely) him reading a poem about his lover and strawberries. It's a bit odd that I must have been there when a poet read out, to an audience of school children, a selection of works which must have included at least one really quite explicit poem, but did so in such a boring way that it only just stayed in my memory.

I've no idea what they study at Scottish High Schools now. That must have been about 17 years ago. I didn't study English at university, so can't offer any information on which poets get taught there.

P.P.P.S. Am now bracing myself for the deluge of work that's likely to be heading my way now that you've got back to the Crusie work. Nothing but good times ahead, I hope.

Danielle Mari said...

I don't know whether to be relieved or alarmed that students pull that kind of grade-mongering in college as well at the level where I teach... middle and high school. They seem to labor under the delusion that working hard guarantees a top grade. Just this week I found myself saying to a student, "No matter how hard I train, I would not necessarily be able to beat Michael Phelps in a 50m freestyle race. I should train to become a better swimmer in order to become a better swimmer- not necessarily to get the best time. You may not obtain the top grade, but I would hope you're working to become a better writer... not merely for a letter grade."

E. M. Selinger said...

To be fair, I suspect that "delusion" is actually the result of some previous training, deliberate or accidental. Someone, somewhere probably rewarded the student for his or her hard-work-as-such, building the expectation.

In the past, when teaching gen-ed courses, I've built my syllabus around rewarding effort, on the theory that students from other majors who don't know how to write English papers should still have a fair shot at an A. The courses were "contract graded," with each assignment on a pass-fail basis. If you did passing work on a certain number, you got an A / A-, and so on down. I reserved the right to assign the plus or minus portion of the grade, but right in the first week each student signed a contract with me to do X amount of passing work and receive (within a plus or a minus) a particular grade.

The great advantages of this were:

1) pre-med students with desperately ungraceful prose could still get the top grade they so desperately wanted; and,

2) slackers who were taking the course as a requirement could contract for a C, do the minimum amount of assignments, and not clutter my desk with listless, unmotivated work.

I've never tried this at DePaul--this was ages ago, at George Washington U.

Danielle Mari said...

Ah! I have used the same sort of rubric in my acting, playwrighting, and directing classes... In those courses, I worked under the notion that students need only buy into the process and do the work- and the rest would take care of itself as best it could. Unfortunately, at the sixth and eighth grade levels, we teachers are held responsible for making sure our students know a state-prescribed set of terms and can do a state-prescribed (or fed required- thanks NCLB) set of skills. Fortunately, I have enough freedom to reward students as much as I can for hard work. Aw. Now I feel bad.... sorta....

By the way- the code word I have to type in to prove I'm not a spambot: undisses.