Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Love: the Syllabus (Part 2)

I've been thinking a bit more about my senior seminar on "The Nature and Culture of Love," ENG 390, and particularly about how it might compare to that capacious course at Brown.

My impulse seems to be to start with a unit that asks why and how and for whom love might be thought of as a "problem."  (Which is to say, I suppose, to "problematize" love, although that sounds dreadful.)  I'm thinking here of classic feminist challenges to the ideal of romantic love, like those by Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone and Adrienne Rich (the poem "Translations"), and also of more recent readings like Chuck Kloesterman's "This is Emo" (from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs), which is about the dangers posed to the essayist and his various love interests by their investment in what he calls "fake love":  the kind purveyed by romantic films and novels.  

From there we could move into some works of nonfiction.  My impulse here is currently to avoid the natural sciences, since I don't feel confident that I can really choose good work on the neurobiology, say, of love, and I don't want to lead students astray with things that are reductive or unreliable.  (An alternative might be to "teach the conflicts," as they say, with some excerpts from a variety of sources.)  One source that's been recommended to me several times, however, is A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, which was written for the general public and seems pretty engaging.  If any of you have other suggestions, I'd be glad to hear them.

The other non-fiction books I'm considering are David Shumway's Modern Love:  Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis and Eva Illouz's Consuming the Romantic Utopia, perhaps with a chapter or two from Why Love Hurts on the side.  Illouz is a sociologist, while Shumway does cultural studies with an emphasis, in that book, on film, fiction, and advice columns.  I'm up in the air about Simon May's Love: a History, which is philosophical and touches on theology, for reasons I'll get to in a minute.

Now, alongside those non-fiction texts I'm trying to think of the right set of romance novels.  Crusie's Bet Me has the science in it, and fairy tales, and pop culture, and any number of other discourses--but it's also a book that I've taught many times before.  My impulse right now is, if I teach a Crusie novel, to teach Fast Women instead.  It's written in homage to two novels by Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, it has some interesting poetry in it, and it's a very serious book, I think, about marriage and divorce, all of which seem to recommend it to senior English majors.  Some of my students might have taken the DePaul course on film noir and hardboiled fiction, so they'd have a natural point of entry even if they're not romance readers, and of course we could look at the films of those two Hammett novels as points of comparison also.

Two other novels I'm considering are Natural Born Charmer (which pairs very well with the Illouz and with the discourse-analysis approach in the Shumway) and Victoria Dahl's Real Men Will, which taught nicely last winter and includes some advice columns and didactic passages that make it an interesting fit with the Shumway as well.  

There's a part of me that wants to teach Redeeming Love in this class, because it's such an interesting book to look at closely and intertextually, and English majors should be good at that.  On the other hand, if I do teach Redeeming Love, I have to include either the Simon May book or some equivalent--something to give students tools for discussing love theologically, and also (Christian) theology of love.  

That's all good stuff...but it fills up the class, so that there's less time for each reading and topic.  Not sure if the trade-off is worth it.  

Finally, there are some other novels that have been suggested to me:  Ann Herendeen's Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander (which teaches well to English majors, and is all about different sorts of love and love-culture), Cecelia Grant's A Lady Awakened, Radclyffe's Fated Love, and more.  

So many novels, so little class time! 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Love: The Syllabus

There are plenty of courses out there about love.  A quick search pulls up dozens of syllabi, from any variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.  As I think about my own upcoming class, I've spent some time looking at one particularly ambitious and interesting course, "The Study of Love," which was held at Brown University last year.

The course website includes a blog and a lot of links, as well as a detailed syllabus.  Stepping back for an overview, it looks like the course progressed through a series of ten topics, several of which got more than one week of classes.  (It's a semester course, not a quarter, like one of mine.)  Here's the list:

  1. Attraction and "Courtship" 
  2. Dating and Hook-Up Culture
  3. Falling in Love
  4. The Experience of Love:  Attachment and Love as Madness
  5. Love as a Story
  6. Love in Popular Culture
  7. Love Across Borders
  8. Sex
  9. Love in the Postmodern World
  10. Marriage and Monogamy

Several of the units mix scientific, social-scientific, and humanistic perspectives:  for example, one class day on "The Experience of Love" includes the following readings:

  • “Acute effects of cocaine on human brain activity and emotion” Brieter
  • “Pathological love: impulsivity, personality, and romantic relationship” Sophia et al.
  • “Sexual addiction, sexual compulsivity, sexual impulsivity or what? Toward a theoretical model” Bancroft & Vukadinovic,
  • “Personality characteristics of sexual addicts and pathological gamblers” M Raviv.
  • DH Lawrence, "The Mess of Love"
  • Stendhal, On Love (the famous passage on "crystallization")

All in all, as I say, it's a very ambitious syllabus--one that gets me thinking what my own set of topics might look like.

Several of the topics jump out at me as ones I could see myself doing, and several give me the opposite impression:  here's something I'd probably avoid.  Among the former, I'd count "Love as a Story" (which had readings from Robert Sternberg's book of that name, along with some Joseph Campbell);  "Love in Popular Culture" (songs, Disney movies); "Love Across Borders," and "Love in the Postmodern World" (feat. Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving and Cristina Nehring's recent Vindication of Love--I can think of some other readings I'd slot in here).  "Marriage and Monogamy" appeals to me also as a topic, perhaps because I feel like I've been thinking about it for the past, oh, 30 years or so.  :)

On the other hand, there are topics here that I'd be a bit uncomfortable doing--not for the content per se so much as for my lack of disciplinary knowledge.  The units on dating and hook-up culture, love as madness, and "sex" (as a stand-alone topic, which seems odd to me) fall into this category, although I suspect that at least the first would be of interest to my students.  Maybe if I had a text to work with?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"The Nature and Culture of Love" (Syllabus Musings)

I’m going to be teaching another ENG 390 senior capstone next term.  The official title is "The Nature and Culture of Love," but I neglected to turn in a course description for the catalog, so that students would know what the course is about.  Oops!  Oh, well.  The course filled up anyway, with 25 students (8 men, 17 women), which puts me in an interesting position:  a full course for me to play with, in terms of content and structure.  So--what to do?

My original plan for the course was to reframe my work on popular romance fiction as work about the "culture of love," so that I'd have leeway to bring in films or TV shows, advice books or pop songs, really the whole panoply of love-work out there, now and in the past.  The structure I'd planned was to start with an assortment of readings about love and romance (and marriage, perhaps) from various disciplinary perspectives, followed by an in-depth inquiry into one or two primary texts, from whatever medium caught my eye.

As my current courses stagger to the finish line, however, I'm remembering something that I seem to forget whenever I put together a syllabus:  that course teaches best which teaches least, or assigns least, anyway.  The more I try to "cover," the less satisfied I usually am.  And, conversely, the smaller the assigned reading list, the more interesting I tend to find each individual class day.

What does that mean for my seminar?  Well, there are several options I’m considering, and I’m trying to figure out which would be better for me, on the theory that each of them has plusses and minuses for the students, and it's hard to know what's the best fit, in advance.

The first model is to do what I originally planned:  choose a bunch of secondary readings and then focus on one or two objects of inquiry.  I'd have to pick the secondary readings now, and keep myself from assigning too many, as I have with poets in the Love Poetry class.

The second is to do what I did with Laura Kinsale's novel Flowers from the Storm a couple of years ago, but do it with Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.  We'd spend 10 weeks on the novel:  the first four or five reading it on its own, discussing the various topics and issues that it raises, and the second half of the quarter having students do independent research projects based on those discussions, culminating in papers about the book from any number of perspectives. 

There are some obvious advantages to this approach, for me.  I’m going to be writing about this novel for the book I'm doing on Romance Fiction and American Culture--that will be my essay in the anthology--so I'll get a lot out of sustained focus on the book; likewise, I won't have to do much class prep, week by week, which will free up time for writing.  The problems I anticipate are that some students might not like the book, which can shut down class discussion, that I might have a bunch of LGBT students and / or students of color, and our only love story is a straight white one, which feels a bit sad and limiting, and that students might strike out in some pretty odd directions for their research (as they did for the Kinsale), which means less added value for me.

The third model is to choose four or five secondary sources about love or romance or marriage—books and essays that I’ve liked in the past, or am curious about now, which might give me some ideas to think with—and then spend the quarter reading them, one by one, without a specific "object of inquiry" in mind.  Students would then fan out and find a bunch of those objects, “primary texts” of their own choosing, from songs to films to TV shows to ad campaigns, and write final projects that use ideas from the secondary sources to write about the things that interest themThe advantage of this second model is that it forces me to put the time into doing some of the secondary reading that I’d like to do anyway, like Simon May’s book about the history of love or Eva Illouz’s new book.  The disadvantage is, I’d then be reading those books, plus the books for my other class, a popular romance survey, and that’s a lot of reading—harder to find the time to edit and write.

Option four?  Choose one thinker with a couple of relevant books (say, Eva Illouz), rather than one object of inquiry. Spend half the class getting to know that person's ideas, and then do the fanning-out bit, using them to study whatever catches our eye.  I mention Illouz because I think she's relevant to the Phillips novel, but also because she's someone new in my mind--and I'm learning in the Love Poetry class that going back to someone I've taught for years (like Anne Carson) doesn't seem to be as exciting or interesting for me as reading someone new.  I had a "Kristeva seminar" in grad school that looked like this:  10 weeks on several books by Julia Kristeva, with us students doing the application of the ideas to readings we chose, in conjunction with the professor.  

Thoughts, friends?  From a professorial or student perspective--or just as folks who know me, at least through the blog?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rainy Days & Mondays

It's a rainy Monday, here in Chicago.  I set aside that second stack of papers yesterday, focusing instead on family life and on preparing for the first rehearsal, this season, of the Alte Rockers, the parody rock band for which I sing and write and play (quite limited) guitar.  The day was sweet, and the rehearsal joyous, with the return of our other male vocalist, David, after a life-threatening spinal condition that took him out for a year.  Still, today I'm paying the price:  an abashed, apologetic return to the classroom, with a day or more of grading ahead.

The interesting thing is, I'm not bothered by the prospect of the grading as such.  To my surprise, I rather enjoyed grading that last stack of papers, typing up my comments in the margins of the on-line submissions.  It's quite like editing essays for my journal, or for a book manuscript, and I find it gratifying--an extension of my teaching.

What bothers me, then, is partly the opportunity cost:  the sense that there are so many other things that also need to be done, which I have to put on hold.  But mostly it's just a matter of feeling that I've let my students down, making them wait so long for their grades.

Now that the promotion is in hand, I'd like to focus a bit more again on my teaching as such--not for the sake of evaluations, which don't matter any more, but because it's something that I'm quite good at, when I give it the time and attention it deserves.  Some of my teaching, back before tenure, was really extraordinary, and of course after tenure I took several years off from writing and really dug down deep, pedagogically speaking, trying out new course structures and assignment models, all of which I seem to have forgotten or abandoned.  (The older I've gotten, the more I seem to lecture, which is a problem, I think.)

In short, I could be doing better, in all of my classes, and I suspect that the more I find a way to focus on them as a priority, the happier I'll be, even when grading, even on rainy Mondays.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Where have I been?

Where have I been?  Well, in the past week, in addition to the usual family stuff, I've

  • wrapped up the latest issue of JPRS
  • Skyped with my managing editor about the next issue
  • written a book proposal for my next co-edited collection (went out to a press yesterday)
  • written a summer research grant proposal 
  • completed and written up an external tenure review
  • had a conference call about the Popular Romance Project
  • had a preliminary songwriting meeting about this year's Alte Rockers parodies
  • taught my classes (Pope, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson)
  • co-taught another half-class with a colleague, on Donne, and
  • graded 25 student poetry essays.
I have another set of essays to do today (and tomorrow, and the next day), and some important emails to write, but basically, I feel good about what I've gotten done, and about how I've felt doing it:  calmer, less frazzled, less frantic.  

In short, the media downshift seems to be working--and to be getting easier, more self-sustaining.   

Let's see what the next week brings.  

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Media Detox

It's going on a couple of weeks since I stepped away from Twitter and Facebook, deactivating my accounts.  I've gotten a half-dozen anxious emails from friends who couldn't find me there, some of them wondering whether I was OK, others worried that something they'd said or done had driven me away.  Once they found out why I was gone, though, they all said some variation of "Good for you!" or "Gee, I wish I could do that."  An interesting reaction.

After last Wednesday's presidential debate, I added a new twist to my media detox.  Since my wife and kids are all avidly keeping up with the polls, the pundits, and the news, I decided that I didn't have to check them myself as well.  This would free up even more time for me--News and Opinion was the second of three big categories of Distracting Time in my RescueTime weekly summaries--and it would give me something interesting to talk about with my family, since we wouldn't all have read exactly the same sites, day after day, all day long. It also helps with the general anxiety I've been feeling about the election, which I can't much influence at this point, living in a solidly Democratic state and not having much money to donate.

What's been the impact of this shift, you ask?

The first few days without Twitter and Facebook were hard, but now, I don't really miss them, and I'm slowly losing the habit of thinking in tweets & status updates.  My fingers still start typing those site addresses when I get restless or bored with something else I'm doing at the computer, as they do the news / opinion URLs, but they're easy enough to stop--and it's a helpful reminder, each time, of how much of one's life is lived by habit.

The funny thing is, when I don't type one of those addresses in, I find myself standing at the keyboard puzzled, trying to think--sometimes pretty hard--of what I want to look at on line.  Are there any sites I want to read?  Anything I want to learn about?  It's a fascinating experience, this loss of pattern and habit.  I'm quite enjoying it.

The final leg in the Distracting Time tripod--weird metaphor, but maybe that makes these sites the stool that I've been sitting on to rest from work, or something like that--is the set of musical instrument sale sites I look at:  Ebay listings, the classified ads at Mandolin Cafe and Craigslist, the lists of newly arrived instruments at a couple of shops in town, etc.  I don't actually buy anything at any of these, mind you, nor do I go to the shops and play things.  I just window shop, see what's new, think about what I could buy and picture myself playing it--always better, of course, than I can actually play any instrument in real life.  It's very soothing, this sort of search:  the mental equivalent of sucking my thumb or ticking through worry beads or something like that.

I don't feel the same urge to cut this out entirely that I did the other two sorts of sites, because this doesn't cause me as much stress--but I'll be curious to see whether I spend more or less time on them now than I did when they were part of the overall mix.  When I think of it, I'm trying to replace them with sites or YouTube videos that teach me how to play something:  a song I like, a riff I've always enjoyed, etc.  You see, when I do go to an instrument shop, I'm always a bit intimidated by how little I know how to sit down & play off the top of my head.  It would be nice to change that.  But that's a post for another day, I think.