Classroom atmosphere vs. The Environment

This year I decided to take a slightly harder line than in past years about computers, cell phones, and other things that my parents categories as TTLUs (Things That Light Up). In the first class, I told my students that I was going to ask them to print out all of the readings (as small as they wanted) and not to use their computers or other TTLUs in class unless there was a specific learning-related reason that they needed to do so. I also told them that if anyone had financial problems with the printing or book buying requirements they should see me.

They shrugged and nodded, which was pretty much what they do for most of what we say on the first day.

One student came to talk to me after class. He explained that he is very involved in sustainable living projects and that he felt strongly enough about not wanting to be printing out copies that if I said absolutely no computer, he would drop the course and find another. He was very articulate.

It helped that it’s already a dilemma I’ve thought about in terms of my own printing habits. Cost is one thing, of course, but once I accepted that this was part of being in graduate school (paying for ink and paper), the other hurdle was the quantity of paper. I have a lot of it. I have trouble getting rid of handouts and readings from classes I’ve taken because it seems so wasteful to have printed them out and then just discard them. I have a lot of paper I don’t need.

Pedagogically, though, I knew I had something in mind in asking students to keep their TTLUs off and away. So, after another conversation with a friend about the subject, I went back to class the next day with a plan.

I explained why I don’t like TTLUs. (1) The upright screens of computers separate you physically from the rest of the class. (2) Having a device distracts you from the discussion in many ways (taking notes that are more like transcriptions than notes, absorbing interest simply because they are transfixing, presenting the possibility of completing other tasks while in class without it being obvious).

I offered the class a compromise. They can have computers for taking notes if they promise to try to write down only key words and they keep the screen either really far open or closed down over their fingers. They can have computers and other TTLUs for reading the pdfs for class if they keep the computers open wide (as flat as possible) or the TTLUs flat on the desk. And it’s fine if they want to team up and print one copy every two people and share, instead of each printing the reading.

Today in class: one student typing very occasionally with the screen over his fingers, looking up, and following the conversation; two students with the text on their screens open all the way, who could lean over to read from the text or find a quote but who were otherwise focused outward toward the discussion.

I’ll remind them all of this bargain later this week (I still have students shifting in and out of the class, so possibly three more class sessions with new students). We might have to return to the topic mid-semester, like I’ve had to do with many topics. It’s early in the semester, though, and I’m still optimistic. I pronounce this a proto-success.

First-day expectations

A colleague whom I met at a conference on teaching book history at the Folger last year has a tip, published by the website Pedagogy Unbound, for gauging student expectations of their performance while simultaneously encouraging them to take more responsibility for their education. She suggests a quick questionnaire on the first day that asks students three questions:

1) What grade do you anticipate receiving in this course?
2) What will you do if you discover that you are receiving a lower grade than the one you anticipated?
3) Why do you feel these strategies will work? (quoted from the website)

It starts the year with a sense of student responsibility, gives her something to work with when students come to office hours upset about grades, and provides a means for students to reflect on their performance at the end of the year.

I think I’ll be adding this to my repertoire this semester. I already give midterm evaluations (students evaluating the course and their learning, not me evaluating them), with a format borrowed from a professor for whom I TAed in my second comp lit teaching semester (Professor William Moebius). Students are asked to complete three sentences. The first begins with the words “I’m learning,” the second with “I like” and the third with “I wish.” Like Sarah Neville’s exercise, some answers are very thoughtful and serious and some are silly, but it provides a moment to reflect on course experiences in the middle of the course, both for my students and for me (I take them very seriously).

Good luck to everyone starting classes over the next week!

Logic in the Classroom

Over the semesters that I’ve taught Comp Lit, one of the problems that I’ve run into often is that students have a difficult time articulating logical connections in their papers. Conferences about their papers usually reveal that they know what the connections are, although I’m sure that some students struggle with that as well. This semester, I want to emphasize the importance of logical thinking and the articulation of logical processes in my course and see whether some of the paper-writing problems can be resolved simply by foregrounding logic as a component of writing.

To that end, I’m trying out an odd beginning-of-the-semester logic assignment. I’ve posted three different logic puzzles on our course website– the humorous, wordy, but uniquely solvable Self-Referential Aptitude Test by Jim Propp that I posted about a while ago, a  Kakuro puzzle that involves the integers 0-9, sums, and non-repeating rows and columns, and a 7×7 More or Less (Futoshiki) puzzle that also requires non-repeating rows and columns, with some requirements about which number be larger.

I know that these are tough, so I’m not requiring students to finish them, or even to figure out how to start all three. Each student is assigned to choose one of the puzzles and write out an explanation of the logical process by which they made their first decisions. The idea is to get them to articulate a logical process clearly, and ideally to someone who chose a different puzzle (possibly because the logic of that puzzle made more sense to them).

I’ll use this exercise to start a discussion about the kinds of logic that we typically use in literary study and critical writing: implications, correlations, cause and effect (and lack thereof), accumulation of evidence to point to one single outcome… I’m also hoping that I can convince my students that logic is an important part of critical reasoning in general. I’ll also point out that while I’m asking them to write these explanations out in English sentences, other fields that also use logic have their own systems of notation for expressing the same relationships, and that like in math, for example, it’s important in English to follow the “notational rules” for logic so that the argument makes sense.

We’ll see how it goes over!

Late-summer planning

I’m back to my desk after a week visiting my family, including three days up on top of the garage re-roofing it.

One of my late-summer tasks is finishing my syllabus and ordering books. I’m teaching Good and Evil in the fall (a gen-ed, 100-level Comp Lit course where each TA gets to create their own syllabus within a broad course description). This will be my second time teaching it, but I’m making a completely new reading list. The assignments will probably stay largely the same, but the organizing principle this time is…

Bargains and Negotiations.

The goal is to discuss morality and the notions of good and evil in a variety of cultural contexts and historical periods. The texts I’ve chosen are about different types of negotiation- humans bargaining with deities and supernatural beings, with each other, humans negotiating different ideas of morality and different cultural systems.

We’re going to start off with a Christian framework and read a little bit about St. Augustine’s notions of the nature of evil, along with the medieval tale (attr. Anna Bijns) of Mary of Nijmeghen, a Faust-like figure who surrenders her soul to a demon for knowledge, but then (unlike Faust) repents and is saved. We’ll also read Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (A-text) along with some of the historical documents about Faust and a couple of other short texts that prefigure the Faust story.

I’m still not sure of the order of the rest of the course, but we’ll be reading some negotiations with Death (the story of Sati Savitri from the Mahabharata Book of the Forest and Neil Gaiman’s Death: The Time of Your Life), some folk tales about bargaining with witches, the first half of Arthur Waley’s Monkey (a translation and abridgment of Journey to the West) where Monkey tricks and deceives his way into establishing himself both as an immortal and a troublemaker, the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, and Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need.” To finish up, we’ll read Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North, taking our discussion of morality and negotiations between moral systems away from the supernatural. I’m still planning to add a few short texts (suggestions are welcome!) but that’s the main outline.

Along the way, we’ll be able to talk about various different ethical systems related to the religious or moral frameworks of the texts we’re reading, as well as the difficulties entailed in reading and discussing the concepts of good and evil (already culturally loaded) across cultures. I’m planning to have the class read the first chapter of a much more academic translation of Journey to the West as well (by Anthony Yu), along with Waley’s translation, to discuss the role of genre in how we approach texts, and the ways that the translator is himself a negotiator.

Last spring, I taught Good and Evil with a focus on heroes and/as sociopaths, and we had some great discussions. I’m looking forward to this semester, and building on some of my ideas about assignments and organization from last semester. Wish me well!

Open Access and Career Planning

My attention was recently called to something going on in the American Historical Association regarding open access for dissertations. The AHA just released a statement stating that they encourage universities to allow embargoes of up to 6 years on completed doctoral dissertations. Their suggestion is that “students who choose to embargo their dissertations should be required to deposit a hard copy of their dissertation in the university library” or, if the library no longer provides space for physical copies, that the digital version of the dissertation that is submitted should allow an embargo of up to six years, during which it would be accessible only on campus or with the student’s explicit permission off campus. The rationale is that in a discipline like history, where the monograph is still the standard for tenure, open access to the dissertation can hinder a scholar’s chances of finding a publisher who will take on the book that is largely based on that dissertation.

Unsurprisingly, this has caused quite a stir. The AHA has come out with a Q&A to answer some of the claims being made both about open access and publishing and about the AHA’s own position. There have been articles in both Inside Higher Ed and in the Chronicle of Higher Education (and here).

I’m lucky to be at an institution where this conversation had already started. Full disclosure: I’m on the committee where a large part of this conversation happened, as one of the student members. Our current system for doctoral dissertation submission, ProQuest, is apparently less flexible than ScholarWorks, which UMass uses for MA theses. I’d known this already, and had a chat with a ProQuest representative at last year’s MLA which resulted in an email from someone at the ProQuest Dissertations office, who said that extending embargoes was no problem; one simply had to contact the office to request an extension. I appreciated the time they took to let me know, but an option like that, where you have to seek out the program representative at a conference, and which the copyright and dissertation submission people at my library didn’t even seem to know about, isn’t much of an option. One article on the Chronicle says that it took one student a month to get access restricted through ProQuest.

[The email included a link to ProQuest’s white paper on the subject, which is partly a sales pitch, but does include the acknowledgment that “some academic journals are putting new policies in place to ensure the articles they publish are actually ‘new’ and not already seen on various Web sites. For authors with their sights set on publishing in important journals, ‘prior publication’ of a dissertation or thesis on the Web may spell disaster” (10). The paper goes on to say that authors can choose a “release restriction” with a deadline (an embargo) or an indefinite restriction that only ends when the author chooses to cancel it (full restriction). Again, the effort is worthy, but if one has to read through this white paper to find that these are possibilities, then it is largely for show rather than use.]

As I said, though, the conversation has begun at UMass, and the hope is to offer several options for access, involving periods from between 6 months and five years and a spectrum of access from open to campus-only to completely closed. I’m glad to have been a part of this discussion, and since I didn’t submit this past year, I might even be able to benefit from the results.

The larger question remains though, and is tied to a number of related questions. What lines can we draw (should we draw) between the dissemination of information and new knowledge (surely the goal of our enterprise) and the need to protect the intellectual “assets” of recent graduates and junior faculty? It is a question that many of us struggle with regarding unofficial sharing of materials: syllabi or unpublished conference papers, for example. In those cases, we can make our decisions individually, and even case by case. Regarding institutionally-mandated sharing, though, the issues shift slightly. Does the institution benefit more from broadcasting the new research that is being carried out, or from allowing doctoral students to “protect” their work?

I think that in some ways, the AHA has made a statement that reflects the only possible position: offering the student options that can be chosen based on all of the individual factors that come into play.

I attended a symposium a few years ago where one scholar (a white man from Australia who currently teaches in Spain) spoke feelingly about the need for openness and respect for the international humanist project whose goal is the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The speaker who came after him (an Indian woman who currently teaches in New York) pointed out that the only reason that he could talk like that is that he occupies a privileged position (as a white man with a Western passport).

The idea of open access is wonderful, like the idea of an international humanist community that has a free exchange of ideas. I’m not sure, though, that the current academic system means that it’s a good idea for all of us. Those of us who don’t yet have that passport of a job (and tenure) might see things differently from those who are already free to travel.


[The symposium I mention is partly available online in video form. The statements on “international liberal humanism” are available here (second video on the page, starting around minute 14:30 on). The topic of that section is a debate begun about 10 years ago about a boycott of Israeli scholars by a prominent Palestinian translation scholar. The response is available here (first video on the page, from minute 2:00).]

CFP: What is Translation Studies?: Negotiating A Disciplinary Cartography

It seemed like a decent idea to post on here my call for papers for a roundtable at this coming year’s NeMLA convention. The topic is the field of translation studies, and the goal is to have a dialogue about the extent of that field and the multiple discourses that it contains.

The impetus for this panel came from discussions that I’ve had over the past years and lectures I’ve attended, where assumptions were made about the scope of translation studies that I felt were limiting and occasionally ill-informed. A lot of people are talking about translation and about translation studies, since it’s something of a popular new inter- and transdisciplinary field. But many of these conversations focus exclusively on particular aspects of translation studies without recognizing either the existence or the relevance of other areas: translator training, say, to the exclusion of theory; or the world literature approaches of scholars such as David Damrosch and Emily Apter treated as the only current work being done on translation.

The goal of this roundtable is to assemble a group of people to talk about all different aspects of translation studies, whether in terms of scholarly research or pedagogical implementation. This discussion can help scholars interested in the field develop a sense of the breadth of translation studies, as well as start discussions on how areas are related and how to negotiate those relationships in scholarship as well as teaching. The intent is not to draw lines or restrict translation studies but to create connections and expand our notions of the field.


What is Translation Studies?: Negotiating A Disciplinary Cartography (Roundtable)

Given the rapid rise of translation studies in the academy, it seems an appropriate moment to examine the scope and dimensions of the field. This roundtable will explore various approaches to the field of translation studies with panelists discussing particular institutional approaches and relationships between translation studies and other disciplines, as well as outlining some of the many theoretical perspectives that contribute to this diverse area of inquiry. 300-word abstracts should be sent to Anna Strowe (


(More information on the Northeast MLA conference is available here, including the full call for papers.)

Much Ado About Adaptation

My tendency these days is to see movies that are pure fluff, because they’re usually the moments I’m letting myself rest my brain a little. Action movies, romantic comedies. I don’t like zombies, so that’s not happening.

But there was no way I was going to miss Joss Whedon’s new adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Not, of course, to say that it’s not also fundamentally a sort of romantic comedy, but it’s Shakespeare, after all. It’s the serious version of the genre that requires attention to nuance and probably shouldn’t be watched while doing something else like knitting.

I’m not a hard-core Whedon fan-girl, although I have enjoyed a lot of his work. The trailer for Much Ado was spectacular- they neither dumbed down nor apologized for the language of the script, and they showed no signs of compromising on cinematic quality, something the Bard couldn’t have had in mind.

There are plenty of people who have waxed enthusiastic along all kinds of lines, from the fannish to the scholarly. The reviews seem to be overwhelmingly positive. I won’t retread that ground other than to say that it was great entertainment and well worth the price of the ticket (and the fact that I actually had to go to the theater two days in a row, because the first day the showing I wanted to go to was cancelled for technical problems).

One thing though struck me particularly about the movie, which was the suspension not so much of disbelief as of outside reality. I’ve been interesting in the settings of Shakespeare plays for a while; one of my comprehensive exam topics involved looking at Shakespeare’s non-classical Italian-set plays (Much AdoThe Taming of the ShrewThe Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of VeronaAll’s Well That Ends WellOthelloRomeo and Juliet, and arguably The Tempest). My research focused on Elizabethan perceptions of Italy and Italian culture, the moral implications of an Italian setting, and to a lesser extent, the legacies of the Italian works that several of these plays were based on.

Because I had spent time looking at the cultural and literary implications of an Italian setting for these plays, I was really interested by how Whedon’s choice of setting affected my reception of this version of Much Ado. I won’t give anything away by saying that the play is set mainly in a house and garden in an affluent American neighborhood. (The house is actually Whedon’s own, and the filming was done over only 12 days as a pet project.) But despite the setting, and the fact that Whedon did adapt the text (apparently; I haven’t done a comparison), the references to Italian places remain unchanged.

In a conversation with the friend I went to see Much Ado with, we tossed around the idea of the movie’s setting being generic to a certain extent, and I think that given certain constraints that is true. From an American perspective in 2013, and given that the characters are clearly upper class, a large house backed by a golf course seems pretty normal, and the hints of California in the landscaping and the house’s construction are not incongruous.

But the Italian setting of the play did not provide a neutral background for Shakespeare’s action. The idea of Italy would have prepared an Elizabethan audience for a tale involving sex and deception, providing a partial explanation for the unpleasant behavior of Don John and allowing a moral distance to function alongside the entertainment value of the work.

I’d argue that there is some distance preserved in Whedon’s film by the class markers of both the characters (through the script) and the house (by the setting). And even though California isn’t another country, there is in the popular conception a sense that Hollywood, at least, operates according to different moral parameters than the rest of the country. The movie, though, seems to emphasize the separation of its setting from recognizable geographies. The references to Italian town names are easy to ignore, and there are no real indications of, say, Californian town names to replace them. The choice of black and white for the film further separates the setting from reality, foregrounding the technology of the medium by using an aesthetic that is no longer expected.

But at the same time, many of the behaviors that the early modern English perceived and condemned in Italians are relatively common in contemporary American society (premarital sex, political and economic ambition, and the kind of drama and light deception that accompanies romantic relationships, for example). We do still frown on killing people, but this is a comedy, so we don’t have to deal with that aspect of perceived Renaissance Italianness. This means that the setting no longer needs to be “elsewhere” in quite the same way that it did in Shakespeare’s time. There’s no moral imperative to insist that *we* don’t behave like that, even while we do enjoy watching a play about that behavior. The distance provided by class, medium, and hazy geography is enough to set the comedy apart as entertainment rather than gritty emotional realism.

Academic reflections (partly) aside, go see the movie. It’s bawdy and irreverent, full of the joy of language and the brilliance of Shakespeare, but with a new visual joy and exhuberence in a new medium.

Bonaventure and Sins of Omission

I’ve been thinking this week about medieval translation (theory) and how we class translators among other types of writers and textual producers. St Bonaventure famously distinguishes four different kinds of textual producers in his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences:

The method of making a book is fourfold. For someone writes the materials of others, adding or changing nothing, and this person is said to be merely the scribe. Someone else writes the materials of others, adding, buth nothing of his own, and this person is said to be the compiler. Someone else writes both the materials of other men, and of his own, but the materials of others as the principal materials, and his own annexed for the purpose of clarifying them, and this person is aid to be the commentator, not the author. Someone else writes both his own materials and those of others, but his own as the principal materials, and the materials of others annexed for the purpose of confirming his own, and such must be called the author.
(qtd. in Minnis 1984/1988: 94)

In commenting on this division, J.A. Burrow writes that “perhaps Bonaventure should have added the translator; but otherwise his scheme seems satisfyingly complete” (1982/2008: 31).

From my perspective in translation studies, “satisfyingly complete” needs more explanation about why translation is not included, as well as some thought on where translation does fit in to textual production if not here. Roger Ellis observes that part of the difficulty is that translators occupy simultaneously or consecutively all of the roles described by Bonaventure: “adapting the famous account of literary composition by St. Bonaventura, we can describe the translator as scribe, compiler, commentator, or even author” (Ellis 1994: 122). Ellis’s account of forms of medieval translator-ship brings up many of the factors that complicate medieval textual production: translators serving simultaneously as textual editors of the source text (or not), translations from other mediating translations, translations that silently combined the text and commentaries from the source text into a single target text, or that acted editorially by combining several versions of a text or story into a single, cohesive narrative. Ellis adds to these aspects the possibilities that the translator was not an expert in the field and the ever-present specter of simple error, issues that are perhaps more familiar from contemporary discourses about translation.

An interesting parallel view of authorship and translation comes from translation scholar André Lefevere, whose book Translation, Re-Writing, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame posits translation as a form of rewriting within a set of other types of rewriting, including anthologization, literary historiography, criticism, and editing. Lefevere lists translators themselves as rewriters along with anthologizers, critics, and editors.

This view allows, as does Bonaventure’s omission of “translator” from his list, for the translator to participate in various types of responsibility regarding the text. Indeed, it provides a framework of other figures who also occupy such an ambiguous position, being often simultaneously scribes, commentators, compilers, and authors. Inasfar as each of these roles serves to perpetuate a text or series of texts, through linguistic shifts, the printing of new editions, or commentary on the texts that may include more or less of the text itself, they are aligned in transgressing the boundaries of Bonaventure’s classification. (The role that seems least to escape Bonaventure’s idea is that of the anthologizer, who could be argued to be very similar to the compiler.)

That these roles already existed in Bonaventure’s time suggests that it might be productive to consider what the implications are and were for the notion of re-writing when set out next to late medieval and early modern ideas of authorship, and conversely, what Bonaventure’s classification might look like in the context of contemporary shifts in textual production and consumption.


Burrow, J.A. 1982/2008. Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature 1100-1500. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, Roger. 1994. Textual Transmission and Translation in the Middle Ages [Review]. Translation and Literature 3: 121-130.

Lefevere, André. 1992. Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London and New York: Routledge.

Minnis, Alisdair J. 1984/1988. Medieval Theory of Authorship. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Topical Readings

For me, South Africa is oddly and relatively firmly linked to the Cotswolds for largely circumstancial reasons, with a side of inaccurate memory. When I was in sixth grade, my mother and grandmother took a trip to England. They spent some time in London, but also got out of the city for some jaunts to various other places, including Stratford upon Avon (my grandmother had been a public school English teacher and had an intimidating repertoire of Shakespearean quotations for any situation), and Herefordshire, where they spent a few days staying with Hilda and Rusty Bernstein at their home in Dorstone (this is where memory is inaccurate: for years I’ve thought of it as the Cotswolds, but it wasn’t). I think my grandmother knew them from political circles; my grandparents were both active in leftist politics in New York, and knew all kinds of impressive people.

I first read Hilda Bernstein’s book, The World That Was Ours, after my mother returned from that trip, with stories that mixed the calm of the Cotswolds with the activism and talent of the Bernsteins. Neither I nor my mother can remember how we got that book. It seems equally possible that she brought it back with her, that Hilda sent a copy after they got back, and that we bought it later.

At this point, I also can’t remember whether I already knew anything about South African history when I read the book. If I didn’t know much, I’m sure I knew at least what my mother told me in describing the Bernsteins and talking about visiting them. She wouldn’t have failed to mention their activism, nor would she have sugar-coated the political situation of South Africa. However much I knew, however, it is Bernstein’s book that I remember as my introduction to apartheid, the Rivonia trial, and the activists of the 1960s, including Nelson Mandela.

I must have read Bernstein’s book at most a year and a half before Mandela was elected President. Over the years, I learned more. I participated in my local school branch of Amnesty International, wrote letters, read books. But still, when I hear about South Africa, Robben Island, the anti-apartheid movement, and Mandela, I always remember that book. I think that perhaps it is time to reread it.


A related item of interest:

The “Robben Island Shakespeare,” a copy of Shakespeare’s plays owned by Sonny Venkatrathnam that was passed around among the political prisoners on Robben Island, is on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library until September 29.

Logic, Literature, and Defending the Humanities

There are a lot of defenses of the humanities out there, so I’m not really going to embark on my own. A propos of my last post, however, I wanted to post a link to an article that does defend the liberal arts education.

The article isn’t revolutionary if you’ve already been following discussions of the value of higher education. The summary: Employers want candidates who have good communication skills, problem-solving abilities, good judgment, integrity, intercultural skills… The ability to change and grow with a job and to be flexible with new skills and ideas. They don’t want (or don’t need as much as many people seem to think) specific majors, crammed information, good test scores.

I’m posting this mainly because it seems relevant to my logic puzzle post, and because I think I might add it, along with the logic puzzle, to the early part of some of my general education courses. It’s part of the reason we insist that general education courses are valuable, and explicitly dismisses some of the reasons my students seem to think that gen ed courses are a waste of time. It’s an argument that I’m only willing to make part of the time, because I think that we run the risk of losing the idea that learning is also fun and that culture is enjoyable in its own right, but there is also quite a bit to be said for helping people find jobs, especially in this economy.

So here’s to learning, the kind that endures (and gives pleasure).