Tag Archives: teaching

The fallacy of authorial intent

I had three speaking engagements about my book in the past week!  The audiences were: (1) lovely elder book club afternoon tea ladies (2) rowdy night crowd in a dim bar, and (3) sleepy community college students at eight in the morning.  They were all completely huggable, in their extremely varied ways.  The community college students had some kind of test coming up about my book (still trying to wrap my brain around this concept!), and one of them quipped that I might be kind enough to give them the answers.  I laughed and asked the instructor, “Now, didn’t you tell them about the fallacy of authorial intent?”

The next day I had a chat with a fellow novelist about my time in academia.  He wanted to know how I could stomach it as an artist.  I said I loved the teaching.  “But the writing you have to do there!” he said, “what about the spiritually bankrupt rape of art that is literary theory?’

Oh yeah, that.  I said I viewed it as a game, a challenge to speak their language and pass as one of them.  I would try to be the author while also obliterating the author, there was a sort of fun in that.  Then I thought about it some more, and wrote him the following after I got home:

I was just thinking of our discussion re: academics on my ride home, whilst listening to angry Germans shout incomprehensibly over industrial guitars.  It was not only the game-like qualities of their tortured prose that allowed me to write it, but also the very pain it induced.  I did it with the same sort of wincing glee as a flagellant.  It’s always good to remind yourself that what you pour your soul into doesn’t actually mean anything.  Plus if you want to get the taste of God in your mouth, there’s no more efficient way than totally believing two contradictory things at the same time.  Ooooooh tasty paradox–fanning my toes out just thinking about it.

Back when I spent much time in journal archives (JSTOR, we were lovers once, you and I), sometimes I would come upon a very old article.  Some 1935 treatise about Baudelaire by some long-dead white dude whose pipe smoke I could smell right through the computer, written with such utter devotion to Literature that it was frankly a little embarrassing.  The doggish eagerness with which they used to lick us!  Now they cannot study us without also killing us.  Aren’t they so much sexier now that they hate us?  Don’t you just want to fuck them all?!  So adorable.

Eros and Thanatos, how inseparable are you?


Allegory Explosion

You guys!  There is.  A lot of stuff.  Going on.

I was on live radio Monday of last week.  It was a bit intimidating but pretty fun.  The best part was when I flustered the hell out of my husband, who came with me because it was President’s Day so he had off work.  The host, Denny Smithson, asked me something about who I was writing the book to and I said my husband.  Denny observed that he was in the studio with me, and I pointed the mike at him and said, “wanna say hi?”  My poor baby just about died. Turned a high shade of crimson and shook his head no.  Who knew he was this shy?

Then I had a couple of readings, one on home turf at Davis and a luncheon thingy in Pleasanton.  Both were thoroughly awesome and made me miss teaching terribly.  (When I mentioned how much I missed teaching, a friend who is currently eyeball-deep in a pile of grading asked me what the hell is wrong with you? It’s true, I don’t miss the grading part.  I just miss goofing around with a bunch of curious young sparks chatting about books and how irredeemably fucked up human nature is.)  I have another reading tomorrow night!  It’s at 7 at Diesel Bookstore in Oakland.  Come say hi if you’re around.

I’ve also been busy collating the collective unconscious for In the Red.  It’s just been me blasting my neurons with Romanian history and folk tales.  So, in the past week, I have pumped a few rounds into Nicolae Ceaucescu’s chest as he sang L’Internationale and I whacked a wood nymph who dared give a prince “a flower from her girdle” (wink wink nudge nudge) and I galloped across a snowy wasteland with an exiled Phanariot voivode and I had Dracula drink blood from one of his impaled victims in what was basically the Holy Grail and it’s all been very busy in my braincase lately.  It’s just been Allegory Explosion around here.  Last night I had this incredibly vivid dream about a dark pond filled with alligators over which fluttered a big cluster of panicked parakeets.  I remember so well the flapping sounds of their tiny wings and all the pretty jewel tones of their varied plumage.  The ridges of hard, wet, gleaming scales on the long sinewy backs of the alligators.  How fast they were when they lunged out of the water for the parakeets and snap–one swift bite and a bird was gone.  The birds being swallowed one by one out of the air before even having a chance to squeak–I woke up totally traumatized.  Poor little birdies!

Then I got up and wrote about trees haunted by the restless spirits of murdered babies.  Really.

Also, somebody reached my blog today by googling “what does a cheez doodle look like.”  Here, let me help you out:

Those who can do, teach. Those who can’t do, bitch.

So I read this article that really got my goat about how young people are idiots.  It’s the standard blubber about how kids today are so addled by technology and instant gratification and being raised to have too much self-esteem.  What a load of tripe.  It makes me feel ranty.  Indulge me while I quote:

Susan Maushart, a mother of three, says her teenage daughter “literally does not know how to use a can opener. Most cans come with pull-tops these days. I see her reaching for a can that requires a can opener, and her shoulders slump and she goes for something else.”

While it may be mildly sad that this woman’s daughter does not have the mechanical wherewithal to figure out the workings of a can opener on her own, it is the mother who is the far bigger dumbass in this scenario.  How about getting off your duff and showing your kid how the bloody thing works by using it in front of her once?  I am so weary of the type of parent who disdains her children because they do not know what she should have taught them in the first place.

By teaching someone something, you do not only teach them the material at hand; you model for them a mode of being that (a) propagates civilization from one generation to the next and (b) happens to be really fun.  Isn’t teaching kids how to get along in the world the whole point of having them?  Are there people out there who have children because they think it will be fun to spend a few years sleepless and buried and poop, not to mention being crippled financially for decades?  It is watching those kids emerge from the primordial soup of their inchoate consciousness that is so wonderful–it is them knowing something because you taught it to them that makes the whole life-altering endeavor worthwhile.  And they are dying to learn, they are mewling with their maws open for you to feed them the world.

Yes, occasionally you run into a surly, spoiled kid who doesn’t give a shit.  As one who has worked in the educational system, I will tell you that such a child is the exception rather than the rule.  I have been consistently moved by the boundless curiosity of the young.  It would befit their elders not to lose this quality.

So, if your kid can’t figure out a seemingly simple mechanical task, may I humbly suggest that it would be more productive for you, the child, and the human race as a whole if you simply show the kid how to do it rather than bitch that they can’t.  And if you must be aghast at their incompetence, do so quietly, feeling a healthy twinge of responsibility that you saddled them with your poor can’t-figure-out-a-can-opener genes in the first place.

Okay, I feel better.  I will now resume life.

tell us this is going somewhere

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a fantastically fun text to teach.  It’s rowdy, hilarious, a touch dangerous.  It’s about conformity and imprisonment, themes that will be of special interest to any student.  A section that is especially worthy of discussion is the revelation that all of the inmates save McMurphy are in the asylum voluntarily.  Why are they there?  A rich and puzzling question to answer.  At that point I always like to say, “it’s a lovely day outside today.  Why did you decide to come here, to this airless, windowless basement room to have me talk at you for two hours?  Why are you here, now?”

because we’re expected to be
because they made us
because we’re bored
on the off chance you’ll say something interesting
on the off chance you’ll embarrass yourself
because a friend is here
because we lack imagination
we have nowhere else to be
because it’s better than a job
because it’s  better than nothing
because we’re scared
because we’re curious
because we paid for it
it’s not so bad
who says we’re really here?
because we don’t want them to hurt us
because we don’t want to hurt them
we want a future
they tell us we have no future unless we’re here
we’re used to it
we hope you’ll teach us something
tell us something that’ll make us ready for out there
because you’re kind of funny
because this a break from our other classes
because it’s required
(at least we think so)
(that’s what they tell us anyway)
because it fits into our schedule
because this is where everyone else is
we don’t want to be left out
on the off chance something weird happens
it gives us something to do
we’re used to it
it’s not so bad
we want
hey, why are you here, anyway?
tell us
this is going somewhere

domesticating subversive elements

From the Awesome Files: more people have reached my blog in the past month by looking up “Cheez Doodles” than my name.  This is due, of course, to this post.  Plus there has also been an uptick in public Cheez Doodle curiosity due to the fact that Morrie Yohai, Doodle Creator, died recently.  His life was kind of awesome.  I recommend googling him.

Lately I have been chatting with the English editor about the UK edition of my book.  There will be a few textual differences, plus the afterword will be a foreword because their copyright laws over there are intense.  You have to be really careful when writing a work of fiction based on actual artifacts, so much so that they are trying to cram my lyrical, dreamy-eyed background story full of painfully awkward legalese.  Ouch.  Such is life.

Lately I have also done a whole bunch of messing around with this blog.  If you’ve visited more than once in the the past couple of days, you’ve probably seen the color scheme change.  For a while I had it set up as white text on a black background.  It looked kind of sexy and made photos really pop, but I received such vociferous objections to its illegibility that I backed off into this cream-and-blue color scheme.  Not quite as striking, and thus it should prove less offensive to certain visual sensibilities.  Oh, and guess what?  I added an “events” page!  Because I am starting to get booked for events!  Very exciting.  I also added a placeholder “press” page.  Do check it in you’re in the mood for goofiness.  If you click on the photos, you can see them in their full-sized glory.

Today I read this rather interesting article on Slate called “The strange comforts of reading Mark Twain in the age of oppositional defiant disorder.”  It does offer some cheer with its sweetly quaint observation that children have always been the same, before their behaviors were pathologized with excessive medical diagnoses.  I didn’t buy the pat faux-nostalgia at the end of the article though.  Things were better for rowdy children in the nineteenth century because they could grow up to strike out into the wilderness?  Please.

Yes, the way we castrate the brains of unmanageable children with medication is shameful.  But it wasn’t any easier to be different back then.  Shaming and brutal corporal punishment don’t sound all that much more humane than Ritalin to me.  The truth is that society always has and always will attempt to smother subversive elements.  That is a great deal of what education is for.  Do you remember, I mean truly remember, how awful school could be?  I recall quite vividly sitting in science class in ninth grade, so painfully bored that my very personhood was slowly unwinding like fraying rope.  I was stuck there on my awful little hard stool between two shitheads too vain to get glasses who constantly tore mine off my face, without request or warning, when they needed to read something off the board.  I was quite convinced that when I entered that room, some lever was pulled that actually warped spacetime to make one hour into five.  One day it was so terrible that I wept, quiet and unseen.

This sort of dehumanizing, life-draining bullshit is what they do to prisoners to break them.  We do this to our children, every day.  Before I went to college, school was a veritable Calvary.  The most stimulating classes were, at best, barely tolerable.  They did teach me something valuable: how to float outside myself, how to ignore authority in a way that looked like cooperation in order to be left alone.  Most children are not gifted with my strange little mystic tendencies, however.  They will make their suffering known.

You might ask how I wound up working in, of all places, the educational system.  One of the reasons is that I wanted to give my students little glimmers of life from inside the grinding guts of the machine.  You will not believe how gratefully students react when you tell them something true, something a little wild that they are not used to hearing inside a classroom.  Literature is full of subversive elements, and bringing those out in an institutional setting can be liberating, thrilling even.  You don’t have to destroy the tidy little box society tucks you into, but sometimes–sometimes you really have to give it the finger.  Just that, just this tiny gesture of fuck you, I will not want what you tell me to want can be enough to stay alive.  I assure you, there are few things as wonderful as watching a room full of exhausted students domesticated by an oppressive educational system realize this.

bigger than a kitty cat

Remember when you were a student and you had dreams of showing up to class with no pants or being unable to answer any of the questions on the final exam?  Let me reassure you that teachers experience exactly the same thing from the other side.  Several times I had dreams of showing up to class without a lesson plan, or being unable to find the room where I was supposed to teach on the first day, or some such.  These are the standard frets of your unconscious when something is expected of you in daily life.

Last night I had the first such dream in a writerly framework: I dreamed that I kept receiving e-mails from various editors asking me to rewrite and change stuff in my forthcoming novel that wasn’t good enough.  It was in a much different tone than the dreams I used to have about writing, which were usually about heartrending failure, and sometimes spectacular success–that is when they weren’t some kind of hallucinatory peyote-type experience.  This dream was normal, low-level performance anxiety.  I woke up slightly irritated and vaguely amused: this must mean I am officially a professional novelist now.

Still, even when fiction writing becomes one of those daily things that is expected of you, it can never be quite tame.  At least not for me.  I would say teaching is kind of like having a kitty cat in your apartment: it is sweet, and you love it, and you have to maintain it and feed it.  Sometimes if you really piss it off it might scratch you or leave a turd inside your shoe.  But, barring some spectacular freak accident, it will remain unable to kill you.  Writing, on the other hand, is like having a much, much larger animal in your apartment.  You don’t know quite what that animal is because you can only see it in flashes out of the corner of your eye.  You think it sleeps in the closet under the stairs because you’ve found matted hair and the gutted carcasses of whatever it eats in there, but you’ve never been able to surprise the beast itself in its lair.  Sometimes you will glimpse a pair of yellow eyes beholding you with millennial patience, the graceful slither of a tail disappearing around a corner.  You will hear a hiss under your bed, a low rumble behind a wall.  A moist jungle smell, sweet and perhaps decaying.  You live with the knowledge that this animal can festoon the carpet with your innards whenever it feels like, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t feel like.  Maybe it likes the scent of you; maybe it likes to listen to your heartbeat while you sleep.  All things considered you rather like it too: when it’s gone you rather miss the thrill of its presence.

Last class for now…

So, I taught my last class at UC Davis yesterday.  The students gave me an ovation and I got all misty-eyed.  I will miss this job very much.  Honestly, it was easy to shed the identity of an academic.  I thought it would be trickier, but basically it entailed no longer performing textual analysis for my superiors and no longer writing articles in a language that is completely unnatural to me.  It turns out I can manage that quite well!  So well that I can only understand in the dimmest way that I’m still supposed to take an examination next quarter; it no longer quite seems real.

No longer teaching literature is going to be a lot harder though.  That really worked its way into my heart.  I am a total crackhead for that look of dawning understanding on my students’ faces.  Best thing ever.  Sometimes I wonder if and how they will remember me.  I wrote the following about teaching in a short story once:

The Egyptians had no hell.  The punishment for the wicked was oblivion; there was nothing worse than not existing.

The students absorb this piece of information quietly.  Probably some of them even write it down.  They are very sweet, in many ways still children.  In many ways they do not understand yet what I tell them.  Certainly they will forget everything I say before they are old enough for it to really sink in, but sometimes I wonder if I leave a trace.  Any trace at all.  I wonder if they will recognize something that is happening to them slightly sooner because I told them to expect it.

You cannot really tell someone something they don’t already know.  Teaching is not about filling blank minds.  It is about inducing a flicker of recognition.

The protagonist of that story was an adjunct who couldn’t stomach finishing the PhD (I wrote it over a year ago–prescient, no?).  I will try to get some kind of contract teaching work after I get my MA, maybe with the UC extension.  After the book comes out, maybe I will get a job in a Creative Writing department?  Quizás.  It still seems far away.  For now I have to access the totally feral, slightly unhinged head space I get into while writing a novel.  But I’ll be back in the classroom eventually–if only to have a reason to get dressed in the morning!  Writerly isolation can do unfortunate things to your psyche after too long.

This week, I also had to clear my desk in my office in Sproul Hall (they didn’t waste any time reclaiming my space!).  It was a melancholy endeavor, despite the fact that Sproul is an utter dump no sane person should miss.  My desk was a bleak-looking gray plastic-and-pressboard affair no bigger than a coffee table, lodged in a completely naked train-car-shaped room that gets broiling hot the instant the sun so much as kisses the roof.  One time I tried to open the window in there and the whole pane fell off.  Fell right the fuck off the side of the building, only kept from tumbling nine floors and ending the life of a passerby by the rusty latch, which did not open.  There also has been a weird and unpleasant smell emanating from the wall in the corner of my office where the lone eldtrich computer resides (I swear that machine dates from the Clinton administration) that has not been resolved in all the three years I’ve been there.  And that expiring groan the elevator makes when it grinds to a stop at the ninth floor freaks me the hell out; I always wonder if this is the time the whole contraption is going to let go and and plummet down into the basement, where my mashed flesh will mingle with the poorly-written student papers in my satchel.  Plus Sproul Hall is never, ever cleaned.  I think some of the dust bunnies in my office have evolved sentience, plus there is a green Skittle® on the floor in the staircase that has been there for so long I believe it has tenure by now.  It began its life between the fifth and sixth floors, and when I didn’t see it for a while I surmised that perhaps whatever is making the weird smell in my office wall might have eaten it–but then I was relieved to find it crushed into the second floor landing.  I will miss you, green Skittle®; don’t ever change.

“So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

This fantastic article truly has its finger on the pulse of the American University.  I feel like I can do little more than froth in ecstatic agreement!  Nevertheless I will try to formulate some kind of response.  I’ll start here:

Throughout much of the 20th century, with the growth of the humanistic ideal in American colleges, students might have encountered the big questions in the classrooms of professors possessed of a strong sense of pedagogic mission. Teachers like that still exist in this country, but the increasingly dire exigencies of academic professionalization have made them all but extinct at elite universities. Professors at top research institutions are valued exclusively for the quality of their scholarly work; time spent on teaching is time lost.

Yes, it’s true.  Time spent on teaching is viewed as time lost, and that’s a shame.  The emphasis is on producing criticism by the ream, which pushes passionate teachers straight out of the academic rat race.  This pains me, because I believe that teaching is the main social function of a humanities professor. I wanted to be a professor to teach college kids to grow up not to be suckers for the advertising industry, but having to spout bullshit to put myself in a position where I could tell kids how not to listen to bullshit ultimately imploded the endeavor.  I always doubted by ability to see myself through the end of a PhD; there was always part of me waiting for academia to shit me back out.  I hung on because I felt I had to; ultimately I let go for the luckiest reason imaginable: I no longer had to.  I’ve been handed the opportunity to write what I always wanted.

I will miss teaching literature at the university.  I might still get a lectureship or an adjunct position one day, perhaps–but in a market saturated with PhDs who can’t get tenure-track positions, I’m not sure that I can.  It is a little giggle-worthy that I am not qualified to teach literature just because I write the stuff.  I’d have to be writing about the stuff.  In my chats with people about my decision to drop out, I’ve heard the opinion that it’s a shame academia doesn’t make room for artists.  It shouldn’t have to: it hardly has room for itself.  It is hemorrhaging qualified PhDs who cannot find a cell within its shrinking honeycomb.

Besides, there already is a place for artists in the academy; most English departments hire a few novelists and poets to teach creative writing classes.  Once my novel comes out, I could conceivably wiggle my way into one of these positions.  Yet the prospect of teaching people to write stories does not fill me with the same sense of urgency as teaching people to read them.  These stakes feel lower, plus making art feels less teachable to me than interpretive and critical thinking skills.

Another aspect of Deresiewicz’s article that resonated with me was his analysis of conformity at top-flight institutions, that to get into one of these places you have to be exceedingly compliant with The Machine and that once you come out the other side you have been equipped to be a fine little machinist indeed.  Having been at both a big-name private school and a mid-list state university, I am sometimes asked if the kids at Stanford are really that much smarter than the kids at UC Davis.  No, they are not; they are not gifted with some ineffable wisdom that cannot be accessed by the Great Unwashed Masses.  They are earnest strivers, usually from privileged backgrounds, who are especially good at doing exactly what they are told, that is all.  That has both its advantages and its drawbacks.  The main advantage being that they are well-tuned devices who know exactly how to channel their considerable gifts into getting the most positive feedback from society at large.  The main drawback being that they are well-tuned devices who know exactly how to channel their considerable gifts into getting the most positive feedback from society at large.  But Deresiewicz says it much better.

A door Jedi

I taught Sartre’s No Exit today.  It went well; it’s a pretty serviceable text: content-rich yet easy to unpack, and fits neatly inside one two-hour session.  Existentialist fiction is too messagey to blow me away as art (I’ll never well up in ecstatic admiration at the glittering diamond-like structure of The Plague, for instance) but it’s a good way to start the quarter, get the students thinking–but not too hard at first.

The students are not yet laughing at my quips, but they will warm up eventually.  It always seems to take them a few sessions to get used to my sense of humor, partly because I don’t give them laugh cues.  I don’t laugh at my own jokes because doing so decreases their entertainment value by a good 80%, consequently the students are not sure at first if I mean to be funny.  They risk a few cautious titters.  I learn to read what they are likely to react to (you’d be surprised how much it differs by group).  Slowly we warm up to each other.  Even after we are comfortable together, their mirth is mostly subdued, which makes the rare instances when I get a genuine burst of hard laughter from the entire room all the more satisfying.  It’s great when it happens, it bonds the room together.  Not to mention it makes me feel powerful.

(And how often in one’s daily life does one feel powerful?  Sometimes I like to gesture at automatic doors to open a half-second before they do so, it makes me feel like a Jedi.  Although it is tremendously disheartening when the door is out of order.)

Without glass

Hello.  My name is Elena.  I have a novel coming out Spring of next year.  I teach intro literature at the University of California.  I will now begin open letters to the world.

This blog is under my real name, and will be indexed by search engines.  How alarming!  I thought of the prospect of being found by students and nearly scrapped the whole idea.  But why not try this out, after all?  It is doubtful that I will suffer from some kind of online Tourette’s and post naked pictures of myself or some such.  This openness is a bit daunting though.  It will take some getting used to.  I’ll view it as practice public speaking for when the book comes out.  By that fateful date, maybe this small forum will have given me some degree of comfort with exposure.

It’s true that, as a teacher, I do a fair amount of public speaking.  Speaking as an author is not the same though.  As an instructor I am not so much a person as a channel for the text.  Certainly, the interpretations I present are tinged with me, but I am not the point.  I’m a means to an end, a guide meant to help my students reach their own understanding of the book at hand.  I am the Virgil to their Dante.

When I speak as an author I am not granted the safety of the outside text.  There is no medium with which I can blend, that I can disappear into so that it is comfortably impossible for my audience to tell the difference between the thing they are looking at—the text—and the thing they are looking through—me.  Oh shit, I’m becoming the primary source!  I am no longer Virgil; I am Hell.  No longer the guide but the landscape.

If there were a paper bag within arm’s reach I would be breathing into it right now.

When I was in college, I worked for tuition money as a bank teller.  I had posts in several different branches of the same bank.  Only one featured bulletproof glass.  I noticed when I finished a day at that place that I was immensely less tired than after a day at an unshielded teller window.  It was so different, so much less draining to speak to the customers through two inches of plexiglass.  I couldn’t smell them; they couldn’t touch me.  It was so much tidier and less dangerous.  It was also necessarily a lot less interesting, less human.

Onwards then, without glass.