Jane Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan has always occupied a somewhat uncomfortable and often overlooked place in the thoroughly – sometimes exhaustively – scrutinized Austen canon. Written in the mid-1790s, around the same time as the first, now lost but likely also epistolary, drafts of Sense and Sensibility (née Elinor and Marianne) and Pride and Prejudice (née First Impressions), Lady Susan is an odd artifact. Neither a work of Austen’s youth nor of her adulthood, Lady Susan is a liminal text, lacking the romping spirit of Austen’s juvenilia and the stylistic maturity of her later omnisciently-narrated novels. And yet…not unlike its eponymous widow, Lady Susan is a story that ought to retreat quietly into the background, but which instead insists upon getting her/its way.
Continue reading “Love and Friendship”
Over winter break, I’ve had the opportunity to fuel my Jane Austen obsession with Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptations of Sense and Sensibility (2008) and Pride and Prejudice (1995). I enjoyed them both! In my enthusiasm, I’ll follow up Caroline’s wonderful post on Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon and Cailey’s fascinating review of Feeding France with a few comments on the very different ways that Davies’ two miniseries represent the kind of solitary states that turn up all the time in Austen’s novels. I mean those moments in the narrative when a character’s (often the heroine’s) “privacy” is inflected with—or we might say invaded by—irrepressible thoughts and feelings for others. The tendency to doubt, judge, “(re)read” and generally speculate about other minds is one of the things that makes an Austen heroine the herione–this capacity distinguishes Elinor Dashwood from Anne Steele, Elizabeth from Mary Bennett. (There are shades of thinking and feeling for others, of course. Lucy Steele, for instance, is good at anticipating other people’s behavior but her cunning doesn’t enable her to transcend her immediate interests.) Frequently, a heroine’s thoughts and feelings about other characters come into relief when she is alone—i.e. temporarily free from the claims, misconstructions and physical proximity of others.
After reading Darcy’s letter exposing the ‘truth’ about Wickham, Elizabeth Bennet famously cries, “Till this moment I never knew myself.” The expression passes in just the kind of reflective solitude that I want to suggest is the special privilege of the Austenian heroine. We might equate Elizabeth’s urgent solitary exclamation with the sort of emotional content that Shakespeare’s soliloquies represent. Think, for instance, of Richard III’s despairing exclamation upon waking from a nightmare that, “There is no creature loves me; / And if I die, no soul shall pity me: / Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” For Richard as for Elizabeth, self-knowledge comes with a fresh and difficult (humiliating, haunting) perception of one’s relation to another (or others) . In general though, dialogic forms like drama and film evoke solitary movements of thought and feeling far less frequently than realist novels. For Frances Ferguson, “the limitation of theater is that it consists of almost nothing but direct quotation, so that drama must continually create an unfolding plot that motivates individual characters to present their views, to have thoughts that rise to the level of the expressible” (167). Theatre can’t, in other words, capture unvoiced thoughts and feelings like free indirect style.
Though their film consists of almost nothing but direct dialogue, screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Simon Langton manage to evoke the intense feelings of shame, regret and longing that accompany Elizabeth’s recognition that she has misjudged Darcy’s character. Nancy Yousef has observed that Elizabeth’s attachment to Darcy grows with self-abasing feelings of gratitude that are “largely described and situated in solitary meditations” (107). The BBC adaptation stays faithful to the spirit of Austen’s novel by showing us that Elizabeth’s romance with Darcy develops as much in private spaces of reflection as in face-to-face encounters. The filmmaker’s attempts to show that Elizabeth is a reflective character are respectable (she is frequently shot sitting in front of the mirror) but, in one instance, the visual representation of Elizabeth’s preoccupation with Darcy is semi-ludicrous. In the carriage ride from Rosings to Merryton, Elizabeth gazes pensively out of the window and, all of a sudden, a ghostly apparition of Darcy appears reflected before her. He rehashes a line from the proposal scene: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Although Elizabeth’s feelings of regret and self-loathing are conveyed in the bodily shudder with which she responds to and vanquishes Darcy’s specter, the whole bit has me thinking less about Elizabeth’s affective state (the scene leaves little to the imagination) and more about how unnatural it feels to know exactly what a character on screen is feeling. Movies may just be better off leaving us to wonder about the content of characters’ minds.
By not giving us full access to Elinor Dashwood’s thoughts, a montage towards the end of the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility imagines new possibilities for Austen’s heroine. The montage is about as effective as any scene in Antonioni at generating ambiguity about a silent figure. Multiple shots dwell on Elinor after she has returned to Barton and learned (been misinformed) that Edward Ferrars has married. In this moment in the novel, psycho-narration follows Elinor’s thoughts as she conjures a vision of Edward settled in marriage and discovers that, “happy or unhappy,—nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.” In the film, however, Elinor’s mood of frustrated desire saturates a series of strangely beautiful shots that picture her going through the solitary motions of everyday life. We watch her paint a landscape, hang a picture, buy a fish, gaze out the window and, finally, out at the sea. Though Antonioni would probably leave off the sad tune that acknowledges Elinor’s disappointment all too obviously, her contemplative activities suggest visually the kind of aimlessness that he became famous for representing on screen. Watching Elinor, we entertain the idea that she may be sad, bored, distracted or lonely but we are not certain that her feelings correspond to thoughts of Edward.
In the final shot, Elinor appears on a bench before the sea, with her back to the viewer. In an essay on Austen and Cavell, Eric Walker argues that this image represents Elinor’s self-sufficiency—“like Elinor herself in the image, Elinor’s desire, autocentric and allocentric, faces elsewhere, elusively”—and simultaneously anticipates her upcoming marriage—“the bench marks the grounded and settled spot where the marriage empire summons identity to take seated place, with room for one other.” Insofar as the shot suggests thoughts of an absent other, it evokes the typically intersubjective quality of solitude in Austen. But where the novel Sense and Sensibility gives us an incontestable description of the unpleasant thoughts about Edward that are running through Elinor’s head in this moment, the film, which can only suggest thoughts and emotions, leaves open the possibility that Elinor’s thoughts may tend, elusively and abstractly, towards a horizon that is hers alone to imagine.
Ferguson, Frances. “Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2000): 157–80.
Walker, Eric C. “Walker, Austen and Cavell,” July 1, 2014. http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/cavell/praxis.cavell.2014.walker.html.
Yousef, Nancy. Romantic Intimacy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.
As fall returns, so does my teaching voice. I don’t talk much during the summer. In its disuse, my voice grows soft and listless. Speaking becomes slightly—just slightly, just at moments—unintuitive. The first words out of my mouth each morning make my body feel like a chance habitation, an improbable accident that naturalizes itself over the course of the day. The intuition at the core of this dissociation is probably accurate, except that it implies I’m somehow distinct from my body, somehow less of an accident than my body.
Continue reading “Wordsworth, Cavarero, and the Voice”
While my research has thus far focused on Romantic print media, my recent foray into the world of media archeology has led me to search for alternative media that print obscures. In Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich Kittler confronts “the historian’s writing monopoly” (6) by arguing that print cannot adequately take into account oral and visual culture. Writing merely stores the “facts of its authorization” (7), while “whatever else was going on dropped through the filter of letters and ideograms” (6). Kittler points to photography and film as storage media that put an end to the monopoly of print by recording the images and noise that print filters out. And yet, for scholars like ourselves interested in the period that preceded these inventions, how do we uncover the alternative media that print obscures? In order to answer this question, I turn to two examples of performance-based media that much recent work has attempted to reconstruct: lecture and drama.
Reconstructing the Romantic lecture
On February 28, 2014, the University of Colorado at Boulder hosted “Orating Romanticism,” a series of speakers that included Dr. Sarah Zimmerman of Fordham University, Dr. Sean Franzel of the University of Missouri, and CU Boulder’s own Kurtis Hessel. While each speaker focused on a particular lecturer or series of lectures, all spoke about the challenges they face when attempting to reconstruct a medium that is inherently performative and ephemeral. Dr. Zimmerman explained that Romantic lectures were critical oral arguments shaped by participating auditors as much as speakers themselves. For example, when giving a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s characters at the Royal Institution, Coleridge frequently deviated from his notes and occasionally strayed so far from the advertised topic that auditors complained in their reviews. Other lecturers changed their topics according to the audience’s immediate responses, collapsing the time between composition and reception that characterizes print. Working with such a medium proves challenging, explained Zimmerman, because the lecture’s “authoritative text,” if such a thing exists, “lies at the midpoint that marks the exchange between performer and audience.” As an inherently performative media dependent on time, place, and audience, the Romantic lecture cannot be adequately expressed in print.
Facing this challenge in his work on Coleridge’s, Hazlitt’s, and Humphry Davy’s respective lectures, Kurtis Hessel explained that in order to reconstruct these events we’re forced to cobble together “texts” from various sources, including the speaker’s notes, advertisements, reviews, and writings of those who attended. And yet, cautioned Hessel, these sources are often unreliable indicators of what actually took place. Just because a lecture was advertised, for example, does not mean it was actually held. If ticket sales failed to reach certain quotas, the event was canceled. In addition, while some lecturers like Hazlitt published write-ups of their lectures following the event, the printed version does not necessarily provide an accurate account of the lecture itself. Although it’s tempting to treat lectures in the same way we treat texts, Hessel struggles against this inclination in his work. Rather than relying on an available text, he explained, we’re forced to construct one. While print continues to dominate our understanding of Romantic-era oral media, we should seek out as many diverse sources as possible in order to reconstruct these moments. The lecture itself exists somewhere in between.
Reconstructing drama and pantomime
Drama is a similarly performative medium that presents methodological challenges when reconstructing it in print. With the exception of closet dramas and other plays that were not intended for the stage, the majority of popular stage productions were written with performance in mind. Although we have scripts, stage directions, and other textual remnants of these works, it’s difficult to imagine what occurred at individual performances. In Coleridge’s highly successful drama Remorse (1813), for example, we know that audiences were enthralled by a spectacular incantation scene in which an altar goes up in flames to reveal a painting of the protagonist’s assassination. Yet no surviving versions of the text give any indication of how this effect was achieved. Instead, our best guess comes from a write-up in The Examiner that describes “the altar flaming in the distance, the solemn invocation, the pealing music of the mystic song,” that together produced “a combination so awful, as nearly to over-power reality, and make one half believe the enchantment which delighted our senses.” Though lacking in specifics, this description depicts the scene better than the play’s stage directions, which simply read “The incense on the altar takes fire suddenly, and an illuminated picture of Alvar’s assassination is discovered.” In cases where stage spectacle played an important role in a production, paratextual materials are often better approximations of performance than the text itself.
These materials become even more important in the reconstruction of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pantomime, a form characterized by on-stage action rather than dialogue. When trying to reconstruct the text of Harlequin and Humpo (1812) for The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, Jeffrey Cox and Michael Gamer used manuscripts with short descriptions of scenes alongside audience programs and other detailed information, but it’s impossible to arrive at an “ideal text” when a performance has no words. In places where the manuscript had little detail, they looked for descriptions in newspaper reviews. One review reveals that an Indian boy performed impressive contortions and acrobatics for a good portion of Scene V, a sequence that isn’t mentioned in the manuscript and seems have been a last minute addition to the show. It’s the piecing together of these sources that gives us the closest possible approximation of the work.
Despite my desire to uncover alternatives to print media, to deconstruct Kittler’s “writing monopoly,” it’s obvious that print is all that remains of Romantic performance culture. And yet, in our efforts to cobble together “texts” of these lectures and plays, it becomes harder to uphold traditional notions of textual stability. Especially in instances where there are multiple versions with significant differences, books are characterized by variation, difference, and inconsistency rather than grand solidity and authority. While publishers tend to smooth over these ruptures in “definitive editions” of canonical texts, reconstructions of forms like lecture and drama refuse to lull the reader into a fall sense of continuity. The search for Romantic print alternatives, though perhaps futile, may lead us to a more nuanced understanding of the different forces at play within printed texts.
The Romantic era witnessed the reemergence of closet drama, the rise of what scholars have come to call mental theatre, and Charles Lamb’s famous declaration that Shakespeare has always belonged in print and has always been meant to be read. Examining these attempts to remediate the theatre – to have print supplant the stage as the correct medium for theatrical exhibitions – under the larger categories of poetry, imagination, or mental theatre does not consider the shifting material situation of the period. While valuable work has been done examining theatre’s relationship to these categories as well as the social space offered by the theatre and changes in theatrical laws and practices, this post will show that one of the principal objections regarding writing for the stage during the Romantic era was more pragmatic. William Godwin, an early and neglected participant in this conversation, claims that the lag time between the composition and performance of a play prevents the theatre and playwrights from staying current.
As many critics have shown, Godwin and his circle – including Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Thelwall, and others –share a “profound mistrust of the theater and theatricality in general.”  Summarizing the chief goals of Godwin’s landmark 1793 Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, Mark Philip echoes these sentiments when he claims that, according to Godwin, “as people become more fully autonomous, rational and benevolent, the institutions of property and government will fall by the wayside, but so too will such invidious practices as concerts and theatrical performances.”  A reexamination of his famous dismissal of the “invidious practices” of concerts and theatrical performances, however, reveals the effects print had on the theatre. It is when he is writing about cooperation that Godwin turns his attention to the arts, specifically music and the theater. Before asking “shall we have theatrical exhibitions,” the political thinker asks “shall we have concerts of music?” Godwin dismisses both music and the theater because he believes that it is detrimental for men to “come forward in any mode, formally to repeat words and ideas not their own.”  The, in Godwin’s terms, “mode” of music and theatrical exhibition simply facilitate repetition.
The distinction between “executing” and “composing” music and dramas reveals Godwin’s main concern regarding these two “modes” of artistic representation. G. Thomas Tanselle’s discussion of literary texts and musical scores in A Rationale of Textual Criticism is useful in understanding Godwin’s objections. For Tanselle, both types of art serve as sets of instruction for the reader and performer: “As artifacts, literary texts are analogous to musical scores in providing the basis for the reconstitution of works, even though the medium of those works is different.”  According to Tanselle, both are sets of instructions for their reproduction. It is this idea of reproduction that Godwin believes to be problematic. The “execution” of earlier compositions is a type of submission to the authority of the past. To privilege the work of earlier generations is, according to Godwin, to “yield supinely to the superior merit of our predecessors.” This anxiety regarding the “merit of our predecessors” connects Godwin’s concerns regarding music and the theater with the larger issues of Political Justice. For example, discussing the legislative decisions of the new national assembly in France, Godwin writes, “‘Man and forever!’ was the motto of the labours of this assembly. Just broken loose from the thick darkness of an absolute monarchy, they assumed to prescribe lessons of wisdom to all future ages.” As Angela Esterhammer points out, Godwin claims the French Constitution “fell into exactly the same trap of attempting to legislate for all time.” Likewise, the musical and theatrical compositions of his predecessors have come to dominate the art of the age.
It would seem, then, that the rehabilitation of the artistic modes of music and theatrical production is possible. When he concludes his discussion of the arts of his time, Godwin gestures towards a solution. He claims that the current moment’s submission to past compositions “borders perhaps, in this respect, upon a breach of sincerity, which requires that we should give immediate utterance to every useful and valuable idea that occurs.” “Every useful and valuable idea” must be expressed immediately. Godwin’s longing for “immediate utterance” reveals his “Romantic proclivity for the oral.”  It also begins to show why the theater, which “tended to relegate the written word to secondary significance, behind the spoken” would appeal to him. Furthermore, as George Woodcock recognizes, “Godwin’s view of social change,” especially in 1793 when he was first gaining notoriety, required “a certain immediacy, for he believed men’s minds would be open to the persuasion of reason” if “the truth were shown to them.”  Therefore, showing “the truth” to men immediately through a medium that privileges the spoken word would be quite persuasive. Those capable of reviving the artistic modes of the music and theatrical production are not the performers or actors – that is, those who are responsible for the execution of a given work – but the composers. In other words, the execution of compositions written during his own moment would, for Godwin, put an end to the practice of “supinely” submitting to the superiority of his predecessors.
The extent of Godwin’s investment in the stage is most evident when after the performance of his play Antonio in 1800, he claims, “I regard the 13th of December last as a great era in my life, & I am not without hope that it may ultimately prove an auspicious one.”  Despite the fact that the play was performed only once, this quotation shows that he clearly hoped that the first production of one his plays would not be his last. The fact that he labels the staged performance of his play as an “era” is also important. As Julie Carlson notes, writing for the stage is “precisely a writing for – for a future representation and reception that may or may not occur.” The “great era” Godwin identifies further highlights the distinction between the writing of a play and its staged performance.
Godwin wrote four plays over the course of his career, two of which made it to the Drury Lane stage. What happens to our understanding of Romantic drama when Godwin is put into the conversation? What happens when we consider Godwin’s distinction between “composition” and “execution” in relation to attempts to locate the theatre and theatrical performances in print as opposed to the stage?
During the Performance Seminar at NASSR 2011 Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave presentations which resulted in fervent discussion about performance in the Romantic period and the development and growth of Romanticism(s). As the seminar continued those in the room engaged in a conversation about where performance studies is going (in and out of Romanticism); ultimately, the question was posed about just how valuable ‘performance’ is as a term, but I could hardly re-present those perspectives here. So, I’m left with my own reflection on the conversation.
I left the seminar wondering about particular facets of the conversation and spent some time since the seminar questioning ‘performance’ as a term; as I continued to work through my summer reading list I found performance to be central to many authors’ arguments. The discussion at NASSR (and my reading since then) left me asking, “Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Has the term lost its value and poignancy precisely because the field of study has expanded beyond those literal performances of the stage?”
I assure you, I do not have an answer. Instead, my hope here is to leave you asking as well, to share some of this blogger’s thinking following a NASSR seminar, and perhaps to continue the conversation that began in Park City (as there are numerous other ways to define and theorize performance beyond what I mention below).
When I arrived home from Park City I read Donald Hall’s Reading Sexualities: Hermeneutic theory and the future of queer studies; in his introduction, Hall summarizes Judith Butler’s “implication of individual agency in changing sexual and gender norms through disruptive performances” (10). He writes,
In [Gender Trouble], Butler argues famously that the specific critical and political task that her politically engaged readers should assume is to locate sites for subversion, ‘to affirm the local possibilities of intervention through participating in precisely those practices of repetition that constitute identity and, therefore, present the immanent possibility of contesting them’ (Butler 1999:188). She issued a call to arms, suggesting that gender parodies (such as drag) and other disruptive social performances might work to create a better world for queers. (Hall 11)
In other words, by removing the theater from ‘performance,’ Butler linked activism and the academy—she made an intellectual “call to action” which resounded beyond (and simultaneously within) the academic community, including within “social-action groups such as Queer Nation” (Hall 11). (Though, as Hall points out, Butler “backtracked quickly” just three years later in Bodies that Matter, disclaiming the political potency of parody and subversive performance .) No matter where Butler stands on the usefulness of her theorization, what is most valuable is Butler’s definition of ‘performance’ locatable in the every day—the unconscious and involuntary. I’ve found that thinking about and teaching social constructivism through performance—by discussing everyday life as a form of theater, by expanding the definition of ‘audience’ to those with whom we interact within our educational institutions, workplaces, and shopping malls—is quite useful for me and particularly accessible for my students. I do wonder if I could teach social constructivism without talking about performance in this way. Even if I could, would my students or I benefit from it? Why does this approach seem to resonate with students? To some degree, this notion of ‘performance’ is individually empowering. Knowing that the way one acts out one’s life has an immediate effect on the ‘audience’ can lead to a shift in thinking about interpersonal communication—even if one accepts that these performances are involuntary and never has the idea or intention of purposefully manipulating self-performance. This type of ‘performance’ helps some students understand that they can have agency over their performances and, to some degree, the ways that audiences receive those performances. For example, if they want to be perceived as a hard-worker they begin to act like a hard-worker, which is difficult to do without actually working hard. I think my students are willing to consider social constructivism this way because it helps them understand something more about themselves and the way they are seen in the world. (It also resonates with the materialist culture they are familiar with; after teaching Susan Alexander’s “Stylish Hard Bodies: Branded Masculinity in Men’s Health Magazine” it became clear that the students in my Popular American culture course fully grasp this “You are what you buy” definition of ‘performance.’) However, in many ways this definition is limitless. It becomes possible to think of everything and anything as a performance. If everything is performance we (literary and cultural studies communities, those of us at the NASSR Performance Seminar) begin to question just how useful performance is, and for good reason, I think.
Even if we wanted to, could we go back to a pre-Butler definition of performance? I’m not sure that we could, though we can certainly limit the ways that we use the term to understand the histories and cultures which interest us. Kristina Straub employs a definition of performance which bridges the space between the performances of the theater and the every day. In Domestic Affairs: Intimacy, Eroticism, and Violence between Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Straub “draws from performance theory, as developed by critics such as Joseph Roach” (111); her analysis in the chapter “Performing the Manservant, 1730 to 1760” includes “performances of masculinity” that “occur on both the London stage—in the dramatic characters of footmen—and in the theater audience’s sometime violent contention between these servants and their ‘betters’” (112). Straub’s theorization of ‘performance’ “stresses the social formation of masculine gender and sexuality through repeated, publicly visible behaviors in the theater, ones that resonate with changing power relations that were more broadly played out in society” (Straub 111). This definition articulates a critical link between the stage and Main Street (so to speak); it organically connects the performances of both locations and again emphasizes the stage as a way of reading and understanding part(s) of the culture at large. It doesn’t limit the stage to a re-presentation of what is going on within larger cultural systems but makes cultural phenomena more visible to the audience/reader.
Straub’s definition offers a way of seeing the connection between the beginnings of ‘performance’ and its evolution into a concept that shapes a large number of identity fields. With this evolution in mind, I find it difficult to restrict ‘performance’ to the study of drama. The performances taking place on the stage at my local theater are certainly not the same as those taking place in my classroom; however, understanding one paradigm has helped me to understand the other. Through its expanded purview, performance theory leads to tangible shifts in the discourse(s) of identity politics and births intellectual work that expands the fields of literary and cultural studies in productive ways. Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Perhaps it has, but I speculate that this broadness is a reflection of theoretical usefulness. ‘Performance’ isn’t a term devoid of value and poignancy; on and off the stage it has reshaped the ways that we think about identities, bodies, languages, and rituals for (at least) the last twenty years.
*Thank you to presenters Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood, moderator Angela Esterhammer, and all of the audience members who contributed to such a thought-provoking conversation!
Today’s post represents the ripening of an idea I pondered in the first post I ever made to this blog, way back in September. (Sigh… how young I was back then…) I had been pondering the concept of “emotive reading” as a way into understanding literature—and lucky for me, I got assigned to teach a whole semester’s worth of Shakespeare this spring, the perfect lab for testing my ideas! (Just this morning, in fact, one of my students caught on to the game, stating grimly, “so we’re your guinea pigs, huh?” Bless his heart!) Indeed experimentation is, in my world anyway, a big part of the process through which I learn how best to reach my students, and recently I experimented with an unconventional assignment (i.e. not an essay) that I would consider a success. I thought I’d pass it along. Continue reading “The "Play" Within the Play: A Sample Assignment”
This past Monday we hosted two great talks, here at CU, as part of our “Circulations: The Futures of Romanticism” series. Michael Macovski spoke about the history of the Book, with a special attention on the role that redaction plays in Romantic reading practice, and Michael Gamer spoke about the persistent pressures of fame and personal economic stability that accompanied Robert Southey’s establishment as poet laureate in 1813. I feel privileged to have been able to attend these talks, both for the valuable insights they offered relative to book history and economic literary analysis (two compelling avenues of study that clearly have much to offer the field), and for the important presentation strategies they demonstrated.
Since the talks, I’ve been thinking about these and other presentations I’ve enjoyed, mulling over what it is, in particular, that makes for a good academic talk. So much of our classroom experience, both as teachers and as students, is oriented around discussion, where we can riff, where an inchoate idea satisfies to propel a discussion towards completeness, where continuity is not always necessary nor even desirable; as such, the prospect of giving a talk, of owning the floor for fifteen to twenty minutes, uninterrupted, to present ideas for which we are solely responsible, can be daunting. Certainly, it must help to watch the presentations of others with an eye for the specific stratagems they employ, not only in constructing an argument, but in effectively engaging an audience. Continue reading “Contemplating Presentation: Part I, Technology”
Hi. This is Kelli T. Jasper, secretary of the NGSC, checking in with an only slightly self-indulgent reflection on the vicissitudes of teaching literature. My regards to all of you out there who, like me, are still figuring it out!
It’s Monday, and the end of September. The euphoria and excitement of starting new projects begins to wear off, and tiredness starts to kick in. I return my first round of graded essays to students, and along with my lengthy critiques sinks in the reality that we’re going to be together for a long, long time. For me, at about this point every semester doubts appear. Perhaps I’ve been too ambitious? Perhaps I’ve assigned too much work? I begin to notice my own teacherly rollercoaster—exultation at gorgeous moments of discovery in class; reservation about the structure I’ve set of for the course; discouragement over the students I can’t seem to reach or who already hate my guts; frustration at the disconnect between short class periods and rich, lengthy texts; and gratitude for those students who flatter me with their enthusiasm or their compliments on my shoes. I take comfort in the regularity of this crisis, and solace in the way it prompts me to reflect—constructively, I hope—on where we are now, and where I want us to go.
This is a semester of firsts for me: first time teaching a literature course, though I’ve taught composition and humanities in the past; first time teaching Milton and Shakespeare, as required by the course; first time reading Paradise Lost, a risk I took alongside my students; first time preparing to take my comprehensive exams; first time contributing to a blog. All things considered, I suppose it’s only natural to feel a bit unsure of myself. And the upshot is that, as sometimes happens with steep learning-curves, I feel some of the various planets of my academic life aligning—or if not aligning, then at least constellating into something as yet ineffable, but still awesome. I’ll do my best to explain.
For my comprehensive exams, I’ve been reading Frankenstein—another first, though how I got to my third year as a PhD candidate without ever reading this book is a mystery. I’m struck by how much of the story revolves around the transformative power of reading: after a failed career as a poet, R. Walton’s reading prompts him on a voyage to the North Pole; reading Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Magnus sets Frankenstein on his path toward animating life; the creature discovers Volney, Plutarch, and Milton, producing in him “an infinity of new images and feelings.” As I try to define for myself what exactly it means to study Romantic Literature as well as what it means to teach literature at all, I wonder how to help my students access this kind of transfiguring reading experience. Have they ever, like Walton, “perused […] those poets whose effusions entranced my soul, and lifted it to heaven”? More importantly, have I?
At times I feel that my own reading experiences have become so focused on analysis that I forget to feel transported. I’m told that as an English teacher it’s my job to teach close reading, and while I agree, it’s so often a tough sell! But today, I had an epiphany. Perhaps in order to teach close reading, I first need to teach active, performative reading. In my class we have been performing short scenes from Richard III. I borrowed the lesson plan from a friend, and had the students break into small groups, choose a scene of about 100 lines, and then stage it for the class—handing in to me about 500 words’ worth of “director’s notes” explaining their interpretive choices. We worked quickly, and having no drama training of my own, I gave them none; I simply asked that they read their parts in a way that conveyed a clear sense of the meaning to the audience.
The results have surprised and inspired me—not because the students were all amazing readers, but because so many of them were not! They could pronounce most of the words correctly, and could pause when they came to periods (that is, they’re certainly literate), but very few of them seemed to read with intentional, interpretive emotion. What a fascinating disconnect! When I read in my head, the characters take on voices in my imagination—they intrigue me with their personalities, and I delight in the visions of their rages or reveries that are somehow conjured in my mind from the words on the page. Having felt relatively comfortable with Shakespeare for many years now, I forget that such conjuring does not happen automatically for most students. Lacking practice in active, performative reading, it’s no wonder they prefer more obvious writers like Stephanie Meyers, Dan Brown, and Nicholas Sparks. While students seem to have no problem connecting emotionally with plotlines (thank you, Sparknotes), it seems to me that the average non-English-major needs training in order to connect emotion to written language—particularly the slightly archaic language found in pre-20th-century texts.
In pondering these ideas, I find myself rethinking the philosophy of my course, and planning future courses exclusively around reading, writing, performance, adaptation, and interpretation. According to Thomas Tanselle in A Rationale of Textual Criticism, written texts provide only the blueprints of a “work” that must be reconstituted by the reader. “Close reading” is simply the term we’ve given to the process of analyzing our own acts of reconstitution—but if we lack the skill or practice to reconstitute effectively, then what is there to analyze? I therefore commit myself to helping students become emotive readers as a means to becoming close readers. Richard III obviously lent itself well to performance, but now as we move on to reading Fanny Burney’s Evelina, I’m envisioning much more reading aloud, and much more discussion about how we as readers might perform these characters. These discussions might propel us toward an exploration of writing as performance, whether it’s the author writing the work, or characters within the work writing/reading/performing.
I know that none of this is headline news. Reader-response theory has been around for a long time, and I’ve learned in pedagogy classes how useful it is as a framework for teaching literature. Yet still, somehow, these concepts have gained substance this week in a way I’ve never experienced before. For the moment, my own “soul is lifted to heaven,” and I think I catch a glimpse of how to help my students rise above the clouds as well. So off I go to make a lesson plan and design a new unit project.
Take that, September blues.