Thursday, September 21, 2006

Academic Maturity or, "John Donne: Still Sexy after all these Years"

Neither of my classes is ever dull, but the level of maturity of my more advanced students sometimes blows me away. It amazes me that in three to four years students can grow so much.

Today, despite only four hours of sleep, my upper level Renaissance poetry class basically rocked. Not because of my level of preparedness (or lack thereof) but because they were so excited by the material and said such smart things. I, on the other hand, appeared sleepy, sniffly (allergies) and groggy. But it was ok. Sometimes we have not-so-good days in the classroom and we suffer through them. Other times, we think we'll have to suffer through class and our students lift us up. We continued our discussion of Donne's Songs and Sonnets, examining Reformation rhetoric alongside imagery of material decomposition. We also continued our on-going discussion of gendered rhetorical stances. And somehow, through all of this wrestling, pondering and arguing, we ended up acknowledging that most of us would probably allow ourselves to be seduced by J.D., because of his cleverness, his wit and the way he seems to keep "pushing it almost just a little too far" as one of my students put it. Another had this to say: "His rhetoric is violent and misogynistic and I'm totally grossed out by his morbid imagery, but you have to admit that he's still sexy after all these years."

When a student gave a presentation on Donne today and mentioned Donne's punning on "Death" as a euphemism for orgasm, no one blinked. If I had brought that up in my freshman survey, I think there would have been a mixture of giggles, squirming, and lips pursed together in shock.

I don't know if the reason why this kind of discussion could never take place in my freshman survey class has to do with the students' age or wisdom. Is the maturity of my advanced students simply an ability to acknowledge and relish contradiction within a text? Or is it an ability to be comfortable talking about sex and literature and ideology all at once? Or maybe they are simply used to us crazy English teachers sexing up our readings?

I chose a picture of the young Donne for this post. It's dated 1591, and he looks quite innocent and a little anxious (notice the hand gripping the sword hilt, the raised shoulders). Not at all seductive, if you ask me, though I do think his nose is cute. He should ease up on the eyebrow plucking, though.

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