Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Eating

How far would you travel to taste the food of the gods?

It wasn't just the warm interior of the little restaurant nestled on a dark anonymous corner. Not the shiny tin ceiling, the full, animated room, the twinkly lights or the mirrored walls. It wasn't the wooden tables and chairs, and it wasn't the no-nonsense dinner ware, the flushed faces of the servers. It wasn't the open kitchen or the blackboard. Or the cold outside. It wasn't smiles on faces, or the excitement of dressing up.

It was the cloud-like foie gras and the sharp sweet wine-cassis reduction on the (almost raw) venison and the crispy tendrils of shaved leeks everywhere and the simplicity of the brasied lamb which was humbly named after a mouse and the bitter darkness of chocolate and sorbets too intense to describe in terms other than platonic because they captured something essential about fruit, something that made all other fruits seem like so many shadows.

I remember little of the conversation. I do remember that we nearly forgot our coats.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Paradise Lost Teaching Chronicles, Part II

Is this more likely to happen in the South? I wonder if any one else has had a similar reaction:

Today we began with Satan out of Hell and approaching Eden, the beginning of Book IV.

A lot of students were really moved by his opening speech, where he seems to have come to some pretty profound self knowledge and is aware of his mistake and his eternal burden. It's the one where Hell is redefined as something Satan carries with him, as well as his distance from God (similar to Mephistophelis' definition of Hell in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus).

We began to talk about how Satan becomes more human, more sympathetic in this book, and how we begin to appreciate the view from his perspective.

I had one student who resisted sympathizing with Satan.

This student contended that, as pure evil, Satan is just deceiving us, getting us on his side so that he can win; his remorse is false. An interesting perspective, I acknowledged, and since Milton's text loves reversals, this seems like a possibility. But when I asked her to support this idea with textual evidence from the passage, she faltered, even though she's an excellent reader, very good at using the text to back her claims.

And yet she refused to see it any other way. So in response I stressed that perhaps as PL is a prequel to both Genesis and Christianity, it's also a prequel to the creation of Good and Evil, and that it might be a narrative about how Satan becomes the Prince of Lies, rather than assumes that he's always embodied some essential evil quality. The student seemed unwilling to accept this interpretation too.

I can't quite figure out why this student kept insisting that Satan's grief and remorse were false, but I could tell that she was struggling to resist the urge to sympathize with him, and I liked that she wanted to try to see things a different way. And then I wondered if maybe it had something to do with fundamentalist or evangelical christian belief. In other words, I wondered whether my student was afraid to weep with Satan, that the devil might make an entrance if she did.

And and then I became afraid-- that I'm stereotyping my devout Christian students too much.

Maybe she was just trying to get on top of the reading which is already full of reversals. Maybe she was just trying to play "devil's advocate" with the devil's advocate. And in this sense, she was probably thinking more like Milton than anyone else.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Just Procrastinating

I still have about 16 more papers to mark, another course to prep, and a gazillion meetings this week before I can relax. I've insanely offered my house as the spot of the next Renaissance Reading Group meeting, which will happen over dinner tomorrow night. The Renaissance Reading group here is made up of MA students and talented undergrads and it was basically created because the students in my senior colleague's class just didn't want it to end.

So I'm opening my house up to students, before I've even opened it up to friends. Crazy, I know. Then there are departmental meetings, a trip to the Rare Books Room with my Renaissance poetry students, and more papers to hand back on Thursday.

I should be doing all of this without a break, but I can't, so instead I took off half an hour to blog and read the new york times.

In the yesterday's times, I found this expose of Montreal. It was pretty much on the mark for what to do as a rich, boring tourist in the city (shopping and eating), though it recommended cylcling in the wrong direction on the Lachine canal and named a lot of the big cliche places to eat like L'Express when everyone knows the smaller "m'as tu vu" places on the side streets are better. But I'm not telling which ones are best. Go find your own.

However, it also said this, which made me snort and almost spill my tea: "With the city’s debilitating 1990’s recession behind it—and the specter of Québécois secession all but forgotten — a lively patchwork of gleaming skyscrapers, bohemian enclaves and high-gloss hideaways now outshines the city’s gritty industrial past." I think a whole lot of people would disagree with that statement about "the specter of Quebecois secession all but forgotten." And what's wrong with a "gritty industrial past" anyway?

For some reason I'm glad it got a lot of Montreal wrong. I'd rather the best things about Montreal remain the purlieux of the cognoscenti. And that's why I'm Not Telling.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

This made me laugh, then sigh

One of my newest bourgeois indulgences on the weekends is looking at catalogues. It's a luxury in which we truly middle class citizens have the right to indulge, and I intend to make the most of it, especially whilst I still have a house to furnish. One of my favorites is the Sundance Catalogue. Yes, it's that Sundance, Robert Redford's estate, company, independent film institute, and the location of the annual film festival. The goods are overpriced but the aesthetic is wabi-sabi, weather beaten, environmentally sound, water washed antique. My kind of thing, if I could afford it.

Yet paging through their catalogue today I noticed something strange and oddly nauseating. The rhetoric has changed. Suddenly it seems they're courting conservatives. It's obviously a marketing decision. But it annoys me because it sounds like even Sundance, the most liberal of wealthy liberal outfits, previously prone to wearing its green, ecologically sound, fair trade heart on its sleeve, suddenly buys in to this bogus notion that we're all becoming more conservative. This is mostly bullshit and continuing to pander to the ignorant like this will only make it worse.

Here's what made me laugh. The description of the Hemp Rug. Just so you don't start freaking out about Hemp and marijuana, you patriotic conservative:

"When the Founding Fathers encouraged colonial Americans to grow hemp, they were on to something. Strong but soft, thick yet pliant, naturally long-wearing and environmentally sound, hemp meets or beats competing fibers any day of the week, year after year after year. Ours is organically grown and woven by hand, like George Washington's. Natural materials and handcrafting make each piece unique, and sizes may vary slightly. Imported. 2' x 3', 2 1/2' x 8', 3' x 5', 4' x 6', 6' x 9', and 8 1/2' x 11'. Additional shipping $10.
hemp rug #40273 $40.00 - $500.00"

That's right. For only $500 you too can have a dining room rug similar to the one that George Washington had! And I bet you didn't know that the Founding Fathers encouraged early Americans to grow hemp. And to be organic farmers too! Well, if the Founding Fathers did so, it can't be all about crazy hippie liberals now can it?

But the best part comes at the end of the description: "Imported."

Incidentally, you may not have known that George Washington was actually all that and more.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Freudian Slip of the Day, Week, Month, Year

Scene: My British Literature survey class. I'm having the class go around the room reading Satan's elegaic speech to the fallen angels on the lake ("Fairwell happy fields / Where joy forever dwells! Hail horrors, hail / Infernal world").

One of my students, perhaps going a bit too fast reads this:

"And thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy New Professor, one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time!"

The poor kid was pretty embarassed. But after I assured him that as a New Professor I wasn't the least offended, was really quite flattered, he seemed to relax.

It was hard to keep a straight face. It's nice to know I'm on their minds, even if it is in connection with hell.

I kept comparing Charles I to George W. Bush in class today, though not in so many words. I said "Here is a ruler who wants to make his own rules, who ignores the views of Parliament when they disagree with him. Here is someone whose power is out of control." I couldn't tell if more than two of them noticed.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Où est Charlie?

When I lived in Montreal not so long ago, I kept seeing these odd Where's Waldo posters in the Métro, only in French they bore a large silhouette of Waldo and the subtitle Où est Charlie? Which is very funny because without the aliteration and the busy scene hiding the tiny guy in the striped shirt, Where's Waldo completely loses what weak appeal it may have held. (As a toddler I much preferred Anno's Counting Book: Yes even at 2 I was a literary snob).

Nevertheless, I've been having several Où est Charlie moments over the past few days. I wake up and I can't find the cat. Or else I'll be sitting on the couch marking papers and the cat has disappeared. I call for her in every room, check at the bottom of the stairwell, peek in all the closets, search behind the plants, prod the plexiglass in the fireplace. And while I'm doing this she wanders silently and sleepily into the living room so I can't really tell where she's come from.

This evening I figured it out. Here's proof. Où est Saffron? You can hide, but you can't hide.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Damn you, A.O. Scott

I really didn't want this movie to be any good. And I certainly didn't want you to like it. There are so many things wrong with turning Marie Antoinette into a teenage rockstar, especially in this day and age. And I can't figure out which is more incongruous: Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI or Rip Torn as his father.

And although I liked Lost in Translation well enough, it seems like Sofia Coppola's films are always over-hyped, which can only lead to disappointment ("so this is this great film everyone was raving about?) or an intense scrutiny on the part of the viewer, to the detriment of his or her pleasure ("Is this really all that great? What makes this great and not just sort of interesting? Is it great because it's a little boring? Are we supposed to be listless like the characters?)

But . . .

But . . .

The pointy satin shoes, the Laduree macarons, the the the . . . petticoats.

I have to see this film. So Sophia Coppola's no Max Ophuls. We've established that. Is it possible she's actually done something right this time, and made a film that it is a pleasure to watch? I'll have to let you know.

A.O. Scott reviews Marie Antoinette

Oh, the Innocence of Youth

I seem to have been gushing perhaps a bit too much about the intellectual maturity of the students in my upper level Renaissance poetry seminar. Let me rephrase that . . .

They may be able to think and articulate fairly complex ideas. They may be comfortable talking about sex and religious turmoil in the same sentence.

But when it comes time to turn in papers (their first batch this semester, only 8-10 pages), they don't seem to understand that a due date means that the paper is due on that day.

The night before the due date I received two e-mails. In the first, a student complained that her computer had been failing all week and finally crashed late at night, she was unable to access the paper she'd been writing and thus unable to complete it until she could talk to the computer repair service and get her information off her computer. She asked for an extension.

In the second, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper arrived home at 3am and was too exhausted to write his paper so he sent me an e-mail then asking for an extension.

Both of these requests came less than 8 hours before the paper was due.

I know college students typically write their papers the night before they're due. I did that too.

Call me mean, call me unsympathetic but to blatantly ask for extensions this late in the game and acknowledge you haven't started writing until after 9pm isn't just immature: it's wimpy! Don't beg for an extension, chug back some espresso and pull an all-nighter! That's what college is all about.

For the record, the freshmen in my Brit-Lit survey class all had papers due yesterday too. Every single student arrived in class on time, toting his or her paper.

Ah, the innocence of the young. I wonder how long it will take them to get corrupted.

So what did I do? I gave Mlle Ordinateur Brise an extention until midnight of that day, and I told M. Journal that for every 24 hours he didn't turn in his paper he would lose a letter grade (from A to B, from B to C, etc). So if his paper is 2 days late (it's already one and a half), whatever mark I give the paper will have to fall by 2 full letter grades.

Am I being too harsh? It's my first time at teaching an upper level seminar, so maybe I'm holding them to higher standards than I should be.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Philip Glass, Eat Your Heart Out

This poor kitten is forced to toil day and night composing music for psychological thrillers, getting none of the credit. Really. It's true.

I know this post may not stimulate your intellect, but I'm thoroughly exhausted after a long day of teaching, meeting with students, and discussing Dr. Faustus over dinner with graduate students. Which was lovely, actually, but I'm Really Tirednow.

Sometimes at the end of the day you just need to look at a cat on a synthesizer and Nothing Else Will Do.

Yes, I do realize that to some of you my work seems a bit like that kitten's on that synthesizer. On good days it seems so to me too. Like the amazing day I wrote about recently when my student did all of this investigative archival work on her own. I just sat and yawned and stretched and all this interesting discussion and material came gushing forth from my students.

I'm ready for my bowl of milk now.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Cutting through the Fog

I spent most of this week rather out-of-it. Staying up too late trying to get to sleep, rushing about preparing for class jolted to attention by several cups of coffee or extra-strong powdered green tea. I marked and handed back my first batch of papers in what seemed a daze. I did finally manage to see a doctor about this cold my students gave me along with their essays on Death, the medieval Church, and regurgitation. Which resulted in my being even more mentally unmoored in the latter end of the week due to the side effects of the drugs he prescribed, some of which I refused to take.

But through all the fog, I must have done something right because what I think was a tremendous thing happened in my upper level Renaissance class.

I've been calling it "Reading, Writing, and Poetry in Renaissance England." It's a (insert adj, noun here: "delicious romp"? "satisfying schlep"?) through Elizabethan poetry paying special attention to the materiality of the text. This means not only looking at facsimiles and copies of original editions, but paying attention to the way poets write about writing. (It's very meta). And printing. And book-making. And reading. And how their poems will be read in years to come. And whether or not they will survive, due to the instability of all the aforementioned practices.

Anyway, I've tried to get my students to really look at these Renaissance texts, to understand the many hands that shaped them, and to try to conceive of what Renaissance readers might have experienced.

And I think maybe I am actually getting through to them. Because one of them sliced through my foggy stupor on Thursday.

Every student has to do a short presentation on the reading for class. On Thursday we had one presentation on Spenser's Faerie Queene.

And my student, my undergraduate student, all on her own, prepared for her presentation in the following way: She decided to wander up to the Rare Books Room in the library, talk to the librarian, and convince her to come to class with the 1609 Folio edition of the text, so that the class could look through the books and more fully comprehend the factors at play in this particular material text (which is heavily ornamented and lavishly portrayed). As the books were passed around, students began to notice more and more. They asked intelligent questions. They handled the books with reverence. They each had something to say, something entirely original based on their individual experiences with this particular printing of this particular edition.

I keep telling them to check out the Rare Books Room, to use the Early English Books database. I keep bringing in facsimiles to class. But our visit to the Special Collections is slated for later in the year, when we look at emblem books (though the library is small, they do have some nice old books including 16th century editions of Alciato and Horapollo).

My student did this all on her own.

It totally made my day.