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May. 9th, 2012

Peppers

A Directionless Teaching Philosophy Zero Draft Freewriting Thing

  • Students will respect you as a teacher if you:
    • Know your stuff. Thoroughly. Students respect expertise.
    • Challenge them, but not impossibly so. They’ll live up to your high expectations of them provided they’re within reach.
    • Respect them and treat them with dignity and honesty. This means treating them like adults and being able to provide reasons for your decisions. Never do anything that you can’t provide a good reason for.
  • Students want good teachers, not friends –– they’ve already got plenty of those already.
  • They’ll be more willing to invest their time in the class if they see that you have done the same.
  • Be micro-specific in your syllabus. If there’s a gray area you’ll find yourself constantly negotiating the particulars. It’s much easier for you to get things to go your way if you set everything down in writing at the start.
  • Oversharing is a big mistake but the occasional slice of emotion, personal history, etc, judiciously revealed, can do wonders in building a positive relationship with your students.
  • When it comes to classroom discussion know when something is a matter of opinion and when it’s a matter of fact. Make the distinction clear.
  • There’s nothing more frustrating to a student than playing the mind-reading game. Avoid it where possible. Or, if you know you want to drive discussion somewhere specific at least try to be upfront about it.
  • Ask your students to fill out evaluations at the start of a class session rather than the end. That way they won’t rush to get through them. Explain what evals mean to you and to the school
  • Try to inject a little variety into the classroom routine whenever possible. It helps to maintain focus.
  • Try to ensure that assignments have a justification apart from being mere busywork. Ideally, they should build in a logical sort of way throughout the semester and prepare students for related activities outside of or after the semester.
  • Nobody wants to feel that they are wasting their time. Make sure that everyone feels their time, money, and energy have been well-spent.
  • Not all reading is created equal: some things will take longer to read than others and some things will generate more discussion than others. Literature tends to read quicker and lead to more passionate discussion whereas scholarly writing is a slower read and requires a more structured discussion.
  • It is better to assign a little reading and see that it is thoroughly understood than to assign a lot of reading that will be half-digested.
  • About three to five students seems to be optimal for encouraging discussion. It is sometimes useful in large discussion sections to subdivide students into smaller groups and have each group report its findings to the others.
  • Students will tend to more naturally fall into discussion if they are seated near to one another and can see most of their classmates without turning their heads or sitting uncomfortably. For this reason it is better in a discussion-based class to seat students in a circle or semicircle rather than rows.
  • It’s easier to keep a high energy level if you teach on your feet.
  • It’s a good idea to dress very professionally for teaching, especially at the start of a semester. Students will associate this sort of self-presentation with authority.
  • Give up on making everyone happy all the time. I always want everyone to be my friend but there will always come a time where your teaching duties clash with your desire to sew good cheer. If you’re a good teacher first you might become a friend later. If you try to be liked instead of being a good teacher you can never win. You’ll lose your students’ respect and they won’t want you as a teacher or a friend. You’ll be nothing.
  • Distribute treats––e.g., holding class outside, letting everyone go five minutes early––sparingly, and when you do try to give the impression that you’re responding to the tenor of the class. You don’t want to seem like a pushover but you don’t want to be inflexible. Giving out big payoffs rarely (like a slot machine) is a good way to get people hooked.

Apr. 19th, 2012

Peppers

After a Dry Spell, A Sprout

It’s been over seven months since my last entry in this thing but I was inspired by a chance meeting with Sarah-with-an-H, (one of the Ridgley Hall Irregulars), to try taking it up again. As before, it will probably be a mixture of personal diary and dissertation journal, with the occasional grouse about current events not unfolding as they would if I were in charge of the universe. (Any day now, people. Any day now.)

In the intervening time I’ve come back to the States from Taiwan and mostly devoted myself to teaching and working on my dissertation. My class, you might recall, is a self-designed thing in which I look at certain works of seventeenth century Chinese short vernacular fiction through a narratological lens. I ended up with five undergraduates enrolled (plus, for a time, a visiting PhD student from Beijing) and, apart from a few hiccoughs here and there, things have been quite wonderful. My students are all bright, engaged, and often quite funny. Really, I couldn’t have asked for a better group to have on my first experience as a solo teacher.

Even with the best people in the world, however, there’s a certain fatigue that sets in around the last few weeks of the semester. In the spring, at least, this is undercut by a warm, green blooming of the universe, unlike in the fall, when the days get colder and darker and shorter, with the general sense that everyone is riding slump-shouldered and glass-eyed toward ruin and the world's ending. So, even with the understanding that things could certainly be much much worse than they are, believe me when I say I’m ready to transition to the summer mode of droning insects and unimproving books read on the balcony.

After months spent spinning my academic wheels in Taiwan, I came back to St Louis raring to make progress on my dissertation, which is exciting and anxiety-making in pretty equal measure. I agreed with my advisor that I would shoot to have a chapter draft ready every two months in one of those Odysseus-lashed-to-the-mast type deals, which so far has resulted in a first chapter (the most page-turning-est fifty-eight pages you’re ever likely to read) in on time and second chapter healthily en route. It’s the fourth chapter (print and material culture) that has me the most worried because it’s the farthest from my wheelhouse, in a whole other district from my bailiwick, but that is fine, if not great. It will change if it needs to.

There was a time, a few weeks ago, that I was feeling very down for reason that I could not identify. It may be that there was no reason other than the usual neuro-chemical sloshing that tips me into the slough of despond from time to time. In part, I think, it was a function of my grinding against the final days of chapter one, at which point I felt I had exhausted I had to say on the subject without exhausting the subject itself. It was big enough that it had grown beyond my ability to manipulate it effectively, casting me in the role of someone trying to single-handedly wrestle a California king-sized duvet cover into shape. Happily, I was rescued by my colleagues in the Comparative Literature Dissertation Support Group (“CompLiDissSuGuh!”), a newly founded organization I now can’t imagine dissertating without, bless their hearts.

Aug. 11th, 2011

Peppers

In Which I Go On a Bit About Academia

I’ve been getting shaggier and shaggier lately so yesterday afternoon I went to get a haircut near campus. It was a straightforward, fifteen minute affair but I have to say there’s nothing that makes me feel like an adult man making his way in the world quite like getting shaved with a straight razor. The heaping of hot towels, the sense that if you have a muscle spasm your head could go flying off –– it feels downright Victorian. If you can manage it in the “Far East” (granting that the term is pretty silly these days), then so much the better.

The last few days I’ve been thinking about what it means to get an advanced degree in the humanities. This may have been precipitated by a recent Slate article bemoaning certain structural issues in academia (e.g. the explosion of adjunct profs, etc) and a follow-up consisting of rejoinders from English grad students. They were both fine but I was more struck by the comments accompanying each: as is to be expected, the comment boards reflected a kind of war with hostilities on two fronts. That is to say, graduate students in the humanities defending their right to intellectually exist from the “intellectuals are elitist jackasses” crowd on one side, and on the other side from the “education is great IF you’re studying math, hard science, or engineering but if you study words then you have a degree in bullshit” crowd (who are mostly annoyed because their team name doesn’t fit comfortably on a T-shirt, even when rendered an acronym).

So, the traditional defense of the “liberal arts” education typically goes something like this: “I may not learn any specific professional skills such as spot-welding or jujitsu but I’m learning to think really well. In an age during which the typical American will change careers X number of times in his or her lifetime, this is the best training you could ask for.” This is sometimes buttressed by the “finer things” argument: “So, you say you want to become an internet billionaire? A liberal arts education will enable you to appreciate all the fine books, art, and music that you will suddenly afford to be able to fill your life with.”

These arguments are dandy but they’re generally applied to undergraduate education. The stance shifts a bit when graduate students enter the picture. Grad students, we’re told, learn how to manage sustained intellectual engagement with a complex problem (eventually, the dissertation) and on top of this become these super disputants who are able to argue the hell out of a problem and, by extension, find the weaknesses in someone else’s argument. Here’s where we academics become vulnerable to attack by the people who pick up some work of critical theory, say, and dismiss it as so much jargony bullshit.

Clearly, some percentage of thorny academic prose is naked nonsense holding a thesaurus over its genitals like a fig leave. Clearly again, some percentage of really difficult academic writing is actually very smart and has something valuable to say, provided you buy into the underlying assumption that art / music / poetry / fiction is ever worth discussing. The problem becomes separating the good stuff from the dross, which turns out to be rather difficult.

This is arguably a style issue, at least in part. Is it necessary for academic prose to read like the EULA for a particle accelerator? (Consider, for example, this gem from Judith Butler: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”)

Certainly, there are those who say that nonspecialists wouldn’t expect to understand every word in a journal of genetics, so why should they in a journal of comparative literature? Fair enough, but it’s specious reasoning to assume that just because something is hard to understand it must necessarily be really smart. Sometimes things are hard to read just because they’re poorly written. For example, the authors behind Style: Toward Clarity and Grace argue (if I recall correctly) that writing can be divided into three types: simple ideas expressed with elegance; complex ideas expressed with necessary complexity; and simple ideas obscured by unnecessary complexity. Writing of the third sort is depressingly endemic in academia, but this no more invalidates the whole enterprise than the presence of quack physicians means all medicine is a waste of time.

Of what use is the good stuff, then? My degree is in “Chinese and Comparative Literature,” so that’s the apple crate I’ll be preaching from. Basically, my work consists of three parts: language study, narratology, and literary history. Language study practically speaks for itself: in an increasingly multicultural world, the ability to communicate with people with backgrounds different from one’s own is a tremendous asset. Along with greatly expanding one’s pool of potential contacts in life, the ability to talk, read, and think in foreign language gives the practitioner access to previously unimagined ways of thinking about the world and articulating one’s position within it.

I see the study of literary history as an extension of that first point. (The history component here is important. Nothing annoys me more than the assumption that literary scholars write three hundred page books about how a poem "makes them feel." (That's what footnotes are for)). My ability to (laboriously and imperfectly, let there be no doubt) read the literature of seventeenth century China and, as a result, mentally enter that distant time and place has greatly enriched my experience of the present (both in the West and the East) by allowing for a point of comparison.

Finally, there is narratology (in other words, the study of narrative), which superficially seems the most abstruse but actually, I would argue, is the most universally applicable. The study of narrative equips one with the skills necessary to dissect nearly all human communication at its most fundamental level. If, for example, you’re a sophisticated reader of journalism, you’re engaging in a kind of narratology, whether you know it or not.

To wrap up, these skills are essential and nourishing. In other words, academia has its problems but you can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

Aug. 4th, 2011

Peppers

I, CLAUDIUS

I had originally meant to describe the events of yesterday evening but they’re quite sad (they involve an attempt to rescue an injured street cat, with sad but somewhat predictable results). Instead I’d like to discuss one serious downside to the electronic book revolution, which is that e-book readers are not very well suited to being read in the tub.

I’ve been in the habit of reading in the tub more or less since I became an independent reader as a small boy. I’m not certain why this ever seemed like a good idea because there are a number of obvious problems with the practice: the water is apt to get cold, pages can get wet, and of course there’s the whole pruning issue. Why carry on with it then? It might be that the feeling of decadence appeals –– it’s as close as I’m likely to get to true Greco-Roman splendor (at least without a vomitorium or team of odalisques). One might bathe in milk, of course, but it’s not good home finance. My former Skinker / McPherson apartment was ideal for reading of this sort. It was on the sixth floor, meaning I could open my bathroom window and get gentle, cool breezes and not be too troubled by traffic noise. Summer might mean insect noise in the evenings and autumn was accompanied by the sound of rustling leaves. It’s a lovely way to take in a book.

Aug. 3rd, 2011

Peppers

Burn Notice, Now Starring Claude Rains

Two days after my return to Taiwan I accompanied some friends in frolicking around the beach at Fulong where, in a master stroke, I managed to put on too little sunscreen and ended up getting pretty severely sunburnt, a fun treat I hadn’t previously managed since I was in the third grade. (Cathy: “You always make fun of how I say ‘lobster’ and now you are one! Karma’s a bitch!”) The burns were extensive enough that I went to a local clinic to mitigate the pain a bit. This turned out be a local place specializing in burns and other skin ailments. I’m not sure of the full extent of their services because they seemed to respond to just about every patient (yours truly included) by slathering them in a kind of greasy, hot pink medicinal pâté and wrapping the offended tissue in layer after layer of gauze. Their waiting room looked like an open casting call for The Invisible Man. At any rate, the magic health slurry did the trick after several days and I stand now before you a little pinker, a little wiser, but –– gloriously –– alive.

It was a great relief to get back to work on Monday since the previous week had been oozingly spent at home huddled beneath the air conditioner (doctor’s orders). This week’s selection from Gujin is number six, 葛令公生遣弄珠儿 (“Lord Ge Gives Away Pearl Maiden”), in which the titular Lord Ge gives away a beloved concubine to an underling who really likes her and has shown good hustle on the field of battle. This comes as something of a surprise to the Pearl Maiden in question, who thought things were going quite well with Ge, and whom Ge has not bothered to consult with ahead of time. Happily, she and her new husband (who was previously given to staring at her, flies collecting in his open mouth, while he ought to be paying attention to goings on in the court) promptly fall in love and live happily ever. This is just one of the ways in which Gujin is an extremely disjointed collection, in that part of the time women are portrayed with great sympathy and nuance and the other part of the time (as here) they are essentially warm chess pieces with delicate eyebrows. (This is not even attributable to different authorship as GJ 6 and, for example, the much more sympathetic GJ 1 were evidently both written by Feng Menglong himself).

Jul. 20th, 2011

Peppers

Sweet, Sweet Continuity

I could go on about the things that are different here, such as the proliferation of foreigners or the curious predilection for cosmetic, lensless glasses, but instead today I’d like to focus on something that’s stayed exactly the same since I was last here in Beijing: the ostentatious ubiquity of naked baby asses. I’m not the first person to mention this but, instead of wearing diapers, little kids who haven’t been potty trained yet simply wear pants with holes cut in the crotch so if nature ever comes calling the answer is immediate. As a result, you can’t take more than three steps without being assailed by custardy hemispheres of baby buttock just about everywhere you turn. I imagine this must be very liberating for a small child and indeed one finds that little kids toddle around with that look of proprietorial contentment that can only come from the knowledge that everything on this Earth, from the rolling, green hills to the forbidding arctic wastes, from the animals that creep along the land to the fishes that dart in the depths and to the birds grandly soaring in the airy dome of the sky –– essentially, the whole of God’s majestic creation –– is, at the end of the day, their personal toilet. Bless their little hearts.

Jul. 18th, 2011

Peppers

Moving right along (doog-a-doon doog-a-doon)

It’s been almost nine years exactly since I was last in Beijing and many things (an Olympics, for example) can happen in that time. Funnily enough, much of this difference is visible from the road. In ’02 there were plenty of cars along with all the bicycles but they were domestic brands, mostly. Now I peer out from taxis and see the odd bike or tuktuk awash in Peugeots and Passats and Range Rovers. (What range is there to rove over on Chang’an Road exactly?)

Another change is that people use their turn signals now. I used to think that the motorists of Beijing (I cannot bear to call them Pekingese, which will never not sound silly to me, although I have actually seen the term in sober, academic prose) were constantly honking in expression of a kind of irrepressible automotive joie de vivre or possibly in the belief that they could navigate through echolocation. In time I realized that most of the honking announced a lane change, putting the rest of the road on notice. Well, no longer –– like the stegosaurus, trepanning, and the eight-track, the mighty honk has been left along the curbside on the march toward high civilization. I can’t say I’m sad to see it go.

An ancillary benefit of decreased honking is that people can hear one another while on the road and, surely, talking with Beijing cab drivers has to be one life’s great, under-advertised pleasures. They’re garrulous not quite to a fault and to a man (I haven’t run into any women yet –– not so in Taipei) they espouse a kind of universal small-s socialism –– “People are people no matter where they’re from so just nobody be an asshole and we’ll all be fine” –– which I find terribly endearing. One of the first of my visit was also the pithiest: “The problem with Beijing is that it’s too big, with too many people. I get by, though.”

Jul. 16th, 2011

Peppers

A Brief Update from Beijing

I made it to Beijing, safe and sound. I get back to Taipei on Friday, the 22nd, but until then I'm behind the Great Firewall and won't have access to Google, Facebook, or Twitter. However, if this works, I should at least be able to mirror LJ posts to Twitter and FB. If you want to reach me then email with my school account or comment on one of these LJ entries.

Jul. 14th, 2011

Peppers

99% True

This is a story I’ve been dining out on for close to ten years and I see no reason to stop now, especially as it’s topical.

My twenty-first birthday fell during the six months I spent in Beijing. During that time I had befriend Tara, a Lawrence alum who had been in China for a year or two at that point, teaching music during the day and playing jazz piano at Cui Jian’s nightclub in the evenings. She was set to return to the States in short order and so she invited me out to give me some birthday gift or other before she left. This meant a fairly long commute, as she was a good ways out from where I was living. Stupidly I neglected to bring any reading material with me to pass the time so I had to resort to stealing glances at the Chinese newspaper the fellow sitting next to me was reading. He was a typical looking fellow, I’d say: mid-twenties, dark slacks, a white button-up shirt, short hair, glasses. I think I might have been hard-pressed to pick him out of a police lineup of one. At any rate, I must have gotten sloppy with my glance pilfering because he noticed me and asked, in a perfectly friendly way, if I wouldn’t like some of his paper. Caught a little off guard, I demurred and we started what by then was a familiar sort of conversation.

“So, where are you from?”

“The States.”

“Oh, you speak Chinese very well.”

“Honestly, no.”

“No, you do…”

This part always went on for a while. I know it seems churlish –– “Just take the damn compliment” –– but I always was (and continue to be) annoyed at the suggestion that a foreigner speaking Chinese is worthy of comment. It feels like damning with faint praise, even though I’m certain that is almost never the intent (at least on a conscious level). Finally my interlocutor shifted gear.

“So, what do you think of Chinese women?”

This wasn’t the sort of conversation I generally have but I supposed he was drawing on some universal masculine fraternity thing, not realizing that I was an extremely Midwestern blushing and stammering type of guy, not given to frank sexual conversations with some random fellow on the subway. I punted.

“Chinese women? I guess I’d say they’re like women anywhere: some are nicer than others.”

This obviously wasn’t that answer he was looking for so he doubled down.

“No, I mean, how many Chinese girlfriends have you got?”

I got a sense of where this was going.

“Me? Oh I haven’t got any…”

“I could introduce you to some of my classmates if you like. They’re very fun.”

“No, thanks.”

“Very pretty…”

“You’re too kind, but no.”

“Very affordable…”

Well, I mean, jackpot. I decided some judicious lying might be appropriate here.

“Well, it’s just, you see, that I have this girlfriend at home and she’s, ah, Canadian, and I have no pictures or direct evidence of her, but I think things are getting serious and all that so I think I’d really probably better not. And stuff.”

“She wouldn’t need to know about it.”

Touche, sir. Touche.

“Yes, but I’d know about it.”

“You’re very thoughtful.”

“I try.”

“You’re sure I can’t change your mind?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“You know,” he said with a hint of disappointment, “in the movies you Americans are all so open about this sort of thing.”

“Yes, and in the movies you Chinese all know kung-fu.”

Then he punched me through three consecutive brick walls and ran away across the surface of a nearby pond without so much as a ripple. He leapt into the air, was silhouetted against the full moon for just a moment, and then was gone.

Jul. 13th, 2011

Peppers

I, FOB

 I leave for Beijing on Friday and lately I’ve been thinking about the first time I was in China, some nine years ago, several months before the half year I did in Beijing through ACC. This first visit was a student trip (Japan, China) that Lawrence U arranged with a big parcel of cash (I imagine, as I always do, delivered in a scuffed leather briefcase full of loose bills) given to us by the noble bureaucrats at the Freeman Foundation. We spent our first evening in a hotel near Narita, having missed our intended connection, then flew into Shanghai Pudong the next day. Those were the days when I used a pocket watch (wristwatches messed up my viola bowing, or so I felt) and I quite vividly recall the customs fellow in his ill-fitting official uniform running one long fingernail (the pinkie) over the watch as though it were some small creature –– possibly poisonous –– that might attack if provoked. First thing we did was go the Shanghai Museum, where we spent the afternoon, then back to the airport for a flight to Xi’an that evening. As we rode our bus through the city I observed to my seatmate that the endless string of industrial cranes leaning angularly over the Yangtze look like metal version of water birds waiting for passing ships to gobble up.

The flight was enough to make you want to give up flying, at least for a few days, to allow the contents of your stomach to vacate your sinuses and trickle back down your throat. Nasty weather (turbulence, lightning) troubled us the whole way there. We arrived without incident, of course, and there wasn’t an air-bridge so we deplaned using a stair car and walked across the wide, flat tarmac to the terminal. It was after dark by then and the whole vista was illuminated with huge flood lights that painted the ground, the plane, and every one of us a kind of sickly, desiccated yellow, like sand and old bones. I looked around me, at a scene that resembled a moon landing, and asked myself a question that, I’ve since discovered, almost every foreigner asks him or her self upon washing up somewhere in China for the first time: “Boy, oh boy –– what have I gotten myself into?”

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