Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mid Semester

It's the midpoint of the semester now, or slightly past. I'm having a happy time in both of my courses, and I hope my students are, too. I know my first goal as a professor should be that my students learn as much as possible, and I do care about that, I really do. But even more, I confess, I hope that I can create an enchanted world for them to inhabit three times a week. I want the three hours a week they spend with me to be little shimmering islands of joy.

Here's the joy on offer this week.

My 11:00 class is Children's Literature, taught as a "topics course" in "genre studies" in the English department. The chair of the department told me that I could include a creative component in the course as well as the usual literary analysis, so right now we're in the middle of a creative unit on picture books. We first read a selection of picture book texts from The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury, analyzing how the pictures and text work together to create a satisfying whole and examining how various stories construct the idea of "family" for young readers, as well as convey intended or unintended social/political commentary. Then I spent two classes talking about picture book structure, using some of my own picture books, in "before" and "after" versions, as examples of the way that structure can be imposed on a story through judicious revision and editing. Now the students are working on their own picture book manuscripts.

Our class yesterday was a dummy-making workshop. I came to class prepared with a 32-page blank dummy for each student, as well as assorted pairs of scissors, rolls of tape, and colored pencils and markers. The students then set to work cutting up their manuscripts into little bits of text to tape onto the pages, so they could see if they had enough material to fill an entire book, with appropriate pacing and exciting page turns.

I loved hearing their questions as I wandered around the room to help as they were busily cutting, pasting, and coloring.

"I just realized that my story has a problem. The problem is that it doesn't have a problem!"
"Do we really need to fill up the whole book? I just have enough for eight pages!"

Some students stared down in dismay at the one huge long paragraph they had written, realizing that it now needed to be cut up into many many little paragraphs, a visceral way of realizing exactly how picture books are paced and presented.

My 1:00 class is my signature class on the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (we all just call him Jean-Jacques). We're almost through his massive novel, Julie: or The New Heloise, the now-forgotten (except by Rousseau scholars) tome that was once the best-selling novel of the 18th century. One graduate student confessed to tearing up as he read Wednesday's huge chunk of text, in which Julie's passionate lover, St. Preux, sees Julie for the first time as a married woman, now wed to the cold-but-magnanimous Wolmar, surrounded by the children of this new union. Rousseau's overwrought prose conveys not only the doomed-but-redeemed love of Julie and St. Preux, but his vision of an idyllic political community working together in blissful unity. (Rousseau disliked harmony in music; he wanted only melodies sung in unison.) Coming up on Friday: the famous scene of the grape harvest at Clarens.


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