The Interface

Yesterday afternoon, I taught my first new class in almost nine years.

Seriously, nine years. At the end of the Spring 2010 semester, I went on sabbatical, and then I joined the staff of the MLA. And while I did teach here at MSU last spring, it was a very different experience; I co-organized a proseminar that brought in a lot of colleagues from around campus to help guide a group of graduate students in thinking about the potential role of digital technologies in their research.

This semester, it’s just me and my students, with my syllabus — the first new syllabus I’ve put together in almost nine years! — to guide us.

I’m pleased with the syllabus, and excited by the students, and looking forward to seeing where it all leads us. But it’s funny to arrive at this point in my career feeling like a novice again.

Not least in thinking about how to structure our in-class engagements. We meet once a week for three hours — a format I never felt terribly good at, even when I was teaching consistently. It’s an enormous stretch of time, one that has to be broken up into smaller chunks in order to keep us present and invested and on-task. But at the same time, with the book-a-week structure of the semester, it’s important to ensure that we give each text the full range of attention it requires.

If you have strategies for ways to structure sessions of three-hour seminars, I’d be most grateful to hear them. In the meantime, I’m pondering ways of maintaining the excitement of the semester-long narrative within the close-up work of each week’s conversation…

Apparently I Don’t Teach Math

I just want to note that not one of the 46 students I’m teaching this semester pointed out that the percentages I listed on my syllabi, detailing the amount that each assignment would count toward their final grades, don’t add up to 100. In one class, they added up to 105, and in the other, 120. Did no one notice, or did someone deviously think they’d use my bad calculation to their advantage?

Teaching When (You Think) You Have the Flu

After I was told last Sunday that it was likely I had picked up H1N1, whether on top of a case of bronchitis or masquerading as a case of bronchitis, I took myself back to bed with my laptop and started emailing.

Fortunately, we’d had a presentation from the Dean of Students about our response to H1N1 at our first faculty meeting. Even before that, I’d already told my students that in the event of flu, I was prepared to be seriously lax about my attendance policy, begging them to stay out of class if there was any chance they might be contagious. The Dean of Students backed that decision up — but also told the faculty, who are all prone to feeling like we need to push on through an illness, that if we got sick, we should stay home, too.

“Make a contingency plan,” she said. Figure out who can cover your classes, and how you’ll manage if you have to miss a couple of weeks.

Seemed like good advice to me at the time — Friday, September 4 — but it never would have occurred to me that I needed to be taking it already.

So Sunday, after getting home from the urgent care place, I first emailed a group of my colleagues and asked if any of them would be able to meet with one or the other of my classes on Monday, and possibly Wednesday as well, saying that I mostly just needed them to get the classes started, that I’d post instructions online for how the students should use their class time. A couple of friends responded right away, each offering to cover one class, so that was set.

I emailed the dean of students and the dean of the college, telling them what was going on, and that I was making arrangements.

I emailed both of my classes, telling them I’d be out but that they should come to class anyhow, and that they should bring their laptops if they have them.

And then I set up the classes themselves. We use Sakai as a course management system in Claremont, in an installation managed on one campus but serving all five of the undergraduate colleges and, to a lesser extent, the graduate school. Sakai is tied into both our (very differently structured) LDAP servers and our (somewhat less different) student information portal, such that students from any of the undergraduate colleges are automatically added and dropped from Sakai classes as their registration status changes. We’ve also got pretty good control, as instructors, over the configuration of the Sakai modules we want to use in our classes; we can shut off and make invisible anything we don’t want cluttering up the system, and we can use a pretty wide range of tools as we see fit.

Because I’ve been teaching with blogs and wikis since about 2003, I’ve only used Sakai as a server for course materials that need to be behind a password wall — stuff for which I want to ensure fair use by restricting access to my students. But now I had the opportunity to test the system out a bit more.

I added the colleagues who’d offered to meet with my classes to each class as an auditor, so that they’d be able to log into Sakai on the classroom computer and project anything that needed to be displayed for the class. I then posted announcements in each class’s Sakai site describing the day’s work, listing the questions I wanted the students to discuss in small groups, first, and then how I wanted them to present the results of that discussion to the larger group and to collect lingering questions thereafter.

I also turned on Sakai’s chat room function, and created chat rooms for each of the small groups, asking that each small group use their chat room to take notes on their discussion and to raise any questions that they had for me. And I asked that, at the point they move to conversation as a full group, that someone take notes in the main chat room, and that they use that chat room to collect their lingering questions for discussion next time.

Each class on Monday was structured more or less the same — half an hour in small groups discussing a set of questions about the texts they’d read, then a transition to presentations and discussion in the larger group. Unsurprisingly, this worked better in one class than the other. One of my classes is a 14-student seminar, and they took rather brilliantly to both the discussions and the note-taking; they seemed overall to get to the key points of the texts they were to discuss and they seemed engaged in what they were up to throughout. The other class has 36 students, and their response was more mixed; probably two-thirds of the class had what seemed to me, based on the chat room evidence, to be a productive and compelling discussion, and the other third… well, not so much. Honestly, though, I’m not sure how different that ratio would have been had I been in the room.

Given that it worked well enough on Monday, and that I was clearly not getting out of bed anytime soon, I set more or less the same thing up for Wednesday with the seminar, and it seemed to work well again.

With the larger class, my colleague offered to give a short lecture on an area within her specialization that bears a strong relationship to the work that we were doing that week, and to use that lecture as the jumping-off point for a discussion that she’d facilitate. I asked that somebody take notes in the chat room, so that I could have a sense of how the discussion went — and, in fact, several somebodies did, giving me a pretty rich view of at least the ideas floating around in the room, if not of where they originated or how they developed.

I’m pleased with this outcome, on the whole; rather than entirely throwing off the flow of the semester by canceling classes for a week, I was able, thanks to my colleagues and to the technologies I have available, to keep the students moving forward, and I was able to get at least a partial sense of what they did in my absence. It felt a bit like peeking through a keyhole, but that limited view was far, far better than nothing.

I’m now thinking that I want to keep that backchannel active for the rest of the semester, even once I’m back in the classroom — which I’m still seriously hoping will be Monday, though I’m not at all sure. I want to talk with the students themselves, anyhow, and find out what they got out of the experience of using the backchannel in their discussions — did it help them coalesce ideas, for instance, as they were able to see how other students in the room understood what was being said? But I want to keep it in place in no small part for the benefit of the students who I fully expect are going to be in the same position I was in the coming weeks — if they can get even a narrow sense of what’s going on in class discussions, and participate even a bit in them, it might help keep the semester from breaking down for all of us.


The semester started here just shy of a week ago, but because my classes fall on Monday and Wednesday, today’s my first real day of teaching. Labor Day. Usually (where “usually” = about 4 out of 10 years) classes here start the day after Labor Day; when they start the week before, we still start on Tuesday, and then teach on Labor Day. Which continues to make no sense to me at all.

I wouldn’t even mind that so much — I’m really fired up about my classes, which include a seminar on Marxism and Cultural Studies that I haven’t gotten to teach in several years, and a new class on television authorship; I’ve got piles of work ahead of me, but it ought to be great fun — except for the fact that I managed to get about two hours of sleep last night due to the stupid cough I’ve developed from the lousy air quality out here in the wake of the fires to our west.

The annoying part is that I’m actually getting better, just as I’m feeling worse. Last Wednesday afternoon, just after classes ended, I suddenly felt as though I’d chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes, and my lungs griped and complained for several days after. Now, my lungs feel more or less fine, but that incessant tickle deep in the back of my throat has set in, probably a sign of healing tissue or something, but it’s driving me batty. It will not let you not cough, though coughing of course aggravates it. It will wake you up out of a dead sleep to make sure you know you need to cough. And no combination of cough drops and throat sprays will calm it down.

This is not what I want to be thinking about right now, but the combination of non-stop coughing and lack of sleep have me unable to contemplate much else.

On Teaching Infinite Jest

The following was originally published as a guest post on Infinite Summer.

As you may have seen mentioned in a countdown post here, this past spring I taught a single-author course focused entirely around the work of David Foster Wallace. And as one of you noted, we read pretty much all of it — the short fiction, the long fiction, the non-fiction — with the exception of a few uncollected pieces. (Although, to be honest, I’m pretty certain that almost no one in the class actually finished reading Everything & More, except for the four students who’d signed on to give a presentation on it.) It was alternately a terrifying and exhilarating experience, spending a semester that deeply enmeshed in a body of work as rich, allusive, and smart as this one. And it was also a risky experience, emotionally speaking; Dave was a close colleague of mine, and the course was meant to give me and a group of students the time we needed to engage with both the loss we felt and the astonishing legacy that Dave left us.

And I don’t think I’m exaggerating, or at least not by much, when I say that it was the best teaching experience of my career thus far. Not that it was easy, either for the students or for me; they had an overwhelming amount of reading to do (though for many of them, at least some portion of it was re-reading) and a lot of writing as well, and I had a lot of preparation and a lot of grading to do. And then there were moments when I just felt unequal to the task of keeping the course from turning into a sort of Cobain-esque spectacle of mourning, in which we could all stew in the horror of his death by ferreting out — okay, they’re not all that hard to ferret — every reference to suicide or depression or more generalized anomie.

My students, however, were way more than equal to the task. Having given them, the first week of the semester, Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay on the intentional fallacy, along with Wallace’s essay on Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky and an interview Larry McCaffrey did with Wallace pre-Infinite Jest, we had a long conversation about the complexities of the relationship between any text and its author, and more importantly about the distinction between the author as we think we understand him from the text and the actually existing human being who set pen to paper, all as a way of getting at why the class was going to be focused on this figure named “Wallace,” and not on “Dave.” A solid subset of the class strongly resisted Wimsatt and Beardsley, and held tight to the idea of the meaning of a text deriving from some idea held by the author, but they all got the distinction between the imagined author of a text and the biographical person, and were more than generous in going along with my insistence that because we couldn’t conceivably know what Dave might have meant by something, an appeal to his biography in interpreting his writing wouldn’t help. What we had before us were the texts, and rather than use what we knew of his life to help make sense of them — or worse, to use the texts in an attempt to make sense of his life, in a way that would treat the work as mere autobiography, utterly discounting and dismissing the role of imagination in his writing — we needed to use the texts themselves, and the references and allusions to other texts that they contain, as the sources for our interpretation. And that’s what the vast majority of the class had signed on for. We all somehow understood without saying that reading these novels and short stories and essays as nothing more than evidence of the tragedy to come not only sold the texts themselves short but also missed the crucial point that the act of imaginative identification with someone outside himself was precisely what had kept Dave alive, and that we owed it to the texts to focus on their search for human connection rather than its failures.

I’d taught Infinite Jest twice before, as part of a course called The Big Novel. In that one, we read Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and Cryptonomicon, attempting to think through the impulse of a subset of recent authors toward producing such encyclopedic novels, and what they have to do with the state of U.S. culture after World War II. In each go-round of that class, Infinite Jest was both a highlight and the odd-novel-out, the one that seemed to be most about us and who we are right now, but the one at the very same time not about how we got here, but where we’re going if we don’t watch out. Reading Infinite Jest this past spring, not in the context of Pynchon and DeLillo, but in the context of Wallace’s own previous and following work, took some of the emphasis off of the particular forms of cultural change the novel posits and focused it more on the philosophical questions that recur throughout his writing, and in particular the relationship between self and other as mediated by language, or perhaps that relationship as complicated by the impossibility of ever really saying what you mean, coupled with the absolute necessity of trying to do so anyhow.

But I was left with the puzzle of how to structure the class. If we read the texts in chronological sequence, Infinite Jest would fall much too early in the semester, and would threaten to take the wind out of the sails of everything that fell behind it. But leaving it for the end of the semester, as the culminating text, wouldn’t allow us to see how Wallace’s thinking developed after its publication. I finally settled on a kind of half measure: we started Infinite Jest at the proper moment in the chronological sequence of the texts, but stretched it out across the rest of the semester, spending one day each week on another of the books and one day working through another section of IJ. On the whole, I think it worked out really well, though I suppose you’d have to ask my students for confirmation. The hardest part of that schedule — for me, at least; for them it was no doubt the quantity of reading — was trying to figure out how to talk in sufficient detail about the 100 pages on the table for that week, drawing attention to the things I knew were going to turn out to be important, without giving away too much about why they were important. But as you can tell from my students’ blog, they had lots to say, lots they wanted to consider, and discussion only very rarely flagged.

The first semester I taught my “Big Novel” course, on the last day of class, I did my usual “any lingering questions that you’d like us to talk about” schtick, and one student raised her hand and asked me why I hadn’t had David Foster Wallace come talk to them while we were reading Infinite Jest. And I was so surprised that I wound up blurting out the truth: because I had never talked with him about the class I was teaching. Because he would have hated it, hated the idea that his work was being discussed in the very building in which he was trying to be someone other than the Famous Author of Infinite Jest. Because both of us suffered from a kind of self-consciousness that made it absolutely necessary for him to pretend like he didn’t know I was teaching the novel (and it was pretending, I’m certain; it’s a very small college), and for me to pretend like I didn’t know he knew, if we were going to be able to function. So no. No visits from Dave.

I thought about that moment all last semester, and the fact that I could only teach perhaps the best class I’ve ever taught precisely because he wasn’t there anymore. And I still don’t know what to do with that, but I hope that if he’s out there, wherever, he’ll understand.

Requiescat in Pace

Today is the last day of what has been alternately a difficult and an exhilarating semester. Honestly, it’s the first semester in I can’t remember how long that I’ve been sorry to see end, the first semester in several years in which I’ve actually felt good about my teaching way more often than I’ve felt badly about it. But it’s also been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. And a good deal of both the up and the down of it all has been attributable to the class I taught this semester on the work of my late colleague, David Foster Wallace.
Continue reading “Requiescat in Pace”

Teaching Carnival 3.2

I’m deep in the thick of the best semester I’ve had in several years, so it’s taken some doing to pry me away from teaching in order to see what teaching-related stuff is going on out there in the blogosphere. Having spent some time poking around, though, I’ve found a bunch of exciting stuff for this fortnight’s only one day late Teaching Carnival! Before we start, a few reminders about the nature of the ride, a warning to keep your arms and legs inside the car at all times, and a big thank you to our guide last time. Now, off we go!

Lots of folks other than me are having good semesters, and are doing some cool stuff:

Many of us are nonetheless faced with the semester’s frustrations:

Lots of us are similarly thinking about the relationship between our lives and our jobs:

And we’re not the only ones:

  • David Silver’s twitter assignment leads to a great discussion of the value of asking students to do public, internet-based work under their own names, with key input from the students themselves.

Many of us are pondering the future of the profession, our fields, or our institutions:

Others of us are less sanguine about things, though:

Finally, this episode of Teaching Carnival could not be complete without a section devoted to the Facebook TOS dust-up of February 2009:

That’s it for this carnival! Tune in, well, 13 days from now for Teaching Carnival 3.3, hosted by the probably more responsible and on top of things Alan Benson, and remember, tag posts of yours or other folks with “teaching-carnival” on Delicious or Technorati if you’d like them included.

Teaching Carnival, TK

I’m ostensibly up tomorrow as host of Teaching Carnival 3.2, but poking through Delicious and Technorati is turning up little in the way of submitted material. If you have written or read posts in the last two weeks that should be part of this carnival, shoot me an email at kf at plannedobsolescence dot net. I’ll be happy to include them, and will hope to get the festivities underway tomorrow!

Geeky as I Want to Be

I believe that this may be my most fun semester ever.* My schedule includes, on the English side of my appointment, my Race, Gender, and Science Fiction course, and on the Media Studies side, my Introduction to Digital Media Studies course. And, just for good measure, I’m teaching an overload course at the graduate school, in the School of Information Systems and Technologies, on Digital Media Theory. So I’m all geeky, all the time, this semester, and one day in, at least, it’s completely awesome.


*I mean, the most fun since that semester that I taught the class that you were in, oh lurking former student. Of course.