HotM: Jonathan Swift Wednesday, Mar 31 2010 

Tomorrow night I am beginning my graduate seminar on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy by having my students read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I’m hoping that this text will serve as a useful model for Sterne’s difficult novel.

I’ve taught Gulliver’s Travels before, but this time I’m taking a slight risk. In addition to the usual discussion of politics and the Enlightenment (and Swift’s views on each), I am also emphasizing a reading of the novel based on two essays by Christopher Fox. The first is an article published in EIghteenth-Century Studies in 1986 entitled “The Myth of Narcissus in Swift’s Travels.” The second is a chapter in an MLA volume, Approaches to Teaching Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels entitled “Sexuality and the Body.”

What I’m interested in exploring is the joke early in the text in which Swift brings up masturbation. The joke starts with Gulliver’s mentioning the man to whom he is apprenticed, Mr. Bates. After a few near misses, Gulliver finally calls him “Master Bates.” The question I have is, “Why does Swift begin his text with this joke?” I wonder what function it serves and what connotations are evoked by it. This joke is all the more interesting because the opening paragraphs of Gulliver’s Travels so heavily emphasize the conventions of realist fiction: where Gulliver was born, who his parents are, where he went to college, how old he is, etc. This joke immediately seems to undermine this realism.

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Planning a Tristram Shandy Seminar Sunday, Mar 28 2010 

Our spring quarter starts tomorrow, so I’ve been spending some of my spring break planning my graduate seminar on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which will meet on Thursday evenings starting this week. This is going to be a vert busy and difficult quarter for me, but I’m really looking forward to teaching this class. I anticipate that it’s going to be the most difficult class I’ve ever taught, but if I can pull it off it’s going to be immensely rewarding.

I’ve taught Tristram Shandy twice before in my honors tutorial classes in 2008 and 2007. In both of these classes, we spent about two weeks rushing through the novel’s highlights. When I last taught it in 2008, I decided that I wanted to spend more time with this book, to challenge myself to really try to come to terms with it (emphasis on the word “try”). So, I decided that I would teach my next graduate seminar on it. What better way to force oneself to get to know a text better?!

As a graduate student I was supposed to read Tristram for a seminar on the eighteenth-century novel. I didn’t enjoy the book at all and was never able to finish it. Now that I’m teaching it to graduate students, I’ve been trying to identify why I disliked it so. My current theory is two-fold. First, I think that the professor didn’t properly contextualize the novel for us. As a class on the novel, we read what one would expect (for the mid-nineties): Oronooko, Roxana, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and then Tristram, which was followed by Humphrey Clinker, Caleb Williams, and probably something by Mary Wollstonecraft or Jane Austen, but I forget now what we ended with.

I now realize that this context only partially prepared us for Sterne’s novel, since the traditional of the eighteenth-century realist novel is only a small part of what Sterne is doing in Tristram. For this reason, I’m placing Tristram Shandy in a different contact by starting this seminar with Jonathan Swift. We’ll begin with Gulliver’s Travels and then read A Tale of a Tub (another text that I didn’t enjoy as a graduate student). I hope that these texts will show my students how Sterne is indebted to Swift’s combination of realism, fantasy, and satire. Like Swift, Sterne draw on the growing conventions of realist fiction in a playful way so that he can comment on and critique a host of cultural, political, and religious issues of his time.

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Fairytale by Alexander Rybak Thursday, Mar 25 2010 

While I was in Europe earlier this month, I had limited access to English-language television. The one channel that I consistently had was BBC, so one evening I watched Your Country Needs You, a show hosted by Graham Norton in which 6 acts competed to represent the U.K. in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

The Eurovision Song Contest is totally fantastic. It’s a cheese fest like no other. Acts from each European country compete by performing an original song (not necessarily written by the act). Each country then votes on the winner. (The voting is slightly more complicated than that; here’s an explanation.)

Near the end of the show, while people in England were voting for the winner, Alexander Rybak, who won the Eurovision competition last year, performed his winning song, “Fairytale.” He’s totally adorable, and I loved the cheesy deliciousness of the song, so I’m making it my song of the week:

The 24-year-old Rybak completed for Norway, where he now lives, but he was born in Belarus. He wrote “Fairytale,” which won the highest number of votes ever recorded in the competition. After winning the competition he released an album featuring the single of “Fairytale.”

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Favorite Albums of 2009 Wednesday, Mar 24 2010 

I thought I’d take a short break from writing about my recent trip to Europe to catch up another favorites of 2009 list: my favorite albums.

I think I purchased more albums — both CDs and online from iTunes — this year than in the past. Even so, it’s been difficult to list ten albums that I really think were worthy of being on my top ten list. After a few months of listening to them all again, however, I’ve identified ten that I think were the ones I liked the most from 2009.

Number 1: Hold Time by M. Ward

I originally purchased this album for PJ. I knew that he liked She & Him, so I thought he might like to have this album too. I think I ended up liking it more than he did. I love it. It’s definitely my favorite album of 2009. I guess what I like most about it is its folk-pop groove. It’s just a really cool album.

Here’ are my four favorite tracks from the album:

The last track on the album is an instrumental version of “I’m a Fool to Want You,” which is amazingly great.

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Visiting Mauritshuis, The Royal Picture Gallery Tuesday, Mar 23 2010 

While I was in Leiden recently, I took the train down to the Hague so that I could visit Mauritshuis, the Royal Picture Gallery. With paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and many others, this museum houses one of the great art collections in the world.

The building was originally a seventeenth-century palace, the home of Count Johan Maurits, who was governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil from 1636 to 1644. While he was governing the colony, he had this house built. When he returned to the Netherlands in 1644, he took up residence here (at least on a part-time basis).

After his death, the house passed on to his descendants. Eventually it became the property of the state. In 1822, the royal collection of paintings took up residence here, where they have hung ever since.

During my visit, one of the museum’s floors was closed to visitors, but the main masterpieces were all still on display. The price of admission also paid for an audio-tour, which was very informative. Usually, I get bored with such tours fairly quickly, but this one was interesting. I thought that all of the information it provided helped me appreciate the art more; I also liked that it gave you the option to learn more or move on after the initial discussion of each painting.

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Favorite Movies of 2009 Monday, Mar 22 2010 

I was in Germany during the Oscars telecast and didn’t get to see the show. Not that it mattered much, since everyone pretty much knew who was going to win beforehand. I really hope Meryl Streep wins another Best Actress Oscar soon — she’s deserved it now a couple of times in a row.

I always try to get my list of favorite pictures out before the Oscars, but this year I’ve been so busy with work and traveling that I haven’t had time to get it all together. So, I’m finally listing my top ten movies of the past year.

Number 1: The Hurt Locker

I reviewed The Hurt Locker here, so won’t rehash that here. But I will reiterate how impressed I was with this film. It took a subject I didn’t particularly want to see a film about and totally engrossed me in it. Furthermore, the final two scenes of the movie really threw me for a loop but totally recasting everything that we had seen before. It offers an interesting take on war and the obsession with it. It’s also an interesting exploration of modern masculinity. The entire cast is excellent, and I’m glad that Katherine Bigelow won the Oscar for Best Director. She deserved it.

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Visiting Leipzig Sunday, Mar 21 2010 

Last week, I spent three days in Leipzig, Germany. My university has a long-standing relationship with the University of Leipzig, and I was sent by our Office of Education Abroad to learn more about the program that currently exists and to see if we can find ways to interest more of my college’s students to participate.

This is the first trip I’ve ever taken where other people made most of the arrangements, paid most of the bills, and just generally showed me around. It was great! I arrived on Sunday evening, having flown on Saturday from Columbus to Detroit and then to Paris, where I had a long layover on Sunday. From Paris, I flew to Leipzig. The university arranged for a driver to pick me up at the airport (fancy!); he took me to one of the university guesthouses, where I stayed in a studio apartment. Here’s what the guesthouse looked like from the outside:

I think my apartment was the one right above where person on the right is standing.

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Everytime We Touch by Cascada Friday, Mar 19 2010 

I spent the first week of my trip to Germany and the Netherlands without PJ, who met me in Amsterdam last Saturday morning. I had checked into our hotel on Friday evening. When he got on the train from the airport to Amsterdam’s central train station, he called me and then I met him at the station.

While walking to the station, which was only about three blocks from our hotel, I couldn’t get Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” out of my head. So, I’ve decided to make it my song of the week:

While I enjoyed all of my trip, I have to say that the best part was meeting PJ at the station and spending a weekend together in Amsterdam. I missed him terribly while we were apart. I managed to work myself up to a major case of nerves before I left for the trip — I supposed because it was the first time I had traveled abroad on my own in 10 years and because I was meeting with lots of people, etc. — which ultimately affected me physically during the week I was away without him. Not surprisingly, all of that went away (almost) as soon as I was with him again.

Cascada is actually the name of a group rather than the lead singer’s name, which is Natalie Horler. The group originated in Germany, and when they started getting international attention Horler became synonymous with Cascada. I guess it’s not the first time that the lead singer of a group has taken over its identity!

Since I was just in Germany, it seems particularly appropriate to choose a song from a German group for my song of the week. While I was there, I also reconnected to my love for Euro-trash pop music, which I’ll blog about later. Until then, I’ll just keep singing, “Everytime we touch ….”

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Back from Europe Thursday, Mar 18 2010 

Old City Hall in Leipzig, Germany

I’m now back from my trip to Germany and the Netherlands. While abroad I visited Leipzig, Germany, and three cities in the Netherlands: Leiden, the Hague, and Amsterdam. It was a long trip — I was away a total of 11 days, which is about my limit for traveling — but I had a great time.

The weather was a little dreary for most of the trip — cold, overcast, sometimes snowy, and a little rainy towards the end. But I learned a lot about the study abroad programs in Leipzig and Leiden, and I couldn’t have had more fun with PJ in Amsterdam. We thoroughly enjoyed our three-day weekend together.

As I mentioned before I left, the goal of the trip was to learn more about study abroad opportunities for my students in Leipzig and Leiden, the latter of which is the center of a multi-university program that matches students up with European faculty allowing them to work together on a research project. A couple of my students are currently interested in the program, so I was there to check it out.

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Leaving for Germany and the Netherlands Saturday, Mar 6 2010 

Photograph by Jon Hicks/CORBIS, National Geographic Magazine

My university is sending me to Leipzig and Leiden for the next week. I leave this evening and won’t be back until the 16th. I’ll be in Germany for two days of meetings and then travel to the Netherlands for a day-and-a-half in Leiden before meeting up with PJ in Amsterdam for a long weekend.

The main goal of the trip is to visit some study abroad programs to learn more about them. I might be able to help get more of our students interested in these programs in the coming years. One is a new program for us, so I’m also supposed to check it out and see what it’s all about. I should learn a lot during the trip.

I’m always a nervous traveler, and I’ve been getting more and more anxious about the trip as it’s approached. It doesn’t help that I’ll be going on my own; this is the first international trip I’ve made alone since my first trip to England in the summer of 2000. Work has been busy, so the stress and the nerves have worked together to exhaust me. I’m looking forward to a few days in Amsterdam to relax and have a little fun with PJ.

Throughout the trip, I’ll get to visit some museums. I’m also scheduled to attend a concert in Leipzig. So, I’ll have lots to write about when I get back. Until then, cheers!

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