Looking Back at the Quarter Wednesday, Mar 26 2008 

Now that grades are in and my syllabus for next quarter is done, I thought I’d write a little about how I thought this past quarter went.

I taught two classes this term — a graduate class on Restoration literature and an undergraduate course on Lesbian & Gay Literature. Overall, I thought they both went well. My undergraduates were certainly among my best group of students I’ve had in that class. My graduate students were also great, so I feel like I was especially fortunate this term.

I thought the readings in my undergraduate class were especially well chosen (if I do say so myself). We read three gay-male authored texts and three lesbian-authored texts. We read Larry Duplechan’s Blackbird, Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Felicia Luna Lemus’s Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, and Chrystos’s In Her I Am.

I didn’t do a very good job with Borrowed Time. It’s just too emotional a book for me to think rationally about. As much as I love Monette’s work, I don’t think I’ll teach this one again.

I really liked Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. A student in my class last year recommended it, so I read it. I thought that it raised some interesting issues, so I decided to teach it. Reading it again with my students, I really loved it. I would definitely teach this one again.

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La Llorona Monday, Feb 25 2008 

Today my Lesbian and Gay Literature class started discussing Felicia Luna Lemus‘s Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. The novel is about a Latina named Leticia, as the book’s back cover tells us, “immerses herself in the post-queer hipster scene in Los Angeles.”

Leti begins her story by telling us that it is “really about my girl Weeping Woman, Nana, and me” (3). I thought it was important to make sure my students understood the folklore surrounding the Weeping Woman, so I did a little internet research to give them.

The story of the Weeping Woman, or La Llorona, exists in several forms. In all of them, she kills her children by drowning them. Her spirit now roams the earth looking for naughty children to snatch away and make her own.

During my research, I came across the following video on Youtube. I’ve completely fallen in love with it.

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Teaching Dryden and Ephelia Monday, Jan 28 2008 

This term my graduate class is studying patriarchy in Restoration literature. Here’s our course description:

In History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2006), historian Judith Bennett reminds us that “Patriarchy might be everywhere, but it is not everywhere the same, and therefore patriarchy, in all its immense variety, is something we need to understand, analyze, and explain.” The question then becomes, how do we historicize patriarchy? Eighteenth-century literature scholar Michael McKeon points out that “to historicize patriarchy requires, among other things, an inquiry into the relationship between the modern systems of sexuality—of sex and gender difference—and class.” This seminar will take up these and other scholars’ work on patriarchy in the seventeenth century to investigate the relationship between the literature of the Restoration period (1660-1689) and changes in class identity, in the construction of the family, in the division of labor between the sexes, in the rhetoric of sexual difference between male and female bodies, and in the “rise” of the ‘heterosexual’/’homosexual’ dialectic that led to a new system of gender and sexual difference. Our aims in this course are to familiarize ourselves with major authors and works of the Restoration, to place these authors and works within a historical context, and to review contemporary scholarship on relationships between literature, patriarchy, gender, and sexuality in the period.

We started by reading portions of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I really enjoyed reading again. It’s been a few years since I had read any of it. I liked it to so much that I’m thinking about starting my tutorial next quarter with portions of it.

John Dryden After Milton, we read John Dryden’s operatic adaptation of Paradise Lost, The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man, which was never actually performed. It’s a fascinating poem written in heroic couplets, of course.

We had read a couple of critical essays on Milton’s Eve, so we were particularly interested in comparing Dryden’s depictions with Milton’s. I was impressed with my students’ analysis of this adaptation. We ultimately concluded that Dryden (pictured here) seemed more modern in his depiction of Eve. While Milton’s Eve seems to have little real choice, Dryden’s Eve seems much more independent and autonomous.

I really hope at least one of them chooses to write his or her final paper on The State of Innocence. It seems like a fascinating text. If I were currently working on Restoration poetry or drama, I would definitely find a way to slip it into whatever I was working on.

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Teaching with “Queer” Journals Sunday, Jan 27 2008 

Today I graded my undergraduate students’ queer notebooks, a new assignment that I’m experimenting with. Last quarter, I had my eighteenth-century students compile a commonplace book (and my graduate students are doing that assignment this quarter), but I didn’t think that would quite work in the Lesbian & Gay Lit class.

Over the summer, I visited a colleague’s class to observe her teaching. She used a very effective notebook assignment in that class, so I asked her if I could steal it this term. So, I adapted her assignment for my class.

The goal of this assignment is to give my students a place to demonstrate that they are engaging in an ongoing process of thinking carefully, critically, and personally about issues of sexuality raised by the literary works we study, our class discussions, and the world around them.

I require them to prepare at least two substantive entries in their journal each week. I want them to show their processing of what we have read, studied, and shared. I’m interested in what speaks to them and how it speaks to them. (That conjures images of ghosts or something interrupting their studying!) I’m interesting in having them record their thoughts, feelings, and emotions—whatever it is that helps them move from inert to alive, passive to active, bored to interested. They can share their thoughts in essay or other forms, as long as they make sure to review aspects of class discussion. This journal is also a place for them to agree or disagree with their classmates’ contributions to class discussion if they don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class.

I’m trying to assign them one required entry each week. One week, for example, they had to compare two scenes in Larry Duplechan’s Blackbird. In each scene, the main character has sex with someone else. The first scene depicts his sleeping with a girl; the second shows him having sex with a boy for the first time. I specifically wanted my students to examine how Duplechan uses language to describe each event and then draw some conclusions about his attitudes towards each. This week they’ll have to write about a poem by Paul Monette and compare it to the last section of Borrowed Time that we’ll also read for Wednesday’s class.

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Teaching Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir Monday, Jan 21 2008 

Borrowed TimeI’m not sure I can do this. I’ve wanted to teach Paul Monette‘s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir or Becoming a Man: Half a Life’s Story but have always been too afraid to do so. Until now. My Lesbian & Gay Lit class is starting Borrowed Time for Wednesday’s class. I’m not sure I can do it.
Borrowed Time is Monette’s chronicle of his relationship with Roger Horowitz, his partner of ten years, as Roger is first diagnosed with and then dying of AIDS. It’s one of the most important accounts of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s, a classic text of Lesbian & Gay Literature.

I’ve taught portions of Monette’s last collection of non-fiction essays, Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise a couple of times, but this is my first time teaching Borrowed Time. In fact, I’ve never been able to finish Borrowed Time — it’s just so intensely tragic. One of the essays in Last Watch of the Night, “3275,” which is the plot number of Monette’s grave site with Roger, ends with a call to arms:

We queers on Revelation hill, tucking our skirts about us so as not to touch our Mormon neighbors, died of the greed of power, because we were expendable. If you mean to visit any of us, it had better be to make you strong to fight that power. Take you languor and easy tears somewhere else. Above all, don’t pretty us up. Tell yourself: None of this ever had to happen. And then go make it stop, with whatever breath you have left. Grief is a sword, or it is nothing. (115)

I can’t help but approach Borrowed Time with this passage in my mind. Reading it has always felt so devastating that I can’t help but cry through parts of it. It’s difficult for me to feel angry about the losses the gay community has suffered from AIDS and all too easy to feel sad and crushed by them. I’ve never known anyone personally who died of AIDS, so maybe that’s kept me from anger.

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One Down, 18 to Go Monday, Jan 7 2008 

Today was the first day of winter quarter here at OU. I’m teaching two classes: Lesbian & Gay Literature and Restoration Literature, a graduate seminar. Both seemed to go well enough, but as usual I was way too manic. I tend to be overly hyper on the first day of the quarter. I don’t think that was much of a problem for the undergraduate class, but I feel sorry for my graduate students — I know I went way to fast through all sorts of random subjects. Oh well. Now I’m totally exhausted, which is probably not the best time to be blogging!

The weirdest part of the day was waking up to such warm weather. It was over 50 degrees when I woke up and just got hotter as the day went on. The high was near 70! In January! This, of course, created the problem of Ellis Hall being overheated — the heat was still on inside, and opening the windows didn’t cool it off all that much. I hate snow, so I’m not not entirely complaining, but it feels so odd to be so warm on the first day of winter quarter.

My classes meet from 1 to 3 and from 3 to 5 on Mondays and Wednesdays. Jumping from one to the other is also going to be weird. I’m pretty sure my brain doesn’t switch gears that quickly. It will be interesting to see how it goes. I’ll be having office hours on M and W mornings, so I’ll be at school all day these two days. Hopefully, I’ll learn to work well in my office.

In the gay lit class, we went over the syllabus and then watched the first episode of the British version of Queer as Folk. Several of them seemed to laugh a lot during it, so I think that’s a good sign. I’m having them write about what this episode says about contemporary gay culture — is it critiquing it or praising it. I definitely think it’s making a statement about these “men’s” lives, and I’ll be interested to see if my students agree.

I love the British series (and not just because everything is better in England). Unlike the American version, the British one doesn’t mind making its characters look bad at times. They each have strengths and weaknesses. That makes them more human. The American version seems more interested in being sexy and glamorous — kind of like The L Word, which I watch. But neither show is about real people in any sense of the phrase. The British Queer as Folk at least tries to ground its character in some sort of reality or identifiable human qualities. I would show the whole series to my class, but we don’t have time. Someday it would be great to do a Russell Davies class — QaF, Dr. Who, Torchwood, and Bob and Rose.

My graduate students were pretty much forced to listen to me ramble for two hours. We talked a bit about Steven Zwicker’s 2006 article, “Is There Really Such a Think as Restoration Literature?”. We also talked about a little of the historical background to the period. And we discussed the highlights of their assigned reading, a chapter from Judith Bennett’s History Matters. Almost every one of them contributed to the class’s conversation, so that was good. But I talked way too much and felt like I was all over the place despite the fact that I had planned out what I was going to talk about before hand. Oh well. I’ll calm down next time I’m sure.

I’m looking forward to the quarter. Both classes should be a lot of fun. We’re definitely studying interesting texts in each. For Wednesday we’re watching a documentary in gay lit — Gay Sex in the 70s— and starting a discussion of Milton in the grad class. So, I guess a lot of nudity in both classes!

Planning a Restoration Lit Graduate Seminar Sunday, Dec 30 2007 

Our winter quarter starts a week from Monday. In addition to muhy5 course on Lesbian & Gay lit, I’ll be teaching a graduate seminar on Restoration literature (1660-1688). I’m really looking forward to it — I’ve never taught a graduate class just on this period.

When I started thinking about the class, I immediately wanted to organize it around a chapter from Judith Bennett‘s new book, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Most of the book is more suited to historians, but the chapter on “Patriarchal Equilibrium” will offer us an interesting way into the literary texts that we’ll be studying. It discusses definitions of patriarchy and talks about a model for analyzing patriarchal structures from a feminist point of view.

After I chose the theme, historicizing patriarchy, I had to start choosing literary texts, of course. I especially want to introduce my students to female poets in the period. I also decided to order Blackwell’s anthology of Restoration drama, which is kind of expensive. Due to the cost, I quickly decided that I would need to assign as much as possible from that text in order to justify the expense. It feels a little weird to let the book order dictate the reading list, but in many ways that happens all the time so it’s nothing really new. Originally I had thought about ordering no textbooks and having the class just read everything online, but I was quickly convinced not to do that by PJ and other colleagues — all of whom thought I was crazy.

I also made another momentous decision: to start with Milton‘s Paradise Lost. I’m hoping that this will set up the patriarchal tradition for us, even if Milton wasn’t exactly a typical patriarch (or at least he wasn’t typical of some Restoration political theory that equated the family patriarch with the national one, the king). In order to make room on the syllabus for other things, I ended up asking my students to read part of the poem (along with the Bennett chapter) before the class started. We’ll therefore be jumping into the poem right away.

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Hottie of the Month: Henry Fielding Wednesday, Oct 31 2007 

I spent much of the past month teaching Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a great novel that I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve already written about teaching the novel, so I won’t write about that again here.

Instead, I want to write a little about a different aspect of Fielding’s writing. He was born in 1707 in Somerset, where the first part of Tom Jones takes place. Upon completing his education, he moved to London to pursue his literary career. At first, Fielding concentrated on being a playwright, but his politics and the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 put an end to those aspirations. He continued to write, publishing prose works in various journals and pamphlets.

In 1746 he published “The Female Husband,” a prose work retelling the story of Mary Hamilton, who had become infamous for cross-dressing, passing as a man, and marrying/seducing a series of women before being caught and punished.

I didn’t teach this story in my eighteenth-century lit class this term, but I love teaching it in general. The piece begins with some editorializing by the narrator, presumably Fielding:

THAT propense inclination which is for very wise purposes implanted in the one sex for the other, is not only necessary for the continuance of the human species; but is, at the same time, when governed and directed by virtue and religion, productive not only of corporeal delight, but of the most rational felicity.

But if once our carnal appetites are let loose, without those prudent and secure guides, there is no excess and disorder which they are not liable to commit, even while they pursue their natural satisfaction; and, which may seem still more strange, there is nothing monstrous and unnatural, which they are not capable of inventing, nothing so brutal and shocking which they have not actually committed.

Of these unnatural lusts, all ages and countries have afforded us too many instances; but none I think more surprising than what will be found in the history of Mrs. Mary, otherwise Mr. George Hamilton.

Scholars have written about this narrative’s place in the history of sexuality, so what I’m about to say about this excerpt isn’t necessarily all that original. But I’m fascinated by this passage’s assumptions about sexuality. The first sentence, for example, seems to advocate for something that’s beginning to resemble the modern ideology of heterosexuality. According to Fielding, God has instilled within all people a “prosense inclination,” a natural propensity, toward the opposite sex. (Hetero)Sexual desire is thus natural, according to this opening sentence.

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Teaching Tom Jones Friday, Oct 19 2007 

This week I finished teaching Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, which I had never taught before. In fact, I’d never finished reading it before, which is one of the reasons I decided to teach it this term — what better way to force myself to read it!?

Because the novel is so long, some 800 pages, we spent three weeks (fully a third of our class) on it. Now that I’ve finished it, I have to say I see why this book is reputed to be one of the great novels of English literature. It’s a hoot! Parts of his are hilariously funny, and (maybe because it is so long) it encapsulates just about every major issue that a teacher would want to bring up about mid-eighteenth-century literature and culture. I also think a good number of my students enjoyed reading it. Not all of them, of course, but the ones who clearly read all (or most of it) seemed to enjoy it and have interesting things to say about it.

Tom Jones DVDWhen I decided to teach it, I also decided to show my class a miniseries version of the novel as we read. The dvd is distributed by A&E and was originally a BBC production. This production stars Max Beesley as Tom and Samantha Morton as Sophia. They both do an excellent job in the roles. Beesley is very good at playing the manslut with the heart of gold, and Morton is great as the ever put-upon Sophia (but she’s always great in everything she does!).

One of my students commented on the production’s costumes when we finished it on Wednesday; she really liked them. I totally agreed. This miniseries gives its audience a great feel for eighteenth-century clothing, manners, houses, etc.

To finish my mini-review, everything about this production is top-notch. I also really liked James D’Arcy as Blifil, Lindsay Duncan as Lady Bellaston, and Brian Blessed as Squire Western. All of the casting was perfect, but these three actors were especially great in their roles. So, I’m glad we watched it.

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Planning a Gay Lit Syllabus Monday, Oct 8 2007 

My favorite time of the quarter is finally here: the time to start planning next quarter’s classes! (And I’m only half joking about that!)

As usual, I’m teaching my Lesbian & Gay Literature class during the winter quarter. Every time I teach it, I try to include some new works that I’ve not taught before. I also try to keep a few books I’m familiar with so that everything isn’t starting from scratch. So, deciding what to keep from last time and what to add is the main difficulty. The basic course description is always the same:

This course studies the political, artistic, and rhetorical uses of the erotic/sexual in gay and lesbian literature with particular emphasis on the ways in which gay and lesbian identities and experiences have been represented in post-Stonewall (i.e., post-1969) literary discourse. Regardless of how homosexuals self-identify, the heterosexual mainstream by and large defines us according to its perception of lesbian and gay sexual identities, desires, and activities. Queer writers have therefore struggled with the issue of representing sexual identity, desire, and practice in their literary works. Should representations of sex work to make homosexual identities, desires, and practices aesthetically pleasing in an effort to gain acceptance in heterosexual society? Or should queer writers revel in what makes us different, using explicit descriptions of sex as a literary corollary to the phrase, “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!”? We will try to answer these and other related questions as we read this term.

In a way, insisting that the class focus on post-Stonewall literature makes it even more difficult sometimes. There are a lot of great texts from before 1969, but I am ultimately committed to teaching a class centered of gay and lesbian identity and that arguably means post-Stonewall. I once tried teaching the class as a survey of “queer” texts since Shakespeare, but neither I nor my students enjoyed that kind of broad sweep in a 10-week class.

So, I tend to select 5 or 6 authors/books for us to study (usually with some smaller texts thrown in). This past spring, for example, I taught Leslie Feinberg‘s Stone Butch Blues, Katherine Forrest‘s Curious Wine, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Wayne Hoffman’s Hard, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. (I threw in a little Richard Amory, Andrew Holleran, Chrystos, Dorothy Allison, and Jewelle Gomez.)

While that class went well, I’m ready to change it up a bit. In particular, I was unhappy with how little racial diversity I had among the writers we studied last quarter. I also want to give my students more generic diversity — non-fiction, fiction, drama, poetry, etc. I usually chose to keep a couple of texts that I’ve taught before and add a few news ones to the syllabus. So, I’ve been thinking about what to add and what to subtract.

I starting by thinking about which texts I absolutely wanted to keep. I quickly decided that there are two of them: Angels and Fun Home. Angels is one of the most important gay texts, and I really like to include its ultimately optimistic view of the next millennium. And Fun Home has become one of my favorite texts to teach. Everyone I’ve recommended it to has loved it. And my students really responded well to it last term.

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