English in the World

I am very excited because, after putting in a last-minute application for a course development grant, I learned on Friday that I have been awarded that grant and will be teaching a new course as part of a major, multi-year grant that JCU is using to increase global learning on campus, particularly through faculty learning groups and undergraduate courses in various aspects of globalization studies.

So, in Spring 2014, I will teach EN 299 English in the World, in which the students and I will “examine the close connections between language and identity, as they play out in economic, political, and cultural exchange,” as I phrased it in the application. As is probably clear, we’ll be dealing with quite a lot of sociolinguistic material (“Seeking out both the global within English and the signs of English around the globe, we will necessarily tackle concerns over language survival or revival, as well as the types and mechanisms of language contact”), and I am really looking forward to that!

I’m hoping that this course will get a healthy enrollment, boosted by some of our education-track English majors. I am fortunate enough to be able to teach a course on the history of English every fall because the education-track majors are required to take a course on language (either HEL or a contemporary grammar course), and this “English in the World” course will be designated as another option for satisfying that requirement.

I still need to work out precisely what readings I will assign to the students, but I am very much looking forward to the preparatory reading I’ll be doing this summer: David Crystal’s Language Death, Robert McCrum’s Globish, Lawrence Rosenwald’s Multilingual America, Ardis Butterfield’s The Familiar Enemy, assorted sociolinguistics textbooks, Lawrence Venuti on translation and “an ethics of difference,” sections from The Empire Writes Back, and various other books. While I’m at it, I will probably revisit Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which launched my first forays into more sustained academic thought, after my wonderful ninth-grade history teacher recommended it to me. I’m also planning to assign a few literary and autobiographical texts, perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Francisco Jiménez’s Breaking Through, although I’d love to hear other suggestions, if you have any, especially anything related to East Asia (Peter Hessler?), since I know we’ll have South Asia, Europe, and Africa represented, one way or another. It would also be nice to get something specifically South American on the list, too.

I know that we are going to discuss some analogous theories and situations from earlier periods of history (e.g., Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century argument that nations arise out of languages, rather than languages out of nations), but aside from demonstrating that the Middle Ages are actually au courant, my hope is that we will come to a greater appreciation of the fundamental importance in human societies of these questions of language and identity and of the larger patterns of language flux, rather than falling into the trap of viewing this “global English” phenomenon as a uniquely modern phenomenon.

Throughout the course, students will maintain logs of current news items or other items of interest, probably through the Evernote app. (I am still thinking about using blogs or a single course blog, but one advantage of using Evernote would be that I would have distinct submissions to a single folder from each student, rather than having to go and count entries.) The items in these logs will form the basis for much of the group work that students will do during our class sessions, but they will also be the basis for the students’ work towards their final projects. I’m still deciding what those final projects will look like. I know that there will be a significant writing component, but I would also like students to think creatively and rigorously about multimedia possibilities, and I’m open to interviews or other experiential projects, and to proposals for collaborative work.

As you can see, this course is still taking shape, but I’m very, very pleased that I will be able to pursue it, even though I’m likely to have a very harried semester in Spring 2014, trying to stay on top of this course and another course that I’m very excited (though also very nervous) about developing. More on that second new course soon!

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Grousing

Bah. I am in the middle of another, more upbeat post, but I am also in the middle of some marking that is taking way too much time because I’m feeling annoyed by this sadly common phenomenon: It is extremely frustrating and irritating when students submit proposals or drafts for comments, only to ignore those comments. I’m comfortable with the idea that a student might disagree with my comments, but I would strongly prefer that such a student express that to me than that I have to waste my time simply reading the same material again and making (or, at least, thinking) the same comments again. There is also the possibility that the student just ran out of time for revisions, but I’d much prefer the student to ask for an extra day or whatever would be necessary.

It’s an interesting problem because I suspect that it arises from some combination of a lack of communication and a lack of trust. So, when I say that I’m offering some thoughts and that I hope the student will contact me with concerns and questions, I’m trusting the student to do so. At the same time, I suspect that, no matter how many times I invite disagreement and debate in our in-class conversations, many students retain the false idea that the teacher knows (or believes that she knows) “the” right thing to say about anything and that, therefore, it is not acceptable to challenge what the teacher has written …even if you’re going to ignore what the teacher has written. (I’m thinking here of a situation some time ago when I received a proposal for an essay based on what I saw as a fundamentally problematic non-argument. I gave some specific suggestions about how the student might arrive at an essay that was logically and intellectually feasible, but the final essay I received was precisely the one originally proposed. So, the student either did not read my comments or did not choose to either act on them or consult me about them.) So, it’s partly a question of whether or not there are things I can do (with in-class discussions, with assignments, or during private consultations) to help make my more benevolent and tolerant view of student work more clear. I have no problem with the idea that a student have a different viewpoint on a text than I do, as long as it is well supported by evidence, but my job is to try to help when I see logical flaws or places where evidence is being ignored or contradicted in some way.

I was just talking last night with some non-academic friends about the frustration of dealing with any plagiarism case, which frustration is partly (for me) to do with what, again, feels like a lack of trust that I really mean it when I talk about wanting to learn their thoughts and see the arguments that they can put forward, when I talk about how much more interesting they are than some essay off of the internet. (Okay, I know that this is probably not all, or even any, of what is going on in most plagiarism cases, but it’s hard for me to escape the sense that this is at least implicit in some of what is going on.) Of course, this is all to say nothing of our in-class conversations on the purposes of classes that ask students to practice articulating their thoughts and to apply a small amount of discipline to the appreciation of materials that might not be their first choice.

I don’t have time at the moment to try to rehearse the possible responses to these situations, and I’m pretty confident that there’s no silver bullet to begin with. Still, I wanted to air these thoughts. Anyone with other thoughts should feel free to weigh in!

Working like Bach?

I interrupt my regularly scheduled (if not regularly completed!) posting to contemplate J. S. Bach for a few minutes. Today is his birthday, and since I cannot remember a time when I did not love his music, I always take the excuse to listen to even more of his music on this day than I do on other days. (You could sample some of his choral, orchestral, or keyboard music as a bit of a celebration, too!)

I got to thinking on this date in 2011 (nearing the end of my first, terrifying year as a Visiting Assistant Professor) about how Bach provided an interesting set of analogies for those interested in literary criticism. I know this because I cleverly sent a series of e-mails to myself to record those thoughts before they had a chance to slip away in a sea of good intentions, lack of direction, and even more severe lack of time. This blog will, I hope, solve the problem of a lack of direction, for these and other homeless thoughts. Perhaps I can also use the impetus of another celebration of Bach’s birth to overcome the other two difficulties.

If there is anyone who understands the pressure on academics to regularly produce work of a certain quality, it is a Cantor or Kapellmeister from eighteenth-century Leipzig! Anyone who wrote a cantata for each Sunday and every other holiday in the Lutheran calendar for at least three years running (plus at least two other complete cantata cycles from other periods of his life) surely knows the demands of producing high-quality work under extreme pressure.

I have to admit, I quite like the idea (conceit?) of this professional affinity, but leaving that aside, it seems to me that there are some interesting lessons to be learned from Bach’s music and the legacy of that music. It is true that Bach had a remarkable output, but some of that output in fact consisted of reworkings of earlier pieces. In some cases, this was in fairly strict transcriptions, but at other times, such as when he used what is now known as the “Passion Chorale” as a unifying element within his St. Matthew Passion, the reworkings were truly reworkings. The Passion Chorale is developed throughout the course of the St. Matthew Passion, with different harmonizations (and different keys) each time it is utilized for a different text.

Now, I cannot expect to earn tenure by simply revamping one article over and over, but I, for one, am perfectly content to have more opportunities to hear some beautiful music, even if I’ve heard something similar before. I was thinking, having just attempted to craft a narrative of a coherent research program as part of the dossier for my annual pre-tenure review, that perhaps this is the wrong way to think of the analogy. Perhaps, in the context of a research program whose coherence is based more in a related set of questions than in a single chronological period, the reharmonizing is the application of that intertwined set of concerns to a distinct and more focused topic in a particular article. (Hmmm, is it too late at night for me to be trying to articulate this? Is it just a terrible and silly idea to begin with?) I’m at the stage of my career where the harmonies (or at least the relations between different harmonizations) are still tentative, contingent upon the success of a couple of specific “reharmonizations.” I’d like to think that there will come a day when my reharmonizations will have achieved the degree of creativity shown in the reworkings of Bach’s music by some other musicians – if you don’t feel anything when you listen to Nina Simone improvising in the middle of “Love Me or Leave Me,” well, then I’m not sure that you have a soul – but I suspect that it will take me some time to even come close. For now, here’s a heartfelt “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” to the greatest of them all.

Not from around here

I occasionally conduct what I refer to as a scratch evaluation in the middle of my courses. I pass out slips of scratch paper and ask students to respond to a question or two and give me some feedback. Sometimes, this is related to a particular idea I’m thinking of trying or have just tried out, but at other times, I simply ask students to tell me both the most interesting or enjoyable thing learned up to that point and one unanswered question or unresolved concern that they’d like to see addressed in the course. Last week, many students had substantive and helpful comments about their respective courses, but I was utterly disarmed by one slip where the unanswered question was simply, “Are you from the United States? Not that it matters. I’m just curious.”

People in Cleveland periodically comment on my accent (more than I recall in Toronto, oddly enough), but it seems to be an especially noticeable feature of my teaching for students in this particular class. Early in the semester, one student somewhat apologetically approached me after class and, after a bit of hemming and hawing, finally asked, “You’re not from around here, are you?” After I explained that I had grown up in California and Arizona, before spending several years in Southern Ontario for graduate school, the student went away satisfied, but I have found myself wondering if there are situations where we are more prone to hear accents. Are we psychologically more likely to think we are hearing them when the subject matter (as with that particular class, a British literature survey) is from another region? Or is my accent just that much more foreign to people in this part of the Great Lakes? Maybe so. After all, I definitely have not picked up the Great Lakes nasal a, and I do not intend to.

Greetings

As you can see on my “About” page, I am an assistant professor of English at John Carroll University, on the east side of Cleveland. I briefly kept a blog (with a similar handle) as a grad student, but rather than resurrect that blog, I’m moving over to the much nicer interface at WordPress! I maintain a daily, personal journal, but in an effort to keep track of and further develop the little scholarly ideas that come to me on occasion, and to ensure that I do at least a bit of professionally focused writing every day, I’ll be using this blog to explore ideas that are on my mind. That’s not to say that I will post here every day, but when I have not done at least a reasonable amount of writing (or revising) on a given day, then I will try to post something here.

Over the next week, I’ll likely post some thoughts on navigating books, on accents (or the perception thereof), and on a couple of courses that I’m hoping to teach in Spring 2014.