Tag Archives: 10-10-12

Reading while teaching; Teaching what you read

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If you do an image search for ‘teaching’ and ‘reading’ (as I just did), you get lots of pictures of the quote “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” So you modify your search terms (because who wants a treacle quote to being their blog post) to “teaching english university” and you get pictures of lecture halls and students with their hands raised. Because that’s what teaching looks like (on Google at least): a classroom with a teacher, students and some kind of learning going on (hopefully). What you don’t find when you do an image search is a picture of the teacher (me) buried in articles, reference books and webpages frantically preparing for a class. And not reading other things. And making my book club read a book I’ve already read so that I don’t have to read something new. And placing books on hold at the library for the winter break when I’ve promised myself a reward of reading all the things I’ve wanted to be reading, but haven’t had the time to (or more properly the reading energy – more on that to come).

In my more desperate moments I convince myself I haven’t read anything since September. Untrue! I’ve reread the novels assigned for the course (The Book of NegroesIndian Horse and In the Skin of a Lion) and read dozens of texts surrounding these novels (and I read a collection of essays on motherhood *The M Word* before bed, but I didn’t blog about it because essays and I just didn’t). Surely this preparatory work ‘counts’ as reading?

Why then, when I’m teaching what I read, does it not feel like reading? It’s not quite that it feels like work (though it *is* work), it’s more that it feels like their are two tracks of running simultaneously: the reader and the teacher. The reader-me is paying attention to formal elements, to the experience of reading, to making connections. The teacher-me is paying attention to passages that might be included in a lecture or on an exam, to anticipating questions from students, to imagining how to present complex ideas in ways that will be engaging and enriching. It takes energy – “reading energy” – to read on these two tracks.

I probably sound like I’m complaining; I’m not complaining. Much of the time it’s exciting to be doing this work. To plan lessons that will invite students to analyze and to support their enthusiasm for reading (and they are brilliantly engaged and lively students). Some of the time it’s exhausting and frustrating. All of the time it’s a privilege: to be in the classroom, to work with the students, to have the opportunity to teach.

The real effect though is to limit my reading energy for books outside of what I’m teaching. Is it that I’m getting older and just don’t have the same energy? Because in my PhD I read for ‘work’ and then I read for ‘not-work.’ I did the 100 book challenge in the year I wrote my dissertation! So what is it about *teaching* what I read that, for me, makes it so much harder to eek out the time/energy to read-for-me?

As I consider whether to teach again next semester (or ever again!), I place high on my pro/con list the loss of reading-for-me.  To help me decide, my analytic-minded partner, S., generated a spreadsheet ranking different pro’s and con’s. When asked how much it mattered to me whether I had energy to read other things, I ranked it the highest as a con for teaching. I miss one-track reading.

So I’ve started reading something just for me. I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s *My Brilliant Friend* with S. (the other S. – my brilliant friend, S.). I’m hoping that in what remains of the semester I can find a pace that lets me read this way. And if I can’t? What do I do? Blog-readers-who-are-also-teachers: what do you do? How do you create the space for different ways of reading? Teach me your ways.

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A Year in Reading: On Finishing 100 Books

I’ve been scared to write this post for weeks now. Ever since I realized I’d actually finish the project of 10-10-12 – reading 10 books in 10 categories in 12 months – I’ve worried about how to tie it all together, worried that I haven’t had profound enough insights, worried that I’d have to have a final word. Continue reading

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Erin's Favourite Books, Popular Posts

The Kite Runner: Predictable

   

The Kite Runner does everything according to convention and so deserves, then, to be as popular as it is; yet I find myself resisting, find myself reluctant to recommend it, refusing to call it an unquestionably ‘good book.’ I hope this isn’t a case of elitism, a belief that my tastes might be too refined for populism, but I leave that open as a possibility.

Instead I’ll suggest that the book lacks imagination. Sure it’s plot has “twists,” but they are twists this reader could see coming, or when they were “surprising” felt (obnoxiously) like the only possibility in a book that must follow the particular arc of redemption. Plot events come burdened with symbolism – everything that happens reads as though accompanied by swelling music – and character decisions are fraught with the burden of Here Our Character Meets a Crossroads and Will He Be Redeemed? This is a complaint then that the book lacks nuance, it lacks subtly, it lacks – and this is a hard thing to articulate with example – it lacks confidence. It reads as a perfectly workshopped novel that refuses to take risks. It picks a plot arc, picks a character flaw, picks a conflict and adheres – with an admirable tenacity, I suppose – to these devices. But it does leave the reader with a frustrating case of predictability.

Amir, our protagonist, the admitted coward and first person narrator, also lacks sympathy. We’re meant (I think) to dislike him a little for his childhood weakness, but I suspect we’re also meant to root for his redemption. Except at no point in the novel am I convinced that his redemption is worthwhile, or that he wants to be redeemed, or that if redeemed, he’ll do anything differently. And these options are perhaps a little too laden with interest, too laden because I really didn’t care much what happened to Amir one way or the other. That I read the scene of his near death with an abstracted indifference is not my failing, but rather the failing of a novel that has a (remarkably) detached first person narrator who fails – at every opportunity – to deepen or complicate his character. Much of this falls out because he describes his responses “I felt sad,” rather than showing them in actions, and so he can only ever be a surface character; but it may also be that we’re never given the chance to see his vulnerability – the effect of a dual chronology – as we already know the outcome of his actions.

So sure, The Kite Runner has enough action to read quickly, it has enough symbolism to read as Important, and a setting that makes it relevant to readers in the West trying to understand the “barbarism” of the Taliban (as if it is only these murderous monsters who sexually abuse boys, or these beastly Muslims who oppress women). But it does it all too neatly and too nervously. It is a beautiful narrative body without a narrative soul.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Bloody Chamber: Wolves, Wives and the Colour Red

                         

I begin reading novels with the presumption of brilliance; I begin reading short stories with the expectation of disappointment. It is for novels to fail; it is for short stories to triumph. Call me a genre-ist, call me a novel-ist (no really, call me a novelist!), call me what you will.

Angela Carter’s collection (as recommended by E. – thanks!) The Bloody Chamber does so well as a collection it more than proves its burden of brilliance. And here’s my hypothesis for why it’s so great: it sets out to be a short story collection. Most of the other collections I’ve encountered read as patchwork efforts wherein a writer realized they’d amassed enough stories to call it a collection, puzzled out some central themes, maybe did some edits, and worked on a good title. With Carter, however, it’s clear – or at least I hope this is the case – that she decided to write a collection of fucked up fairy tales and did just that. So it’s no surprise that scenes repeat, characters share characteristics, the themes – curiosity, sexuality, youth, virginity – bleed (ha! get it? Bloody chamber?) from one story to the next. My terrible pun is evidence of this too, as blood and the colour red penetrate all of the stories as characters must confront the physical body and its (mostly sexual) urges. So many deflowered virgins.

I also enjoyed Carter’s willingness to see the human as one other kind of beast caught up in a fantastical world of desire and impulse. That we often behave without reason, or more often still, counter-reason, is exploited by Carter in a number of the stories when the reader watches in car-accident-attention-horror as yet another woman falls victim (or rather, agentally victimizes herself) to yet another beastly man or manly beast.

Here’s a good example:

“That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never case to mourn their own condition” (112).

Swap out “beast” and pop in “human” and you’ve got the collection covered. Well, add a bit more blood and you’d have it covered.

Each story provides an unexpected narrative point of view (I loved, for instance, the animal perspective of Puss in ‘Puss in Boots’ – at long last a non-human protagonist I enjoyed!), some twist classic fairy tales, others simply allude to them. In either case the resonances make for a disturbing read.

Recommend.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, British literature, Fiction, Short Stories