Tuesday, April 08, 2008

On Teaching World Literature/s, Part I: The Value of Just Talking

I'm still processing the 3-hour-long discussion on world literature/s that members of my department had this past Sunday (the last hour of which I missed due to a nasty sinus infection that's hit the Full Metal Archivist just as she enters the home stretch of her MLS program's semester--ugh!), and with grading and advising taking up the rest of this week, I won't be able to do more than a few quick hits on it this week here.

Our original plan was to focus in the first hour on concepts and theories of world/global literature, use the next hour for breakout sessions on how and what and why we teach what we do in the world literature courses that we teach, and then turn to issues of goals, mission, requirements, and curriculum in the final hour. The point wasn't to come up with any proposals or voting items, but to take some time to hear each other out, learn about the history of the department, consider how the issues and debates in the scholarly literature play out in our teaching experiences, and so on. What was great was that we had one emeritus professor (and former dean) and one full professor who could fill the rest of us in on the discussions and planning that went into the shift in the early '90s from a British/American-survey-based core to a world genre-based core; a handful of recently-tenured people who could speak to our intellectual journeys in our time here, partially as a result of teaching in that core; and a good number of new and relatively new hires who could bring fresh eyes to our majors (English and English-Adolescence Education). What was also great was that we could have the discussion without a sense of looming crisis: long before my cohort came here, we were one of the most influential departments in campus governance and we've done a lot of serious work to continue that tradition in the past decade; we have a very high percentage of majors per graduating class relative to the national average in English; and we just had an amazing Open House for admitted students the day before, the largest in the university's history, in which every student I talked to said that we were already their first choice. (That didn't stop those of us at my table during lunch from venting over assessment, accreditation, the SUNY system's misguided approach to general education, and NY State economics/politics, of course.) What wasn't so great was that due to travel, health, birth, leaves, and other matters, some key people had to miss the symposium. On the bright side, that meant those of us who were there could be a bit more informal and flexible than we had originally planned. In fact, we actually had an intense two-hour-straight discussion on our first two topics as a full group, without having to break out into smaller groups--or even break for a snack!

I won't use this post to get into the actual issues we discussed; what I want to focus on instead was the value of the discussion itself. When I arrived here in 1998, the new faculty had plenty of time to talk in the hallway, drop in on each other's offices, hang out downtown together, have each other over for meals, and generally get to know each other and the established faculty quite well, both in personal and professional terms. Over the course of the ensuing decade, I've found that my time is much less my own. This is not simply due to a shift from being single the first half to starting a family the second half, although the fact that so many people in my department and our wider circles of friends have been making the same shift has obviously had a huge effect. But in my experience, what's had an even bigger effect is a marked increase in workload, particularly in service. Increasingly, my time on campus has been eaten up by meetings and preparations for meetings. Even though I've eliminated union service this year (thanks to ballots for the 2007 elections taking forever to reach me in Japan) and cut back sharply on university service (I'm back on the University Senate this semester and was just nominated and voted in to be its Vice Chair next academic year, though, so that's coming to an end), the intensity and stakes of department service have taken me by surprise. What this has meant is that besides the mentoring I've been doing this year (and can I add how pleased I am that 2 of the 3 I worked with as associate chair want to continue working with me?), I've barely had time to sit down and talk with anyone in my department, including my best friends, for more than a few minutes at a time.

So just taking the time to have an intellectual/professional discussion with my friends and colleagues was--how shall I say it?--great fun. Even more fun than listening to my colleagues whom I invited to speak with my students in my introduction to the major half-semester seminar or participating in the Theory Live series one of my new colleagues organized this semester (on which more later). It's funny what a pleasure it can be to simply hear what we think and why, what we've done and how it's worked, what issues we have with the world literature core and what we ought to do about them/it. And to realize how much I missed this kind of exchange. Next in this series: what kind of exchange it was.

No comments: