Thursday, January 10, 2008

holding pattern; hanging on; whoredom in Boca

The first meetings of the semester's classes have passed, a biennial agony that I grow to dread more & more each year. I'm not a comfortable public speaker; so, painfully self-conscious, I overcompensate with wisecracks & gimcracks & bales & acres of rambling verbiage. (I grow to loathe the twanging of my own voice more every year...)
John Latta continues to assiduously read/blog his way thru The Poem of a Life; I'm too blushingly pleased by the care with which he ponders the book, & pursues its byways, to link him just now. (You can find him on the blogroll, if so interested.)
I took the plunge into full-fledged prostitution last night in my Biography: Theory & Practice seminar. I had left a hole in the syllabus for a "Contemporary Biography To Be Determined," & offered up three biographies for them to choose among. Voting was closely divided, but broke 6 to 5 in favor of reading The Poem of a Life rather than Lyndall Gordon's Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life (with one outrider – a Ron Paulist? – casting her/his vote for Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World). Mixed feelings on my side: of course, a bit of satisfied amour-propre, but also regret – my LZ book really isn't a patch on Gordon's luminous Woolf, & I'm not sure whatever 1st-hand author's tales I can tell abt. writing TPL will be as pedagogically useful as dissecting the weird turns of Greenblatt's Shax.

But mainly: I've never assigned a book of my own in a class before, & am none too comfortable doing so now. Perhaps I've heard far too many horror stories of the management & education professors who've supplemented their own incomes by assigning their own lame textbooks to their massive lecture courses. Or perhaps it's personal experience. In my undergrad days, I recall only a handful of philosophy courses that used professor-authored texts – & entirely appropriately. But when I came to The Campus on the Hill for doctoral studies, it seemed one couldn't swing a cat without knocking down a faculty member scurrying to the bookstore with a book order for his/her own book.

Okay when the class was a Theory seminar, & Jonathan Culler was assigning his own On Deconstruction; it no doubt saved us all a lot of note-taking. But other instances were less helpful: one seminar in particular, involving the grandest of modernist monumental texts, also subjected us to perhaps the least useful, most tediously-written commentary on Ulysses ever published – not coincidentally written by the professor. (Its only selling point was that it was the first book published whose references were keyed to the new [at the time] Gabler edition. Hooray.)

So call me a whore. At least, when Our Fair University's ethics committee comes knocking on my office door, I can explain that my "profits" – royalties – from the half-dozen or so copies of the book this will sell (half the class seems to have it already, mirabile dictu) will fall rather short of buying the class a round of drinks – which I'll do anyway. Call me a $10 whore.
I'd be interested in hearing from those academics among Culture Industry's six readers as to their own experiences – positive or otherwise – with professor-authored course texts.


Ed Baker said...

you're "pimping" not "whoring"

now "prostituting" is a whole 'nother thing...
we can leave that in Las Vegas where the next election-candidate will determine who gets US

let 'em read what they want and absorb what they can after all: "it's only rock 'n' roll"

am enjoying your first Zukosky book glad to see that you did not fail to include Ted Enslin and Frank Samperi (page 300)

cheers, Ed

Amy said...

Well, it's definitely not the same thing, but I like to sneak stuff into my creative writing students' worksheet -- no name -- and have them critique it. Only one student ever figured out it was me, and she tore me to shreds, good girl. :-)

I did once sit in on a friend's class when they read one of my stories, so they could Q&A me, but the whole Q was "did this really happen?" and the whole A was "no" so that didn't work out, really.

Brian likes to put poems of mine (and lots of other people he knows -- including you, Mark) on handouts for his poetry students. He gives me copies of their ungrammatical and wildly uncomprehending interpretations, which I treasure, and probably will forever.

I eagerly await the blog in which you tell us how it goes...

Su said...

I was assigned professor's books in two of my undergrad courses and two of my grad courses. I wasn't thrilled - not of the books themselves or even the practice of assigning their own books (one was a bitch to find because it was out of print - he as an asshole), but the way they approached their work when we got to it. Because you have so many writers in your class, I think you should give them plenty of opportunity to ask you about the process of publishing, editing, and (the oh-so-funny) indexing process. You obviously had to make decisions on structure in the book and how much of your research would be applied and which poems you thought should be examined, and I think being privy to the process is a key benefit to your students and having them read your book for that particular course.

BTW, the fact that your possible Ron-Paulist went for Greenblatt just says that they were interested in the subject (or had already read it). I like your 'democratic' approach, though.

I once enrolled in a grad seminar where we learned in the first hour that the ONLY book assigned was the instructor's latest memoir. On the first day of class he said (and I'm pretty sure this is a quote), "We'll read it four times [he explains something about why we read it the first three times and then tells us the fourth read is] get the essence of it." I left the class at break and dropped it.

E. M. Selinger said...

Well, Mark, I've only done this once, in a course on love poetry. Taught "What Is It Then Between Us," or tried to. This was five or six years, maybe more, after the book came out. Three memories:

1) Students bought it used on line (one an autographed copy) and told me what great deals they got on it.
Embarrassing, but I could hardly blame them.

2) The shift from how I approached poems viva voce, in class, to how I approached them in the book was quite jarring for all of us. I was reminded how many years had passed since I'd written the earliest drafts of the book, and how much of it was still (in my mind) dissertation-style work, bent on proving its professional bona fides.

3) When we finished that portion of the quarter, and moved on, I felt a great sense of relief.

In your case, point 2 doesn't apply, watch out for point 1, and you've scheduled the class to address point 3.

I'm with Su: use this as a chance to take them "behind the scenes" of the book, which I didn't do in my own class. Think of what you're doing in DVD terms: they buy the regular edition, but you're going to let them play it with the commentary track, and maybe some other special features (deleted scenes, a blooper reel) too.

Amy said...

If it makes you feel any better, I assigned my students a book by James Merrill, and they bought it online for as little as 75 cents.

I definitely didn't take it as a comment on the quality of the book.

Although, dead men collect no royalties.

E. M. Selinger said...

Actually, Amy, I checked by Ouija board, and evidently they do! A JEWEL IN THE CROWN for every sale, used or new.

Anonymous said...


As I avoided the accounting/management classes andnone of my lit. or creative writing professors were pompous enough to use their own work (this was working-class Wayne State in the Motor City) it was not a problem for me. I am, have been, embaraassed when a couple of poets/frinds used my book, c.c., and then wanted me to talk about it. I bumbled, stumbled my way through questions obvious (why did you write a fifteen-sonnet poem?) and not-so-obvious (if you had to write these over again whay would you change?)...


Brian said...

As Amy mentioned, I'm far more comfortable using poems by friends in my classes than using my own, but I did stick one of my own in the (now, to my mind) execrable bit I wrote for Elements, our in-house 2000 level handbook, and it's tough to stand there in front of the class and talk about my own poem as an example of whatever it's supposed to be an example of. I can't imagine doing that for an entire book, even if I had one.

Bradley said...

Like Brian, I'm far more likely to assign my friends' stuff to students than I am my own. Although I used to assign a piece I wrote for The Missouri Review's website about politics and nonfiction, and this semester I'm having students read my interview with Tobias Wolff from The Missouri Review-- but that's hardly "my work." I just asked a bunch of dumb questions and he provided intelligent replies.

As an undergrad, I had one creative writing professor who consistently assigned his own books-- in fact, for one fiction workshop he assigned his short story collection and a collection of essays he'd written. He had us buy the hardcover editions, too, even though the story collection at least was available in paperback (I discovered later in the semester-- this was back in the days when the Internet ran on steam; we didn't have no "Amazon Marketplace" in those days). He told us he was assigning his work because he wanted to offer us the insights from the writer about why he made the choices he made, but judging by our class discussions, I don't think that was the case-- he once sadly confided to me that I was one of the only students who really "got" one of his less-popular stories.

Anyway, what I also discovered as a student is that good manners (and being an utter sycophant) often prevented me from honestly discussing a professor's work. I don't think I'm alone in that. That's why I tend to not assign much of my own work to students; part of me is afraid that they won't want to have a honest discussion of the work, and part of me realizes I don't have much to say about the work itself. When I'm talking about Notes of a Native Son or Goodbye to All That, I can be effusive or critical; I can't really talk about how groundbreaking or brilliant my own work is (at least, not without booze), and I can't really identify just where my own essay falls apart or wasn't worth publishing to begin with (at least, not without booze). So no one benefits from hearing me talk about me.

To be honest, though, I think your situation will be different. You're working with grad students, and your book is the result of years of research and scholarship-- as opposed to my work, which basically happens when there's nothing good on TV and I muse to myself, "You know what I should write something about? Space: 1999. That was a pretty bitchin' show." In addition to having a lot to say about the material, you'll also be able to talk about what I imagine was a pretty interesting (though exhausting and, I imagine, at times frustrating) process.