Sunday, November 14, 2010


In an idle moment today – after I finished The Philosophy of History, and between books 7 & 8 of Paradise Lost – I sat down to think about what I've been teaching over these past decades. I thought about that because I'm reading David Harvey's Companion to Marx's Capital, the print version of his excellent CUNY lectures (which can be downloaded here), and he remarks that he's been teaching the book every year for several decades now; which made me think of David Kastan's introduction to his edition of Paradise Lost, where he remarks that in his 14 years at Dartmouth he taught the poem on an annual basis. How satisfying it must be to dig so deeply into any single text, thought I.

Anyway, it turns out I've taught almost a hundred courses since I began this lifelong trudge; that's including my stint as a TA in grad school, my several years of frantic adjuncting, and my mostly happy years at Our Fair University. What immediately struck me was that when I left aside courses one might call "service" – freshman composition, intro to the major, etc. – I've done remarkably few things directly in my field. That is, if my field is modernism and postmodernism, poetry in particular – and I think it is, right? – probably a quarter of the classes I've taught have been more or less directly in that. Probably a fifth of the classes I've taught have been American lit courses of one description or another, & I've obviously slanted my syllabi in those classes to make them more "modernist" whenever possible (& I know I've taught a good deal more poetry than some of my colleagues – who teach a good deal more drama than I do, & so forth). I've done Bible as Lit maybe a half-dozen times, and a half-dozen sections of Milton and Shakespeare. And then "boutique" courses – graduate seminars on Joyce and Beckett, theory of biography, other things that have caught my fancy.

But given my publication record, I've really taught relatively few classes flat-out directed at modernist or contemporary poetry. Instead, I find with some interest, over a quarter of all the courses I've taught have been creative writing workshops. Oh my. Very interesting indeed, for someone who pretty much stumbled into my own MFA program, never thinking that the CW industry would end up paying a substantial portion of my bills.

If I were somewhere else – CUNY or Princeton, say – I'd not merely have a lighter teaching load, but I'd be able to craft what I taught far more closely to my research agenda. I imagine Marjorie Perloff or Stephen Greenblatt teach (or taught, since Marjorie's retired) pretty much what they damned well please, and the texts they go over in class feed directly into what they happen to be writing. There's a lot to be said for that, both from a scholarly and a pedagogical standpoint. But there's something also to be said for a place like Our Fair University where a modernist scholar like me gets to acquaint himself rather intimately with Milton, or to harness his otherwise useless fundamentalist upbringing to a literary reading of the Bible. It's made me a far broader reader & thinker, I think, than I would have been otherwise. Broader, but perhaps also shallower?

Or maybe it's just made me scattered.


SMS said...

As someone who teaches at another Fair University (as opposed to University of Self-Proclaimed Excellence), I have enjoyed the chance to teach what I want. Of course my research interests are fairly whimsical, too. But I always thought that another school would have obliged me to stay put. You're saying something different; thanks for the alternative view . . .

Archambeau said...

Hey. I'm at a liberal arts college, which means my position could best be described as "utility infielder." It has kept me from specialization -- on a good day, I like to think this has saved me from some of the fundamental mistakes I see in so much thinking about contemporary poetry (that we're up to something that is more new than old, for example). On a bad day it just makes me feel frazzled.