This quarter I’m teaching, online, two large-format classes, 60 and 75 students apiece. Most of what I do in a classroom depends on being in a classroom, so the change has been reinvention, as much as translation.
And I’m disheartened, teaching this way. The talents I have, I mostly can’t use, & the talents I need, I mostly don’t have. For instance, it would be great now if I could lecture, but I don’t know how to be the One Voice for long. That’s neurosis not humblebrag. I fill up with self-doubt unless I can see, hear, pick up thru mirror neurons, & pheromones probably, where others in the room are at.
The image above is from Francesco Hayez, Odysseus Overcome by Demodocus’s Song (1813–15). The rhapsode D. was blind & he couldn’t see how his song about Odysseus landed with Odysseus.
I’ve been recording ten-minute “voice notes,” it takes me hours to do one, and they’re dull boring blades. I want the rapid back-and-forth of live thinking, students and me building an ad hoc thought-structure collaboratively, and neither Zoom meetings nor Canvas discussion boards really allow that.
I’m lucky, of course, to have this problem. It means I have a job, a home, my health. If our pandemic has gifts to give, one must be a reminder not to take what you have for granted. A roof and four walls. Good governance. A hug. It’s truly good it’s here when it is. Oh, man, I miss hugs. I haven’t touched or been touched by a person in 6 weeks. Except for a cat or two, I count cats as people.
Well, here’s a thing I’m happy to have done. I took a prompt I use often in class discussion, and converted it for work in our flung remoteness.
The Odyssey and WTF?!
A WTF?! moment happens when, reading a text, you go “what the fuck?!”
You can get through some texts without any WTF?! moments. Others, like the texts we’re reading for this class, are one WTF?! moment after another.
Being a literature student – or a professor of literature for that matter – means leaning into the WTF?! moment. That’s really all there is to it. The rest of literary analysis is some skills you pick up.
However, the WTF?! moment is often uncomfortable: You may feel uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity. You may have a cherished assumption thrown into question. You might be offended or disturbed.
A couple of WTF?! moments I have, reading Inanna, Queen of Heaven [our 1st text]:
- Often one thing happens, and then another, with seemingly no connection between them: Enki journeys to the Underworld, and then a tree grows by a river.
I feel alienated from the text – it won’t tell me why what happens happens. I also feel curious . . . are there clues, in event A and event B, that suggest how A and B are connected?
- I can’t tell whether a figure is telling the truth or lying: Inanna says she’s going to the Underworld to attend the funeral rites of Ereshkigal’s husband, and that sounds plausible, but then the thought is dropped – was she lying? telling a half-truth? or does she mean it, and then forget about it?
I feel frustrated by the text – I can’t get into the head of the character I want to identify with. I’m also intrigued . . . should I try to figure out Inanna’s motivation? how to do that? or should I accept that her motivation is opaque?
To read the text as a literature student, I set aside my alienation and frustration, after noticing and acknowledging them, and instead go with my curiosity, my wondering.
Your assignment, as a group: Create a WTF?! database for the Odyssey.
Everyone should contribute at least once. There are two ways to contribute:
1. Identify and describe a WTF?! moment about the text.
2. Lean into a WTF?! moment someone else has identified.
If you do no. 1. A WTF?! moment can be of any scale. If it’s on a small scale – a word choice or a line – be sure to identify book and line number, so others can find it. If it’s on a large scale – something that happens across the book – be sure to give one or more specific examples.
If you do no. 2. “Lean in” doesn’t mean answer so much as think it through. If someone brought up this WTF?! moment in class discussion, what would you add? You could give another example; sharpen the description of the problem; identify other problems connected to it; or, possibly, suggest one or more possible answers.
Everyone should make at least one substantive contribution. More is welcome.
The database should be finished by next Tuesday (May 5) at class time.
E-mail me if you have questions!
It’s a term I’ve come to use for koan-mind.