Time check

by Michael Bérubé on May 3, 2007

I teach my last class of the semester tomorrow, and what a semester it’s been. In the four months since I gave up full-time, long-form solo blogging, I have put my extra time to good use: freed from the demands of daily blog posting and comment-section maintenance, I found time to work out every day for 90 minutes, meditate for an hour, cook dinner nightly, and brush up on my French. As a result, I am fit and sane and centered, enjoying a balanced diet and the consolations of the <i>passé simple</i>.

Actually, that’s not true. And Bourdieu didn’t really appear in <i>Slap Shot</i>, either. This semester, neither did I: my Nittany Hockey League teams had 28 games scheduled this semester. I made it to <i>ten</i> of those. I worked out once, maybe twice a week. I last meditated in 1999. I last cooked in 1994. (Janet and I have taken to asking each other, “whom shall we dial tonight?”) And my French is just as abysmal as it ever was.

So what happened to all that time?

Clearly, I need to begin daily blogging again, at a two-thousand-word minimum, in order to get my life back. I’m reminded of the story of the woman who goes to the Vipassana teacher and says, how can I meditate for an hour a day? I have a job, two young children, a husband, a sick parent, and I run a civic organization in my spare time. And the teacher says, you’re right! There is no way you can manage all that on an hour a day. You need to meditate <i>two</i> hours a day.

When I took a moment last week to try to figure out why I felt so harried despite being blogless, I realized two things. One, this was the semester in which people sent me their manuscripts. It didn’t matter what the manuscripts were about; they got sent to me. Some were dissertations, some were for tenure-and-promotion reviews, some were books badly in need of blurbin’, and some were just Mystery Manuscripts. I read about two-thirds of them; if yours was one of the unread one-third, I apologize. (And there were two or three I really, <i>really</i> wanted to read but just couldn’t make time for in February and March.)

Two, I taught an undergraduate honors course in American Fiction since 1990 (why since 1990? Because I’m too much of a wuss to offer “Twenty-First Century American Literature” just yet, and because the 90s were, after all, a pretty damn good decade for American fiction), and the syllabus looked like this: Jamaica Kincaid, <i>Lucy</i> (1990); Paul Auster, <i>Mr. Vertigo</i> (1994); Don DeLillo, <i>Underworld</i> (1997); Toni Morrison, <i>Paradise</i> (1997); Colson Whitehead, <i>The Intuitionist</i> (1999); Jonathan Franzen, <i>The Corrections</i> (2001); Philip Roth, <i>The Plot Against America</i> (2004); Cris Mazza, <i>Disability</i> (2005); Richard Powers, <i>The Echo Maker</i> (2006). And I also taught a graduate seminar, in which we did all these plus Chang-Rae Lee’s <i>Native Speaker</i> (1995). The honors course met MWF at 9. It was almost like <i>working</i>, I tell you.

OK, this is a lot of reading, and some of those books are kinda long, but that’s only part of the point. Part of the rest of the point is that I’d never taught six of these books before. <i>Lucy</i> was fresh in memory, because I’d taught it for the first time last fall; likewise with <i>Native Speaker</i>, though last fall was the second time I’d assigned it (the first was in 2003), and, <a href=”http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/visiting_native_speaker/”>as I mentioned on my forlorn and humble blog last year</a>, the <i>Native Speaker</i> part of the semester was enlivened by the fact that Walter Benn Michaels came to Penn State and, to everyone’s surprise, delivered a paper on <i>Native Speaker</i>. So those class preps were all set to go.

And the rest of the rest of the point is that I thought I had <i>Underworld</i> and <i>The Intuitionist</i> in the bag, having taught them three times and having memorized entire passages from each. But lo! When I checked my watch, I found that the decade hand had moved, and that I had not taught <i>Underworld</i> since 2001 or <i>The Intuitionist</i> since 2004. And since <a href=”http://www.colsonwhitehead.com/archives/2007/03/index.html”>Colson Whitehead himself would be coming to Penn State</a> in early April for an event in which he would reply to my essay on his novel (that turned out to be much fun, by the way — Whitehead was very witty and gracious, and resisted the temptation to do the <i>Annie Hall</i> “you know nothing about my work” McLuhan bit), there was no way I was going to coast on three-year-old notes. To my alarm, I found that I remembered less of <i>Underworld</i> than I thought — in part because, as HAL so memorably put it, my mind is going.

About teaching novels for the first time: I find that I have three distinct levels of reading. In recreational reading, I just get a general sense of the book; when <i>The Plot Against America</i> was first published, for example, I read it and thought, “Eh. Interesting that Roth did the alternative-history thing on such a small scale, but not really his best work.” I didn’t retain much of it, either. When I came back to it two years later, I was now reading it for advance class prep, and bore into it much harder, remembering to remember stuff this time. Then last month when I was getting ready to teach it, I made notes and flagged passages and read reviews and essays and gave it the full body wash and Simonization process. All of which means I’ll now be ready to teach it . . . next time. Unless I forget stuff again.

Anyway, I’m wondering about a couple of things. One, about how people in other disciplines approach courses in which they’re teaching more than half the material for the first time. Of course, in wholly new courses, <i>all</i> the material is first-time stuff, and I’ve taught a bunch of these in graduate seminars, most recently a course on disability studies in the spring of 2006. But this brings me to thing two: I’ve always thought that there were some books I knew so well that I could teach them in my sleep, and I wrote about a couple of ‘em in <i>What’s Liberal?</i> (A lot of reviewers were bored silly by that part of the book. I wonder what they’d have said if I’d written a book about my job in which I didn’t go into any of the literature we read in literature classes.) But every year, my powers of recall get weaker. Or it could be that someone has gone back and <i>changed the words</i> in the novels I thought I knew. This actually happened with <i>Native Son</i>: between the time I taught it in 1990 and the time I taught it in 2000, the new and newly-unexpurgated edition had come out, and there was a whole wanking scene in there that wasn’t there before, and at first I thought, <i>hey, how did I miss that?</i> It was weird. And now these hitherto-unnoticed passages seem to be popping up all the time. Somehow I thought there would be <i>fewer</i> of these as I got older. . . .

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05.04.07 at 5:19 pm



Mudge 05.03.07 at 9:42 pm

Do you find that your interpretation changes with a new reading? I’m a chemist and as I review material I sometimes just see it from a different perspective that makes it clearer. That surprises me after all these years. Of course, I refresh process more than content.


rea 05.03.07 at 10:34 pm

But every year, my powers of recall get weaker

No, it’s really true: speaking as one somewhat older than you, I can testify that memory begins to go . . . Why, for some reason I can hardly remember the 60’s and 70’s . . .


Flora 05.03.07 at 10:47 pm

What I want to know is why you didn’t teach David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.


alwsdad 05.03.07 at 10:53 pm

You mean you’re supposed to update your course content periodically? Hmmm…. I’ll have to give that some thought.


greensmile 05.03.07 at 10:58 pm

If your mind is going, please tell us where and we will bring it back to you.

I too have had a terrible time management problem. As if I had never known that oceans have tides and someone sent me under the dock at low tide with a bucket and told me “just empty those puddles over there”…it does not matter what organization technique I use, the problem is ever worsening. Yet ambition mocks me. I learn a new desire every week and can’t keep from thinking “Yeah, I’ll fit that in somehow.”.

The blindingly brilliant insight that launched my blogging was that I could manage it on my time and with my attention span if I stuck to the very shortest literary forms. Instead, my sophomoric sayings swam in the midst of longer and longer streams of run-on sentences.

Today, I admitted I had a problem, took decisive action and then proceeded to demonstrate the problem is beyond my will power to control.

Will seems adequate for some…we must all fight for our hours and minutes to add up to a life. But will is a reflection of the unity of a person and I don’t kid myself: I am diverse and self diverting. The act of writing pins me down until I am happy enough to click “publish”. The constant writing is a constant construction project. When I stop, I begin to wonder who I am and soon enough return to keyboard to find out.

Perhaps you did forget some of the book but perhaps you are simply a slightly different person reading it now.


june16_1904 05.03.07 at 10:58 pm

Is there anywhere in the intertubes that we can find this essay on “The Intuitionist” and Colson Whitehead’s reply? Google is sort of failing me on this.


Michael Bérubé 05.03.07 at 10:58 pm

Not entirely, mudge — I mean, it’s not likely that I’ll reread Invisible Man someday and decide that it’s a novel about how Communism could have saved us, or that The Crying of Lot 49 is really an endorsement of postal monopolies. But typically, what happens is that I notice things I hadn’t really tried to account for before, and my emphases change accordingly. For example, I’d taught Their Eyes Were Watching God once or twice before deciding to focus students’ attention on the very strange passage describing the virtues of Tea Cake’s beating of Janie: “The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made the men dream dreams.” Just what in the world is going on here? Well, maybe let’s be a little more careful before we start thinking of that novel as some kind of romantic evocation of the gemeinschaft of the Everglades. . . .


Patrick 05.03.07 at 11:04 pm

The reader’s situation has changed. Way back in the dim mist of the 70s, I was talking to one of my professors at Michigan about Ulysses, and he gently pointed out to me that Leopold Bloom, not Stephen Dedalus, is the main character. I pointed out to him that when I was 40 instead of 20, I’d probably see that more clearly.

I turned out to be right. (I was literally reading the same book.) He, of course, turned out to be a much better reader of Joyce than I was.

These may be crude examples, but I’d say that depending on your exact philosophical commitments, it’s not your memory that’s to blame, but your position in the world that changes.

I was listening to NPR driving home from my last class of the semester, and the author of the new biography of Ellison was talking about his new knowledge of what Ellison was doing and thinking during the composition of Invisible Man had changed his reading of the book.

I’ll bet the books on the disabilities list will be very different for each of us in, oh, say, fifty years.

A new motto: It’s the intertextuality, stupid.


David 05.04.07 at 12:08 am

Longtime reader, first time poster…

I did that this semester. I taught Stanislav Lem’s “His Master’s Voice” for the first time in a course on Global Lit, and I was very pleased at how my appreciation of the book deepened as I made that leap from “recreational” reading to “class prep” reading.

My students, on the other hand, remained nonplussed.


Michael Bérubé 05.04.07 at 12:29 am

Is there anywhere in the intertubes that we can find this essay on “The Intuitionist” and Colson Whitehead’s reply?

Sadly, no. I used to have a .pdf of the essay on my own blog (on the “essays” page), but I took down the .pdfs some time ago. It’s available, though, in The Holodeck in the Garden: Science and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction, ed. Peter Freese and Charles Harris (Dalkey Archive P, 2004): 163-78.

What I want to know is why you didn’t teach David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Because Underworld‘s 840 pages is my length limit, and even then I have to post all kinds of warning signs and orange traffic cones around the book to remind students of the thrills and dangers of reading a really really long novel in the early weeks of a semester. DFW’s 1100-page thing is really stretchin’ it.

To this day I’ve never taught Gravity’s Rainbow because I’d have to devote about two months to it. Perhaps a seminar, someday, consists of Three Behemoth Books?


DaveH 05.04.07 at 12:56 am

Ok, it was the ’70s but I absolutely loved this book; ‘Furioso’ by Voldemar Lestienne. I do wish I had the time to read the more recent good stuff. OTOH, how ’bout them Rangers!?


Michael Bérubé 05.04.07 at 1:58 am

how ‘bout them Rangers!?

Well, that Briere near-goal with 17 seconds left was a heartstopper, and I plan to say more about it in a future post. In the meantime, like everyone else, I’m wondering whether the Sabres are showing up for only about five or ten minutes at a time (out of complacency? a sense that they can score three goals in four minutes anytime they want to, and don’t need to worry about being down a goal in the third?), or whether the Rangers’ team defense really is that good. They did win themselves a whole bunch of gritty 2-1 games down the stretch, after all. No doubt game five will settle things. (Game four, btw, was the first one I was able to watch in its entirety. And not because I was cooking or meditating, either.)


Barry 05.04.07 at 2:17 am

“You mean you’re supposed to update your course content periodically? Hmmm…. I’ll have to give that some thought.”

Posted by alwsdad

So *that’s* why those Latin and Greek profs always looked so rested…after the first few times they taught a course, it was set for the ages, so to speak :)


fardels bear 05.04.07 at 2:58 am

I’m teaching Thomas Kuhn’s STRUCTURE for the first time in a graduate class next year. I haven’t read it from cover-to-cover since my own graduate school experience, 15 years ago, so I suspect that it will be like the first time for me.

Of course, I ain’t a literature person so maybe it is a different experience with non-fiction. If Kuhn can be considered non-fiction…..


Adam 05.04.07 at 3:40 am

My recreational-reading experience of Plot was more or less identical to yours. Hashing out territory for presentation papers before going back and rereading it was . . interesting–by which I mean my recall of it was pretty much limited to the material covered in the book jacket blurbs. (“You’re covering alternate history? All right, then, I’ll take . . erm . . . the cover art?”) I wouldn’t even have thought to teach it based on my initial reading of it, I don’t think, but it turned out to be pretty productive.

Also, where do we preregister for Three Behemoth Books?


azale 05.04.07 at 3:52 am

Clearly, I need to begin daily blogging again, at a two-thousand-word minimum, in order to get my life back.

O, be still, my heart.


colin 05.04.07 at 4:21 am

I just wanted to say to Professor Berube (I don’t know how to add the diacriticals) that the parts of What’s Liberal in which you described your pedagogical techniques were by far my favorite. It’s possible that I’m just a sucker for that kind of stuff, but there that is. Part of that is that you are obviously an excellent teacher and i felt kind of like I was getting insider tips on the collegiate teaching experience. In some ways I wish that there had been more classroom sections in the book. Just thought you should know that someone liked those sections (and quite a bit too).


Eric Rauchway 05.04.07 at 4:30 am

how people in other disciplines approach courses in which they’re teaching more than half the material for the first time

First with puritanical zeal, then with desperation, and finally with gleeful wild abandon.

Which is to say: first you decide, I’m gonna teach an all-new course, because I need to shake things up; I’ve been teaching for ten years and this year I’m twice the age of the freshmen. Time for something new. And with excitement you pore over monographs, dividing them into ones you could assign for reading and ones you could use as lecture material; you make up an outline of lecture topics and you write essay questions for the students. It all appeals to the organized sensibility.

Then after about the second week of the course, as you’re going along, you realize that writing three new lectures a week — that’s actually quite a lot of work. And the four hours or so it takes to write a new lecture, plus the time it takes to prepare visual aids, seems like rather a lot of time, too. And you begin to feel a little harried, because of course the committee meetings keep rolling along and so do the manuscripts you need to read and the reviews and survey essays you agreed to write and that book you signed a contract for, it’s not going to write itself, is it.

Finally, after another three weeks or so, you realize that as desperate as you’ve felt, you’ve actually delivered a string of comparatively coherent lectures, and the thing is actually going to come together after all! Not only that, the monographs you assigned the students to read turn out actually to deal with the themes you thought they did! It’s like, when a plan comes together! You love it!

But you probably won’t do it every academic term.

NB: In some of the foregoing sentences the pronoun “you” should actually be the pronoun “me,” or maybe probably “I.” As to which, that’s left as an exercise to the reader.


Chris 05.04.07 at 4:47 am

Another “What have they added?” moment.
I am gradually buying the collected Charles Schultz; now up to 1957-58. To replace the contemporary softbacks. Which, it now appears, were not actually complete, in the academic sense. I haven’t looked at the old copies for at least twenty-five years, but I can pick, strip by strip, the ones that are new to me.
Partly, of course, this is a tribute to the genius of (early) Schultz, someone who definitely ought to be in Amer Lit courses, partly a factor of visual v. text memory, but partly also a matter of brain plasticity at various ages.


Sean Carroll 05.04.07 at 5:13 am

Man, you have no idea. Every time I go back to a course that I haven’t taught in a few years, I discover that there are entirely new laws of physics. It’s as if the very nature of physical reality is shifting as I get older, just to piss me off! Not that it’s a surprise, any more.


Zack 05.04.07 at 5:28 am

What sort of criteria did you use for coming up with the syllabus for this class? It seems really intimidating (from a student/dilettante perspective) to come up with something that is in a sense proto-canonical, or whatever the right term would be. I’d have no idea how to make that kind of decision.


aaron_m 05.04.07 at 6:55 am

Why would reading be any different than any other part of life?

If you try to turn off your involuntary filters and pay attention to everything that is going on all the time you will go crazy and need to sleep 15 hours a day like those crazy filterless babies.


The Witch from Next Door 05.04.07 at 10:59 am

To this day I’ve never taught Gravity’s Rainbow because I’d have to devote about two months to it. Perhaps a seminar, someday, consists of Three Behemoth Books?

At the Warwick University in the 90s, on the wonderful Cris Nash’s ‘Fiction: Modern to Postmodern’ module, we spent the whole first term on Ulysses. Which still seemed like skimming it a bit.


Doug 05.04.07 at 11:26 am

Good thing I’m not teaching German; they really have revised basic rules over the last few years. More than once, in several cases. (I’m also refusing to learn the new version, on the grounds that learning German once is enough for a lifetime.)

MB, after you do Three Behemoth Books, would you consider doing Comparative Odysseys? Say, Homer, Joyce, Kazantzakis and Walcott?


Michael Bérubé 05.04.07 at 12:05 pm

Every time I go back to a course that I haven’t taught in a few years, I discover that there are entirely new laws of physics.

That sucks, Sean. It’s like they keep moving the h-bar when they think no one’s looking! I suggest you get out of that squishy-soft interpretive discipline while you’re still young, and into something hard and objectively observer-independent like literature.

we spent the whole first term on Ulysses. Which still seemed like skimming it a bit

I read Ulysses — at the low, low rate of about eight pages an hour — as a senior in college, over the course of about two months. Then three years later I read it again while also reading Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse, and my reading speed plummeted to about two pages an hour. But my stars, is my copy of the book festooned with marginalia now!

MB, after you do Three Behemoth Books, would you consider doing Comparative Odysseys? Say, Homer, Joyce, Kazantzakis and Walcott?

Hey, sounds good. Can I throw in O Brother Where Art Thou? at the end?

And up in #10, I think I meant to say “consisting” of Three Behemoth Books. Serves me right for replying to comments while making up the essay questions for my final exam. Now I suppose I should check those quetsions for typos, too.


fred lapides 05.04.07 at 12:12 pm

In my very close reading of your reading I get this:
a. despite meditaion and being “centered,” you remain a harried time-watcher.
b. you are delighted with the novels you taught but will in years to come look back and wonder why those books, so exciting at first read and when new, were on your reading list…most will be of little interest in a few years, and the Roth book is far from being anywhere near his top few.
c. when all things fail, watch reruns of American Idol.


Doug 05.04.07 at 1:58 pm

Hey, sounds good. Can I throw in O Brother Where Art Thou? at the end?

O yes.


Mitchell Freedman 05.04.07 at 1:58 pm


Please consider dropping Roth’s “Plot Against America”. Roth’s book, I thought, was a mess. There is no plausible scenario for Lindbergh to be nominated because he was terrified about formally entering politics. Why? His Dad, a Socialist and Congressman, was treated horribly (I seem to recall him being arrested at one point for opposing WWI), and Lindbergh sometimes laced his anti-war speeches with attacks on “capitalists,” by which he meant more than..ahem..Jews. The powers who controlled the Republican Party in 1940 were capitalists all the way, which is why the squishy and not really anti-war Wilkie was nominated instead. The grass roots had far less control of nominations at that time, something Roth seems completely ignorant about.

Worse, the ending is like some sort of dream sequence where the nation suddenly wakes up without any consequences or more permanent changes in either the culture or subsequent history, despite several years of a Lindbergh presidency. There is even a gratuitous reference to Robert Kennedy running for president in 1968, which I found completely ahistorical in the sense of what Roth had just concocted. He seems blissfully unaware of how, in our time, the Cold War came out of WWII and became a powerful engine of reaction against the New Deal. If the New Deal is supposedly vindicated at the end of WWII in his alternative history, then RFK is going to have a different trajectory, too, and so will the ensuing decades of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the middle of the book, of course, is Roth’s usual Jewish life in Newark stuff, which, frankly, is overrated in my not-so-humble view (My uncle, though, vigorously disagrees with me about Roth’s other writings about Jews in Newark). For me, Mordecai Richler is the King of the Jewish North American writers because his books on Jews, including his last and brilliant work, “Barney’s Version (1998), has a larger focus in how Jews and Gentiles interact, and a larger perspective than Roth in terms of history, economics, politics and culture.

Say, why not Richler to replace Roth? “Solomon Gursky was here” is a knockout, too, but alas, first published in Canada in 1989 (the US print was published in 1990, though).

Final suggestions: Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”. I think it’s the best American novel of the past 25 years. Brilliant at all levels and prose that sings from its opening paragraph. But God, forcing your students to read another 600 page book on that list may be too harsh.

Alternative: “Hocus Pocus” by Vonnegut, so hated in many quarters when it came out, but has since become far more beloved in many of those same quarters. I did not read it for some years after it came out, finally read it, and loved it. It crystalized Vonnegut’s philosophy, his melding of autobiography and novel, and was funny and poignant at the same time. Vintage Vonnegut, in again my “humble” view.


FS 05.04.07 at 2:12 pm

Speaking as a PSU grad-where on Earth do you go out out/order from every night? There aren’t all that many dining options in Centre County.


rm 05.04.07 at 3:09 pm

My way of getting to know new course material is to teach it once. No matter how much I prepare, actually teaching it — fielding questions, reading student essays that teach me things about it — always makes me realize how little I knew going in.

So, I teach it badly once, and the next time I do well.

This might seem unfair to the first class that has to endure my bumbling, but I have solved that difficulty. I go into the holodeck for 16 weeks and teach a class of student-simulacra; then I go back in time to the beginning of the semester and begin again with the real students.


rm 05.04.07 at 3:12 pm

One of my favorite grad school professors did a Three Behemoth Books class for honors freshmen. Are these a genre? I don’t remember what was on it — Clarissa, Moby Dick, and V? Bleak House, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Battlefield Earth? I’m pretty sure Pynchon was one of the authors.


fardels bear 05.04.07 at 5:09 pm

I had a history of science professor as an undergraduate who used the Behemoth Book as an answer to scientists who claimed that science was difficult and the humanities was easy.

Whenever he heard a scientist say that, he would hand the scientist the first volume of the SUMMA THEOLOGICA and say, “Let me know when you’ve finished that, we’ll discuss it and then you can start on the next volume.”

He claimed it worked quite well to make his point.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.04.07 at 5:18 pm

Re: ‘how people in other disciplines approach courses in which they’re teaching more than half the material for the first time.’

I usually teach a course in ‘comparative world religions’ (Phil. Dept.; Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and this semester I was asked to fill in for a long-time friend who teaches a course in ‘political thinking ‘ (Pol. Sci. Dept.; he left for a semester for our college’s study abroad program) which is a course that amounts to a survey of Western political thought: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx…., as well as key political ideas: political obligation, natural law, social contract, etc. I thought I was more or less prepared but found I really needed to read all of these philosophers over again, and very carefully at that, as well as look at some secondary material (e.g., I enjoyed reading what Rawls had to say about Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau). In short, I was swamped, with absolutely no meaningful free time and very little sleep. Of course the second time around would be much easier, having now done the bulk of the course preparation (but as the class is outside my home dept. it’s unlikely I’ll be teaching it again). I think I worked for less than a dollar per hour this semester, so I suppose the money has very little to do with it! Lectures on Marx next week and reading papers for both of my classes at present so I better get back to work. [I’m an adjunct instructor at our college and work outside academica as well. And I did find the time to complete some small pieces for publication by way of keeping my sanity.]


Michael Bérubé 05.04.07 at 6:28 pm

What sort of criteria did you use for coming up with the syllabus for this class? It seems really intimidating (from a student/dilettante perspective) to come up with something that is in a sense proto-canonical, or whatever the right term would be.

Well, it’s not really as hard as it looks, Zach, and despite what Fred says in comment 26b, I’m bettin’ that most of these books will still compel our attention in another 25 years. Kincaid, Auster, DeLillo, Morrison, Roth, and Powers have already established themselves as major figures, and their imaginative range and power is such that even their second-tier work is of interest. (Though I think Underworld is the best among the seven DeLillos I’ve read, and The Echo Maker among the two best of the five Powerses.) Whitehead and Lee are exceptionally promising youngsters, and you know, on some level you just can’t argue with a MacArthur and a PEN-Faulkner Award. I also happen to think that The Intuitionist and Native Speaker are exceptionally vivid and well-realized novels. Franzen . . . ah, well, Franzen is material for a whole nother post. I’ve turned on The Corrections for reasons that have nothing to do with the Great Oprah Debacle, though I still admire the writing in places. And Cris Mazza is an alt.press kinda-experimentalist whose work I’ve enjoyed for about a decade or so, but never taught.

Please consider dropping Roth’s “Plot Against America”.

Mitchell, I taught American Pastoral last year and think it’s vastly superior to The Plot Against America. But you should know that I did my due diligence and compared-and-contrasted Roth’s version of alternate history with a book called A Disturbance of Fate, which I described to both classes in some detail. Also I brought in the Simpsons’ version of “A Sound of Thunder” (from the Treehouse of Horror #8), and that was fun.

But it was worth teaching this one time. As with Lindbergh’s presidency, no lasting damage was done. But Kingsolver, yes. And I’m surprised no one’s nominated Cormac McCarthy.

So, I teach it badly once, and the next time I do well.

RM, that’s exactly what my dissertation director, Michael Levenson, told me as I packed the U-Haul for Illinois 18 years ago: you never get it right the first time, so don’t worry about that part. It’s like the first pancake: it’s always a little bit off. So I apologize to my students for burning them on one side, and ask (on the course evaluations) for all the suggestions they can make for the benefit of Students Yet to Come.

the parts of What’s Liberal in which you described your pedagogical techniques were by far my favorite

Thanks, Colin. This made my day. Not least because I’d never tried to write an extended narrative about what a course is like.

Speaking as a PSU grad-where on Earth do you go out out/order from every night? There aren’t all that many dining options in Centre County.

There are three, FS. Of course, it helps that we really love spam. Spam and bacon, spam and eggs, eggs, bacon and spam. . . .


gmoke 05.04.07 at 6:57 pm

Good on you for being such a teacher. You obviously take the art and craft of teaching seriously. Thanks for doing that. It expands my world to know that someone like you is out there expostulating and inspiring.


alwsdad 05.04.07 at 7:13 pm

Well I don’t teach literature, so I’m no help, but I appreciate the suggestions for my summer reading. I got Native Speaker as a gift recently, and I think I’ll move The Intuitionist to the top of my wish list.

And can you get the eggs, bacon and spam without the spam?


june16_1904 05.04.07 at 8:50 pm

India Pavilion, Herwigs…

yeah, I’m at two.


Michael Bérubé 05.05.07 at 1:49 pm


Check out the eggplant parmesan grinders from the Stork’s Nest. And the red or green chicken curry from Viet-Thai, or the panang curry from Cozy Thai! And don’t forget, the spam from the Diner can’t be beat.

I found something on the Colson Whitehead event for you, btw: a blog post from my colleague Aldon Lynn Nielsen, which doesn’t reproduce my remarks or Whitehead’s but does prove once and for all that my ginormous looming ghostly head is three times the size of Charlie Harris’s.


John Protevi 05.05.07 at 3:06 pm

Ha! You think you’re busy! My department chair wakes me up a half hour before I go to sleep, and makes me work 48 hours a day. And we have to live in the lake!


Michael Bérubé 05.06.07 at 12:31 am

Luxury, John. Sheer luxury. You’re lucky to have a lake! There are a hundred and fifty of us teaching out of a shoebox in the middle of the road.


notjonathon 05.06.07 at 1:28 am

You people are so clever. None of your weeping and wailing compares to trying to teach American literature in a third-rate Japanese university (as to the sad tale of how I got here . . . and after 30 years living in coastal California–sigh. At least there’s a roof over our heads and food on the table–and universal health care). Now, for financial reasons, our school is inundated with Chinese and Korean students who barely even understand Japanese, much less English.

Maybe Peanuts is the answer for me?


notjonathon 05.06.07 at 1:30 am

I should have added that I lived in Santa Rosa for eleven years, and I even once went to a party at the Schultz’s, not to mention the kids’ ice skating parties at the House that Snoopy built.


The Constructivist 05.07.07 at 10:54 am

Hmm, I can say that teaching in Japan frees up lots of reading, prep, and class time for family, research, and blogging (sometimes even in that order). And I can ask, why not Silko’s Almanac of the Dead? (I recently pegged it as one of nine recent novels that will change your conception of American literature and history I’m also partial to Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.)


Hattie 05.09.07 at 5:58 am

It is wonderful to read all of this. How I have missed you, Berube, and your commenters.
I would love to know how your students respond to *Paradise.* I read it three times and made maps of the town and biographies of all the characters. Wonderful book. I think I will read it again soon.
And anything by Roth is important. I think of him as the most honest man in literature.
We are so lucky to have these writers in our time.

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