January 04, 2006

I promise I'm an archaeology student.

My schedule of classes for this semester has been finalized.

Anthropology 180: Mediterranean Society
LGBT Studies 20AC: Alternative Sexual Identities and Communities in Contemporary American Society
Anthropology 129C: Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers
Comparative Literature 198: Reading J.D. Salinger

On the whole I'm very glad that I spent my first three years of college taking whatever looked interesting, instead of systematically fulfilling breadth and major requirements. I'm also very pleased with this semester's schedule and fully expect all four classes to be fascinating (which means that after accounting for the vagaries of teaching and material, I should still be able to count on two of them being fascinating). Further, I know that the above list represents hours of careful consideration in which each class was meticulously selected for its graduation-enhancing qualities.

But it still looks a little funny for a senior year of archaeology.

Posted by dianna at January 4, 2006 04:03 PM

A whole course on J.D. Salinger? I'm not demeaning him, he's a fine writer. It's just that he doesn't have a huge body of work. Is it going to focus on exceptionally deep readings of just Salinger's work, or (as seems more likely since it's Comp. Lit.) are you going to read works by other authors along similar themes?

Posted by: Zach S. at January 4, 2006 05:23 PM

It's a DE-Cal, actually. See? For one to two units and one hour a week it can, in fact, be only about J.D. Salinger.

I think the department classification is deceptive. DE-Cals tend to get thrown in the department of the sponsoring faculty member, but as I understand it the sponsoring faculty member is whoever the student facilitator has talked into signing off on the course. Unless... Katie, since you were a Comp Lit major, do you have a definition/characterization of the department that explains the phenomenon of a Comp Lit class on one author?

Posted by: Dianna at January 4, 2006 05:32 PM

Ah, DE-Cal makes sense. I'm vaguely aware of the byzantine network of politics that lies behind the DE-Cal system. I helped a friend teach the Simpsons and Philosophy DE-Cal last Spring. It was... interesting.

Mostly my work involved guiding discussion sections with a group of about 30 students who didn't care or had nothing to say. I felt like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. "Kant created a moral law called, anyone? Anyone? The Categorical Imperative. And this stood in contrast to Mill's philosophy of, anyone? Anyone? Utilitarianism." etc.

Still, the weekly hour-long sessions of standing in front of a crowd and awkwardly trying to get them to talk about (short) essays they hadn't read, enlightened by lectures they didn't attend, weren't nearly as bad as the essays at the end. My God, the essays! I looked forward to the plagiarized ones; at least they were written by some unknown original author who could put a paragraph together!

That class taught me that every student, everywhere, is a flake who will do anything they can to exploit their teacher, and they shouldn't be given the slightest benefit of a doubt because they're all out to screw you. Grandmother died? Let's see the death certificate. Chemotherapy? I'll need a doctor's note. Grrrr.

Posted by: Zach S. at January 4, 2006 06:08 PM

It's funny; most people I talk to have a low opinion of DE-Cals, but all for different reasons. There's the "the topics are all crap," camp, the "people only take them to get units for not doing anything," camp, the "those students aren't qualified to teach those subjects!" camp, and of course the "haven't you heard they have orgies in those classes?" camp. And probably a few more I haven't yet encountered.

In fairness, DE-Cals, like everything else in the universe, are a mixed bag. I took Female Sexuality a couple of years ago and it was an excellent class. You could sell the class reader as an indispensable sexual health resource, for one, and for two there was never a problem of people not participating in class discussions (though that's only a good thing if you can handle hearing 12 women out of a group of 15 talk about having been raped, which is an extremely disturbing experience). I also took a DE-Cal on Dr. Seuss -- which was, as you'd expect, interesting and fairly low on academic rigor -- and one on California Prisons -- also as you'd expect: very informative if rather politically slanted. We'll see how the J.D. Salinger class turns out.

I maintain a liking for the DE-Cal concept, in all its stereotypical Berkeleyishness. As for the classes themselves, well, caveat emptor. You do have to take a moment to consider who'll be signing up for them and why, because the student facilitators are unlikely to be able to turn an apathetic class into a good one. But hey, if nothing else they're a damn good thing to have when you run afoul of L&S's senseless odd number of units to qualify as a full-time student.

Posted by: Dianna at January 4, 2006 06:57 PM

I think the major problem was that our class was too big; that's why my friend needed people to help with teaching sections and grading papers. He would screen students out at the start of the semester by making them write a brief "why I deserve to be in this class" essay. Unfortunately, he didn't cut harshly enough and we ended up with a huge number of students who wanted credits for watching cartoons. There were definitely students who genuinely cared about the material, but in our section of 30 students, 3 did 90% of the talking, and 24 never talked at all.

The worst thing about that class involved one of the talkers. She was the most interested and engaged of all the students throughout the semester, and she contributed a lot of useful insights to the discussion. Then she just completely flaked on the essay at the end. She missed the deadline and didn't e-mail us until three days after the paper was due. She gave a half-assed excuse, but we granted her the benefit of the doubt. We gave her the extension she wanted and she missed the new deadline. She turned her paper in two days late and didn't give an excuse. On top of everything, the paper sucked. It was incoherent and it didn't make an argument. It felt like a Middle School paper, and I knew from previous written assignments and her class contributions that she could do much better.

I was not in a charitable mood, since this was the last of a whole pile of shitty papers. I think I wanted to fail her, but part of that might have been that I felt she'd betrayed us. My friend had the final say on grades, and I believe he passed her. Probably for the best.

Posted by: Zach S. at January 4, 2006 08:06 PM

I taught a DE-Cal four separate times, though it was the same one very time. As I understand it, it is now much harder to get a student-taught course approved that it used to be, mainly due to the ridiculous scandal that erupted over the Male/Female sexuality DE-Cal classes (mainly over the Male one, if I remember right). My take on the scandal.

I taught a class on writign humor, fully aware that most people weren't going to read a ton of material for a one-unit class. So, I hosted a lot of movie screenings. Given the subject matter, I was probably fortunate enough to get a mostly-not-apathetic group of people who wanted to write funnier, and that happens to be one thing I can generally teach people to do.

I think I only failed people that simply stopped showing up and turning in work entirely, plus one guy who plagiarized his final "paper" from The Onion. It wouldn't have bothered me as much, except for the situation. I assigned two 500-word pieces as a final. This guy asked if he could turn in just one piece, provided it was over a thousand words. I said OK. Then he took an Onion article, made some minor changes, and turned it in. We caught it, he apologized, we still failed him.

Posted by: sean at January 5, 2006 01:15 AM

Dear Dianna, unrelated, but I saw that you are a baking machine...and I lost my Grant Loaves recipe...can you send me it?

Krishna Mayi Dasi

Posted by: Krishna Mayi at January 5, 2006 06:00 AM

Dear Dianna, unrelated, but I saw that you are a baking machine...and I lost my Grant Loaves recipe...can you send me it?

Krishna Mayi Dasi

Posted by: Krishna Mayi at January 5, 2006 06:01 AM

I actually have a higher opinion of De-Cal classes now that I'm not there anymore and have had a few years to think about it. Especially considering that I have some really great students who would do well to have the experience of pitching and teaching a class (however bullshit) under their belt and on their CV.

I'd forgotten that the De-Cal classes are thrown under the rubric of the regular departments, though, and I'm not sure that I understand the rationale for putting something like a single-author Salinger class under Comp Lit. It's more the fact that it's emphatically American/English literature than the single-authorness of it...well, actually, hold on. The only single-author classes I did there were in the English department, even Proust, which was obviously translated from the French (so if anything it seems kind of silly to have it under English, but whatever). In Comp Lit, every class whose syllabus I remember had multiple languages and traditions represented, and usually had some kind of gesture toward cultural theory too. Yup: the Salinger thing sounds more like an English class to me, but it still sounds like you'll have a lot of fun.

Know what's nice about being in a unified Literature department now? It eliminates all of the head-scratching about which of two intimately wedded disciplines something belongs to. It also tends to mean that, since we don't have to believe in the distinction between "Literature" and "Comparative Literature" and "English Literature," we also don't have to believe in the distinction between "Literature" and "Anything Else," so we get to cannibalize a lot of stuff from other disciplines. Like Literature profs here teach a lot of film classes, or whatever. Maybe once I'm eligible to teach undergrad courses I'll see if I can propose a class on Reading Particle Physics as Poetry.

Posted by: katie at January 5, 2006 11:47 AM

Your Salinger class is probably in the Comp Lit department because the faculty sponsor is in that department, or the facilitator knows that head of the Comp Lit department better than the head of the English department. Most likely, that's the whole rationale for where it's placed. My class was sponsored by a Shakespeare professor, so there's not always a direct correlation between sponsor and subject.

Posted by: sean at January 5, 2006 12:42 PM

Sean's right; the department's based entirely on whom the facilitator knows and can get to sponsor the class. The Simpsons and Philosophy class was initially taught under the aegis of the Rhetoric department. When I helped with it, it was in the English department. My friend claims the Philosophy department kept turning him down because the subject was too low-brow.

Posted by: Zach S. at January 5, 2006 01:04 PM

No correlation between Shakespeare and comedy writing? I beg to differ.

But mostly, Sean, I`m fascinated by the idea of teaching what you taught. Is it really possible to make people funnier, in your opinion, or did you mostly make a funny piece better grammar-wise?

Posted by: jason at January 5, 2006 05:24 PM

and style-wise, of course. I didnÂt mean to sound like a dick.

Posted by: jason at January 5, 2006 05:27 PM

I think you can definitely make people funnier, to a degree. I don't think it's so much a matter of grammar or style as it is learning to recognize what parts of a story or idea are clever and amusing, and then focusing on those, instead of interjections of profanity. You can work on writing jokes the same way you work on writing essays, in my opinion.

It's not that Shakespeare wasn't funny as much as it is incongruous that a world-renowned expert on Shakespearean sonnets had to sign off on a syllabus chock-full of Farrelly Brothers films.

Posted by: sean at January 5, 2006 07:00 PM

We're talking about the same Shakespeare whose comedic range was broad enough to encompass both dick'n'fart jokes and comic plays that revolved around some kind of misunderstanding, deception, or mistaken identity. Clearly, he was a comedic force of nature... of comedy.

My take on teaching people to be funny is that while nothing is a substitute for raw talent, most comedic writing or scripting or acting is based on a finite quantum of "funny things" or themes. You can improve your humor skills a great deal simply by working on timing, streamlining your pieces, and learning from personal observation where and when to apply each "funny thing" (for lack of a better term) for maximum effect.

To go beyond that, you need true inspiration and a relatively obsessive schedule of creating and honing jokes and seeing what works and what doesn't. The process turns most stand-up comics, even the bad ones, into total headcases and complete jerks even if they weren't to begin with.

Posted by: poot at January 6, 2006 05:49 AM

the farrelly brothers were a huge influence on shakespeare.

Posted by: jason at January 6, 2006 10:53 AM

I don't agree that most stand-up comics are jerks. Have you met a lot of stand-up comics that were assholes, poot? Because that really hasn't been my experience at all, even with famous and successful guys.

Jason is spot on about the Farrelly Brothers influencing the Bard. That scene where Falstaff drinks the bucket of bull semen is classic.

Posted by: sean at January 6, 2006 01:17 PM