Setting the Bar Low: Teaching Students to Draft

As the summer begins to wind down for me (what, it just started? ah well, it’s almost over too), I’m beginning to put together my fall syllabi in earnest. I’m teaching two sections of first-year writing at a new campus, the College of Staten Island, and as with every campus, I need to tweak my usual syllabus to fit their unique requirements.

I’m lucky not to have taken a complete break from teaching over the summer. Though I’m not teaching a college course, I continued to work with the high-school student who I tutor in literature and writing throughout the year. And as we work together one-on-one, in a style of teaching that is necessarily very different from running a full class of 20-25 students, I am learning new tricks and strategies that I can now use in my college classes.

One of these is encouraging students to fully embrace the drafting process.

In the past, my college students have dutifully submitted first drafts, but as often happens, their revisions for the second and third drafts are minimal. They fix what I commented on, but no more. If I point out a logical flaw in one sentence, they will fix that sentence, and not much else.

The problem is that they think of their first draft as “nearly-done.” I don’t. I don’t even want it to be nearly done! I want to see their thoughts and nebulous ideas early on, I want to see their messy thoughts, so I can guide them in the early stages to better and stronger logical arguments. As Professor Mark McBeth says to his graduate students (me included), “send me pages, no matter how messy and chaotic. I want to see your process” (paraphrased!).

Although I of course scaffold my assignments and have students do initial low-stakes work, their first drafts ought to be messier than they are. This will result in far stronger final drafts, which seems counter-intuitive to them. I even read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” with them, but they’re still afraid of submitting sub-par work.

So how to encourage students to turn in imperfect work?

I may have stumbled on a method while dealing with a slightly different obstacle that my high-school student was struggling with.

My student and I work together on her essays. Her drafts work differently than my college students’, because I can give her more direct and immediate guidance than I can provide to 25 students at once. She can write her paper section by section, if need be, and build better and stronger sections without having to wait for my feedback. We can slow things down and really get into the outlining and organization and sources etc., in far more detail than I can with a full class.

But when the time comes to write something – anything! – she becomes paralyzed with fear of not getting it right, and she has a hard time beginning to write. At the end of one session, I told her I wanted her to write an introduction in preparation for our next session. I saw her hesitation, and asked how she felt about that.

“Okay, I guess…?” she said. “I just think it’ll be horrible.”

I seized on that and said, “Okay, you know what? That’s your assignment! Write a horrible introduction!” We had a good laugh, I revised her written homework assignment, and she sat down later with gusto to write a “horrible” introduction.

Was it horrible? Heck, no. It was nearly perfect. But she had had fun with it! And when I pointed out one issue and taught her how to correct it, she was more relaxed – after all, I was critiquing a paragraph she had written to be horrible! She didn’t have to take critique of a paragraph she had attempted to write perfectly. We adopted this method for a few weeks, joking about how her task was to write “horrible” drafts, and to then polish them up – but remember to make them horrible first!

After a while, she casually commented to me that somehow, it’s easier to write when she thinks her task is to be bad. I laughed about her phrasing of “being bad.”

“It’s liberating to be bad, isn’t it?” I joked. And her face lit up. Yes! It’s liberating!

Seriously, then, I explained that yes, it is liberating to expect our work to be bad – if you’re not aiming for perfection at the first try, you’re freed to actually write and perfect it later.

And that’s when it occurred to me that I could adapt this method – which I discovered accidentally! – for use in my first-year writing classes.

I have two activities in mind:

Activity 1: I will use this McSweeney’s piece to show my students the typical essay gaffes. I have used this in the past, and my students found it hilarious and good-naturedly ‘fessed up to being guilty of using many of the tired cliches. It’s difficult to get through even the first paragraph without recognizing tics that many of them use, and it’s so over-the-top ridiculous that it induces ridiculous laughter:

Since the beginning of time, bullshit, flowery overgeneralization with at least one thesaurus’d vocabulary word. In addition, irrelevant and misleading personal anecdote. However, oversimplification of first Googled author (citation: p. 37). Thesis statement which doesn’t follow whatsoever from the previous.

After reading it and hopefully becoming more relaxed through laughter and camaraderie, students will then be put into groups and tasked with writing an essay about the theme of the class – but making it as horrible as they can, with as many cliches as possible, using the McSweeney’s essay as a model.

If all goes well, this should be a side-splittingly fun activity. I expect the room to be loud and boisterous.

Since both of my sections this fall will be one-day-a-week, four-hour-long sessions, I am trying to build as much fun and physical activity into the lesson as possible, to break up the monotony and to keep energy levels high. I also want to do this activity on the first day, when everyone is new to the class, to each other, and to me. If all goes well, in addition to being fun it will help create a cohesive group and set the tone for the rest of the semester.

The result of this will be at least four essays that are ridiculously shitty. I will post these essays to the (private) class blog so that students can revisit them throughout the semester.

Activity 2: I will assign a first draft of their first essay, reminding them that their first draft should be shitty. I will stress that it should not be ridiculous and cliched as their fun activity was. Rather, the point is not to worry about avoiding those cliches. The focus should be on getting the ideas down and having something to rip apart and redo for the next draft.

I hope that by that point, my cheerful “now go home and write a horrible first draft” will have the desired effect, and that students will feel more free to play with ideas in the first round so that we can begin to polish them up for the second draft!

Update to come in September…. 🙂


Postscript: As with any planned series of activities, I will have to gauge how the first one goes before I decide whether or not to implement the second. If either class doesn’t respond well to the “horrible essay” assignment, I will of course not go on to use that language for their first essay draft.

Image from here.

Call for Papers: Kalamazoo 2019

I’m organizing a panel at the 2019 International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo! I’m super-excited about this. I’ve shared the CFP in multiple medieval places, and I’ll continue doing so. I know sharing it on this blog isn’t exactly going to generate submissions… But I’m proud of the call, and I want to share it here 😉

I will post updates once I have a lineup for the session (likely at the end of September), and after the conference in May!

cfp3

Girls to Women, Boys to Men: Gender in Medieval Education and Socialization
54th International Congress on Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo – May 9-12, 2019
Sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship
Organized by Dainy Bernstein

The past decade has seen a significant amount of scholarship on the means and methods of medieval socialization, in texts such as Merridee L. Bailey’s Socialising the Child in Late Medieval England, c. 1400-1600 (2012). By tracing ideologies surrounding the socialization of medieval boys, Ruth Mazo Karras’s From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (2002) contributes to critical masculinity studies, examining the formation in addition to the manifestation of masculinity. But in studies about socialization more broadly, gender is usually relegated to a small portion of the study, with the majority of each scholarly text discussing the socialization of male children by default and of female as simply a subcategory. The manifestation of medieval concepts of femininity has been extensively studied, but more attention needs to be paid to the ways in which girls were socialized to become women. In addition, the scholarship on the socialization of children rarely — if ever — addresses queer gender identities, nor does it often directly address the formations of gender identities, gender expressions, or gender roles. This panel therefore aims to expand the discussion through papers about children and childhood, gender, socialization, and education.

We encourage submissions that address non-European and / or non-Christian contexts.

Questions that might be raised include:

  • How were girls trained to become women?
  • How were girls taught to view themselves?
  • How were girls taught to view boys/men?
  • How were boys taught to view girls/women?
  • What ideologies and structures played a role in the ways girls were trained or taught?
  • What were the circumstances under which those ideologies differed (region, class, etc)?
  • Was there space for queer gender identities and/or expressions in lived reality or in texts?
  • How do texts reinforce or defy the dominant models of feminine training and socialization?

Please send abstracts of approximately 250 words, along with a completed Participant Information form, to session organizer Dainy Bernstein by September 15. Please include your name, title and affiliation on the abstract itself. All abstracts not accepted for the session will be forwarded to Congress administrators for consideration in general sessions, per Congress rules.

Literary Hindsight: Teaching Medieval Love and Violence

At a Kalamazoo ICMS roundtable titled “Teaching Violence and Trauma in the Premodern Classroom (A Roundtable),” the question arose: How do we get our students to understand that the violence and horrors depicted in the literary and historical texts are not necessarily representative of the realities of the time?

I was reminded of an exercise I had done with my students when we read Lanval, focusing on the literary representation of romantic love versus the reality. I mentioned it, and (omigod!!) Tara Mendola (one of the panelists) tweeted out my idea.

I had written up this lesson as a resource for the Pearl Kibre Medieval Study a while ago, so I’ve decided to post it now in this context. The lesson plan, with some notes, is below:


Lanval Lesson Plan

Pre-class: Transition from Anglo-Saxon, brief overview of Anglo-Norman language and culture, mention of term “courtly love”

Class session:

  1. Ten-minute writing exercise with two questions:
    1. “Describe “romantic love” according to medieval literature (using the text we’ve read so far, Lanval.)”
    2. “Describe “romantic love” according to your own (contemporary) understanding.”
      1. Note: I passed out half-papers with one question on each side. I did not direct the students to one question first, rather letting them decide which to answer first. Some didn’t realize there were two questions until their classmates told them to turn the paper over. I am curious what effect the order of questions has on the way students answer…
  2. PowerPoint: factual information about medieval marriage; explanation of the idealized system of courtly love; explanation of chivalry and its development; images from manuscripts depicting tournaments, chivalric behavior, etc.
  3. Group activity: class divided into three groups. Each one assigned a character (Lanval, Guinevere, fairy queen).
    1. Instructions: identify lines that describe their assigned character, copy out those lines, and then discuss the character.
  4. Full-class discussion: beginning with character analyses, moving into discussions of gender roles, loyalty, lordship, courtly love, etc.

Post-class: Blog post assignment:

Hindsight on modern romance: After we’ve read and discussed Marie de France’s Lanval in the context of courtly love and chivalry, you know now that love as portrayed in medieval literature often does not resemble the realities of medieval love. Choose a contemporary genre of literature or film (romance, Young Adult, erotica, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller), and think about how love and romance are portrayed in that genre. Imagine you’re a student of literature or film in the year 2500, studying the literature of the 21st century. What conclusions would you draw about love and romance based on the genre you’ve chosen to analyze? How does this match up with what you (the real you) know about love and romance in contemporary real life? (There’s no need to be personal, but you may use personal details.) 250-500 words.

An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews a Review of Disobedience

This weekend, I saw Disobedience twice. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since I saw the first clip of it, months ago. A story about two queer women, one who left the frum community and one who struggled to stay? Yes, please. Plus, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams! And the costumes looked so authentic! And it seemed like it was done with such sensitivity! I hadn’t read the book (I still haven’t, though I plan to now). So I didn’t know much about the story other than that it deals with Ronit’s return to the frum community after her father’s death and with the two women’s forbidden love.

On Thursday, April 26, I attended the 7pm screening at Angelika Film Center. I was anxious, my stomach unexpectedly roiling as I sat in my seat and waited for the movie to start. I became more and more anxious as I looked around and saw kippa-wearing men and skirt-wearing women, as I heard Hebrew being spoken all around me. I was here for a liberating movie – titled Disobedience, for fuck’s sake! – and I felt the same claustrophobia and mounting scream inside me as I felt when I had to attend frum events.

I cried a fair few times during the movie, and I stayed in my seat and sobbed for a bit after the movie was over. I wasn’t crying over the queer parts. I was crying over Ronit’s relationship with her father.

I walked out of the movie in a bit of a daze. I texted some friends about it, but they hadn’t seen it yet and didn’t want spoilers. In an effort to keep the experience going, I decided to look for reviews and other information about the film. I found a review by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, and I immediately became furious.

The title is “The Flesh Is Willing in ‘Disobedience’.” Wtf. Way to miss the point of the movie? (Also, really? You had to go to the New Testament to find a good title for a movie about ultra-Orthodox Jews?)

The content of the review is even worse. Now, Manohla Dargis is a respected movie critic. Her resume is quite extensive and impressive. And yet I feel perfectly comfortable saying – this review sounds like it was written by someone who does not understand film and storytelling.

Fired up, I decided to write my own review. I do have thoughts about the movie that go beyond Dargis’s points. But I’m going to start by quoting and reacting to some of her statements. If you want to just read my thoughts about the film more generally, wait for it – that’ll come in Part 2 😉

“In ‘Disobedience,’ the emotions are reserved, the palette muted, the rooms claustrophobic, the storytelling restrained.

True. So far so good.

It’s almost a surprise that Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a successful art photographer living in New York, can breathe, given how drained of oxygen this frustrating movie is.

Wait, what? Remove the word “frustrating,” and I would say this sentence hits it on the nose. The movie is (purposely, I would argue) drained of oxygen, because of the repressive environment of the frum community. And if Ronit seems unable to breathe – well, isn’t that the point? I can personally attest to the feeling of not being able to breathe, of gasping for air, when returning to frum environments. That Dargis felt that lack of oxygen and inability to breathe is proof of the film’s success, not of its failure.

It doesn’t seem especially airless at first, when Ronit is seen taking a portrait of a tattooed, bare-chested, much-older gent. They’re in a nice, roomy studio…

Exactly. It begins with openness and ease in Ronit’s whole persona, and that changes abruptly when she goes back to her childhood home. That’s the… whole point, Dargis. The whole point. You’ve just described a genius move of the movie, but your framing of it as a drawback is just so… not.

…and as he poses, she teasingly speaks to him about smiling, a nonchalant exchange that telegraphs some of this story’s larger concerns.

Okay, I disagree with this interpretation, but it is a valid one. I similarly disagree with Dargis’s interpretation of the beards on this tatted man and the rabbi as symbolic (in the following quote), but that’s a critical interpretation that’s at least valid.

Ronit lives in the modern age, in the here and now of groovy tattooed seniors, art photography and liberated women, but ‘Disobedience’ tracks her when she steps back in time after the death of her rabbi father (Anton Lesser), a revered religious figure in north London. Like Ronit’s portrait subject, the rabbi – seen early on delivering a sermon – is prodigiously bearded, though the other man’s body art underscores the divide separating these men and their realities. This in-between space is where Ronit now uneasily lives. She doesn’t cover her head and freely smokes, yet she also rends her clothes in mourning, ripping material with her teeth as the tears fall.

This is just… no. She does not live in the in-between, nor does she do it uneasily, at least not that we can see. Her life in NY, for all we know from the scene we’re shown, is completely separate from her previous life.

Why would she cover her head? Even if she were frum – she’s not married!

She smokes freely, yes – but in this moment it’s not an expression of her in-betweenness. Later in the film, the smoking becomes a motif that very much does carry symbolic weight, as Esti refuses a cigarette and then plucks Ronit’s lit cigarette from her hand to take a drag, charting her inner turmoil and re-blossoming disobedience. But here? It’s not a symbol of in-betweenness, just of living a secular, arty NY life.

And oh, dear lord, but way to take a really really poignant scene and reduce it to so little! She rips her shirt with her teeth, yes. It’s part of the rituals and rules surrounding mourning and grief. And her engagement with this practice is so powerful, not because she does it, but because of how long it takes her to do it, and what she does first.

The film cuts from Ronit in her studio being told she has a phone call to a close-up on her face as she walks along darkened streets. We’re left to infer that the phone call was about the man we just saw collapse and die in shul on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s no dialogue, just a quick series of shots:

Ronit walking along the night streets; Ronit dancing wildly to the pulsing music of a club; Ronit being fucked by a faceless man against the wall of the club’s bathroom, the pulsing music muted in the background – and she is being fucked, passively, as her expressionless face makes it clear she is not contributing much to the encounter other than her body; Ronit ice-skating in a rink, the camera following her face as the background music swells to fill the room and presumably her mind; Ronit sitting on a bench in the locker room, breathing deeply, exuding so much aching sadness that I began to cry before she did – and finally, Ronit grabbing her neckline, biting it, tearing it with teeth and hands, leaving her collarbone exposed and collapsing in utter exhaustion against the wall as her eyes well up with tears.

This is a brilliantly directed and acted sequence. Ronit has just found out that her father, whom she has not spoken to in years, is dead. She knows how to grieve according to Jewish rules, but she resists that and tries to deal with the overwhelming grief by drowning it in drink, dance, music, sex, the meditative rhythms of ice-skating – and none of it works.

Finally, she tears her shirt according to Jewish law – and cries.

Maybe I’m projecting, but those tears seem to me a result of both grief at her father’s death and pain at the limbo she finds herself in. That is the in-betweenness, that is the achingly painful part. Not the actions of smoking-and-tearing-clothes. But the feeling of wanting to alleviate grief, the need to deal with it somehow, the realization that the only way the grief might be alleviated is by following customs she has rejected, and the recognition that those customs will no longer work for her the way they would have if she had never left. She can find comfort in these rituals, but without the profound belief that they are divinely commanded, they are empty, hollow gestures.

Reising kriah was her last resort, and it enabled an emotional release despite her lack of belief in it. That is the in-betweenness.

Based on the novel of the same title by Naomi Alderman, ‘Disobedience’ delicately and far too bloodlessly charts the intricacies of Ronit’s return to a tight religious community that no longer wholly welcomes her.

Oh, sweetie pie. Bloodlessness is what allows a rigid community like that to survive. Emotions held in check, careful careful, don’t let them see, don’t let yourself see – the film’s bloodlessness perfectly matches the actual experience Ronit has as she returns to a tight religious community.

Besides, the entire movie is not bloodless. One of the most amazing things about the movie is the way the characters, especially Esti, become far less inhibited and rigid as the movie progresses. The movie brilliantly balances muted silence of sound, colors, body language, with bright vividness – to amazing effect.

One who does, though hesitantly, is Dovid (a very good Alessandro Nivola), a once-close comrade who is her father’s probable successor. Ronit also resumes her relationship with a former lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams), Dovid’s wife. The women’s reunion rapidly rekindles a passion that – with stolen kisses and progressively steamier intimacy – disturbs this world’s scrupulous order, a disruption that is more about hidebound tradition than about religious belief.

A mostly good summary of the plot. But that bit about the disruption being more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief” – let’s keep that in mind and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The director Sebastian Lelio should have been a good fit for this story if only because of the sensitivity he’s brought to female-driven movies like ‘Gloria.’ Although ‘Disobedience’ seems to offer him similar material – female desire up against the patriarchy – it defeats him.

Let’s just be clear here: the “female desire” of the film need not have been lesbian desire. Ronit could have been a man, and the story wouldn’t have changed very much. If Esti and “Rafi” had explored their hetero-sexuality with each other before marriage and been found out, the rav would have been horrified as well – perhaps a different kind of horrified, but still. “Rafi” may have left while Esti stayed and married someone else. With “Rafi’s” return, an old love between “Rafi” and Esti is rekindled, and Esti engages in extra-marital hetero-sex, and the storyline changes not all that much.

Yes, this is a wonderful queer story. But that’s not what it is mainly about. It is, as Dargis says, about “female desire up against the patriarchy.” But as to why it defeats Lelio:

He handles the story’s cloistered confines with visual intelligence, finding beauty in austerity though to an aestheticizing fault, as when Ronit walks amid a procession of mourners in which everyone seems arranged by height. The problem isn’t the scene, which is gracefully shot and staged. It’s that you notice the visual design but have no sense of – or feeling for – the faith binding these mourners.

First of all, I paid careful attention to this scene the second time I watched the movie, after I had read this review. That procession is not at all arranged by height… Dargis must have misremembered it? I don’t know. All I know is – that scene looks aesthetically exactly like small processions through the streets of Boro Park or Midwood or Williamsburg might look (except for the mixing of men and women). I didn’t notice the visual design of it, and I think Dargis was projecting some of her own biases onto her perception of that scene.

As to the lack of feeling for the faith binding these mourners – that’s because faith is not what binds them!

Remember how Dargis said earlier that the disruption is more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief”? She seems to have forgotten her excellent point here – this procession is not about belief or faith. It’s about adherence to ritual and custom. And hoo boy, do we get a sense of that in this scene!

That puts a heavy burden on Ms. McAdams, who with some cursory lines of dialogue, a lot of brooding dark looks and some behind-doors weeping needs to make a persuasive case for why Esti stayed in this world and with her husband. Ms. McAdams, who lets you see the eddies of emotion rippling over Esti’s face as she pulls off her wig, does some lovely work here to convey a woman agonizing over her existential situation.

I categorically disagree with the first part of this analysis.

She does not have “cursory lines of dialogue.” She has some of the most powerful lines of dialogue in the film. In the scene embedded in Dargis’s review, as Esti and Ronit walk together, you can even see how Lelio highlights one of her most anguished and poignant lines of dialogue: Ronit questions Esti about her life, and asks her “what about you?” Esti’s vehement response, “That is me!” is amazing. Lelio explains why he chose to cut to a close-up on Rachel McAdams then. Here’s my take on and reaction to that line:

Esti is expressing an internal struggle so beautifully, so painfully. She may not tell us why she stayed in this world, but as someone who stayed in that world far too long, I fully understood why Esti did as well.

On my second viewing, on Friday evening after I had read this review, I paid attention to whether the film lets the audience see this, or if I was just projecting my own experience onto Esti. I think the former, to some degree.

The film doesn’t hit us over the head with “here’s why she stayed.” I don’t think Esti is even meant to understand why she stayed.

And I don’t think the film wants to give us a tidy explanation for why Esti stayed. This is a complex, painful, multi-layered situation, and the film does a beautiful job of portraying that complete confusion, that lack of self-awareness, that repression of self-awareness in order to stay with the familiar.

Esti was heartbroken when Ronit left, after all. The movie never tells us how old they were, but one assumes they were seventeen or eighteen. And Esti did have a support system of sorts in the rav, who advised her to marry Dovid. It sounds like she didn’t believe what the rav did, that marriage would “cure” her, but I really don’t think that the movie needs to explicitly show or explain that staying with what’s comfortable and familiar is often the default.

Later in the film, as Ronit leaves to catch a flight, Esti says, “It’s always easier to leave, isn’t it?” That, combined with an earlier statement to Ronit about how she profoundly believes, and how the word of Hashem is her life, should be enough for the viewer to understand the intense internal struggle that led to Esti’s choice to stay.

The movie never tells us why Ronit left, either. I find it interesting that Dargis wants an explanation for why Esti stayed, but doesn’t ask the same of Ronit. All we know of Ronit’s departure is that her father caught her and Esti engaging in sexual activity, and Ronit abruptly left. Why did she cut off ties with Esti and Dovid, if they were so close? Why didn’t she take Esti with her? Or rather, why didn’t Ronit and Esti leave together? Dargis seems wholly unconcerned with these questions, focusing instead on one that is in fact answered in the film.

Yet even as she and the filmmakers – Mr. Lelio shares script credit with Rebecca Lenkiewicz – thicken the texture, adding realistic details that should energize the scenes, the movie insistently puts a secular frame around its story, leaving little room for the metaphysical.

What?? Secular?? Metaphysical?? Hang on, hang on…

Part of what makes Ms. McAdams and Ms. Weisz such appealing performers is how persuasively they convey the inner lives of the characters they play, which makes it easy to put yourself on their side. Yet ‘Disobedience’ is so emphatically on Ronit’s side from the get go that the character has no mystery, which in turn robs the audience of the very possibility of discovery or surprise. Ronit is an uncomplicated exile from patriarchy, and demonstrably ill at ease among the Orthodox. In this, she clearly serves as a proxy for the secular viewer, who in ‘Disobedience’ is invited to intimately witness the agony of faith but not its potentially more unfamiliar, more discomfiting ecstasy.

Okay, okay, so much wrong with this paragraph. Let’s start with the end and go backwards:

  1. Yes, indeed, this movie is about the agony of faith. It is not about the ecstasy. If you want to see a movie about the ecstasy of faith, that’s fine – but go see a different movie. That’s just not what this movie is about. It’s like watching Spotlight and saying “this movie doesn’t show how amazing a priest’s mentorship of young boys could be.” Well, no, because this movie is about how priests groom and then rape young boys…
  2. That Ronit serves as a proxy for the secular viewer is not a bad point. But there does need to be an entry point for viewers who do not understand the ultra-Orthodox world, after all. And having someone who left come back after years away is an excellent way of doing that – of having a focal character who knows the world and can therefore move in it semi-effectively, but to whom everything is strange – as strange as it is to the secular audience. At the same time, the non-secular audience and newly-secular audience (eg: moi) gets a different understanding of the film as we experience it through Ronit. Because we more viscerally understand the pain, the wild discomfort of being back in this community. It is a good thing that Ronit serves as a proxy, as a focal character, for the audience to experience this world. (Incidentally, in the Q&A with Rachel Wiesz, Alessandro Nivola, and Naomi Alderman that I attended on Friday night, Rachel and Naomi talked about how the book is written from Ronit’s point of view, and how that affects the way the story is told in the film.)
  3. Yes, the movie is emphatically on Ronit’s side against the oppressive frum patriarchy. Again, if Dargis wanted a movie that gives voice to both sides, she should have known that this is not the movie for it. This movie tells a story – obviously not the one Dargis wanted. Besides, Rachel Weisz does a wonderful job of showing us her interiority, and I found myself surprised and delighted by revelations of her character at times (most notably at the Friday night shabbos meal when she can no longer restrain herself and gets all snarky at the rebetzin – you go, girl!)

Okay, so that’s it for my “critique” of Manohla Dargis’s abysmal review. Next post will have some of my own thoughts, independent of this crap.

Can I Go Back & Rewrite My Adolescence?

A while ago, I posted about a song from my high school days. I examined the rhetoric of the song, arguing that the use of a first-person “I,” in the context of an inspirational shabbaton, forces the singer to assume the identity of the speaker.

One of the biggest points of critique I got about the post was that the song was, after all, composed and sung by the students, not the teachers or religious leaders.

So how could I argue that the rhetorical effects of the song were being imposed on us students by oppressive leaders? Isn’t this simply an indication that the teenage girls did in fact believe these things?

Well, no. It’s far more complicated than that.

As I continue sifting through the ephemera of my youth (because I am most definitely a masochist), I came across some high school student publications that I was involved in. One of my best friends was in charge of L’chu, the major student publication of Bais Yaakov High School, and I helped with editing, printing, collating, etc. – and I also contributed a fair number of written pieces.

These stories and articles I wrote are at times horrifying. I nearly cried a number of times as I read the words I wrote – the words I wrote! – when I was in twelfth grade.

I wish I could brush it off and say, “well, I was a high school teenager, what could I have known.” But as high school students all around the country today demonstrate, it’s quite possible for teenagers to have stronger moral fiber than adults.

The difference between these teenagers and my fellow BY-students and myself, I think, is that they are fighting against the wider world, but more often than not they have their parents’ and others’ support – their moral standpoints reflect their parents’ (though of course not always).

Us? We would have had to realize that what our parents and teachers were telling us was wrong.

In some ways, I think (or like to think) that I can see some stirrings of misgivings in the content and style of what I wrote.

There’s one story that is so disgustingly racist, but I can see an attempt on my part to be non-racist – I just didn’t know how to do it then. I was stuck in thought patterns that had been ingrained in me, and I hadn’t had a chance to learn how to break free of them yet.

lchu horribly racist

There’s one story that winds up arguing that everything is hashgacha pratis (divine providence) even when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for why things happen. But I can sense (or like to think I can sense) that it’s an attempt to grapple with the beginnings of disenchantment with the idea of god orchestrating everything and everything happening for a reason – I just didn’t know how to get there yet. I was stuck in thought patterns that had been ingrained in me, and I hadn’t had a chance to learn how to break free of them yet.

lchu hasgacha pratis

I’ve been worrying about publishing these on my blog, and I’ve been talking to some friends about the horror I feel when reading my own words (over ten years old by now, and yet still – my words).

Then I found this blog post, by a medievalist who published an excellent article about Beowulf in 2004. In light of recent neo-Nazi / white supremacist appropriations of medieval culture and symbolism, he worried that some of what he wrote could be used as fuel for the neo-Nazis’ fire.

So he wrote a blog post to explain how he went wrong over ten years ago, and pinned the link to it to the top of his Twitter account with the caption “Can you go back & rewrite your own scholarship?”

It’s not quite the same thing as what I’m doing, of course. His article is published, is being widely read, and is archived forever. My pieces exist only in print, and it’s more than likely that I have one of only three or four surviving copies.

But I think there is purpose to making those texts public, and working through them, analyzing them, reading them closely… They are important in showing how the Bais Yaakov / charedi education system works – especially when you consider that the person who wrote those things (me) is now horrified at them, and quite likely was uncomfortable with them even when I wrote them.

My plan is to post detailed critiques of pieces from these publications – coming soon! (That’s why the above images are so tiny – I’ll post better images and transcriptions when I write about each one.)

lchu cheshvan cover

Student-Teaching

One of the great things about engaging as a student in the very academic endeavor I teach is that one enriches the other. As I lead my students through the process of writing, I am engaged in the very same process under my own teacher’s guidance. And if I pay careful attention, I can see my frustrations and anxieties matching my students, and I can harness my experience with each perspective to inform and enrich the other.

This renewed realization (which is kind of a truism, isn’t it) was prompted most recently by a burst of inspiration I had as I was forced to write and produce pages for my dissertation workshop to read.

After my orals had been passed and my prospectus approved, it took me a long time to start writing the dissertation in any real way. Part of this was due to life events that I could not have predicted or prevented, but part of it was paralyzing fear of getting started.

I wanted a roadmap. I wanted to draw up a schedule, I wanted to know which chapter I would tackle first, I wanted to set myself deadlines.

My method of teaching the writing process to my students includes moments when I refuse to give them guidance.

I’ve previously written on this blog about my struggle to balance broad prompts (which invite imagination and passion) with specific prompts (which provide direction and clear expectations). But even when the prompts are very specific, students want to know where exactly to start, what exactly to write, how exactly to structure the essay. Up to a certain point, I of course provide that guidance. But eventually, if students continue to display anxiety and a desire for hand-holding, I stop answering their questions, and I say, “just start writing – the answers will come to you as you write.”

By this point in the writing/teaching process, I would have already discussed the concepts of writing-to-learn, of drafting, of finding out what you think by writing about it, etc. But the time always comes for them to dive in and explore, discover the joy (and/or nail-biting anxiety) of this all on their own.

Often students will say, “But I have so little to say about this! I can say everything I have to say in three sentences! I can’t write a full 3-page draft!” Start writing anyway, I tell them, feigning a lack of mercy.

I know that they will definitely get more than three sentences, and that when they give their draft to their classmates for peer review (and to me for comments), their readers will have questions and will point out where their “very obvious” statements need expansion and explanation.

When it comes to my own writing, I don’t have the audacity to ask my advisor to lay out the roadmap for me. But I wanted to ask for that.

So instead, I drew up plans and went to his office, and presented them to him in hopes that he would revise the plan for me and tell me what I should read and which specific parts I should start with… He didn’t. (My advisor, by the way, has legendary amounts of patience.)

So I spent time wondering: Should I start with the introduction, because that will set up the framework for the whole project? Maybe I should start with the chapter on fables, because that genre is the most didactic (of the genres I’m working with) and that would allow me to dive into the historical documents about education as well? Or maybe I should start with the chapter on romance, because that’s the genre I’m most familiar with and can knock out a first draft fairly quickly? Or, maybe the opposite – I should start with dream visions, because I know least about them, so the bulk of work I need to do would be at the beginning of my writing, and I could get to romance at the end, when I just want to finish already?

(As it happens, it’s a good thing I didn’t start with dream visions, because they are gone from the dissertation, cut after the chapters on fable and romance expanded into two separate chapters for each, kind of like an amoeba growing so big and then splitting into two amoebas through asexual reproduction / binary fission – hello, ninth grade biology! – and you can’t tell which is the parent and which is the child. Ooh, I like that!)

Eventually, I had to write something to hand in to the workshop. So I wrote some pages for the chapter on romance. I presented them to the group, got feedback, and had some new ideas about the overall project.

For my next submission, I did some writing that would be part of the introduction. It was full of half-formed ideas, I didn’t include the citations and references I needed (I wrote down things like “add Orme’s thing here,” but I didn’t take the time at this point to actually go check what Orme says about it).

Again, the feedback from the dissertation workshop caused my mind to go wild with explosions of ideas and possibilities, and I revised half of those pages for my third submission, expanding on some ideas that I hadn’t fully explored in the previous draft. And yet again, the feedback from the group helped me rethink the structure of the introduction, which helped me rethink the overall structure of the entire dissertation, and now I’m roaring to go again…

And it hit me: I had been acting exactly like my students, dragging my feet because I couldn’t see how the end product would come from the material and ideas I had in the moment. And the methods that worked were exactly the same as the advice I give my students: just start writing the damn thing.

An amazing aspect of the dissertation workshop is also getting to see others’ works-in-progress, to watch their drafts becoming light-years clearer with each revision. We often don’t see that on a graduate or professional level – we’ll look over friends’ and colleagues’ drafts when they’re confident enough to share it, but not before that. In this workshop format, though, we by necessity share drafts that are, as Anne Lamott says, shitty. We all expect our undergraduate students to produce shitty first drafts, and we encourage that as part of the writing process. But it is so good to see graduate-level versions of shitty first drafts! (Sorry, friends, but you get to see my shitty first drafts too, so…)

I’m not teaching any college courses this semester, but I plan to take this renewed realization with me when I plan my next composition syllabus.

Image: the first and last page of my latest draft, with comments from the workshop scribbled all over them (deliberately blurred!)

IMG_20180323_175722

Race and Religion in The King of Tars: An Undergraduate Lesson

This is a pretty cut-and-dry account of a lesson I planned  and how it went. I’m sharing because 1) I’m proud of it; 2) I think it might be useful to others to see the overall lesson and the twists and turns of my reasoning for each step; and 3) it’s a good way to force myself to actually take notes on what I do… 

After what’s been described by some as the garbage-fire summer of medieval studies, I decided to switch out one text on my syllabus for The King of Tars, a medieval text about a Christian princess who is forced to marry a Saracen sultan. I usually mention race in medieval texts when we talk about Marie de France’s description of the fairy queen in Lanval, and in reference to some lines in Chaucer. But I wanted to foreground discussions of racial and religious in/tolerance more clearly, and this text was the way to do it.

I prefaced the two-day discussion with a heads-up about what we’ll focus on in the text, but I gave no further direction than that. I had switched the text after the semester had already started, so my students were aware of the change and they knew why I had made the change.

[The King of Tars is not available from any publisher in undergrad-friendly text, but thankfully a colleague had painstakingly translated and glossed the entire text for her students and graciously allowed me to use her translation. I have relied on the Norton Anthology for this class until now, but I intend to “resist the canon” a lot more in future sections I teach.]

On the first day discussing the text, I began class with a few slides to ground the discussion in the urgency the field medieval studies feels now: to directly address race, namely the alt-right / Nazis’ coopting of medieval symbols and imagery and the inaccuracy of the claim to a “pure” white past.

I showed them screenshots of Twitter posts, beginning with this, which delighted them:

I also gave them a brief overview, explaining that the idea of “race” developed long after the Middle Ages. So although the text definitely refers to whiteness and blackness, we need to dig into the text to figure out how it’s being portrayed and viewed, rather than relying on contemporary ideas about race.

After this presentation, we reviewed major plot points, and then moved into group work.

From the start of the semester, I’d begun each class with a ten-minute writing exercise in which I asked students to write down: one quote from the text; one comment about the text; one question about the text.

This time, I asked them to pair up and to find four quotes from the text, one in each of the following categories: race; religion; women; children. I acknowledged that these are broad categories, and I said that I’m not giving any further explanation for them because I want each pair to interpret the four topics as they see fit.

As I rotated among the pairs, many asked me to help them figure out which category a specific quote belonged to. “We want to quote this line, but it could fit into either the women category or the race category,” etc. I told them to think about which category they want to put it in – what interests them about this quote? Of course, there will be overlap among categories, but I want them each to choose one category for each quote.

Once each pair had chosen four quotes, I asked them to write one of their quotes (with line citations) on the board. I had written the four categories on the board and drawn lines separating them into columns. I stood back as they each chose one quote and wrote it in the appropriate category.

The Result: When everyone was done writing on the board, there were two quotes each for the categories of women, children, and race. Under religion, there were ten quotes. (With 29 students in the class, this means at least a few pairs wrote more than one quote, but I’m not complaining!)

I asked the class to look at the board and think about what this text is about, based on the quotes they focused on: is it about race, or is it about religion? Of course, they all agreed that this text is about religion.

We moved into an intense discussion about representations of race and religion in the text, particularly the way the sultan becomes white when he converts.

A few students asked about the confusing portrayal of Islam in the text (Mohammed as a god or saint rather than a prophet, Juipter and Apollo and idols as part of what appears to be a pantheon of gods), and we talked about how the text calls the sultan a “pagan,” a “heathen,” a “Saracen,” and the way the text uses these terms to refer to both non-Christians and non-whites without really allowing for the possibility of a black Christian or a white non-Christian. We discussed the text’s focus on presenting the sultan as different, as non-Christian, not on presenting an accurate portrayal of Islam.

We left off by the end of class with a number of questions that students posed about the text as they began to think in these terms, not least of which was: Aren’t the Christians as bad as the Saracens by the end, when they kill everyone?

Before wrapping up for the day, I handed out copies of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s chapter “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” (recommended by a few colleagues – thanks!) We read the introduction together, wading past references to de Man and Foucault to get to the undergrad-comprehensible part. After making sure everyone understood what to expect from the essay, I asked them all to read it for the following class, when we would discuss it and apply it to The King of Tars.

Day 2:

I reviewed the concept of differentiating between the medieval text and contemporary interpretation by dividing the board in half and asking students to review what we had discussed in the previous session. As they spoke, I took notes, placing each idea in the appropriate column.

We then returned to discussion of the questions we’d been left with at the end of the previous session, using the two columns on the board to keep the medieval and contemporary sensibilities from getting jumbled together. I particularly wanted them to keep this distinction in mind when asking “aren’t the Christians just as bad?”

Finally, we moved to the most intense part of the lesson. The class divided themselves into groups of three, which meant we had nine groups. I assigned each group one of Cohen’s theses, with two groups working on Thesis II and two on Thesis IV. I asked them to 1) review Cohen’s points and make sure everyone in the group understood the arguments, and 2) apply these arguments to The King of Tars, looking at specific lines or moments in the text which either support or refute Cohen’s claims about “monster culture.”

Since this is a 200-level class, I expected students to struggle with many of the ideas (a 300-level class would likely struggle too!). I sat with each group for a while, helping them work through the ideas and doing mini-lectures about each group’s assigned thesis. The small group was ideal, as students got to ask specific questions of me and of each other, and I was able to ascertain that all three students understood before I moved on to the next group. [Side-note: at one point, I thought “if this is what the UK tutorial model is like, sign me up right now!”]

The ideas that resulted from this group discussion were amazing. Students at first identified almost every character as a monster, but then they revised and edited, carefully differentiating between the perspectives of the medieval reader and our contemporary class. They questioned themselves and each other as they worked, forcing themselves to really think deeply about Cohen’s assertions and the text – on a level I would expect from an upper-level literature class. They worked through ideas about “pure body” and “pure culture,” they looked up lots of words they had never encountered before and might not ever encounter again.

They at times circled around to previous notions of monsters (violent, feared, hated) but caught themselves and each other and went back to wrapping their minds around the idea of a monster as a symbol and manifestation of cultural fears, anxieties, desires, and fantasies, etc.

For the wrap-up, each group presented an explanation of Cohen’s thesis and an analysis of The King of Tars through that lens. Again, I took notes on the board as they spoke (see image below).

image1

(Note: “princess” should have been crossed out by the end of the lesson, I just forgot to do it on the board! Also note the distinction between medieval and contemporary views under Thesis II.)

We didn’t come to any hard-and-fast conclusions about what the text does in regard to medieval portrayals of race, but we did begin to dig into the development of monstrosity and difference in the Middle Ages, and to put it in context with our contemporary perceptions. And since I tend to leave many discussions like that (“so what’s the answer? whatever you can provide evidence for”), my students by then understood the benefit of simply raising questions about a text.

Some of them chose to return to these questions in their papers, which I may write about at another point…