Mostly (not) on McSweeney's!

A blog for my academic ideas, more or less.

“Teaching” “Postmodernism”

So my class on postmodernism was on the postmodern short story and one of the big lessons I wanted them to take away from it is that we should move away from a reading position that looks for ‘meaning’ and switch to something more critical about ‘how we arrive at meaning’ so my idea with the class was to remove myself from the position of authority and let the group determine its own approach to the topic. My way of signalling this was to sit in the seats among them instead of standing at the front of the class. It freaked some of them out right away so that was good in that just a simple thing like my position in the room makes them more aware of their environment. In the first group I told them that I wasn’t going to give them any tasks but that they had to fill the next fifty minutes. They looked scared! I made some jokes to relax them. Then I speculated on some options for things they could do like talk in one big group or break into smaller groups or draw pictures on the board or stand up and read out one of the stories and someone hesitantly said ‘I think we should talk about the stories in groups?’ and others nodded and they broke into two groups and divided the stories among themselves. I was a member of both groups and there was some interesting discussion and though this did not feel particularly ‘postmodern’ it was useful that they had made a decision themselves which is not something they ordinarily do. The second group was more interesting. I did the ‘trick’ again of sitting in the ‘wrong’ place. I asked them why I had done this and someone said ‘to mess with us’ and I laughed. Then I told them to follow that idea through into thinking what the class would be and the same person said ‘I know what you want me to say but if I say it then people won’t like me’ and then they said ‘We are going to lead the class’ and I was like ‘yesssssss’. I was more ‘postmodern’ in this class in that I said things like ‘this sentence is me telling you that I am not going to guide the discussion, and in about 30 seconds I am going to stop talking for a minute and if no-one speaks then I will say something else but I hope someone speaks’ and so someone in about 20 seconds said ‘I think I’d like to talk about the Babysitter’ meaning the Robert Coover story that was one of the texts for today. About five students of the nine in the class then conducted a good discussion of the aesthetics of the story and the difficulty in understanding ‘what happened’. I occasionally interjected to tell them they were doing something interesting and then made it ‘postmodern’ by saying ‘I am performing the role of a seminar leader here and now I am going to stop talking again’. Those comments usually led to a momentary cessation of the discussion but it always started back up again. The conversation moved across different topics including the syllabus of another course that they do that is about the ‘canon’ and people were being critical of the idea of the ‘canon’ and trying to reconcile the ‘postmodern’ with it and I was feeling warm and fuzzy and thinking ‘they’re doing it they’re really doing it!’ and I tried to express this by saying things out loud like ‘this is the point of your education’ and ‘if you are dissatisfied with it then that means you’re also actually satisfied with it’ and I feel like the class was genuinely useful and positive and that it achieved what I thought it would achieve.

Filed under: teaching

Rick Moody on teaching

What would happen if we understood the workshop to be not tidy and orderly but large, unpredictable, and uncertain? What if long monologues about German metaphysics could sit right beside arguments from the stylebook of Flannery O’Connor? What if the worst story of the semester were subjected to a half hour of sentence-diagramming exercises? What if no one turned in a story for three weeks, and all you did was sit around talking about the ugliest kid you knew in childhood, or the worst job you ever had? What if all you did in class was assignments? What if you rewrote one sentence all semester? What if everyone got a chance to be the instructor, and everyone got a chance to be the student?

Rick Moody on the need for teaching (in this case, creative writing, but applicable (I think) to all humanities (and probably more disciplines but I don’t want to claim more than I have experience of)) to be a bit more creative/fluid in how it trains people to think.

Add ‘make them eat apples’ into the above paragraph and you’ve got my teaching manifesto.

Filed under: teaching

“Stream of consciousness”

We did Modernist short stories in class this week. I didn’t really dig the stories (Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf). I decided to have some fun with “stream of consciousness” as a literary technique. I wanted to simultaneously suggest the possibility for language to represent something approximating ‘real’ thought processes and illustrate the impossibility of this.

I took in a bag of apples and instructed my students to eat or not eat the apple. We sat in silence while the apple experience proceeded. A few people giggled but all but one person ate an apple. Only two people took up my challenge to ‘core’ the apple, i.e. eat all of it, leaving nothing. I felt happy watching my students eat apples.

After we had finished I instructed them to write an account of their apple experience as quickly as possible. This representation could take whatever form they desired. I secretly wanted someone to write “apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple apple” &c but no-one did. Everyone wrote something interesting. They were generally funny and affirming of the validity of the apple experience as an exercise in fostering understanding and communication. I am still unsure of its benefit as a literary exercise but I do not regret doing it.

Here are the apple monologues I created to make it ‘fair’ for my students:

The clunk of the neglected, abandoned core. Failure. The pea-sized remnant on the desk. Not-quite-as-disappointing failure. Backwards. The apple presents her preferred position to the eater, finger and thumb. We are sizing her up. The star-like holes where once pits nested — the configuration is a primitive stick-drawing of a man. She contains him. To consume her completely forces us to reconsider our position. We encounter her stickiness, become tainted, blessed with it. We are she. The apple and I. I am the own apple of my own eye. I consume myself. The apple is a green fruit. I am envious of my own consumption.
This is my second apple of the day. This is not an unusual amount of apples to eat, I think. Three would be an unusual amount of apples to eat, I think. The males in the room finish their apples before the females. Is this victory, or petty competition? To finish the apple and discard the core is an admission of defeat. This seems not a cowardly but brave act. “I cannot conquer this apple and I am OK with that.” This admission spreads in a crescent along the right-hand side of the room. E breaks this process by discarding out of turn. This displeases my love of patterns but I admire her decision nonetheless. S’s sudden realisation that she is the only one left is endearing. O’s apple remains intact, taunting our attempted genocide with this stern reminder: there will always be more apples.

These seem strange and fun to look back upon. The rest of the class consisted of me attempting to inculcate a suspicion of literary methods into them. We are on a loose trajectory of realism > modernism > postmodernism. I feel one of the biggest problems with undergraduates is to spark their awareness of the constructedness of everything. It is not that we want them all to be poststructuralists but that we feel an awareness of this will benefit them in terms of thinking critically about the possibilities of text. This is also an issue with my second-years; I will write about those concerns later.

Filed under: teaching


“He tells Green that his phobic fear of timepieces stems from [his stepfather, [an Amtrak train conductor [with deeply unresolved issues [which he used to make Lenz wind his pocketwatch and polish his fob daily with a chamois cloth [and nightly make sure his watch’s displayed time was correct to the second [or else he’d lay into the pint-sized Randy with [a rolled-up copy of [Track and Flange, a slick and wicked-heavy coffee-table-sized trade periodical]]]]]]]].”

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996), p.557.

I’m using parentheses a bit loosely here as in they’re not indicating totally discrete clauses or sets of noun phrases but they’re representing where Wallace adds this extra level of sense to hold in your head to just fuck with you and force you to pay attention.

Other things I like about this sentence. Some of the adjectives:

  • phobic fear
  • deeply unresolved issues
  • pint-sized Randy
  • rolled-up copy
  • slickĀ  and wicked-heavy coffee-table-sized trade periodical

That last one. Boy!

Thinking about Carver and realism and this post on good stories. Thinking about using tomorrow’s class on Carver to interrogate my own interests in realism and experimentation.

A Carver sentence for the hell of it:

“She looked into the back of the bakery and could see [a long, heavy wooden table [with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end]]; and beside the table [a metal container [filled with empty racks]].”

from ‘A Small, Good Thing’ (1983 (sort of)).

The parentheses here are reaching a bit? Should probably spend more time on this before tomorrow but going to watch football soon. Sometimes my better classes happen when I make stuff up while sitting in the lecture before the seminar. Carver’s adjectives: long, heavy, wooden, aluminum, metal, empty. LOL.

Filed under: teaching

Short Story Quiz

Did this today at the end of the first term of teaching this class.

Dumping text here, cos, you know, why not.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: teaching

About Me:

My name is Kevin O'Neill and I am in the fifth year of a part-time PhD in the English Department of Goldsmiths, London, UK. I used to teach undergrad classes there (now: not, because there are other PhD students who need teaching experience). I work (most of the time) in the Oxfam shop in Dalston because few people get paid to do humanities PhDs.

My research centres around the literary journal McSweeney's. My interest is developing into what McSweeney's tells us about two separate (but I guess related) fields: 1) literary institutions 2) American cultural production, more broadly. This blog was initially about my PhD but is now a more general thinking space.

See right for my flickr/twitter/delicious feeds, then below for other versions of me.

Email is looceefir on gmail.


June 2017
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