Some Thoughts on the First Week of Class

School started up again this week and while I don’t have one cohesive thing to write about for the first week, I do have a few observations or comments.

  1. Every break I forget how tiring teaching is. Every first week is exhausting. It’s a good thing I really do like teaching and meeting new students.
  2. I’m teaching three sections of Composition I this semester, which means I get a lot of opportunities to compare student reactions across those sections. I’m always intrigued by the different responses to jokes and ideas. For instance, on Wednesday, I told the same joke in all three classes. It had the same delivery, same context, same enthusiasm from me. Two classes laughed. One class, however, just looked kind of uncomfortable. That was odd, especially since I’m not sure why the third class didn’t respond as expected. The joke involved me cursing, so maybe they’re secretly a more conservative class. Or maybe they all just got distracted in that moment and missed it. Who knows!
  3. I’m also fascinated by the way my initial expectations of each group of students is already being challenged as they get tired (one is an 8 am class), warm up to me, or start to gel as a group. One section began the semester eager and ready to talk. By this morning, they were much quieter and the tone of the class seems to have shifted. A different section was extremely quiet and reticent on day one and I was worried that I’d have to drag them along to get them through the semester. This morning, they were my most engaged class.
  4. My horror literature & film course is off to a good start. I have a group of students who are largely interested in the topic (only a small percentage seems to have enrolled because they needed the credit and no other reason). I am still waiting to see how their previous knowledge functions within the class. It could be great – and I am very hopeful. They can bring their previous to our conversations to provide more context and set up interesting questions. In past classes, however, I have had some trouble with students who already know – or think they know – the genre I’m teaching (science fiction, in that case) because they have their own ideas about what I should teach and how. When that happens, my failure to do what they expect can mean that they think I am not doing a good job, which then affects their performance in class as well as their evaluation of me and the course. So far, though, these students all seem pretty open.

I am also thinking a lot about questions of authority in the classroom and how to teach students to question my authority, the relationship between themselves and their teachers, their goals in college, etc., so I may have more to say on that at a later date.

Next week, my composition classes will discuss sex education, trigger warnings, female genital mutilation, purity balls, and masculinity. My horror class will read Poe and Lovecraft and look at some pre-Code horror comics. It should be a fun week!

On Joanna Russ & The Female Man

I’m reading On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, right now and I get to re-read The Female Man by Joanna Russ later today (both for an article I’m working on), and this is one of those times when I feel extremely lucky. I love Joanna Russ’s work and the fact that I get to revisit it and write about it as part of my job makes me very happy.

Mostly, I love her anger. The Female Man is just brimming with it, but what makes it so wonderful is that it’s angry while also funny and inspiring and so, so, so smart. Russ identifies the sexisms – both large and small – that she and her contemporaries lived with and she destroys them by showing how ridiculous they are and by imagining a world where they don’t exist.

Even Whileaway, the future utopian world that Russ creates in The Female Man, includes anger. Not only does the existence of such a world, in which women are free to live fully human lives and are not constrained by gender roles, prompt such angry or frustrated questions as “Why we can’t live more like this now?” and “Why are we still living with so much oppression and sexism?”, there’s also anger expressed by Russ’s characters who live and have grown up in that utopia. The bitterness of those questions are not in these characters, though. Just natural, human anger expressed at other humans – because in Russ’s work, even utopia isn’t perfect. That’s what makes it interesting.

I’ve taught The Female Man before and I wrote about it in my dissertation, so I’ve read it several times and I always love it. Not everyone does, though. I taught it only one semester (paired with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland) and my students disliked it so much that I haven’t tried going back to it since. I think their dislike was a combination of confusion and defensiveness. They got confused because the plot involves a lot of jumping around between times, places, and voices, and there are many cultural references they aren’t necessarily familiar with. This made its meaning hard for them to parse and they resented having to work so hard for it. In addition, I was not teaching a classroom full of feminists; I was teaching average college students in Texas who were taking a literature course to meet their general education requirements. They are not automatically on board with Russ’s feminist politics, and her anger, therefore, felt like an attack on them (for some, not all). Where I identify with Russ’s anger and am empowered and emboldened by it, they feel the need to protect themselves from it, I believe. I still hope for an opportunity to teach the book to a class that will appreciate it and gain something from it, but I’m not sure where I’ll find that.

I’ll end with a few quotes from the book that I love and an encouragement to read it if you haven’t already. It’s not to everyone’s taste – clearly – but it is brilliant and it has such important things to say about gender, sexism, resistance, and hope. And, sadly, although some cultural referents are dated, the ideas and arguments of The Female Man are still relevant today.

“This is the underside of my world.

Of course you don’t want me to be stupid, bless you! you only want to make sure you’re intelligent. You don’t want me to commit suicide; you only want me to be gratefully aware of my dependency. You don’t want me to despise myself; you only want the flattering deference to you that you consider a spontaneous tribute to your natural qualities. You don’t want me to lose my soul; you only want what everybody wants, things to go your way; you want a devoted helpmeet, a self-sacrificing mother, a hot chick, a darling daughter, women to look at, women to laugh at, women to come for comfort, women to wash your floors and buy your groceries and cook your food and keep your children out of your hair, to work when you need the money and stay home when you don’t, women to be enemies when you want a good fight, women who are sexy when you want a good lay, women who don’t complain, women who don’t nag or push, women who don’t hate you really, women who know their job and above all—women who lose. On top of it all, you sincerely require me to be happy; you are naively puzzled that I should be wretched and so full of venom in this the best of all possible worlds. Whatever can be the matter with me? But the mode is more than a little outworn.

As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest.

But the frogs die in earnest.”

“If you scream, people say you’re melodramatic; if you submit, you’re masochistic; if you call names, you’re a bitch. Hit him and he’ll kill you. The best thing is to suffer mutely and yearn for a rescuer, but suppose a rescuer doesn’t come?”

“Remember: I didn’t and don’t want to be a ‘feminine’ version or a diluted version or a special version or a subsidiary version or an ancillary version, or an adapted version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves.

What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?”

female man cover 1 female man cover 2

Movies of July

Because it’s summer, I have a lot more time at home to spend on both leisure and research. This means I have watched a lot of movies in the last month. Most of them (21 out of 30) are directly related to some part of my work, too, which makes me feel more productive than not. Here’s a quick overview of what I watched in July, followed by a few thoughts on my favorites.

  1. Advantageous, dir. Jennifer Phang (2015) – 4 stars
  2. La Jetée, dir. Chris Marker (1962) – 5 stars
  3. The Inbetweeners Movie, dir. Ben Palmer (2011) – 3 stars
  4. Filth, dir. Jon S. Baird (2013) – 4 stars
  5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene (1920) – 4 stars
  6. Black Sunday, dir. Mario Bava (1960) – 2 stars
  7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Philip Kaufman (1978) – 4 stars
  8. The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973) – 5 stars
  9. Kuroneko, dir. Kaneto Shindo (1968) – 4 stars
  10. Picnic at Hanging Rock, dir. Peter Weir (1979) – 4 stars
  11. Daisies [Sedmikrásky], dir. Vera Chytilová (1966) – 5 stars
  12. Alan Partridge, dir. Declan Lowney (2013) – 4 stars
  13. A Nightmare on Elm Street, dir. Wes Craven (1984) – 3 stars
  14. Inferno, dir. Dario Argento (1980) – 2 stars
  15. Creep, dir. Patrick Brice (2014) – 4 stars
  16. Hatchet for the Honeymoon, dir. Mario Bava (1970) – 3 stars
  17. It Follows, dir. David Robert Mitchell (2015) – 5 stars
  18. Tig, dir. Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York (2015) – 4 stars
  19. Chasing Ice, dir. Jeff Orlowski (2012) – 5 stars
  20. Food, Inc., dir. Robert Kenner (2008) – 4 stars
  21. Mission Blue, dir. Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens (2014) – 4 stars
  22. The Conformist, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci (1970) – 4 stars
  23. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, dir. George Miller (1981) – 4 stars
  24. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, dir. George Miller and George Ogilvie (1985) – 2 stars
  25. Eugene Mirman: Vegan On His Way to the Complain Store, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait (2015) – 4 stars
  26. Thirst, dir. Chan-wook Park (2009) – 4 stars
  27. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, dir. Tobe Hooper (1974) – 4 stars
  28. Pontypool, dir. Bruce McDonald (2008) – 4 stars
  29. Jug Face, dir. Chad Crawford Kinkle (2013) – 3 stars
  30. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (2013) – 2 stars

la jetee poster

La Jetée, directed by Chris Marker, is a short film told in a series of still photographs rather than moving images. It’s a story of apocalypse and time travel and love. It is gorgeous.

This movie would be an interesting challenge to teach. Students might find it difficult to get into because of the experimental visual style – it’s just not what they’re used to – but because it’s short and apocalyptic, I think they could find a way into the story. I imagine we might have interesting conversations about the way the use of still photographs challenges us as viewers and what the use of this technique, instead of the moving pictures we’re used to, reveals about the way we watch film. What do we gain from the gaps between images? What do we lose?

Finally, and this is a bit of a spoiler if you intend to watch this film and don’t know anything about it already, La Jetée was a major influence on the 1995 film 12 Monkeys (which I love). It is fascinating to see those connections here and having students compare the two films (short film versus feature film, black and white versus color, still photographs versus moving images, etc.) could be fun.

wicker man posterAnother favorite from this month was The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy (this is the 1973 version, not the 2006 Nicolas Cage movie). I loved pretty much everything about this movie. It has Christopher Lee, for a start, but more substantially, it is dark and complex and subtly creepy throughout. There’s something about 1970s horror that I love (I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) just before this and it worked for me, too) – something about its grittiness and uncertainty, I suppose.

My main issue with this movie is that – as I learned after watching what was available for purchase through Amazon Prime – there are multiple versions. The version I saw is apparently an edited version, missing an opening scene and an extended version of the naked dance scene (and perhaps with other changes as well). I desperately want to see the longer version, but I haven’t had any luck finding a copy of it (at a reasonable price, at least).

Daisies PosterI already posted about Daisies, directed by Vera Chytilová; at the time, I had trouble finding words for the movie and simply posted images. I find that I still don’t have much to say about it, however. The film’s effect was so much tied up in its visual humor and cleverness that I’m having trouble translating my reaction into English. I liked it so much that I definitely want to watch it again, however, and perhaps then I’ll be able to come up with something coherent to say about it. In the meantime, I highly recommend it.

The last two movies I loved this month are quite different – It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell, is a horror film about sex (to oversimplify it quite a bit); Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, is a documentary about the disappearance of glaciers. They both, however, are about the way your actions (and their consequences) follow you – whether sex (in It Follows) or humans’ effects on the climate. Both are about a chase, both are visually stunning – and both scared the crap out of me. In It Follows, the fear is created through extremely effective uses of camerawork and sound. There is one scene in particular where the intensity of the score is increased very gradually and over such a long period of time that I almost had to pause the movie to breathe before I could continue. I held out and experienced the scene without having to stop, but it took real effort on my part because the score created such a strong feeling of anxiety in me. In Chasing Ice, the fear is less immediately visceral, less about the filmmaking, and much more real since the documentary tells the true story of what is happening to the planet and how little we can do to stop it.

It Follows movie posterChasingIcelarge