Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fin de Semestre

As of yesterday, my fall courses at Rutgers-Newark have ended, and once I receive all the final papers, read and grade them, and submit final grades, my first fall semester will also conclude.  All in all it was a good semester, I think, and the classes, especially the graduate one, went better than I imagined. The disruption that Tropical Storm Sandy wrought, however, was significant. Many of my undergraduate students lost power, and some did not get it back for several weeks, but many of them also suffered a significant enough break in their psychic and academic rhythms that it took them a while to recover.  The university urged us to be flexible with the students and assignments, but I'd already decided to do so. One assignment became an extra-credit project which a number of students undertook. With one week completely lost and discombobulation lingering like a wake, I compressed the readings, but we managed not to to skip any of the major creative works in either class. 
Board (but I hope not "bored") work

With the undergraduate class, "Letras Negras: Afro-Latin Literature," which was a new preparation, we got through all eight works, seven novels (by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, Edwidge Danticat, Marilene Felinto, Luz Argentina Chiriboga, Mayra Montero, Junot Díaz, and Charles Rice-González) and one memoir (Piri Thomas).  If I have the opportunity to teach this class in the future (and I hope to), I've grasped better how to reorder the readings for a smoother chronological and theoretical flow, and situate the historical and cultural contexts for each of the texts. I also will aim to find at least one other work by a non-Caribbean non-US-based Afro-Latin writer; I now feel that, as much sense as it made to select the writers I did and as well as their works did bear out, I ought to cast my net even wider. (Translators of Afro-Latin literature, please, help potential readers and teachers out!) One of the fortuities, which I'd intuited but not fully foreseen,  was how they all nevertheless fit together, especially the final three, which each took up questions of Afro-Latin(o) masculinities within a US context. I also have a better sense of which historical and theoretical readings to keep, which to add, and which to jettison. I did not give an exam this semester, but in a future course of this sort I probably will at least give a midterm, since it requires a more cumulative approach, on the students' part, to all the course material encountered up to that point. I will shortly see their appraisal of the course, though, and learn as much as I can from what they have to say.

With the graduate course, "Topics in Postmodernism: Transhumanism and Posthumanism," I had initially fretted a great deal about the coherence of the material and the level at which I was pitching it, but by the third week I felt our conversations in class were going well and the students appeared not only to be gaining something valuable from all the readings but also to be enjoying them. As with the undergraduate class, the readings ultimately did connect, sometimes in a much smoother fashion than I could ever have foreseen, and I realize my decision to shift between genres (by starting with prose works by Mary Shelley, Ellen Ullman, Clarice Lispector, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury, interspersed with films such as Gattaca and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and online projects by Stelarc and Christian Bök) also afforded everyone the opportunity to toggle between different critical skills in assessing what we were exploring. Another serendipitous occurrence was the New Museum's Ghosts in the Machine show, which was winding down just as our course was beginning, and its foundational aspects coincided with our initial discussions about technology, so the class field trip, in addition to being enlightening and a lot of fun, also provided some germane heft to our discussions.

The theoretical texts (by a range of authors, from Neil Badmington and Brian Massumi to Donna Haraway, Jean-François Lyotard and N. Katherine Hayles, to Mary Midgely and Sylvia Wynter) also appeared to provide useful optics and lenses through which to examine the creative works. Historical and journalistic articles also proved helpful, but perhaps most crucial were two choices I made after a lot of hawing: to explore humanism as a topic first, grounding in its European Renaissance origins, and then turning to Frankenstein (alongside Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's still effective, speculative article on "monster theory"), the first of which laid down an excellent foundation for understanding the spectrum on which transhumanism and posthumanism (as well as modernism and postmodernism) lay, and the second of which offered texts from which nearly everything else we looked at sprung, even if but intellectually, and with which every subsequent text was in conversation. As with the undergraduate course this one gibed more than once with current and ongoing interests of mine, and so neither was an additional marathon I devised for myself, but part of a larger intellectual project whose pieces continue to fall into place.

The two new courses at a new institution with new students, very different in so many ways from my former ones, though akin in their deep interest in the subject matter, enthusiasm, and desire to learn and work hard, have all left me feeling quite grateful, and I thanked both classes at our final meetings. The classes and all the events of this fall have left me a bit bedraggled too. I fortunately will not have to  run an airport security theater gantlet and hop back on a plane as I used to head home for the holidays, but I do have to complete my syllabi for the new semester (in Pavlovian fashion I still often say "quarter") which begins after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, revise a paper for the MLA (thankfully Reggie H. reminded me I was on a panel on January 4!--I had not thought at all about conferences or anything, beyond a few Dark Room-related events in the New Year, and continue with my personal writing and translation projects. Then I will be sure to get some sleep!

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