I had not heard of ProctorU software until October 1, 2020 when I noticed that several folks on Twitter, whom I follow for their thoughts on pedagogy, had retweeted and responded to the same upsetting TikTok video I had come across earlier that same day. The video shows a young woman, crying, explaining that she had just failed an online exam not because she had been unprepared but because her professor’s surveillance software flagged her as “talking” out loud while taking the exam.
This is about failure: my own failure to think forward, my own failure to see the future. Perhaps this piece can provide an opportunity to reflect on what can emerge from individual failures as well as our field’s reckoning with its wider failures: failure to grapple with racism and white supremacy, failure to support emerging scholars, failure to intervene meaningfully in the dismantling of the university as a site of serious thought and the generation of transformative ideas.
In 1994, Renaldo Hudson was on death row in Illinois. As we became friends, I knew where I stood in relation to the place where the plan was to kill him. I was not interested in starting a book club there or teaching a class. I was not interested in writing an essay on the literature of resistance.
“I did it again,” confesses Megan Quigley at the beginning of her introduction to “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo generation.” Teaching is, of course, an art of doing things again: we repeat assignments, advice, corrections; we repeat our own mistakes and the prejudices we’ve absorbed from our education; we reflect, revise, and begin again.
In the fall of 2019, I taught an advanced undergraduate course I had not offered for three years: “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Even in previous versions called “Modern Poetry,” my agenda was to decenter the version of modernism handed down to me; in this project I felt fellowship with feminist scholars I read as a graduate student in the early nineties. Decentering involved, at the time, remixing white female experimental poets into the company of male modernist giants.
How did people learn to be queer in an era before stable identities, lifestyles, or representations of sexual outsiders were readily available or, for that matter, before they even existed?
In my first stab at drafting an inaugural post as the new editor of this forum, I went the Raymond Carver route, writing “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Discipline” across the top of a blank page. When that imagined dialogue hung fire for several weeks, I ventured greater specificity, replacing “We” with “I.” Pronouncements still unforthcoming, I searched my hard drive for toeholds. What have I talked about when I’ve talked about the discipline? My Documents folders returned zero hits for the phrase “the discipline.” I tried again, deleting “the” from the search, which revealed that I have only ever used the word “discipline” as a verb or an adjective—most often to describe the reading and writing habits and practices of the subjects of my first book (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Henry James, and Nella Larsen). This lacuna was perhaps predictable: in my early career as a graduate student and then an untenured assistant professor, I was more concerned (and more comfortable) with proffering granular descriptions of literary activity in my field than with scaling up grand claims about the literary institution my studies were constituting
Austral summer on the Antarctic Peninsula. Eight of us climb out of our zodiac onto the shore of Petermann Island. This place dazzles and overwhelms the senses. The luminous blue icebergs, granite streaked pink with penguin guano, the weakly green cryoplankton spread across the snow. Antarctica is not the white continent of popular imagination. And it isn’t quiet either. The plangent groans of glaciers crawl across the landscape, reverberating through our bodies. Gentoo penguins squawk atop their stone nests, staring helplessly skyward at the skuas eying their young. We are unwelcome, unneeded guests.
In this conversation about Process, Jacquelyn Ardam and her undergraduate advisee, Cole Walsh, demystify the senior thesis. Cole’s thesis, “Mak[ing] Bright the Arrows: Recovering the Political Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” examines the poetry of the underserved Millay, whose work with the sonnet, Cole argues, deploys its “memorable speech” to intervene within the isolationist politics of the United States.
Please humor me with a thought experiment. Imagine introducing T. S. Eliot and “The Waste Land” (1922) to your class with some of the bare biographical details: T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis but, like other modernist poets, made a career abroad. Ezra Pound, whom Eliot met in London in 1914, helped get “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” published in Poetry magazine and edited the first drafts of “The Waste Land.” Perhaps you had already introduced Pound’s editorial relationships with and advocacy for other young poets by telling the story of how Pound launched H. D.’s career by editing early poems, scrawling “H.D. Imagiste” at the bottom, and sending them to Harriet Monroe for Poetry. Your students might assume that, regardless of T. S. Eliot’s sex at birth, the initials T. S. were intended to be as gender-neutral as H. D. Many of your students grew up reading J. K. Rowling, who was convinced by a publisher that Harry Potter would sell better without the feminine name of Joanna (no middle name) Rowling. T. S. Eliot as a gender-neutral name undoubtedly sounds a bit ludicrous to modernists who cut their teeth and their teaching on Eliot’s famous and infamously difficult long poem. It is far more plausible to our students, many of whom are engaged in an evolving terrain of categories and possibilities related to gender and sexuality. Making space for a gender-neutral approach to Eliot and “The Waste Land,” while acknowledging that such an approach was not accurate to Eliot’s historical moment, has given some of my students a purchase on the poem. These students have taught me about new conceptions of gender and their relevance to readings of “The Waste Land.”