Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Getting Together with the Secondary Section: 2014 Convention Edition

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

It is almost here. In two days, the 2014 NCTE Annual Convention kicks off in Washington, D.C. If you are going to be attending in person, the Secondary Section Steering Committee would love to see and meet you at any of our major events throughout the convention. Below, you will find a complete list of the SSSC events as well as descriptions of who will be there and what the focus will be. Additionally, interact with and follow the Secondary Section throughout the weekend by tweeting with the hashtag #HSM2014. We believe that high school matters and that high school teachers do the most important work in the world. Come socialize, celebrate, and inspire each other in the SSSC events this year.

Secondary Section Get-Together - Thursday, November 20th from 4:30 PM to 6:00 PM in the Maryland B Room

Come hear from researcher and filmmaker William Kist as he shares Running from Crazy and leads a discussion of the film. Following William Kist, Jim Burke of Burlingame High School will share inspiration and his trademark good humor with us. Before the talks and in-between there will be ample time to socialize with your section, make new friends, and reconnect with old colleagues. A good time is guaranteed.

High School Matters - Friday, November 21 from 2:30 PM to 5:15 PM in the Potomac A/B Room

Our annual smorgasbord of secondary ELA ideas and inspiration is guaranteed to leave you feeling enlightened, excited, and enthusiastic. As per the usual, we will kick off with Carol Jago's list of must-reads from the year. Following Carol's talk, we will continue the tradition of sharing our own book recommendations and then launch into the first roundtable session. This year's roundtable list features a ton of really interesting topics including sessions on text complexity and multicultural voices in the canon of high school literature. Following the first roundtable, Kelly Gallagher will share some of his insights about teaching in his usual entertaining and thought-provoking way. After Kelly's talk, there will be two roundtable sessions, giving you more opportunities to network with colleagues and learn something new about our field. This double session always generates great ideas to take back and use in the classroom; don't miss it!

Secondary Section Luncheon - Saturday, November 22 from 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM

Come lunch with your colleagues and hear this year's guest speaker: science fiction novelist, blogger, and technology activist Cory Doctorow. Note: This event requires tickets to attend. If you haven't purchased your tickets yet, there may still be time to snag one if you act fast. Ask at the registration desk when you check in.

The SSSC looks forward to seeing you in person; however, if you cannot attend, please engage with us on twitter, through e-mail, or on this blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Asking the Questions that there Are not Enuf Lifetimes to Answer

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

One of the most prominent discussions in the teaching of literature in high school is what makes a work worthy of review, thought, and criticism. In other words, why study To Kill a Mockingbird instead of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or whichever)? The more I engage with good literature and even-better scholars of that literature, the more I begin to think it has to do with the questions we ask about people. While I will admit to the all-night read-a-thon that would happen when a new Harry Potter novel hit the shelves, I will also admit that there is nothing surprising or even intriguing about the characters and the choices they make. I can still remember reading the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and thinking (spoiler alert; although, at this point, really?) Harry, you do not need to dump Ginny simply because you are the hero. It was about as close to blatant formula as one can get. On the Mockingbird side of things, people are still mystified at the existence of non-racists in a town, community, or family of them; what makes people like Atticus rise above prejudice to do his best for a man whose social status has not changed that much since slavery?

This aspect of characters who puzzle us leads me to what I have recently decided must be my number one criterion for a novel, play, or poem to be considered worthy of critical reflection: does it make me ask questions that I could only answer in the span of a lifetime (and, if I am honest, multiple lifetimes)? I had the privilege recently of seeing a new theatrical piece at the Atlas theatre in Washington, D.C.: Caleen Sinette Jennings's Not Enuf Lifetimes. Before I go any further, here is what the website for The Welders, a DC playwriting collective with an excellent mission, says about the play:
It’s 2004, and Frank Riley—a well-meaning, white 50-something car mechanic—can’t understand why his son Ian dropped out of medical school to live and work in what he considers the ghetto. When Ian disappears, Frank must enter Ian’s world in order to find him. He must learn to communicate with Dante, Ian’s black roommate, and Manjit, Ian’s South Asian girlfriend. He must figure out whether Ronnie Holmes, Ian’s black protégé from the projects, could also be Ian’s killer. Most importantly, Frank must figure out why the child of his heart walked away from the life Frank worked so hard to give him. This exploration of rifts and potential bridges between the Boomer and Hip Hop generations features a hip hop-inspired structure with rhymes and music.
The play says one thing outright: Caleen Sinette Jennings loves people. In her profile on the The Welder's website, she declares that she is a Weldebecause "a welder doesn't talk a lot. A welder looks and listens." The people that exist on the stage truly do exist; they have so many facets and contradictions of being that build into the beautiful complications of their relationships. Few of the characters are likable from the start, much like we all are. But as the layers are peeled away, not one character exists as a type. There are moments when characters seem headed for the territory of stereotype, but then Jennings's words transform them in the space of a single utterance.

And those utterances can carry a power that seems unlikely given their brevity. There is a line from Dante, Ian's successful programmer roommate, about the type of hip-hop heard popularly. In response to Frank's denigration of the form, focused on all of the worst aspects of gangster rap, Dante simply replies that that type of hip-hop plays to something in the popular culture, creating greater divisions and keeping the money in the same pockets that have always had it (I am not quoting this line because my paraphrase is far clunkier than the way it came out on stage). It was one of those instances where a line comes out that so pithily synthesizes something you knew but could not articulate.

Even more powerful are the lyrics of Ronnie Holmes, the young father who works hard to take care of his mother and daughter while he tries to survive the Glendale projects. The lines he spits with Ian from his composition book reveal a man yearning to live his dreams, but dealing with the disappointment of failing to realize them. The frustration and righteous anger come through in each syllable, providing an interesting counterpoint to the manically optimistic Ian.

As the play closed, I found myself invested in the futures these characters might have ahead of them (which is no small feat in a show with no intermission). I could easily imagine teaching this play for the questions it was already generating as I left the theatre: What does it mean to love one's children? How can we best teach our children to live in the world? How can they best teach us to do the same? Where is the line between patronizing and supporting? My head just kept spinning. What I could say for certain is that this play taught me, again, the value of love over all other concerns. What is a better message than this with which to send students out into the world? Another very good question.

Not Enuf Lifetimes is still on stage and I would encourage you to go and see it if you can. Click the link here to get details.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Tell Us About Yourself: The College Essay

Writing about the self is the hardest thing to do. Whether this results from social pressures to put the self aside, from familial pressures to be part of the whole, from peer groups who often (unintentionally or not) supplant the individual with a group self constructed from the impressions of others, knowing the self is hard to do at any age. Whether we are five or seventy-five, the protean concept of who we are shifts and changes as our lives shift and change. We move our lives about, hoping to hold onto a sense of who we were in the last moment even as we grow into the next. No one has a harder time wrestling with identity than the very people we ask to define that self in 250 words annually: high school seniors. Just take a look at these Common App essay prompts:
  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? 
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Anecdotally, 40 percent of teachers who apply for National Board Certification will successfully complete the program and be certified. A large part of this process is the ability to reflect on one's own practice, to "discuss an accomplishment or event" to "recount" moments when a lesson fell apart and he or she "experienced failure." If 60 percent of grown teachers applying for an advanced certificate have a hard time writing about these things, how could we expect so much from 17- and 18-year-old teens?

And yet, the requirement is there. More so, these colleges need to know who they are letting in; their institutional capital rests on the quality of the people they admit. So, what is a young person to do?

They are to turn to their teachers. October's Engage Now from Lawrence Butti of the Secondary Section Steering Committee is here to help provide some very clear, stable structures for teaching seniors, or even juniors, about the college essay process. Of particular note is Lawrence Butti's college essay brainstorming sheet that helps students frame the narrative of self in clear, discrete pieces of information that can be hard to pull out of the fog of memory in the context of writing the college essay.

As with all really difficult tasks that students complete, teachers are there to help guide students to be their best. In this case, we get the privilege to be there for our students at a time when stress is high and futures are on the line. What a great part of the ever-changing self known as teacher.

Friday, September 19, 2014

More Sinned Against Than Sinning: King Lear in the Classroom and On Stage

by Daniel A. Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

I really thought that I would not be able to watch it. Up to the minute the play began, I thought I would only be able to see Will Smith's wry and knowing butler attempting to play one of the most tragic and emotionally exhausting roles in theater. Then, the play began. In classic Globe fashion, it began with a lively folk song. As soon as Lear came on stage, Joseph Marcell, better known as Jeffrey to my generation, had the audience in the palm of his hand. What struck me as I watched the play unfold was not the production itself, but the conversations I could have in my classroom with students if we had all attended together.

One reviewer claimed that this version of Lear gives us the "Boomer Lear." The review can be found here. You may wish to read it before finishing this post since a lot of what I have to say is almost a direct response to the reviewer's idea of what this production means.

Marcell's Lear certainly alternates between entitlement and rage. In fact, this production establishes early on a confusing atmosphere. If a director wishes to make the daughters more sympathetic in the beginning, he or she could cut some of the lines at the end of 1.1 and make Lear a carouser in 1.4. But the sisters already appear to be scheming when we arrive at 1.4, and the director here has chosen to have one of the most riotous Lears I have ever seen. Were I Goneril, I would be pretty upset, too. For example, Oswald is not only struck and then tripped, but Kent then proceeds to wallop him for a good thirty seconds while Lear looks on approvingly. This paints the picture of a petty a violent king, not necessarily one I would feel a whole lot of sympathy for.

Perhaps this is why the madness scenes in this production come across so farcical. There were only a couple points where Lear's madness wandered into pathos, but for the most part, it stayed in fairly unmoving territory. When his madness is most emotional, it is made so by the presence of other grieving characters; this move almost feels like the director knows that his Lear is unsympathetic so we must have bathos from every character in a scene with him. The effect was so alienating that when Lear says he is more "sinned against than sinning," all I could think of was the old Bill Cosby Noah routine: RIIIIIIIIGHT...

Mad Lear and Blind Gloucester from the Globe's Facebook Page
The final scene was done with a bit more gravitas than I expected. Were it not for the snickering teenager over my left shoulder who couldn't stop his laughter at Lear's "howl"s, I would have been completely engrossed. Marcell got the mania and misery of the last scene in a way that few have. He swung from manic denier to morose accepter as a child swings from monkey bar to monkey bar: graceful and surprising. That, more than anything, brought the humanity back to the character and inspired the chain of thought that follows.

Domestic violence is a huge topic right now because of the high-profile athletes involved in legal scandals. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, the NFL's reaction, Roger Goodell's fickle and inconstant method of punishment (although I should just write retribution) all have soaked the front pages of major newspapers for weeks. The Lear we have in this Globe production is less Boomer Lear and more Beater Lear. He falls in line with much scholarship on the character that sees him as a violent and unstable father; a reckless leader bent on control of his subjects with fist and foot, not palm and heart (for a great discussion of this see the Arden Shakespeare Edition edited by R.A. Foakes or A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a novel based on Lear that turns the character into a sexually abusive father). Marcell's Lear seems first to rely on his fists, then on his equally lacerating words. In many of the early scenes between Goneril and Lear, she visibly flinches as he menaces toward her or rails on her as though she expects the fist of her father to come crashing down any moment. Regan's ruthlessness only serves to deepen this image of Lear as abuser; her ruthless behavior feels like survivalism.

Lear hears Regan's speech about how much she loves him from the Globe's Facebook Page
So this Lear brings up contemporary notions of domestic violence in the form of a violent patriarch, but pulls no punches as the daughters move to eclipse their fathers. The eye-gouging scene featured a bloodlusty Regan who would not let Cornwall take the first eye. Rather, she removed her shoe and used the heel to leverage the eye from its socket. She them tossed it to Cornwall who literally set his foot upon it--hard. He then picked up the remains and chucked them into the balcony. In a parallel case, footballer Hope Solo is currently awaiting trial on domestic abuse charges of her own; however, no one has much mentioned her or demanded her deactivation.

One final teaching point that I noticed in this production is the casting. Normally, Lear has ten principle roles and can include a variety of extras. There were only eight principle actors in the performance who were occasionally accompanied by two stage crew members in costume. This short casting led to a variety of doubles. The usual Fool/Cordelia doubling was present, and much has been said about the emotional symbiosis of the two. The ones that are most interesting to me as theatrical choices are the doubling (or rather tripling) of Daniel Pirrie as Edmund/Oswald/King of France and the doubling (again, rather tripling) of Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar/Cornwall/Duke of Burgundy.

Daniel Pirrie is brilliant. He swings from Edmund to Oswald so completely that one does not know he is the same actor except for his costume. He even manages this change in a scene where both characters appear at once. As Goneril addresses each man, she turns, points, says the name of the character, and waits for Pirrie to run to that spot (donning a cap if Oswald, removing it if Edmund). Oswald's self-serving sycophancy melts into Edmund's arrogant posturing seamlessly; this scene provides much needed, and not normally included, comic relief after the removal of Gloucester's eyes. The choice to make him the King of France is also confusing. Seeing an actor who clearly plays the "bad guys" so well portray one of the few "good" characters in the play is less jarring than it should be because it happens in 1.1; however, it sets an odd tone wherein I want to like Edmund. After all, his ambition to climb beyond others' classifications of him as "illegitimate," "bastard," and "base" is a quintessentially American theme. It is Edmund's lack of a moral direction that makes him so despicable in the end (even though his final acts are acts he does freely because he wants to do some good before he dies). The conversation that could be had about this multiple casting in class invite much close reading and analysis of all three figures.

Alex Mugnaioni's range is unbelieveable. He makes a rather convincing Edgar, Poor Tom, Cornwall, and Burgundy without making any of them anything like the other characters. He even seems to command his face to shift its shape a bit as he goes from naive, schoolboy Edgar to ruthless and conniving Cornwall from scene change to scene change. His Poor Tom borders on theatrical stereotype, but his belief in the character brings through a spark of humanity even in the madman's rantings. I also was confused as to why Mugnaioni would play the sniveling Duke of Burgundy, but he carried the part well. The early portrayal had an equal effect to that of Pirrie's France: I felt less sympathetic toward Edgar early on than I did in the end. Again, this tripling makes for a great close reading and analysis discussion of the character.

Brother vs. Brother from the Globe's Facebook Page
In the end, the play does what Lear should do: it interrogates us about our notions of justice. If Lear is truly the heavy-handed and violent father/king he appears in the play, then the loss of all he holds dear and his own life seems a sort of cosmic account, a reaping of the bitter oats he has sown. Before the play began, as the actors sang and danced, pulling on costumes as they did, an already costumed Lear pulls a string revealing a huge map of England. The daughers then grab chalk and sketch it onto the floor of the stage itself. In the final scene, as Lear cradles his dead Cordelia, the faint echo of the Britain of Lear's rule still appears on stage. Edgar authoritatively delivers the final commanding lines while standing atop this relic of a lost kingdom while the actresses who portrayed Goneril and Regan emerge humming a funeral tune; they grab the same chalk from the beginning and outline the body of Lear like a crime scene. Lear and Cordelia rise to their feet and morose trace the outline of his body with their fingers. The old kingdom has faded. The old king is dead. Nothing came from nothing and so the cast moves on, surprisingly singing a rousing version of Feste's song from the end of Twelfth Night. The wind and the rain have brought tragedy, but have washed away the violent and bloated kingdom of a small and petty king.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Gift of Opportunity: An Open Letter to Teachers Starting a New Year

I remember going to practice for rugby and thinking that all of the running and diving and sliding in the summer heat was fun, but not that fun. Then, I got into my first game. The intensity and athleticism required pushed me to a new point of physical exhaustion. I was spent, but exhilarated. I went back to practice with a new enthusiasm. I played harder and harder, pushed my exhaustion point further and further. I felt like Superman because of what I was proving to myself I could do.

The same is true of the opening of school years. The relentless drudge of the meeting machine. The mind-numbing banality of printing lists, labeling folders, etc. The more exciting, yet still somewhat low-impact, drive to revisit lessons and revise them into better, more effective incarnations of themselves (or to pitch them on the fire of high-minded yet unpractical ones). The moment when the chrysalis of anticipation blooms into the butterflies of the first day. Getting to know new kids while saying hello to those already known. Some teachers say that the first day is almost like Christmas morning. I agree. Teachers on the first day are just like those children on Christmas morning: recipients of a gift that we know is beyond our deserving, the gift of opportunity.

I encourage you all, as you start or are preparing to start after the holiday, to remember the what it means that people entrust us with their children. Some might do so because we are an institutional constant, a necessity born of truancy laws and a vaguely democratic ideal, but that does not change the respect I have for my position as teacher. It is an awesome (and not in the trite, cliche, Spicoli-esque use of the word) responsibility to be a teacher. I find that most issues that arise in the classroom are the result of the moments when we forget that.

And I do not blame you if, in the middle of your planning weeks or your first days, you get frustrated, question your decision to return. I have been there. This year, I have the opportunity to see it from a different perspective. This year, I have to watch from the sidelines as colleagues go back to classrooms. Having recently moved to the Southeastern region of Pennsylvania, I am currently without a teaching position. My wife, also a teacher, was asked to come work in the region because of her exemplary success with her choral program. We made the move unaware of how difficult it would be for me to get a job in the area. So, now I am on the sidelines, trying to get back to the classroom, but grateful for the opportunity to observe. In my observations, I have seen teachers complaining about having to go back, wishing that their summer-long lack of students would go on. As they complain, I seethe. How could they be so unhappy when they have jobs? Then the self-righteousness of my soapbox collapses and I return to earth. I have done the same thing. I have made the same complaints.

So, from my seat on the sidelines, I have become more aware of how special a time the beginning of the new year should be. I now lay this challenge before you: before you launch into the day's issues, before you complain about that kid, before you lose your patience with that administrative policy, try to think of something for which you are grateful. I would never support the rhetoric of the past few years, the idea that any one should just be thankful they have a job, but I would encourage each of us to take the time to remember why we love what we do.

This letter is my attempt to do just that. Of course, the job search is frustrating and infuriating; however, I am grateful for what I have learned about myself while I sit on the bench. Take up the challenge, and take it to twitter. The High School Matters twitter feed is @HSMatters. I am challenging you to comment here or tweet there (or both) about what you are grateful for at the beginning of this school year. When you tweet, use the hashtag #teacheropp so that others can easily find them, especially when they need a shot of optimism. I look forward to seeing what you all write. If I have learned nothing else in all of my professional development with teachers, it is that we are surprising sources of hope and optimism. Let's see if we can start a movement of hope and optimism this year.

Best wishes as you embark on the new school year,

Dan Bruno

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bootleg Pericles: or, how the Blogger got a crazy idea that might get him fired

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

If you've never read Pericles, you are fine. I am not sure I would have enjoyed it as much, or would have wanted to read it as much, if I hadn't seen the production that Taffety Punk put on Monday night, July 14th, at the Folger Theatre. For those unfamiliar with Taffety Punk, some words of introduction are warranted.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company, found here, operates with the not-so-simple mission of making theatre more accessible and affordable. They do this in a variety of ways; the way I and others here at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute experienced that mission was through Bootleg Shakespeare. The company memorized their lines ahead of time, but did not rehearse until the day of the performance. This means they had 6 hours to build a performance of the entirety of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It was incredible.

Back on the Friday prior to the performance, we sat around the Foulke Conference Room, receiving a direct challenge to us as both teachers and people from Dr. Ayanna Thompson, now of the George Washington University. I left this discussion out in previous entries because it deserves its own post; however, given the nature of what I experienced at the Pericles performance, now seemed to be a good time to bring it up. But first, a digression.

If you go to scorebig.com, you will see a claim that the site peddles sporting event tickets at a 60% discount. Let's all take a moment to blink at what used to be scalping and head to the heart of it. Even at a 60% discount, tickets for an Eagles home game cost approximately $40 to sit where the game would look like Tecmo Bowl. For those of you with math skills, the original price was $99 plus tax. I'm afraid the NFL is unaware of the gross percentage of the population un- or underemployed. Those people scraping by to feed themselves and their families do not have the ability to spend even $40 on a ticket to root for the home team. During the Great Depression, despite a decrease in attendance of 40%, baseball tickets only cost $.50 or $8.17 in 2014 money. In times of strife and uncertainty what is more uplifting than gathering with the community at the stadium and rooting for your team to crush the other team? Sports have long been a vicarious form of warfare and many still attend games to relieve the stresses of everyday life. Taking the metaphor back a few hundred years and we see groundlings gazing at an open expanse of wood, walking through the theater door wanting to believe in something.

I hold that this desire to believe is true today. In our discussion with Dr. Thompson, who specializes in, for lack of a more definitive term, equity and access in relation to Shakespeare. She observed, and rightly if my experience is anything to add to the data, that many audiences for Shakespeare are getting older, staying whiter, keeping the majority of society at arms length behind a manufactured sense of power. Shakespeare's groundlings were not MENSA members. So why is it that we have constructed a fantasy about who Shakespeare's work belongs to today? Why do those with less education feel disenfranchised from the world of Shakespeare's stories? As the talk sped on, fever-pitched past the resistance of subconscious biases, one thing became clear: sometimes the ways we teach Shakespeare set up these social constructs of how can and should access his works.

So, I tried to do some back of the envelope research as I sat in my seat waiting for Pericles to begin. I gave up about five minutes in; the crowd was miraculously antithetical to the discussion we'd had days before. I, of course, have a theory why.

Taffety Punk, in its desire to share the works of Shakespeare with the community for free, cracked the power seal placed over the Bard's works by privilege and class. No expense tickets. No reserved seats. Only free tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. And the energy of the theatre company that would offer Shakespeare to the general public for free ruled the day. The house was packed with a crowd, while admittedly still overwhelmingly white, was younger and more multicultural than any other I'd seen for  Shakespeare performance. And the infectious nature of the show, a nature that had the audience laughing hysterically and cheering for a little boy with theater in his veins, drew every last person into the world of the play. For three hours, we were with Pericles through it all.

So, that brings me to "my great idea." Wherever I end up, I am going to give this a try; however, feel free to do the same wherever you are. I only ask that you write in and let me know how it went.

Every school has lunch shifts. My idea is, during our Shakespeare unit, to have students work up one scene for performance. Once we have rehearsed and prepared to the best of our ability, we are going to run down to the cafeteria, unannounced, and perform the scene. Right in front of the gathered school. When we are finished, we will disappear whence we came. I have more specifics in my head, but until I see what facilities I end up with, it is still only the kernel of an idea. Let me know what other embellishments you might throw in.

Every student deserves Shakespeare. He teaches us so much about being human, it seems to me that being human is the only prerequisite for access to his masterful lines.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The End of Illyria: Synthesizing Wednesday-Friday of Week 2

As we approached the end of Twelfth Night, it was apparent that doing one post a day was going to become tedious for me as the writer and, more importantly, more so for you as the reader. The design of the lectures and activities began to take a more synthetic shape: ideas and activities blending together in a more coherent whole.

Wednesday began with a lecture from one of our scholars on the idea of perspective in Twelfth Night. Using visual art as a point of access, and relating to the idea of practice as a trick, we dove into the text using a mathematical approach similar to that mentioned in a previous entry of this experience. Looking at all of the words related to perspective in Twelfth Night, we noticed that few of the references on their own were significant, but that the word vision itself does not appear in the text of the play. People can see, but they have no vision beyond what is apparent on the surface; thus does Viola masquerade as a man and others practice self-deception about what they want and what they can have. The characters must lack vision because unless they are complicit in the doubling present throughout the play, the poor disguises cannot work. Think about how "womanly" Orsino says Viola's voice is; she is no Frank Caliendo.

The doubling becomes part and parcel of an identity constructed in the liminal space of Illyria. Viola, acknowledging her own doubleness, says that she is a "poor monster" trapped between her womanly love for Orsino and Olivia's love for the young man Cesario. This fluid construction of gender created a porous border between sexes that was by turns humorous and discomforting (news flash: this is not the first generation to be uncomfortable with homosexuality). The mention of monster draws a parallel between The Tempest, the play that features the word monster the most, specifically between Caliban and Viola. In the end, acknowledging her two halves, one as man and the other as woman, Viola is caught in an inbetween world that is fraught with social danger; luckily, Sebastian arrives just in time to prevent the liminality of the moment from resolving in Viola's mortal end. After all, she couldn't very well be Cesario for the rest of her life with the demands being made of her.

After this discussion, we had a seminar and an interesting talk from Holly Doogan about the smells of Elizabethan England. Specifically, we discussed pomanders and their cultural connection with the plague, a topic I would encourage you to investigate further. Apparently, perfumes also existed in a liminal, inbetween space. Because perfumes were used to improve smell and to protect against the plague, they were both pestilence and prophylactic, a monstrous construct of scent. The olfactory imagery in Twelfth Night is mostly connected with Olivia's body, leading to interesting observations about Olivia and her scent.


The week ended, through lectures on both Thursday and Friday, focusing on the inbetween nature of the ending: the marriages that don't quite happen but will happen soon and the sadness of Feste's song. The liminality is spread thick, a veritable Nutella of uncertainty on the crispy toast of the play. The sweetness comes from the weddings that, though sudden, are the conventional outcomes for this play; the nuttiness is how much of it doesn't seem to resolve. When the play ends, Viola is still Cesario and Orsino cannot bring himself to call her Viola, Malvolio has stormed off somewhere doing who knows what, Andrew has been cast out to his destitution (yep, Toby spent it all), Toby and Mariah are married, Sebastian and Olivia are married, and nothing is resolved. Then, the damn clown starts singing. A sad song. To close the comedy. We are left where Viola's journey started: a vast and empty shore that is foreign to our eyes and understanding.

But, we are English teachers. We are nothing if not comfortable with unresolved, ambiguous stories. The gift we are giving our students is the ability to cope with these ambiguities. Daily, students wander our halls dealing with questions of sexual and gender identity, of personal identity, of love and desire, and of how their lives may progress when they step beyond the protection of our walls and onto the vast shores of their lives. The play becomes the liminal space wherein these ambiguous problems can be addressed, discussed, and played with in a way that avoids personalizing these issues (that is making them personal in a way that ends up setting a student up for ridicule and alienation).

As one of our visiting scholars pointed out, Twelfth Night is the end of the holiday season. Now are we turned out to the world to return to the daily rain that pours on until we can no longer focus on that bright future toward which we stumble with the best intentions. When we study this play, we give students surer footing in that all important journey to what we desire, or what we will.