Weekend 11-10-12

Ugh, what a slog this week has been. I feel like crawling under a rock and not coming out.  While I’m under there I might watch the Salzburg version of Purcell’s King Arthur.

For those with experience teaching: have you ever felt that your students thought you were completely and entirely nuts? I gave them a primary source about the Salem witch trials, specifically an account by Puritan minister Cotton Mather of the trial of a woman named Susanna Martin. The document contains accounts of several different people giving evidence against Martin. She is accused of causing people’s oxen to act wiggy, of making a man’s wife sickly, of appearing in another man’s room and lying on top of his chest all night so that he couldn’t breathe – very typical early modern witchcraft stuff. There’s also one guy who says that after she refused to sell him a puppy, he was chased by a bunch of little black puppy-like things at night that he couldn’t hit when he swung his axe at them.

They were having none of it. No interest in witchcraft, no interest in the bizarre sexual subtext of several of the stories, no interest in descriptions of strange lights in neighbors’ pastures or demon puppy apparitions. No interest in the little glimpses into daily life in a small town in Massachusetts in the 1690s or the process by which very intelligent people tried to figure out how you proved in legal terms that someone was inflicting spectral torture on another. (Short answer: ultimately, they gave up.) A lot of the students here have this sort of bizarre streak of literal-mindedness, where they are just not inclined to try to get into the heads of people from other time periods. They have trouble avoiding anachronism and they engage in a lot of unnecessary moralizing.

Ah, well. As my dissertation advisor once said about teaching, you can fuck it up, but you can’t force it to work.

I will be headed for the underside of that rock now. With my DVD.

6 thoughts on “Weekend 11-10-12

  1. “Susanna Martin was a witch who dwelt in Amesbury / with brilliant eye and salty tongue she worked her sorcery…”

    Sounds like either they are uncomfortable with the idea of having to think abstractly about narrative, or their heads are already so full of vampire porn that the whole Salem witch thing is just ssdc.


    1. Maybe it’s the vampire porn. I did have one student ask whether there really were witches in Salem, and then later, whether the Winthrop family removed some letters from their family papers before donating them to the state of Massachusetts because there really were witches in Salem.

      They do better with other sorts of narrative. Slightly more literal accounts of Jesuit martyrdoms, or slave revolts, or other things seem to work. My guess is that they weren’t sure what they were “supposed” to say about the Martin text and they decided not to take any risks.


  2. I suspect every discipline has some qualities that an individual must have if they are to “get it”. It’s certainly true for math and even quite a few perfectly decent math students never “get” probability, which needs something else again. Maybe “historical imagination” is such a quality.


    1. It could very well be. Some of them certainly struggle with seeing past events in anything other than completely modern terms. Partly it’s my job to try to help them with this, of course – but this is one of those things that I have yet to figure out how to teach.

      With this lot I think it may also be partly the time in the semester: we’ve got one more week until Thanksgiving, and there hasn’t really been a break since Labor Day, so they’ve reached the zombie stage: they come to class (most of the time) and their eyes have (usually) made contact with the pages that contain the reading, but asking for animated conversation may be too much.


      1. I’m sure an appropriate teaching approach and application on the part of the student help but I still wonder if there aren’t cognitive barriers that some people can cross and others can’t. If I might return to the mathematical analogy I’m pretty sure I could get anybody not entirely thick to grasp the idea of a 4 dimensional space. I’m less sure about my chance of success with a space of n dimensions, for arbitrary finite n, still less sure about being able to explain the concept of an infinite dimensional space.


        1. Yeah, there’s probably a talent component to it as well. There’s a capacity to both respond to the nuances of written texts and think analytically at the same time that some students just seem to have naturally, and others not so much.


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