Friday, November 12, 2010

Area studies courses — how about a sow's ear silken purse?

Thanks to all who offered me encouragement/a much-needed slap in the face for the last post.  I know it's annoying to read someone else's self-pitying blog posts; they annoy even me.  Hearing such things from all of you actually helps get me back on track.

Speaking of back on track, it took three days for the water to really return to my apartment building.  (Happily, the water is back on this morning, and I am now clean and, increasingly, caffeinated.  Got my socks on the spin cycle now!)  I spent as much of that time as I could away from the neighborhood, particularly at the one café with both free wifi and good coffee.  I logged a marathon session there yesterday of about six hours, during which — stung by my own sense of inadequacy and eager to compensate — I applied to three jobs.  I've also begun to jot down ideas for papers that I could develop, since I feel a distinct lack of publication credits on my CV.  I feel this is promising, although of course I'll have to follow through on the ideas, which, as we all know, is the hard part.

As part of one application, I finally was cornered and forced to draft a syllabus for a geographic area studies course pertaining to my pseudological expertise.  I'm trying to work out now if I really never had to do that before, or if the light bulb never went on and I merely thought that other syllabi up my sleeve would serve because they involve the geographic area without truly focusing on it as a thing.  Hmm.

Anyway, it was a surprisingly difficult matter.  Usually, when asked for sample syllabi at this point, I have a few favorites that can be either sent as-is, or adjusted subtly to fill one need or another.  And, when I am asked for something that I simply don't have yet, it takes me about an hour or so to riffle through my notes and citations, sketch out a useful set of readings for the purpose, and slap a blurb on it.  This sucker took me at least two and a half hours of concentrated effort, and it went that fast only because I felt under the gun to provide the syllabus as part of an application.  It was hard!  Great big area studies courses, by their nature, offer too many possibilities to sort through them quickly.  Plus, in my case, I have theoretical or methodological objections to some texts that have become popular standards, and I felt obliged to seek for something better.  Finally, it's the sort of course generally offered to lower-level majors, if not first-year college students who don't know methodology from shinola, so one can only get so technical before sending one's students into brain death.

Area studies courses, more often than not, suck.  I'm not saying this in my bloggy, oh-please-reassure-me-that-I-do-not-suck way.  I am saying this in a measured, considered, professional opinion sort of way.  They usually suck.  They suck because, as much as the academic discipline of Pseudology depends on them for much of its bread-and-butter coursework, they don't sit easily within a lot of the theoretical ideas that Pseudology runs on.  (This is so for a host of reasons that pseudologists discuss ad nauseum elsewhere, and you don't want to hear that whole freaking story anyway.)  In other words, the theory and practice are a poor fit.  I suppose one could make a reasonable argument that there is a larger disciplinary utility to this pedagogical method that aids even higher-level theoretical work in Pseudology.  Maybe so.  But nevertheless, the kind of area studies courses that one is likely to encounter as an undergrad have a tendency to feel uncomfortably similar to that shitty social studies class I had to take in the ninth grade in which the histories, philosophies, and cultures of EVERYONE ON PLANET EARTH outside the United States were compressed into just enough sound bites to fill a 120-page textbook.  Such a course is, to say the least, not a professional goal of mine.

And so I struggled with a readings list as quickly as my finicky nature would allow.  I was desperate to avoid a syllabus that ended up essentializing everyone, a la "These are the people of Kuzban.  The Kuzbanians are known for their distinctive dress and melodious tongue."  (I think I'd rather receive a prostate exam in front of a lecture class than work with such a syllabus.)  I also wanted to avoid the cheap and heavy-handed Marxist style that some people deploy as a redemptive maneuver for teaching area studies: "After thousands of years of a rich history that I won't bother to tell you about, we took over their country, shot their president, and completely colonized their economy because we need some minerals in the ground there.  Kuzban now sucks ass, all the distinctively dressed Kuzbanians hate our motherfucking American guts, and we will deserve it when their proletarian masses rise against us next week."  (Maybe a prostate exam would be a little much, but I'm pretty sure that I'd opt for a public hernia check before going with that syllabus.)

I think I cobbled together about as good a syllabus as I possibly could, given that I haven't had a chance to read many of the better materials yet.  (I should point out too that, because I'm a stubborn cuss, I never seriously considered using an anthology or, heaven forfend, a textbook reader.  Primary texts or bust, goddamnit!)  I took a hard look at all the stuff that I instinctively wanted to use, shaped the mass of texts into a set of themes that students could grasp, and then started swapping out longer, more complicated readings, especially books, for shorter articles that often made the same point anyway.  By the time I finished, I was pleased.  The unintended consequence of all this work, though, is that now I feel uncertain about the state of my other syllabi, which have much shorter reading lists and a stronger emphasis on book-length texts rather than journal articles.  This is as it should be, though, right?  Intro-level courses need a wide variety of readings to explain the basics, and then more advanced courses can focus on deeper readings of fewer texts, right?

I know this is how I think, and yet I am nervous looking at the difference in composition of my syllabi.  The funny part is that I worry about my upper-level course syllabi looking thin and shallowly thought-out, when in fact I toiled over them, weighing the merits of one reading versus another, over a much longer period of time than one afternoon.  And those are courses that I think have intrinsic theoretical and methodological value!  My area studies course?  I hope it's good, and I hope I get to teach it soon, but I fear that even the best area studies course is still, by dint of professional necessity, a hack job.

1 comment:

  1. I actually find I'm missing the existence of an "intro to area" course in my students right now. I'm teaching a course in my favorite intersection of issues in my area to a bunch of students who have never taken any previous coursework in the area it's focused on. Therefore, we keep having conversations of this format:

    Me: "So, what do you think of her argument that women were able to gain political power due to the necessity of household-sustaining work in the camps in Lebanon?"


    Student: "I'm confused as to who these people are. They're Palestinians? But they're in Lebanon? But they live in Palestinian areas? What are they doing there?"

    Me: Um...[loses twenty minutes on a lecture about comparative refugee regimes in the Middle East, by which point even I have forgotten what point I wanted to make about the reading]

    I'm not saying I'm looking forward to putting together a syllabus for intro to MENA politics...I'm just saying, I'm looking forward to teaching students who've been through one.