Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Magic Words, Magic Books, Magic Language


In my English department, graduate students who have completed at least two years of coursework are allowed to apply to design and teach their own 200 level course on any sort of literary topic they desire. A little over a year ago, after reading A Wizard of Earthsea, I got this idea for a possible course topic that got me really excited. When I finished up my coursework last spring, I was eligible to apply, so I wrote up a course proposal, submitted it, and got accepted to teach my own English 203 course this semester.

With my exams being scheduled for the first week of the semester, the timing for designing a completely new course from scratch was a little crazy, but everything else about teaching this new class has been AMAZING! As in, this is seriously so far the best teaching experience I've ever had in my life. Every single class session has just been incredibly interesting discussion about really fascinating topics, with students who are interesting and enthusiastic and willing to engage (not my usual experience with freshman writing classes). And I suspect that many of my readers here would be just as interested by the ideas and discussions we're having in my class, so a few months ago I decided I would post the syllabus here and invite you all to join in on my reading assignments (if you wish). Even if you don't join with the reading, I want a place to sort of organize and record my lecture notes and ideas that come out of class discussion, so every week or so (really probably every other week if I'm lucky), I'll try to post some of the more exciting ideas and questions to come out of our class. I'm hoping you, my dear readers, will enjoy this peek into my college classroom.

My original plan was to get these posts going from the beginning of the semester, but here we are four weeks in (I blame exams, then catching the flu). So I'll be trying to play a little catch up. But for now, here is the course description and reading syllabus using my actual course dates (the class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays). I've provided links where I can to texts.

Course Title: English 203: Magic Words, Magic Books, Magic Language

Course Description: This course will explore the relationship between magic and language. Magic (the power to exert one's will upon humans and nature outside of natural laws) has always had a deeply interconnected relationship with language. Witches recite incantations and cast "spells." Runes written over ancient tombs both warn of and enact curses. Spirits and daemons can be called if one knows their "true names." Magic books, spell books, and grimoires become objects of power simply by virtue of having magic words written in them.

But in reality, there is nothing inherently "magical" about language. Words, spoken or written, are truly nothing more than puffs of air or lines of ink on paper, and yet in our magic stories language consistently has the power not just to facilitate human social communication, but to command the very cosmos. Why do our stories give language the power to enact magic? This is the question we will seek to answer as we read various texts across time and genres. This class will be divided into three units, each focusing on a different aspect of this relationship. Unit 1 will explore the idea of magic names and spoken words. Unit 2 will look at the power of writing and symbols. And Unit 3 will explore magic books and grimoires.

Reading Assignment Schedule:

Unit 1: Magic Names and Spoken Words

T 1/21 - Course Introduction

Th 1/23 - Cratylus by Plato; A Course in General Linguistics "Part 1 General Principles: Chapter 1" by Ferdinand de Saussure

T 1/21 - How To Do Things With Words "Lecture 1" by J. L. Austin; Genesis Chapter 1 from the Bible

Th 1/30 - A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin Chapters 1-2

T 2/4 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapters 3-5

Th 2/6 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 6; Name Essay Assignment Sheet

T 2/11 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 7-9

Th 2/13 - A Wizard of Earthsea Chapter 10

T 2/18 - Draft of Name Essay due; Peer Review

Th 2/20 - Final Drafts of Name Essay due; Unit 1 Reflection

Unit 2: Magic Writing and Symbols

T 2/25 - Gutenberg's Galaxy excerpt by Marshall McLuhan; Orality and Literacy excerpts by Walter Ong

Th 2/27 - "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft, first half; Short Paper Assignment Sheet

T 3/3 - "The Call of Cthulhu" second half

Th 3/5 - How to write a literary analysis

T 3/10 - Spring Break

Th 3/10 - Spring Break

T 3/17 - The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson, first half

Th 3/19 - The Emperor's Soul second half

T 3/24 - Draft of Short Paper due; Peer Review

Th 3/26 - Final Drafts of Short Paper due; Unit 2 Reflection

Unit 3; Magic Books

T 3/31 - Doctor Faustus Act 1 by Christopher Marlowe (A Text); Final Project Assignment Sheet

Th 4/2 - Doctor Faustus Act 2

T 4/7 - Doctor Faustus Act 3-4

Th 4/9 - Doctor Faustus Act 5

T 4/14 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 1-6 by J.K. Rowling

Th 4/16 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 7-8

T 4/21 - Conferences

Th 4/30 - Conferences

T 4/28 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapter 9-15

Th 4/30 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapters 16-18

T 5/5 - Presentations

Th 5/7 - Presentations

Okay, there it is! So, what do you think? Does this look like a fun class? I promise, even if you're not that into fantasy, if you like words and language, you will most likely be very interested in the discussions from this class. I'm really excited to share a bit more about this here!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Books I Read in January

Well, everyone complained and complained about how interminably long January was, but for me it slipped by way too quickly, without leaving any time for me to get around to any of the things I wanted to get around to. Like writing up a post all about my goals for the New Year, or reviews of all the fabulous books I've read but haven't had time to write about here like I really want to!

So, what have I been doing with all my time instead? Well, let me tell it this way:

Have you ever known anyone who has gotten a PhD? Did you witness them go through the process of preparing for and taking their exams? Comps? Orals? Whatever they're called (each program is different), exams are usually the pinnacle of stress and anxiety for the PhD student. Most PhD candidates, when preparing for their exams, completely clear their schedules, break off all social ties, and hibernate in dark caves reading like mad and taking furious notes trying to master everything that can possibly be known about anything. Many programs even offer reduced or cancelled teaching loads while preparing for exams. I, on the other hand, spent the month leading up to my exams: hosting most of my family for Christmas, celebrating three family birthdays, planning and hosting a baptism for my oldest, traveling for New Years, going on a week-long Disney cruise (oh yeah, I really want to post some pictures of that some time, maybe, if you care), and prepping for two courses (one of them brand new). Oh, and let's not forget the three children I had to feed, clothe (i.e. do their laundry), clean up after, and care for all day long, meaning I only had a few hours in the evening to actually work on my exam prep.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that going into my exams, I did not feel prepared. In fact, I felt downright panicky. My attention had been so consumed by family obligations throughout the holidays and time leading up the exams that I figured there was simply no way I could measure up to all those other students, the ones with no children or outside responsibilities, who could devote 100% of their energy to studying.

To make a long story short: I passed. But remind me to tell you the longer version of this story some time, because it is a story of spiritual blessings and tender mercies and the visible hand of the Lord guiding my life once again. It's a story that needs to be recorded.

I celebrated passing my exams by catching the flu, along with the rest of my family, and that brutal illness took us through the end of January and the first week of February. So here I am now, crawling my way back from survival mode and finally getting around to all those things I put off for the last six months while I devoted all my spare time to exam prep. Like writing for this blog. Oh, how I long to get back to writing in this space!

And there is so much to write about! Because despite all the busy busy things, there was still plenty of time for listening to books (hello car-ride down to Florida!), and I actually managed to finish eight books last month. Let's get into them!

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

When I read The Night Circus almost seven years ago (fun fact, it was the first book I reviewed on this blog!), I fell forever in love with Morgenstern's writing style. This book, her second, completely confirmed that Morgenstern is my kindred spirit, but only in certain ways. In other ways, we are very, very different people (I'm not into video games). This whole book is a story that is a love letter to stories. I loved that so much. But other parts of this book almost broke down because of that, as in, it was so in love with stories that it forgot to be a good story itself. Or, it became some kind of messed up mishmash of Alice in Wonderland and Inception and didn't feel super coherent. But that also just made me feel like I was in some medieval allegory, and I just need to read it again to fully understand it. All this is to say that I can't decide how I feel about this book: some parts are deep love, and other parts are more like loathing. Not really in the middle. It's certainly not for everyone and not a general recommend, but I will be rereading it again, and probably writing a whole post with my favorite quotes (hopefully).

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity  by Julia Cameron

I picked this one up because some people I follow on Instagram talk about it a lot and religiously write their morning pages, and it sounded interesting. It's a little bit more of a program (ten weeks, or something like that), so it didn't make for a great audio book listen. I think this summer I'll try revisiting it and actually follow the program outline a little bit more, but the gist is that all people are creative, and you need to do certain things to nurture your creativity. One of her biggest pieces for doing that is called morning pages, or three pages of brain dumping you're supposed to write every morning. I love the idea of a daily writing practice, and I'm trying to figure out my schedule now to make that happen, so we'll see how I feel about this when/if I give the program an actual try.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

I've heard so much about Carol Dweck and her fixed mindset vs. growth mindset theory that I figured I didn't need to read the actual book, I had it figured out. But I'm so glad I read it (for book club) because it was totally worth it. I'd kind of assumed that growth mindset applied mostly to education and a love of learning (which is clearly something I already have), but I cam to realize that it's so much more than that. It's believing you can grow in any area of life, social, emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, etc. So I came to realize that I have a growth mindset in some areas, but a fixed mindset in others. And it definitely gave me some things to think about with raising kids. All very good stuff, and I highly recommend.

Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee

This is another one that really deserves it's own post, because I have lots to say about it. What a delightful book this was! I just felt happy every time I picked it up to keep reading. Here's how I would describe this book: If you're familiar with Carol Tuttle's energy profiling system, I would describe this as a Type 1's manifesto. The vast majority of the things Lee described as bringing joy and happiness (bright colors, light, round bubbles, rainbows, etc.) almost point for point fit with Tuttle's Type 1 profile. I am not a Type 1 myself, and therefore disagreed with the way Lee characterized these things as universal. For instance, Lee recommends that everyone should paint their houses bright beautiful colors because it will make us all happier that the neutrals whites and creams and grays we all seem to live in. However, from personal experience I can say that bright paint colors don't work for everyone. This one time in high school, my mom let my younger sister pick out the colors for our shared bedroom makeover, and she decided to paint over our lavender colored walls with a bright yellow, and buy a lime green bedspread. I had trouble falling asleep for weeks after that because the room was just so bright and high energy. Give me those gray walls, I'll sleep like a baby. I'm just not that energy type. So while I won't be following all of Lee's advice for bringing joy into my life, there were tons of other interesting and thought-provoking tidbits that I want to write some more about. It was an extremely happy book, and I highly recommend it.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

I was looking for a nice meaty fantasy to sink my teeth into, and accidentally stumbled on this, but it sure fit the bill! Really fun world, really fun magic system, interesting politics, well written... I'm just surprised I had heard of it before. It's a trilogy, and I've already read the second and am in the middle of the third. I highly recommend!





Jackpot by Nic Stone

I was looking for escapist YA romance, saw this one get recommended somewhere, and immediately found it on my library app. And it actually ended up having quite a bit more meat to it than I expected: lots of thought-provoking questions about class and money, poverty and wealth. It was good for what it was, and I may even pick up Dear Martin some time (that one seems much more focused on race issues, which were much less center stage in this one). I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending, but if you like contemporary YA with a dose of meaty issues, this one is pretty good.


Ayesha at Last by Usma Jalaluddin

So this was a contemporary Canadian Muslim Pride and Prejudice retelling that's been getting just a bit of buzz recently. Obviously, I had to read it. How is it that Jane Austen's story fits so universally into so many cultures? I guess because every culture puts so much pressure on young women to get married. Anyway, I'm not going to say that this book was amazing (I actually forgot I read it until pulling up my records to write this post), but it was very good for what it was, and I learned quite a few interesting details about Muslim communities and customs. I would still love to talk to an actual Muslim about this, because it was quite down on arranged marriage (obviously I am too, I just wondered if that was a fair portrayal of faithful Muslim beliefs). Anyway, I think it's a recommend, generally speaking.

Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz

Not sure I ever would've picked this one up on my own, but my book club picked it as our February read (seasonal). I kind of had to disassociate it from the actual historical reality of Hamilton and Eliza (and the musical), and think of it as just a cheesy fictional historical love story, and then it wasn't so bad. A little ridiculous at times, but nice fun fluff. However, now I'm itching to pick up My Dear Hamilton to learn about the real couple's love story, as I understand that one is based quite a bit more on actual historical sources.



And there you go. That was my January reading month. Not too shabby for such a busy month, but I am going to have to pick up my pace a bit to hit my goal of 100 books this year. I'm not worried. Have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?