Syllabus of Terror
It has become obvious that I cannot finish my degree by going at it as I have been, that my dissertation (or, as the General aptly calls it, The Beast) demands a whole host of changes from me. Some of those changes are financial, logistic, and methodological. Some of them are more internal. Some of them are relational. Most of them need to stem from an acceptance that this degree-earning process is not just some "phase" I will grow out of in time. I need to gain the practical resources, the support, and the patience and wisdom to accept this as part of a larger career, as well as part of a fuller life that I should not wait to begin until I'm "done" with the Ph.D.
My high-school English teacher told me, when I visited with her over the holidays, that this year--my 33rd--is my Jesus Year, and I think she's right. At least, I hope she's right: if I'm going to move forward, I have to transform.
Some of you know that I've been looking for mantras as a way of helping myself through some of the blockages I'm facing, and that one I adopted was Eleanor Roosevelt's "Do one thing every day that scares you." I particularly like this one because it helps to push me in the right directions, but also because it rations things a bit. After all, it does not say, "Do nothing but stuff that scares you all the time." And this helps, because I think I avoid doing things that scare me in part because, well, just about everything about my life frightens me right now, and if I tackle everything I think I ought to every day, I might just collapse from the emotional exhaustion.
Today, I am trying to push through my fear over the syllabus I'm devising as part of a Big City U. program in which grad students who've advanced to candidacy are eligible to teach a seminar course. It's quite obvious that I will not be on fellowship next year, and teaching will probably be my best option. If I'm teaching, I need to be getting more diverse experience, so this seminar program would be very good for me. Since the course I'm plannng is closely connected to my dissertation and I'll probably be expected to have a dissertation-related General Education course syllabus ready when I go on the market, it's an important exercise even if I don't get the seminar.
So it's important, which is part of why it's scary. This class, as it's evolving, also is pushing the boundaries of what I think I'm qualified to do by crossing lots of disciplinary, geographic, temporal, and linguistic lines. Interdisciplinary work gets a lot of lip service in the academy--and, in fact, the guidelines for the program actively encourage interdisciplinary and multicultural approaches--but my experience has been that this sort of thing isn't all that well received in practice. And I'm worried that those involved in the departmental decision-making process will pooh-pooh my course as a practice in Jungian or folkloristic archetypes, both of which are very much out of fashion. I'm trying very hard to avoid the kind of essentialism which those approaches encourage, but that's exceptionally hard to do when you're trying to build a GE course open to all majors, even if it is a seminar. I guess I'm scared both of being unjustly criticized and of being justly criticized.
Writing a syllabus is an exercise in authority. As Richard Lanham has said, it's also an exercise in devising utopias. Because I distrust authority and utopias--and because I distrust myself--this is a potentially paralyzing task.