26 September 2011


I have taught British Literature with 4 different books over the past 4 years: not one book at a time, 4 separate editions for differently phased classes. I am exhausted with tracking which translation of Beowulf I am teaching. For instance, Raffel's edited translation in my Honors class does not contain any of the episodes with Unferth. None. The arc of Unferth and Beowulf's relationship is one of my favorite ways to teach the posse comitatus concept. I refuse to ignore Unferth in the Norton edition because it is Seamus Heaney's translation and let's face it, Heaney's sings. Raffel's translation is good, but Heaney's.......is Heaney's. Strangely enough, the Honors+ students have Heaney, while the Honors kids are struggling with Raffel. Doesn't seem fair. Of course, they would like Beowulf better if it was easier to read. I had to forgo my comparative translation lesson with Honors+ cause I was LEARNING THE TRANSLATION LESSON MYSELF. And let's not get me started on teaching Chaucer in translation and in Middle English at the same time. It's like being in 1999's Blair Witch Project movie. I felt seasick all the time.

Two years ago, I taught College Prep and Honors. Though they had different textbooks, the translation for Beowulf was the same. Whew! I only had to track page and line numbers in my notes to stay sane. Last year, in addition to teaching the Honors BritLit, I subbed in my free period for a month for yet another phased class--which had a different book too! By that time, her kids were deep into Macbeth, but my classes were done Macbeth, so there I was again, trying to track page numbers and lines, much less the pacing of the class itself.
So, I have realized that this particular problem exemplifies that chaos that can ensue when our world is 12 years into a major cultural shift  brought on by the Internet. Our systems can't change fast enough to absorb the blowback. It is everybody's problem, not just mine.

I do know that this should not be so hard: it is all Brit Lit and is it almost all no longer copyrighted. So what do I do? We cannot change books right across the board, because the school rule (and a fair one, in the print world) is that a textbook has to be in use for at least 5 years before we change it--$$$ for parents. And we are English teachers--we do get attached to our favorite books. And it takes time to acquaint oneself with a different textbook layout, translation, teacher support material.  I am going to suggest that we begin to consolidate editions as each one comes up for review. Right now, that means we can eliminate one text next year. Sheesh.

To complicate the problem, I spent a decent amount of time last year trying to discover a way that I could get away with leaving my books at school. They are too heavy. I needed physical therapy because my shoulder was injured by the heavy loads in my schoolbag. Sometimes I can scrounge around and find an extra copy, but not always. (More often I donate them to kids that need the extras more than I do.) If I am desperate to leave the book at school, how can I fault the kids for doing the same thing? And I return to the fact that it is all copyright free. I should probably scan the big stuff from my book and post it on Studywiz, our course management tool. It is private, so I am not violating the textbook's copyright, and then the kids might even read it. I can look at it at home and remind myself what I am doing the next day. I can track page and line numbers between the texts more efficiently. But once again, it is all about how much of my life am I willing to sacrifice to do this? Am I willing to spend a significant portion of my summer scanning instead of reading As I Lay Dying? No.

What I really want is ereaders or iPads. Duh. I would settle for paperbacks of Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Cavalier/Metaphysical poets and the Romantics, TS Eliot and his crew, and a couple of novels. I could make copies for the sonnets and other poetry, and maybe the Modernist stuff. In my "free" time. For now, I had better start scanning Chaucer...

UPDATE: The middle two phases of Brit Lit will use the same book for 2012-2013. In an odd twist, I decided which text, but am longer going to be teaching either class.  I hope the new teachers like the one I chose!  I will keep my Norton for the Honors + class (thank goodness--you can pry that book from my cold dead hands) until we can move to eBooks. I have been scanning shorter texts bit by bit into Studywiz, our course management tool, but am beginning to wonder if I should start a website for the text scans. Maybe a private wiki? 

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