My Poor Students

I might have broken suddenly into song in the middle of a teaching video this morning. But it’s totally fair to be reading them some of “Goblin Market” and then sing them a bit of “Who Will Buy” from Oliver, right? As we talk about the tradition of seduction poetry…

My poor students. It’s only second week, they barely know me, and now I’m singing to them…

Totally Intimidated

I was sort of dreading teaching lit theory and felt totally intimidated by it, but I’ve sketched out my plan for this first week of theory (Aestheticism & Semiotics), and I think it’s actually going to be fun, esp. since I get to teach Christina Rossetti and Poe. Hopefully fun for the students too — my students have generally really enjoyed Poe, so fingers crossed.

Kind of a breakneck speed on the theory, though, which is going to take a little getting used to! We spent weeks and weeks on semiotics in grad school…


(I’ll be adding some brief lecture videos to this, but I’m going to record them in the morning. Getting sleepy, and I’ll be more coherent right after coffee, I suspect.)

Part 1: Due by midnight, Tuesday 1/19

• Christina Rossetti poem, “Goblin Market” ( or listen to a reading by Jane Aker on YouTube (26 minutes):
• Wikipedia page on “Goblin Market” (
• browse illustrations from “Goblin Market” (do a google image search for ‘goblin market illustration’)

• Upstone, Aesthetics chapter, part 1 (stop at Symbolism)

WATCH (after reading the poem), optional:

• 5 minute movie based on the poem (

• one journal entry for “Goblin Market” (you might consider Pater’s idea of ‘the ecstatic moment’ and how it’s portrayed in this poem) and one for part 1 of Aesthetics (2 entries) – for the second, you might address the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ / beauty as the sole goal of art

• three more Slack comments on classmates’ entries (from this week or previous week)

Part 2: Class on Zoom Wednesday 1/3 @ 10
• review of Rossetti & Upstone
• discussion of art & morality
• brief intro to semiotics (Saussure / Barthes) and breakout room semiotic practice
• preview of Poe

• discussion of new aesthetic ideas around ‘great literature’ (and who gets to write it)

Part 3: Due by midnight, Sunday 1/24 (but strongly recommend you start sooner)

• Upstone, Aesthetics chapter, part 2 (start with Symbolism) — this is a little dense, so start it early and take it slow; she covers a lot very quickly
• Edgar Allen Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” (

• Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven” (

• one journal entry for each reading (3 readings)

• three comments on classmates’ journals (start with journals that don’t have responses yet)


We Have a Slack

UIC faculty, we now have a Slack. Woot! I know, most of you probably aren’t interested, but I spend a lot of time on Slack these days, and I find it works pretty well for staying in touch with community. Better than all the things that get lost in my e-mail…

I’d personally love to have a centralized location where I can go to ask random questions, like, “Hey, is Blackboard down again, or is it just me…?” and “When exactly are we expecting faculty to be vaccinated?” (They’re doing quite a lot on the health campus right now, of course, which is great.)

So if you’re interested, let me know, I’ll send you the invite. 🙂

Oceans Bright and Wide

Heh. One more example video for today’s class — I did 6 minutes on the opening to “Oceans Bright and Wide,” which was a little odd, because I’m the author, so I was talking about what I was hoping to do with the language in that paragraph, which may or may not have succeeded. Maybe helpful in getting them to think about how close reading works?

(My plan for this lit. theory class is to spend week 1 on close reading, before we start diving into the various theories, so I want to make sure they have a decent grounding in it.)

I read the paragraph out loud as part of this, but the full story is here:

Biting Tongues

I’m trying to be a little more casual about my teaching in various ways, including little bits of video to demonstrate things. Maybe helpful, maybe not? But thought this might amuse y’all — me talking about Amal El-Mohtar’s poem, “Biting Tongues” (which always has really high engagement from my students — they love it). From her collection, _The Honey Month_.

It’s not in the 6-minute video (which is a little more rambly), but in the text I sent them on Slack, I gave as an example of a simple thesis around this: “Amal el-Mohtar uses imagery around sewing and thread to evoke both the domestic sphere women are supposed to live in, but also the gendered violence committed against women in the forms of piercing, cutting, and literally sewing them up.”

Biting Tongues


Speak to us in silk, they say
speak to us in milk,
be pillow–soft, be satin–smooth
be home–spun sugar sweet.
We part our lips. We breathe our breaths.
We bite our tongues and swallow blood
knot stones into our stomachs, heave
and spit red salt where words should be,
stitch shut our mouths with stubborn thread
to spare our tablecloths.
Such a mess! If you can’t say something nice,
if you can’t be honey cinnamon spice
if you can’t be dusky–eyed candy mice
shut the fuck up, you stuck–up bitch
you whore you cunt you slag you witch
where you going dressed like that
red as meat and us so hungry?
What did you think would happen, huh?
What did you think would happen?
We are told
of wolves in the world, and we but girls.
We are told
of girls in the world, and they but wolves
who cannot help themselves.
We are told
to be girls or wolves
be eaten or hungry
but we are never hungry
who make meals of ourselves
who chew the insides of our cheeks,
bleed into our bellies.
We are told
that to be bold is to be bled
that red’s what brings the wolves around
that we’re better off drowned.
They come with axes
cut us to pull the good girls out.
They leave us with our bloodstone bellies
our sewn up mouths, our halted breaths,
and a river for a bed.
Until one of us
with sharpest teeth
and shredded mouth
rips silence from our lips
with a battle–cry kiss, and says
We speak as we are
with tongues of snake and hummingbird
of ocean and of earth
of sky and salt and smoke and fire
of gesture, ink, and ringing bells.
We speak as we are
with bodies various as motion
voices of muscle and music and colour
beautiful bloody mouths.
We paint with tumblebroken words
we sing loud with our speaking hands
unmake the bodies shaped for us
and lip to eye to fingertip
we spill our red–mouth stories out
and listen, taste them on the air

with our forked and biting tongues.


First Day of the Semester

I’ve been thinking a lot right now about prepared versus nimble, about what makes a good teacher and a good experience for the students. When I was first learning how to teach, I took a pedagogy course in grad school, and my professor told us to prepare 30% more lesson plan material than we’d think we’d need, but also, be ready to change the lesson mid-stream if students led the class in a more interesting / productive direction.

It’s good advice, and I’ve mostly tried to teach by it, but I’m now 15+ years into my teaching career, and I think in the midst of a pandemic, I’ve started really questioning the need to prepare quite so extensively.

In the past, every semester, I’ve put together a detailed week-by-week syllabus that I handed out on the first day. This year, I’ve largely abandoned that. What my students are getting now is:

– the course overview
– major deadlines for the semester

– a detailed plan for the first week

That’s it. I know some of them would prefer to see it all in advance, but the truth of the matter is that even in the past, every semester, I ended up telling them that the syllabus was subject to change, and in fact, it usually did change, week to week. I’m now thinking that it’s more honest to not pretend it’s a fixed thing from the beginning.

I have a pretty strong idea of what I’ll be doing, week-to-week, especially in classes I’ve taught previously. I’m hoping that’s sufficient preparation for the course overall, and that if I spend a few hours on Sundays planning out the next week, posting it that night, so they have the week’s plan first thing Monday morning, that will work at least as well for them as what we did previously.

It’ll be easier for me too. Kevin and I were talking on Friday, both of us a little stressed at not being done with our syllabi yet, and I think we both came to the decision that what the students really needed was to know what to do on day 1, and week 1, and the rest could follow on.

I’m teaching lit theory for the first time, and I last studied lit theory in grad school in 2002, almost 20 years ago. I admit, when my department asked me to teach this course, I had a moment of flailing panic, and may have sent them back a note asking if they were sure they wanted me to teach theory. They said they were sure I’d be fine. Nice that they have confidence in me, but eep.

My shelves still hold all the theory I read in grad school — Saussure and Lacan and Derrida and Foucault. I’ve only actively assigned the post-colonial theory (bits of it) in my post-colonial lit. classes. The rest of it — it shaped my thinking, twenty years ago, and I think informs much of how I approach the world. That’s true of the philosophy I read in college too — I took an entire course on Wittgenstein, but I couldn’t tell you in a sentence now what he’s all about. I’m sure he left traces, though, ghosts in my mind.

I admit, I didn’t really want to spend my break re-reading all my grad school theory to prep for this class. Instead, I bought three intro-to-theory books and compared them — one, I chose for my students to read (Upstone); the other two (Barry & Culler), I’ll likely dip in and out of (they’re a bit more challenging than the one I picked) to refresh my memory, to find new ways of approaching this subject, in case the students get stuck.

I’ve now read the intros to all of them, and started skimming the first chapters. There’s a part of me that still feels a little guilty, that hesitates to write all this, because it feels like admitting that I’m underprepared. I should “prepare 30% more lesson plan material than I think I’ll need…” — but I think it’s okay, really, that I do that week-by-week, rather than for the whole semester in advance. I’ll record my lectures that way too, probably Sunday nights.

And of course, I think we should all, teachers and students and everyone, be cutting ourselves a lot more slack while we still are dealing with the pandemic (not to mention the political stress in America right now). But it’s as if the pandemic has given me permission to modify my teaching prep in ways that will also work better when we’re back in the physical classroom.

I was raised a New Englander, and I’ve perhaps inherited more than my share of Protestant work ethic. But work for the sake of work is just pointless, and will drain you of needed resources. The right approach doesn’t have to be the most labor-intensive one. Funny how much I have to keep reminding myself of that!


Pictured: Me in my first day of teaching clothes — normally I wear something new on the first day, and even though we didn’t meet on Zoom today, I did anyway. This is a merino wool base layer from L.L. Bean because I’m cold all the time in winter, and it was a little pricey, but I really like it — it’s warm enough that if I wear a thick cardigan over it, I get too warm when I’m moving around. So I can wear a thin layer over it for times when I’m moving, and switch to a thick layer (or add a blanket) for times when I’ll be sitting for a while (and typing). Good, recommended.

Excellent Background TV

I have lots of e-mail and teaching prep to get through, some of it pretty mechanical (copying over dates to a calendar, etc.), and in case you’re in the same boat, I’ll note that The Lord of the Rings makes excellent background TV — pause to watch Frodo offering to take the ring, the fires being lit on the mountaintops, Eowyn and Merry against the Nazgul…

And now I’ve finished those, and I’m watching The Hobbit — I only saw the first movie previously, and while I don’t really think it was the best choice turning this into three long movies, at least I can have them as background for this weekend’s work. Good way to close off the break, and prepare to return to teaching.

Course Evaluations

I gathered my courage in both hands and opened my course evaluation files to find that my students…

…were just fine with my teaching last semester. Whew.

Some of them even took the time to write nice things about me, which is really going above and beyond, considering that last semester was probably my worst-ever semester of teaching in 25 years. I mean, I did my best, but it was really not up to my own standards.

I guess we’re ALL cutting each other a lot of slack right now. Only appropriate!

“Professor Mohanraj…understood the students had a lot of things going on so she was very lenient when it came to extensions. She has been the sweetest and always advises her students to see her during office hours for anything.”

I mean, not that they all CAME to office hours, but at least they appreciated that I invited them. 🙂