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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ink Blot Test

So, I'm lecturing on Plato's anti-sophistical trilogy of dialogues, Protagoras, Gorgias, and Phaedrus for a few lectures in a row, and yesterday was the second lecture of a series that should be four lectures long once I cap it off with my discussion of the Symposium -- which reprises the scenario and much of the cast of Protagoras and many of the themes of Phaedrus, and seems to me something like the satyr play appended to the tragic trilogy of the three dialogues (though Gorgias is much funnier than it gets credit for). I'm a bit behind, my lecture notes keep biting off more than I can chew, at SFAI in the City and in summer intensive courses at Berkeley I've gotten used to lecturing for roughly three hours, and I still haven't gotten back into the groove of lecturing for an hour and a half, especially taking in administrative nonsense and student questions and the slow affable windup into the subject matter I like... time keeps getting away from me a bit.

Anyway, yesterday I was finishing up my discussion of the Protagoras and moving on to the Gorgias (the text assigned for yesterday) and I looked down at my Gorgias notes and was surprised to find the page spotted like a cowhide. I should add here that I always write up new lecture notes even when teaching a text I've taught many times before -- re-reading the text, as I do each time I teach it, I usually think about it differently and I find that teaching to what interests me at the moment tends to make the lecture more engaging -- and that I usually scribble up my notes in the few hours right before delivering the lecture, more or less as a way of gathering up my thoughts and sculpting key observations into the trajectory of a dramatic narrative and argumentative form.

Few people could make sense of my notes, they are usually sentence fragments and page numbers and the occasional odd trigger word, in little numbered or lettered lists, sometimes with time stamps indicating how long I can allow myself to elaborate on what might fascinate me for hours at the expense of the actual topic at hand. My lectures probably usually seem like a series of riffs, I hope mostly entertaining and unexpected riffs, swooping into close readings of apparently incidental details onto wider contextualizations into citations of texts and themes I've already assigned with an eye to making these dramatic associations at key moments, all of which collide near the end to make whatever points I hope most to emphasize (this is what most folks who teach literature or philosophy as literature do, I expect). And I tend to just glance down at my notes from time to time as I go because they remind me of good anecdotes and the turns in the reading my overall argument needs and keep me more or less on track.

So, it was a strange thing to turn to my Gorgias notes, scribbled on the bus on the way from my apartment to campus on a folded sheet of paper snatched from the printer tray before I left home, and find them covered with black splotches. Involuntarily, my hand went to the page and I scarcely comprehended why but the page was suddenly more speckled still, ink obliterating many of my gnomic references and bullet points before my eyes. It was just about then that I realized my hand was drenched in ink, and just about then that both of my hands were in fact blackened, and just about then that the pen in my hand was leaking onto my hands, and just about then that I didn't know how long any of this had been going on but I knew I had surely touched my face, my hair, fiddled with my glasses plenty of times over the course of the lecture and for all I knew my face was grotesquely smudged with ink in front of over a hundred staring students and that I could no longer lean on the banister of my lecture outline to guide my discussion of the Gorgias because it had been more or less obliterated.

Mind you, all of these terrific revelations seared into my mind in the lightning flash of a few seconds at the end of which I took a breath at the proper place afforded by the sentence I had been uttering through all of this and sat the pen on the surface before me, moved my ink-wet hands from the page, decided there was nothing I could do if my face was now measled with smudges and, breathless, embarrassed, discombobulated, working without a net, I glanced at the clock to find it declared I had about forty minutes to go and proceeded to ramble on about the Gorgias without much of a game-plan or even the memory of one, delivered while my actual mind was mostly given over to volcanic insecurity and paranoia that I suddenly, conspicuously, and as if by magic, had the blackened face and hands of a nineteenth century coal miner crawling through some dim dusty shaft and was coming off at best as a caricature of the disheveled absent-minded professor and at worst veering in derangement out of some clown car.

For the life of me, I can't really even remember what I said in those last forty minutes. I'm pretty sure the first part of the lecture went well, but the second part I fear was a scattered and careening thing. Turns out, I managed not to get ink on my face or clothes after all, and the mess mostly came out in the sink before I commuted back home. I spent a lot of time last night castigating myself for delivering a shitty lecture, which is something I do rather a lot anyway to be honest. I'm now unhealthily obsessed with ensuring tomorrow's lecture compensates with crystalline clarity the debacle in my mind of Tuesday's lecture.

I say "in my mind" only because I have discovered that students often don't have an inkling that a lecture has gone wrong from my perspective -- encountering the material for the first time, many of them not even caught up with the reading, what seem to me throwaway observations incidental to the provocations and illuminations of my closer reading are more than enough for them to feel they are getting their money's worth. I have also noticed that brain freezes and losing my place and getting snagged in some detail that momentarily obsesses me at the expense of some more general and generally more important point and digressions into television or politics or jokes that sometimes get me off track, while these all too commonplace interruptions and befuddlements often lead me into retroactive shame spirals my students seem usually not to have noticed that they happened at all or that they represented anything gone amiss.

When these little disasters occur, I do seem to find myself calling upon long hammered habits of work discipline from my days as a child star doing musical turns in the dinner theater circuit across Kentuckiana: When I realized that ink had destroyed my notes and drenched my hands and for all I knew given me panda eyes and a comic ink mustache I nearly said the words aloud as I steeled myself for the long forty minutes still ahead... "The show must go on."

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