Welcome Back: Here are your books

Here it is, the week before teacher orientation begins.  I know many of my friends and colleagues are already back to school, but we don’t start until September 13.  “How lucky!” I hear some of you cry. “You have an extra week of vacation!”  Please remember, though, not to hate me — I don’t get days off in the middle of terms for professional development, or for American holidays like Columbus Day or such-like.  I also work weekends running a dormitory, so basically I have about eight days off (including weekends) between September 13 and Thanksgiving.

I came to school today to work on one project, and found myself considering the issue of books, particularly textbooks.

I spent part of the morning meeting with colleagues teaching ninth graders.  This was great.  It was nice to see them; one of them gave me a little cloisonné pin of an apple.  And we talked about how to co-ordinate curricula across literature and history more effectively through the whole school year.

But one of my colleagues was complaining about the translation of the Odyssey (selections from Fitzgerald) in her school-issued textbook.  And my other colleague then noted that she hadn’t read the Odyssey since high school.   I pointed out that if they didn’t like the translation, they could pick a different one from Project Gutenberg: for example Samuel Butler’s translation, or Butcher & Lang’s translation, or even William Cowper’s translation.  Or from the Perseus Project, you can use this translation with hypertexted notes.  (Also at Perseus Project is their database of art and archaeological materials from the ancient world, which I find fascinating and lovely).

They looked at me like I was from the moon.

I’m not sure what the underlying premise behind their glance was.  Maybe it was one of these:

  • “Printing that would get us in copyright trouble.”
  • “We don’t have the budget to print all those pages.”
  • “That’s a whole lot of extra work for me.”
  • “How will I know what to teach from the Odyssey without selections?”
  • “You really don’t understand this business of teaching very well, do you?”

But mostly I think it was the notion that the textbooks we are given are the textbooks we must use.  They discussed a literature assignment that one of them has given to her classes for several years in a row, and with a mild giggle suggesting she was doing something naughty, the literature teacher said, “of course, it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”  All this for one three-day writing assignment that’s clever, inventive and edgy while also showing mastery of a writing style.

But the Odyssey?  We have to stick to the school’s official promulgated translation, and stick closely to the chosen selections (which, I might add, skip virtually all of the blood, guts, gore or racy scenes except the Cyclops…) Argh.

And since I spent at least part of my summer reading Plutarch’s Lives, part of the ancient curriculum intended to cultivate virtue in its readers by considering the good of men as well as the bad, I can only look at my present-day ancient history textbook with fear and loathing — drier and dustier than the bones of Caesar, and clearly written to suit political niceties in Sacramento or Austin or Albany.

Welcome back: here are your books.

I’m looking forward to breaking free, and reading some Plutarch, Caesar, Gilgamesh and maybe even some Egyptian Book of the Dead.  It’ll be nice to see if the kids buy into the idea that these are their books, because they explore what it means to be human, rather than merely middle school students.

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