A spot of good news just now. I received word that I’ve had another article accepted for publication, this time a brief piece on Aphra Behn in The Explicator. Happily, this is my third academic acceptance in as many months (believe me, that streak will not last). You may recall my joking reference — after learning that my H.G. Wells and Darwin article was recently accepted for publication — that I was going to try to publish something about every century of the Common Era. Not true, of course. That would be quite quixotic. Still, if I was going to do that I could now cross off the Seventeenth Century, too.
This particular article, “Aphra Behn’s ‘The Disappointment’ as Ring Composition,” is by no means a stroke of lightning to the field (few ever are). Nevertheless, I hope you’ll indulge me to talk for a bit about its genesis, since I think it speaks quite directly to what I love not just about teaching but specifically about doing it here at The Citadel.
I am not, of course, a scholar of Aphra Behn. Though she’s a quite famed Restoration-period writer, I had honestly never read anything by her — I was a History undergrad and so missed the kind of general-reading English education I ought to have had — until I came here to El Cid and was asked to teach our “Brit Lit I” course using the venerable Norton Anthology. We’re given wonderfully free reign in the design of our courses here, far more than you might imagine given the military milieu. Indeed, I daresay we have more freedom as teachers than the vast majority of our peers at other institutions. So it wasn’t like I had to teach to a particular syllabus when assigned the class.
My first draft of my syllabus, therefore, was to start from scratch, thumbing through the Norton and jotting down texts that I felt I was already prepared to teach. Inevitably, there were holes in the survey after I was finished. Big ones. The Middle Ages, naturally, were covered quite well (I’m a medievalist, after all). The Renaissance looked good, too. The Seventeenth Century? Not so much. I also noted that there weren’t as many female writers on the syllabus as I would have liked. To kill two birds with one stone, I went back through the Norton, looking for a seventeenth-century female writer I could fit into the syllabus.
It didn’t take me long to find Aphra Behn and her poem “The Disappointment.” It was (is) a perfect match for my survey course, which takes delight in exposing the students to some, um, somewhat amorous poetry. I quickly jotted her poem into the syllabus and moved on to other gaps in the survey.
Skip ahead a few months, and the time to teach Behn had come ’round at last. The class filed in, and at once I set to going through the poem with them line by line, expounding and extracting, teaching — as I almost always do — without any prepared script or notes. The “lecture,” as I recall, was going really great. The students were into it, simultaneously laughing and learning, which is always a wonderful combination. There was a lot of good discussion and even the occasional “lightbulb” moment for the cadets. (To the teacher, these typically are recognized by a sudden raising of eyebrows and widened eyes, followed by the furious scribbling of some profound insight into the text. I love ’em.)
Now, it just so happened that I had recently written a completely unrelated paper for a medieval conference in which I argued that the fourteenth-century poem The Alliterative Morte Arthure was, like its contemporary poem Siege of Jerusalem, a ring composition. The paper had been well received and so I had ring compositions somewhere in the back of my mind that morning as I turned around at one point and looked at my mess of a board — they’re always messy — and saw something unexpected in the rough “outline” of the poem’s key events that I’d scribbled up there.
“Huh,” I said.
There was a pause, I remember. The students were quiet for a minute, probably wondering if my battery had finally died. And then my own lightbulb lit up. “It’s a ring composition!” I cried out.
I know. It’s not quite Archimedes running naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!” But it was a cool moment to me nonetheless. I spent the next few minutes trying to explain what I’d noticed, sharing it with the class. Then time was up and they went their merry ways. I found a spare slip of paper and wrote down my little theory before erasing the board and heading off to teach another course.
That little slip of paper sat in my Norton, and the idea percolated somewhere in my brain, for another year. But the next time I taught “The Disappointment” I presented it as a ring composition. And it worked so darn well that I decided I’d collect a little bit of Aphra Behn scholarship to see if anyone had ever noticed it before. Surely everyone knew this, I figured. But still good to check. If nothing else, doing the research might help me teach the piece better next time.
Well, it turns out that no one had talked about Behn’s poem in terms of a ring composition. Not in print, anyway. So I took a weekend last June and threw a short article together explaining it. And now it’s being published.
I’ve no idea how other folks get their ideas. It’s no doubt different for us all. I certainly can’t even begin to explain how these things occur to me, other than to call it the dumb luck of happenstance (the H.G. Wells piece is the result of an even stranger stroke of luck).
I do know, however, that regardless of my inspiration, many schools would react to the news of this publication less with joy and more with consternation that I was publishing outside my medieval field. The Citadel is a special place, I think, for allowing me the freedom not only to have such random inspirations in class, but also to take the time to research them and publish them. And I’m most glad for that.