Author: astengorama

The answer to life, the universe, and Why Teach?

The answer to life, the universe, and everything (but “Why Teach?”) is 42.

The answer to “Why Teach?” was summed up perfectly by my friend and colleague Mark: “I teach for selfish reasons.” So do I, and my reasons aren’t much different from the ones he so articulately explained in his recent blog. Teaching is fulfilling, learning is an addiction (and you can’t have one without the other!), and both give my un-spiritual self a reason to be. I’m going to let Mark speak for me here and direct you over to his blog for further reading.

A related question that I’ve been thinking about lately is “Why literature?” Why read it, why study it, why teach it? Again, there are so many smart people out there who have voiced their opinions on why literature matters and I don’t want to just repeat them because you’re probably familiar. Reading makes you more empathetic—yep. Reading makes you smarter—indeed. Reading is good for humanity in general—if it makes you smarter and more empathetic then this must be true, so yes.

But are any of these reasons going to make you want to pick up Crime and Punishment on your days off? Probably not. Think about how much less appealing reading literature for these reasons is, then, to a teenager. Telling them that reading will make them a better person, more able to cope with the hardships of life, more understanding of people next to and far away from them, more knowledgeable about geography, history, science, philosophy, bunnies, why people hate and why people love—is like telling them they should WANT to eat vegetables because they’ll be healthier and live a longer life. What you’re asking them to do is to commit to a daunting and possibly unpleasant task for an abstract reward that *maybe* they’ll start to notice in a decade or two, assuming they’ve done a bunch of other stuff that also goes in to making a person better, smarter, or healthier. Basically, imposing even your valid reasons on a person as a way to coerce them into doing something they ordinarily wouldn’t do is a pretty ineffective approach. Alternatively, you could go with the “Or Else!” method. Eat your vegetables or you don’t get ice cream! Read Huck Finn or you fail! They would be more likely to do it, but less likely to voluntarily want to do something similar again.

People need to find their own reasons to want to read. I see it as my responsibility as a teacher to provide my students with the opportunities and the tools they need to decide for themselves why literature matters. So far, the best way I know how to do that is to give them options and to encourage creativity. In this way, students can show me Why.

And we’re back to the selfish reasons why I teach: teaching has endlessly creative potential. I can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t draw, I’m sort of good at following a recipe, I can barely crochet a scarf—I would have been a terrible guest in a 19th century drawing room. And even though my difficulties with writing have become almost phobia-like, I’m an excellent close-reader and I use that skill to inspire my teaching. In a way, classrooms are my canvas. Teaching is MY outlet for the creative energy we all have inside of us, that desire that drives a person to do a thing or to make a thing well and to be acknowledged for it.

I posted some of the wonderful work that students created in the section of Great Books I taught last semester, it’s up on the “Scholarly Pursuits” page. Spoiler Alert: we wrote a book!


A Four-Letter Suffix that Changed My Life: Part One

Back in 2006-ish when I first signed up for a Gmail account, the username “dastengo” had already been taken. Since I planned on using this as my primary email address, I wanted to keep it professional.

Google had other plans for me.

Instead of “dastengo,” Google suggested I try several available variations of Danielle Astengo, all of which, with the exception of one, were followed by a string of numbers. Amid the numerical chaos was “astengorama”—just hanging out all nonchalantly like it was no different from the others. I, of course, recognized the poetry in Google’s Black Swan. Or the hilarity of it, rather. After laughing at the audacity of the Google robots I happily accepted their clever joke and I became “astengorama.”

So here’s how a four-letter suffix that became part of my email address, which eventually became my nickname, evolved into the defining research project of my graduate student career.

2007. Danielle registers the username astengorama with Google. Also, D decides to “quit” school by abandoning 16-units at SDSU the week before finals because f*** that, she’s moving to Chico anyway.

2007-2008. D uses astengorama Gmail to sign up for everything on the internet that requires an email address, including Butte County Community College which she has to attend for two semesters in order to be taken seriously by the admissions department at CSU, Chico.

2009. D unsubscribes to almost everything that she had previously signed up for (including community college) using her astengorama Gmail and uses it instead for communication with people and entities affiliated with Chico State as she makes her academic come-back.

A few weeks later in 2009: D submits to Dr. Baker, a comparative literature professor, as her preferable means of contact on an attendance card in her first English class as an English major. Dr. B is amused. D is amused that someone else finally thinks it’s funny too.

2010. D takes a second class with Dr. B and D follows same procedure with attendance card. Dr. B exclaims “The astengorama!” when he notices he has a repeat customer and is amused for a second time. D is amused that he remembers. The rest of class is not amused. During the semester, Dr. B casually references Honoré de Balzac and his novel Père Goriot several times.

4 or 5 months later, still in 2010. D remembers Balzac and Père Goriot when she’s studying abroad in France and reads novels by French authors to cope when culture shock hits and warm baguettes have lost their romantic charm. She gets to this part in the novel:

“The rest of the lodgers appeared, one after the other, both those who lived in and those who did not, wishing each other good day and murmuring those empty phrases which, among certain sorts of Parisians, constitute a kind of droll good humor of which stupidity is the main component and whose principal virtue consist only in how the words are pronounced or what gestures accompany them. This sort of jargon is always changing. The jokes that underlie it never last a month: some political event, some lawsuit or trial, a street song, some actor’s comic routine, all serve to keep this joke going, since more than anything else it involves snatching up words and ideas as they go flying past, and then hitting them back, as if with racquets. That new invention, the Diorama, which carries optical illusion to an even higher level than did the panorama, has led a number of painters’ studios to coin the jesting word “rama,” the introduction of which term into the Maison Vauquer was effected by a young painter who often visited and had, as it were, inoculated the pension with it.”

Extracts from the conversation that follows that passage:

“How’s our little healthorama going?”

“Are we ever going to have dinnerama?”

“It’s incredibly coltarama.”

“Why do you say coltarama? That’s wrong, you ought to say coldarama.”

“‘No, no . . . according to the rule, it has to be coltarama, as in my feet are colt.”

“Ah ha! Here comes a wonderful souparama,”

“Excuse me, monsieur,” said Madame Vauquer, “but this is cabbage soup.”

The young men began to laugh uproariously.

“That’s the end of you, Poiret!”

“No more Poiret!”

“Score two for Momma Vauquer.”

D thinks she understands the root of Dr. B’s amusement—he’s a Balzac scholar, after all. The astengorama is funnier than ever.

2011. D gets over culture shock and has so much fun in France that she creates her “astengorama” WordPress blog and immediately forgets about it for three years. D eventually returns home and discovers that reverse culture shock is a real son of a bitch and that it won’t be placated by even Balzac’s humor. The rest of the year can be summed up with an emoticon: :’(

2012. D returns to CSU, Chico as a Graduate Student in the literature pathway of the English M.A. program. Goals are tenuous. Teaching literature and waiting tables in a diner in Hawaii both seem like good options.

2013. D decides to pursue teaching literature and serves as a Teaching Assistant in Dr. B’s “Great Books” class. D gives her first lesson to the class while they are reading Père Goriot. Inspired by Balzac’s theories on social evolution and their similarity to modern theories of cultural evolution, she has the students make internet memes of notable characters in the novel. Lesson is a success. D is intrigued. See “featured photo.”

2014. D teaches her own section of “Great Books.” D revamps the lesson on memes and tries it again. It’s still a success.

In the second installment of “A Four-Letter Suffix that Changed My Life“: D, now passionate about teaching and pursuing a single-subject teaching credential, decides to write a thesis focused on how to teach Balzac. She is inspired by Henry Jenkins’ Reading in a Participatory Culture as much as she is inspired by her two years of teaching academic writing and literature. Also, she finally remembers her astengorama WordPress blog. 

Just Another Blogorama

When did a/s/l stop being an acceptable form of introduction on the internet? Or was it never really acceptable outside of those AOL chatrooms that I’d sneak into between fording a river and hunting water fowl on Oregon Trail? Fortunately, losing family and friends to scarlet fever and watching my entire supply of salted meats, flour, and hard tack get swept away by a violent stream of water that just knocked over a 400lb wagon left a more lasting impression than those chatrooms. Side note: While looking for a copy of the Oregon Trail to play instead of studying like a productive grad student, I came across this relevant BuzzFeed list and its accompanying Quiz. The game itself is available for 8 bucks on Amazon–of course–and you can have it in two days with Prime shipping! I wonder if I can recover all of my favorite childhood games on Amazon or e-Bay. Mall Madness? Aladdin on Sega? Phantasmagoria? Phantasmagoria, by the way, still gives me nightmares. If my grandma knew what happened in that creepy old mansion she probably would have taken the CD-rom away and spared me the visuals of my face being eaten by a great big demon. Still, the chat rooms were the worst thing I could get my sneaky little 9 year old self into on the computer in 1997. How’s that for an introduction, Blog Readers? You now know more about me than Google Plus. Keep coming back and soon you’ll know me better than Facebook. “Congratulations! You made it to Oregon.” Danielle Astengo(rama) (<—more on that next time)