Saturday, June 21, 2014

Course Redesign Update: June 21 - thoughts on the public domain

So for the first time, after running those numbers yesterday, I had a glimpse of the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel," so that instead of feeling like I had just started this project (like I did back in early May) or feeling that I was lost in the thick of it (all this month), I now feel like I am moving towards the end... which is a good thing, since I need to wrap up this first phase of development by August 1 to give me time to revise assignments, etc. for the actual class — and, just to make that more challenging, school is going to be starting earlier than it ever has in my memory. Classes begin on August 18 (why not August 25????), which means I have to have my classes up and running on August 11 to give my students the full week head start I always like to offer them. Man, that is so early.

And, of course, the solstice seems like a good occasion to ponder the transition from the beginning phases of a project ... gradually ... into its concluding phases.

Anyway, yes, the end is in sight: By having gotten 70 units posted, that means the Week 2/3 module (Classical/Biblical) is done, the Week 6/7 module (Asia/Africa) is done, and so is the Week 9/10 module (Native American).

So, that is half of the weeks posted fully, and the other units are in various stages of development; 48 units in the completed modules, plus 22 units scattered throughout the modules that are not yet done: Week 4/5 Mideast/India, Week 11/12 British Isles, and Week 13/14 Europe.

And what I did just today was to go through and finalize my choices for two more of those weeks: I squared away all the Middle Eastern readings that I want to post so that they really are ready to post (selected, segmented, everything), and also for the India readings, which is an extra-big group — 12 options instead of 8, since I am also going to offer that to my Indian Epics students, so I will be getting more story bang for my story buck there. I had to wrestle with one OCR portion (some of the Raja Rasalu legends that I really wanted to use came from Swynnerton which I could only get as OCR from page scans), but luckily all the rest of the materials were easily taken from Gutenberg or other nicely digitized sites. Anyway, all the remaining India units are all selected, segmented, and ready to post.

There's such a contrast of public domain feast-or-famine for this particular module that I want to say a few words about that here:

India: Feast! For India, I have dozens of public domain books I would like to use, so narrowing it down was really hard. As a result of all the British living in India for all the many years of the Raj, and their sincere enthusiasm for the stories that they heard while living there, the wealth of story collections is just breathtaking. I'm even going to be able to include a Khasi book AND a Santal book, which will hopefully introduce students to the India that extends beyond the Hindu/Muslim world that they know about, and I've already got some great Buddhist reading units to bring forward the importance of India as the birthplace of Buddhism. Meanwhile, I had to set aside so many books that I would like to use, and one of my priorities for adding more content will be to come back around to India and add some more. I'm one of those people who sees much merit in the old "Indian origins" hypothesis for the way that storytelling streams emerged from India, spreading outward and all over both Europe and Asia thanks to both monks and merchants, and accumulating these India reading units will hopefully be a way to let the students get a sense of why India can make that claim to be a worldwide storytelling source.

Middle East: Famine. This is so discouraging to me because, just speaking for myself personally, the storytelling traditions of the Middle East were a key factor in my decision to go back to graduate school and to finally go beyond the very Euro-centric education that I had as an undergraduate (majoring in Classics and Slavic). Yet for public domain materials, I am in trouble here. I cannot find any really readable public domain versions of the Persian poets (Rumi, Attar, Sadi, etc.), and I am also stymied by a lack of Arabic folklore in 19th-century and early 20th-century books that I can use. And, unfortunately, the Koran itself is pretty much intractable; it just does not lend itself to use in this class the way the Hebrew Bible and Christian gospels do.

So, for example, sitting right now on the table in front of me, I've got an amazing edition of Shahnameh that just came out and which I am eagerly reading (it has a lovely website too: Epic of the Kings; see screenshot below), but I cannot find a public domain translation or retelling of the Shahnameh that I think would really grab my students... although I am sure they would this beautifully illustrated modern retelling! Admittedly, epic is a big problem for me in general in this class since the focus is on shorter reading, but with Homer, Vergil, Ovid, etc., there are all kinds of possible options to choose from, so many 19th-century experiments with retelling those epics for different audiences (along with the great generosity of Tony Kline in making his translations available for free online), but not so for Persian epic.

Now, don't get me wrong: I am very happy with the eight Middle Eastern reading units that I am able to include in the class (and Hanauer's book, weird as it is, actually captures the spirit of Islamic folklore that Ginzberg's Jewish legends bring to the Bible week), and I think the students will enjoy the available options a lot, especially 1001 Nights. But I will be very aware of the fact that I am not giving to the students the same stuff that thrilled me when I was twenty-something and fell in love with the storytelling traditions of the Middle East. Rumi was the real trigger for me, and I first got to the Panchatantra by working backward from Rumi to Kalila-wa-Dimna, not the other way around!

For Rumi, for example, what I want to give people are Barks' poems and Arberry's retellings of the stories in Tales from the Masnavi - what an awesome book... but look on the price of that and despair (screenshot below - even a Kindle RENTAL is $14). The publisher (Routledge now owns the rights apparently) is still committed to making serious money off this book, even though Professor Arberry departed this world in 1969, so he is not around to collect the royalty checks. It's very depressing. I guess I should consider it a lucky thing that the book is even still in print! A quick perusal of my copy shows that I bought it, used, for $10 at Shambala Bookstore in Berkeley... a bookstore which no longer even exists, alas.

An idea I have been toying with is to do my own retellings using the Nicholson translation (I have all the volumes, bought also at Shambala), but I'm not sure I am really ready or even able to do that, certainly not in the way that Barks and Arberry can. I've even written out a few stories just to see how I feel about that, but not being able to check the Persian for myself just fills me with too many doubts. Barks works that way, of course, but he catches a lot of flak for it too, and I'm not immersed in this stuff in the way that Barks truly is, with or without the Persian. I could write such stories to satisfy myself, although I don't know if I would ever feel ready to share those with my students as course readings or not. And heck, if I am going to start retelling things, I should do the Gesta Romanorum or Directorium Humanae Vitae or Petrus Alphonsi... ohhhhh, Petrus Alphonsi! Now there's an idea... there's an idea indeed! (filing that away for future reference!!!)

Anyway, at least I have got a public domain Tuti-nameh (Tales of a Parrot) for the Middle Eastern section, if not a Shah-nameh... so all is not lost, ha ha.

Okay, I need to get to work but I thought today would be a good moment to reflect on all this before I take the plunge into this final phase of adding content, so much of which is coming from India, making me very happy indeed.

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