Sunday, 20 May 2012

Personal musings: Visiting Plath's grave

In March 2009, I turned 24. As a birthday present, some of my dearest friends (who had coincidentally moved to the Manchester area post-University) and I decided to embark on a trip to Heptonstall, Yorkshire to visit the grave of Sylvia Plath. Little did I know that just over one year later I would be enrolled on a Ph.D. course to study Plath! Here are some photographs of our trip.

All photos are copyright to The Plath Diaries. Please email me for permission.

Drivingthrough the Yorkshire moors en route from Manchester to Heptonstall. This wild and barren landscape made me feel uneasy, and reminded me of the Moors Murders which were carried out between 1963 and 1965. I am by no means a Ted Hughes expert, but I do think these bleakness of these moors inspire a lot of his work. Hebden Bridge is the nearest "small town" to Heptonstall, where Plath is buried (about 5miles away). It is a cute and quirky town and would be a perfect place to stay if you are travelling from afar and want to explore the area where Hughes is from and where Plath was inspired to write many of the poems that feature in 'The Colossus'.

Heptonstall is a tiny town, and only vehicles owned by those who live in the village are permitted to park in the town centre. We parked our car a few streets away from the main street of the village. You can see the church steeple in the background. The graveyard Plath is buried in is beside the church. This picture shows my friends walking down the main street of the town. Absolutely tiny! We had food in the bar whose advertisement is to the left of this picture. I quizzed the barman on Plath and he was able to give me a first-person account of his experience of the day of her funeral. He also told me that Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin visited the grave together some years later. I have searched the internet for corroborating facts but have been fruitless, so whether I believe him or not is another story!

It was incredibly moving to visit Plath's grave. I was glad the headstone was not in a state of disrepair, having grown up with the tabloid headlines of Plath fans vandalising the stone (removing the "Hughes" part of her name). Personally, I simply felt very sad. The grave was very lonely, Heptonstall would be cold and desolate in the winter. I thought of Aurelia Plath, so far away from her daughter's body, unable to visit the grave. I thought of Sylvia Plath's children, who would never know their mother except through her work and hearsay. My friends - a very sarcastic bunch - too, were moved. The reality of her 30 years hit all of us very clearly.

I am so lucky to have been given the opportunity to visit Smith College and Boston, places where Plath lived her life vivaciously. Her poems, short stories, fiction, letters and journals speak to my soul very deeply and it is a daily joy to read her work and interpret it in my own way. The desperate sadness of her early death may permeate her work due to critics focusing on it; but this is not the sum total of her being. Having visited her grave, I feel like I was being intrusive. I did not know Sylvia Plath, I was not part of her family, nor was I a friend. Visiting her grave was part curiosity, part homage to the poet who I first fell in love with at fifteen and whose work has evolved with me as I have grown. Now as a twenty-seven year old, her work guides me and inspires me, urges me to work harder, to love better, and to keep on writing no matter what. Visiting her grave has ultimately made me disconnect from the "Plath cult." It made her existence real to me. And despite the tragic sadness of her end, seeing Plath's grave makes her work more real to me also and drives me to defend her artistic integrity as point #1 in my Ph.D.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Tutoring and teaching Plath

The academic semester is almost over for undergrad students. The libraries are filled with stressed looks, sighs of exasperation and furrowed brows over late night coffees from the Klix machine. Students are gearing up for their end of year examinations and have left the classrooms far behind. It's interesting to be at the other end of the spectrum now. The classroom is no longer a place where I learn, but somewhere where I teach. Well - this is what I thought originally prior to embarking on tutoring. Little did I know, I had a LOT to learn.

Being an Instructor, Tutor, TA... It's a huge challenge. And most often than not, we PG students are left to fend for ourselves in this area. Last year I completed an in-house training course on "how to teach" but, as I quickly learned, the actuality of the situation is much more complicated than meets the eye. As always, The Thesis Whisperer has quite a few blog-posts on being a University tutor. I also found The Teaching Tom Tom to be an interesting and thought-provoking resource for would-be tutors, but really, no-one can prepare you for tutoring. I had discussed methods of teaching with some of my friends who teach at primary and secondary level, but I think that there is a difference between school teaching and college teaching. For one, the students at college (theoretically) want to be there. Also, at college, the age range of pupils can vary greatly. So, before I started tutoring, I asked myself: what do I think the students want to gain from my classes? And secondly - what do I want to present and gain from these classes? As a result, I came up with an action plan of sorts:

  • Create a good classroom atmosphere - i.e. Don't stand at the front of the room preaching to students. Sit down and make eye contact with everyone, smile and sent out positive body language.
  • Involve everyone. I felt this was really important having been in tutorials as a student where we spent one hour in awkward silence because the tutor didn't open the room for discussion. I wanted to make sure that everyone had some kind of input in the class, no matter how small.
  • PLAN. For every class, I made a handout which served as a guideline of how the session would run. We could deviate from the points made in the handout but it just meant that if discussion ever felt silent, we could move on to the next "order of business."
  • No fear! This goes both ways: no fear for the students and no fear from me. Any piece of poetry, film, novel or play we discussed (and was on the syllabus), I made sure to photocopy extra copies and bring them with me. So if a student hadn't read a poem, having the photocopy there in class allowed them to still be involved in the discussion. We watched select parts of a DVD on my laptop to illustrate different points, for example. And having photocopies meant that I could get the students to read out a poem or a section from a play, thereby involving them in the seminar and grabbing the attention of fellow students.

So, these points essentially became my teaching manifesto. And so far, they served me well. The classes I taught featured a varied age range, varied amounts of males and females (one seminar entirely female, and one predominately male for example) and week-to-week the size of the groups changed constantly. I feel my planning and attitude to teaching allowed me to cope with the unexpected: e.g. the week before Easter break, just two males turned up for my class on Ted Hughes. This could have been awkward but in fact, it turned out to be one of the more enjoyable sessions as the three of us were able to unpick the poems in detail, looking at imagery, literature history and typical themes found in Hughes.

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks teaching Plath which was a dream come true. I really wanted to teach Plath well and I think to some degree I succeeded. I wanted to perplex my students and shatter any illusions they had about Plath. The all-female class had some great discussions - particularly because the age ranged was varied. Many of the mature students had wonderfully insightful comments to make about Plath's maternal poems, whereas the younger females were more attracted to the fiery pieces of 1962. Teaching males about Plath was a very interesting experience also. I asked all of the students to read the poems aloud,and it was particularly interesting to hear males read 'Stings', 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Edge' aloud. Personally, I was interested to learn how male readers interpret Plath and perhaps I was just lucky to be teaching male students who had very keen observational skills, because some of the comments and conversations about Plath and the holocaust/WW2 were so interesting and refreshing.

All in all, my teaching experience was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I enjoyed leading a class, I enjoyed doing the prep-work beforehand and although marking essays is widely thought of as tedious; I enjoyed reading most papers, writing comments constructively critiquing the work. Being a college instructor/tutor is challenging, worrying and stressful - but those few moments where you can see a student truly connecting with a text make it all worthwhile. I only hope that I can continue to have the opportunity to teach and grow as a teacher.

As always, I'm interested to hear other stories about tutoring: good and bad!