This Week in My Classes

We have a short week because of the Thanksgiving holiday yesterday, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be busy (that little bit of extra time to catch up on reading is probably what most of my students were thankful for–well, maybe).

1. 19th-Century Novel. The students are completing their letters on Great Expectations. I got the idea for this assignment from Art Young’s Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum, in which (on pages 30-34) he discusses using letters for an assignment on Heart of Darkness What intrigued me the most was his description of the improvement in clarity and liveliness in the students’ work in this form, compared to their attempts at more overtly ‘academic’ essay-writing. He accounts for this partly as follows:

I think the social nature of the assignment was important. The students had interpreted my “critical essay” assignment as the familiar school assignment, what Susan called “busy work”–show the teacher that you read The Importance of Being Earnest and can think of some things to say about it. You are not really helping the teacher understand the play any better because the teacher has read and taught the play several times, read many professional books and essays about it, and you
have spent a week reading this play while taking four or five other classes at the same time. The advantage of the letters is that they are written for a specific individual, a peer, who is asking real questions, asking for help, and for whom you can play the role of colleague or teacher as mentor. The letters demonstrate students communicating to a real audience rather than practicing at communicating to the pretend audience of professional scholars who read and write essays about literature. In addition, the letters are contextualized within the classroom community.

In my version of this assignment, I try to emphasize these features: I urge them to set questions they would genuinely like to get answers to; I bring the partners face to face with each other and encourage them to discuss what interests, attracts, repels, or confuses them in the novel; I remind them that they are writing to someone they know has also read the novel (so, among other things, they should know not to include excessive plot summary); I urge them to draw on and to cite lectures and class discussions, to listen for and create connections between their writing assignment and our other work. When I first tried this system out, it was because I had tired of the Perfunctory Paper, written to meet requirements rather than out of any genuine intellectual curiosity and often taking students’ attention away from our shared class work as they focused on their individual topics. This way everyone writes something on every novel, with (in general) a much higher level of engagement. Students who really want to write a longer paper get the opportunity to do so late in the course. I certainly like this system better than what I used to do, and the feedback from students has been quite positive.

They turn their papers in tomorrow, at which point I get the ball rolling for our next book, Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. This is a fun teaching text, with lots of suspense and thus helpful momentum for the students and lots of interesting features for analysis and interpretation. In the end, I don’t think LAS is a very good novel, mostly because I don’t think Braddon has really worked out what her idea is about the problems she highlights, or even the characters she develops. The plot is fairly well constructed, but the language is pretty uninspired, especially right after Great Expectations. But I’m sure we’ll have some good discussions (Lady Audley: Victim or Villain? Robert Audley: Hero?). We’ll get to talk about sensationalism in relation to realism, which will set us up to move to our next book, which is Middlemarch–not, as critics have noted, free of sensational elements, including a suspicious death, some near-adultery, and a convenient thunder storm.

2. Victorian Women Writers. Jane Eyre, week two. I’ve assigned a cluster of readings on JE and colonialism (Spivak, Meyer, O’Connor), but I leave it mostly up to the students to take up issues from the criticism (or n0t), so I don’t know how much the issues raised in those articles will dominate our discussion. We also read some interesting essays focusing mainly on narration last week, and some of the problems they focus on (such as Jane’s reliability) will need reconsidering now that we’ve all read to the end of the novel.

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