This Last Week in My Classes (January 7, 2008)

Last week was the first full week of classes for this term and, as usual, it was chaotic despite my pretty thorough efforts to be ready. You just get out of practice at juggling all the parts, at having everything ready to go when you need it, at keeping track of the requests and complications and paperwork. Also, you realize when you get back in the classroom that two weeks nattering at your kids all day and catching up on past seasons of House at night actually diminishes your ability to speak in complete (never mind polite) sentences. However, it’s all underway now and, also as usual, it feels good. The first few class meetings for me are all about trying to get everyone on the same page by giving them some historical and critical frameworks for considering our particular readings. I find there’s often very little common ground among students in terms of preparation, especially since in our department there is no historical survey required before upper-level classes; you’re lucky if very many of them know that Virginia Woolf did not actually know Shakespeare’s sister or that the Romantics preceded the Victorians. And a lower-level survey class in a popular genre, such as the Mystery and Detective Fiction class I’m teaching this term, attracts a lot of non-majors. So here’s how we warmed up:

English 2040, Mystery and Detective Fiction: We led off with a discussion of differences (real and perceived) between “genre” and “literary” fiction, focusing on the different reading strategies and expectations we typically bring to each kind. To get us started on these questions, we read aloud James Thurber’s brilliant little story “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” in which an “American lady” accidentally finds herself curled up in bed with Shakespeare instead of the murder mystery she was expecting. Her interpretive misadventures are both comic and revealing, perfect for my purposes. It doesn’t hurt, either, in the tender early days of a professor’s relationship with a class, to get some laughs. The next couple of meetings were spent on some background about detective fiction as a genre, a kind of genealogy taking us from Newgate and gothic fiction, through early practitioners like Poe and related forms such as ‘sensation’ fiction, through the Golden Age and the hard-boiled Americans to feminist revisionists (Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, for instance) to contemporary figures such as Ian Rankin. We’ve also spent some time on the history of policing, and on the characteristic features of the charismatic amateur detective so compellingly inaugurated with Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Next week, we’re done with generalizations and moving into detailed analysis of our first major reading, The Moonstone. Cursed diamonds, eerie quicksand, stained nightgowns, and multiple narrators: who could ask for anything more?

English 4604, The Victorian ‘Woman Question: Here too my opening tactic is laying out some generalizations, this time about the social, political, and historical context of the debate over the ‘woman question.’ Once we get going on our particular literary texts, we will want to spend plenty of time on their formal and aesthetic properties, but we will also be considering how they contribute to this debate by dramatizing or thematizing some of its elements. And most of our readings simply require us to understand some specific issues about the circumstances of Victorian women, particularly in marriage. We begin Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on Monday, for example, an ingeniously constructed, piercingly intelligent and emotionally gripping novel that turns in part on some key 19th-century ideas about femininity and masculinity as well as on the economic and other constraints of a Victorian wife. But this past week our major reading was Mill’s The Subjection of Women–also, of course, piercingly intelligent, and eminently rational and persuasive. We looked at it along with France Power Cobbe’s powerful piece “Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors,” which gave us some opportunities to compare the different rhetorical strategies of two writers approaching this highly contentious material from somewhat different positions.

It’s early yet, but I like what I’ve seen of both groups so far. Here’s hoping we can all keep up the momentum!

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