This Week in My Classes (March 10, 2008)

First, a momet to vent. On Friday of last week I handed back homework assignments in Mystery and Detective Fiction and took up the entire class meeting on the topic “how to do better next time.” Although I usually address common problems when returning work, this time seemed different because of the relatively low level of problem–to give just one example, although for one part of the assignment students were clearly (and I mean clearly) instructed to write one coherent paragraph, large numbers of them wrote anywhere from two to six paragraphs, sometimes simply setting off each new sentence. It’s the kind of marking experience that leaves me wondering if somehow it’s my confusion: has the definition of ‘paragraph’ changed, maybe? As I hope I made clear to them, that instruction was not just an arbitrary limit on their creativity but a deliberate direction meant, among other things, to improve the odds that they would put forward a coherent idea supported through argumentation and evidence–rather than, say, a string of basically unconnected observations. So ignoring it had other consequences for the quality of both their thinking and their writing. Then there were the many, many students who just as cavalierly disregarded the word limits I had set for another part of the assignment, thus, again, undermining my effort to encourage pointed commentary rather than plot summary. As I demonstrated with examples drawn from this round of assignments, the task could certainly be done well within the set limits, but it’s true that editing is hard work, and I couldn’t help concluding that some of them had imagined they would be fine just tossing off their first thoughts and turning them in. The vast array of typos (ah, that well known detective Sherlock Homes!) was also discouraging. But as I told them, a flurry of red ink is really a compliment, as it indicates my conviction that they can in fact get it right if they take time and pay attention!

OK. So. Hoping to turn Friday’s negative energy into something more positive, today we did an editing worksheet giving them some hands-on practice at writing more concise, focused prose and then at developing observations about their reading into the kind of unifying interpretive idea called for in their paragraph assignment. For the latter we worked with Sara Paretsky‘s clever story “Dealer’s Choice,” in which she takes on the voice of Christopher Marlowe and offers up her own ‘take’ on the hard-boiled detective story. For our exercise we compared her ‘femme fatale,’ “Naomi Felstein” (a.k.a, Kathleen Akiko Moloney) to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, exploring how Paretsky uses now-familiar hard-boiled elements to do something rather different. Is the story an homage, a parody, a sincere re-visitation, or a subversion of the hard-boiled genre? I opened with some brief comments Paretsky has made about trying to do a straight gender role-reversal in this genre, and her conclusion that too much simply changes when you put a woman behind the desk. The issues she raises will become particularly relevant for us when we move on to Sue Grafton‘s ‘A’ is for Alibi in a couple of weeks. But first, starting Wednesday, we’re studying P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Sadly, the Smithsonian lecture I was hoping to play for them appears to be non-functioning!

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,it’s Middlemarch time (right in the middle of March, too, as they pointed out–clever, eh?). I wrote a fair amount about how I approach teaching Middlemarch when I worked on it in my 19th-century fiction class in the fall. This round will be different for at least a couple of reasons, though. First of all, as this is a seminar class, inevitably our discussions will take new and unexpected directions as we are guided by the students’ opening questions rather than my lesson plans. Second, we are coming at it after reading several novels focusing very prominently on marriage and (of course) the ‘woman question,’ and these are not actually the angles I play up the most in my lecture classes. To me (and, I hope, to the students who were also in my fall class) it will be interesting to see which aspects of the novel take on increased significance as a result. I’m expecting, for instance, that the Lydgate/Rosamond plot will be more prominent this time, and we may take more time on Fred and Mary than I usually manage. Having just finished He Knew He Was Right, the students may find Dorothea’s struggle to submit to Casaubon–her idealization of renunciation–more problematic than they otherwise would; in fact, I am quite interested in comparing Eliot’s emphasis on duty with Trollope’s interest in rights and principles. I will also be tempted to return us to the questions of literary merit we kicked around when we were studying East Lynne, and which came back in a more muted form with Trollope, whose readability (as Friday’s presenters emphasized) has as often cost him as earned him credibility. And, speaking of Friday’s presentation, our class activity was a mock tea party in which we were all assigned parts from the novel–fun, appropriate given how much we talked about the importance of characters and characterization in the novel, and also effective in stimulating informed contributions from pretty much every member of the seminar. I was assigned the part of Wallachia Petrie, proving, of course, that they were casting against type! (Ha.)

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