We’re one week into our fall term here and things are close to settling into routine again. I found blogging my teaching valuable enough last year that I’m going to do it again this year, though I may try to mix up the format a bit–maybe instead of reporting (or anticipating) the discussion topics for each class, sometimes I’ll post a favourite passage and invite your comments on it, for instance. Only one of my courses this year is the same as last year, so I won’t be repeating myself too terribly much–though no doubt some of my preoccupations will be the same. So here’s what’s up this week:
I’m teaching a first-year class this term, English 1010, “Introduction to Prose and Fiction.” One of the principles in our department that I have always approved of is that we all teach intro classes on a regular basis, regardless of our other roles in the department; some of our teaching is done by our contract faculty and graduate students, but this year, for instance, of our 21 sections of first-year, tenured and tenure-track faculty are teaching all but 6. Though first-year classes have their challenges, I think many of us would agree that are genuine compensations, including the chance to excite students about literature and writing who had no great expectations for the course coming into it, and the chance to work with bright students heading off into other programs who bring different perspectives to their literary analysis. I was converted into an English major by my own first-year English course, so I never forget the significance this required course may have for someone.
I teach English1010 with an emphasis on writing as an act of urgent communication: most writers, I suggest, wrote not to be anthologized (a distressingly sanitizing and dampening experience for most texts) but to say something to us about something they thought really mattered. As we start the term with a selection of non-fiction prose pieces, this point is easily illustrated with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” things like that. But I actually started out with Ian McEwan’s two Guardian pieces on the September 11 attacks, as I think they effectively illustrate the process of a writer struggling to craft something in words that gives shape and meaning to a conspicuously important event. (The pieces are “Beyond Belief” and “Only Love and then Oblivion.”) First (because my students were very young in 2001, and perhaps not really paying attention) I showed some news footage from the morning of September 11, to recapture something of the shock and confusion so many of us felt as events unfolded without our yet having a story to tell about them–particularly, without knowing what else might happen. Then they wrote a little bit themselves: I asked them particularly to consider what literary form they would use if assigned to write something about that morning and what details or approach they would choose to make what kind of point. Then for the next class they read McEwan’s pieces and we talked about his choices, leading into a discussion of his conclusion that the attacks represent a failure of imagination and compassion. This gives me a somewhat self-serving opportunity to point out that literature could be seen as the antidote to the problem he sees, a good starting point for discussion in general but also for the term to come. The last time I taught the course, I chose McEwan’s Saturday for our major novel, so both the historical / political and the literary context this discussion set up were particularly useful; even though I’ve chosen The Remains of the Day for our novel this year, I thought this would still be a good way to start. I do worry about its sensational aspects: I fretted about showing the video clips, and felt uncomfortable taking time to select the ones I thought would be most effective (that’s an uneasy kind of voyeurism–though it’s surely no worse than the steps involved in making the PowerPoint presentation on the Holocaust which I will show when we study Wiesel’s Night). Because McEwan focuses the second essay on the cell phone calls made that day, I thought of playing some clips, but the only one I could find that still includes the victim’s words proved so upsetting for me to listen to that I opted against using it in that way. Now we’ve moved on to works in our anthology (yesterday, Orwell’s “A Hanging,” tomorrow Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth”). I hope this first exercise had enough impact that they will bring to these readings the idea that writing is always a response to living and thus a matter of some urgency.
My other class this term is English 3031, The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Austen to Dickens. This is the prequel to the course I taught last fall, English 3032 (Dickens to Hardy). These vague start and end points allow us nice flexibility in our course planning; a colleague recently taught 3031 more or less as a course in the Romantic and gothic novel, for instance, while I always teach it as “What the Victorians Learned from Austen and Scott”–only this year, for the first time since 1995, I’m teaching this part of the history of the novel without Scott, a decision I’m already regretting because there is so much I can’t say about our other books without Waverley as a touchstone. Oh well. I just get tired of dragging them along all unwilling (actually, there are always two or three who really “get” Waverley and get a kick out of it as a result, but that still leaves about 35 students who really wish they were reading anything else). To make up for that, I brought in The Mill on the Floss, as I have usually reserved George Eliot for 3032. I haven’t lectured on The Mill on the Floss in some time, though I have assigned it in a number of seminars. I’m looking forward to deciding what I have to say about it this time. But first, we are doing Persuasion, then Vanity Fair, then Jane Eyre, then Bleak House. Sometimes I pick my books around a common theme (I did a “Napoleonic” theme once, for instance), but this time I just went with a list of books I think are really fabulous. We haven’t done much with Persuasion yet, but tomorrow we’ll address it as a war novel. Really. I’m going to show a clip from Master and Commander of the taking of a French ship–just the kind of thing Wentworth and his buddies have been doing to make all their new money. Then we’ll look at a clip of the excellent adaptation of Persuasion, just to highlight the different tone. Then we’ll talk about some historiographical issues, particularly gendered ones, to do with identifying a historical ‘event,’ relating domestic life to national or public life, etc. I think it will be interesting. And on that note, I’d best go get my materials organized for it.