This Week in My Classes (September 17, 2008)

As always, the chaos of the first week has settled into the confusion of the second, and by next week we should all be in the groove. I’m still flummoxed by students asking questions such as “what’s the reading for Friday?” when I have told them, with tedious frequency, since September 5, that they will find all the guidance they need in their course syllabi. But in general they seem to be figuring out how things work, and I’m beginning to learn some of their names–a process that gets discouragingly more difficult for me every year.

In English 1010, I tried an experiment this year and assigned an in-class essay last week. An article I was reading on pedagogy recommended an early assignment as a way of focusing their attention on the class and showing them that you mean business, and I thought that made sense. Also, I thought it would be useful for me and them to see early on what they know how to do already and what we need to work on this term. Though in retrospect I should have allowed myself more than two days to read through them all (even Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth” collapses under the weight of 50+ first-year papers), it was definitely an informative experience, and I was able to generate a list of “Things to Work On” that we will keep track of over the term. First up today was “its” vs. “it’s” (and all other things apostrophe-related). Honestly, as I told them, there’s no reason to get so muddled about apostrophes, as their rules are so specific–unlike commas, for which a great deal of fine judgment can sometimes be required. Then we moved on to the higher-order task of improving their vocabulary for analyzing literature, with some work on diction, tone, and irony. Our reading for today was Brent Staples’s “Just Walk On By: A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space” (better known by the shorter title “Black Men and Public Space,” I think). It’s a good case study for considering the importance of tone, I think. One aspect we discussed was how he might have pitched the essay given its original audience: it first appeared in Ms. Friday we’ll keep going with tone but also consider some aspects of formal argumentation with Shelby Steele’s “Affirmative Action: The Price of Preference.”

It’s Persuasion in my 19th-Century Fiction class this week. Having talked about the navy quite a bit last week, this week I tried to lay out some ideas about the novel’s historiographical implications (when a war is going on, or has just ended, or may just start, what counts as an ‘important’ or historical event? where does history happen? how do people experience historical change? how does Austen let us know that her characters live in history?) and then, today, to move from big social and political issues to the presentation of Anne’s interiority and her (and the novel’s) struggle with strong feelings and desires. I went over the concepts of limited omniscient narration and indirect discourse, and tried to introduce some issues about narration and point of view more generally that will be important for our thinking about all of our novels. Towards the end of class today we talked about what to make of Anne’s self-control or reserve, which can come across as repression and seem highly problematic in the context of the contemporary feminist valorization of speaking one’s mind or demanding what one wants. With Jane Eyre coming up, I thought it would be good to raise some questions about that novel’s iconic status in the feminist canon and to consider how far Austen is endorsing a different model of feminine strength. It’s a problem for Anne, of course, that she doesn’t speak out enough: she nearly loses everything! But Louisa Musgrove’s fall can be seen as a caution about being too clamorous.

I’m looking forward to Vanity Fair next week. I think the class will be pleasantly surprised by how much fun it is.

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