This Week in My Classes (January 6, 2009)

That’s right, another term has begun. Blogging about teaching has become yet another reminder for me of how cyclical academic work is: to everything there is, indeed, a season. As my years in this job add up, I am increasingly self-conscious about the potential the work has for becoming repetitive (if it’s the second week of January, it must be The Moonstone…). At the same time, I am also increasingly appreciative of the on-again, off-again rhythm, the three-month bursts of intense concentration, barely-controlled chaos, and incessant demands and deadlines, followed by an interval of relative calm–still full of work, but without the same feeling that you are just grasping at the next thing in a never-ending chain. Sometimes, in between terms, you don’t even do much real work on evenings and weekends!

Here’s what’s up this term. Once again, by popular demand (and to help meet my ‘quota’ for what our higher-ups tactlessly call “bums-in-seats”), I’m teaching Mystery and Detective Fiction. Some of you will remember the convolutions I went through trying to revamp the reading list for this course. I undertook that re-thinking process a bit belatedly, as I had already ordered most of my books for this term; I am using a new anthology, the Longman Anthology of Mystery and Detective Fiction instead of the Oxford Book of Detective Stories, which means a different selection of short texts, and I have added Auster’s City of Glass. But otherwise the major landmarks of the course are the same as last winter’s version. Next year, however…. One text I’m sure I won’t change is, actually, The Moonstone. It’s just so much fun; I’m not sure I’ll ever be sorry to wake up on a Monday morning in January and realize it’s Gabriel Betteredge Day. We haven’t done much yet this term. Tomorrow’s “Big Intro Lecture” day. I just hope more of the students have actually bothered to get back in town.

My other class is a new one for me, an upper-level seminar on “Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt.” Back when we still offered a lot of full-year courses, I sometimes taught a Victorian literature survey, and it included a “crisis of faith” unit (along with the “Woman Question” unit that became the basis of another special topics seminar I have now offered several times). I thought I’d like to get back to some of the prose and poetry I don’t otherwise get to teach much, and religion is not only the quintessential 19th-century topic but also a topic of some personal interest to me; this new seminar is the result. I would not feel competent to offer a graduate level course on this material, but I’ve been brushing up on key texts and contexts and I think (I hope!) I’m going to be OK for my purposes this term. I’ve got my intro lecture on “varieties of 19th-century faith and doubt” ready to go. We haven’t done much but organizing so far, but one comment in yesterday’s class meeting did take me by surprise–maybe unreasonably, I don’t know. The students were signing up for seminar presentations and I remarked that they seemed to be avoiding Hopkins. “It’s because we’ve never heard of him,” one of them said. Never heard of Hopkins? Am I crazy to find this startling in a room full of 4th-year English Honours and Majors students? I’ve been trying to remember when I first came across Hopkins and what my first reading would have been. I’m thinking it was “God’s Grandeur” in my second-year Chaucer-t0-Yeats survey class, or maybe (since I was the kind of person who read around) I just encountered him while reading on my own. I always teach something by Hopkins when I’m doing a poetry class or a class with a poetry unit; I’m pretty sure that when I taught Close Reading (still my most challenging and rewarding pedagogical assignment) we did at least “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover” every year. It’s hard to think of poetry that better illustrates both the rewards and the limits of close reading! Dear readers, do you read–have you read–any Hopkins? How obscure is he these days?

To close, then, because I’m in a poetry frame of mind, here’s a study in contrasts from my ‘faith and doubt’ syllabus: my favourite section of In Memoriam (Tennyson, often belittled for his “pretty” language, shows he can be stark and restrained with the best of them) and a dose of Hopkins (ah! the ecstasy of that last moment). Go ahead: scan them both. You know you want to.

from In Memoriam A.H.H.


Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more —
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge & shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.
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