Last Week in My Classes (January 2009)

Last week started badly (or well, I suppose, depending on your perspective), with Dalhousie actually closing for the morning due to winter weather. This is one of a handful of times the university has closed since I came here in 1995; many times I have trekked out in blizzard-like conditions wondering why, exactly, anyone should be expected to carry on under the circumstances. Monday’s problem was a bit unusual: we had a sizable dump of snow last Sunday which turned to freezing rain and rain overnight, but rather than the rain washing the streets clean, it collected on top of what became a layer of solid ice. The result was a mess of puddles (some as deep as car doors) over a skating rink. It was a relief not to have to decide for myself whether I would cancel my morning classes or struggle in. And fortunately, from a pedagogical standpoint, the cost was minimal, or at least easily made up for, as we were doing the same readings all week, so we could make up for lost time by covering more in the days remaining.

So what did we do, when we got back on campus? Well, in Mystery and Detective Fiction we finished up The Moonstone. On Wednesday we talked especially about Rachel, Franklin, and Ezra Jennings; I tried to move us towards the novel’s emphasis on the importance of getting outside ‘conventional English’ perspectives to resolve its crimes–not just the ostensibly central crime of the novel, the theft of the diamond, but the other injustices that reveal themselves, including class and gender prejudices and colonialism. My excellent TA took the final class, and gave a smart and thorough talk on science in the novel (a topic that, in addition to its intrinsic interest and relevance to Collins’s work, sets us up well for this week’s transition to Sherlock Holmes). Then she led us into a discussion of the novel’s conclusion and the solution of the mystery, and how far the broader issues opened up by then are in fact resolved. Is justice served at the end? The class consensus seemed to be that Godfrey got what was coming to him (though we considered how far he is a scapegoat for larger forces) and that the diamond is finally where it belongs. Here, as with so much crime fiction, we are pressed into making moral distinctions that we might not ordinarily be so comfortable with (is suffocation a kinder and thus more acceptable method of murder than multiple stab wounds? is death a reasonable punishment for opportunistic thieving? is killing for religious reasons, instead of for materialistic ones, somehow excusable?).

In my Faith and Doubt seminar, we were reading A Christmas Carol this week. It was not an obvious choice for this class, but it is included in its entirety in our anthology, and I wanted both to read some Dickens and to use as much of our assigned text as possible (to repay their financial investment in it). I thought it worked well, actually, as it raised a lot of questions about how far Dickens is secularizing Christian ideas and mores, how far he is rather trying to translate them into a non-sectarian (but still largely Christian) vision, how much of the story’s religiosity is lost on (most of) us because we don’t catch a lot of the Biblical or doctrinal allusions, and so on. Because we’ve been talking about Victorian religious controversies and ideas of faith and doubt, certain moments stood out more sharply than usual (Scrooge’s debate with the Spirit about restrictions on Sunday leisure activities, for instance, in which the Spirit repudiates such evangelical measures). In Friday’s class we had our first student presentation. I always enjoy seeing the results of the students’ creativity applied to our class readings; it tends, also, to energize the larger group to see their classmates so involved. This week’s group used clips from two film adaptations of the story to help us focus on ways its religious elements are changed and downplayed–though even in the Muppet version, as we discussed, the key note is struck through Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, every one” and the song “Bless us all”. If our initial impression is that the story has been revised for a secular era, maybe we can only see and hear it this way because we have become accustomed to religious language stripped of its sacred meanings (as in “Oh my god!” “Good Heavens!” and “Jesus Christ!”–all expressions used incessnatly today purely as expostulations). In the face of several comments about ways the adaptations lose or give up on many of the more serious elements of Dickens’s original (such as its social criticism and calls for reform), one student objected to our giving the original too much credence or authority: she said she found it heavy-handed and not well written. I grant it’s not Dickens’s most subtle story, but there is a genre issue here as much as an evaluative one, I think: it’s a moral fable, so it seems inappropriate to criticize it for being, well, moralizing! It’s a separate and probably unanswerable question how far we can or should value such a genre. We didn’t have time to parse her claim that it’s not “well-written,” but I wonder too if that would hold up against patient reading. Large swatches of the story, at any rate, are great examples of Dickens’s gift for imagery and sensuality in his descriptions; the excess of metaphor, and even of sentiment, seems well-suited to his affective designs on us; and of course, generations of readers have taken pleasure in it. Still, the underlying question is always an interesting one when it comes to adaptations: should faithfulness to the original be the measure of success? (Having just seen two fairly uneven adaptations of novels by Ian McEwan, I have been pondering this question a bit lately. FWIW, I thought the recent film of Atonement was at least brave in trying to capture the novel’s interest in modernist aesthetics as well as its metatextuality; I’m not altogether sure that the makers of Enduring Love read that novel all the way to the end.)

The final teaching event of the week was my participation in the WHiPS event on Friday. In retrospect, I think I would have been a more interesting case study for the audience if I’d chosen to work on a blog post, so that they would see more new words actually being generated and tinkered with. But I was told it was fine just to bring my current writing project, so I worked (or tried to work) on my book review of Case and Shaw’s Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel and Levine’s How to Read the Victorian Novel. I’m not much further ahead on the review, because a lot of time was taken up with fielding questions about my “writing process”–but also with explaining to the constantly shifting audience just what I was doing, where I had gotten so far and what issues I was (am) still struggling with. Because a number of these issues are conceptual ones (e.g. what is most useful or important to say about these books?), a lot of what I’m currently doing is thinking–not really a spectator sport, even when (as requested) you are giving an informal running commentary on your efforts. I did show (as I think most of the participating writers did) that writing is not a matter of starting at the beginning and keeping on until the end, but rather putting pieces down and considering their coherence and usefulness, roughing in outlines, shuffling things around, adding quotations, shuffling things around again, and so on. One of the Ph.D. students I’m supervising was there for a while and remarked that, for her, it was indeed helpful seeing that I myself do the kinds of things I’m always urging her to do (for instance, writing things out before you are sure you have got them right or know what to do with them). But I don’t know how much other observers got out of the experience. In trying to explain why I had the rough pieces they could see in the document, I did end up explaining in various ways some of the issues I’m interested in regarding differences between criticism as we practice it in the classroom and criticism as we (usually) publish it–this is the ‘angle’ I think I’m going to use to motivate the discussion of the particular books. Explaining this many times helped me think about how I was actually going to weld this general issue to the specific review portions, but I’m pretty sure it was all more interesting to me than to them. Some of the chunks of prose I’m working with in the draft of the review are taken from earlier blog posts on related topics, so there was some discussion about differences between how I write for the blog and how I do other things. I emphasized that for me, blogging is, deliberately, a less formal and self-conscious kind of writing. I always compose posts online, and I allow them to be more open-ended and stream-of-consciousness. In some ways, then, blogging is a kind of pre-writing for me when I’m dealing with material I also work with professionally. Several people seemed interested in my comments about how writing often on my blog has (I think) made me a more confident writer in other venues–the best way to become a better writer, after all, is to write! One student asked if I prefer to work for long intervals (a few hours at a time, say) so that some momentum can develop; I had to laugh at the idea of ever having a few hours straight without interruptions or other commitments interfering. Still, no question, to my mind the single most important quality of a successful writer must be discipline. Trollope was spot on when he said that the essential tool for a writer is glue on the seat of his pants!

One interesting conversation that broke out a few times was about technologies of/and writing. A couple of people asked about writing by hand vs. composing online. I explained that I still find some stages of the writing process much easier or more comfortable to do by hand. One issue for me, for instance, is taking notes from a book. Physically, it is easier to hold the book with one hand and write in a notebook with the other than to prop the book open and look back and forth from it to a computer screen while using both hands to type. We talked about working with electronic files and ebooks: I don’t yet have experience with using ebooks for my work, but I can imagine naturalizing note-taking on the computer once I can have the book (or an article) open in one window and my word-processor in another. In theory, I can do this already with articles, but I don’t (yet) have software that enables me to highlight or comment right in the margins of a PDF file, and this remains a typical step in my processing of sources. I still feel there’s something in the physical, tangible connection between pen and paper that helps me own the material and the ideas it is generating. There are also things I don’t know how to do on a computer, such as roughing out brainstorming ideas in diagrams and charts. Sometimes I need to be messy, and I don’t know that a computer can let me do this–though I did learn that there is software that lets you simulate the mapping-out steps of brainstorming. While in some ways I draft much more efficiently now that I do almost all of my actual composing on my computer, then, my own process is still a hybrid one. Of course, the limits of the technologies I have or know how to use are important factors here. How much time do I want to invest in learning to use new toys, though, rather than, say, actually getting words in order? (Relatedly, we wondered if concerns about electronic waste are going to inhibit the current momentum towards going paperless.)

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