This Week in My Classes (February 20, 2009)

Whew. This has been another week in which I have not been able to count on even getting to class. However, despite the best efforts of winter, children with mysterious abdominal pains, a non-responsive iBook (now recovered, thank goodness) and other threats to a well-ordered but precariously balanced life, all of my scheduled class meetings actually went ahead as planned. And next week is Reading Week! In celebration of which I am determined not to do anything specifically work-related this weekend…and tonight I’m going to watch ER (which I was too tired and busy to watch ‘live’ last night) and other suitably diverting things without, for once, feeling guilty about all the things on my “to do” list. (Alright, I confess: I’ve rented “Mamma Mia!” which looks suitably frothy and brainless, plus nostalgic, as once in my foolish youth I was an ABBA fan. Hey, it was the 1970s: lots of people were ABBA fans…and frankly, after tuning in briefly to the Grammy Awards this year, I find myself thinking we could do worse than churn out some songs with catchy tunes, nice harmonies, and lyrics you don’t mind teaching your 7-year-old daughter.) [Update: “Mamma Mia!” is absolutely terrible. Awful. Appalling. The acting is bad. The singing is worse–in fact, I ended up skipping through most of the musical numbers because I couldn’t bear it. I knew the storyline was going to be lame but it was worse than I expected watching it play out. Sigh.]

In Mystery and Detective Fiction we finished with The Maltese Falcon this week. I continue to find it one of the saddest books I know. We had some fun thinking about whether Sam’s line “If they hang you I’ll always remember you” is actually kind of romantic. Although I can still work up some enthusiasm for discussing this novel, I am planning to do The Big Sleep in its place when I teach this class next year. After a while, it’s hard to feel you have anything fresh to say, and there’s a temptation to rely too hard on last year’s notes. I have never even read all of The Big Sleep, so working it up to teaching pitch will be a fun part of next year’s planning.

In Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt, on Wednesday we had our class presentation on Darwin, which concluded with a “test what you’ve learned about Darwin”-type game called (yes, you guessed it) “Natural Selection.” I always enjoy students’ ingenuity. I challenge them to think about how they feel when their classmates present–what strategies keep them engaged, what kind of activities they feel are productive, and so on. Their game questions were open-ended enough that (once we stopped worrying about our team’s extinction, or who would get the prize cupcakes) we had some good general discussion about the impact of Darwin’s ideas on Victorian literature as well as on more contemporary issues. Today we discussed Browning’s “Caliban Upon Setebos.” I was quite anxious coming into class, as things have not been as lively in this seminar as I am used to, and this is not the most accessible of poems. However, we did at least as well today as we have been lately, for which I give Browning all the credit. It’s such a strange, interesting poem that I think at least some of the students were simply drawn in by that, while the dramatic monologue form provides a lot of useful starting points for analysis. Though it is not explicitly a poem about evolution, one aspect of it that we discussed was the way Caliban observes with world in the manner of a naturalist. We were pretty well prepared to consider the ironic revision the poem offers to Paley’s Natural Theology (the poem’s subtitle is “Natural Theology on the Island”), and to compare Caliban’s inferences about the design or purpose of the universe based on his observations to the conclusions our other authors have suggested. All in all, then, I thought it went quite well. Still, I think we’ll all be happy to get to Silas Marner next–after the break!

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