This Week in My Classes (April 9, 2009)

This was our last week of classes for the term. Though it is a relief to be done with the insistent pressure to be ready for the next class meeting (an anxiety that kicks in for me about as soon as I walk out of the classroom), in its own way the next phase is also pretty tiring. For instance, I have about 25 papers left in my half of the batch from Mystery and Detective Fiction, and I hope to return them at the exam on Tuesday, which didn’t seem unrealistic until it really sank in that this is a four-day weekend, meaning concentrated quiet time will be sparse until at least 9 p.m., by which time my mental functioning has, shall we say, diminished. Once that set of papers goes back, the exams come in, as do the 21 papers for the Faith and Doubt seminar–but the latter should be relatively interesting and enjoyable to work through, not least because the students already submitted (and received detailed comments on) proposals. It’s a lot to get done, and in addition I am accutely (!) aware that time is running out to get a draft of the Soueif paper together to present at ACCUTE in May. (What am I doing writing this post, then, you ask? Well, you see, it has been a long day already, and I have a cold. You can’t mark papers under those conditions: you need a shred of generosity remaining so you don’t snark too cruelly when someone writes about [real example] “hardnosed” instead of “hardboiled” detection.)

The last two weeks of both classes seemed to go well enough. I wish the energy had been higher all term in Faith and Doubt. It’s no surprise that Jude the Obscure did not bring us to a rousing conclusion, though as usual the novel proved provocative enough to stimulate some good discussion, especially about Sue. I’m not sure how much of this is my fault (as several class members have studied the novel with me before) but the consensus seemed to be that she is thoroughly annoying, which is certainly my own reaction to her. The problem, of course, is that Jude adores her–idealizes her, even. Is this just another of his follies (Jude “Fawley,” get it?), like his early worship of Phillotson and his dreams about Christminster? Is she to him as, say, Amelia is to Dobbin, unworthy of the beauty and endurance of his love? Or is she some kind of ideal form of intellectual femininity freed from the animality of sex (the “not-Arabella”) and yet unable to escape the mundane realities of earthly relationships? Are we too supposed to yearn for her, and thus for the happy fulfilment of their love? The novel is sad either way, but it’s only really tragic if what Sue and Jude struggle for would be worth having, and the novel as a whole does seem to put its weight behind them, especially towards the end when even Widow Edlin asserts the truth of their illegitimate marriage over Sue’s legal (but appalling) union with Phillotson. Jude is so depressing I’d never teach it again, except that (a) it’s always a hit, (b) its themes resonate really well with those of other novels I teach, and (c) I don’t really look forward to exploring other Hardy options. I’ve assigned Tess a couple of times in seminars but never lectured on it; it’s equally depressing. Still, maybe a change would be as good as a rest. As part of the final group presentation, we got to play “Survivor: Christminster Edition,” which was fun, and appropriately ruthless (no help allowed–because after all, “nobody did come, because nobody does”).

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we ended with City of Glass. I had hoped that working it up for teaching would temper my initial reaction. It did, somewhat. Given the context of the course, we mostly discussed it as an “anti-detective novel,” examining the ideas put forward via Quinn and his pseudonymous work as mystery novelist William Wilson about reading and writing detective fiction, and then the ways Quinn’s adventures as detective Paul Auster undermine the assumptions of certainty and meaning typically associated with the genre. For instance, with our other books we had talked quite a bit about the significance of objects as clues (sometimes comparing this fairly literal deployment with the “literary” use of objects as symbols): in City of Glass the expectation that one way or another objects or incidents (or characters) will be replete with meaning and cohere, over the course of the story, into a revealing pattern is pretty obviously frustrated. We touched (a bit lightly–as it’s not really that kind of course) on some underlying philosophical or theoretical ideas, such as poststructuralist critiques of the idea of a unified self, or slippages between signifieds and signifiers, or metaphysical problems about naming and identity (e.g. through Auster’s example of the malfunctioning umbrella). In some interviews I turned up, Auster has rejected the idea that he writes cerebrally, claiming that his books are about the music of language. Uh huh. I also invited us to look back across our earlier readings and see how far they correspond to the fairly reductive view Quinn gives of detective fiction. In their own ways, a number of them also unsettle supposed certainties–if not metaphysical, then certainly moral and epistemological. I don’t know how successful an addition the novel was to the course. I know already that a few students really liked it but others disliked it intensely, but then popularity is not always the best measure of pedagogical value. It certainly met my goal of introducing something very different from the other readings, and it challenged me intellectually, which is always a good thing for a teacher. I felt a bit uncertain working with it, but I’ll do better the second time (tune in next April for a full report…). Though I won’t know until I see the course evaluations later on whether the students felt the same way, I thought that overall the course went well this time, better than last year. Attendance was good, a lot of students were willing to put their hands up and pitch in with good ideas, they were very cooperative with group exercises–the energy in the room almost always seemed positive. I hope they felt that too.

What lies ahead? I’m not teaching this summer, which I regret a bit, as I always enjoy summer classes–but I think it was the right decision, as I need to sort out the various strands of my research. I’m also taking a real holiday, a trip to England, for the first time since 1986. I’m very excited about this! We are going just to Oxford (where my little hotel is directly across from Balliol) and London, so we will be able to concentrate our energy rather than rushing all over the place. Then here’s my teaching line-up for 2009-10:


The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy

Victorian Sensations


British Literature From 1800

Mystery and Detective Fiction

George Eliot

I am thinking that I will ‘blog my teaching’ more selectively or in a different way next year, especially as some of these courses are ones I have covered before, if in slightly different versions. I still feel about this exercise, though, much as I did last year: it is at once a useful supplement to and a valuable record of the activity that takes up most of my professional time and energy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.