Weekday Miscellany: Reading, Writing, Teaching

It sure is quiet around the blogosphere, including around here. Must be summer! It’s not that I haven’t been reading, but for some reason–no particular reason–I haven’t been writing up as many of the books I read as I used to. At this point I’m more likely to do a full write-up only if a book has deeply engaged me, for better or for worse. This approach makes some sense, but it also means a certain slackening of discipline, so perhaps I’ll try to get back in the habit of finding at least something to say about most of my current reading….we’ll see. Right now I’m working on quite a varied collection, including Evidence, by fellow Dalhousian Ian Colford, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I’m only 400 pages in, but I’m pretty sure I disagree with Val McDermid’s claim that I won’t “read a better book this year”), and, of course, Villette. I just finished re-reading Villette this afternoon, and I was completely drawn in by the intensity of both the language and the vicarious experience of Lucy’s passions and sorrows. In the end, I think I like her because she’s a fighter; she has pride, and wit, and perseverance, even sheer cussedness. But I like her best when she cries out, “My heart will break!” More about that tomorrow. Discussion at The Valve has rather petered out, but I’m hopeful that we’ll see a surge of energy around the novel’s conclusion. Overall there have not been nearly as many comments as during last year’s Adam Bede reading, but on the other hand the comments have been extremely interesting and thoughtful. I kind of wish more of the regular Valve authors had participated…but then, catch me reading some of the stuff they post on! So no hard feelings.

As another project, I’ve been working on a piece about Trollope at the invitation of Steve Donoghue at Open Letters. Now, I’m very enthusiastic about Trollope, and so, it turns out, is Steve, and I love having this opportunity to put my thoughts into some kind of readable form. It turns out, though, that a lot of the self-conciousness I thought I had fought off by blogging all this time has come back: all the material I have so far seems both dry and obvious, and I’m riddled with anxieties about tone and audience. I guess the only thing to do is to keep writing, in the spirit of Trollope himself, who famously said, “I was once told that the surest aid to the writing of a book was a piece of cobbler’s wax on my chair. I certainly believe in the cobbler’s wax much more than [in] inspiration.” (Ah, but he didn’t know about the internet, which lets you stay quite fixed in your chair but wander, mentally, far from the task at hand….)

And, as September comes relentlessly closer, even as I cling to the hope that I’ll make more real progress on my major research projects, I find I can’t stop thinking about my fall and winter classes. I actually really enjoy planning classes, setting up the syllabi and assignments, organizing the reserve lists and Blackboard sites and so on. Of course, this is a good thing–but it’s also a bad thing, when in fact I don’t need to do this stuff so early and should be leaving it until the very eve of my first class, as apparently most of my colleagues do (hence the crowds at the photocopier in early September). I like the concrete tasks involved: there’s something satisfying in checking specific items off the to-do list, like “first day handouts” or “links for BLS” or “study questions for Aurora Floyd“. But as a result, I often choose to do these tasks instead of the more amorphous, mentally demanding, never-really-done tasks that make up my research. Really, it’s a question of self-discipline, so starting tomorrow, I vow to spend at least half of every work day on research and writing. Or maybe I can use a rewards system: for every two hours spent in concentrated work of other kinds, I can spend half an hour getting something in order for the fall or winter.

One of the biggest distractions related to my upcoming teaching is that I want to try some new things (new to me, that is, not new in any sense of breaking pedagogical ground), and so I have to figure out how to make them work. For a winter term class, for instance, a lecture class on “British Literature Since 1800,” I am thinking of a wiki assignment that I hope will help students attend to and process the material they hear in lectures, taking more responsibility for it and engaging with it more creatively. My idea (still in development) is to have each tutorial group responsible for its own wiki; a specific student would be responsible for posting his or her notes on each lecture, with the whole group responsible for editing and amplifying them until, by the end of the term, they have a collaboratively-produced study guide for the whole course. I thought perhaps we could liven things up by making a bit of a game of it, with a prize for the best wiki (pizza for the group?). I quite like this idea, in theory anyway. I try hard to make my lectures engaging (though I now understand that I really do talk pretty fast), but I also try hard to make students see that just sitting listening, passively, is not enough. I imagine that this exercise will not only make sure at least someone is listening hard some of the time, but also reveal to them that each of them may hear me differently, may pick up on an example or an argument and think differently about it. I think the wiki format will give them room to challenge each other’s interpretations as well as mine, and to put in counter-arguments, link to additional contexts, and so on. But I am only just learning how to use PBWorks (formerly PBWiki), and before I can assign something of this kind for credit I have to be quite confident about the technology myself, and I have to think hard about how to explain it to them and how to define the requirements and expectations. (If any of you have used wikis in your teaching, advice would be welcome, now, before it’s too late!)

I’m also thinking about having the students in my George Eliot graduate seminar help me build up a really good website (very primitive version started here): I’ve been surprised at the relative dearth of good web resources on GE. Here I’m more confident about the mechanics of it, but I need to think through the academic and scholarly aspects: the what, why, and how of the information we would present. I feel as if this kind of project might help them define an audience and purpose for their work that might motivate them more than sticking to the conventional seminar-presentation-and-paper format, though probably a paper would still be part of the course requirements as well. I asked one of my PhD students, now done with her coursework, what she thought of the idea, and she was very enthusiastic, which was encouraging. But again, more thinking and experimenting to do. At least this, like the wiki idea, is for a course that won’t start until January.

For fun, I’ve also just watched both seasons of In Treatment, which I found totally mesmerizing. Gabriel Byrne can come and listen to me any time.

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