Last week there were no classes–it was that heady interval known as ‘Reading Week,’ or, to some, ‘February Break.’ I could tell it was a ‘break’ because I didn’t work nights. Otherwise, I was pretty busy, especially with working my way through the major research assignment that had just come in from my Brit Lit survey class, reading through some graduate thesis chapters, and catching up on paperwork (note to me: keeping track of your students’ contributions to wikis and blogs requires both foresight and ongoing attention). Round about last Thursday, though, it hit me that this week was coming, with a nearly full slate of classes on material I hadn’t lectured on before. So much for the ‘break.’
However, here I am, nearly half way through the week and so far, I’m more or less on top of it, I think–even though it’s hard to escape the vaguely surreal feeling that I’m role-playing rather than teaching (today, RM appears in the unfamiliar role of a modernist and Joyce expert…). I have two research assignments to finish evaluating, but I made it through my session on Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” for the survey class on Monday and have spent a few quite enjoyable hours since then brushing up on Joyce for today’s class on “The Dead.” Friday it’s Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” and then we’re done with modernist fiction and on to T. S. Eliot and Yeats next week. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we wrapped up The Maltese Falcon on Monday and now we’re moving into feminist revisions of hard-boiled detection, starting with short stories by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. I have usually taught Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi as the longer text for this topic, but this year I’ve switched in Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. It’s at least as interesting in terms of confronting specific conventions of the genre, but I admit it is not quite as much fun: Paretsky (like her detective) takes herself pretty seriously, whereas with Grafton, at least in her early novels, there’s a playful quality to it. But Paretsky’s focus on systemic corruption actually seems more relevant to the kind of story Hammett tells in Falcon than Grafton’s emphasis on dysfunctional family structures. We’ll see how they react. I have found in past years that when I start taking overtly about feminism, there’s a perceptible disengagement. On Monday, for instance, I invited discussion about how far we could interpret Brigid O’Shaughnessy as a woman choosing survival strategies in a profoundly sexist environment: not (just) a femme fatale but in her own way a victim, including, perhaps, to Sam’s hyper-professional, masculine code of ethics by which “if a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” No takers at all, at least not anyone prepared to speak up.
In my graduate seminar, happily for me we have moved on to Middlemarch, a novel I know well enough not to sweat the details of class prep in quite the same way I had to for Romola. Although I just read through it last term for my 19th-century fiction class, I am rereading it carefully, with a clean new copy to mark up (and put sticky notes in), to make sure my recollection is precise and to see what different aspects stand out in this particular context, reading through so much of her work at once. A colleague remarked not long ago that she has the hardest time preparing to teach material she knows exceptionally well; the problem is that it’s hard to be satisfied with what you can get through in a limited time. I do feel that a bit now with Middlemarch–not that I know anything like everything about it, but that it’s a bit laborious starting it up all over again with a new group, and wanting to get past some of the obvious bits or sticking points. Also, my own comments seem inadequate, whereas I’ll be happy enough to have found anything reasonably intelligent to say about “The Dead” (as long as no real Joyce expert is listening in).
Overall, we’re hurtling towards the end of term, which means I have to get final paper topics ready, mid-term tests prepared, and all the other bits and pieces that are part of your plan but seem so far away when you first show up in January. And before that, I have to get those last two annotated bibliographies squared away, so off I go to do that.
role-playing rather than teachingThat's it, that's my entire semester. I'm learning a lot. Less sure about my students.
I feel much the same way in many of my courses. I can walk out feeling pretty clever about, say, Faulkner (I work on the British 18th century), as long as I'm sure no REAL expert was listening in.The class I really struggle with is an introduction to satire. I'm never quite sure how to teach irony, for example.
The Grafton and Paretsky are interesting choices – why them? Because not just the protagonists but the authors are women? How do students respond, usually?
I choose Grafton and/or Paretsky because I organize the course to highlight developments in the genre, one of which is the flourishing, since around 1980, of explicitly feminist crime fiction–more particularly, feminist revisions of hard-boiled conventions. Along with Marcia Muller, Grafton and Paretsky are the two usually acknowledged by critics as having broken this ground.