This Week in My Classes: ‘Almost Over’ Edition

This is our last week of class meetings before the exam period begins. It seems I may be swimming against the tide in still trying to cover some actual content this week, as I finish up City of Glass in Mystery and Detective Fiction, Atonement in the Brit Lit Survey, and Daniel Deronda in my graduate seminar. But even I am nearly out of new material now and entering into the ‘review and conclusions’ phase. I actually like this phase, as I think it is good for us all to look back over what we have done, or tried to do, and see what sense we can make of it, so it frustrates me that attendance flags for review classes. Ornery to the end, I’m trying to counteract the apparently widespread conviction that the best approach to finishing a class is to stay away from it. I have many devious strategies: for instance, I now distribute the essay questions for the final exam at the review session, usually a list of two or three topics one of which will be the one they ultimately face on exam day. In addition to bringing more bodies into the room for my attempt to draw together the central ideas of the course and offer some kind of closing peroration, this tactic also benefits them, because it gives them structure for their studying and, I hope, reduces their anxiety about the exam (results are better if they are more in control, which I like as much as they do). The down side for me is that I have to think up the exam questions now, instead of two weeks from now when we reach the exam date–but then, overall it’s a zero sum game for me, and right now I’m not also marking papers.

Speaking of papers, one thing we did this week in the survey class was a peer editing session. Over the years my enthusiasm for this process has ebbed and flowed. Sometimes I worry that, no matter how much effort I put into planning the editing worksheet and other preparatory materials, it too often is just the blind leading the blind. And they’re so timid with each other: faced with a paper that has no discernible thesis, so often they politely praise the way it “flows” and tweak a comma here or a word choice there (again, no matter how precise the instructions that tell them, first, never to use the world ‘flow,’ which has no analytical value at all when applied to an argument, and second, that editing is not the same as proofreading). On the other hand, even if the actual editing is not always as stringent and rigorous as would be ideal, it is valuable to expose your work to another reader and get at least some response, just as it is valuable to read another writer and realize how differently someone else may approach the same problem you have been working on. And, whatever else goes on–and these days this is the consideration that trumps all others when I schedule such a session–meeting the requirement that you turn up with a complete draft in hand several days before the deadline means that you do, in fact, have a complete draft several days before the deadline. If you use the great gift you have now been given, namely, time to rethink, reconsider, review, and revise, then it’s all worth it. I know, because my students frankly admit this over and over, that the vast majority of them typically begin writing an essay less than a week before the deadline, maybe even just a day or two. Most of the time, it shows. For instance, if I had a loonie for every time I wrote in my comments that the strongest statement of their argument was at the end of their essay rather than in its introduction, I could, well, not retire, but maybe buy an iPad (if I wanted to, that is). That’s a symptom of the time crunch they are usually in: they haven’t really figured out their argument when they begin writing–which is typical, of course, because writing and thinking go on together–but they haven’t got time, once they’ve figured it out, to rewrite and restructure. Write, print, submit: that’s the usual process.  To be sure, some of those who brought their drafts to Monday’s workshop still won’t care enough to revise before Friday’s deadline. But I’ve had enough students tell me how glad they were not to have handed in that first ‘finished’ version that I think it’s a class hour well spent.

Having confessed last time that I don’t like City of Glass, I should say that I enjoyed Monday’s discussion much more than I expected. Perhaps because I was unfettered by strong commitments to the novel, I roamed a bit wildly around in the questions I put to the class, though I think I did keep us thinking and talking about central issues in the novel, such as identity and naming, or the difference between doing something and pretending to do something. The novel is playful (a bit tediously so, but again, that’s just my taste) about the possibility that identity is, if not wholly arbitrary, at the very least malleable, or interchangeable. Who are we really? What kind of a question is that, anyway? Auster literalizes some of the paradoxical conclusions of post-structuralist theory or post-humanist perspectives, and taken as an intellectual game, it has its entertaining side. The games he plays with the expectations of detective fiction are amusing too, in our context–the expectation that information is relevant, for instance, and can be assembled into meaningful patterns. Many detective novels in fact ironize, or at least thematize, the will-to-order enacted by their form, but they also cater to it by giving us, not (just) random bits of trash but clues, urging us to distinguish red herrings from the real thing and so on, and then offering up the big ‘reveal’ at the end, the promise, as Auster says, of plenitude. So his faux-detective obsessively collects information and finds meaning in it, though the further he goes in his quest the more fragmented, elusive, and ultimately unreliable and meaningless the whole process becomes. In the end, of course, there’s only writing.

The last meeting of the George Eliot graduate seminar was mostly used for discussion of Daniel Deronda, but I asked them also to reflect on the pros and cons of our single-author focus (pros, the consensus seemed to be, included the satisfaction of feeling you really knew a lot and could notice, appreciate, and investigate connections and relationships across the oeuvre; cons included some repetitiousness, as her thematic concerns do have a certain consistency, and also some difficulty appreciating her by contrast, through seeing what other 19th-century novelists did, either with similar themes or plot structures, or with the form of the novel–all fair concerns). It is striking, when you read so many of the novels all in a row, how much they have in common, despite also being so different one from the other (The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda, for instance, don’t sound at all the same, except perhaps in some passages of narrative commentary, and even there, not as much as you might expect). The interplay of egotism and altruism, and the secularization of sacred feelings, seemed to me the strongest continuities. We had some good discussion specifically of the tension some of us felt between the ‘sympathy project’ GE is so palpably and overtly engaged in through the earlier novels and the turn to a more essentialist kind of identification, and to nationalism, in Deronda. Perhaps, as some critics have argued, the Jewish nationalism of Derondashe sh should not be taken too literally but should be understood as an almost metaphorical antedote to the spiritual vacuity of the upper-class English world that makes up the ‘other’ half of this famously dis-unified (or is it?) novel. But that reading is difficult to sustain given the specificity with which Mordecai and then Daniel’s dream of a Jewish homeland is articulated. Of course we had to take some time for Daniel’s mother, too, the singer Alcharisi, whose uncompromising rejection of both Judaism and conventional female roles is at once heroic and tragic, and ultimately, we felt, undermined by the novel, which celebrates all the kinds of feelings she lacks (submission, loyalty, love, faith, altruism). So Gwendolen is chastened, and Alcharisi is like an object lesson (as if we needed one by this time) of the damage GE so insistently suggests is done by those who pursue their own selfish desires. But…(and that’s a frequent turn in working through this novel) she also has lived for art, and the nobility of that vocation is surely one of the novel’s interests. But, again, Mirah is idealized and sings beautifully, not on stage, but in homes. Often in the course we have struggled with the ways GE acknowledges women’s struggles for self-realization but then cuts them off, usually in the interests of realism. Something else seems at stake, though, with Alcharisi: that she should be the character to rail against ‘the slavery of being a girl’ makes such a feminist critique seem not just unattractive but dangerous. I had a terrific group of students in this seminar: smart, engaged, articulate, sincere. In this case at least, I’m looking forward to reading their term papers. I’ve asked them if they would mind my lifting the password protection on our class blog now that they’ve finished their ‘official’ contributions. I think the discussions were consistently lively and interesting, and might therefore be of some interest to other people–who might even be tempted to join in with a comment or two. I don’t know what they’ll conclude about this. Like most academics, they’re a bit shy. Whatever they decide, I think I’m pleased with having required them to maintain a blog rather than, say, to give formal class presentations. Our class discussions were more productive because of it, and they also now have an archive of ideas-in-progress to consult as they work on their essays. The give-and-take of blogging, too, is something I like better than the often stilted experience of presentations, in which one person has thought a lot and the rest of the group tries to catch up and think of something to say. They may disagree, of course: I won’t know until I see their course evaluations!

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2 Responses to This Week in My Classes: ‘Almost Over’ Edition

  1. The “sympathy project”? I like the sound of that.

    I should have mentioned earlier that I thought your Atonement posts were excellent. That’s one of the few 21st century novels I’ve read, and my estimate of it is as high as yours.

  2. Rohan says:

    AR: Yes, I believe I had occasion to refer to your larger theory about the 19thC novel and its ‘sympathy project’–but we didn’t, sadly, have a broad enough range of expertise to do more than focus on GE’s contribution. 🙂

    Thanks about Atonement. If you make space for any more 21st-C novels, you might try Wolf Hall. I think it is about as good as everyone keeps saying. And speaking of high estimates of novels, with my term wrapping up, I’m starting to think about The Antiquary!

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