This Week in My Classes: Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

Well, it won’t be wild today, I don’t expect, but my teaching term does begin, with the first meeting of my seminar on Women and Detective Fiction. I’ve always really enjoyed teaching this seminar in the past: it usually attracts a good group of students, the readings are varied and, I think, productively juxtaposed, and the discussion as a result tends to be lively and interesting. Plus who wouldn’t like a reason to read Gaudy Night and call it working? Today is just administrative stuff, mostly, though I’ll make a few remarks about my choice of readings and some of the themes that I expect we’ll concentrate as we go forward. Then we’ll discuss the course requirements and expectations, and then sign everyone up for question sets and seminar presentations. Looking at my incredibly detailed syllabus, I am amused to remember the one page mimeographed sheets that served this purpose when I was an undergraduate. Now, if it’s not in the syllabus, good luck insisting on it! Today, students expect a very literal and precise explanation of what they are supposed to do and how they will be evaluated for their efforts. There are some good reasons for this, including transparency (it seems only fair that they should know what they are supposed to do and how they will be evaluated for it!) but at the same time the trend towards hand-holding does rather sap the student experience of what I guess I’d consider adult expectations. I worry, too, that my detailed handouts (and Blackboard sites) sometimes backfire, in that students don’t even try to infer anything or figure anything out for themselves (looking up regulations, for instance)–and then there are the students who blithely ignore all the support materials and email or corner you with tediously repetitious questions about when things are due, what the policy is on late papers, and so forth. I no longer answer these questions, except with a smiling “You’ll find all that information and more in your syllabus.” It’s that whole teach a man to fish philosophy (imagine, then, how it peeved me to see on one of my course evaluations a year or so ago, “She’s not very helpful: whenever I asked her anything, she just said “look in the syllabus”…).

Anyway, these petty annoyances aside, I’m glad to be heading into the classroom, and I expect to post regularly about it as I have been doing since Fall 2007! I still find the expectation (mine, not anybody else’s) that I’ll keep up the series a helpful kind of discipline, and I’m still frequently surprised at what I discover I have to say about the class meetings, even if it’s only some idea about what not to do next time when I cover the same material. This term is all repeat teaching, actually, except that I always tinker a little with the reading lists from year to year. In the British Literature Since 1800 survey course, for instance, I’ve put in Gaskell’s Mary Barton instead of Great Expectations, which mixes things up a bit. Much as I love Great Expectations, brilliant as it is, and sorry as I am not to be doing any Dickens, as a result, in the course–I just couldn’t go through it one more time quite so soon! And Mary Barton, while not nearly as brilliant, is in lots of ways just as interesting and representative of important things about Victorian literature. Plus it has a boat chase. I love the boat chase. In Women and Detective Fiction I didn’t succeed in really revamping the list, but then I’ve always been mostly very happy with it. But I did eventually add in Nancy Drew. And did I mention that I get to reread Gaudy Night? To my annoyance, Death in a Tenured Position (which nicely rounds out the academic focus of Gaudy Night and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman with a more contemporary perspective on feminism and universities) went out of print right after I placed my book order, but happily our bookstore has been able to round up nearly enough copies for everyone, and if the students can show a little extra initiative, they will be able to find more themselves. I didn’t want to let this book go, not just because of the academic angle (and the importance of poetry in it, which makes another interesting link to Gaudy Night) but because I definitely wanted to talk about Carolyn Heilbrun (who has also written some of the best essays around on women and detective fiction). I could have picked a different one of her novels, of course, and next time I might have to, but I’m fond of this one–and sometimes, with so many to choose from, that’s as good a reason as any!

So, off I go to class, and then this afternoon we all ‘meet and greet’ our incoming graduate students, and then we’re well underway for the year.

8 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes: Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

  1. Amateur Reader September 10, 2010 / 5:12 pm

    I considered writing about that boat chase. I was surprised by how effective it was – it’s well-paced, the stakes are high, the outcome is satisfying. Modern thriller writers could hardly do better.

    Good luck with the new term!

  2. Rohan Maitzen September 11, 2010 / 12:17 pm

    You know, I think that’s a fair point! Though there’s something that sounds a bit comical about a boat chase, it is pretty satisfying in context, as is the whole trial scene.

  3. Colleen September 11, 2010 / 12:19 pm

    Best of luck with the beginning of term! I don’t know that I miss being on either side of the lectern, but there’s something in the air this time of the year that energizes me…

    And, I met my husband at the Dal meet and greet for new grad students 12 years ago. Thanks for the sweet reminder!

  4. Rohan Maitzen September 12, 2010 / 10:20 am

    I didn’t know that, Colleen–that is sweet!

  5. Doulton September 13, 2010 / 12:11 pm

    I would love it if you could post a copy of your syllabus. It’s the kind of thing that I find fascinating. I understand that there are probably a lot of local matters that you might not want to post on your blog, but just the reading list and/or list of assignments would be marvelous.

  6. Rohan Maitzen September 13, 2010 / 6:55 pm

    Doulton, I can certainly do that! I’ll just trim out the boring stuff about university policies, late penalties, and so on. Stay tuned.

  7. Maire September 13, 2010 / 9:49 pm

    Yes, a reading list would be great! I’m glad you included Nancy Drew. She was one of my favorites as a kid.
    Your previous post inspired me to pick up Indemnity Only–it was one of those series that I have thought about starting before, but never really have before. It’s fun to see Chicago (my current city) depicted in 1980. I love V.I., too. I can’t wait to read the rest of the books and see how she writes about all the changing that’s happened since then. (Or does time move slower in the series? I’m not sure yet.)

  8. Rohan September 14, 2010 / 9:30 am

    Maire, I think you’ll enjoy catching up on the series. I find that now I’m actually far less interested in the crimes and their solutions in most mystery novels than I am in maintaining my relationship with the series characters, and the V. I. Warshawsky series has an array of good ones to supplement Vic. I’d say, in fact, that Indemnity Only is not the best in the series (in her 1990 preface to a new edition, Paretsky says she was “tempted to go through and polish up the writing”)–I almost always assign the first book in a series, because often it’s the one that’s clearest about the kind of intervention that’s going on into the genre, but also because it introduces the characters most specifically.

    There’s an essay by Margaret Kinsman called “A Question of Visibitility: Paretsky and Chicago” that might interest you: I drew quite a bit on its comments about V. I. and her car on the ‘mean streets’ of Chicago when I taught the book in the winter. (It’s in Kathleen Klein’s collection Women times three: writers, detectives, readers).

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