This Week in My Classes: Agatha Christie and a Trio of Lyrical Treats

Actually, the trio of lyrical treats identified in Dorothy Parker’s delightful “Pig’s-Eye View of Literature” are Byron and Shelley and Keats, while this week in British Literature Since 1800 we’re doing Coleridge and Shelley and Keats. But Coleridge can be lyrical too, and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is something of a treat, though of just what kind I’m never sure. We’re still very much in the warming-up phase in this class. Building any momentum is significantly hampered, I find, by the long course add-drop period (two weeks in which at any time new faces may appear while ones you were just starting to attach names to vanish without a trace). The system is clearly designed to make things easier for the students, who can take their sweet time sorting out their courses; the pedagogical inconvenience and paperwork generated for us as we try to keep our class lists up to date and initiate the dribble of new people into the class expectations and materials don’t seem to matter to the people in charge. Yes, this is making me cranky: I’ve just updated my class lists for about the 12th time, then had to manually add and remove students from Blackboard and PBWorks in the hopes that the newbies will show enough initiative to check out all the information provided on these sites rather than just showing up this afternoon and asking “did I miss anything?” In an entire week of classes? YES! Of course you missed something. (Yes, I know the Tom Wayman poem about this.) Anyway, it’s routine business at the start of every term, but it’s absurdly inefficient.

What they missed, if it’s English 2002 they are just joining, is our introduction to the course, first of all, in which I outline not just the schedule and requirements and so forth, but also the principles and motivations behind them and the objectives I hope they’ll meet. Next was our introduction to Romanticism, via Wordsworth, and a training session on using PBWorks. I raised the stakes a bit this year to motivate better participation in the wiki projects. Last year’s results were OK, but the weak spot was the concept of “gardening,” signing in a couple of times a week just to tweak the site and make it a little better. With the project overall worth a bit more of their final grade, I hope they’ll take this responsibility more seriously. It’s not a big time commitment, but as everyone who works online knows, a few minutes every so often can make a big difference. Last year I waited for weeks to see if someone would correct a main headline that read “Woodsworth” (someone eventually did, but not until I dropped a big hint in class about embarrassing typos). This week we continue our discussion of Romanticism but complicating and even undermining some of the generalizations I offered about it as a chronological period and, more importantly, as a literary movement. Coleridge’s preoccupations are not the same as Wordsworth’s, and Keats and Shelley are different again, from the ‘first generation’ as well as from each other. I always feel that Romantic poetry is a like Impressionist art, in that it is easy to like it in a casual sort of way: the surface features are pretty and undemanding, and the first layer of ideas is easily assimilated. But both get more interesting in context, as you get a sense of what the artists were working against and for. With Wordsworth in particular, that’s what I tried to bring out in the short time I had for him: I made a pitch for how it is possible to read “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” which is about as simple and child-like a poem as you could dream up, as revolutionary precisely in its simplicity and child-like attitude, as well as its invocation of memory and nature as balms for the troubled modern soul. OK, it’s maybe a bit of a stretch, but if they can come to see daffodils as aesthetically subversive, they are on their way to appreciating some of the ways a text achieves its significance–and to realizing that its significance will not always be obvious but will often require some thought and some research to understand.

In Women and Detective Fiction, we warmed up last week with samples from some ‘classic’ authors, to get a sense of the history and conventions of the genre to which our women writers will provide a counter-tradition (or, as I suggested today, a counter-point tradition, as the intersections are many). So we read Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Hammett’s “The House on Turk Street.” Then on Friday we looked at a couple of early examples of women writing about crime and detection, with Susan Glaspell’s great story “A Jury of Her Peers” and Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “The Long Arm.” Both press us to consider the adequacy of conventional ideas about both crime and justice; in both cases, people’s gendered expectations interfere with solving the crime. This week it’s Agatha Christie, with a selection of Miss Marple stories, and then next week we’re on to Nancy Drew. In this class the material is quite fun and the group is highly self-selecting, so in some respects things are bound to go along smoothly. The challenge becomes making sure we take the material seriously ourselves. I’m a little worried that two classes on Miss Marple is too much: it’s tricky scheduling things so that the pace of topics is reasonable, especially when the readings aren’t especially deep or complex. (There’s a reason, as others have noted as well, that close reading tactics become dominant just when there’s a significant body of literature that is quite difficult to understand at first glance, and also why certain writers are especially ‘teachable’ using these methods–Donne, say, rather than a more literal poet like Dryden, or Hammett rather than Christie, to use a more immediately relevant example.)

One thought on “This Week in My Classes: Agatha Christie and a Trio of Lyrical Treats

  1. litlove September 21, 2010 / 4:13 am

    Your add-drop period is madness! I feel for you – there does come a point where the consumer culture in education seems to profit no one at all. The classes sound good, though. I did a lot of reading earlier in the year about the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge and their different styles of creativity, and that was very interesting. I’m intrigued to know how Miss Marple goes down, too.


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