This Week In My Classes: Gaskell, Sayers, and Literary Research

It was a short week, thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday–so why do I feel so flattened? It has something to do with the 6-8 hours I put in just trying to decide what to include in and how to present an introduction to literary research for my survey class. There are just so many things I want to say to them, to help them with, and to warn them against! They are doing a very particular kind of assignment that mimics the process of doing the research for a critical essay but with several specific steps that are really about learning to use (and discriminate among) the overwhelming array of potential sources of information now available. Having now heard not one but two presentations in my fourth-year seminar that relied heavily and unapologetically on Wikipedia, I’m more determined than ever, not to stop students from using Wikipedia (I use it myself, after all), but to make sure they start there, not stop there, and that they know why.

Anyway, I feel as if I hadn’t quite got to the point I wanted with the presentation, but here it is–without, of course, my running commentary including qualifications, elaborations, and acknowledgments of points of controversy. What I was most interested in accomplishing was getting them away from the idea that research means looking up ‘the right answer,’ and impressing upon them that research is not a linear journey from one question to one result but a kind of spiralling process. I tried to find the graphics that best represented the way I hoped they conceptualize their task. If anything strikes you as a major howler, do let me know, as it seems fairly likely I’ll get another chance at this course next year.

My other task for the survey class this week was setting up our study of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (which is what their research assignment focuses on–I used Hard Times for my examples as it seemed close enough to be useful and suggestive). I’m disappointed now in the way I did that, actually. The class size and room, along with the particular goals of the course, which make me feel pressured to ‘cover’ things, made it seem right to provide a lot of general context on the 19th-century novel and social problem fiction. But I used to do a lot more interactive teaching even in the early sessions on novels, and I think I’d like to go back to that even if it’s hard to pull off in a tiered lecture hall. While it’s true they don’t usually know much, if any, of that general context, it will probably mean more to them if I let the explanations arise more organically from developments in the novel itself and make sure they are getting involved sooner rather than later.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we wrapped up Gaudy Night. Here too I felt a bit disappointed. Maybe I’m losing my teaching mojo! It’s true that I haven’t been nominated for a teaching award since 2007 and my evaluations are not as consistently high as they once were… But actually in this particular example my disappointment was that the class just didn’t seem very excited about the novel, and since it is one of my very (very, very!) favourite books, I felt I had somehow failed it. Or them. Maybe that was the problem, though I tried not to make it too obvious that it is one of my very (very, very!) favourites but to entertain arguments on both sides about how effectively it achieves Sayers’s aims of integrating the ‘novel of manners’ with the detective story, or how intelligently Sayers unifies her characters and situations with the novel’s themes, including women and academic life and the difficulty of balancing the demands of the head with the desires of the heart. It’s funny how it is sometimes much easier to teach things you aren’t very invested in personally!

And now, home for the weekend. In my bag: Mary Barton and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, for work; Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, for fun (and a little for ideas, as I keep turning around and around in my head different ideas for writing projects of my own); Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love, for a review I must finish this weekend (!); and an advance copy of Jill Paton Walsh’s latest Peter Wimsey concoction–maybe, also, for a review, but also just because.

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3 Responses to This Week In My Classes: Gaskell, Sayers, and Literary Research

  1. litlove says:

    It’s not you, don’t worry! I have teaching weeks like that, too, and usually they are the result of a marked difference between the reaction I’d like to see coming from the students and the actual reaction they’ve presented. And the chances are, they are just thinking still about something, or they’re distracted by life, or they were in the wrong place themselves for what they need to learn. Learning so often happens at unexpected and unpredictable times. If it hasn’t clicked with them yet, never fear. In a few weeks’ time, doing something quite different, it will suddenly fall into place and they will have an a-ha! moment. The downside is that you don’t get to witness it, but the chances are good it will happen.

  2. Thanks, @litlove! I will try to go into my classes this week with the whole “it’s not me, it’s you!” theory in mind. And I’m sure you’re right that sometimes their learning (or even inspiration) may lag a little behind my own schedule. After all, they are usually reading the material for the first time. It’s to be expected that it will take a little time, and another reading, for things to make sense. I think in the case of Gaudy Night it may also be a question of where they are right now in their own lives–but then, I loved the novel well before I was in a position to ‘relate’ to Harriet and Peter’s struggle to imagine a romance free of the inequalities of real life and the irrationalities of literature. I just appreciate the details more now!

  3. Lili says:

    So sorry to hear the teaching of GN was disappointing. It’s one of my absolute favorites too, and has featured so prominently in my efforts and blunders in blending academic and “real” and writing life that I can’t imagine presenting it to my students. I would be far too transparent, which they would doubtlessly find irritating.

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