This Week in My Classes: Grafton, Paretsky, Auden, Heaney, Rushdie!

I think the only unifying theme to this week’s readings is (a slight variant on) Cliff Clavin’s immortal Jeopardy question.

And, speaking of Jeopardy, Monday’s class was our final session on Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi, which means it was time for a student presentation. What is the connection? Thanks for asking! Years ago I decided I couldn’t allow students to drone on from notes for these events so I instituted some rules: no more than 10 minutes just talking at the class, and the rest of the time must be used for some balance of audio-visual materials, group discussion, and activities. Lots of different activities are allowed, from splinter groups to take up particular passages or problems, to hands-on activities, role-playing, or games. Probably because it’s the most fun, many groups choose to devise a game. My rule is that the game (or other activity) must be thematically relevant and somehow move us closer to understanding some substantial issue from the course or reading. Students usually prove ingenious at accomplishing these goals! With An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, for instance, we played Hangman (!): each challenge was a key quotation from the text, and if we killed off our victim we had to tackle a discussion question. Monday, then, we played Sue Grafton Jeopardy. Categories included ‘Biography,’ ‘Plot,’ ‘Characters,’ and ‘Weapons,’ which certainly tested our familiarity with the details of the novel,and the “daily doubles” were (again) discussion questions. They let me play! Often I am assigned an impartial role (I was the presiding judge, for instance, in “Law and Order: Gaudy Night edition”). But I’m sure my team would have won without my participation. (Hee.) It’s amusing to see how competitive everyone gets–and the discussion questions give us a chance to put that more trivial knowledge into wider contexts, so don’t worry: it’s not all about the cookies. Tomorrow we start work on Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. I lectured on this novel in my detective fiction survey course last winter term (see here, for instance) but I think it will be especially productive to come to it right after Grafton, because the two novelists are often discussed together and they do, structurally, some similar things–revising hard-boiled detective conventions, for instance. But both the personalities and the styles of feminism are quite different in the books. The two series are still going strong and they have developed in quite different ways, too, though I think in ways that you can see from the beginning, Grafton more of a quirky individualist, Paretsky with a more ambitious social and political reach. My students responded quite positively to Kinsey Millhone, though not for the kinds of reasons I necessarily hope for (they found her very “relatable”).

I got sort of inspired, as I prepped for Monday’s session on Auden for my Brit Lit survey class, and thought that if I couldn’t necessarily bring my students to the cathedral, I could perhaps bring the cathedral to them. So I planned to take a few minutes of class to dim the lights and play them this clip (which sadly I’m not able to embed), even though “Funeral Blues” is not in our anthology. I think John Hannah does such a beautiful job, and of course the poem itself is beautiful, mournful, but unsentimental. That it’s a clip from a mainstream film seemed right for my purposes, which include making sure we think about literature as something not meant to be confined in homogenizing anthologies. Luckily, I’m teaching in a classroom that, though it’s terrible for discussion, is all set up with computers and projectors. Well, of course, when I got to class the computer in the podium was not on, and no combination of buttons on the console brought it to life–and the machine itself is completely secured inside various locked panels. So much for that. I may bring my laptop on Wednesday and try again (although it occurs to me that when I showed them a video clip, I also could not locate a volume control, so who knows how well they’d be able to hear it). Dear People Who Preach The Importance of Teaching With Technology: You have to support us well or we just can’t do it. A/V support is in a different building (ironic, since I’m teaching in the computer science building).

Ah well. Back to basics on Wednesday, then, with Seamus Heaney–though I’d like to be able to show some graphics of the bog people. I moved Heaney from the tutorial session into the lecture session because things went so splendidly last year when we talked about “Digging.” Probably it will fall completely flat as a result. And I moved Rushdie into the tutorial spot, thinking “The Prophet’s Hair” was just the kind of story to stimulate lively discussion around the seminar table.  (That, and the excellent colleague who lectured on Rushdie last year is on sabbatical this year and could not be corralled into making her guest appearance again.) We’ll see.

In lieu of the Auden clip, here’s Seamus Heaney reading “Digging” himself. I’m interested in the emphasis he places on the two instances of “my” in the last bit. I hadn’t heard it that way, in my mind.

2 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes: Grafton, Paretsky, Auden, Heaney, Rushdie!

  1. Baker's Daughter November 17, 2010 / 6:12 am

    Your classroom sounds a really stimulating place to be, and it’s great that the students respond well to the freedom you give them. One of the most ambitious lessons I taught was when we were studying a novel set in Chile during the Pinochet years. I devised this elaborate role-play type game where each student was given a slip of paper with a role (prisoner, rebel, informant, ordinary person trying to stay out of trouble) and what they had to accomplish (making contact with another person, who of course they couldn’t identify; disseminating information without being arrested; tracking down dissidents etc.) My idea was that they would spend the lesson interacting in their roles, and every couple of minutes someone would be randomly ‘thrown in prison’ or ‘disappeared’ – I was trying to give them an understanding of what it would be like to live in a society where no-one could be trusted and rights and freedoms were arbitarily taken away. Anyway, big mistake – it was a disaster, quickly descending into a shrill jabbering chaotic mass I couldn’t reign back. I still cringe when I think about it.


  2. Dr V. Pala Prasada Rao, JKC College, Guntur-6 March 18, 2011 / 7:51 am

    One should compliment a teachers for the pains he/she has taken upon to make learning environment more congenial thereby optimising learning outcome. It is now an established fact that the importance of placing the student at the hub of the learning process is attested by many a practitioners’ experiences and firmly corroborated by ESL literature. The age-old style of teaching in which students passively submit to the vagaries of the teacher and to a kind of linguistic indoctrination has been all but abandoned by progressive teachers who view dynamic students’ participation is necessary to the effective accomplishment of their roles. By its very nature, learning, which is an excursion from the known to the unknown, entails labor and anxiety. But if these negative aspects are de-emphasized and the student is absorbed in the excitement and adventure of the enterprise, inhibiting factors such as anxiety one can do wonders in the class. But what about our most of the classes where “language” is lectured ad nauseum? Even if you embrace it what about the time constraint and the issue of syllabus? one cannnot handle copious linguistic material by following it. Now it is time it was focussed!


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