This Week in My Classes: Back in the Saddle Again!

Finally! I planned to write this post last week, which was my first full week of classes since last December. But the Evil Virus of Doom spoiled that plan. Here I am, though, ready to start my fifth year in this regular series. I began it as a defensive reaction to some truly vituperative comments about English professors I encountered back in 2007. I guess I was sheltered, because I was quite shocked to discover that people hated us so! And also quite puzzled by the caricature of our work that they offered. Now that I read a lot more mainstream journalism and other public commentary about higher education, I have, sadly, come to expect just such ignorant vituperation. No amount of reason, argument, or enthusiasm seems likely ever to make a difference. But I thought, in my early 2.0 days, that greater transparency would help, and thus the very imaginatively-titled series ‘This Week in My Classes’ was born. As I’ve written about regularly since then, the value of the exercise proved to be as much intrinsic as anything else, and I look forward to continuing to reflect on my teaching as yet another semester gets underway.

So, what does this term have in store? I have another round of Mystery and Detective Fiction. I spent quite a bit of time on my sabbatical reconsidering the reading list for this class, which I have offered almost every year since I first introduced it to our curriculum in 2003. I continue to find it a lot of fun to teach, which I think is the result of tweaking the book list regularly, of the open-endedness of the course agenda, and of the lively mix of students I typically get–it’s a popular class with non-majors, and an absolutely elective class for English majors (at least, as far as I know it doesn’t fill any of their specific requirements). By and large, everyone is there out of interest and with the hope and expectation that it will be a fun class. Sure, some of them are also hoping that it will be an easy class–which is why we do The Moonstone early on, to show them that they are going to have to put in time and effort to keep up. (Well, that, and of course The Moonstone comes pretty early in our chronology!) I have a good feeling about this year’s group. Right from the first day, when we read aloud and then discussed James Thurber’s delightful story “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” there were plenty of hands up and plenty of appreciative chuckles, and quite a few people seem engaged with The Moonstone as well.

I’m also teaching 19th-Century British Fiction from Austen to Dickens again. I last taught this in the spring session of 2010, which is quite a different kind of teaching–very compressed and high intensity–and for which I therefore compromise somewhat on the reading load by assigning more short texts (“The Two Drovers” for Scott, A Christmas Carol for Dickens, and Silas Marner for Eliot). For this go-round I am back with my more traditional list of five full-length novels (when I started teaching these courses, I always assigned six, but somehow now that seems like too much). Here too I routinely shuffle my choices, sometimes to reflect a particular theme, but more often just to keep favorite books and authors in circulation. We have begun with Persuasion, and by next week we will be on to Vanity Fair–which I certainly did not try to assign in the 3-week version of the course! Austen is usually a pretty easy start; this year, as usual, many students have read Austen before, some of them a lot. Those who haven’t read her are usually predisposed to like and admire her (though I long for a student who dares to be contrary and call her “boring”–if only to see what kind of discussion follows). Also, her novels are quite short. Vanity Fair, on the other hand, demands a lot of everyone. I’ll do my best to carry them along. There’s always someone who loves it, and really, one a year is enough.

And my other fall course is a 4th-year seminar on The Victorian ‘Woman Question.’ The last time I offered this course was 2008, when I did a variation focusing exclusively on novels and, more exclusively still, on novels that take us past or beyond the courtship plot and the marriage ceremony: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, East Lynne, Middlemarch, He Knew He Was Right, and The Odd Women. It was an amazing course: I had a great group of students who really rose to the challenges of this rather daunting reading list, and we had some of the best class discussion I can remember. Before that, I always used to do more or less the readings we are doing this time: a mix of poetry, non-fiction prose, and fiction, including The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Aurora Leigh (all of it!), The Mill on the Floss, The Odd Women, “Goblin Market,” an assortment of short poems, Mill’s The Subjection of Women and various essays from the excellent Broadview anthology Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors. I’m looking forward to going back through this set again. The discussion has been quite good already, and today we already had our first group presentation. I always discourage the students from holding forth for very long in their presentations, and I require them to include some kind of game or activity that gets us all involved. It’s always fun and surprising to see what they come up with. Today, for instance, after learning some general context and then focusing on some passages from our readings, we played “Snag, Marry, Kill,” in which those playing women had to give up their share of the candy they won to those playing men when they married. The bluntness of this unjust process made us laugh at first, but in the end it stimulated some very insightful discussion about entitlement, resentment, and the effect of individual character on systemically unjust rules (for instance, those who had to give their candy to classmates who were already their friends felt better about it, which brought us back to what Mill and Cobbe say about how “well” unjust laws work if everyone involved is kind and honorable enough not to take advantage of them).

Although this term has gotten off to a rocky start in other respects and, as usual, I resent the administrative and pedagogical confusion created by our long add-drop period, it does feel good to be back doing the part of this job I like the best. This week has its share of further complications–Maddie was home sick today with a bad cold and may need one more day before she can go back to school, my husband is headed to Amherst College to give a talk and is anxiously keeping an eye on the Air Canada news, and tomorrow night I am giving a talk myself at the Halifax Public Library, which I am quite excited about. It all feels rather hectic after the more ambling pace of a sabbatical and of the summer months! I’m just so happy to have my laptop completely restored, though (as of today, I think I have reinstalled and reoorganized everything that needed installing and organizing), that I feel ready for anything.

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3 Responses to This Week in My Classes: Back in the Saddle Again!

  1. Ali says:

    I can’t wait to follow this series in real time (as opposed to reviewing all your past posts)! I look forward to what you write. I think it’s interesting that you consider The Moonstone a book that requires time and effort. I agree with you that this is the case for today’s students. However, I think Collins is one of the easier Victorian writers to understand (compared to George Eliot or William Thackeray or Trollope’s The Way We Live Now). Perhaps that is because I love his writing so much (I adored The Woman in White an plan to start Armadale soon). And I do agree that The Moonstone is more difficult to read than much modern detective fiction. Those are just my thoughts, and I am not as familiar as you are with today’s students. I would welcome your opinion on this.

  2. Rohan says:

    Ali, I think it might be fair to say that for some students, time reading long books equals effort, no matter how much fun some of us think those books are (I have been known to point out to them that it isn’t as if I’m asking them to read 450 pages of economics textbooks!). I agree that Collins is lots of fun (and pretty easy) to read, and happily many of my students have agreed over the years. In fact, I find this class can be a gateway to Victorian literature classes for students who otherwise might never have ventured into them, precisely because they are so pleasantly surprised by The Moonstone–which is one of the reasons I’m happy to keep teaching it regularly.

  3. Ali says:

    Thanks for the response, Rohan! Your thoughts seem spot on–and it must be exciting to turn students on to an area of literature that you love so much. But… I guess that’s part of the fun of teaching!

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