This Week in My Classes: Amidst the Mess, Three Mysterious Morsels

The past week or so has just felt crazy with tasks and details to keep on top of. When we’re planning courses, we (or maybe it’s just me?) tend to focus on big picture issues, like which books to assign and which assignment sequences to use. Once that’s all decided, there’s filling in the syllabus, usually a happy task full of dreams of lively discussion prompted by clever juxtapositions (like this week’s cluster of ‘poems by women poets about women poets’ right before we start Aurora Leigh!) and supported or solidified by informal and formal writing. What we (or maybe just I) tend not to prepare so well in advance are things like spreadsheets for record-keeping or evaluation forms for seminars, or attendance sheets–which it is nearly pointless to get to organized about anyway, at least until the add-drop period ends and the list has some stability! I’ve reached the point in all of my classes where I needed all these things firmly in place, as assignments have been coming in, quizzes have been written, students have given seminar presentations, and so on.  Luckily I do have templates for all these kinds of things, or at least a set of best (or usual) practices, so I’m not dreaming them up from nothing, but I am drawing them up or finessing them to suit this year’s particularities. And of course this administrative stuff (plus the marking of quizzes and evaluation of assignments and so on) has to happen in addition to the other aspects of class prep, so just when you are starting to think “see, the teaching term isn’t that busy after all–I’m getting all my readings and class notes ready in plenty of time!” you are reminded why the teaching term actually is quite intense.

Then as if this year’s classes aren’t enough to be worrying about, the deadlines for course proposals and timetabling for next year have been moved way up, and in fact we were asked to submit our teaching preferences for 2012-13 by last Friday. I’m reasonably certain that this deadline has nothing to do with program planning or pedagogy (heaven forbid we should think about next year once we have some kind of idea how this year is going) and everything to do with recruiting: Dal’s big fall Open House is October 14, and it probably helps to be able to point prospective students to at least tentative course listings. This process was further complicated for us this year by bad budget news in the faculty that had repercussions for our TA allocation and thus, potentially, for our graduate student funding–which meant rejigging much of our curriculum on the fly to ward off various worst-case scenarios. Once again, program planning and pedagogy were given short shrift because of external imperatives! This is not to trivialize the budget difficulties, but it’s a real shame the timetable for figuring out how to deal with them was not different. Book orders for the winter term also came due, though luckily I had made most of my decisions about that already. Still, I’ve been stymied by discovering, to my great surprise, that a book I had counted on assigning (Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day) appears not to have a Canadian edition available at the moment. Seriously? The bookstore and I are working on this, but if we can’t find a workaround, I’m going to have to decide on something else in something of a hurry.

Add in the three tenure and promotion cases I’m involved in, the three Ph.D. students I’m supervising who persist (darn them!) in being industrious and thus giving me work to do, the two Honours students I’m now mentoring in preparation for our year-end Honours “conference,” the reference letters I’m already assembling documents for (and then writing, collating, addressing, and mailing), and the two other committees I’m on that persist in holding meetings or circulating materials for us to read (darn them too!)–and whew! My head has been buzzing, and my stress levels nasty, by the end of most days. The student union president who blithely commented in a recent Maclean’s story that “Professors have a pretty good gig . . . You put in some office hours, you teach for a few hours and then you end up with a decent paycheque” should maybe job-shadow a professor or two before concluding that it’s only reasonable for us to return all student emails within 12 hours. (Yes, that’s right: we were born knowing even the most recent developments in our field–amazing, eh?–and basically just sit around until it’s time to go pontificate. Assignments appear from nowhere, and magically reappear with comments and grades! Hmm: I just might contribute a little to that Facebook group mentioned in the article…)

Happily, at the center of all this you still do have those “few” hours in the classroom, and even more happily, it is often a treat getting ready for them because you are working on something you find genuinely interesting and exercising not just your expertise but your creativity in figuring out how to get your students equally involved in it. I’ve been teaching a lot of quite familiar material so far this term, but as always I’ve tweaked my syllabi here and there for variety and to keep me alert. One regular source for new material is whatever reader I’ve chosen for Mystery and Detective Fiction: it’s easier to change up smaller readings, and I’m often dissatisfied with an anthology for one reason or another so I have used quite a few over the years. This year, after much (much!) exploring, I settled on the inexpensive and perfectly suitable Dover collection Classic Crime Stories, and this week, much welcome relief from the other dull or worrisome things I’m taking care of comes from the three short stories we’re reading about “Great Detectives”: Jacques Futrelle’s “The Problem of Cell 13,” G. K. Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross,” and R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” All of them are models of ingenuity in both the construction and the telling of the plot. All of them feature detectives who reason their way to solutions beyond the reach of us ordinary people, but each detective has a unique character and very particular gifts–and one of them, Father Brown, of course also has enormous endearing charm. Futrelle’s Thinking Machine is the least appealing of them, I think: his sheer arrogance is interestingly offset by the way his promise to think his way out of his solitary cell turns out to be, let’s say, misleading (of the three, he’s the one whose solution to his problem is ultimately most un-astonishing–though certainly surprising until explained–and relies the most on quite ordinary kinds of help from other people). The fellow-convict who believes his guilty conscience is driving him to confess provides another example of the Holmes-like trope of the seemingly unnatural element that has a perfectly natural explanation. Father Brown brings a new dimension to the uncomfortable proximity between the criminal and the crime-solver that we have been discussing from the beginning of the course: unlike many famous detectives, he manages to retain his innocence despite his deep understanding of guilt.  “The Case of Oscar Brodski” is the most formally interesting, with its first part (“The Mechanism of Crime”) telling us the crime going forwards, and its second part (“The Mechanism of Detection”) taking us backwards as each bit of evidence is traced to its source and the events are reconstructed. It is also the one with the most violent crime, and thus the one that most emphasizes another uncomfortable aspect of this kind of detective fiction, namely, the lack of human feeling so often displayed as the intellectual problem is given priority. Nobody is particularly upset by the decapitated corpse of poor Brodski! We’ll be spending a lot more time on this problem (if it is one) when we discuss The Murder of Roger Ackroyd starting Friday. Today, I have planned an in-class exercise designed to prompt the students to generate their own commentary on the stories: I asked them to read with an eye to “teachable” moments, explaining (as per my previous post) that they are supposed to be reading actively enough to get what’s interesting and relevant on their own. I’m going to put them in pairs and then larger groups and circulate transparencies for them to write up ‘lecture notes’ on, and then put them up on the overhead projector and see what they’ve come up with.


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