This Week in My Classes: Mid-Term Madness!

The sheen is definitely off the new term now: we are in the thick of it, and the challenge of juggling its many demands has not been helped by (and probably contributed to) the cold-y flu-y virus I’ve been struggling with for about ten days. It was at its worst this past Friday,when in a rare moment of weakness I even let one of my morning classes go early! They looked so tired themselves, and they weren’t really rising to the bait of my discussion questions–but the bait itself was kind of limp with no fight left in it, not the fresh wiggly kind you need to … well, whatever. Probably best for us all that I stay away from fishing metaphors. Anyway, I was tired and slightly foggy at that point and suddenly just couldn’t keep the song and dance routine going. Some quiet working time in my office and some hot tea perked me up enough to get through the last class of that day, and by Monday I was more or less healthy, but it sure has felt like a slog. It’s good to feel better, but the work is still piled up, more than it would be if I hadn’t been sick last week, and that’s despite how much I did over the weekend and routinely do at night as well. This is the time of term when it’s particularly galling that all the mainstream media coverage of higher ed so often seems focused on what a bad job we are doing teaching undergraduates because we are either lazy tenured slackers or self-important research kingpins who can’t be bothered to spend time in the classroom.

So. Where are we now? Well, in Mystery and Detective Fiction we have just wrapped up our discussion of The Maltese Falcon, which I continue to find a particularly depressing novel, and tomorrow we turn to Ed McBain’s first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater. This is one of the books I read during my sabbatical quest to refresh the reading list for this course. When I wrote up my first impressions, I noted,

What seems really different about Cop Hater compared to earlier detective novels is its attention to the specific procedures of the police investigation, even including reproductions of gun licenses and rap sheets, but also detailed explanations of forensic measures (such as fingerprinting) and lab work. These features, along with the spread of the novel’s attention across several detectives (though Carella is clearly the main character) help us see the police as a system, as part of a bureaucratic organization operating within a network of other supporting (or, sometimes, hindering) systems. The case is not solved by the ingenuity of Poirot or the ratiocination of Dupin or Holmes but by the persistence of men who just keep looking and asking until they find something out.

This is one of the things I want to talk about tomorrow, though I think we’ll start with some attention to the setting, especially since we’ve talked quite a bit about the whole “mean streets” idea in Chandler and Hammett. Rereading the McBain, I was struck again by some of the stylistic tics I found annoying the first time, but I’m more interested in the dynamic of the squad room. I’m curious to see how the class reacts to this one. It is quite a good group: there’s a core of keen participants, and as far as I can tell most of the rest of them are reasonably engaged, with the exception of a couple of them who sit at the back and pretty obviously scrawl notes to each other and smirk. The room has tiered seating and isn’t that deep, so they are quite visible to me. Pretty soon I may actually say something to them, as it does occasionally throw me off my mental track wondering what they’re writing…

In 19th-Century Fiction (where, actually, there are also a few scribblers / whisperers and smirkers, and it’s a much smaller room, so again, it gets distracting!) we are working our way through The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Happily for me, given how much else I’m trying to stay on top of, I just did this novel in The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ so it’s pretty fresh in my mind, though I’m still rereading pretty much all of each instalment. It is interestingly different doing a book in a seminar and a lecture class. I don’t just lecture, of course, but even when we’re working through points together I’m steering things more than in the seminar. The participation level is definitely better with Tenant than with Vanity Fair. It helps that some of the students, too, just read the novel for my other class! But it helps even more, I think, that the novel is simply more straightforward, in some ways more familiar, and definitely shorter. I’m a big admirer of Tenant, which is a really artfully constructed novel as well as a compellingly told one. For some time I have been meaning to do another Victorian ‘Second Glance’ piece for Open Letters (which I haven’t done since I wrote on Vanity Fair in the summer of 2010) and Tenant is at the top of my list. Another one that would be fun is Ellen Wood’s East Lynne … but no time to think about that now!

And in The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we wrapped up Aurora Leigh last week. I thought our discussions of it went well–better than I expected, frankly! They did not find its blank verse bulk nearly as off-putting as I had anticipated, and we had some good lively sessions on it. This week we’re doing more poetry: yesterday was D. G. Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway,” both complex and fascinating dramatic monologues focusing on ‘fallen women,’ and tomorrow and Friday it’s Goblin Market.

Behind the scenes, I marked the first set of Mystery midterms last week and this week I’m trying hard to get through the Vanity Fair papers for the novels class. On the weekend I wrote up my final evaluation of an honours thesis I’d agreed to examine for the University of Western Sydney and sent it off. The letters for the three tenure and promotion cases I was involved in have been submitted, and I don’t think there’s any major committee business looming again for a while–so that’s a relief, because there’s a Ph.D. thesis chapter languishing in my inbox that I’d like to get to before another week goes by, and it’s starting to seem possible that I will manage it!

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3 Responses to This Week in My Classes: Mid-Term Madness!

  1. JoVE says:

    Because I know you do some quilting and embroidery, I thought you might appreciate a link to this textile piece by my friend Fi Bowman based on The Goblin Market http://www.fibowman.com/portfolio/major-works/we-must-not-look-at-goblin-men/ (She has notecards)

  2. Susan Messer says:

    Thanks for this, Rohan. I really like the idea of you asking those smirkers in the back row what they are writing and letting them know that they distract you, that you’re human and you can’t help noticing and wondering. I’m already imagining a scene in a novel along these lines–very close in, with significant perspiration on both sides of the conversation.

    The whole idea reminds me of something my husband’s piano teacher once told him–that he sometimes wished he could perform with his back to the audience, as seeing the audience “can be such a turnoff.” Of course, the audience can also be a source of inspiration, but not all the time. And we tend to notice the people who are smirking (or walking out) more than we notice the ones who stay engaged.

  3. You are so right that it’s easy to fixate on the smirkers (or the walkers) than the ones who stay put and actually care. I try to control for that–I have become pretty good at just carrying on if someone comes in super late or leaves unexpectedly early, for instance. The smirkers in the big class have suddenly begun putting their hands up and contributing. Maybe they read this blog and felt ashamed! Or maybe they were writing insightful class-related comments the whole time and decided (in anticipation of my asking them about this) that yes, they would like to share their thoughts with the whole class. 🙂

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