This Week in My Classes: Pacing Problems

One of the most challenging aspects of course planning for me is pacing, particularly in my 19th-century fiction classes, where I teach a lot of pretty long books. My strategy has always been to assign specific parts to be read for each class meeting. That way I can keep expectations clear and the reading load manageable for all of us, and make sure we are on common ground for class discussions. Though this method does create some pedagogical and critical challenges (for instance, not talking about what happens later in the novel until we get there), I have found it also has surprising benefits: for instance, because we can’t rush ahead to what happens later, we really have to pay attention to what has happened so far!

Over the years I’ve stuck with this system. The only alternative I can really think of is expecting students to have read the whole book by the first class session on it–and that means they’d be reading the next book (presumably) while we’re still talking about the one before it, so how focused and ‘in the moment’ could they be? Plus realistically, they probably would not, in fact, have read the whole book by that first class, so it seems tidier to admit that and try to be literally all on the same page. Especially with novels that were published serially or in instalments, it’s not that hard to find good places to break and take stock. It can still be tricky, though, to assign enough that there’s something new to learn and discuss from each instalment, but not so much that we feel rushed, especially when there’s not that long a reading interval between one class and the next. My classes meet Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. How much is too much–or too little–to expect them to read between 3:30 Monday, when we wrap up one session, and 2:30  Wednesday when we’re at it again? They do have four other classes (at least), after all.  I usually assign longer chunks between Friday and Monday–but is that fair, as it rather assumes weekends are for studying? Bigger instalments give us more to work with–if we haven’t read a lot since the last class, sometimes it feels to me as if our discussion is necessarily a bit thin or even repetitive–but if a lot of people are behind, it’s not necessarily the case that class discussions will be better if I assign more.

I used to notice this problem of balance less in these classes. My expectations overall were higher earlier in my teaching career (I’ve gone from a standard of six assigned novels in a one-term course to a norm of five–with six, there was never a feeling of having too much time to spend on any one of them!). Also, we used to meet twice a week instead of three times in upper-level ‘lecture’ classes, so with fewer classroom hours, again, there was never any feeling of lingering too long on one point or example. An order came down from above, though, that we had to have three “contact hours” a week in all our classes. In reading-intensive classes, it might actually make most sense to meet once a week for 2-3 hours. As far as I know, this is only an option for night classes, though, and that’s not an option that appeals to me at this stage of my family life. My impression is that five novels seems like plenty to my current students, especially when one of them is Vanity Fair  or Bleak House or Middlemarch, so bulking up the reading list and generally intensifying the workload doesn’t seem like a good idea. I do use some class hours for writing workshops, group discussions, and other learning activities, and that’s not only pedagogically time well spent but helps vary the pace. Sometimes I also use a lecture hours for student conferences, as it’s a time when I know that group is actually available (regular office hours are often sparsely attended, and conflicting schedules is a major reason). Even so, I sometimes look at the schedule and think “that many more classes on the same book? whatever will we talk about?”–or, “we haven’t read any further than that yet?” Those of you who also teach long novels–how do you manage them, logistically? Do you worry about finding that line between being burdensome and being boring?

I did pack the reading list for the mystery class with a couple more titles than usual this term and I like the greater variety–and I don’t think we’re rushing. The books are shorter there, and generally easier to read (except The Moonstone–but that’s just so fun!). We have three novels left to do in that class this term (after we finish The Terrorists for Wednesday, there’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Indemnity Only, and Devil in a Blue Dress), whereas in the Victorian fiction class we have only 1.5 (the rest of Hard Times, and then North and South).


One thought on “This Week in My Classes: Pacing Problems

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) November 7, 2011 / 10:45 pm

    My undergraduate Tolstoy class operated on the “whole book” model. So far the first third we were reading 600 pages on novellas in easily digestible chunks simultaneous with War and Peace. During the next third, we combed over W&P while reading Anna Karenina. Last third, no reading, not counting the incessant re-reading of significant chunks of AK.

    It worked for that prof, that class, those students. It was a demanding class.


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