This is an assignment-intensive week in my classes. On Monday, paper proposals were due in from the students in my Victorian ‘Woman Question’ seminar at 9:30. Then at 11:30 the students in Mystery and Detective Fiction wrote their second mid-term test. Today the students in 19th-Century Fiction turn in the fourth round of their letter exchanges, this batch on Hard Times.
To some extent, the convergence of all of these things represents a failure of planning on my part. I always intend to, but never quite do, collate my schedules for all my classes as I draw up the syllabi. I know it would be better for me (and thus, indirectly, for my students) if I didn’t get overwhelmed with multiple assignments to evaluate all at once. The problem is, things aren’t altogether that flexible, especially at the end of term, but also along the way: you have to cover a certain amount of material, or finish some number books, before you can reasonably ask students to do any substantial work reflecting on what they’ve learned. I do lots of small things along the way, to practice skills, motivate attendance and participation, and so on, but papers and tests require a foundation of reading and thinking before they can mean much. And so, weeks like this one, in which you simply have to power through your share of the work. Because some of the students in Mystery and Detective Fiction are considering an essay alternative to the final exam that depends on their marks on their two midterms, I made marking their tests a top priority: those who want to do the essay have to submit a proposal by next week, so I wanted them to know as soon as possible if this would be an option for them. I’m proud (and a bit astonished) to say that thanks to a combination of discipline and concentration on my side and a relative absence of other interruptions yesterday (a non-teaching day, so prime time for both work and, often, meetings), I was able to post the test scores (all 65 of them!) a mere 25 hours after bringing the midterms back to my office with me. I’m also about half way through commenting on the ‘woman question’ proposals, which I would like to return by tomorrow. And the papers I get in this afternoon should be back no later than Monday–so that I have a clear desk for the further proposals that will be coming in, not to mention the new priorities that will be urging themselves upon me, like making up practice exams, fitting in the last few in-class responses, and (last but definitely not least) rereading a Ph.D. thesis in preparation for the defense next Friday.
In the meantime, regular class preparation goes on. We start The Odd Women in the ‘woman question’ seminar this morning; I expect lively discussion, as it is both a fast-moving and a provocative novel. It’s Indemnity Only in Mystery and Detective Fiction, so today we’ll talk about the challenges and pleasures of subverting hard-boiled conventions with a female protagonist. And it’s our first day on North and South in 19th-Century Fiction. There’s a major snow storm just starting up as I write this, and that’s my last class of the day–I fear attendance will be sparse, but those who do come will probably be treated to a small clip from the BBC version starring the very intense Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton. I like to show the scene of his first meeting with Margaret, which in the BBC version turns on his beating up one of the ‘hands’ at his mill–which, of course, never happens, at least not literally, in the novel. Sharp differences between book and adaptation like this often help us focus on what’s at stake in the original (the overt physical and sexual violence in the adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, gives Helen motives for leaving her husband that are more recognizable to contemporary audiences than those she actually declares in Brontë’s text, a shift that I think actually changes the political and thematic emphasis a lot). In the North and South example, it’s more like shorthand, I think: without the time or the technical means to give us the kind of exposition we get from Gaskell, the beating-up scene very quickly lays out differences in values between Margaret and Thornton, still leaving room for us to see (or reconsider) the conflict from their different perspectives.