Winter term classes start for us today. Happily, it’s a dry day, with no ice or snow complicating the back-to-school logistics. On the other hand, with the wind chill it “feels like” -21C, so there’s no forgetting that it is winter. (The distinction between the actual temperature and what it feels like always seems such a silly one: who cares what temperature it doesn’t feel like?)
Things ease up for me a bit this term, as I shift down from three courses to two. I prefer it this way, as I find winter both physically and psychologically exhausting. Also, there’s less time to get ready for it than there is to prepare for the fall term! I was marking exams until December 23, and with such an early start date for this term, I had to start puttering away on syllabi and handouts and Blackboard sites and reading for my new courses pretty much as soon as my fall grades were filed. However, I do feel pretty well prepared this week. We’ll see how long that lasts!
I’m teaching one class this term that I haven’t taught since I started blogging–since even before then, actually, as I last offered it in 2005. This is a class on ‘Close Reading,’ which, as I explained at some length in lecture today, is one of our department’s core ‘theory and methods’ classes (the others are ‘History of Literary Criticism’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory’). When I first taught Close Reading, back in 2003, it had fairly recently been invented and added to the curriculum as a mandatory class for all English Honours and Majors students. I found it exhilarating teaching a class that so clearly had (or, appeared to have!) the backing of the whole department: it made it easy to make statements about the use and value of the skills we were practicing. Now that students are required to choose one from this cluster, I make my pitch in a somewhat different way, focusing not just on what I still see as the generic importance of close reading skills to answering all critical and interpretive questions, but also on the extra-curricular importance of really paying attention to, and asking questions about, the things we read. There are lots of good reasons for English students to learn about the history of criticism and about the array of theoretical approaches that are practiced in our discipline. There are also discipline-specific reasons for working hard on close reading. But the specialized approach and vocabulary of literary theory becomes less and less useful and relevant the further you get from campus–which is not to say literary theory has no value, or no intrinsic interest (though at times I have thought both of these things myself!). But the importance of being an attentive, well-informed, questioning reader matters more and more as you get away from school and take over primary responsibility for your own book lists! Much of what we require of students in our curriculum aims at making them mini-critics, mini-professionals, but that’s exactly what most of them won’t be. I particularly emphasized in my talk today ways in which close reading takes us through aesthetic questions into ethical ones: here I am influenced, of course, by Wayne Booth, and in fact I quoted some of what he says about the choices that lie behind the finished literary product, and about the choice we make about whether we want to be “friends” with particular books. I hope that these general remarks helped frame the course in an interesting and even provocative way for the students. Much of what we will be doing on a day to day basis will be much more concrete, down in the nitty-gritty details. But if they can think about where this kind of analysis can take them, or about what kinds of broader conversations it supports and enhances, I think they’ll find it a more resonant experience.
My other class is the second installment of the 19th-century novel, the Dickens-to-Hardy half. I taught this last in 2009, when the book list was North and South, Great Expectations, Lady Audley’s Secret, Middlemarch, and Jude the Obscure. I shuffle the books around a bit every time, and this time I’m leading off with Barchester Towers–in past versions of the course, I have often started with The Warden, which I am very fond of, but I’ve been wanting to bring in Barchester Towers for a long time so finally I just made up my mind to it. Since I’ve never lectured on it before, I’m feeling slightly regretful right now, since if I were doing The Warden again I’d have all my materials to hand plus I’d be intimately familiar with the novel. But I’ve been rereading Barchester Towers and enjoying it enormously. How could I not? It is funny, poignant, sharp, and sentimental–sometimes all at once! I’ve kept Great Expectations (though I kind of wish I’d had the guts to sub in Bleak House, just because, well, because it’s Bleak House, and because I’ve taught and thus read Great Expectations pretty often lately). Then it’s The Woman in White, which I alternate with Lady Audley, and then Middlemarch and Jude to close. The tweaks in the book list keep me alert. I decided to stick with the letter exchange assignments that I used last term. I haven’t actually had time to look at my fall course evaluations, so I don’t know if the students were happy with the assignment sequence, but there are a lot of things I like about it, including keeping everyone focused on every book as we go, and giving them lots of writing practice.
I have put one small innovation in place in the 19th-century fiction class. I have been regretting the difficulties of having more direct contact with students as class sizes in general go up, and in these 19th-century novels classes I have also been feeling that there is less reciprocal engagement during class sessions–I have my lecture notes more carefully planned out, usually, and though there is always a core of talkers in the class when I work on generating discussion, there are also a lot who don’t speak up and thus at least seem fairly passive. I have a theory that this passivity sometimes (not always) shows up in their written work: it’s not very lively, it’s not very excited, it’s very safe (if they are attentive) or off the mark (if they aren’t). Students who come to confer with me one-on-one very often not only do better assignments and show more improvement across the term, but seem more energetic in class. Of course, this correlation is probably because those who come to see me are precisely those who have that extra bit of keenness! Anyway, I wanted to change the classroom dynamic a bit, so I’ve designated most Friday classes as seminar meetings: I’m dividing the class into two subsections, and each time one group will meet with me seminar-style, around a table. With a class of 40, we can’t do better than 20 for these, but 20 is actually the usual size for our 4th-year seminars, and it’s much smaller than a typical tutorial in the classes where this kind of break-out group is the norm (these are usually around 30). We’ll do general discussion but also some worksheets and practice for assignments–tutorial kind of stuff. I hope this will help them get to know both me and the course material better, in a different way. It will also force me to change up what I do with the other hours and to loosen up a bit in my own control of our time. There’s nothing intrinsically radical about including tutorials, of course, but they are not at all the norm here for classes of this size and at this level. We’ll see how the plan goes over!