My Somerville Summer: Update

Six weeks into my ‘Summer of Somerville,’ it seems like time to take stock. In my previous post, I identified two main areas I need to focus on: pedagogical strategies (concrete course-planning things like readings, schedules, and assignments) and research in a whole range of topics (my own expertise will be needed partly to inform the class but also, more important, to guide and direct the students in their own work). I’ve been doing both at once, reading source materials related to some of the topics on the list I had brainstormed, and jotting down ideas for possible exercises and assignments.

In terms of course design, at this point I have in mind a basic structure along the lines of what I’ve done in my seminar on Victorian sensation fiction a couple of times: front-loading the assigned reading in the first half or two-thirds of the term, using that early phase to establish a core of common ideas and questions, and then doing hands-on workshops and break-out groups to work on a more diverse set of projects that are then brought back for presentation to the whole class at the end of term. In this case, I’ve ordered four texts that will be our core reference points: Testament of Youth, South Riding, Gaudy Night, and The Constant Nymph. It’s a disparate group of books, and making sense of (or questioning) them as a coherent group will be a running theme and one that will, I hope, help us build up a set of broader questions about periodization, canonicity, genre, and women’s writing as a category, as well as generating good discussion about thematic and contextual issues particular to each book. Right now I like the idea of building a collaborative wiki for our major course project, one that we would conceptualize together and then build with groups working on each specific section. Workshops would focus on the how-to aspects of wiki creation and then on the specific components we want to include.

Because I can’t assume anything in particular about the background preparation of students in the class, I think I have to start the term with some kind of orientation session. In the sensation fiction seminar, I usually talk about the history of the 19th-century novel and then about the appearance, definition, and reception of sensation novels as a subcategory (this includes some discussion of whether they really are a distinct subcategory, though that discussion is sometimes best held at the end of term when we’ve gone through our examples). In this case I think I’ll start with a skeletal history of women’s higher education, some generalizations about women’s social and political position around the time “our” writers went to Oxford (with special reference to the suffrage movement, and to the impact of World War I), and some comments on the literary history of “our” period (which I’ll probably define, for simplicity, as 1914-1939), with reference in particular to the ‘rise of Modernism’ narrative that still, I think, dominates. This would serve to introduce, in a preliminary way, the issues that were most immediately important to the writers we’ll be studying and that frame most of the scholarly work on them. The reading I’ve been doing is helping me build up my own understanding of these contexts. So far I’ve mostly focused on education, with books like Judy Batson’s very thorough Her Oxford, but I’m moving into literary-historical material and also commentaries on the ‘Great War’ and its effects on women and on literature (yesterday I read Sandra Gilbert’s essay “Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War,” for instance).

I’ve been thinking of ways to bring in some of the multitude of other related authors and works I’ve been reading, or reading about. One of my assignment ideas is an individual project on a book not assigned for everyone to read, including preparing a wiki entry and giving a short class presentation, so each student would have the experience of becoming expert and producing knowledge to add to the cumulative learning project of the class. It’s not hard to come up with a list of 20 or so options, and I can imagine students enjoying making their individual selections and taking ownership of them, but I’m worried that overall the results might be too diffuse for us to discuss productively as a group. An alternative would be small group projects on a narrower set of alternative texts, but then I might need to rethink the overall idea for the class wiki. My experience is that students vary in their enthusiasm for group work, so I want to be sure there’s a good balance of individual components too. I also expect to require a critical essay, probably involving one of our four common texts, but the relationship of the essay to our other work is something I’m still thinking about.

As I brood about possible assignments, what I’m most concerned about is finding a good balance between curiosity-driven exploration and well-defined expectations. I really do want the students to share my sense of discovery, and I’d love a high degree of “buy-in,” self-motivation, and self-direction from them, but at the same time, I know that most students appreciate plenty of structure and clear ground-rules: they flourish when they feel confident working within the framework established by the syllabus. I also have to consider some realities of my own: I’ll be teaching three courses with a total of around 150 students in the fall term, with no TA support, and I need to manage my own time and workload, which means among other things being able to stagger deadlines across my courses and having made things clear and specific enough for students at the start of term that they don’t need constant consultation with me to move forward with their work outside of class. For my own peace of mind, that probably means not doing things like letting students set their own deadlines or devise individual assignment contracts or portfolios with unpredictable or widely varying components.

Now I’m starting to feel anxious rather than enthusiastic, not least because writing that last paragraph reminded me that I haven’t yet done any concrete preparations for my other fall classes. I’d better get back to work! Right now I’m reading the rest of Brittain’s Honourable Estate, which continues to surprise me with its raw, angry edginess.

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