This Week in My Classes: Focus on Writing

I don’t seem to be posting my teaching updates with the regularity I used to: “this week” too often means “last week” or “these days.” I was wondering why I put off posting, and I think it’s because after doing this series for so long, I worry about repeating myself if I simply report on the week’s activities. It’s not that things don’t change in my teaching, but I think at this point I have blogged about every course in my repertoire at least once and sometimes two or three times. I mix up the readings every time (for instance, this term I’m teaching 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy with a completely different book list than I used in this course last year) — but even so I’ve often assigned the books in other courses. And I change up the assignments regularly, for better or for worse (“I think Dr. Maitzen is trying too hard to make her assignments different,” says one of the evaluations for last term’s Somerville Novelists seminar). But after a while, how interesting is it to hear about this kind of thing?

Still, I stand by my reasons for launching the series, and I see no signs that misunderstandings or misrepresentations of academic work have abated (cough cough Forbes article cough cough). So, I’ll keep it up at least to the end of this term and then maybe reconsider. In the meantime, I’ll try to get back to more of a brief update than a long screed or meditation, just to reduce the psychological roadblocks I’ve been putting up!

nightIn English 1000 this week, we’re finishing our discussion of Wiesel’s Night. In our conferences at the beginning of term a lot of students said they still have difficulty coming up with a good thesis, soI’m going to use a fair amount of our class time on how to move from observations about Night to an interpretive argument of the right kind. One of my strategies for tomorrow is to show them the ‘suggested essay topics’ for Night that are posted at SparkNotes. None of them would lead to an essay that is really appropriate to the kind of work we’ve been doing in the course in general or on Night in particular: we’ve been talking mostly about the difficulties of representing the Holocaust, and thus on what strategies Wiesel uses both to show and to overcome the inadequacies of language.  I’m hoping that the SparkNotes topics will clarify by comparison the kind of thing we are trying to do. Then we’re going to walk through the thesis-building process again, starting from something they find worth noticing to collecting observations about it to asking questions about its significance and finally to stating a thesis about it.

In English 3032 the students are writing the first of their “mini-midterms” tomorrow — these are replacing the multiple-choice pop quizzes I used for many years to motivate reading and note-taking. Then on Wednesday, this class too will focus on essay writing. Though it’s a 3000-level course, it’s not limited to senior students and I find there’s always a range of levels. Even the more advanced students, too, in my experience, often benefit from some guidance on the difference between an essay that describes something in the novel to an essay that interprets something in the novel. So we’ll walk through a similar exercise to the one I’m doing in Intro. I’ll be interested to see what attendance is like for that session. I know I never would have missed an opportunity to hear more about expectations and standards for an assignment! But not one of my professors ever spent time on this kind of “how to” or “process” class. It’s up to the students which of our first four novels they write about for their first essay. I’m happy to say that two students did in fact resolve to write on Bleak House! I wonder what the breakdown will be over the other options (CranfordThe Mill on the Floss, and Lady Audley’s Secret).

With just two classes this term rather than last term’s three, I do feel more relaxed, especially about finding time to do marking. There’s lots else to do, though, from administrative meetings to reference letters to MA thesis proposals etc. etc. Plus it’s winter, and both kids have been sick off and on, so all the daily logistics are a bit harder than would be ideal. Thankfully, my husband is on sabbatical this term and working at home, so he’s coping with most of the fall-out from sick days and snow days. This month I also had five contributors working on pieces for Open Letters, which has been great, of course (thank you all!) but has rather hampered my work on my own piece. Well, if not this month, then next month for sure, especially as I’ll have the February reading week guaranteeing me some stretches of uninterrupted time.

7 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes: Focus on Writing

  1. Alex January 28, 2013 / 6:14 am

    Well, I would definitely choose to write on ‘Bleak House’; it’s a novel I truly love. Student evaluations can be so revealing, can’t they? Although I still think the one that complained that I didn’t pre-punch holes in the handouts I gave them said more about the student than it did about my teaching methods.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) January 28, 2013 / 11:33 am

    If I were choosing not by taste but cannily, I would pick the Braddon. It is the simplest book on the list, the one where it would be easiest to fake – or let’s say, demonstrate – mastery.

    But all four have their joys and pitfalls.


  3. Jim January 28, 2013 / 12:52 pm

    Curious about the Forbes article and can’t seem to find it. Do you have a link or title/date/author? Thanks.


  4. Rohan January 28, 2013 / 1:39 pm

    Alex, no kidding that comment says nothing about you! I feel the same about the one I got last term in a class of 90 students that complained I didn’t attend to the needs of each of my students individually.

    Tom, I think you’re exactly right, but they won’t necessarily know that until they get there, so they’d be taking a risk if they wait (well, unless they read this!). Cranford is nice and short, which may seem tempting, and it would be lots of fun to work on, but it’s pretty subtle, too. And Mill on the Floss is definitely a challenge, though also very rewarding to think hard about. Everyone will have to write on our last novel, Tess, either on the exam or in a final longer essay.


  5. Alex in Leeds January 29, 2013 / 10:37 am

    I think I’d be tempted to write the one I know most about and believe I understand the background of, like Tom that would be the Braddon and sensation novels. That said I’d be tempted to tackle the one I resisted most – Cranford. I don’t ‘get’ Gaskell but the thinking time and focus on it might unravel the text and help me develop my writing skills… It worked for Great Expectations which I hated on first read and then had the lightbulb moment with after reading essays and background for it. 🙂


  6. Susan Messer January 29, 2013 / 10:38 pm

    Those sessions on arriving at a thesis and description vs. interpretation sounds extremely valuable. I wish someone had thought to do that kind of work with me.


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