Catching Up and Looking Ahead


Friday afternoon I filed the last of my final grades for 2012-13. Compared to the arduous work to be done at the end of last term, wrapping up this term hasn’t been as difficult, but it also hasn’t been quite as interesting.

My last post dwelt on the perplexities of ‘coercive pedagogy.’ Marking exams last week I saw both good and bad results. Mostly, students’ performance is quite consistent with their work throughout the rest of the term; a couple of them clearly put in a lot of time studying and made a better showing than usual — and while in some ways this is a good thing, still, the very last three hours of time on a course is not the optimal time to rise to the occasion if learning, rather than scoring, is the real goal. So next year I’m going to focus on raising expectations for class time. I’ll re-institute reading quizzes in the 19th-century fiction class, and I’m going to take Yonina’s idea and introduce ‘calling cards’ of some kind in my section of Intro. One of my students told me this year that I made class worthwhile even for students who weren’t keeping up with the reading. While she meant this (I think) as a compliment, and while it reflects the effort I put into making sure our class time is informative and stimulating, I think it also gives me a hint about the problem: if students know that I’ll keep things going, then I become not the ‘value-added’ that I should be but the whole package. I think that’s fine sometimes. I’m not anti-lecture: lectures are an efficient way to get some kinds of work done, and they can be more than information delivery (when I do more formal lecturing, for instance, I often structure my comments in order to model something like building an argument from close reading). But if I’m too ready to answer my own questions in class, too willing to fill in when it should be their turn, I’m enabling their passivity as well as potentially preempting discussion that might emerge if I held back more, or made more deliberate efforts to bring in students’ voices. It has to work both ways (they have to be ready and willing to talk) — so I’ll work the problem from both sides. It’s not that these are new goals for me, to be clear. It’s just that this year more than other years my usual strategies seem not to have worked that well. (Individual classes have their own mysterious chemistry, also, so it may be that I’m overreacting to two groups that just happened to be on the quiet side.)

I’ll do a bit more housekeeping when I get back into my office tomorrow:  recycling and filing and shelving books and so on. I’ll even bring in a collection of supplies and do some literal cleaning! And then it will be time for the next phase to begin. April and May are key times for administrative work — I’ve had a number of meetings already and have more booked for next week. It’s also an important time for our M.A. students, who have to present the first stages of their thesis work at our colloquium in a couple of weeks. I’m supervising one M.A. student this summer. I’m on two Ph.D. committees too, one as a reader and the other as supervisor. Both seem likely to require quite a bit of work over the summer — in fact, one of my big tasks over the last two or three weeks has been reading through an entire draft of one thesis that might be going forward to defense before too long.

Then there are my own summer projects. It might look from the absence of book posts on this blog as if I haven’t been doing much reading, but that’s actually not true. It’s just that I’ve been reading (and rereading) in preparation for pieces to run elsewhere and I don’t want to steal my own thunder! I’m working on a review of Kate Aktinson’s Life After Life for the May issue of Open Letters Monthly, just a bit behind the big flurry of press attention it has already gotten (including reviews in major papers by not one but two of my OLM colleagues) but not so late, I hope, that nobody’s interested. As soon as that’s a wrap, I need to get serious about reviewing Deirdre David’s new biography of Olivia Manning, also for OLM.  And I’ve started a big project of rereading all 40+ novels by Dick Francis for an essay I’ve proposed for the Los Angeles Review of Books. This may be the only literary piece I’ve worked on so far for which I need to enter my notes in a spreadsheet. There’s just no other way I can think of for me to keep good track of the details across so many books. Now that my days won’t be (entirely) taken up with teaching and administrative work, and my nights also will be freed up from reading for class, I should also be able to return to reading more of the books that currently sit in tempting piles around my desk and nightstand and coffee tables, and writing posts about them too.

I have some longer-term summer plans as well. At the top of the list is completing a ‘beta’ version of the ‘Middlemarch for Book Clubs’ site that I began building last year. I think it’s in decent shape but it’s still skeletal. Once I’ve filled in preliminary versions of most of the pages I’ll make it public and solicit feedback. It’s just a one-person show at this point, but if it seems to people like a good thing, I may eventually make a pitch for some funding and support for it. And the final, most ambitious but at this point most amorphous plan is to think about where I’m going with the various George Eliot essays I’ve written over the past few years: do they, could they, add up to something larger, perhaps some kind of cross-over book project? If Rebecca Mead can do it, so can I, right? (Well, OK, wrong, since she’s a known quantity in the larger literary world — “A connected author, regularly featured at the New Yorker Festival, who is a natural for promotion,” as the site says. But a writer’s reach must exceed her grasp etc.) As part of that effort I will probably also get started on essays about the books I haven’t written anything about yet, probably starting with Adam Bede, but the most important work will be conceptual: what kind of book could it be? what do I specifically have to offer?

And on that note, suddenly I feel very busy — but in a good way! I’m hoping that having a rich list of projects I’m really interested in will help me avoid the summer slump I often fall into. I’m also going to experiment with working in different locations, to see if that makes a difference. My home office is in our basement, and long hours spent below ground at any time but especially when it’s finally pretty outside get disheartening. My office on campus, on the other hand, has a nice big window that unfortunately faces west, and as my floor is not air-conditioned, the room is basically uninhabitable in the afternoons once the temperatures rise. I may try working there in the mornings and then moving into the library in the afternoon. Even though I usually like it quiet when I’m writing, I’ve also wondered if, paradoxically, I might find it energizing to work in busier locations — a coffee shop, for instance — where the noise might blur because it would be impersonal, unrelated to me, and so (maybe) not psychologically distracting the way that, say, household commotion distracts me when I’m working at home.

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9 Responses to Catching Up and Looking Ahead

  1. I have no doubt that Mead’s book will be more insightful than her article – pumping it up to ten times the length will surely improve it. The book will likely be just as good as Deresiewicz’s Jane Austen book.

    I mean the opposite of what I wrote.

    Good luck working on the website – and organizing all of that Dick Francis, holy cow. Or holy horse in his case.

    Your Eliot (and post-Eliot, I assume, Soueif and so on) book makes sense to me, but I fear I represent a small audience.

  2. Rohan Maitzen says:

    That is a lot of Dick Francis! On the other hand, his books are short and read very quickly – and I know my favorites very well already. It’s always a bit odd, though, switching from ‘read-for-pleasure’ into ‘read-for-criticism’ mode on old friends.

    I wish Mead well with her book: I think it became clear in the comments thread on my ranty post about her New Yorker essay that that kind of more autobiographical writing has its own logic and antecedents, and also appeals to lots of readers — just not so much to me, or you! Still, I am curious to see how the premise can be expanded to a book length read and will be doing my best to keep an open mind. I avoided Dersiewicz’s Jane Austen book. In fact, I’m so sick of Jane Austen books that aren’t by Jane Austen (can I say that?) that I’m avoiding all of them. And movies. And TV shows. I’m almost sorry that I’m teaching Persuasion in the fall … and yet once I start rereading it I know I’ll be OK.

  3. Colleen says:

    I have had a lot of success working in public places such as coffee shops or libraries; I’ve always found it good for the soul to be around other humans while doing the solitary work of writing, even if I don’t speak with them. Also, someone else has to make the coffee and the snacks, and that’s always a win.

  4. Ali says:

    Oh my gosh, I will be so excited when you go live with your materials for your Middlemarch book club. That sounds fantastic! And I would love it if you published your essays about George Eliot. You have one person already who would buy the book!

  5. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Colleen, that point about it being good for the soul — that’s kind of what I was thinking. Maybe I would draw some positive energy from it. Or maybe I’d just find it even more frustrating trying to concentrate than I d working at home.

    Thanks for the encouragement, Ali! Tomorrow I’m going to make a to-do list for the Middlemarch site specifically so that it doesn’t seem like too vague or overwhelming a project. And between you and Tom, that’s two copies of my phantom book sold already … 🙂

  6. I am belatedly catching up with my feed reader but had to say ‘Yes please’ for the prospect of a book of Eliot essays. I’m always surprised by the fact that she lacks the supporting literature you see for the Brontes or Dickens.

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