This Week in My Classes: In which I return to Waverley after many years.

waverleyIn class this week one of my students asked me when I last taught Waverley. “2006-7,” I promptly replied — I knew this because I had gone back to my old files to see what notes and handouts I had in reserve.* It used to be a fixture on my syllabus for The 19thC Novel from Austen to Dickens — but it was also, without fail, the least popular book on the syllabus. While I don’t typically let such considerations steer me in choosing assigned texts (a literary education is about challenging and extending our existing taste and skills as readers, after all), it did get to be a drag coaxing and cheerleading and exhorting the students to get any kind of discussion going. Sure, Scott is probably the most popular and influential author of the early 19th century: all of our other novelists read him (mostly, with passionate affection) and learned from him. And sure, Waverley itself is heaps of fun if you can get into the spirit of things, and if you can get past the garrulous, curmudgeonly, oversharing, occasionally pedantic, highly self-conscious narrator … and sure, there’s all kinds of metafictional proto-post-modernist fun to be had with that narrator, too, if, again, you can get into it. But when at least 75% of the students really can’t get into it, then their boredom and resentment infects the classroom atmosphere, and not necessarily just for the two or so weeks spent on Waverley itself. So I stopped assigning it, and have been teaching Austen to Dickens with no Scott at all since then, except for “The Two Drovers” in a recent summer session of the course.

But I’ve missed Waverley: unpopular as it was, and its intrinsic merits aside, it provided an infinitely valuable touchstone for interesting features of our other novels. As I was already tilting this year’s incarnation of the course towards the Bildungsroman by including both Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, I knew I was going to miss it even more. So it’s back  — and, judging by the last two class meetings, so is the stupified resentment it inspires. Not, by any means, among all the students — but even those who are writing smartly in their reading journals seem uncharacteristically reticent in class, and I have numerous indications that a lot of students are falling behind in their reading as well as in their appreciation of the novel. And so I’m back wondering, as I was in 2006-7, what I could be doing differently to make things go better, or whether it’s just not worth the effort.

My basic approach is a ramped-up version of what I do with every assigned novel, which is to present the novel as enthusiastically as I can, front-loading our time on it with a lecture or two clearing up historical information and setting up some interpretive frameworks which then, in theory, enable everyone to read on and consider how the particulars of the novel fit into those broader patterns. There is a bit more context to be established here than usual, but as Scott himself says,

I beg pardon, once and for all, of those readers who take up novels merely for amusement, for plaguing them so long with old-fashioned politics, and Whig and Tory, and Hanoverians and Jacobites. The truth is, I cannot promise them that this story shall be intelligible, not to say probably, without it.

If that was true in 1814 (or 1805), it’s even more so today, when there’s barely any chance at all that those terms will mean anything, even to a History major. But once you see what the stakes are, it seems to me that it’s not impossibly difficult to follow the story! It takes patience for a modern reader to settle into the prosy narration, but it’s great stuff once you do, and there’s as much “action, laffs, and romance” as in any Captain Underpants novel!  So once we’re launched on the more discussion-based classes, I start from my stock of open-ended questions (“What kind of a fellow is Waverley?’) and then draw us along into analysis of the answers (“What’s the value of such a ‘wavering’ hero in a novel about civil conflict?’) — focusing, along the way, on particularly fun or revealing scenes. An early episode in Waverley that’s good to discuss, for instance (in theory) is the banquet at Tully-Veolan that ends in a drunken brawl at Luckie Macleary’s inn. In addition to being a great comic scene and one that illustrates Waverley’s uncanny (and symbolic!) habit of falling down in times of crisis, it shows the living importance and potentially violent results of the broad political conflicts we’ve gone over: the fight begins with “a toast which seemed . . . to have a peculiar and uncivil reference to the government that [Waverley] served.”

bustofscottAgain, this is all standard classroom procedure — lecture mixed with discussion prompted by questions designed to build interpretations out of observations. But it just doesn’t go well with Waverley, though there are always a few stalwart souls who put their hands up (thank you!). I’m always a bit puzzled by the conspicuous collapse: the novel doesn’t strike me as that opaque, especially once we’ve done our warm-up sessions. On the assumption that incomprehension is a problem, though, my first response is usually to step up what I think of as the ‘modeling’ component of class — that is, walking the students through those key episodes and showing them what’s in there to notice, enjoy, and work with. Then I try backing off again — but still with lackluster results. Is it me, I wonder? Perhaps I come on too strong: if they are feeling bemused or bored, then my enthusiasm, rather than ‘selling’ them on the novel, may just alienate them from both it and me. Also, sometimes I catch myself hectoring them: this week, for example, I gave them a heads-up that we’d be discussing three particular incidents, and when hardly anyone seemed prepared to do that, well, I did take them to task! But that backfires too, I bet: rather than feeling challenged to do better, they probably just feel defensive.

I really want them to rise to the challenge of this novel. I really don’t think it’s an impossible task. But for many of themI think it does require letting go of the expectation that class reading will be immediately accessible and ‘relatable.’ It’s a class , after all: you’re supposed to learn from it — cue the speech about this not being a book club! Last class I urged them to get started writing about it, if they hadn’t already: they’ve got study questions they can use as prompts for their journals, plus the questions we’ve been working on in class. Active engagement of that kind is a good way to learn, and Waverley is a genuinely interesting novel to write about even if you aren’t finding it a treat to read. But I’m stumped about what else to do, and about what attitude to take in class. I should probably just go on as usual and try not to make a big deal out of the slump we’re experiencing — but that’s easier said than done.

Any tips? Teachers, how do you handle it when you think you’re losing your students and, as a result, they’re missing out? Students, what tactic is most effective, in your experience, at motivating you to get on board with something you don’t find immediately compelling?

*2006-7! That means it was in the era Before Blogging, which is why I have never blogged before about the pleasures and perils of teaching Waverley.

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14 Responses to This Week in My Classes: In which I return to Waverley after many years.

  1. Jo VanEvery says:

    I am having a thought which I fear is completely inappropriate but I’ll write it down in case it either isn’t or sparks some other idea.

    In homeschooling circles there is occasional discussion of getting kids to read things that are a stretch for them. Some parents have had good success with either reading aloud or using audio books. The former is not possible in your circumstance but the latter may well be.

    The advantage of this is that it allows the student to get into the story without simultaneously struggling with unfamiliar vocabulary and whatnot. An audiobook is usually read by someone who communicates some of the appropriate emotion as s/he reads. And listening while reading along in the book, may make it easier to make marginal notes as the book progresses.

    I’m not sure where that might go in relation to your goals for the class, but I wonder if you have considered giving the students permission to try this and maybe even suggest a good audio version, if one is available.

    A second thought, I think you are onto something with stretching and reading difficult books and I’m wondering if the students might have ideas about how to do this themselves. There may be a bit of whining about that as a goal, but I think if you stated it bluntly as one of the objectives of the course, and let them in on the point about how the other authors you will read would have read this and been influenced by it, perhaps they’d have some ideas about how to tackle the difficulty. It would be a kind of meta discussion but might be worthwhile, especially since this is one of your learning objectives for the course.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Jo, I think the audiobook idea is a really interesting one: an intrusive narrator might make much more sense to them in someone’s actual voice! After I first saw your comment I went right to Librivox to see what they had — as I listen to their recording, I’m not sure it’s the winning option, but I’m going to keep poking around to see what options there are. I sometimes use film clips to try to personalize difficult novels (I’ve actually tried this with Middlemarch) — this would be a similar gambit.

      I also think you’re right about bringing the students in on the discussion (a suggestion along these lines has been made on Twitter too). Instead of trying to insist on some kind of ‘high ground,’ I might need to open up a space for complaints, for expressing their difficulty or boredom. This would not just be an opportunity to vent but could start that way, just to get everyone feeling involved. My challenge would be to turn that conversation (after more time than I might typically allow for it) into a workshop on how to get past any problems we can pinpoint. Students who are enjoying the novel might have some tips (what in their past reading experience prepared them for it, or what part of the novel finally made things ‘click’ for them, etc.).

      • Rohan Maitzen says:

        Also, I’m thinking that reading aloud is not impossible. Obviously we can’t read the whole novel, but reading passages might be more than usually useful . . .

  2. Dorian Stuber says:

    Let me know if the meta-discussion works. I’ve tried versions of that numerous times over the years, and find it seldom works. (Small upper level seminars handle it best.) They really seem taken aback by this breaking of the fourth wall, if you will, and I’ve always been dissatisfied with the results.

    As to how to handle it when I feel I’m losing students: well, I’m lucky not to have this problem too often. It’s one of the benefits of a small liberal arts college. The classes aren’t usually big enough to lose everybody. Plus I teach 20th century material, which they often gravitate towards. But–and I know this might sound kind of nuts–I also swear a lot in class (not *at* students; just in general; I’ve a terrible potty mouth) and, frankly, students love it. It loosens them up or something. They still find it transgressive enough that it makes them feel like we’re doing something dangerous. Which of course we are.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      It’s interesting that you haven’t found a ‘meta-discussion’ that helpful — I can see that the exercise may be unfamiliar for the students, though. This is a 3000-level class so it has a mix of students from those right out of intro to graduating seniors. That may be one reason why it’s tricky to find the right approach. Tactics like casting / conceptualizing adaptations (as Colleen suggests below) are things I would more typically do in a 1st-yr class. You’ve been in my classroom: do you think I could carry off the “potty mouth” strategy? I doubt it! I’d get embarrassed myself. 🙂 I do try to have fun with stuff and there’s usually plenty of laughter (with me, not at me, I hope — though I suppose you can never really be sure!).

  3. Peter Jobson says:

    I’m really saddened to read about the student’s reactions towards Scott.

    I was a biology major student, but I devoured the Classics in my commute to & from the Uni (2-3 hrs each way). Your students are missing out on soo much! Nearly all of mid 19th Century literature stems from the author having read Scott. I mean Dickens’ characters speaking local dialect come from high & lowland Scots dialect in Waverley, just as an example. Then there is the historical aspect – from Waverley comes that whole Romantic Scottish pilgrimage & thus why we get Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave.

    I have to admit when I have taught the turgid stuff in undergrad I have been honest & said: this bored me too. But, plant taxonomy definitely falls into the boring Scott literature realm & I have usually resorted to bad Dad jokes & the like to enliven the class. Often I succeed, except with my US students, who are just downright rude. It is tough trying to enthuse bored students into a topic you hold dear.

    I just don’t understand why students doing 19th century literature would complain about difficulty. I’m guessing a course centred on the literature discussing the Reform Laws of 1843 are out then (Gaskell, Kingsley & Disrelli). I wonder if they whine in similar volumes over Henry James.

    Wish I was in your class: I reckon I would have a great time following your ideas & getting involved in discussions.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Peter, I don’t want to give too negative an impression of this group. The slump I describe is relative to their usual level of engagement to this point — and it’s possible that they are more up to date than they seem but just feeling uncertain that they get what’s going on, hence the reluctance to speak up in class. I haven’t heard much overt complaining, and my experience in the past with North and South (to take up your point about Gaskell et al.) has been that it’s usually quite popular. So it’s Waverley in particular that is harder going. I think the relatively antiquated language and style is the major stumbling block, but I am only guessing. I think I will do some kind of small group activity tomorrow that will give them a chance to identify (to themselves and then to me) what is harder about reading this book, and then we’ll try to figure out what they need to do, and what they need from me, to get through it more happily.

      • Peter Jobson says:

        I’m hoping that session goes really well. At best, the students move off the hurdle of understanding the brogue & enjoy the humour within the book.

        When I can, I am pulling out my copy of Waverley to re-read.

  4. Colleen says:

    It sounds like a really wonderful novel…I’m going to look out for a copy, although I can’t imagine when I’ll have time to read it. Still, brawls and laffs are always right up my alley.

    I’ve been thinking of a text I used to teach which was a necessary piece in providing an overview of early English drama; it was always the one that lost students and unlike Waverley, nobody anywhere probably ever found it to be an enjoyable read.

    What I did with Everyman was to use it to discuss the issue of performance (bear with me): how performance choices radically affected interpretation. How I think this might be useful: Would you consider putting them into groups or something and get them to set, cast, etc a film version of Waverley? (There’s a film version of Paradise Lost coming out, for christ’s sake, starring Bradley Cooper; my point is, if that seems filmable…). And maybe having them “modernize” it, by which I mean make them set it against the background of some more recent or well-known historical events or another country/culture, while maintaining the novel’s internal consistencies. In some ways it’s a risk, but I found that if my syudents could make parallels between the alien thing and things they knew better, it deepened appreciation and understanding. I’m not sure I’m explaining myself very well here…but I trust you know what I’m trying to get at here.

  5. Colleen says:

    Oh, and of course they had to present their plans to the rest of the class and defend their decisions. They couldn’t just say “Everyman will star Orlando Bloom because he’s hawt.”

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Colleen, that’s another interesting suggestion. I’ve done things like that with other texts but typically in 1st-year classes.

      My fear here is that if I’m right that a lot of them are quite behind in the reading, we wouldn’t really be able to get going on a project like this either, and that would just be stressful for everyone. I think I need to find out where they are with the book — including literally, as in how far along in it. I may be imagining that things are worse out there than they really are — maybe I’m just projecting my own anxieties onto a perfectly cooperative, cheerful group … though if so, hands better start going up. I’m thinking small group activity focused on specific passages tomorrow, to remove (initially) the inhibition of talking directly to me about it. I’m also thinking that I need to help those who are bored or frustrated by the novel to turn statements like “it’s boring” into statements (and plans) like “I’m bored — here’s why, and here’s what I need to do to get past it.”

  6. Peter Jobson says:

    I really want you to take this in the nicest way 😀

    To both Rohan & Colleen,

    I love how you are prepared to work with your students to get thru any difficulties in understanding & enjoying the course. I send good vibes thru the web that the students get this vibe as well. 😀

    Peter< a former adjunct lecturer, now just dealing with the general public

    • Rohan says:

      Thank you, Peter! I think this morning’s session may have been useful. Certainly it was noisy! I plan to post an update about it tonight.

  7. Susan in TX says:

    Don’t think I’ve ever commented before, but have to say how much I enjoy reading what you are doing in your classes. I’m a homeschool mom and would LOVE to sit in on your courses! I’m not sure I have a lot to offer in the way of helpful advice – even with my own kids, if they get behind in the reading, there’s not a lot you can do until they actually read the material. That said, do your students need some additional help with how to tackle this sort of work? It sounds like you are giving them that, though. One book I have my kids read the summer before high school (before we get to deeper literary analysis) is Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind. Granted, this book was actually written for adults who want to self-educate and who have more time than students (she recommends reading each work 3 times through, and students clearly don’t have that kind of time), but it has a lot of helpful tips/discussion questions, etc.
    It really sounds like you are giving them the background help, though. So sad for them to miss out on Waverly! Sounding them out for why they aren’t reading it does seem to be the best approach. My oldest read Ivanhoe three years ago when she was 14 and loved it – she’s been eyeing Waverly ever since, but just hasn’t had the chance to get to it. Perhaps if you have at least 1 or 2 in the room that are keeping up and tracking with you, they could help you “rally the troops” with their enthusiasm? Sorry to be so little help, but I definitely sympathize with your struggle and will be interested to see how the students come along.

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