In 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.”
Again, 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.