This Week in My Classes: My Waverley Intervention

My sincere thanks to everyone who weighed in, here or on Twitter, with advice about handling the classroom slump brought on by Waverley. Here’s an update on what I decided to do.

highlanderFirst of all, I did decide to do something different, rather than just pressing on with my usual strategies. I had to admit to myself — and I admitted this morning to my class — that if year after year a critical mass of students just isn’t getting engaged by the novel, at least to some extent this is a failure on my part — a pedagogical failure. Dropping Waverley from my reading list was also a failure: some students in Waverley-free years have told me how happy they were to have missed it, but missing out on it was not a win for them any more than it was one for me. As I told my class this morning, it’s a novel that deserves its place on our syllabus, one that is well worth reading for our curriculum, whatever anyone’s personal response to it. But the failure isn’t all mine. To use the analogy I suggested to my class, if you’re stumped by a difficult calculus problem, you don’t blame the problem: you work it as hard as you can, get more help if you need it, and try to bring your skills up to the level you need to solve it.

I decided to approach the class, then, as a problem-solving opportunity: we all, collectively, needed to think about what was going on and what our own role could be in addressing it. I said frankly where I thought I had been going wrong: struggle is part of learning new things, and they needed to be free to talk about their difficulties without my getting all judgmental. I told them that I thought I needed to back off a bit, and listen, so that they could trust me to work with them. But so that we didn’t fall into an unproductive gripe session, I suggested they approach Waverley in the spirit of couples therapy: avoid “you” statements in favour of “I” statements, to stimulate not blame but agency. “Waverley is boring” doesn’t help: you can’t change Waverley, after all! “I am finding Waverley boring / frustrating / confusing” is more constructive because there may be something you (or I, as the teacher) can do differently.

All of this preamble took only a  few minutes at the start of class. Then I went to work on getting out of their way. I’d made up a handout with three simple questions:

  1. How is Waverley going for me? What do I like about it? What specific challenges does it pose?
  2. Given the specific ways I’m finding Waverley challenging, here are some ideas for things I could try to make it go better:
  3. Given the specific ways I’m finding Waverley challenging, here are some ideas for what Dr. Maitzen could do to help:

I gave them about 10 minutes to respond honestly to these questions — the handout was explicitly not to be submitted or evaluated. Then on the other side of the handout they each had one of five different passages I’d picked out, and they got into small groups with the other students who had the same passage. They had two tasks in their groups: first, to talk freely about how they’d answered their questions, then to read their passage aloud and discuss it, considering it in light of their general comments about reading Waverley as well as in the context of the issues we’d been working on in our previous classes. I left the room entirely for the first five minutes of the group work, literally getting out of their way so they would be uninhibited in their discussion.

The room erupted into noise behind me as I went out, and the conversation seemed energetic for the whole period. While they talked over their passages, I went around offering my help and inviting comments on the question about what I could do to help with their reading of the novel. I got some very specific requests: the most frequent was to go over the political / historical factions again, clarifying who was on what side. A couple of people thought a handout listing characters and their affiliations (and their various names) would be great, so I think I’ll do some version of that. Another suggestion was for some straightforward plot summary: because a number of them are really struggling through Scott’s prose, they lose track of what’s actually happening. Plot summary is not usually high on my priorities for class time, but I can see how confusion about the novel’s events would inhibit class participation! So I’ll do that too, though I’m going to think about ways to make it interactive.

As for things that they could do, a couple of students said that reading the passages out loud helped their comprehension, so that might be something they’ll try on their own (we talked about the audiobook option, though sadly there doesn’t seem to be a really good one available). I showed them the e-text available through the University of Adelaide, which might help anyone struggling with the small print of our Oxford edition. I think others realized that looking more words up in their dictionary will help, and I continued to urge them all to get started trying to write about the novel. It was clear that not everyone had the same issues, and not everyone even had any problems with it — I hope the students who were already getting along fine don’t feel the class was wasted: I think we will all benefit if our remaining two sessions go better.

However it goes on Wednesday and Friday, I won’t regret having tried to change the dynamic that was developing. Lecturing more is one way to get through a slump like this, but it isn’t the best way, since (as I often remind them) the objective of an English class is for them to be better readers themselves: the process of reading and discussion is not just important, but in some ways it’s the whole point.

10 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes: My Waverley Intervention

  1. Jeffry A. House September 30, 2013 / 9:56 pm

    The free Kindle edition at Gutenberg includes the handy feature of providing a definition for unfamiliar words by simply pressing the word on the page with your finger.

    There is a historical introduction, also.


    • Rohan October 1, 2013 / 9:13 am

      Jeffry, that’s a good point about one specific advantage of e-books. I find most of my students still prefer paper, but those who go electronic also don’t have to carry around so much weight!


  2. Colleen September 30, 2013 / 10:06 pm

    Brilliant! It’s so straightforward it would never have occurred to me.


  3. Susan in TX September 30, 2013 / 10:16 pm

    Yay! So glad to hear the report of, “The room erupted into noise behind me as I went out, and the conversation seemed energetic for the whole period.” Such a good idea. Sometimes the small group discussions can increase the enthusiasm for ‘rising to the challenge’ better than anything. Helping them with the character list and the plot summary are also good (and kind of you to not make them do it alone). I’m always trying to get my kids to write their own plot summaries each time they come to a stop in their reading (chapter by chapter can be too tedious). If they know they’ve got 30 minutes to read, save at least the last 5 minutes to write a short summary of what they covered. They really resist this for some reason, but when they do it, they really do seem to get a better overall grasp of what is going on, they retain more detail, and they make better connections over the course of a longer novel. Never mind that it makes it easier to answer the essays on the tests and write papers. 😉 Glad to hear that things are looking up for Waverly!


    • Rohan October 1, 2013 / 9:14 am

      I agree that writing things out is crucial — not just to comprehension and memory, but also to analysis. Often it’s only once I start taking notes that ideas of my own about my reading start to form. That’s the reason I’ve required my students to keep journals, really.


  4. Jo VanEvery October 1, 2013 / 10:47 am

    YAY. I love this. And I agree about plot summary being helpful. It’s like going to the opera — reading a synopsis first makes the whole experience better. Glad they rose to the challenge you set them and that in the process you (and presumably they) discovered that not everyone was struggling.


    • Rohan October 1, 2013 / 11:56 am

      Thanks – I do feel good about the session, though I suppose the proof of the pudding is yet to come. Here’s hoping my further follow-up activities keep building the momentum.


  5. Peter Jobson October 3, 2013 / 1:48 am

    This post has created a lovely smile on my face. I love how the students have made it their own & have also informed you what is troubling them. Once, us mentors know the issue, often we can supply the tools for them to progress. I suspect this year, after this intro, they will approach you more about perceived issues they have. I see higher grades overall for this class & I bet your evaluation survey is, on the whole, very positive. 😀

    Not as a powerful novel as Waverley is “The Heart of Mid-Lothian”. There are some wonderful quotes ” children today have no respect for their elders” is my fav, but also the story is a slightly easier one.

    Plus the themes are common ones that dominate 19th century literature. Just a thought to get students to view Scott as a valuable author in the 19th century canon. I always see Scott as I approach Hayden: still writing in the late 18th century style, but developing the sentiments of the 19th century


  6. Susan Messer October 3, 2013 / 10:19 pm

    I’m with the others in wishing I were in your class. Why didn’t any of my professors ever think to ask these kinds of questions? I think it takes courage to acknowledge the slump openly and be willing to hear what the students have to offer. I’m writing something now (fiction) about a teacher facing a deadly slump. I’m thinking maybe I’ll have him ask his students something along these lines. Not sure what the outcome will be for him yet. Not likely to be particularly happy, though. After all, it’s contemporary fiction.


    • Rohan October 4, 2013 / 8:57 am

      Susan, I don’t really know what the outcome is for me yet either! Wednesday’s discussion was not particularly lively, but I’ve seen some awfully smart entries in people’s reading journals (which might well have happened with out any ‘intervention’ from me at all, of course). It takes time to reread and process new information, though, especially mid-term and mid-week, so I should probably not expect dramatic changes.


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