Every year my rate of posting (never particularly frequent or steady anyway) falls off at this time of year thanks to the rising pressure of other reading and writing — much of it kind of mind-numbing (midterms, for instance) and thus sloth-inducing when it’s done. That’s about where I am this week, with two sets of midterms in (one now marked – hooray!) and various proposals and papers imminent. Still, when I reflect how much I had going on this time last year, especially with the all-new and very labor-intensive Somerville seminar, I can’t really complain: overall, this is a much less hectic term. That’s what makes it possible for me to be at least contemplating getting another review done for Open Letters this month — though my attempts to write it have been going badly so far.
In Mystery and Detective Fiction we wrapped up Knots and Crosses before the latest midterm and we’ve just started on Indemnity Only. In my usual mental game of musical chairs for this course, I’ve starting thinking it’s time to rotate Paretsky out in favor of ‘A’ is for Alibi next time around, just for some variety, but I always enjoy teaching Indemnity Only. As with Rankin, Paretsky has later novels that are richer qua novels, but in both cases these series starters do a lot of useful setting-up work and are more self-consciously messing about with genre conventions, which works well in a survey course. I rattled off way too many ‘opening questions’ in a hurry in yesterday’s class and felt bad about it afterwards: tomorrow I will be sure to slow down, filter the key ones for our particular attention, and allow for a lot more discussion. I think defensiveness about working on an overtly feminist text had something to do with my feeling that the framing issues needed to be addressed so fully, but it’s a mistake to let hypothetical carpers set my agenda. At the same time, though, I think it makes sense to anticipate some potential misunderstandings or knee-jerk responses, and to do some basic things like point out that “feminism” is a word that does not have a single fixed meaning. When we were discussing Knots and Crosses this year I tried to emphasize more than usual that Rankin explores ways in which crime is gendered; we also always discuss the novel’s interest in masculine identity and the cost of living up to certain ideals of “manly” strength, as exemplified by Rebus’s SAS training. I hoped that would make Paretsky’s (and V. I.’s) commitment to challenging gender norms ‘belong.’ But I’m sure there will be some of the usual irritated comments, and that’s fine: we come to discuss the book, not to share its values.
In 19th-Century Fiction we have wrapped up our time on David Copperfield and begun reading North and South. It has been a couple of years since I’ve assigned North and South, and I’m coming back to it with pleasure: it’s always one of my favorites, and happily it is often popular with the students too, as they find Margaret a strong and interesting character (she should be especially welcome after the insufferable Dora and the almost as tedious Agnes!) and appreciate the explicitly political drama. Besides thinking about Gaskell, I’ve been thinking a lot about the assignment sequence I’ve used this term and in last term’s Dickens-to-Hardy class. Some aspects of it do just what I had hoped they would, but the reading journals in particular continue to be a mixed success — successful, that is, only for the students who don’t need special prodding to do them regularly and thoughtfully. I’ve been thinking that I may have to set questions for them that would require them to be up to date with the reading to answer, and that would quite deliberately target issues and scenes I plan to discuss in class — which might increase the participation rate. But while that sounds efficient in those ways, it also stifles creativity and independent thinking about the books, which I do value and want to encourage and even see more of. How to find the right balance between coercion and liberty? Well, that’s an appropriate enough question to be pondering while reading this particular novel, I suppose.
And on that note, back to rereading it for tomorrow’s session.