This Week In My Classes: Pressing On

northandsouthEvery 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.

4 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Pressing On

  1. AJ November 22, 2013 / 10:55 am

    The best college class I ever took was a graduate seminar on classical political theory. Every week we had to bring in one paragraph on that week’s reading in response to a prompt given by the professor the week before. The paragraphs were not graded and in writing them I inevitably found my understanding of the text illuminated by my thinking about what I was writing in response to the prompt. I think Dante probably had a better journey travelling in Virgil’s company and that’s how I feel about having a knowledgeable guide — albeit with a light hand –in approaching literature.

    I had to take a number of philosophy classes for my degree but that remains the class that has taught me the most about how I want to live my life and what to do in tough situations. Now that I am older I still keep a handwritten journal in which to explore my thinking about what I am reading and I don’t need someone else’s prompt to do so … but my habit of writing about what I read started in that class and I am grateful to the professor who showed me that writing could be a way of figuring out what I think.


    • Rohan November 22, 2013 / 2:37 pm

      AJ, I love that idea, but I can see why it was in a graduate seminar: I think my yield would be very poor in an undergraduate class for ungraded assignments, even though, as you say, that kind of regular work is extremely valuable for sorting out what we think. The reading journals I have in place are intended in exactly that spirit, but to make them work that way not only do I now think I would have to weight them more heavily; I also think I would need to micromanage them much more if I really wanted them to prompt and support class discussion. I wish the process and intrinsic benefit mattered more to more students, but I also understand that the students are very busy and are constantly doing a kind of triage with their assignments: it’s a bit idealistic of me to prioritize something that doesn’t seem to them to be ‘worth’ as much as the other work they have to do. Graduate students are (by and large) a pretty different and self-selecting population.

      I think it’s wonderful that you still keep a reading journal.


  2. Alex November 22, 2013 / 1:05 pm

    I’ve used the question method with reading journals but rotated it with entries that were unprompted. It worked in as much as it kept the results more focused in relation to the course and yet still allowed those who were really engaged to take off in other directions but I think you’re always going to get some students who will never quite see the point of the exercise. If I was doing it now I might toy with the idea of asking them to keep a blog where others could come in and comment as a prompt, but then I can think of some wonderful entires that would never have got written if the students had thought that they were going to be read by anyone other than me.


    • Rohan November 22, 2013 / 2:39 pm

      That’s a good compromise – some ‘designated’ topics and some open topics. I’m going to think more about that. It would be nice for my own workload not to have to set ‘homework’ style questions all the time, and from their perspective, to be free sometimes to explore what they are interested in. I’ve done a blog assignment in a graduate seminar, and in upper-level seminars I’ve also done discussion forums where they did have to post their responses and then respond to each other. You are probably right that public posting can be inhibiting in some ways, but it’s also healthy to get over fear of writing for an audience. That kind of thing was easier to adminster with a seminar of 20 than it would be with a group of 40+, which is what I have in the 19thC novels class this term. Plenty of brooding to come on this question over the summer, as I’m up for Dickens-to-Hardy again in the fall.


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