This Week in My Classes: Term Limits and New Ideas

Arcimbolo LibrarianThis was the last week of fall term classes for us, which means concluding remarks and exam review and conferences about term papers — and then, beginning Monday, an influx of papers and exams to be marked, final grades to be calculated, and everything to be filed away and tidied up. I have an exam from 7-10 p.m. on the very last day of the exam period, which means I won’t be all done for quite a while yet.

It’s always bittersweet when the term ends. I put a lot of time and thought into preparing for each class hour, and a lot of energy goes into each actual meeting, which means I spend most of the term in a strange blend of panic and euphoria. When we’re done, I genuinely miss the buzz of meeting my students face to face and seeing what we can do with our material: even when a session doesn’t go particularly well, the challenge of it is definitely stimulating, and this year my mystery class especially was just a whole lot of fun. When a lot of smart students are really engaged and keeping me on my toes, it’s amazing how fast 50 minutes can go by! But I don’t miss the relentless pace of it all. What a relief it is to be home on a Friday night and be relaxing without the haunting awareness that by Sunday at the latest I have to be turning towards work again: the work I have to do for the next couple of weeks really can be managed in something more like regular office-job hours — unless I want to do a little puttering here and there evenings and weekends. I’m hoping that means I’ll be able to get some momentum on some reading and writing projects I’ve been deferring over the term. Ideally, I’ll get enough done that I can keep going on them when the winter term begins. This may mean not writing for the January issue Open Letters: much as I like to contribute, my recent pieces have not been entirely in line with my other writing priorities (especially the book on George Eliot I’m trying to conceptualize).

But as a wise woman once said, every limit is a beginning as well as an ending, and even as this term is winding down, things are heating up for the winter term, which starts exactly one month from today. Inquiries have been coming in about the waiting list for my intro section and about the readings for my 4th-year seminar; I’ve started roughing out my syllabi and I’ve got blank course spaces set up on Blackboard, with the goal of having materials ready for students well before the end of the month (in the spirit of ‘hit the ground running’).

And as if that isn’t enough, we’ve already had to organize our slate of classes for next year, and it won’t be long before we are asked to send in preliminary course descriptions and book lists, for promotional purposes. It usually makes me kind of cranky to be asked about next academic year when this one is still very much a work in progress, but on the other hand, the future is such a hopeful place to be! Drafting and redrafting possible book lists for the next incarnation of the Dickens-t0-Hardy course is pretty fun, and frustrations with this year’s assignments sequences are easier to handle when I think about them as learning experiences for next year’s New and Improved versions. (You can look forward to more posts about how I’m going to do everything different and better, especially the reading journals for the 19thC novels class.)

Looking even further ahead, I’ve been thinking more about the question of whether or what our students read outside of class and the perfectly reasonable point that we assign so dang much reading (ahem) that at least during the term it’s pretty challenging for them to be engaged in the book world more widely, even if that’s something they want. Of course, one reason I started this blog was because I was trying to figure out how to build some kind of relationship between my own academic reading and writing and that wider culture — and it has occurred to me that an obvious way to translate this impulse into pedagogy is to dream up a course that does something of the same thing, perhaps by combining assigned readings with readings students choose ‘from the field’ (books and reviews), and then requiring both standard essay assignments and different kinds of reports and reviews. It could be called “Books in the World” or something. Would this be a good first-year class? Or are the actual demands of any good book writing such that it would be better as a more advanced class, so that students will already have practised their writing skills and acquired some useful literary terminology and history?  In a recent interview, Daniel Mendelsohn proposes that students would be better off “reading Pauline Kael reviews in the New Yorker than Derrida” because when they begin “they literally have no idea, at first, what the point of being critical is.” I would be motivated by a somewhat similar impulse, I think: that they should have a sense of what (and where) the critical conversations are, because (as I do already say frequently in class) literature is not in fact written for the classroom but for the world.

This is still a very new idea for me, but maybe it’s actually a common approach and I’ve just been stuck (as we all so often are) in my own ‘how things are usually done’ rut. I’d be happy to know about any classes that are run along these lines, and also to know what anyone’s first impression is about this possibility.

5 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes: Term Limits and New Ideas

  1. RT December 7, 2013 / 12:00 am

    Your proposal — “combining assigned readings with readings students choose ‘from the field’ (books and reviews), and then requiring both standard essay assignments and different kinds of reports and reviews.” That is intriguing. I wonder, though, about how much latitude students would have for choosing their “outside” reading selections. Would you have some limits? Or would you permit Harlequin romances, Illustrated Classics comic books, Manga comics, Dan Brown’s books, or 50 Shades of Grey (and similar mistakes in publishing)? I can see the comparative value, but I would be reluctant to give up too much control of the course.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 7, 2013 / 11:38 am

      I agree that working out parameters of some kind would be important, partly to make sure I still felt qualified to evaluated their critical work. Also, choosing things to read from the vast range of options would take too much time away from actually reading and writing. Depending on just how the course was shaped, there are certainly genres or titles on your list that I think it would be excellent for them to engage in the existing critical conversation about, including 50 Shades of Grey. I often point out to students that once they graduate there will be no such thing as “assigned reading” any more: though one of our goals as professors is to get them involved with the best books we can think of, another is surely to train them up to read well and think in interesting ways about their reading, no matter what they choose.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 8, 2013 / 2:55 am

    I guess this is tangential, but 25 years ago, at the height of Theory, I earned an undergraduate English degree at a big public university during the course of which no critic or theorist of any sort was assigned or even named in class. Looking back, I can see how the professors were using theory to guide discussions, but they were too busy teaching us how to read novels and poems to waste their time teaching theory.

    Which I guess is what Mendelsohn is saying is ideal, except with the addition of Pauline Kael, who would have fit in exactly nowhere. I don’t get that part. It is aimed at undergrads thinking about becoming critics?

    To a different point: Given the academic schedule, the students have months to read outside of class.

    To your question: I vote “advanced class.” And you should pick the “critical conversations” and assign the relevant texts. Everyone works on the same conversation.


  3. Peter Jobson December 8, 2013 / 3:01 am

    I personally think this is an excellent final year course. I wouldn’t prescribe it to either a 1st or 2nd yr subject as you are requiring the students to possess skills they won’t acquire till later on in their studying. I would also suggest you make some of your “core” English lit classes prerequisites.
    I was involved in a final year course called: Advanced Field Biology. It was concentrated over a 7 day field trip of some 11 hrs per day. We covered a hell of a lot of ground & then with the background made them develop ecological experiments, culminating in a professional presentation & report. It was loved by those students who did the course, so it also had a fabled following amongst junior students. Giving these students some background work & then allowing them to develop independent thinking with academics mentoring is, I believe an excellent opportunity for those students that have the aptitude, to develop into fine young academics or researchers in the general domain.
    You will get a load of lazy students in the 1st few years, but those that love your new course will push the median grade to a Distinction (B). In fact, our “fail” grade was a credit (C). Not bad at all. And in a time when students are lacksadasial about handing in anything, instead we found we were receiving amazing reports on the due date, or even slightly earlier.
    I really hope you are able to get this one off the ground & that your guinea pig students are excellent ones to engage with.


  4. Rohan Maitzen December 8, 2013 / 9:41 pm

    Thanks for these comments – I have a lot to think about. I’m especially struck by our shared instinct that this is probably a class for upper-level students. I think that would be even more the case if I did want to give them some latitude in choosing a current book to work with.


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