February Break(down) Posticle

IcebergIt’s odd how it sometimes seems I need to break the ice on my own blog — but as I’m sure other bloggers can attest, leave a blog alone for long enough (which in my experience needn’t even be very long) and it starts to loom imposingly and inhospitably across the horizon of one’s other activities. How can this be — why should this be — when blogging is something I do wholly voluntarily? It’s possible, actually, that its gratuitousness adds to the difficulty: there’s no obligation, no accountability — and so when you fall into a slump, there’s no external pressure to get on with it. There’s just, at least in my case, an uncomfortable feeling of disappointment in myself that, as the days go by, becomes a self-defeating conviction that when — if — I ever post something again, it had better be good!

In my defense, it has’t really been that long. Also, it is our February break from classes, and so I’ve been doing other writing, which often leaves me mentally lazy by the end of the day. It hasn’t helped that I’m struggling much more than expected with what I thought would be a fairly straightforward writing project, so when I stop working I feel little sense of accomplishment, only bemused frustration. I’ve also (and I know from Twitter that I’m not alone!) been rather in the doldrums. It’s partly because of this dreary winter, which just makes everything harder to do; it’s partly because I’ve fallen prey to a bad case of what I think of as ‘Salieri Syndrome’ (I’m guessing the symptoms are familiar to all aspiring writers but perhaps especially those who spend a lot of time online); it’s partly that I worked for several days preparing a public talk that apparently wasn’t of much public interest, which was both anticlimactic and a bit demoralizing; and it’s partly that — probably because for a few years now my center of intellectual gravity has been tilted away from my academic colleagues and department — I’ve been feeling somewhat adrift and even unmotivated at work. I’ve actually started dreaming about retirement, which isn’t necessarily a good thing as it will be many years (18, but who’s counting?) before I reach retirement age and even then it isn’t clear I will be able to realize my dream of finally moving back to Vancouver. (And as far as that goes, I seem to have regressed significantly since the progress I had made towards reconciling myself to Halifax.)

I don’t need anyone to tell me how lucky I actually am and that this is all hardly the stuff of great tragedy. I know!  But it’s been enough to make me feel kind of blah, and during this break I’ve chosen to hunker down and read or watch TV and just try to be cozy while I have the chance. Classes start up again Monday and from that point on we will hurtle unrelentingly towards the end of term. There won’t be time for moping!

And actually I’ve about had enough with moping in any case, while as far as this blog goes, I’ve decided to forget about good and settle for posted. Then perhaps I’ll get my momentum back. So here’s my own version of the much-loathed (including by me) “listicle” — a “posticle” of things I have almost but (obviously) not actually posted about in the past week or so.

  1. Attendance. This was going to be the next entry in my “This Week In My Classes” series but every time I turned to it, it turned into a rant and I didn’t really want to stir up that kind of negative energy. Seriously, though, what’s up with students not coming to class, and especially with the accelerating trend of students leaving early for and returning late from scheduled breaks? I believe very strongly that you learn to be a critic by trading ideas with other readers (coduction!) and that in English classes we both exchange and analyze information and practice vital skills. So I take attendance seriously — and I also take it literally, every class meeting. Over the years I have used various policies to encourage students to attend regularly, from strict “every [unexcused] absence counts against your mark” versions to “there’s no explicit penalty for missing class but there are also no make-ups for graded in-class work.” I have tried being authoritarian, paternalistic, encouraging, or simply detached (“come or don’t come, it’s your choice — just don’t make it my problem”); I have even cited research (it is out there!) showing that good attendance is strongly correlated with success in a class. I try not to take it personally when, as last week in my Intro class, a whole mess of people just don’t show up … and yet, inevitably, I do take it personally, because I not only show up but work hard preparing for every precious hour we have together…oops. This is getting rant-like! Fellow teachers, what do you do about attendance?
  2. Books we “should” read. I spent a fair amount of my scarce mental energy this week imagining a response to the recent piece at The Millions urging us (tongue in cheek? surely!) to choose our next book to read for some pretty random reasons. Even assuming the author didn’t actually mean her suggestions, or at least not the silliest ones (“read the book that you find left behind in the airplane seat pocket”? “read the book whose main character has your first name”?) I wonder if there isn’t a better conversation to be had about whether there are any books we “should” read, or about how we pick and choose among the many books we could read, given just how many more books there are than we’ll ever have time to read (well, unless we’re Steve!). I wouldn’t want to rule out serendipity altogether, of course, but it seems pretty risky and, indeed, wasteful to follow around behind random strangers, see what makes them cry, and assume that is the best next option for me. They might be idiots! But I don’t find it much better to line up behind (most) reviewers either. When I’m not reading deliberately (for work or research or reviewing myself, that is) I tend to listen to other readers I trust, whose take on books I find sharp and interesting, whose taste I think I understand something about. Where there’s a good conversation, I usually expect to find good reading, or at least reading I won’t regret. I do also think, though, that depending on the relationship you want to have to literature, or the conversation you want to be part of, there probably are some books you should read. How do you choose your next book? Do you think there should be no “shoulds” in reading?
  3. Middlemarch on Toast. Actually, I think I do need to write this post, but it’s going to take me a while to do the reading and thinking for it. Ever since The Toast ran its My Life in Middlemarch book club I’ve been brooding puzzling thinking about why I felt so incapacitated by it. When I first heard about it, I thought it might create some synergy with my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site. It totally didn’t, and once it was underway I could see why not: by and large, the kinds of things I built into my site, including into its discussion questions, were not the things people were talking about at The Toast. There were plenty of sharp comments, and there was also plenty of enthusiasm, but somehow the conversation was in a different register, and it was mostly (eventually I’m going to do some statistical analysis!) about characters and motives, not about literary form, narration, history, philosophy… which is fine, of course: people should (there’s that word again) talk about what interests them in a book (“to start with,” says the irrepressible teacher in me). I wasn’t very familiar with The Toast before they did this, and what I’ve seen of it since suggests that it aims for a certain hip insouciance. So I should not necessarily take away any lessons from this about how to revise my own materials. Or should I? The number of people who want to chat at The Toast (like, apparently, the number of people who like the idea of choosing their next book from their neighbor’s trash can or something) is apparently  much higher than the number of people who want … oh dear, here comes Salieri again.
  4. Rules of Civility. I enjoyed reading this novel a lot. And yet, this is as much as I felt like writing about it. (But here’s an excellent review of it by Lisa Peet at Like Fire.)
  5. Farthing. I also mostly enjoyed reading this novel, and yet. (Jo Walton is a good example of a writer I picked up because so many other readers I’m interested in have mentioned her.)

OK, that’s the dam broken. It’s actually a relief to clear those topics out of the way, even though I still feel annoyed with myself for not having addressed each of them properly in turn in its own post. Now I’m reading We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which I mentioned as a pending interest in my post on Sonali Deraniyagala’s devastating memoir Wave. Then I’ve got Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name lined up; it’s the sequel to My Brilliant Friend. In class Monday we’re picking up with Night in Intro and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in Women & Detective Fiction (Dorian’s probing post has helped rekindle my interest in it). My book club, which met last week to discuss This Rough Magic, is following Amateur Reader’s advice and reading The Murderess for next month. It seems impossible that with so much interesting material around, I won’t be blogging up a storm. We’ll see, anyway.

17 thoughts on “February Break(down) Posticle

  1. Slightly Bookist February 22, 2014 / 12:44 am

    I’m glad you posted! A lot of what you write resonates with me today/this week/this winter.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 23, 2014 / 12:31 pm

      Thanks, Juliet! Let’s blame the polar vortex. I did find that just writing something made me feel better. Odd how blogging can be a kind of self-policing game though.


  2. Alison February 22, 2014 / 6:05 am

    Conversation is definitely a big part of the way I choose books to read. Even if it’s not a current conversation — I don’t necessarily feel the need for someone to listen to me (although that’s nice), but I do 1) see interesting conversation as a sign of potential interest in a book and 2) enjoy testing my ideas, even privately, against other people’s.

    I will also pick up books because they feel as if they would fit in with a conversation, even if they’re not mentioned in it. Meaning both that I’ll pick up (generally new) work that seems to play with relevant ideas, and that I’ll pick up (generally older) work that I’ve come to feel may lie behind the conversation in some way, even if it isn’t explicitly mentioned — which can be a sort of ‘should’; e.g. I ‘should’ read Fielding because I’ve become interested in 18th century novels in English; perhaps I ‘should’ also read St Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, which lies in the background to Edgworth’s Belinda; as does the work of Rousseau on education; these ‘shoulds’ can become a bit overwhelming.

    ‘I thought there would be more to it all, somehow’ — I too-often experience this disappointment. Sometimes the conversation can be more interesting (to me) than the book itself.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 23, 2014 / 12:32 pm

      That’s a good point about the conversation sometimes being more interesting than the books that cause it. I certainly find (including as a teacher) that there are many books that get more interesting when you talk about them — that’s one of the gifts of blogging. Your explanation of the “shoulds” that emerge make perfect sense to me. I don’t think we should simply reject the idea that there might be books we should read, but we should attach that obligation to a sense of purpose of our own.


  3. RT February 22, 2014 / 11:38 am

    This soon-to-be-forcibly-retired teacher of literature and drama (see my penultimate blog posting) uses a simple rule about attendance: students may miss 3 classes during the semester, and I do not care about their reasons (i.e., one reason is as good as another — death of grandparent, car accident, pet neutering, hangover, stuck at airport, studying for another class (my favorite), influenza, wisdom tooth extraction, sister’s wedding, etc. — because I have heard them all and doubt most of them), but each additional absence means a 10% reduction in the final course average. This may not lead to enthusiastic attendance, but it does — in most cases — put students where they belong: in the classroom for nearly every class meeting.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 23, 2014 / 12:34 pm

      Wow – you’re tough! I have done a version of that, actually, but I do find it hard to negotiate the special pleading. I get so cranky when I get the “had to study for a midterm in another class” excuse — sure, choose your own priorities, but don’t expect there to be no consequences if my class isn’t one of them.


      • Peter Jobson February 23, 2014 / 9:29 pm

        I too would get cranky. My comment – do you think me the big soft touch?? And why does the other assignment take precedence over me?

        I would often end with – why bother attending my exam, seeing the other subject is more important? THAT would cause worried looks.

        I was no saint as a student, but at least I treated all my subjects as equals, regardless of how much I liked them.


  4. litlove February 22, 2014 / 6:21 pm

    It’s been a long winter, hasn’t it? And I struggle to post when I’m low on energy and writing lots of other things too. Blogging has its waves, and that’s okay. Ebb and flow is normal online. As for attendance, I hope this sounds okay, but you aren’t responsible for your students. They’re adults now and have to learn to make their own chioces. You’re just responsible for doing the teaching, which I’m quite sure is excellent. Don’t waste energy on the students who don’t make it in for whatever reason (and learning is so often interrupted by life at this age, it’s not a reflection on what you do).

    I feel quite strongly that we force education down students’ throats way too much, and bother about grades above anything else, and then they get less and less enthusiastic for what they do. It means the whole system is grinding to a halt and so few students actually enjoy their work or feel genuine curiosity for it these days. You don’t need much enthusiasm to work with, but you do need a bit – and students in the room who really don’t want to be there add such a heavy, negative weight to the atmosphere. If they don’t want to be there, I’d always rather they stayed away!

    As for choosing books, that article is just ridiculous. I follow my own interests when I read. There’s no perfect system because some books click at the moment we read them and some don’t, whether they’re classics or not, or ‘recommended’ or not. I suppose I think we need all the different reading experiences there are – good, bad, indifferent – because they all have things to teach us. But I’d still rather have those experiences with books I’ve chosen because something about them interested me, than books left behind on a plane seat! Look after yourself, Rohan, and just come here when you want to chat to us – we’ll be waiting!


    • Rohan Maitzen February 23, 2014 / 12:36 pm

      You are a wise woman, and so reasonable. You are right that I’m not responsible for them … and yet ! Especially in first-year classes I often feel they really don’t know what is right for them, and so if my enthusiasm isn’t enough to draw them in I do get suckered into trying to compel them. After all, how can you know what value you might find in our class time if you just aren’t there? But coercion only has the desired effect some of the time. I’ve been thinking about that research I cite: of course, correlation is not causation, and it’s true that “good” students always already come to class faithfully. So maybe the point is not that coming to class makes you a better student but that skipping class is a worrisome sign.


  5. Peter Jobson February 23, 2014 / 4:19 am

    Yes, it has been a relentless hot summer 😀

    I threatened continued absence in my labs (students treat lab work & tuts in exactly the same way) meant failure & that they would be stuck doing the exactly same thing next year & that it was certainly more boring the 2nd time around 😀 I could be internally cruel & note those students that handed in shoddy work & not put in much effort finding those extra marks, whereas I would put in the effort squeezing marks for a student that attended every lecture & lab, but was obviously having a few problems.

    Ultimately, good lecturers put in the yards making an effort to make the work interesting & challenging, but we can’t make the horse drink. Sometimes, we need to walk slightly away: these students are cannon fodder & probably never get anything out of their uni studies, except cirrhosis of the liver or a pregnancy.

    I choose my books through a variety of methods. I have found Goodreads really useful, following my friends reading. You have been very good at increasing my reading list. I listen to recommendation from people who I respect intellectually and I read reviews. Sometimes, I will read the blurb & try something new.

    I would like “should” in the reading more often , but then I have been a rebel for much of my life & ignore “should” too much. What I have done is adopt themes. Over a 2 year period, I read all the seminal novels on the Reform Laws of 1840s. I really enjoyed understanding all the outcomes from various authors – Dickens, Gaskell, Kingsley & Disreli.


    • Rohan February 23, 2014 / 2:09 pm

      Themed reading like that is a good idea. You set the terms, you decide the “shoulds.” I too poke around and see what other people are reading and liking on Goodreads (again, Jo Walton is a good example – and though I didn’t love the book, I wasn’t at all sorry to have tried it).


  6. jamesbchester February 23, 2014 / 1:38 pm

    I followed a slight variation on RT’s attendance rule–one missed class was fine, two missed classes meant a reduction of 10% in your grade, unless you made arrangements ahead of time. I had the same late policy. It worked. My classes meet weekly which meant there were only 13 sessions in a semester. I always had near perfect attendance with this rule.

    I tried a much more lenient policy one semester just to see what would happen. My students were all grown-ups after all; why treat them like children. I had terrible attendance and people showing up late to class almost every session. Never did that again.

    As for blogging, I say do it without guilt or don’t do it without guilt.


    • Rohan February 23, 2014 / 2:13 pm

      On my course evaluations from last term, one of my students said “Dr. Maitzen should give points for attendance if it matters to her so much.” I wish I didn’t need to use carrots and sticks in that way for something that surely ought to go without saying (come to class! that’s what you’re in university for!), but your comment reinforces that pragmatic proposal. I think next term I’ll just lay it out there as an expectation that is reinforced with a component of their grade, even though it’s the intrinsic value of participating in the conversation that I’m really hoping they will grasp. As for blogging, again, very pragmatic! If only neuroses could be done away with at will… 🙂


      • RT February 23, 2014 / 3:41 pm

        The student wanted points for attendance? Really? That says volumes about the values of the student. Perhaps a few credits, a decent grade, and a bit of learning along the way are not sufficient “reward” for class attendance. It seems to me, though, that it has all become a losing battle — the cultural rules for the us versus them war have tilted in favor of them. So, it is a blessing to me actually that I will no longer have to engage in the battle. My withdrawal (i.e., dismissal) from academia allows me to soon forget it all. Still, I do wonder about students who want points — with that kind of mindset, what will be their contributions to society at large in the future. God help us all!


  7. Amateur Reader (Tom) February 23, 2014 / 11:14 pm

    You have written about why I try to keep on some sort of schedule. It would be too easy for a pause to never end.

    The author of the list piece has fine anti-neurotic intentions, to the extent that there are readers who neurotically refuse serendipity, which I doubt. But I know why you are so annoyed by the piece. It abandons any sense that literature is a field of knowledge. She does not mean it or, I assume, know it, but she is attacking the study of literature.


  8. Stefanie February 24, 2014 / 2:46 pm

    I’ve got the winter doldrums too! I am so very weary of it all. The only consolation is everyone else is too and there is some weird comfort in being miserable together.

    As for whether there are books we should read, I’d say no. However, if you are a reader who wants to be well-versed in Victorian literature or Modernism or something else, then there are definitely books one should read. But if we are talking general reading, one should always read whatever she wants to that gives her pleasure not what some list or random person says she should read.


  9. Dorian Stuber February 27, 2014 / 7:18 pm

    Thanks for the shout-out, Rohan. I’m envious of the conversations your blog encourages.

    As to attendance, I allow 3 freebie absences in a 3 x week class and 2 in a 2x week class. (We have 14-wek semesters.) After that, each absence lowers the final grade by a fraction (i.e. B becomes B-, etc). Seems to work ok. As you know, I am highly neurotic in most things, and fairly neurotic in this, so the “they are adults, let them deal with the consequences” attitude is appealingly reasonable to me but ultimately unacceptable to the part of me that wants to control everything.


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