This Week In My Classes: Endings and Beginnings

We aren’t quite done with classes here, at least not those of us on a MWF schedule – my last meetings are Monday. It’s hard to believe we are so close to finishing, though, mostly because today is the first day there’s any hint of spring at all, and usually I strongly associate the last couple of weeks of classes with the lifting of the winter gloom. Two big storms in the last 10 days certainly knocked out that possibility. But whatever the weather, the last few classes of the term do have their own seasonal rhythm: paper proposals sprout; new material gives way to review; editing worksheets and exam review handouts compete for their time in the sun.


In Intro today it’s our second editing workshop: last time the students did a peer editing exercise, but I’ve opted for a self-editing exercise today in which they will go through their own papers and produce reverse outlines. It can be harder to look critically at your own work than at someone else’s, so I think it’s useful to have some concrete strategies for checking whether you have accomplished what you want and need to. They are writing on Carol Shields’s Unless but the topics they are choosing from are generated by lines in A Room of One’s Own — I wanted to highlight the idea (integral to both books, too) that writers are in conversation with each other and that we, in turn, enter into that conversation when we try to understand and interpret their works. My impression is that Room was (again) quite difficult for a lot of them to make sense of, so I’m glad for their sakes that I didn’t set this up as a straight comparative essay. That said, Unless poses its own challenges, not least because of its somewhat fragmented and episodic form. One good thing about assigning a book structured like that is that it’s harder to fall into plot summary: when you have to collect evidence and examples across a broad and scattered territory, I think you’re more aware of the details as adding up to something, rather than just moving along in linear fashion. We have one more session to come, for exam review and closing perorations, and then a couple of weeks until the final, so I’ll have plenty of time to comment on and return the essays. I think I may have been a bit cranky in my comments on the last set. That did have the beneficent side-effect of getting more people than usual in to see me. This is a not-unfamiliar phenomenon for me as a parent as well – say something temperately and you are likely to end up repeating it, but jump up and down about it and somehow it sticks. But even if yelling sometimes seems to work better, that doesn’t make it ideal!

primesuspectIn Women & Detective Fiction, we’ve just wrapped up class discussions of Prime Suspect I. The series seems to have gone over unusually well this year: people who hardly talked at all up till now have been pitching in, and the overall energy has seemed good. We lost (another!) Wednesday to last week’s blizzard, so I’ve had to give up a planned final round-table to discuss people’s term paper projects: I usually make time for this in the schedule and when it has actually happened, it has always been very interesting and, I think, productive as a way to wrap up a seminar. But instead we’ll be having our last group presentation (on Prime Suspect) — which should also be a way to go out on a high note, given how creative and informative the presentations have all been this term. Though there is no requirement that the presentations incorporate a game (just that they include some form of class activity), I think every group has made one up! And that means there are usually prizes in the form of sugary treats.

This was also the week that book orders were due for the fall term! I always try to meet these deadlines — partly because I’m dutiful, partly because I know the bookstore sets them early so that they can work out their buy-back arrangements for students, and partly because I like to have this done and not have to worry about it any more. It’s possible to spend a really long time waffling over book choices but there really are no right answers, so sometimes just making the call and clicking ‘submit’ on the form is better than dithering any longer. I wasn’t waffling much over the next iteration of Mystery and Detective Fiction, which will be pretty much the same book list as this year. The only change I’m making is swapping out An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and putting back a short story anthology. That lets me ease up the pace intermittently, and it also simplifies the logistics of assigning the stories I always use (some Poe, some Sherlock Holmes, etc.).

I did run through a lot of variations on the book list for 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy, though. I used to just pick five (or, once upon a time, six) ‘representative’ novels without much concern for an overarching theme. Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with more deliberate groupings and liking it: last time I did this course, I chose all books dealing one way or another with troublesome or rule-breaking women (Bleak HouseCranfordThe Mill on the FlossLady Audley’s SecretTess). Then this fall in the Austen to Dickens course I did variations on the Bildungsroman (PersuasionWaverleyDavid Copperfield, Jane EyreNorth and South). For next fall I decided on the theme of vocation, or (as these are two persistent concepts of vocation in the 19thC novel) on love and work. I had three sure things (MiddlemarchGreat ExpectationsJude the Obscure) so my dithering was all about which other books to include. Most years I would fill the list in with something by Trollope, something by Gaskell, and/or an example of sensation fiction. This year I decided I’d like to include The Odd Women, which I’ve rarely assigned in lecture courses, and it occurred to me that though I usually keep the Brontës in the earlier course, Villette would be a really interesting contrast in its treatment of women and work and love and solitude … so I cut short the dithering and put it on the list. I’ve never lectured on it, and I haven’t even assigned it since maybe 1998, so that gives me something new to work on for the course, which is always a good thing.  I think the students will like it (and be surprised by it), and the more I think about it, the more provocative I think it will be in juxtaposition to our other readings. Also, much as I love Trollope, I don’t usually get much enthusiasm for him from students (Barchester Towers is boring?!), and I’m feeling a bit tired of sensation novels at the moment, so all in all, I feel good about this impulsive choice. And even if I didn’t, too late now! villette

Once again it’s just two courses for me in the fall. One’s big-ish (90) and one’s kind of medium-sized (40), and both are likely to be full, or very nearly so — but I plan the assignments carefully knowing I’ll be doing all the marking myself, and as both are classes I’m quite comfortable in I think it will be an energetic and not overwhelming term. But it’s still far off on the horizon: now that the books are ordered, I’ll be turning my attention back to the here and now, which means wrapping up this term and lining up my writing priorities for the summer. As always, the academic work cycle epitomizes Eliot’s wise remark that “every limit is a beginning as well as an ending.”

3 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Endings and Beginnings

  1. BookerTalk April 5, 2014 / 6:28 am

    I heard an interesting snippet recently about the origin of the Prime Suspect series. Linda la Plante had gone into the TV company to talk about future opportunities. At the time she didn’t have a specific idea to pitch. During the conversation they said they were looking for something with a strong female lead – she immediately said she was working on a new series with a female superintendent with a big chip on her shoulder. Tennison was born on the hoof as it were.

    Loved your comment that “writers are in conversation with each other and that we, in turn, enter into that conversation when we try to understand and interpret their works.”



    • Rohan April 6, 2014 / 7:59 pm

      We’ll see! I’ve always found it such a strange book. But sometimes I think I just can’t go through Jane Eyre’s stages of development one more time! Working up lecture notes on it will be good mental discipline. I have no idea what the latest critical “take” is on it.


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