It’s always hard settling back into ongoing projects after a vacation, isn’t it? Although I’ve been back in my office regular hours every day this week, my progress on my writing has been halting, despite the haunting awareness that summer is ending soon and with it the luxury of relatively uninterrupted time to do it. I’m never altogether sorry about that: I’ve written here before about my tendency to fall into the summer doldrums, and though my two cheerful trips have mitigated the effects this year, I still find myself looking forward to the return of energy and sociability that comes with the start of term.
Since thinking about classes is in fact kind of cheering for me, then, and since I wasn’t being very productive in other ways, I’ve spent some useful hours in the last couple of days puttering away on some nice, concrete course-preparation tasks. I’m teaching just two classes in the fall, both ones I’ve taught before: Mystery & Detective Fiction (you’re probably tired of my reporting anything about this one, I’ve taught it so regularly in the past few years!) and 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy (which I’ve also taught regularly but more intermittently). I’m not mixing up the mystery class this year except for taking off An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and adding back in a few more short stories, since in the last couple of rounds of teaching evaluations there was some muttering about the reading list being long and the pace being too fast. Unsuitable Job is one of my own personal favorites, but it doesn’t really represent any central issue or subgenre — I just enjoy teaching it — so if something had to go, it’s the one, not The Big Sleep or The Moonstone or The Hound of the Baskervilles. I guess Knots and Crosses could go, but it’s always very popular, while Unsuitable Job isn’t. But otherwise it will be business as usual. Still, the Blackboard site needs tidying up, dates and details need updating on the syllabus, and I’m tweaking a couple of policies about “bonus” points which in their previous generous form had the unintended consequence of bumping kind of a lot of people up into the A+ range for their final grades. Most of that is done now, though I need to give the syllabus one more careful look.
As for 19th-Century Fiction, as usual I’ve changed up the reading list a bit (it’s so nice that there’s no oversight or interference to worry about with these decisions — it is entirely up to me which and how many books to assign). I’ve mixed and matched a pretty constant set of books in the past several incarnations of this course (you can see the chronicle of them here, if you’re curious) and though I’ve been happy with them, it felt like it was time to try some different ones, so this fall I’m starting with Villette and ending with The Odd Women, neither of which has ever been on my syllabus for this particular course before. In fact, I’ve never lectured on Villette, as I’ve only assigned it in seminars, and that not in well over a decade. Working up notes and materials for it, then, will be a big project for me in the next few weeks. I have taught The Odd Women much more often, but again usually in a seminar (“The Victorian Woman Question”). I do have some lecture notes for it from many years ago when I included it in a full-year class on Victorian literature. That was so long ago that the notes are hand-written! I expect I’ll do some things differently now. I gave the novel some fresh thought when I reread it recently with my book club; the general enthusiasm for it there makes me hope that my students will also enjoy it. I’ve put it last, slightly out of chronological order, so that for once we won’t be ending with Jude the Obscure (though we are still studying it). I’m not sure The Odd Women is much more cheering, really, but at least it has 100% fewer murder-suicides. For this course I needed to do the Blackboard site up from scratch; this is mostly done now, and I’ve made up study questions for the novels that didn’t yet have them and also pretty much completed the syllabus.
All of this is reassuringly finite and useful business to take care of. It all has to get done by the end of August anyway, so I’m not really stealing time away from other things, just redistributing it from writing to teaching for a while. I have set up a list of other class-related tasks, too, which is both calming (because it controls the potentially chaotic future) and practical (because now when I want to take a break from the more amorphous work of writing, I can choose something from the list to do rather than just feeling anxious).
Now that I’ve been overtly productive in these other ways for a while, I hope I’ll find that my mind and my mood are right to turn back with renewed focus to the two writing assignments I’ve given myself for these final weeks of summer. The first is to get as much as I can done on the next piece of my George Eliot book. Earlier this summer I worked hard on a more conceptual piece of it, a kind of draft introduction and sample. Now, having diligently reread Daniel Deronda with this in mind, I am working on an essay or chapter about women and marriage, particularly but not exclusively in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Its current working title is “Smart Women, Foolish Choices” (which some of you may recognize as the title of a dreadful-looking self-help book). The second is a review-essay on Elena Ferrante for Open Letters, which I think will follow (more or less) the pattern of previous “peer review” features we’ve run, that is, a survey of critical reception organized to tell a story about that reception, or to interrogate it in interesting way. I’ve been reading as many reviews of Ferrante’s fiction as I can find, and I think they raise some pretty provocative questions about anger and women’s writing and ideas about “literary” fiction.