I’m sure you have all been wondering whether I have managed to get my control-freak tendencies under control for this week’s classes on Middlemarch. Well, the week isn’t over yet, but so far the answer is both not really (Monday) and more or less (today). I had all kinds of good intentions on Monday, but I also had quite a lot of notes in hand, and though I did use them to frame the questions I hoped we would discuss, I went on too long and in too much detail in what was supposed to be the set-up portion of the class. I left feeling quite dissatisfied with myself, but also with a better understanding of why things keep turning out that way — an insight that I confirmed by leafing through the rather sizable folder of Middlemarch materials I have accumulated over the years.
Here’s what I figured out: it’s my notes that are the problem! Once upon a time, they were looser and more open-ended. Over the years, in the well-meaning but ultimately mistaken belief that I was doing the right thing, I have filled them in more, elaborated on them, figured out ways to fill “gaps” in the topics and examples they cover. They are good notes, don’t get me wrong: the lectures they support are good ones, or at least I think so! In some settings, delivering them — not as a completely closed production, without any interaction, but as a more or less set “piece” with a clear structure — is a fine idea and goes over well enough. Sometimes, too, there really is content that needs to be passed along in an orderly way. But this is an upper-level class on the 19th-century novel and having wide-ranging discussion is a genuine goal of mine, especially now that I hope have laid the groundwork for it. And the thing is that while having detailed notes feels like it will help me lead a good discussion, what I realized on Monday is that I have come not just to rely on them but to feel controlled by them myself — moving in order through the topics and examples, and trying to include everything. Not 100%, not all the time — but enough that I need to take some self-conscious steps in the other direction.
For today, then, instead of revising and presenting my lecture on “reform in Middlemarch,” (which comes complete with a handout of excerpts from Arnold, Mill, Carlyle, and Felix Holt, as well as Middlemarch), I worked out a list of likely topics and collected the pages numbers of some key scenes under each heading — but nothing more! Before class, I reviewed that scanty page or two again and manually jotted some big ideas next to topic, to make sure I had some big ideas in my head to work towards. I also chose a short excerpt from the BBC adaptation to show, because my impression had been that we were a bit lost in the abstractions and the human drama of the novel was perhaps escaping them. It felt oddly like a leap of faith to go so “unprepared,” but I think it went fine. The film clip loosened everyone up, and we didn’t have any trouble finding things to talk about for the rest of the time — and I didn’t feel we were just drifting, even though we weren’t following a script.
I am emboldened, as well as reassured: for Friday I have selected two specific passages as launching points, and that will be (almost) everything I bring along. Maybe one day I can get (back) to the openness with Middlemarch that I find much easier to achieve and accept with other novels.
I was thinking as I read your last post and comments that some (maybe more than some) of my best class sessions have been on texts I don’t have a solid “take” or reading of yet. Because then I have issues I think are worth looking at, but the discussion is truly open-ended: I’m not steering it towards a particular conclusion I have already reached, but we’re finding various possible readings together through our discussion. This is one reason I’m grateful that I teach mostly first year: when you’re doing Intro to Fiction, there’s no text that HAS to go on your syllabus regularly, and I can keep it fresher for myself, or keep myself fresher for it.
I had a prof in grad school (who was also a superb teacher of beginning students) who was great at providing a list of themes or key passages for the next class. Everyone (or a small group) got one they were responsible for–they might find passages for the theme, or themes/images/questions, etc. from the passage–in the next meeting. It usually produced very good student-led discussions, and she just put her oar in occasionally to steer it, push it further. I am not always able to relinquish control that much, but I try.
That first point is absolutely true of me too: there’s a sincerity in that kind of discussion, too, that I think encourages more people to join in. I am better at doing student-driven activities in smaller classes or, of course, seminars — or intro, where skills matter more than any kind of coverage. But in this size class (42) and at the upper-level I often feel that’s not enough structure to keep everyone focused. I may just not have worked out the right method.
One of the best class discussions I remember leading in an iteration of this course, though, was actually on Jane Eyre, which I also know pretty intimately. I put my notes away and just asked if the novel had a happy ending. By the time we had parsed all the possible interpretations and implications of and answers to that, the hour was over! The moral of the story is that I just have to keep my experience from getting in my (our) way!
Why don’t you write a book on studying Middlemarch?
I did make the ‘Middlemarch for Book Clubs’ website, which is kind of in that spirit!
I am not entirely convinced by your description of this gargantuan task (this is a huuuuge book in all respects!) as ‘micro-managing’. Perhaps you are being too hard on yourself here, as you are clearly a committed and conscientious teacher. And, as you know perfectly well, ‘Middlemarch’ is a book which is so rich that one tends to take different things away with one after each reading.
Having read it for the first time @ about age 17-18, I did not then register Rosamund’s transformation as soon as she learnt of her husband’s failure (how could I have missed it?!). Years later, I was moved by her response. She changes her clothes (ah, yes, well, she would, wouldn’t she? Frivolous creature!), replacing them with more sombre attire. But it quickly becomes clear that she’s clothing herself in seriousness as well as modesty and expressing mourning for lost ambition. And she has done so out of devotion and loyalty – capacities hitherto well-hidden! – because she then offers her husband comfort with great, maternal tenderness.
Dorothea’s romantic history becomes more and more appalling the older I get: Ladislaw is a dazzling (he’s always depicted as if he were a too-strongly backlit portrait photo, and is curiously lifeless, like a black-and-white pic of a matinée idol). Poor girl: first spouse a sexless misogynist; second a sexy misogynist – she can’t win!
I don’t envy you, BTW, sorting through all those notes of yours … But I wish I were in that class of yours.
PS You refer to ‘Our Mutual Friend’ as a possibility, to replace ‘Bleak House’. May I put in a plug for the former? Dickens has a lighter touch when dealing with social class here than in any of his other novels: people move up/down/sideways in manners that are often comedic (Mr Boffin, forex), and there is a convincing depiction of a very promising nascent female friendship based on mutual respect and sincerity, that between bourgeoise Bella and underclass denizen Lizzie, which would have been at best exceedingly rare at the time but is handled as if perfectly normal (I suspect Dickens is trying to tell us it should be, as he so often does with ideal situations).
Bella is also Dickens’s most rounded female character: she mutates, evolves and becomes someone more substantially formidable as the plot progresses (she’s a sharp-tongued, spoilt madam earlier – great fun IMO; but her intelligence and wit are very much present, and ultimately come right to the fore as she matures very quickly). When she takes a dim view of herself and acts to rectify matters, she does so without being over-sentimentalised (Little Dorrit) or blandly virtuous (Esther Summerson, who is so perfect D has to have her looks spoiled by a nasty disease to make her and her happy ending less pristine). Bella is not, and clearly never will be, meek. She is openly, gloriously clever and clear-thinking. And John Harmon will be given a run for his money by his beautiful and sarc’-y spouse, occasionally literally: hooray!
That’s a very convincing pitch for OMF, Minnie! My only hesitation at this point is simply that I don’t know the novel very well (though I did reread it recently) and teaching requires such good understanding of where everything is. But I took a run at David Copperfield for the first time last year and had a great time, so that buoys my courage for another “new” Dickens in class.