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.