We are into our second full week of classes now. I think things are mostly going smoothly, but that’s as much thanks to habit and experience as anything I’ve done particularly effectively in the past week or so. It’s not that anything is going badly — at least, not as far as I can tell. I just feel creaky, and I suppose that’s to be expected after almost nine months out of the classroom.
My section of Introduction to Prose and Fiction is still warming up overall. At this stage I’m mostly introducing vocabulary and trying to demystify the process of close reading: encouraging close attention to words and literary devices, modelling ways to back up overall impressions (he’s making a joke, it’s ironic, he’s upset about the way imperialism has driven him to act against his conscience) with reference to the particulars of the text that gave you that idea. (In order, “Advice to Youth,” “A Modest Proposal,” and “Shooting an Elephant,” in case you wondered.) The challenge is always to balance providing terminology and relevant contextual information with opportunities for open discussion and actually practising the skills the course aims to teach. I always allow some time for this in class, but this term we also have scheduled tutorials, as the class is fairly large (around 70, at this point). It’s nice to know we can use the tutorials for more personalized attention and hands-on activities — though it also means that I have to be extra organized, so that I can set my teaching assistants up with a plan for each session and the materials to follow through on it. Here too I will step back as the term goes on, so that the TAs can approach their sessions in the way they want, but at first I think it helps us (staff and students) to have a high degree of consistency across the course.
I sometimes wonder if I should dream up a more dramatic way to launch this course. I do try to work up some excitement about our readings as texts that were never intended to be sanitized and homogenized in anthologies, even ones as choice and elegant as our Broadview readers. I do a little riff in the first class on the intimidating invitation of the blank page (or screen), on the urgency and difficulty of resolving to write something on it in the first place, and then on the cascade of choices that immediately follow: genre, voice, point of view, and so on, down to individual words — from which we, as readers, work backwards again to our richest sense of what the writer meant. I certainly find writing challenging enough to be full of wonder and curiosity about how it works, when it does, and of course our examples are hand-selected to be well worth examining. I hope I communicate some of my own enthusiasm for this process, along with my conviction that knowing more ultimately enhances the rewards of reading. Still, I expect that by and large the class comes across as a bit dry at first. But I do believe that it serves our purposes to be patient and somewhat technical at the outset. We’re going to get into some rather more subtle and confusing readings as the term goes on, and everything will go better if they have learned habits of rigor and precision.
Yet despite my overall satisfaction with the plan and execution of this class, it’s also where, right now, I’m feeling the creakiest, because I feel out of practice at the demanding skill of thinking on my feet. When you ask open-ended questions, you have to field the replies, and they are rarely exactly what you expect, and sometimes they are difficult to understand or even to hear clearly. I want the students to feel comfortable speaking up, so as far as possible I try to reply in a positive way, reshaping or redirecting if there seems to be a confusion, encouraging and prompting further details if it’s an insightful remark, and so on. Usually I’m pretty adept at this, but right now my mental reaction time just seems a bit slow.
My other class this term is my graduate seminar on George Eliot. Here I have a cozy group, just five students, and it really is an entirely different ball game than Intro. Last week I gave an overview lecture on George Eliot to provide some common background, since as usual the students have quite a range of prior experience (this year, from none at all to a bit) reading her work. Then we took a look at some of her most famous essays, including “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” We spent some time on the vexed question of whether the essay’s brilliant snark is misogynistic. Since the last time I taught this seminar (in 2010), my own reading has broadened to include romance fiction, which has in turn made me much more aware of how discussions of romance readers and novelists are carried on today — so I couldn’t resist sending the class a link to William Giraldi’s piece on Fifty Shades of Grey. I thought (rightly, as it turned out) that comparing his screed to “Silly Novels” would provoke more discussion about when and how criticism of specific women writers shades into general contempt for women. I must say that (though there are still reasonable grounds for objecting to her tone and argument), Eliot ends up looking positively benign by comparison.
This week we discussed the first half of Adam Bede. What a treat it is to be rereading Adam Bede! I’m quite prepared to admit it is not nearly as artful or wise as Middlemarch, that the good people in it are mostly too good, that the narrator isn’t, yet, quite all that she will become and so on. It has qualities Middlemarch lacks, though, including the expansiveness of its descriptions of the landscape, and its focus on fewer characters means that (especially in the second half) there is greater emotional intensity — we are more invested, I think, in their plight, and especially in Hetty’s. As a set piece, Adam Bede‘s Chapter XV (“The Two Bedrooms”) is almost as great as Middlemarch‘s Ch. XV (the tremendous “let me introduce you to Lydgate” chapter) — the juxtaposition of Dinah and Hetty is thematically perfect but also dramatically believable. We ended up talking quite a bit about characters today, particularly about how they exemplify the novel’s stated principles of confronting us with mixed, imperfect people who nonetheless deserve our sympathetic attention, not to mention the novelist’s loving treatment. “I would not, even if I had the choice,” Eliot says in the famous Chapter XVII (“In Which the Story Pauses a Little),
be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields — on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow- feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.
That conviction that the novel can help us be our best selves is part of what I love so much about Eliot. That, in turn, perhaps explains why I’m having such a hard time writing the 1000 words I’ve promised about Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which relies (with distressing success) on exactly the opposite supposition — not that we are already perfected and so in no need of moral reinforcement, but that the “clever novelist” will do best by appealing to our worst, most prurient selves. I hate what The Girl on the Train assumes about us as readers, and I hate, too, that its 35 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list proves it right.