This Week In My Classes: No More Classes!

keepcalmstudyClasses ended last Wednesday, and I held my first final exam at 8:30 the following Saturday morning. That seemed hasty to me! Students have a lot going on at the end of term, and two days isn’t much time for them finish other assignments, regroup, and rest up a bit. On the bright side (for me, at least) I don’t have another exam until next Tuesday, so this has given me plenty of time to get that first batch graded. Since the only thing I have left to do for my other exam is copy it, I have a nice little window to sort out my own end-of-term mess and start organizing — literally and mentally — for my summer reading and writing projects. I spent some cheerful time this afternoon filing papers, reorganizing my bookshelves, and reflecting on the year that was.

It was kind of an odd teaching term for me, because I was frequently quite distracted about other work-related business, to an extent that is unprecedented for me. It’s not that I was busier this term than I have been before: in fact, in some ways this was quite a light term for me. It’s just that the business I was involved in was quite fraught, and the stress it caused affected me more than I expected. My concentration was particularly bad, which showed up in my proofreading: there were mistakes in some of my handouts, for instance, and for the first time I can remember I had to make a correction to an exam question during the exam — little things of that sort that I am not usually prone to. I was having trouble sleeping, too, which didn’t help.  I think nonetheless my classes went fine overall, and I was especially pleased as we neared the end of term to find I was comfortable keeping my notes in hand but not right in view, as discussion was steady and I didn’t need a script to keep things moving or focused. There’s something to be said for experience!

marybartonOften at the end of term I am full of resolutions about things I will do differently next time. One thing I am almost certain I’m going to change is my use of reading journals in the 19thC Fiction course. I’ve grumbled here before (and more than once on Twitter) about my difficulties making these work quite the way I want: my idea is to coax students into valuing the ongoing process of reading, as well as to give them low-stakes practice with critical writing. Despite my attempts to micromanage the process further, though, I still find that a lot of students push their journals until the last minute, so they get little benefit from what their choices have basically converted into busy-work. The students who do a really steady job of it are often the students who would be keeping up with the reading and seeking advice on writing in any case. It’s true that it’s not particularly difficult for me to keep tabs on this work (or at least it hasn’t been with Blackboard, though who knows what wrinkles our new LMS might introduce), but I will either revamp the structure next time or abandon it and just redistribute the marks across other assignments. I have time to think about this as I’m not teaching 19thC Fiction again until January.

My only other real take-away from this year’s teaching is that I’m not in any hurry to teach another graduate seminar. It had been a few years since my last one, and though I had a lovely group of keen, cheerful students this time, I still found myself puzzling over the purpose of the whole exercise, and especially over how to approach it given my own alienation from standard kinds of specialist research. It doesn’t help that the dispersal of the undergraduate curriculum means that the graduate students themselves often arrive in these seminars as relative beginners: add unfamiliarity with the primary materials and their basic contexts to the challenge of making sense of complex critical and theoretical arguments about them and you risk running everyone into a frustrating muddle. Undergraduate teaching just seems a much more straightforward business to me right now.

As for next year, I’m glad to be taking a break from the Mystery and Detective Fiction class: I always enjoy it, but I’ve taught it almost every year since 2003: though I’ve changed around the book list pretty often, it still feels a bit repetitive to me at this point. The good side of this is that I feel well prepared for every discussion — but that in itself becomes something of a risk, as it means I get tempted not to refresh or rethink or even (occasionally) reread. What will I be teaching? In addition to the 19thC Fiction (Dickens to Hardy version), I get to teach Close Reading: it’s a class I put a great deal of work into conceptually when I first offered it, and I think the results are more interesting than you might expect from its generic title. I’m doing an upper-level seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ another one that’s in my regular rotation but which I haven’t done for a while. And in the winter term I’m doing our first-year “pulp fiction” class, which I’ve already written about here a couple of times. Because it’s new for me, this is the one that I expect to do the most work on over the summer: as well as choosing my readings (definitely still a work in progress), I need to decide how to frame it for the students — and because I’ll be teaching in at least two genres I haven’t taught before (Westerns and romances), there’s lots of reading to be done in both primary and secondary materials. I like that work of exploration and then synthesis: I’m looking forward to it! In fact, it’s already begun: I’ve just finished reading Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels, and once I wrap things up here I’m off to the library to pick up Louis L’Amour’s Hondo.

7 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: No More Classes!

  1. Alison Harvey April 14, 2016 / 4:45 pm

    Hello–I enjoyed reading this post, esp. regarding your reconsidering of the journal assignment in your 19C fiction class… I too love this assignment in theory, but find that in practice it may not be doing what I hope or intend… This term in my Gender, Literature, and the Arts course I have a “Reading Notes” assignment–micromanaged by me as I post “Reading Notes” questions on every assigned reading for them to address in their notes in addition to anything else they wish to note; these Notes, as I have explained to students repeatedly, are intended to help them read and focus, jot down specifics and thoughts, and prepare for class discussion. But I am finding that the students do not do them before class; rather they do them afterward and only so that they have something to turn in. So there we’ll be in class, and I’ll throw out a question from the RNs that they are supposed to have thought about already, and I’ll get that sea of blank stares. Sigh. (And then when they turn in the Notes, the insights are not original thoughts unmediated by me and the class, but often regurgitated sound bytes from our class discussion!) As you say, the students that do them as we intend are ones that would probably be prepared for class anyway. And yet.. I keep doing this assignment, as pedagogically it COULD do so many things that I want it to do…

    I also smiled in recognition re your comments on teaching students who are beginners in fields/disciplines about which we should really be able to expect reasonably that they know a little something before our class. The same WMST class mentioned above (Gender, Literature, and the Arts) is a 400-level seminar (junior/senior), yet also an elective open across the curriculum, and most of my students this term have had NO literature courses and NO WMST courses. We read Jackie Kay’s wonderful novel “Trumpet,” and students had an enormously hard time with its “experimental” narration–which completely caught me off guard. Trying to turn the class into an intro to gender theory, feminist theory, literature, and close reading, while tacking the assigned materials in the class that presumed some familiarity with all of those, has been a challenge this semester. I love the class, though; but like all teachers (it seems), I struggle with how it is working, how I can do it better next time, etc.
    Thanks for the post and the blog! Always fun to read and I’m glad I ran across it a couple of months ago (while searching for something on Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose work I am still hoping to work on more in future…)


    • Rohan Maitzen April 15, 2016 / 10:00 am

      “pedagogically it COULD do so many things that I want it to do” – that’s the rub, isn’t it? When I think of eliminating the journal assignment I remember why I devised it: a record of ongoing reading, a low-stakes opportunity to write and get feedback, an incentive to keep up with the reading and thus bring more to (and get more out of) class discussions … I keep thinking that if I could only find the perfect structure for it, everyone would get all of those benefits. But at the end of the day it’s really up to the students, and they may quite legitimately have different priorities.

      It seems very odd that an upper-level seminar would also be an open elective like that! But we are increasingly discouraged from having prerequisites or specific requirements, and I suppose the same is true for you. Here too I think pedagogical benefits are lost: unfettered student choice is simply not the best way to achieve high level learning!


    • Rohan Maitzen April 15, 2016 / 10:01 am

      Five whole weeks on Middlemarch! You’d have fun. 🙂


      • Juhi April 15, 2016 / 7:08 pm

        Oh my god, I wish I could attend it too! I’m so looking forward to your posts on that one!


  2. Bookertalk May 2, 2016 / 2:28 am

    Do students really come to a graduate level class with no experience in literary analysis? That’s worrying…. Surely if they are literature graduates they would have the basic knowledge?


    • Rohan Maitzen May 2, 2016 / 10:54 am

      I didn’t mean (and don’t think I said) that they lack experience in literary analysis: my concern has been that because (for many good reasons) the curriculum is now so dispersed, they often lack experience in specific areas of study — so, in a graduate seminar on George Eliot, for instance, the majority of students have read little or no Victorian literature, or very little by or about George Eliot.


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