Technically, this post should really be called “This Week For My Classes,” since of course I’m not actually teaching any right now. In between other projects, though (mostly finishing a small essayish review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved for the next issue of Open Letters — yes, that’s right, I am trying my hand at writing a little bit about romance, thoughtfully, I hope, yet while avoiding the pitfalls of the dreaded “romance think piece”) I am chipping away at preparations for next year’s offerings, particularly the one completely new class, which is the “Pulp Fiction” one. I think I’ve reached some key decisions about it that will help me focus that preparation better as the summer goes on.
One thing I’ve decided is to stop worrying about the problem that it’s called “Pulp Fiction” but clearly described in the official Calendar as an introduction to genre fiction. I think it’s the title that’s kind of misleading, but it was chosen (presumably) to be catchy. I’m just going to approach the course as in introduction to popular genres, which will in some cases involve talking about actual “pulps” as part of the literary-historical context, but which frees me from worrying about whether the texts I assign are actually pulpy. It’s an introductory writing course primarily, after all: I don’t have to wrestle with definitions or theories the way I would if this were a graduate seminar, or even an upper-level lecture class.
Following on that simple (if somewhat shoulder-shrugging) conclusion, I have decided not to spend a lot more time shopping for possible main texts to assign but just to call it for the ones that are my top candidates at this point, so that I can think about how to frame and teach them in particular (and what shorter texts to use to supplement them). So that means (I think – I haven’t actually placed the order with the bookstore yet) True Grit to represent Westerns, The Maltese Falcon for crime fiction, and Lord of Scoundrels for Romance. Valdez is Coming was another really appealing option for a Western (the only other one I seriously considered was Hondo, and I couldn’t finish it, which is a bad sign for teaching it with conviction) — but I enjoyed the subversiveness of True Grit so much that I’m just going to go for it. I’m 99% sure Elmore Leonard will be represented on the syllabus through one of his short stories, probably “3:10 to Yuma.” I went back and forth between The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and my decision is a bit arbitrary — I’ve been doing The Big Sleep in the mystery class the last few years, for one thing, but also I think Hammett’s blunter style and story will be better for a first-year class. Ever since I offered to do this class, Lord of Scoundrels has been my pick to represent romance.
I’ve been looking at the syllabi for two of my colleagues who’ve taught this class recently and one thing that struck me is how many more readings they included. My big three won’t be my entire reading list, of course, but apparently I just take things more slowly than they do — they both typically take one week per novel, for instance (not super-long novels, but including, for example, King Solomon’s Mines, which is 300+ pages in the Penguin edition, or Frankenstein, which is around 200 pages). Looking at their schedules, I wondered if I should try to fit more in, so I did up a version of the timetable with Lady Audley’s Secret added — but unless I sped everything up more than I’m comfortable with, that meant leaving out most of the short fiction I’d included. In the end I think I’d rather allow lots of time to talk about particulars (and also take up class time with writing instruction, editing workshops, and that kind of thing — which I’m sure my colleagues do too, but I’m not sure how they manage to get it all done and still have robust discussions of so many complex readings). Pacing is one of the many mysteries of pedagogy, of course: there is no right rhythm, and what works depends on your own style as well as the purposes of the class. I usually spend three weeks on Middlemarch when I teach it in the 19th-century fiction class, but we take five weeks on it in Close Reading — and it would certainly be possible to take an entire semester for it, if only there were such a course (or, if only I dared to offer such a course and anyone actually took it!). Anyway, I reverted to a schedule with just three full-length novels, with short stories interspersed, and for now I like the looks of it. I can always order a fourth book later on if I change my mind. In the meantime, with the main titles chosen, I can set some parameters for my preparatory research.
I have done a few more small things for teaching prep too: I began adjusting the plans for my two fall courses — both of which I’ve taught a few times before — to fit the university’s revised fall schedule (which includes a week-long fall reading break for the first time), and I’ve started poking around on our new Learning Management System, Brightspace. So far I don’t like Brightspace at all, mostly because we seem to have chosen the version that doesn’t let us customize any of it, even the colours. That takes a lot of the fun out of it! Obviously the real purpose of these things is utilitarian, but the more you restrict what I can do with it, the more inclined I am to use it as a document dump and nothing else. People who’ve been using Brightspace for a while tell me they like it better than Blackboard, though, so I’m trying to stay optimistic that in ways I haven’t yet discovered, it’s actually an improvement and not just a change.
No SFF? *Sobs quietly in corner.*
Not in this first incarnation of the course, at least, no — and no horror and no comics, either. Keep in mind that for me both romance and Westerns are completely new teaching areas — I mean, they connect to other things I know about, but it’s still going to mean a lot of learning on my part. Once I know how I want to frame this material (not to mention the course overall) and see how the specific readings go, I can think about changing or expanding the coverage. But, again, it’s also just a first-year writing class: the readings in all of these intro classes are really just excuses to give them things to write about (well, and also to get the started learning basic literary-critical vocabulary and habits). That’s not to downplay the importance of choosing well and teaching carefully, of course!