I was struggling over what to write about in this post, which begins the 10th season of my blogging regularly about my teaching. What angle, what big idea, what topic, should I focus on? What do I have to say that’s new? I couldn’t seem to think of anything. And then I remembered that when I started writing these posts, all I aimed to do was report back from inside my classroom, to counter harmful negative myths and stereotypes about what goes on there. It’s partly because I had been doing that for a long time that I began to take up somewhat more general abstract topics — you can see it happening if you scroll through the archive, not all the time, but more and more as the series putters along. But that wasn’t supposed to become an imperative! So without further ado, I’ll just get back to saying a little bit about what went on in my classes this week.
The short version is: not a whole lot, really. After all, it’s only the first week of the fall term, and it wasn’t even a complete week, at that. The most important thing I did, besides distribute the syllabus and try to sort out logistics like class lists and presentation sign-ups, was probably set the tone for what’s to come. Still, in both classes we did move into some content.
I opened Close Reading on Wednesday with a lecture focused primarily on choices: first ours, in the department, to include the course among our suite of requirements; then theirs to take it, which includes their choice to major in English (not something I’ve ever heard of anyone being pressured into); then, moving into the course materials, the choices writers make, from the biggest (to write anything at all) to the smallest (to use this word or that one). My broader pitch is for the connection between aesthetics and ethics; I quote Wayne Booth, which won’t surprise regular visitors here:
[The writer] has made a vast range of choices, deliberately or unconsciously: these characters and their conflicts rather than a host of tempting other possibilities; just which of their experiences to dramatize fully and which merely to ‘tell’ or narrate; which virtues and vices to grant them; which voice to grant the telling to, which metaphors to heighten and which to delete; where to begin and where to end; when to use style indirect libre and when to use actual quotations; which level of style to employ, and where; when to interrupt with commentary revealing the authors’ judgment of events …; and so on and on. It is that chooser who constitutes the full ethos of any work. It is living with that highly select set of virtues…that constitutes our full experience.
I propose that in our close readings we are trying to understand what that “chooser” is offering us. In the classroom we don’t typically move from understanding and appreciation to judgment, but in our lives, we often do, or should, so I also quote Orwell: “The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be torn down if it surrounds a concentration camp.” It’s harder to know if a work of literature stands up than it is to tell if a wall does, just as it can be much harder to be sure what that literary “wall” surrounds. But I think — I hope — that thinking of their reading as something that at least potentially has ethical implications makes our academic project of becoming good close readers seem more than just an academic exercise.
In today’s tutorials we looked at one writer’s specific choices, comparing Robert Frost’s “In White” to the later, much more famous version, “Design.” You can see the two poems side by side here, if you’re curious. Looking at different versions of the “same” poem is a nice way to provoke discussion about the difference a specific word makes — consider the difference between “dented” and “dimpled” in the first line. (I actually used a reader for this class once that was all poems in various revisions.) It’s not so much about explaining why the later version is better, though in this case it does seem to me conspicuously so. It’s about seeing the significance of the poet’s choices come into focus when you consider what else he might have said. A lot of the changes in the later version really bring out the problem of agency, for instance: if there are “characters,” who is their author? And so on — from the title to the last line, there are lots of things to consider. It’s a small-scale exercise, but I think it was a good way to get us started.
In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ Wednesday was for getting organized and today was for establishing some context, meaning I lectured, for the one and only time I will do that in this seminar class. I have found that with students arriving from many different directions, it is helpful if I give everyone a common framework at the outset so I go over some key terms and concepts — some generalizations about the “separate spheres,” the ideal of “the angel in the house,” that sort of thing .Then I explain a bit about women’s education in the period, and about some of the central legal issues with marriage and property — and I also sketch out some of the special challenges of being a woman writer at this time. I try to emphasize that the “woman question” really was a “question,” and that it was posed as well as answered in many different ways, as our readings will amply illustrate.
For Monday we’re reading Frances Power Cobbe’s terrific essay “Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors”:
At the head of this paper I have placed the four categories under which persons are now excluded from many civil, and all political rights in England. They were complacently quoted last year by the Times as every way fit and proper exceptions; but yet it has appeared to not a few, that the place assigned to Women amongst them is hardly any longer suitable. To a woman herself who is aware that she has never committed a crime; who fondly believes that she is not an idiot; and who is alas! only too sure she is no longer a minor,—there naturally appears some incongruity in placing her, for such important purposes, in an association wherein otherwise she would scarcely be likely to find herself. But the question for men to answer is: Ought Englishwomen of full age, in the present state of affairs, to be considered as having legally attained majority? or ought they permanently to be dealt with, for all civil and political purposes, as minors? This, we venture to think, is the real point at issue between the friends and opponents of “women’s rights” . . .
For a somewhat different perspective, we’re also reading Margaret Oliphant’s essay “The Condition of Women.” (Both are in Susan Hamilton’s excellent Broadview collection, which some person named “Maitzen” calls “an indispensable volume” in her sincerely enthusiastic blurb for it.) And we’re reading the first chapter of Mill’s The Subjection of Women, which we’ll finish for Wednesday.
Usually now when I teach a seminar class I have students give group presentations, and one of the requirements is that they have to engage the rest of the class in some kind of activity — they aren’t allowed to hold forth on their own for more than 10-15 minutes of their time. I always look forward to the creative things they come up with. In previous years, for example, I have played “Who Wants to be a Pre-Raphaelite” and done a “Choose Your Own Adventure in Wildfell Hall” in which we tried to extricate Helen from her bad marriage without violating convention, law, or her character as we understood it. But things don’t have to be so elaborate: I have also had really successful presentations that relied on more conventional but very valuable things like break-out discussion groups that reported back on key themes or passages. The first presentation for this term will be next Friday, so that guarantees me one class where I am not in charge. Hooray! Because I was reminded at the end of my third class hour today that running the show — whether lecturing or coordinating discussion — is pretty tiring.
OK, there we go. Nothing fancy, just another report from the field. Yet, having said that, I continue to believe that in addition to helping me be a more self-conscious and accountable teacher, these posts do, in their own small way, serve a larger purpose.