This Week In My Classes: In the Thick of It All

ebbgordigiani1First of all, where did this past week even go? It feels like just yesterday I was writing my previous post, in a flush of enthusiasm about Aurora Leigh, and now we’ve wrapped up our time with it in The Victorian ‘Woman Question.’ After Wednesday’s student presentation, we’ll be moving on, first to a pair of poems about ‘fallen women’ (Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway”) and then, on Monday, to the ever-popular “Goblin Market.” And then, no doubt to the relief of the poetry-averse in the group, we’re on to Gaskell’s “Lizzie Leigh,” and from there on it’s novels all the way to the end.

I’ve always assigned all of Aurora Leigh for this course, but I think that next time I might experiment with excerpting it just a bit. I would never do this for a novel, but there’s no doubt that the blank verse slows a lot of students down — and me too, to be frank. A few judicious cuts might make the parts we really want and need to talk about stand out better. Still, by yesterday’s class it seemed like pretty much everyone was engaged with it. We had a good discussion especially of Marian’s radical assertion that (‘fallen woman’ as she is by society’s standards) she would in fact lose her purity by marrying without love. I’m not sure how helpful it was for me to compare her mysterious apotheosis to Cordelia’s ascent to a ‘Higher Being’ in Angel — but it does have something of that same gratuitously symbolic quality to it. We also puzzled over how to interpret Aurora’s declaration that “art is much but love is more” — a statement that always seems to me to go against the grain of the poem as a whole.

OxfordIn Close Reading, we’ve just started Middlemarch — always a happy occasion for me, of course! Here’s hoping I can make it a good experience for the students as well. In a break from the usual rhythm of this course, I open with a fairly formal lecture to establish some biographical and philosophical context: as I explained to the class, with short texts it’s reasonable to expect them to be able to put specific details into the context of the whole right away, but with a text this long we can’t do meaningful close reading exercises without my providing some preliminary interpretive frameworks. I’ll do a bit more of that tomorrow, and then they’ll have some general concepts to guide their reading and analysis as we keep going. We’re only reading Book I this week: it’s always nice to move through it relatively slowly (we’ll take about two more weeks on it in Close Reading than I usually allow for it in my 19th-century fiction class).

Just as this term’s courses are really underway, we’re already having to think, not just about next term, but about next year. I’m on our Undergraduate Committee, which is tasked with soliciting people’s teaching preferences and putting together a slate of offerings, and this year we’re doing it even earlier than usual because the university is implementing a new automated scheduling system that seems sure to cause all kinds of stress and complications we’ll need time to deal with. In the trial run they did last year, apparently the algorithm, in its infinite wisdom, scheduled a number of classes for Friday nights. OK, yes, that is probably a time when classrooms are “underutilized,” but who do they think would sign up for a class at that time? When I told my students about the possibility, they were aghast. I don’t understand, really, why maximizing “efficient” use of classrooms is any kind of priority. It already seems obvious that machine-defined efficiency — as is entirely predictable — may have little to do with what is humanly reasonable. But, here we are, and I guess we’ll find out.

In the nearer future, I do have to start thinking more about next term, especially about Pulp Fiction. I’m glad I put in a fair amount of time on it in the summer: I had already roughed out a schedule, and now when I have a moment here and there I’ll be refining the logistics, including assignments, and adding to the notes I’d begun taking on Westerns and romances. Right now I feel very aware of how much I don’t know! Well, one thing at a time, right?

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