This week will be our first ever week-long fall break, one of several adjustments to the academic schedule that have come into effect this year. I’m against it in principle, because no matter how long the break, more and more students (in my experience) leave early for it and come back late, which, along with the extra effort it always takes to get back into the rhythm of classes, means more lost time and attention at this point in the term than I’d like. However, I find myself completely in favor of it in practice: for one thing, it means I haven’t spent the weekend prepping for or worrying about my Monday classes, and I’ll have some time this week to do non-course-related reading and writing.
I do, of course, still have ongoing work to do. I’ve got a Ph.D. thesis chapter to read and comment on, for one thing, and some reference letters to get out. I would have managed these tasks in any case, in between classes, but for the thesis chapter especially it will be nice to be able to concentrate on it more completely. I can’t ignore that regular classes start up again the following week, and I am going to seize the opportunity provided by this mid-term break to rethink the way I’ve usually approached the last couple of sessions on Middlemarch for Close Reading — particularly by continuing my ongoing efforts to stop micro-managing class time on it, and by trying to come up with ways to help students feel genuinely involved in it. I’ve got Books IV and V of The Mill on the Floss to read for next Monday, as well. It’s lovely to be reading George Eliot for two classes at once! And it’s quite interesting, too, because both similarities and differences between the novels seem particularly evident to me. The Mill on the Floss seems, predictably, to be going over better — or going down more easily. I wonder if, for the students (and there are several) who are in both classes, Mill has made them feel better or worse about Middlemarch. What I’m most aware of right now is how much more sophisticated the narration is in Middlemarch — how much more fully integrated with the other aspects of the novel (though I do love the long expository sections of Mill). At the same time, it’s hard to miss how much more immediately gripping the personal drama of Mill is.
My other work-related ambition for this reading week is to buckle down and do more preparatory research for the Pulp Fiction class, specifically background reading for teaching Valdez Is Coming. It’s a first-year writing requirement class with a primary emphasis on learning basic literary critical and essay-writing skills: we are doing our readings in service of that broad mission, not with any ambition of getting really deep into theoretical or critical issues about the genres we’re covering. That’s not to say, though, that I don’t have to be reasonably well informed about those issues so that I can provide useful contextual information and frame our discussions appropriately. I’m not worried about that for our mystery readings, as I have been researching and teaching in that area for well over a decade, and I have a lot of preliminary ideas about the romance material already, but westerns represent a new frontier for me as a reader and a teacher, so that’s where I feel I need to put in the most advance work. I’m also thinking hard about how to deal with the language in the novel, plenty of which is not, as the phrase goes, “politically correct.” I think it will become clear as we work through the novel that Valdez Is Coming is not itself condoning racism, but we’ll need some conceptual tools (such as the use/mention distinction) and alertness to who is responsible for what gets said (and how the novel positions them in its values system), as well as some sense of changing historical norms, if we’re all going to have good discussions about this and not simply react by cringing or being offended by it. If anyone has suggestions about how to go about this, they would be welcome, as would recommendations for tersely authoritative histories of the American west.
Another priority for me this week is being a bit more sociable than I usually manage during the term. I already had a lovely time today warding off the November chill by drinking chai lattes and talking with a dear friend who has been sick off and on for ages, poor thing, and thus necessarily reclusive — making time with her especially precious. Tomorrow night my book club meets to talk about Jane Smiley’s Some Luck (which I quite enjoyed but haven’t been able to blog about yet, as I lent my copy to someone else in the group). Then on Thursday I am having lunch with a colleague I love to talk books with but rarely have a chance to, as we mostly just pass each other in the hallway en route to classes or meetings. For me, this is actually quite a flurry of social activity! I know it will lift my spirits, and it will also help distract me from brooding about the pending decision on my promotion appeal, which might arrive any time between now and January.
Finally, I hope to start revising and expanding my old Felix Holt essay, the first step towards shaping the various essays I’ve written on George Eliot’s novels at Open Letters and elsewhere into a collection. After much cogitation, I have decided to proceed with at least the initial goal of self-publishing them when I think they’re ready. Felix Holt seemed like a good place to start during the final week of the U.S. election cycle, which has made Felix’s ruminations on the hazards of democracy seem unhappily relevant.