This Week In My Classes: Blather, Rinse, Repeat

I’ve put off writing this post, hoping that I’d get some bright idea about what to say in it. Is it possible that I’ve been reporting on my weekly class business for too long? Everything I have to say seems like something I’ve said before. Actually, that in itself might be worth considering, because I have also been feeling as if a couple of the topics and activities I’ve covered in my classes since the start of term have lost their interest or their urgency for me, and that as a result it has been harder for me to present them with as much conviction as usual. I don’t think (or at any rate, I hope) that my students are likely to have noticed, since they don’t have previous iterations of these courses to compare their own experience to. But if things are feeling a bit repetitive here, that is almost certainly a sign that I may be repeating myself a bit too much in the classroom, and that it’s time to shake things up, if only for my own sake.

In Close Reading, for instance, I am feeling impatient with the basically very good textbook I’m using. Its explanations of key terms and its models of close reading are as sound as before, but this is the third time I’ve used it, and it has quite a limited selection of poems and stories, many of which the author uses extensively in her own discussions, leaving me with even fewer to choose from for the students’ assignments. In our poetry unit, I do bring in “outside” texts sometimes for in-class exercises (tomorrow, for instance, we’ll be discussing Robert Graves’s “The Cool Web,” which as I’ve mentioned before here is not just one of my favorite poems but the one that transformed me into an English major). There are logistical, copyright, and other reasons, though, why this gets harder as we move into short fiction. I’m hoping not to teach this class again next year, partly because there are other courses I haven’t had a chance to teach in a while and partly because I’d like to look around again for different possible readers. The first couple of times I taught it, back in 2003 and 2004, I used a somewhat eccentric book from Broadview Press called Visions and Revisions: The Poet’s Process. Comparing different versions of the same poem is a great way to focus attention on the effects of particular words, forms, or rhythmic variations. I don’t know if I’d go back to it: the range of really usable options was not that great in it either, as I recall.

This is not to say that I’ve tired of enthusing over Donne’s “Death, be not proud,” even in the context of trying to teach scansion, and I am absolutely looking forward to teaching both Middlemarch and The Remains of the Day again. As the great Samuel Johnson said, “When a woman is tired of Middlemarch, she is tired of life!” OK, he didn’t exactly say that–but surely it is true. Similarly, I am enjoying working through Persuasion in 19th-Century Fiction from Austen to Dickens — which I haven’t actually done that recently, since last time around I made the mistake of assigning Pride and Prejudice. I mentioned last week that Persuasion might be losing its place as my favorite Austen novel; if that were true, Pride and Prejudice would certainly replace it. But Persuasion has the great advantage, in the classroom, of being not nearly so familiar, beloved, or frequently adapted. (It is familiar, beloved, and adapted plenty, as all things Austen are … but I will back slowly away from the rant this topic too easily provokes.) I do feel it’s time to rework my start-up material for this course, and for its alternate (19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy). I always give an overview of “the rise of the novel” and talk a bit about social contexts, publication methods (like serialization), and other background information that I can’t assume the students have learned about before: I think this is important, and I try to keep it up to date, and to tweak it, also, to reflect the particular novels we’ll be reading and any specific issues they raise. But I would like to find a catchy way to start off that doesn’t make the students so passive, because as I move out of lecture mode and into Socratic mode, it takes a while for participation to pick up. I’m pretty sure to be teaching the Dickens to Hardy class next fall, so this is something I will put on my to-do list for the summer.

We’ve just wrapped up work on Persuasion in that class and on Monday we start Vanity Fair. I’m excited, even if the one student in the class who read it ahead of time already told me she didn’t like it. I will convert her! Or maybe not, but I do believe, not least because I’ve so often found it to be the case with my own reading, that it is possible to learn to appreciate something, if not necessarily to like it. (Update: Another student who has just started it tells me she’s finding it “hilarious” so that’s encouraging!)

On a side note, the painting that is my first graphic here is Duncan Grant’s “Interior with the Artist’s Daughter”: it has no particular relevance to this post but I like paintings of readers and I can’t find any of teachers.

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6 Responses to This Week In My Classes: Blather, Rinse, Repeat

  1. Jeanne says:

    Did you happen to see this article, speaking of the continuing relevance of Middlemarch? http://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/04/opinion/middlemarch-college-fame.html?smid=fb-nytopinion&smtyp=cur&_r=1

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I did! I have mixed feelings about it. It is rather a reductive reading of Middlemarch and I’m not sure we are supposed to feel quite so good about those unhistoric lives – the ending is so melancholy, after all, and the waste of talent so conspicuous! But it’s always good to see Middlemarch getting air time (instead of the ubiquitous Austen, for instance).

  2. j david adler says:

    i think u should teach the 19th century french novel.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Hmmm. I’d have to retrain significantly! And I might have to try again with Madame Bovary, which I didn’t get along with that well when I read it before.

  3. Bookertalk says:

    It must be tough to teach the same texts regularly – I can see how familiarity would certainly make it hard to get enthused. Re your idea of changing how you begin the course – I did one on the 19th century novel which started with a series of comments made by various authors about the role and nature of the novel. The point was to show how the very nature of the novel evolved considerably during the century. We started with Walter Scott and realism, and somewhere along the line had Henry James, Besant, Zola, R. L Stevenson, Margaret Oliphant, Joseph Conrad. The concepts were challenging often but it did stimulate discussion.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      That’s a really interesting approach – thank you! I tend to bring this kind of thing up intermittently, in the context of specific readings, but this could be a way to jump-start those discussions.

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