This Week In My Classes: Keeping Up

I am, mostly, but today I had my doubts about my students, many of whom seemed pretty tired and some of whom I’m reasonably certain were also (probably not unrelatedly) too behind on the reading to have anything to say in class.

penguinmiddlemarchThat’s OK: it happens, especially around this time of term. It is startling to realize how far through the term we are, actually. We had an unusually warm October, and I think all the pleasant, sunny weather contributed to the sense that we were still in the opening phases. But here we are on November 1, and by the time we get back from our protracted study break (all of next week, plus the following Monday ‘in lieu of Remembrance Day’) we will be hurtling towards the end of it.

So what are we keeping up with? Well, in Close Reading we are working our way through Middlemarch. By today’s class everyone was supposed to have read to the end of Book V, which includes my favorite chapter (42) as well as the chapter in which Casaubon asks Dorothea to promise that if he dies, she will “carry out my wishes … avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” It’s a painful moment for Dorothea, who is confronted with an impossible moral choice. (See for here for a more detailed commentary on that choice and its tangled ethics.)

I was worried going into class this morning because I spent most of Monday’s class talking at the students instead of with them. Sometimes when I’m teaching this novel, which I love so much and know so well, I have trouble getting out of my way — and out of theirs! I had been fretting, leading up to Monday’s class, because of the long break we’re going to have before we come back and finish our work on the novel, and I overcompensated. (In my defense, I think I did a pretty good job explaining the novel’s intricate structure with the help of my “Skwish” toy.) Today, however, I asked them to generate topics for discussion and then we just worked through the ones we had time for, with some left over for Friday’s class. One of the things we talked about was that terrible promise and why she should or shouldn’t (or, must or must not) say yes to it; one of the things I was asked to do next time was explain the Raffles connection, which I will certainly do.

NorthandSouthOUPSo that class went better than expected, but then my afternoon class went a bit worse: participation was pretty minimal (though everything that was proffered was really useful) and there was a lot of that whole “look down intently at your book every time she asks a question” thing that clearly signals “don’t ask me! don’t even look at me!” Again, that’s fine–up to a point! Everyone’s busy and reading for my class can’t always be everyone’s top priority, even if it is North and South. I was disappointed, though, because usually it’s a class favorite and today’s was a good installment, taking us right through the strike to the remarkable scene on the steps of Marlborough Mill:

Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop — at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot — reckless to what bloodshed it may lead. A clog whizzed through the air. Margaret’s fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her position, only hid her face on Mr. Thornton s arm. Then she turned and spoke again:’

‘For God’s sake! do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.’ She strove to make her words distinct.

A sharp pebble flew by her, grazing forehead and cheek, and drawing a blinding sheet of light before her eyes. She lay like one dead on Mr. Thornton’s shoulder.

We didn’t actually discuss that scene today, partly because it was clear a lot of them weren’t ready, but we did lay the groundwork, talking about Margaret’s character and her difficult transition from her idyllic country home to the bustle and jostle of Milton-Northern, and about her ability, as a sympathetic outsider, to bridge the gap between the classes caused by misunderstanding and (as they see it) antagonistic interests. She’s not perfect herself, so we are looking at how her Milton experience begins to change her from someone who takes her own preeminence for granted and disdains “shoppy people” to someone eager to be engaged with the industrial world that initially horrifies her. The reeducation is mutual, of course, so eventually (when everyone’s caught up) we will also talk about the changes wrought in Mr. Thornton by Margaret’s influence.

This is just our classroom work, of course. For all of us there are also papers and midterms, and we’re getting into reference letter season, and I’m reading a PhD thesis chapter, and there are committee meetings … I admit I was a bit scornful about having a fall reading week when it was first discussed, but I’m looking forward to the break in the routine, not least because on top of everything else I have some writing deadlines coming up! It’s busy, but mostly it’s a good kind of busy.

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