This Week In My Classes: Counts, Cowboys, and Critics

I have to stop putting pressure on myself to make these update posts more than they have to be. When I started doing this, all I had in mind was opening up my classroom to anyone curious to know more about what English professors actually get up to–rather than fulminating against what they imagine we’re doing. The reality is both more mundane and (I think, anyway) more inspirational than people who think we should “ALL be flushed down the toilet” believe. I thought I could at least illustrate this widely misrepresented aspect of my professional life–the day to day (or at least week by week) effort I make to guide students towards being better (more thoughtful, more experienced, better informed) readers and writers–while also giving a sense of the kinds of books we read in my own classes and the kinds of discussions we have about them.

A lot of what I’ve written in this series is more or less straight reportage along those lines but then I began writing posts with more of a conceptual angle, and that seemed to raise the stakes. I still hope to do that, and often that’s actually what generates the teaching posts I look back on with the most satisfaction–but sometimes I just don’t have anything that profound to say! Lately that has made me hesitate about posting at all, and then I end up missing it. I like the process of it: as usual, I need to stop fretting so much about the product and just get on with it.

So, without more ado, here are some updates on my classes this week!

In Pulp Fiction we have just begun our discussions of Elmore Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming. I still feel as if I’m doing a lot of preparatory work in this class–maybe too much, I thought today, as I went on and on about issues of terminology and then the methods of close reading until by the time I actually tried to get the students involved in doing some close reading, they didn’t have much energy. That’s my fault: lesson learned! I also felt off my game the whole class: I was well prepared, in theory anyway, but the things I had planned to say didn’t come out that coherently, and once I started worrying about that and second-guessing myself, of course it just got harder to keep my focus! Self-consciousness is indeed, as Carlyle said, the beginning of disease: when things are going well I’m just absorbed in the discussion, with none of this meta-level anxiety. Of course, who really knows if that means I’m doing a better job then–or that today’s class really was in some way worse than usual! It was probably fine, and there are lots more chances to make up for it if it wasn’t.

I thought the discussion was a bit stuttering in Victorian Sensations this morning too–maybe that’s what set me up for my unease in the afternoon! We’ve been having very lively discussions of The Woman in White, but today was the first of our sessions focused on ‘critical approaches’: we read a selection of contemporary reviews, then a couple of modern critical essays, one from 1977 and one from 2006. My idea is that over the term these classes will add up to a mini-seminar in critical trends, though I haven’t chosen the readings that systematically–I just want us to engage with a range of different kinds of critical approaches and see how the conversation about these books has changed over time. That kind of meta-critical conversation is not as easy or familiar as talking directly about Marian’s subversion of gender norms or Count Fosco and the mysterious Brotherhood–and students understandably seemed less certain where or how to jump in. As always, a couple of students brought in discussion prompts for us, and these were very good. Next time I’m going to prepare a bit differently myself–particularly for the 19th-century material, which is (as we discussed) more diffuse and–to students more accustomed to working with very focused and analytical modern scholarship–more difficult to recognize or engage with as criticism, because the apparatus is much less explicit.

Friday is a very student-centered day: in Victorian Sensations we have our first group presentation, and I’m looking forward to that, as there’s usually so much intelligence and creativity on display, and then in Pulp Fiction it’s tutorials, which this week will be focused on a close reading activity.

I haven’t had much marking yet, beyond the reading journals I collect in random clusters in Pulp Fiction. That will change soon, though, and more generally I can already feel the term picking up speed. Next week we have Friday off for Munro Day, then it’s not long until Reading Week–and then it will feel like a mad rush to April and exams. But for now, it’s just one foot in front of the other. And that’s what’s up this week in my classes!

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2 Responses to This Week In My Classes: Counts, Cowboys, and Critics

  1. I can really empathise with that feeling at a class just isn’t going well despite the work you’ve put into it. I still get it even now when I am only doing voluntary teaching for the University of The Third Age. I’ve been teaching, one way or another, for fifty years and I am no nearer now to understanding why this happens than I was at eighteen.

  2. I just clicked on the link to your post from 2013 about process and product – I think you’re right. We all have that anxiety when we commit ourselves in writing about how it will be received, and over-rate the ‘grade’. I raised with my students after discussing Hard Times today what they thought education was ‘for’ – school, college, whatever. Also what they thought about exams and assessment. Only one had a strong opinion; she was not impressed at my suggestion (semi-serious) that we should simply award a certificate to those students who successfully complete a course. What does ‘successful’ mean, she asked. What about those who sit looking at their phones through every class and do the bare minimum? Eat you heart out, Mr Gradgrind. I’ve been too busy lately working on Victorians to read or post about my own material, so shall borrow your idea and recycle some of my teaching thoughts. It breaks the blog silence. I’ll link back to you, of course.

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