This Week In My Classes: Loose Ends and Lessons Learned

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsClasses have been over for a while now, but the business of the teaching term isn’t quite over. I mentioned before that one unfortunate feature of marking season is academic integrity hearings: I had more this year than I’ve ever had before, which has taken up a lot of my time and also given me a lot to think about. Individual cases are confidential, of course, but at some point I plan to write a separate post about some trends I’ve noticed around plagiarism and some ideas I have about how to address both its causes and its consequences. Some of what I’ve been dealing with and thinking about is addressed in this article in University Affairs, but I’m wary of focusing too hard on how we design our assignments. For one thing, though there are many things I might do in an ideal world that would be helpful, it seems likely that before long we won’t have any writing classes in our department with fewer than 120 students, and an awful lot of “best practices” simply don’t scale up, especially given strict contractual limits on our use of Teaching Assistants. At the end of the day, too, I’d like to see the responsibility for not cheating rest with the students, who always do have the choice not to cheat. That doesn’t mean we and our pedagogy don’t play a role, of course, including in making sure they understand what constitutes cheating…but more about that thorny topic later.

On a happier note, this is also the time of year when we award departmental prizes and scholarships; I have a committee meeting this afternoon dedicated to this task, which–though it can get a bit thorny in the details–is a pretty good job to have, as we get to focus on the many students who are doing really splendid work. It’s not just top academic marks that get rewarded: we also have prizes for students who shine creatively or who stand out for taking intellectual risks. One of our perennial favorites is the Paul McIsaac Memorial Prize, for example, which is dedicated to a student “who demonstrates an enquiring and original mind.” Reading the nomination letters for this and our other discretionary prizes is always uplifting, though we do sometimes wish donors would be slightly more specific or, as in the case of the memorably named “Throw the Switch Igor” Bursary, maybe a bit  less colorful! Our committee meeting is in preparation for Wednesday’s May Marks Meeting, which, as I’ve written about before, is “one of our department’s most cherished and loathed rituals.”

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsSince classes ended, I’ve been thinking a lot about what seemed to work and what didn’t this term. It’s always hard to know what are actual lessons about pedagogy that you can carry forward and what are idiosyncratic reactions or developments based on the specific and unpredictable population of a particular class. For instance, I thought that overall Pulp Fiction went much better this year than last. What did I do differently? Not much logistically: I used the same readings and course structure, and more or less the same assignments. Class participation was way up, though, and most of the time the atmosphere felt happier: is that because (anxious to avoid whatever went wrong last year) I tried even harder than usual to be positive, friendly, and encouraging? Did we all benefit from my having broken in this material last year and so being more adept with it this time? Or did I just get lucky and have a larger proportion of reasonably talkative students who softened the atmosphere for others to join in and thus helped increase overall engagement?

Even though I thought the class in general went well, I still finished it wondering if I want to teach it again. One reason, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is that I felt a bit worn out by the effort of making these readings interesting enough to keep talking about. I spent time in class talking about the concept of ‘horizontal reading’ as an important strategy for working with genre fiction: you need a broad sense of norms, tropes, and conventions to be able to talk with insight and confidence about specific examples and how they use, subvert, or revise expectations. This isn’t to say that our readings didn’t reward deep or close reading, but the interpretive process for them required (or so I thought, anyway) a fair amount of hand-waving towards what you might call the geographies of the different genres, territory that students who are mostly beginning readers of these kinds of fiction had no initial familiarity or ease with. If I do the course again, I will have to keep thinking about that challenge and whether I got the balance between generalizations and specifics right.


If I do teach Pulp Fiction again I think I will change the main readings. There are practical reasons for this: once there are marked papers out in circulation, for example, there’s a risk that they will be recycled. (Of course, there are ways to make this more difficult, and to check for it.) I have other reasons for making some changes, though. Chief among them is that The Maltese Falcon is a brilliant novel but a plagiarism nightmare, and I’m fed up with dealing with this problem. In case any students are reading this, let me make one point that should be obvious but clearly isn’t: your professors are also familiar with Shmoop! More generally, anything you turn up using Google we can find just as easily. If you’re struggling, for any reason, to put your own ideas about the readings into your own words, consulting your instructor is a much better move than going online to see what you can find.

valdezI have also concluded that Valdez Is Coming is not a good choice for my representative Western. When I read it on my own, I thought it was gripping, fast-paced, and rich with discussion points from race and identity to masculinity, violence, and heroism. It turns out that for quite a lot of students, it is dull, a bit confusing, and too subtle in its effects (literary and thematic) to analyze effectively. This is not to say that none of them wrote well about it–but overall, across both years, it was by far the least popular of our three major texts. Lord of Scoundrels overall was more successful as a novel to write about, and though of course individual responses to it varied, more people seemed more engaged with it. I’m not sure at this point what substitutions I would make. These three novels made a nice sequence, especially for thinking about masculinity: a triumphant but problematic tough guy, then a tough guy who pays a high price for refusing to be vulnerable, and finally a tough guy who is “cured”  of the compulsion to be a certain kind of man and as a result gets to live happily every after. Having a through-line like this helped us layer our discussions as the term goes on, so I’d want to find another trio of books that also work well together, though they wouldn’t have to be unified by that same theme.

broughtonAs for Victorian Sensations, I thought it was quite a successful seminar. Participation levels were consistently high and (as important) were of high quality; as I told the class at the end of term, I genuinely looked forward to showing up and talking with them about our readings. The only novel I hadn’t taught before was Cometh Up As A Flower; we found it provocative and sometimes puzzling, and quite a few students chose to include it in their term paper, which is a sign that they were engaged with it. It might be fun to include it in one of my standard Victorian fiction class, where it would fit well with other novels in which passion and duty collide (The Mill on the Floss, for instance), or in which the ‘romance’ of marrying for money is overtly stripped away. One slight surprise for me was that discussion flagged a bit for Fingersmith. Everyone seemed to  really enjoy reading it, but it was conspicuously harder to get them to talk about it. This might have been (a bit paradoxically) because they found it fun to read and so their critical faculties shut down in ways they really can’t with a novel like East Lynne (which is pretty hard work to slog through, honestly); it might also have been that we read Fingersmith last, and by the final weeks of term everyone’s tired and overwhelmed with work.

victorianstudiesLess of a surprise, but still a challenge, was how difficult it was to generate discussion on the classes I’d set aside for “critical approaches” to our novels. After the first of these sessions I realized that I needed to approach them differently, so I ran those classes more overtly than I usually do in a seminar class, adding some contextual information about the history of literary criticism and devising a set of “metacritical” discussion questions to supplement students’ questions on the specific readings. Even so, discussion was halting. I think the main reason was actually closely related to my goals for these readings. In my experience, when students read criticism they are often mining it for usable quotations, which they then drop into their own arguments as if the fact that somebody else said it proves their claim. I wanted to get them to engage with other scholars in a more equal and conversational way, learning how to see what kind of criticism they are reading (by considering its original date of publication, the venue it was published in, the kinds of questions it asks, and the kinds of evidence it considers) and then if they use it in their own work, signaling how and why in a different way. Just saying “As Critic Smartypants argues” instead of “Critic Smartypants argues” is an improvement: it implies “I’ve thought about this and agree,” not “Smartypants said it, so it’s true.”


The other thing I hoped to do with these sessions is spark some interest about the ways literary criticism has changed between the 19th century and today: for each of these classes, we read some reviews or essays contemporary with our novels as well as a selection of modern academic criticism. This is a longstanding interest of mine, and we read a couple of pieces that are included in my Broadview anthology, as well as others included with the Broadview editions of East Lynne and Cometh Up As A Flower. Again it was hard to get discussion going, though it got better when I opened up some more general questions about things like the difference (in their experience) between reviews and what they think of as “criticism,” or whether they expect or want criticism to include clear evaluative statements or (as is often found in the Victorian examples) moral judgments. In the end I don’t know how much the students felt they gained from these exercises. Will I include designated criticism sessions again? Probably not, at least not in quite this way. We would probably have had more fun reading another novel–or some short fiction, as the reading load was already quite heavy.

After Wednesday, Winter 2018 will (I hope) be really and truly cleared away–not just at work, but here in Halifax, where very gradually things are turning green and coming to life again.


One thought on “This Week In My Classes: Loose Ends and Lessons Learned

  1. Christopher Lord (@dickensjunction) May 7, 2018 / 2:23 pm

    I hardly ever read this kind of fiction, but you might consider “Big Maria,” by Oregon writer Johnny Shaw for your post-Western Western. It has that “Treasure of Sierra Madre” feel, and it’s one of the better exploding burro novels that I’ve read in quite a while. Very reminiscent of John Nichols (as I recall him from so many year ago).

    As a non-academic but as someone who writes fiction and wrote papers for upper-division lit classes back in the day, I’m fascinated by the problems with plagiarism in the internet age. The recent novel, “The Nix,” by Nathan Hill, had me in stitches in its opening pages when an exasperated underpaid adjunct professor has to deal with a plagiarizing and shameless student. “But you bought this paper off the internet,” he says (more or less). “Yes,” she replies. “That’s why it’s MINE.” I love this novel and recommend it as often as I can; it has that early John Irving feel without bears, and I don’t know how such a young writer was able to capture with uncanny verisimilitude the world of 1968 Chicago (the novel has a wide chronological range).


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