This Week In My Classes: Keeping Up

autumn-leaves-2017I was looking back over some old posts in this series and November entries have a certain … similarity, shall we say! We’re all–students and faculty alike–tired, busy, and kind of gloomy. The introduction of a week-long break (coming next week for us) has not made as much difference as you might think: last year I was struck by how much more tired and behind a lot of my students seemed when classes started up again, and because the break also comes quite late in the month, we all felt a bit frantic after it because the end of classes was suddenly so close.

Right now, though, a week off from the regular routine of classes seems like something to look forward to. I’ll have plenty to do! I’ve got midterms, papers, and paper proposals coming in this week that I’d like to turn around as soon as possible, and that will be a lot easier without also doing class prep. I’m also a reader for a Ph.D. student who is defending her dissertation next Friday: rereading her thesis and working up questions for the defense will be a big (though rewarding) job. And just to make sure I’m making the absolute most of the week’s more flexible schedule, I’ve got a dentist appointment, a medical appointment, and a hair cut also scheduled!

rankinWe aren’t quite there yet, however: there’s still the rest of this week to get through. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our discussions of Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. Although I think Knots and Crosses is gripping and clever, I’ve been wishing that I left The Terrorists in instead when I decided which book to cut to make room for An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, because its political engagement is in some ways more immediately relevant and its morality is more complicated. That said, Knots and Crosses offers a pretty direct engagement with what we now call “toxic masculinity.” Its Gothic games seemed a bit too pat to me this time, though–I don’t entirely disagree with Rankin’s own assessment of it as a bit too clever, a bit too much the self-conscious work of a young writer immersed in literary theory and history and eager to show off what he knew.

silas-marnerIn 19th-Century Fiction tomorrow we are finishing our time on Silas Marner. Because I have only taught Silas Marner once or twice before, and many years ago, I have been feeling my way a bit hesitantly, not being entirely certain which questions will catch students’ interests or draw them most naturally towards the novel’s big ideas or best moments. Oddly, perhaps, I’ve found it difficult precisely because the novel is so short, though I chose it hoping that its brevity would make George Eliot more accessible than usual. I dialed back the amount of context I provided at the outset, but even so it took up nearly one whole class, and that left us only three more to talk more freely about the novel. With Middlemarch, in contrast, I typically have at least three weeks’ worth of classes, or around nine hours, and we get even more time when I assign it in Close Reading. And yet three hours is actually plenty in some ways too: because not a great deal happens in Silas Marner just in terms of plot, I feel as if I have been struggling to work on the meaning of what does go on without repeating myself. Still, I think it has been OK overall. In fact, I have been pleased at both the quantity and the quality of participation in class discussion, which certainly suggests to me that they are finding the novel’s distinct combination of realism and moral fable engaging. We have already talked a fair amount about the importance of taking responsibility and making deliberate choices, rather than trusting to luck, fate, or God, as key to Eliot’s moral vision; tomorrow we will talk about this in the specific context of family, especially parenting, including both Silas’s choice to raise Eppie (in contrast to Godfrey’s actions) and Eppie’s choice to stay with Silas. I think this is the only one of Eliot’s novels that comes close to being unironically sentimental, at least in the main plot line–and it’s just so lovely.

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