This Week In My Classes: Readers and/or Scholars

Arcimbolo LibrarianMore clutter to clear out of my head, if I can — something that has been on my mind for about three weeks now, but in an unfocused or inconclusive form. In fact, I’ve started and then deleted a couple of posts about this already; I just couldn’t seem to get very far before either deciding I didn’t want to get into it after all or running out of energy. But now the topic feels like mental debris, so let’s see if I can make any kind of sense of it so I can move on. One thing my blog is supposed to be for is freeing me to write about things without having to be absolutely certain about them, after all.

Basically, I recently attended an interesting presentation on (among other things) a site that makes a range of teaching tools available for people in “my” field, Victorian studies. (I put the possessive pronoun in scare-quotes because something else I’ve been puzzling over is whether I still identify with, much less operate within, that scholarly field, or any scholarly field–a subject for another unfocused inconclusive post down the road, perhaps. Consider yourself warned.) The tools looked fine! Cool, even! It is clear that people are using them in interesting and no doubt valuable ways to engage their students and further the goals they have for their courses. Still, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to use them myself–not because (and this is about the point in the post where I gave up the last two times, because I felt uneasy about potentially being misunderstood on this point!) I have any objections to them on their own terms, but because they seem peripheral to the main objectives have for my own classes, especially (though not exclusively) my 19th-century fiction classes. Just to clarify the kinds of things I am talking about, one of the tools enables you to construct a timeline; others produce maps or annotations or digital scholarly editions.

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsThis is all good! That is, it is all good if these are the activities you want your students engaged in–and I genuinely have no problem with that. I’m just not interested in doing that kind of thing myself, and what I was trying to figure out is why, and then whether this signals a deficiency of some kind in my own pedagogical approach. After some reflection, I decided the answer to the first part of that question is that increasingly, I do not approach my classes as steps towards making students into scholars, as part of a program designed to train them to do academic things. Instead, I aim to engage and train them as readers–attentive, well-informed, rigorous readers, to be sure, but with their eyes first and foremost on the page, not on contexts or scholarly apparatus or digital tools.

Another reason this post fell apart before is that I could see then, as I still can, that the distinction I just proposed between readers and scholars is reductive and perhaps unproductively polarizing. Still, I think there’s something to it, something that holds true even if you object to explaining it quite the way I have so far. After all, the vast majority of the students I teach at every level (now, really, including graduate students) are not going to enter the academy as professional literary scholars–but they are (I very much hope!) going to keep reading. My goal is to foster both the skills and the commitment they need to carry on reading as well (as intently, curiously, and critically) as we ask them to in our classes. It also matters to me that the literary works I feel most passionate about teaching are themselves oriented very much towards the world we live in and the relationship we have with it and with each other. Their ‘aboutness’ is moral, social, political; they have designs on us, dear readers,  and it takes all the time and energy we have to figure them out and see what stories we have to tell about them in our turn…and that’s not even taking into account just how long it takes to actually read the books with patience and attention.

cassatI’m not saying that the kinds of hands-on learning students get from constructing timelines (or whatever) can’t contribute to the conversations I prioritize, and clearly it can also give them valuable experience of other kinds, including building the skills set required to work with these kinds of digital tools. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that these projects take time away from, or redirect attention from, the books themselves, and there are so few contexts in which a sustained focus on reading is even possible, much less required and supported. If my own work and interests were in the field of book history, I expect I would find these tools more personally congenial. At the same time, my own estimation of the value of some forms of scholarly work has also eroded so much in the past decade or so–my own impatience with its insularity, with the feeling of playing insider baseball, has gotten so acute– that I have far less interest in drawing students into that world than I have in … well, in doing what I do in my own classes, which is pretty well documented here across the decade-plus history of posts in this series.

It’s not that I never incorporate research into my class assignments: at the upper level in particular, and of course in graduate seminars, there is always a scholarly dimension, and I do my best (albeit with mixed success) to make it relevant and valuable, not just perfunctory. And in spite of my alienation from aspects of academia (also something recorded and interrogated regularly over the dozen years I’ve written this blog) it’s not that I see no value in specialized literary research and scholarship: I have done it myself, and my teaching is suffused with insights and strategies and knowledge gleaned from my three decades as first a student and then a teacher in the academy. I routinely bring contextual information to the classroom; I have brought maps and timelines sometimes too–they are invaluable aids when teaching Waverley! I have also done some digital assignments, including wiki building–though I am much less inclined to go to that kind of logistical trouble now. So maybe I’m fretting about something that is really a difference of pedagogical degree, not kind, or maybe I’m just going through pointless mental convolutions because I felt uncomfortable during that presentation due to the gap between the student experience it championed and the one I (think I) offer and as a result I wanted (as we are all prone to, I suppose, when we feel sidelined or irrelevant) to make up some story to justify myself!Bookworm Icon

I’m still having second thoughts about this whole post: I wonder why this topic in particular is making me so self-conscious. But I don’t want to lose my nerve about thinking out loud in public, and of course one possible value of writing this up is in hearing what, if anything, other people think about the things I’ve been turning around in my head. I don’t mean to set reading and scholarship, or reading and research, against each other in any absolute way, but it has been hard for me to put the difference I’ve been thinking about in any other way. I’d like to think that my teaching award answers the second part of my earlier question–I am not shortchanging my students — but that doesn’t mean I’m not still learning all the time myself.

2 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Readers and/or Scholars

  1. Musings from the Marches December 31, 2018 / 7:11 am

    I am enjoying your blog immensely and wanted to say thank you. It’s very inspiring and heartwarming to have intelligent criticism of both old and new novels.
    This post, in particular, strikes home with me. As a professor in a community college now, I agree with your statement: “I do not approach my classes as steps towards making students into scholars, as part of a program designed to train them to do academic things. Instead, I aim to engage and train them as readers–attentive, well-informed, rigorous readers…”
    I have always been an advocate for close reading as a way to fall in love with literature…similar to your drawing adventure, we don’t appreciate anything unless we see it properly. However, I have a confession. Many of my students have a short attention span, and I fear my own is shortening too. What are some of the ways in which you guide student readers? Indeed, how do you approach/read a new novel?

    • Rohan Maitzen December 31, 2018 / 7:03 pm

      Thank you for your comment – and your encouragement!

      Your question about attention spans is one I ponder myself a lot too. Probably naively, I tend to approach my students as if they are (or at least can be, if they put their minds to it) dedicated, attentive readers. A lot of them are, or they wouldn’t be in English courses! But I try to give them useful advice and support too, especially for courses on the 19th-century novel, where obviously long books are unavoidable. I explain to them that reading long books is a skill, not some kind of innate talent or magical gift, and there are strategies that might help them.

      A key thing I do as a teacher is to divide our readings into specific installments for each class. That way instead of feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of reading, say, David Copperfield‘s 900 pages, they can focus on reading the first 100 pages, then the next 100, and so on. That’s still a lot for some of them, so I advise them to approach it deliberately: shut off phones and computers for an hour if possible and see if that doesn’t help them find the rhythm of the book — which then will be easier to dip back into.

      I also have a strict ‘no spoilers’ policy in class discussion, not to be cute but because I think wondering what happens next is often an incentive to keep reading for those who haven’t yet honed a critical reading habit. This does create some pedagogical challenges for me, because I can’t explicitly talk about anything except what we’ve read to that day — but I can do a lot of foreshadowing for them of patterns and trends to come (e.g. “watch out for more characters who do this kind of thing and think about what happens differently for them” or “a central theme in the novel is housekeeping [Bleak House!] so keep your eyes out for more examples of it”).

      That kind of advance planning is my other main strategy. I think it is harder to focus on a long book if you are just trying to get from one page to the next and don’t have much idea what in particular to pay attention to, so I provide study questions or give framing lectures that say “here’s the kind of thing we’re going to be interested in for this book” so that from the start they can be both reading and thinking.

      Otherwise, all I’ve got going for me is that the books are great and I radiate enthusiasm (most of the time) which I hope is contagious, or at least perplexing enough to make them wonder what the fuss is about. If all of this is not enough to keep at least most of them engaged, I’m tapped!

      I say this, and yet I do also know that I am competing for their attention with other courses and plenty of other obligations and distractions. I know (but try not to obsess about it) that for a lot of them, there are attractive short cuts to reading the actual book, from Wikipedia to Shmoop and Sparknotes. I’ve started explicitly talking about these resources in class and explaining what they will and won’t help with. Time spent googling the novel and surfing summaries is much better spent hunkering down and actually reading it! How can they know, too, if what they read about the book is reliable and smart if they don’t have their own reading as a measure?

      My own strategies for reading vary. A lot of the time when I’m just reading for my own interest I simply start reading and see how it goes. If I’m venturing way outside my usual territory, I might look at a few essays or background pieces as context, but I like to see how far I can get. Sometimes it backfires: I have certainly finished books (classic and contemporary) and concluded that I simply wasn’t able to read it well. Then the question is whether I care enough, or have motive enough, to try again and do better. When I’m reading purposefully (books for work or review), I tend to have a better idea what I’m dealing with anyway, but especially for reviewing I really do try to avoid knowing too much about what’s already been said. If I’m having trouble paying attention, I do just as I advise my students: turn off the gadgets, turn away from the internet, get comfortable, and just read. It almost always works.

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