This Week In My Classes: In Which I Admit to Missing the Classics

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsWe are well into the term now, and overall I think it’s going fine. I do not like teaching Pulp Fiction at 120 students, which maybe doesn’t sound like that big a change from 90 but certainly feels like one to me. I miss being able to see their faces–and having at least a fighting chance of learning their names! I know that I have colleagues who have taught intro classes at even larger sizes, and also that I have colleagues who are comfortable, pedagogically, with teaching writing at this scale. Maybe they know something I don’t about how to make it work, but for me, the increasingly sharp division of class time into formal lecture time–you can do some Q&A, but not a wide-ranging, inclusive discussion in a tiered lecture hall–and tutorial time (where the 30:1 ratio is still far from ideal for either discussion or hands-on writing and editing work) is really unsatisfying. I don’t think it serves us or them particularly well.

The-Big-SleepThe odds that we’ll ever be able to get back to smaller first-year classes seem slim, however, so I’ll just keep trying to make the best of it. Right now I’m considering giving up on some things I think are pedagogically valuable (like frequent low-stakes work) because logistically it’s just getting to be too much–but it’s too late to do that for this year! In the meantime, we are nearing the end of our unit on Westerns; next week we start on mysteries, with The Big Sleep taking the place of The Maltese Falcon this time around. As you might recall, I had big plans for bigger changes but they fell through: first True Grit turned out to be unavailable and then I lost my nerve about assigning Laura. I’m not entirely sorry, because I have a number of new books on the syllabus for Women & Detective Fiction so it’s relief to have existing materials to rely on here.

In Women & Detective Fiction we are almost done with Gaudy Night, which overall they seem to be finding a bit much. I don’t think of it as a particularly long book: in my 19th-century fiction courses it would be only an average-sized one! I’ve been wondering if the difficulty some students have run into getting through it (or getting into it) comes from their having different expectations for crime novels. Also, our first readings were very simple and quick–Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew–so they may just have underestimated how much time they needed to allocate to reading for this class. The students have mostly been putting in a good effort, though, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. My class notes are basically prompts: chess set, dog collar, fascism, misogyny, academic integrity, sonnet, balance, counterpoint, Bach, Placetne, Magistra? Placet.

hughes2Next up is In a Lonely Place, which means for a while both my classes will be steeped in noir. Though I think both books I’ll be working on are great examples of their kind, it is not my own favorite kind of crime fiction, and it’s likely that this juxtaposition will exacerbate another lurking dissatisfaction of mine this term, which is with the amount of teaching time I’ve been spending on genre fiction. I hope it’s obvious that I am not a snob about genre fiction! I read and enjoy a lot of it; I was the one who introduced our detective fiction class well over a decade ago and I have taught it with great enthusiasm probably a dozen times; a few years ago I volunteered to do Pulp Fiction instead of one of our more standard intro to lit options; I regularly include sensation fiction in my Victorian fiction classes and offer a course exclusively on it; etc. This term, however, I have found myself unexpectedly weary of spending so much of my class time on books that (frankly) wear a bit thin over time because they aren’t, many of them, quite the kind of book that the English literature classroom–or at least my English literature classroom–was designed to showcase.

ackroydDo I really think that? Can I even say that? What exactly am I saying? I’m certainly not saying we can’t or shouldn’t teach genre fiction, or that doing so doesn’t involve doing rewarding or meaningful analysis. That we even have the concept of ‘horizontal reading,’ though, does suggest that genre fiction isn’t always best approached with the aim of deep or close reading, doesn’t it? Agatha Christie, to give just one example, is brilliant at many things (and I have gotten pretty good at making the case for them), but it’s not much fun lingering over the details of her prose; not much will come–not much of interpretive interest, anyway–from mining them for the kind of nuances we appreciate when we read, say, “Araby.” Sometimes in the detective fiction class I point out that (though of course there are exceptions) a lot of details we might read as symbolic in another kind of fiction are better read more literally in crime fiction: does it make any sense to read the dagger in Roger Ackroyd’s neck as anything other than a convenient sharp object suitable for murder? There is a similarly literal impulse in a lot of detective fiction: no matter how complex the social, political, or psychological elements, it is rare for the language in particular to be of great  interest.

greatexpectationsI think what I’m saying is that I love my 19th-century fiction classes, which I still teach regularly, but I have also, over the years, loved teaching other more conventionally “literary” material and I’m starting to miss the greater variety I used to enjoy, especially the chance to teach more poetry and more (literary) fiction from other periods. That’s one reason I’m excited to be doing the British literature survey next term. I’ve also asked that, if possible, my next first-year course assignment be something besides Pulp Fiction. When I first designed my version of the course I imagined that students would get caught up in the contrarian spirit of reading genre fiction instead of the classics, but as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, they mostly don’t care: with rare exceptions, they’ve never thought about the difference before and what they really want is just to get their writing requirement as easily as possible. My advocacy for dismantling the canon is wasted on them: I’m standing there at the lectern basically having an argument with myself! And somehow right now I feel as if I’m losing it.

6 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: In Which I Admit to Missing the Classics

  1. Jeanne October 3, 2019 / 7:43 pm

    One of the things I do occasionally in a literature class is talk to them about re-reading, which is part of what I think we mean by “deep” reading. When they’re assigned a literary classic, it’s often their first read-through but it can be the tenth, twentieth, possibly even the hundredth reading for the professor.

    • Rohan Maitzen October 4, 2019 / 7:08 am

      Re-reading: yes, that’s a good way to approach it. I have tried, with my genre fiction courses, to assign books that do reward rereading, but over time the main reward of that for me is familiarity: there’s not much excitement by the 10th time through. That said, knowing it is new to them and coaching them through that first encounter can often revive my own enthusiasm. Rereading “The Dead,” though, is something I will happily just keep doing an indefinite number of times.

  2. banff1972 October 3, 2019 / 9:52 pm

    Such a resonant post! I can’t imagine teaching 90 students, let alone 120. But I sympathize totally with the battle between what would be best pedagogically and what would be best for one’s sanity.

    I also hear what you’re saying about the diminishing returns of certain kinds of literature, at least for the way I teach it. I don’t know how to teach horizontal reading; gotta go depth all the way. I love genre fiction, but I don’t necessarily want to teach it.

    • Rohan Maitzen October 4, 2019 / 7:15 am

      My approach to horizontal reading, because of course they can only read one example of a genre (in pulp fiction) or a handful in the survey class, is to give them a synopsis of “big themes and tropes in the genre” in lecture form as a short-cut to generalizations, and then we do try to go as deep as we can on individual examples. That just doesn’t usually mean close reading for language / style though, the way I certainly expect to do with other material.

  3. Jo VanEvery, PhD (@JoVanEvery) October 4, 2019 / 3:23 am

    so much in this post. First, as someone who enjoys teaching large classes, I would say I do not give a fig about learning all their names. I used to say “There are so many of you and only one of me. I will probably not remember your name but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. If you come to office hours please remind me of your name and which class you are in and we’ll carry on from there.” When I did recognise them and remember their names they were often surprised and pleased.

    I wonder if thinking about the PURPOSE of low stakes writing assignments would help. Does it help them pedagogically to DO them even if you don’t mark/comment on them? Does it enable certain kinds of discussions. Can you develop a sort of rubric for comments that would enable peer feedback in class? You may have already thought of those things. And I fully support dropping them if the burden on you with this many in the class is too high.

    As someone who is not a literary scholar and was always a bit baffled by literature classes, your point about classics and genre fiction is very interesting to me. I wonder if the value of Pulp Fiction as a 1st year class is precisely that it provides an introduction to SOME of the literary analysis without having to get into the stuff about language itself, which a lot of people do struggle with. For those only taking a Lit class for a writing requirement, you are not going to get to the bigger questions about challenging canons etc. However, in the context of the entire degree programme, it seems that starting with this kind of literature enables more students to feel confident about literary analysis and they can then BUILD on that in later courses with symbolism and close attention to language. Once they’ve done Pulp Fiction AND something more literary, they will be in a better position to engage with those bigger questions about canon, what is “Literary” etc etc.

    I say all that accepting that for YOU, there is something important about having that balance in your teaching regularly. I have long been a fan of the 3 year rotation for core courses. 3 years gives you enough time to amortise the effort in the first year and really develop the course. Rotation means that most people in a department get to teach what they’ve all decided is core to the program. Introductory courses fit into that in my mind. It is worthwhile for all faculty to engage with the specific issue of the basics of their discipline and how one introduces that to newcomers.

    • Rohan Maitzen October 4, 2019 / 7:11 am

      I absolutely believe the low-stakes work is valuable whether or not I mark it. But I also know from experience that if it isn’t “worth” anything concrete, many of them won’t do it. I understand that this is generally a practical choice, from their point of view (even if overall it might backfire) because they are busy and so give priority to things they know have immediate consequences if they don’t do them.

      You might be right about the benefits of starting with more transparent readings. Most of these first-year students won’t come back for more English courses, so another thing I think about sometimes is whether I’m teaching them about what I really think is the very *best* of my discipline–the standard for best here being, of course, what I personally value most about it! 🙂

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