2019 began with a lot of thinking about teaching, because I was on sabbatical for the first half of the year and that meant the great luxury of time away from teaching itself. Sometimes in the past the result has been a whole new class. This time it was about ways to refresh the reading lists for classes I teach in regular rotation: 19th-Century Fiction, Women & Detective Fiction, and British Literature Since 1800, with some thought given also to mixing things up in Pulp Fiction.
In the end I did not make a lot of changes, though it wasn’t for want of ideas. More often than seems reasonable books I thought would work really well turned out to be unavailable–Andrea Levy’s Small Island, for instance, for the Brit Lit survey, or Vera Caspary’s Laura. None of the Victorian novels I (re)read inspired me to replace tried and true favorites on my syllabus, though I may reconsider Wuthering Heights for next year’s iteration of the Dickens-to-Hardy class. I’m not sorry I read Kim or Dombey and Son, and in fact thinking about Kim did encourage me to include a Kipling story in the Brit Lit survey (“The Man Who Would Be King”) as part of an effort to address questions of empire and colonialism more directly than my reading list had in the past.
I finally settled on Great Expectations and The Remains of the Day for the representative Victorian and 20th-century novels in the survey course, partly because I love them both and feel confident about teaching them and partly because along with Three Guineas (which will be a new teaching text for me), I could imagine a range of thematic continuities within this set of readings that would work well for final essay assignments–ideas of class and social mobility; social insiders and outsiders, deference, domination, and political power; the relationship between money, privilege, and moral freedom; art and language as vehicles for advocacy or subversion; social order, resistance, and fascism. We’ll see how it goes!
Women & Detective Fiction had the most new titles: In A Lonely Place, Blanche on the Lam, and The Break. I thought they were all good additions: they brought both different styles and different voices into our readings and discussions, they raised pressing questions about women and crime, about the sometimes problematic intersections of gender, race, and class in women’s crime fiction, and along with our other readings they helped us generate a lot of ideas about the relationship between criminal justice (or legal forms of justice) and social justice.
One of the questions I struggled with as I finalized my book order was whether The Break was properly addressed as ‘crime fiction’. We ended up discussing this issue a few times in class. We came back every time to ways in which, while the novel is not structured like a conventional whodunit, its structure can be read (especially in the context of our other novels) as a deliberate subversion of those expectations: the novel operates both as an implicit critique of the detective form (with its tendency to identify single crimes, specific suspects, and clearly demarcated criminals) as reductive, and as a model of a different way to think about wrongdoing that is part of a complicated history and pattern of historical and social problems not really amenable to being “solved.” While many of our novelists directed our attention to social or political problems beyond the scope of the crimes at their centers, Neely and Vermette both made those problems much more than context. Both Blanche on the Lam and The Break also notably resist feel-good resolutions: one thing the class especially liked about Blanche herself is that she is not interested in playing out anyone’s fantasy of restoration or reconciliation, and though the ending of The Break is more uplifting in tone than Neely’s conclusion, it too is about healing and persistence within the family, on their own terms, not using them and their ongoing trauma as a device for reconciliation.
I thought Women & Detective Fiction went well. I feel less satisfied about Pulp Fiction, mostly because I found the change from 90 (which already felt too big) to 120 students pushed the class past a tipping point for the kind of pedagogy I want to and tried to practice. Part of the problem was just logistical: much as I believe in the value of doing lots of small-stakes exercises to maintain engagement and give frequent opportunities for writing and feedback, I don’t think I can continue with some of my habitual versions of this (such as regular reading journals). The thing about scaling up class sizes is that while the regulations for Writing Requirement classes mean that we have TAs for every 30 students, in practice this only means that we hold steady in terms of the number of finished essays we mark. Everything else remains the responsibility of the professor, from recording attendance and marking exams to handling accommodations and plagiarism cases. As a result there’s no question that larger classes (despite superficially maintaining that 30:1 ratio) are more work for the instructor. (Also, despite my best efforts to address the issue in more effective ways, subbing in The Big Sleep for The Maltese Falcon, while a nice change for me, did not dramatically decrease the rate of plagiarism for those assignments–I guess there’s something about noir that subverts morality!)
The worst part of the increase in class size for me is that I don’t like teaching (especially teaching first-year students) in a large lecture hall. This is not just about my personal comfort–in fact, I am reasonably confident when giving formal lectures, which have the advantage, from a purely self-interested perspective, of ruling out the unexpected! But my preferred teaching style is interactive, because the back and forth between us reflects the way I think we actually learn to do (and improve) the kind of analysis central to literary studies (through coduction). I continued to incorporate discussion into our class meetings, but inevitably only a fraction of such a large class participates–and to my frustration and sometimes visible annoyance, many of their classmates clearly tuned out or, worse, started packing up, when these engaged students were talking. Because there’s no hope that class sizes will go down any time soon, I’m going to have to give more thought to overcoming these challenges so that next year’s intro class goes better.
It’s not that Pulp Fiction went badly overall: enough students showed interest in and satisfaction with the course that I know I reached a lot of them, even if unfortunately I couldn’t see their faces very well from the front of the room. I just think I can do something better, though I’m not sure what or how. If you have ideas or strategies that work for you in (specifically writing) classes of around 100, I’d love to know. One good thing is that next year I am taking a break from Pulp Fiction and teaching “Literature: How It Works”–a more standard kind of introductory course that will relieve me of the sense that I am arguing with myself about the canon (and losing). I will probably approach this class more or less as I did “Introduction to Prose and Fiction” (which it sort of replaces in our curriculum)–only with some poetry too! Book orders for the fall will be due uncomfortably soon in the new year, so you can look forward (?) to ruminations about that before too much longer.
Overall, then, it was an okay term, made better by the time I’d put in during my sabbatical. Even if I didn’t end up making big changes to my reading lists, my choices were more deliberate because I’d considered alternatives. While there’s a risk of things getting stale if you repeat yourself, there’s something to be said for the confidence and pedagogical freedom that comes with really knowing your material–and it can backfire, too, if you change a lot all at once. I felt lucky to have just two courses: for various reasons including ongoing difficulty sleeping, I didn’t always feel as on top of things as I usually do, including sometimes getting a bit overwhelmed with the logistics and the paperwork (something else that is affected a lot by class size).
And now, on to next term. It is finally time to actually teach the Brit Lit survey and see how my decisions work out (including which readings to include in the nice custom reading Broadview Press put together for us); I’m especially looking forward to covering some poetry, which I rarely get to do. My other course this winter is 19th-Century Fiction from Austen to Dickens: this year’s books are Pride and Prejudice, Waverley (look at that handsome new edition!), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Mary Barton, and Hard Times. I’m actually eager to get started: both are small-ish classes (around 35) and I know there will be at least some familiar faces in both as well.