Given the cyclical nature of the academic life as well as the recurrence of texts and topics in the classes I teach most often, there are lots of things I might be saying “Not again!” about! This week, however, the particularly irksome repetition is the disruption to the start of term thanks to a big storm–not a hurricane, like the fall term, but a snow storm. Once again, classes had barely begun (in both of mine, we missed our second scheduled meeting) which means not just that I’ve had to scramble to reorganize their schedules, but that we haven’t had a chance yet to establish a rapport and a routine.
I always feel very exposed during the first few class meetings: it’s hard not to be conscious that a lot of students are judging you in a hurry as they decide whether yours is a class they want to stay in. It is impossible to know, of course, quite what they see when they look at me, or, for that matter, what they want or expect to see and how or why, as a result, I might or might not be it. My goal is to be as clear and positive as possible about my vision for the course and also as authentic as possible: after all this time, I am who I am, and I am the teacher I am, too. I know I can’t be all things to all people! Still, although I am in my third decade of teaching at Dalhousie, I always get nervous; as the wise narrator says in Middlemarch, “behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.” Every class that goes by eases my anxiety a little, which is why a disruption so early in the term is so unwelcome.
So what, besides calming my nerves (and perhaps theirs as well), is on the agenda for our remaining classes this week? Well, in British Literature After 1800 Friday will be our (deferred) Wordsworth day. In my opening lecture on Monday I emphasized the arbitrariness of literary periods and the challenges of telling coherent stories based on chronology, the way a survey course is set up to do. But I also stressed the value of knowing when things were written, both because putting them in order is useful for understanding the way literary conversations and influences unfold, with writers often responding or reacting to or resisting each other, and because historical contexts can be crucial to recognizing meaning. My illustrative text for this point was Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” which (as I told them) is the first poem I ever memorized, as a child. It was perfectly intelligible to me then, and it is still a charming and accessible poem to readers who know nothing at all about what we now call ‘Romanticism.’ Without historical context, it seems anything but radical–and yet Wordsworth in his day (at least, in his early days) was considered literally revolutionary. His poetry “is one of the innovations of the time,” William Hazlitt wrote in “The Spirit of the Age”;
It partakes of, and is carried along with, the revolutionary movement of our age: the political changes of the day were the model on which he formed and conducted his poetical experiments.
In Friday’s class we’ll talk about all of this in more detail, with the Preface to Lyrical Ballads to fill in Wordsworth’s own point of view and “Tintern Abbey” as our richer representative sample.
In 19th-Century Fiction it’s time for Pride and Prejudice, though I’ll start with an abbreviated version of the lecture I would have given on Wednesday on the history of the 19th-century novel. It has been several years since I’ve taught Pride and Prejudice (see here for why) but rereading it this week I have been enjoying it as much as always. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I wanted to teach it in some different way, and with that in mind I’ve been reading a range of sources on, for instance, Jane Austen and empire or Jane Austen and “the abolitionist turn” (which is the title of a very interesting essay by Patricia Matthew). I also listened to this fascinating and, I think, really useful discussion on the podcast Bonnets At Dawn (including an interview with Dr. Matthew) about Mansfield Park in particular but also, more generally, about questions of race and empire in the Austen classroom.
There’s no doubt that if I were teaching Mansfield Park these questions would be a big part of our discussion, as they are when I teach The Moonstone. I haven’t so far arrived at any ideas about how — or, to some extent, why — we would take up this specific line of inquiry in our work on Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps I am too prone to let the novels I assign set their own terms for our analysis–to rely on their overt topical engagements more than what they leave out or obscure–but this particular novel doesn’t seem to be about race and empire, even though its characters live in a world where these things (while never, I think, explicitly mentioned) matter a lot. Beyond acknowledging that fact, which in itself is worth doing, I’m not sure where to go with it. It is disturbing, though, to know that the alt-right enjoys (their version of) her novels; I think the author of that linked essay is correct that the novels actually do not fit the narrative they are being coopted to serve, but one thing we might consider as we work through the novel is what makes it vulnerable to that particular kind of (mis)reading and political appropriation.
I found Patricia Matthew’s essay thoughtful and interesting, where she doesn’t give herself an easy pass. I especially liked her cautionary words here:
“In my fifteen years as a university professor, I’ve aimed for an important balance between asking my students to think somewhat radically while making clear that I’m not trying to recruit them to endorse a specific political agenda. While I believe that reading literature can change students’ lives, that they can feel empowered and develop the empathy I want in the world, I don’t think it’s my job to teach them that. In the first place, I think it treats students like blank slates on which we ascribe our preferences. I also worry that it will lead to performative analysis. Students already feel pressure to write the way their professors like.”
Yes, I thought those were really important and actually very helpful comments, because it can be hard sometimes to figure out how to balance the commitments we bring to class with what exactly our pedagogical obligations should be.
I think, too, that her essay does a good job of talking about a complicated relationship rather than an either/or one: sometimes it seems as if there’s an expectation that books be all good or all bad, or that our reactions be absolutely for or against them, but she talks really well about the things she loves about Austen alongside the things that she finds problematic. Students need (in my experience) to learn that love and critique can coexist.