We are well into Pride and Prejudice in 19th-Century Fiction this week and I have to say that while my reservations about teaching a novel that is so intractably popular remain (and I have seen some of the same symptoms of dealing with a ‘fan favorite’ in class discussions as in the past), overall I think it’s going well. I am certainly enjoying the novel, and the energy in the classroom seems very good: participation is robust for so early in the course, which may of course be a side-effect of that same level of pre-existing comfort that sometimes makes the novel hard for students to approach critically.
I am continuing the effort I’ve been focused on in recent years to wean myself from my lecture notes, and that too is helped by my own familiarity with the novel and the questions I want us to gnaw on collectively. Looking at the fairly detailed notes I have used before, I see that the price (if that’s the right word) of loosening my grip is giving up the more careful “laying out of interpretations” that I used to do, which I always thought of as usefully modeling the construction of literary arguments and the use of literary evidence. Our more free-wheeling discussions–though never, I hope, simply unfocused or scattered–do not necessarily “add up” in the same elegant way that is possible if I’m really controlling the pace and flow of information. The benefit, however, is having the students generate more of the material and then see (as I do my best to organize and shape it on the fly) that they know how to proceed towards those kinds of conclusions themselves. The other thing I’m trying to remember to do is explain the process of our class time in a way that connects it to the process for their assignments–this is something that I realized some years ago that I was taking for granted but needed to make explicit. A key point about process I make over and over is that students often try (as I see it) to skip steps when they begin work on an essay assignment: often when they come to see me I realize that having chosen their topic, they think their next step is to come up with a thesis statement and then work back through the novel to figure out how to support it. As I point out, that’s backwards: a good thesis is much more likely to emerge from their rereading, thinking about, and doing some open-ended writing about the novel with their topic in mind. Their method accounts for why we so often see the best version of an argument in the conclusion, rather than the introduction, of student papers–because that’s the point at which they have actually worked through their ideas and examples closely enough to realize what they want to say.
A minor point of concern about how the popularity of Pride and Prejudice might affect the rest of the course is that in a show of hands yesterday it looked like nearly half of the students have decided to write their first essay on it (they get to choose among our first four novels for this assignment). That might be as much about wanting to get the essay done early, before they are busier with their other courses. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a much larger proportion of the class than usually does any one novel, never mind the first one of the term. I really hope it doesn’t mean they will be less engaged with our next books, especially Waverley. They will have to write short tests on all of them, which is one of the coercive elements I build into the course requirements in the interests of sustaining everyone’s attention. Of course, I always hope that our books and conversations will keep everyone’s attention because the novels are great and the discussions are interesting! But I’m not naive enough to think those intrinsic qualities will be enough to coax everyone along.
In British Literature After 1800 we are skipping briskly through our small sample of Romantic poets. The rapid pace is at once the blessing and the curse of a survey course with a mandate to span more than 200 years of writing in multiple genres: we don’t spend long enough in any one place to go into a great deal of depth, which means we also don’t spend long enough on any one topic to get tired of it. I enjoy the variety myself, including the chance to talk about genres and examples that don’t come up in the courses I teach more often–such as Romantic poetry! In fact, because the introductory courses I’ve taught for the last several years have been either Introduction to Prose and Fiction or Pulp Fiction, I’ve spend hardly any time on poetry at all except for Close Reading, and the last time I taught that was Fall 2017. So I’m having fun, but also feeling a bit wobbly about how to balance attention to context and content with attention to form.
This problem wasn’t helped by last week’s snow storm, which cost us a class meeting. Because I didn’t want to cut back time on specific poets any more than the survey format already requires, I decided to sacrifice the class I’d set aside to talk about poetic form, including scansion. I’ve been trying to make up for this by integrating discussion of poetic form into our other classes, which of course I was going to do anyway but not starting from scratch. The students have a varying degree of experience with things like scansion: some of them are clearly at home with it, and with talking about poetic devices and forms, while others have looked bemused, frustrated, or completely blank when asked to think or talk about these aspects of our readings. Well, all we can do is keep moving along: I hope that with repetition and coaching from me and practice from them, we will all get more comfortable. For yesterday’s class I decided to do more of the talking myself than I had on Monday because on Monday it seemed to me a lot of them were still very uncertain about what it meant to discuss the relationship between form and meaning in poetry: it’s a bit harder (in my experience, anyway) to teach this through open-ended discussion with poetry than with fiction, where you always have the option of starting with “easy” things like plot and character as a way of opening up thematic and structural issues. I also point out that those of them who feel completely at sea need to put in some time: our readings so far have been quite short, which may be deceptive in terms of the amount of work it requires to read them well.
We’ve read some Wordsworth, some Shelley, and some Keats so far. Tomorrow we’re doing a small cluster of poems by Felicia Hemans and EBB on women and poetry, and then next week we’re on to the Victorians–some Tennyson, some Browning, and a cluster on faith and doubt including some Arnold and Hopkins and some excerpts from In Memoriam. Fun! I hope they think so too.
Fun! I also wrestle with all the pedagogical questions you raise here. My sense with poetry, on the rare occasions when I teach it, is that many of them have had frustrating experiences with it in their education—their feeling about it often seems to be that teachers are playing a gotcha game and poets are needlessly opaque. So venturing any opinions, especially about something like form where you feel ignorant, is inviting the teacher to tell you you’re wrong and the actual secret meaning is obviously X. (I’ve asked students about this directly when teaching children’s lit, because I point out that kids generally love rhymes/verse and it’s among the earliest ways we interact with and read to them, but somewhere along the way most of them end up hating and fearing poetry. And they agreed that school—including being asked to write “poetry”—is often the culprit.)
It’s interesting how we make decisions based on what we expect students to like/know/want/need, yet they constantly surprise us. I’ve steadfastly taught Mansfield Park precisely because of its relative unpopularity (and because I really like it!) Lately, though, I’ve been finding that relatively few of my students are Austen fans at all, so I’ve been thinking maybe I should change to a more popular novel. I was wondering if there was a bit of a generational shift away from Austen going on, but perhaps that’s not the case. I look forward to hearing how you get on with Waverley (which, as I think I’ve mentioned before, has never gone very well for me.)
I still seem to have a solid core of Austen lovers in this class. Its official title, though, is the 19thC novel from Austen to Dickens, so some of that might be that they self-select into it! As I think you know, Waverley went fairly badly for me the last time but I am an eternal optimist about it…we’ll see.
You are teaching some of my favorite poets: Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, and Browning. I learned them young from great English teachers, and that was when memorization was a thing, so I have bits and pieces of poetry still memorized.
Knowing a book very well, more from pop culture than the actual text, must be challenging to teach since you’re probably constantly having to correct misconceptions.
I am wondering why Waverley didn’t go well last time.
I wrote quite a bit about that when I taught it in 2013 – if you are really curious, check the index of teaching posts and you’ll find my reports. Mostly, they found it very difficult to understand.
I checked out a couple of your posts. I wonder if it is a generational thing. I read this novel when I was younger than them and it didn’t feel like such an endeavor. Then again, 19thC novels were a staple in my school, college, and pleasure reading, in addition to the usual kid fare. There were no YA novels as such, so I bounced between adult and what-would-now-be mid-grade books, as a result I was used to that thinking style. As a college student, was your experience comparable?