This Week In My Classes: Regrouping

Waterhouse (Lady)We have had more storms since the last time I posted but happily no more storm days, so we are still on schedule … for now! (In fact, things are looking pretty nice–by January standards–for the rest of the week, especially considering that we’ve been having some days with wind chills in the -20 range.)

In 19th-Century Fiction, it did seem a bit rushed at the beginning of our classes on Austen because of the hour we’d lost, but by our last discussion of Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to me that we had done a good job with the novel. You never address every detail in class, of course: the goal has to be to develop a kind of interpretive map, with central cruxes and questions suggesting possible directions through the text. That way students can consider examples we didn’t explicitly talk about as parts of the patterns we’ve been considering and think for themselves about how they fit–or don’t!

new-austenI really did enjoy rereading the novel this time, especially the reliably hilarious as well as deliciously subversive final encounter between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine. One thing we spent a fair amount of time on in class is the way Austen manipulates us into liking or disliking characters, only, much of the time, to undercut or at least complicate our “first impressions” so that we realize we are vulnerable to the same interpretive mistakes as the characters. In this respect I think even Mr Collins gets a bit of a reprieve from our initial distaste. Not only is his offer to Lizzie actually quite honorable, despite also being laughable, considering he has no obligation to make up to the Bennet sisters for the future loss of their home, but at Hunsford we see that while he is still absurd, he treats Charlotte well and has made it possible for her to live a dignified life. I don’t think there’s any backtracking on Lady Catherine, though: she remains an antagonist to that bitterly delightful end:

“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”

In her absolute consistency I think she shows both Austen’s brilliance and her limitations. Austen manages to keep Lady Catherine entertaining and provocative without ever making her three dimensional, but if you compare her characterization to, say, Mr. Bulstrode’s in Middlemarch, you realize how much more interesting it actually is to have your worst character be someone so fully developed that your judgment has to sit in awkward company with your understanding. The moral tests are much easier to pass in Pride and Prejudice.

beardsleyIn British Literature After 1800 we are still reading poetry and I am still struggling with “how to balance attention to context and content with attention to form,” as I put it in my last post. After a somewhat sputtering discussion on Friday–which was largely my fault, as I did way too much lecturing, partly as a wrongheaded reaction to my anxiety about how class discussions had been going!–I spent a lot of time on the weekend reading blog posts and articles about improving student discussions (such as this one) and decide that my best strategy given all the variables at play (class size and composition, the nature of the readings, the already established set of course requirements, etc.) was to provide more prompts to guide them during their reading outside of class. The result of this was that I spent several hours preparing study questions for each of this week’s little clusters of poems, starting with our “Victorian medievalism” cluster (Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Epic,” and “Morte d’Arthur”) on Monday. My hope was that the questions would bring them to the room better prepared to try out answers to my leading questions in class, rather than my simply hoping they would be able to generate ideas on the spot.

Lady (Waterhouse)This is hardly a radical strategy, including for me. I do often (and did this term) provide study questions for the novels in my 19th-Century Fiction classes, for example, to help students organize their observations as they read the long books–to know what, of all the many details flooding past them, to really pay attention to. But I also find it pretty easy to ask questions in 19th-Century Fiction that will get at least some answers, and usually lots of them, because we always have plot and character as starting points, from which we can level up to questions about form and theme. Maybe because I don’t teach poetry often, I underestimated the difference it makes to be working on, not just poetry, but poetry much of which is in a somewhat archaic diction. My impression (though I may be mistaken) is that many of the students are struggling with the literal meaning of the poems–their basic paraphraseable content. Perhaps, too, the variety in our reading list that keeps things interesting for me (and is to some extent necessitated by the survey format) is making things harder for them because each poet is so different and thus makes different demands on our attention as readers. With that in mind, in the study questions I came up with I tried to make the assigned poems more legible for them, combining questions about theme with prompts to consider form, and making some connections across the poems.

Arnold

So far, however, even with these questions provided to them in advance, I feel like I am struggling to find the right questions to raise in class that will launch a good conversation–the poetry equivalent of leading off a fiction class with “OK, so which characters do you like or dislike so far and why?” (which is a sure-fire way to get people talking, and almost equally sure to lead after a while to much more subtle and important questions). There are some people talking, which is great, and actually today, in our class on “Victorian Poetry of Faith and Doubt,” there was good participation about the general issue of what religion means to or provides for people in their everyday lives, and thus what people might feel they have lost or want to fight for when their faith is challenged. When it came time to see what our poets were saying or doing about that, though, it got much quieter again. I am not used to “Dover Beach” sparking so little (evident) interest! Well, all I can really do is keep trying different things–and hope that they are just quiet, not bored, confused, or (worst of all!) not actually doing the reading. If nobody can make the case for the Duchess’s innocence in Friday’s class on Browning, that will be a bad sign.

One of the poems we read for today is Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” which (atheist though I am) I always find extraordinarily beautiful and moving. I really liked the slide I made for it, so for no better reasons than that, here it is!

English 2002 Faith and Doubt (Winter 2020)

4 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Regrouping

  1. Irene January 23, 2020 / 8:44 am

    A really interesting post. I found it, and the links, helpful as I prepare to teach a new class. I’m curious: What study questions did you give them for the Hopkins poem?

    • Rohan Maitzen January 23, 2020 / 8:58 am

      Thanks, Irene. Sometimes I worry that I overthink things and maybe actually everything’s fine!

      The study questions for Wednesday covered all the poems, so only one of them was specifically about Hopkins. For all the readings, I asked them to think about how the poem is responding to the general context of challenges to religious faith, or how what it seemed to be saying about God, nature, and our place in the world (Godless or not). We have read some Wordsworth and some Shelley, so there are some striking contrasts in how the later poets talk about nature in particular. I challenged them to try scanning “God’s Grandeur” and to think about how its poetic effects “contribute to our understanding or experience of Hopkins’s religious outlook.”

  2. Liz Mc2 January 23, 2020 / 1:46 pm

    I think we are often our own worst critics when it comes to things like this! It’s probably better than you think.

    I know I struggle with effective class discussions, and with trying to steer and control them too much towards a particular outcome I have in mind. I’m sure I’m not suggesting anything you haven’t already tried, but I wonder if it would help to make small groups responsible as homework for addressing one of the questions, topics, or poems. Then they could briefly discuss their toughts together before sharing with the class. It can make for a more fragmented discussion but it gets more people participating (you can let people “sign up” for the question or poem they want to do, as well). This means that even if mostly a few people are discussing in front of the whole class, more are probably sharing ideas in the small groups,.

    Another thing that might work really well in this class is adapting an idea from James Lang’s book Small Teaching: he’d put a list of texts and themes from the semester on the board, have a student circle one theme and two texts, and then ask them (individually) to generate a thesis claim about what was circled. Discuss, then do another pair/set of texts and themes. (He did this for end of term paper ideas, but it seems like it would work for a day’s discussion equally well—it could just be an “idea” about the connection rather than a thesis, which is a scary term that can stifle speculation and generating ideas). I like this idea because I think sometimes reading *questions* (which I nevertheless use!) can seem to students like we are looking for the “right answer” (which I can be guilty of!) but these connections are more open-ended. (Lang’s book is full of good ideas that I always mean to make more use of, until I fall back into old habits).

    • Rohan Maitzen January 23, 2020 / 2:32 pm

      I did break them up into groups to talk over their answers to specific questions at the start of class on Monday; I didn’t assign them specific ones to prepare, though (for one reason, I didn’t want them to not think about the other ones) — but that’s an idea I might try next week depending on how tomorrow goes.

      I really like that idea about texts and themes, especially when we’ve got a cluster of related readings to play with. It would also be good for end of term review!

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