Brainstorming and Binge-Reading


Well, my idea to keep up some blogging momentum by going back to the model of a commonplace book for a while worked … for a while! But even that kind of posting requires a different kind of reading than I’ve been doing, it turns out, at least if there’s going to be any variety in the experience. And as you can see from this photo, my recent reading has been vast but also, in many respects narrow — certainly narrower than I expected when I proposed a project that required rereading all of the Dalgliesh novels. (The realization that James’s oeuvre is, paradoxically, both remarkably capacious and extremely limited is one of the things the essay will be about, most likely.)

Dunnett-New-CoverGood as she is, James turns out to be a poor choice for binge-reading, and yet a plan is a plan and a deadline is a deadline, so I have been persisting. The endeavor is not without its rewards: again, she’s good– very good, even! It’s just that she’s  always good in exactly the same way, sometimes even in the exact same words. I was trying to think of other authors who have stood up better to this kind of determined march through their works. I remember really enjoying myself when I read all of Trollope’s Palliser novels straight through many years ago, and I have always loved rereading the Lymond Chronicles start to finish–but stories accumulate in a different way in those than in most detective series. While we are interested in and generally grow attached to the investigators in a long-running series, if the novels become more about them than about detecting, we’ve probably shifted genres–though having said that, counter-examples immediately occur to me, including Elizabeth George and Tana French, and of course there’s Gaudy Night, which perfectly balances case and character. In James’s novels, in any case, the personal arcs of her recurring cast are always peripheral to the main action, and while that strikes me as a principled decision, formally, it also has constricting effects. By the end of The Lighthouse I was far more interested in Dalgliesh’s relationship with Emma Lavenham than in whodunit–and that too is something my essay will most likely take up.

A-Time-of-Giftshave been trying to read other things when I’ve had the energy, which hasn’t been often. I gave up on A Time of Gifts, though, which shames me somewhat to admit but there it is. There was a lot of fine writing but I couldn’t catch any momentum from it, and it turns out not to be as diverting as I’d hoped to read about someone else’s travels while unable to go anywhere myself. I’ve read a handful of romance novels–Christina Lauren’s The Unhoneymooners, Talia Hibbert’s Take a Hint, Dani Brown, and (most of) Jasmine Guillory’s Party of Two–just meh, all of them. I’m a hundred pages or so into Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian and it seems promising; once I finish The Private Patient, I want to settle in and really give it a chance. I’ve also just read Sarah Moss’s forthcoming Summerwater — but I have to save up what I think about that for the review I’ll be writing for the Dublin Review of Books.

conciseBILOtherwise, I’ve continued puttering away at ideas for my fall classes. I was feeling overwhelmed by attempting to shape my traditional MWF schedule for 19th-Century Fiction into modules (though it was a boost to remind myself, by doing that work, that the end result will eventually be talking about 19th-century novels again, which I miss!). So for the last few days I’ve gone back to working through ideas for a new grading scheme for my first-year class. I’ve moved away from ‘contract grading’ towards ‘specifications grading,’ and I’ve been trying to map out bundles of activities that would work well with the options we’ll have in the online environment. (If you are wondering what specifications grading is, here’s a general overview and here’s someone talking about how he has used it in his class.) As I do this I have also been trying to imagine modules for the first-year class, which is not driven by specific texts the way the 19th-century fiction class is. I usually organize it by genre and then use specific examples within each genre to highlight specific topics like point of view, figurative language, irony, etc. For the online version I think I’m going to start from those topics and pick the readings from different genres–but I really don’t know yet.

hardtimesOne thing that has started weighing on my  mind is that all this planning isn’t the same as actually creating content for the fall. I don’t have much more time, really, before I have to commit to a basic outline of elements for both classes and begin to script presentations, videos, writing prompts, and so forth. The whole specifications grading thing is going to require very careful explanations and instructions. But I remind myself: I’m not starting from scratch, even though the apparatus and presentation will be different. I have oodles of notes and materials, including slides, that can be adapted–and I don’t have to have everything ready to go at once. In some ways I can see that would be desirable, but on the other hand, it seems key, especially when this is all so new to me, that I be ready and able to change things up based on how things go with the first few modules. I hope students will recognize that for me too, this term will involve some trial and error!

And that’s where I am now, almost four months into this strange new locked down world–at least in the parts of my life that I write about here. I continue to take comfort and courage from the virtual communities that mean more to me now than ever, as we support and distract and teach and challenge and console each other as best we can.

14 thoughts on “Brainstorming and Binge-Reading

  1. Jeanne July 6, 2020 / 9:43 pm

    Thanks for the links about specifications grading. So many things to reconfigure for online teaching.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 7, 2020 / 10:34 am

      I’m a bit afraid that it’s too much else new to take on, but my hope is that in the end, if I set it up carefully enough, it will simplify things and reorient the students towards persistence and practice. If it goes well it should also reduce both the ease and the value of plagiarism.


  2. Café Society July 7, 2020 / 4:12 am

    I too am fascinated by the concept of specifications grading. I can definitely see how it would have worked with our first-year students and the assignments we set for them, I’m not so sure about final year work like dissertations.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 7, 2020 / 10:33 am

      No, it would not work for large-scale advanced projects like that – but in many ways it seems just write for an introductory writing class where the real goal is to get them to keep practicing (and hopefully attending to feedback) instead of churning out ‘final’ versions at the last minute!


  3. KeiraSoleore July 7, 2020 / 11:49 pm

    I read PD James much the same as you’re doing so: back-to-back. And as a result, I saw phrases, character ticks, scenery snippets, etc. crop up in some/many/all of her books. I have seen this happen with other mystery writers and romance novelists as well. I wonder if this is a byproduct of genre fiction restrictions. I also wonder if this happens more so in series, because multiple stories inhabit the same world and/or characters.


    • KeiraSoleore July 7, 2020 / 11:53 pm

      Forgot to include another comment…

      I am a romance reader at heart, and so, I am always looking for the romance(s) for the leads even in long-running detective series. I feel that PD James was unusually restrained where personal relationships were concerned, and I always looked for those details in all her stories. I feel that CS Harris seems to strike a good balance between the detecting and the personal. Deborah Crombie did a good job as well early on in her series.


    • Indira August 18, 2020 / 8:26 pm

      I think it happens a lot more is series, especially romantic stories developed around several members of the same family. Mary Balogh, for example.


  4. Rebecca H. July 8, 2020 / 11:35 am

    I have been using specifications grading for a little while now, and I love it, but it’s hard to get students to understand how it works. They tend to think they need to do everything and pass everything and only the savviest students understand how the system works from the beginning. With a lot of students, I end up saying around 3/4 of the way through, “well, you’ve already earned a B,” and they are pleasantly surprised. This is on me, of course, and something I’m figuring out how to communicate better. They do like the pass/fail system I use — they appreciate not getting actual grades for the most part and they like being able to revise work that doesn’t pass.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 8, 2020 / 12:46 pm

      Oh, I’m very interested to know this, and very glad to get the caution about its not being well understood. I have just started trying to draft some version of what I might do and I can already tell that finding a way to make the process intelligible will be key. I think the ‘must do’ elements will be spread across the term in such a way that they can’t earn any grade before the course is over: I’m working up a draft of ‘core’ elements everyone has to complete to specifications, for starters, because it’s one of our writing requirement courses and there are rules! But I still have a lot to think about. Opportunities to revise seems like one of the most important aspects of this, though I have to think about how to do that without making the overall workload infeasible for me and my TA (as we’ll be working with 30 students each).


      • Rebecca H. July 8, 2020 / 1:14 pm

        Yes, balancing work load/allowing revision is key and I’ve made some tweaks to lighten my load a bit. My classes are 20 or 24 students, not all of whom make it the whole semester, so I can be fairly generous with revision (my changes were specifically to make the grading right before the semester’s end a little lighter). My system is very much shaped by teaching at a community college where I have students who drop out along the way for various reasons, some entirely out of their control, and my set-up allows them to get a passing grade (not a great one but still) even if they don’t fully finish.


  5. Kate July 10, 2020 / 9:56 pm

    I think it was here on your blog that I first heard about Sarah Moss, and I’ve since read all her novels with great pleasure. Looking forward to reading both Summerwater and your review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rohan Maitzen July 11, 2020 / 5:46 pm

      Thanks, Kate! Yes, she’s a really reliable source of reading interest and pleasure, isn’t she? And at the same time her books really are quite different from each other–though this one may have clarified for me that she goes through phases, and this one pretty clearly belongs to the same phase as Ghost Wall.


  6. Indira August 18, 2020 / 8:22 pm

    I read several of James’ mysteries this past three months while sheltering at home. I made it a point to read the last four since I too became interested in the romance between Adam Dalgliesh and Emma Lavenham. It seemed an odd pairing and I wonder why James made Emma so much younger than Adam. I look forward to reading your article on a James’s oeuvre. I very much enjoyed your analysis of Dick Francis’s novels.


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