I am still finding it challenging to think in what were once my usual ways about what happens “in my classes” every week, because of the diffusion effect of asynchronicity. Another change from the Before Times is that it sometimes seems that teaching is now all about logistics, from setting up the Brightspace sites to … well, actually, the Brightspace sites are where it all begins and where it all ends!
It feels a bit less like that this year than it did in 2020-21, because one of my classes is a repeat, meaning a lot of the logistics were already in place and I just (just!) have to revise and update and improve it. Also, my other class, while a “new prep” as an online offering, leans heavily on the structures I developed for my most similar courses last year, so while it is definitely laborious putting them all in place again – adjusted to reflect the lessons I learned about reducing and simplifying expectations – the exercise is much less baffling and moderately less tedious.
The fun part of online teaching remains conceptualizing and preparing actual course content, and happily, the easing of pressure around logistics means I really am able to focus more of my energy there this term and to feel at least a bit more in the moment. Even responding to students’ discussion posts seems more like actually teaching and less like desperately trying to keep up!
So what have my classes actually been about this week, then? Well, in my introduction to literature class, we have moved on from Module 1 (What words?) to Module 2 (Whose words?). The course overall is designed to keep complicating students’ engagement with the readings, so we start with the most basic (diction, connotation, denotation, etc.) and then add layers, this week some issues about voice, point of view, irony, and unreliability. Our readings feature speakers whose positions are worth interrogating: Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything?”, Aga Shahid Ali’s “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood,'” and Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” (Our reader is the concise edition of Broadview’s Introduction to Literature, so all of our readings are chosen from their admirably varied selections.) Next week we move on to “About What? Subject and Theme.”
I have always begun my introductory courses with poetry (unless they were specifically “prose and fiction” offerings). I do wonder about this approach sometimes, because students often don’t like poetry, or maybe more accurately, don’t trust themselves as readers of poetry, and this skepticism can come between them and the fun I always hope they’ll have as we warm up as close readers. Poetry is the most condensed literary form to work with, though, and also the form in which individual words tend to matter the most, so for lessons in the rewards of really paying attention to every detail, it nonetheless seems like the best place to start. Also, with fiction there is a strong tendency to resort to plot summary, so I like to put it off until they are a bit more used to being asked to stop and question what’s on the page and what it does.
In the 19th-century fiction class, which this term is the Austen to Dickens option, we are wrapping up our work on Persuasion, or we will be as more students get to the end of the module and submit their discussion posts. Anne Elliot can be a bit annoying in the first half of the novel, with her tendency to martyrdom and her inability to reach out and claim what she wants. I always find it interesting that so much of the novel’s resolution continues to be cautious, even reticent: this is not a novel celebrating impassioned outbursts, rebellion, or (to a point anyway) self-assertion. That will make Jane Eyre a dramatic contrast when we shift to Brontë’s novel next week, something I have been thinking about a lot because of course I can’t wait until Monday to start working on Jane Eyre but have to have my recorded lectures ready to go—which I do! I have discussed Jane Eyre with so many classes over the past 25 years that it hasn’t been hard to decide what the lectures should address, but it has been extremely hard to figure out how much they (I) should actually say. The model I have in mind is that they should include the equivalent of the opening comments I typically make in class, to set up the discussion to follow; explain any key critical or theoretical or historical contexts that I think are helpful to analyzing the novel well; and then prompt students to think about various elements of the novel in light of what I’ve said, rather than trying to cover what could be said about those elements. I pick some specific examples, but then I try to get out of the way, and then I show up in the online discussions to poke and provoke and steer as seems useful.
Oh dear: I’m back to logistics again! I do miss the simplicity of in-person teaching. In 2019-20, I had actually been working deliberately on weaning myself from more detailed lecture notes (not from lecture plans, just notes) and, trusting to my long experience, letting the discussion in class be more free-flowing. It was going well. I remember especially clearly the last class meeting for the Austen to Dickens class on March 13, 2020. We knew classes were going to be cancelled the next week, but we had a robust discussion of Mary Barton nonetheless and wrapped up not realizing that we would not meet again in person. I know that I could be back in person right now if I’d made that choice, but it would not have been a real return to that kind of ease and energy. I think I chose right, for me, for now, but that doesn’t make everything about this easy. I do still get the same satisfaction from engaging with students’ ideas and especially from being able to be present for them, albeit virtually. And on that note I guess I should go check on what new submissions are waiting for me!