It’s 15 years now since I began posting regularly about “this week in my classes.” The series was hard to sustain during the past two years of teaching fully online, not because teaching wasn’t taking up a lot of my time and attention but because teaching ansynchronously made the concept of a “week” a lot less meaningful (among other challenges). Under different circumstances, I would be eagerly looking forward to tomorrow’s in-person class meetings. Ongoing concern about COVID (allayed only somewhat by Dalhousie’s decision to require masks in classrooms—but not in other shared spaces) would be reason enough for some ambivalence; add in that I am still grieving, and that campus is saturated with memories, and the result is a complex mixture of anticipation and anxiety, relief and sorrow. I have always loved teaching, so I do expect the demands, distractions, and rewards of being back in the classroom to be good for me, as it has been in the past. Those of you who have also experienced difficult losses will appreciate, though, that I have mixed feelings even about that.
Just as it hasn’t been possible for me to keep Owen’s death away from my reading or out of my writing, I expect it will come up as I reflect on my teaching experiences this term. In fact, because one of my ongoing challenges is finding ways to integrate his loss into my life, compartmentalizing—which has its uses for my day-to-day functioning—can also be counterproductive, not to mention painful and artificial, as an overall strategy. I don’t really know at this point what it’s going to be like for me this term, or, in a way, who I’m going to be. Maybe what I’ll discover is a healing continuity; maybe I’ll realize ways in which I have changed, or need to change. One of my worries is that, because of the strain I am under myself, I won’t have the emotional capacity to support my students as much as I usually aspire to—but perhaps exerting myself to meet their needs will be a useful counter-measure to the exhausting self-absorption of grief. In any case, I’m about to find out, and as I have always found posting about my teaching valuable for me pedagogically as well as personally, I’m going to try to return to it as a regular routine, so if you’re a regular reader, you’ll find out too.
So what exactly lies ahead? I am grateful that my department allowed me to change some course assignments around so that I have two upper-level classes this term, both of which are among my very favorite ones to teach. One is The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy; I have assigned Middlemarch as one of our readings, and allowed a relatively luxurious five weeks for it, because I can’t think of any better way to remind myself why my work matters to me (and, I hope, to my students). The other is Women and Detective Fiction, which has always prompted really high levels of student engagement. This week’s class meetings are primarily warm-ups: introductions to the courses on Wednesday, with an emphasis on broad framing themes and questions; and then on Friday in both classes, background lectures (on the ‘rise of the novel’ in 19thC Fiction and the history of detective fiction in the other), to make sure everyone has something like the same preparation for the readings and discussions to come.
I’ve been doing this for a pretty long time now (27 years, thanks for asking), so ordinarily I’d feel quite confident at this point. Practically and logistically, I’m well prepared—though it will be interesting to see how more than two years of working from home on a very flexible, if still often very intense, schedule, plus the psychological upheaval of the past 8 months, have affected my executive function. “To-do lists are your friends,” grief experts say, and I believe them. I have a new planner and good intentions; we’ll see how far they get me. This may be the term I feel most acutely the truth of this observation from Middlemarch‘s wise narrator, though:
Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that 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.
Behind my (hopefully adequate) Layfield KN-95 mask, there’s going to be a lot of emotional turmoil, more or less under control.