My classes have been meeting for a week now, and I said I was going to try to get back in the habit of reflecting on them, so here I am, although to be honest I find myself at something of a loss about what to say. Should I just focus on the classroom time, on what we’re reading and talking about, as if it’s just another year? Or should I try to explain how surreal it feels to be in the classroom, talking about our readings as if it’s just another year, and then, when the time is up, to be back in the strange disordered world of grief?
I’ll start with the basics, the way I did in the early days of this series.
In 19th-Century British Fiction From Dickens to Hardy I have done my usual contextual introductions and now we are working our way through Great Expectations. I have mentioned here before, I’m sure, that sometimes I get a bit tired of Great Expectations, which I assign a lot. The last time I taught it was in the British Literature survey course in Winter 2020, right before we all got sent home. In my online courses since then we did Hard Times and Bleak House, and I think stepping away from Great Expectations for a couple of years has been good for me—I’m really appreciating it this time. It has an intensity and also (at least in some parts) a restraint that shows Dickens’s control and maturity as an artist. Today we talked about the novel as a version of a Bildungsroman except that, so far, Pip is developing in all the wrong ways. We talked about Miss Havisham and Estella as (bad) influences, and we looked especially at Chapter XIV as an illustration of the way Pip’s retrospective narration not only makes sure that we see how he’s going wrong but shows us that, eventually, he sees that too. “It was not because I was faithful,” he reports,
but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain. It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me.
It isn’t young Pip who knows to call himself “ungracious,” as he does twice in this chapter; it’s an older, wiser Pip. But (and essentially, for this eventual moral growth) even young Pip knows enough to break into tears when he leaves Joe behind:
I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, “Good-bye, O my dear, dear friend!”
Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before,—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then.
In Women and Detective Fiction I also began with some broad overviews, of detective fiction as a genre and of some of the questions that organize the course and will frame our readings. For last class we read a handful of “classic” stories to serve as touchstones for the resisting or subversive versions to come: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and, as a sample of hard-boiled detection, Hammett’s “Death & Company,” which is one of his ‘Continental Op’ stories. These give us a good sense of the masculine milieu of so much classic detective fiction, of the habits and practices of their detectives, and of the reductive roles assigned to women, or assumed of the women, in them. Today, as a contrast, we discussed Baroness Orczy’s “The Woman in the Big Hat,” which is one of her stories about Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. It has a delightful “reveal”:
“The big hat,” replied my dear lady with a smile. “Had the mysterious woman at Mathis’ been tall, the waitresses would not, one and all, have been struck by the abnormal size of the hat. The wearer must have been petite, hence the reason that under a wide brim only the chin would be visible. I at once sought for a small woman. Our fellows did not think of that, because they are men.”
You see how simple it all was!
We had already talked about Sherlock Holmes’s condescending remark, “You see, but you do not observe!” and now we could revisit it with observations about how gender affects what you see, or what you understand about what you see, and about kinds of expertise that are typically devalued because they are women’s and therefore considered trivial. This issue was also key to our other reading for today, Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” a wonderful story that highlights the way the law fails women, making justice something that can only be achieved by subverting it. We talked about the way Glaspell’s story, instead of offering up a big reveal at the end by the superior figure of the detective, instead allows the story to unfold gradually, the women’s dawning awareness drawing us along with them as our sympathies shift from the murdered man to the woman whose happiness he destroyed. Their solidarity grows partly in reaction to the men, who are lumbering around doing more typical (but, we easily see, entirely misguided) kinds of investigating. Every time they come in and make their jovially condescending remarks about “the ladies,” we too close ranks against them:
“Oh well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”
The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners—and think of his future.
“And yet,” said he, with the gallantry of a young politician, “for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?”
In both classes, it feels as if we are still warming up, but all things considered I think participation has been good. We are all masked, and that’s a bit hot and uncomfortable and makes some things a bit harder—since I can’t see people’s whole faces, for instance, it is taking me longer to match them with names, and also I can’t really see people’s reactions, to get a sense of how things are going. It’s worth it, though, obviously, for the risk reduction. Considering how sheltered I’ve been for the last two and a half years, I’ve actually been more relaxed than I expected about suddenly being surrounded by so many more people, and I think the mandatory masking (even it if isn’t everywhere) has really helped with that.
Other than the masks, nothing about teaching has changed, as far as I can tell, and in the moment I find I still enjoy the things I have always enjoyed about it: the material, the students, the dynamics and demands of discussion. I am relieved that (a few minor hiccups aside) I seem to staying on top of things in spite of being tired, distracted, and out of practice. When I’m not teaching, though, or busy with the other ever-proliferating work of the term, I feel more, not less, disoriented with the difference between the sameness of it all and my new changed reality. It’s a good thing, I know, that I am able to show up and be (more or less) my old self in the classroom, but at the same time I don’t know how to make sense of that or be at ease with it.
It has been a strange, confusing, and exhausting week, with some pretty good moments and some really bad ones. But at least it’s over now, after so much anticipation, and that’s one more “first” I never have to face again: my first week teaching again in person, after.