We’re back at it: our winter term officially began on Monday, meaning today marks the end of the first full week of classes. The very familiarity of it is intensely familiar: that’s how it feels after a long time doing any work that is as cyclical as teaching, I expect. The familiarity of it also continues to be disorienting for me; that too, in its own strange way, is now familiar.
This is my first term teaching both online and in person – not in the same course, but with one of each. So far I like it, actually. My in-person course is an old favorite, Mystery & Detective Fiction. I haven’t taught it in the classroom since Fall 2018, which feels a lot more than four years ago. I taught it online more recently, with some success, measured at least by the number of students who showed up in my Fall 2022 classes at least in part because (according to them) they’d enjoyed it a lot. I’ve remarked here before about the oddity that this has become my most frequently taught course, because it’s such a popular elective. It’s full again this term, at 64. I am grateful for its familiarity: I hope to be able to relax into it. Usually it sparks some of the liveliest discussion of any of my classes, I think because everyone’s there out of interest (it doesn’t fulfill any requirements, so nobody has been coerced into taking it). We warmed up this week with “big picture” stuff about genre fiction, with an overview of the history of detective fiction, and then, today, with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Monday we start The Moonstone, which I omitted, reluctantly, from the online version. I was rereading our first instalment this afternoon and it’s just such a lot of fun. I hope they think so too!
My online course is Literature: How It Works, which is the same first-year writing course I’ve offered online twice before. I am really glad to be getting more use out of the materials I prepared for it, which took hours and hours, first to conceptualize and then to make. Some of them, of course, have already had to be updated, but I’m not changing a lot of the content for each new iteration of the course because I’m still putting a lot of thought and energy into the specifications grading approach I’m using. I’ve revised the bundles again this year, simplifying and reducing or rationalizing them further based on my previous experience. The second time I taught this course this way it was already an improvement on the first time, so I’m hopeful that I have ironed out more wrinkles and we’ll all—me, my teaching assistants, and the students—have an even smoother term. I don’t want to reduce the students’ workload to the point that it doesn’t have the desired outcome: I do think that forcing them to just keep writing is, overall, an excellent approach for a writing course. The challenge is finding the line between productive work and busy work, or between work they have time to care about and work that is perfunctory because they are scrambling to get the credits they want.
It’s too early in the term in both classes to have much sense of how they’re going, or going to go, but I can say that I don’t hate going to class first thing and getting energized by the in-person session and then having the rest of the day to do everything else, from follow-up and preparation for the next class meeting to all the various tasks for my online course (mostly emails and introductions, so far, but soon to include a steady flow of discussion posts and journal entries). I’m used to recuperating in my office just long enough to head out and teach my second class, and then needing some recovery time after that class (hey, I’m getting old—pacing around and manifesting enthusiasm while talking a lot and fielding students’ comments and questions is tiring for me!) before I can dig in and get more work done. Today I did a couple of reference letters as well as my course-related stuff, and I reread Monday’s portion of The Moonstone, which I almost certainly would have put off until the weekend if I’d had to show up in person for a second class hour. I like the balance, and I’m perfectly happy not to be meeting my big first-year class in person. (Of all the classes I teach, it’s often the least rewarding to be doing face to face, because what I’m often face to face with is indifference.)
Despite the difficulties I still have adjusting to a reality that seems (still) unreal, I’m glad to be back to the routine. I was quite busy until late in December with work from last term; the time in between then and now was restful in some ways but wearing, personally, in others. Work is a good distraction; being with students forces me out of my head and into a more cheerful space; and I honestly do believe in the value of all of this—that it is worth keeping up, keeping at, even if, as today, I have to take a break from it sometimes to grieve the person whose presence is everywhere in my office, just as it is at home.
You have inspired me to read “The Moonstone” as everyone knows “The Woman in White” rather than this. I think it is a good read.
Thank you for letting us into your world.
I enjoy The Moonstone so much: I’m glad I inspired you to read it!
‘The Moonstone’ has been termed, by T.S. Eliot, ‘The first and best English detective story.’ …and it is really rather good. I, however, for the Guilty Readers Book Club (a.k.a. The London Association of PBK’s Book Club), am leading two longish sessions on ‘The Woman in White’, which I adore, not least because we live within walking distance of Avenue Road NW8.
Have you ever considered Dick Francis’s ‘Nerve’ for your detective fiction module? One of my favourite English Lang and Lit profs taught that in one of our College Courses (Detective Fiction, outwith the main University courses, a weekly Seminar at our College, but one could still earn 3 hours credit for English, if one needed that.) He was certainly one of the very best profs I had at Uni, and an insanely good Shakespeare scholar and sometime actor (mostly played the various Fools). These comments from an Architect/Engineer, who just wanted a couple of terms of Shakespeare and a Seminar on Detective Fiction…for fun.
I know that quotation well! In fact it’s in my lecture notes for tomorrow. I don’t assign Dick Francis, not because I don’t love his novels (I wrote an essay on the for the LARB if you’re interested!) but because I consider them thrillers, not detective novels – more or less (the distinction is blurry and a bit arbitrary, I admit). Plus of course there are always more books I *could* assign than ones I do.
I’d love to see your essay on Dick Francis, if possible. Dennis got me semi-addicted, but it probably helps that I grew up riding in Augusta, Georgia USA (well, Aiken, South Carolina, to be a little more accurate), and we follow racing in th UK. My home has been London, UK for the past 37 years, after marrying a Brit. And one of our closest friends was the PA to the Head of the British Jockey Club for a couple of decades, so we do go racing, as it were.
My real life, however, has almost nothing to do with racing nor with English Lang and Lit. I am an Architect/Engineer (mostly healthcare design and construction management) and I am also a Master of Wine (for which I lecture at Uni level and make a bit of still wine in England and France). I am part of the Trollope Society and the Browning Society and a member of an international discussion group focussed on Trollope. I have a keen interest in Victorian Literature in particular, but will read almost anything, including the back of a cereal box, if that is the only thing on offer…
There’s a link to the Dick Francis essay included at the top of this old post in which I attempted to come up with my personal top 10 of his novels. 🙂
I gave an online talk for the Trollope Society back in 2020 (I think you can still find the video on the website); it was great fun.