“A Place of Reason”: Simon Mawer, The Glass Room

mawer1She stands for a moment, one last moment, looking at the Glass Room. Rain runs down the windows like tears from her eyes. The light is diffused, refracted, blurred by the water; just so are memories distorted by time and mood. This is no place for sentiment. It is a place of reason. And yet sentiment is what she feels, the anguish of departure, the exquisite pain of remembering, the fragility of being. When will she be here again?

I picked up The Glass Room at the most recent Women For Music book sale because of the posts at Café Society about Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. This is one of the books I almost bought on my summer trip to England; in the end it lost out to other choices, but Mawer went on my mental list of writers to keep an eye out for. I didn’t love The Glass Room, but it was certainly good enough to keep him on that list.

The Glass Room is at once an intimate family story and, albeit mostly in the background, a sweeping saga about the rise and fall of the First Czechosloval Republic and the Second World War. Its central device is the architectural wonder of a house built for the wealthy Landauer family, featuring its spectacular glass room, a marvel of openness and light:

Finally they laid the linoleum, linoleum the colour of ivory, as lucid as spilled milk. During the day the light from the windows flooded over it and rendered it almost translucent, as though a shallow pool lay between the entrance and the glass; during the evening the ceiling lights–petalled blooms of frosted glass–threw reflections down into the depths. On the upper floor there were rooms, zimmer, boxes with walls and doors; but down here there was room, raum, space.

“Raum is an expansive word,” Mawer remarks in his ‘Afterword’; “It is spacious, vague, precise, conceptual, literal, all those things.” I could see, reading the novel, how he set out to use the Landauer’s room to evoke other kinds of room or space, especially through the different things people do there: they make music, they dance, they have sex, they seek or offer shelter.

mawer2The room itself is beautiful, especially its onyx wall, which reflects the setting sun in an astonishing flare of colour. But not all of its uses are benign: the novel’s historical setting inevitably reminds us of the term ‘Lebensraum,‘ and that anticipates the way the house changes hands and uses when the Landauers flee to Switzerland–Viktor is Jewish, and that puts him and his family at risk. Their house is taken over by German “scientists,” who use it as a laboratory for their research into racial differences:

In the measurement areas the staff work in pairs, a recorder and an examiner, the one positioning the subject at the stadiometer–legs fractionally apart, heels, buttocks and shoulder blades in contact with the back board, heads held in a grip . . . Measurements are taken: total height, hip diameter, chest diamter. Then sitting: leg measurements, arm measurements. Then the dentist’s chair: head dimensions, the callipers holding the different crania in their cool jaws . . . Stahl watches, enthralled by the systematic measurements of what defines human and subhuman, of what makes Herrenvolk and Undermenschen.

Later, when the Czech city is “liberated” by the Red Army, the house changes hands again; eventually it is declared the property of the state, and finally restored and opened as a museum.

In the meantime, the Landauers have had to leave their house, their memories, their lives behind. They move on, settling eventually in America as the Landors. Some of their friends are not so lucky; Mawer avoids direct representations of the horrors of the camps, but it is quietly chilling when the Landauer’s travelling companions are pulled off the train in Occupied France by Germans unmoved by their papers, or when we hear Stahl placing a call we know will bring devastation to the Landauers’ closest friends. As these stories unfold, the Glass Room seems like a manifestation of the chaos and pain:

The great plate-glass windows of the Glass Room shake and shudder in the gales. During one storm, suddenly and with a sharp crack that no one hears, the pane at the furthest end near the conservatory is fractured right across, creating a diagonal line of reflection like a cataract in a cornea.

When people who knew the room as a beacon of grace and beauty return to it during and after the war, it is a reminder of what has been lost, but also a sign that something still endures.

mawer3Overall, this works well: it’s a good concept, and Mawer comes across as an extremely competent novelist. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, though, it sort of is. I am surprised that The Glass Room was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 2009): to me it was a well-executed concept but not an exhilarating accomplishment. At times, it seemed to me to be trying too hard to be great and profound. Its symbolism and its prose both felt heavy-handed, as here:

History is here and now, in the beautiful and austere face of Hana Hanáková. There in the Glass Room of the Landauer House, feeling as helpless as a person at the scene of an accident who doesn’t know how to staunch the bleeding. Zdenka goes round the table and puts her arms around the older woman and tries to comfort her. And all around them is the past, frozen into a construct of glass and concrete and chrome, the Glass Room with its onyx wall and its partitions of tropical hardwood and the milky petals of its ceiling lights, a space, a Raum so modern when Rainer von Abt designed it, yet now, as Hana Hanáková sits and weeps, so imbued with the past.

Or here:

And all around them is the Glass Room, a place of balance and reason, an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time.

(Or in the quotation I chose for my epigraph.) Was Mawer afraid his readers would not be able to read any of this into the Glass Room on our own? My irritation at these overwrought moments made The Glass Room a near miss for me–but I would still like to read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, or maybe Prague Spring, which seems to be the only one of Mawer’s books currently stocked by any local bookstores.

As a side note, the Landauer House is based on the  Vila Tugendhat in the Czech town of Brno. Here’s one of the photos from their site, taken by David Židlický, showing the glass room and the onyx wall.


This Week In My Classes: Going Noir

The-Big-SleepWe have started our unit on detective fiction in Pulp Fiction and moved from Sayers to Hughes in Women & Detective Fiction, meaning it’s time to test my prediction of last week that being immersed in noir will make me fretful. So far I’m doing fine–much better than expected! For one thing, I’m happy to be done with Westerns in Pulp Fiction, plus I am starting to feel as if, collectively, the class has some momentum now, something which is definitely helped by the continuities between our readings as much as by the students’ growing familiarity with the kind of analysis we’re doing. Also, while I have reservations about The Big Sleep on other grounds, there’s no denying that Chandler’s prose is–what? beautiful is the wrong word, and ornate seems to miss the point. I’ll go with artful. It’s not just that he never met a simile he didn’t like, but that the ones he chooses infuse the story with both atmosphere and meaning: I’m thinking, for instance, of the plants in the conservatory with “stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men,” or the strands of white hair clinging to the general’s scalp “like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” These images tell us so much about the world of the novel, with its cynicism and corruption and danger, and they also reveal so much about Marlowe’s state of mind, about the blend of resolution and fascination and horror with which he approaches the life he has to live. Unlike Elmore Leonard (with his stupid “leave out the parts that readers tend to skim” rule), Chandler gives us plenty of good material for close reading. Today we warmed up with the stained glass panel, which works pretty neatly as a microcosm of the whole novel:

Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some long and very convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere.

What kind of chivalry is required or possible, I asked them, if the “lady” you are trying to rescue acts like this one?

Her hands dropped limp at her sides. She tilted herself towards me on her toes. She fell straight back into my arms. I had to catch her or let her head crack on the tessellated floor. I caught her under her arms and she went rubber-legged on me instantly. I had to hold her close to hold her up. When her head was against my chest she screwed it around and giggled at me.

She’s so annoying I might have let her head hit the tile: he’s a better man than I am–or is he?

lonelyI know The Big Sleep reasonably well at this point (though I still rely heavily on the helpful sketch of the basic plot, complete with who killed whom and why, that I drew up the first time I taught it!). This is my first time teaching In A Lonely Place, though, and so I am feeling my way along, trying to anticipate the most useful lines of discussion to open up, to tell what’s obvious and what isn’t, what examples are most thought-provoking, and so on. One small but important logistical thing you can’t really be sure of until you try it is whether you’ve chosen the right place to break up the novel for reading. I think I should maybe have assigned a bit more of it for today than I did (we read just the first two sections,just about 50 pages), but we didn’t run out of things to talk about, so that was reassuring.

The main thing I’m still wondering about In A Lonely Place is whether Hughes pulls off the highwire act of dramatizing murderous misogyny without glamorizing or exploiting or just plain recreating it for our entertainment. The first time I read it, I wasn’t convinced. When I reread it this summer, with this class in mind, I thought definitely yes. This time I’m unsure again! We are tucked up so closely next to Dix that even though it’s not a first-person narrative it’s very hard to disentangle our experience of the novel from his story of himself. We can pretty quickly (I think) discern that his version is not reliable, but we are still immersed in his point of view and the thrills of the novel (if that’s the right way to put it) come from exactly that: from knowing what he’s doing, how much sense it makes to him, and the kind of pleasure it gives him. For most of the novel the suspense is his, not about him–it’s about what he’ll do next rather than whether or when he’ll be stopped. Having said that, though–and my students were sharp about this today–he gives himself away so completely as dangerous and deranged and not nearly as in control as he fancies himself that it does distance us from him. I think Hughes succeeds in showing him up as a repulsive exemplar of toxic masculinity, but in doing so she does have to reproduce some of its nastier (and deadlier) features. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is up next, will seem downright wholesome by comparison–and yet its murder is, I think, one of the most horrific crimes (literally and morally) that we will encounter.

This Week In My Classes: In Which I Admit to Missing the Classics

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsWe are well into the term now, and overall I think it’s going fine. I do not like teaching Pulp Fiction at 120 students, which maybe doesn’t sound like that big a change from 90 but certainly feels like one to me. I miss being able to see their faces–and having at least a fighting chance of learning their names! I know that I have colleagues who have taught intro classes at even larger sizes, and also that I have colleagues who are comfortable, pedagogically, with teaching writing at this scale. Maybe they know something I don’t about how to make it work, but for me, the increasingly sharp division of class time into formal lecture time–you can do some Q&A, but not a wide-ranging, inclusive discussion in a tiered lecture hall–and tutorial time (where the 30:1 ratio is still far from ideal for either discussion or hands-on writing and editing work) is really unsatisfying. I don’t think it serves us or them particularly well.

The-Big-SleepThe odds that we’ll ever be able to get back to smaller first-year classes seem slim, however, so I’ll just keep trying to make the best of it. Right now I’m considering giving up on some things I think are pedagogically valuable (like frequent low-stakes work) because logistically it’s just getting to be too much–but it’s too late to do that for this year! In the meantime, we are nearing the end of our unit on Westerns; next week we start on mysteries, with The Big Sleep taking the place of The Maltese Falcon this time around. As you might recall, I had big plans for bigger changes but they fell through: first True Grit turned out to be unavailable and then I lost my nerve about assigning Laura. I’m not entirely sorry, because I have a number of new books on the syllabus for Women & Detective Fiction so it’s relief to have existing materials to rely on here.

In Women & Detective Fiction we are almost done with Gaudy Night, which overall they seem to be finding a bit much. I don’t think of it as a particularly long book: in my 19th-century fiction courses it would be only an average-sized one! I’ve been wondering if the difficulty some students have run into getting through it (or getting into it) comes from their having different expectations for crime novels. Also, our first readings were very simple and quick–Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew–so they may just have underestimated how much time they needed to allocate to reading for this class. The students have mostly been putting in a good effort, though, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. My class notes are basically prompts: chess set, dog collar, fascism, misogyny, academic integrity, sonnet, balance, counterpoint, Bach, Placetne, Magistra? Placet.

hughes2Next up is In a Lonely Place, which means for a while both my classes will be steeped in noir. Though I think both books I’ll be working on are great examples of their kind, it is not my own favorite kind of crime fiction, and it’s likely that this juxtaposition will exacerbate another lurking dissatisfaction of mine this term, which is with the amount of teaching time I’ve been spending on genre fiction. I hope it’s obvious that I am not a snob about genre fiction! I read and enjoy a lot of it; I was the one who introduced our detective fiction class well over a decade ago and I have taught it with great enthusiasm probably a dozen times; a few years ago I volunteered to do Pulp Fiction instead of one of our more standard intro to lit options; I regularly include sensation fiction in my Victorian fiction classes and offer a course exclusively on it; etc. This term, however, I have found myself unexpectedly weary of spending so much of my class time on books that (frankly) wear a bit thin over time because they aren’t, many of them, quite the kind of book that the English literature classroom–or at least my English literature classroom–was designed to showcase.

ackroydDo I really think that? Can I even say that? What exactly am I saying? I’m certainly not saying we can’t or shouldn’t teach genre fiction, or that doing so doesn’t involve doing rewarding or meaningful analysis. That we even have the concept of ‘horizontal reading,’ though, does suggest that genre fiction isn’t always best approached with the aim of deep or close reading, doesn’t it? Agatha Christie, to give just one example, is brilliant at many things (and I have gotten pretty good at making the case for them), but it’s not much fun lingering over the details of her prose; not much will come–not much of interpretive interest, anyway–from mining them for the kind of nuances we appreciate when we read, say, “Araby.” Sometimes in the detective fiction class I point out that (though of course there are exceptions) a lot of details we might read as symbolic in another kind of fiction are better read more literally in crime fiction: does it make any sense to read the dagger in Roger Ackroyd’s neck as anything other than a convenient sharp object suitable for murder? There is a similarly literal impulse in a lot of detective fiction: no matter how complex the social, political, or psychological elements, it is rare for the language in particular to be of great  interest.

greatexpectationsI think what I’m saying is that I love my 19th-century fiction classes, which I still teach regularly, but I have also, over the years, loved teaching other more conventionally “literary” material and I’m starting to miss the greater variety I used to enjoy, especially the chance to teach more poetry and more (literary) fiction from other periods. That’s one reason I’m excited to be doing the British literature survey next term. I’ve also asked that, if possible, my next first-year course assignment be something besides Pulp Fiction. When I first designed my version of the course I imagined that students would get caught up in the contrarian spirit of reading genre fiction instead of the classics, but as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, they mostly don’t care: with rare exceptions, they’ve never thought about the difference before and what they really want is just to get their writing requirement as easily as possible. My advocacy for dismantling the canon is wasted on them: I’m standing there at the lectern basically having an argument with myself! And somehow right now I feel as if I’m losing it.

“The Truth-Telling Time”: Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

miller-coverThis was not how he had imagined it, the truth-telling time. It was as if his secrets had altered in the keeping, had grown like living things, so that he did not quite know them any more. Or that they were not entirely his, not the private stash or black treasure he had imagined. And once more it came to him, the thought that had touched him several times since coming back from Spain, that we are not private beings and cannot hide things inside ourselves. Everything is present, everything in view for those who know how to look.

Recently on Twitter, when the topic of the latest Booker Prize shortlist came up, I commented that I’ve starting paying more attention to other prize lists when scouting for books to read. I still eye the Booker list, of course, but I am increasingly interested in the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, for one, which plays more predictably to my own preference for both good scene setting (yay, exposition!) and strong storytelling. Historical fiction comes with risks, of course, as George Eliot acknowledged (risks she conspicuously failed to avoid in Romola), and there are plenty of flatly mediocre examples of the genre to be had (as there are of every genre) but for me, really good historical fiction is about as good as fiction gets (ahem).

Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is the fourth book from this year’s longlist that I’ve read: I reviewed Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind for the TLS a year or so ago; I read both Cressida Connolly’s After the Party and Michael Ondaadje’s Warlight this summer. Warlight is the only one I didn’t appreciate (I found it beautifully written at the level of its sentences but somehow also extremely boring); the other two I’d read before were very good, and Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is excellent.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a soldier trying to escape his guilt-ridden memories of atrocities carried out by British soldiers in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, as he makes his way to the Hebrides; it also follows, in parallel, the two men–one English, one Spanish–dispatched to find him and hold him accountable for what happened. As his pursuers close in on him, finding their way by ruthlessly forcing the people on Lacroix’s path to tell them where he has gone, Lacroix himself, unaware of the impending danger, begins to open himself up to the world again, gradually letting glimpses of beauty and love into the bleakness he carries with him and feeling the faint reawakening of hope:

And did he really care about the names of the islands? This was the tall one, this the sleek, this the bare, this like something made more entirely from light and water. They were beautiful–more so than he had prepared himself for, and it comforted him a little that he had had the sense to find them, the world’s scattered edge, that there was in him, perhaps, some trace of a wisdom that could guide his actions.

Though we don’t know until nearly the end exactly what he blames himself for, it is impossible to take this journey with him and believe he deserves the fate the men on his trail have been ordered to inflict.

miller-cover-2 I won’t give more specifics about the plot; I’ll just note that it sets up a structure that is at once simple and increasingly suspenseful. Miller makes good use of the common trope of a geographical voyage also being a voyage of personal discovery, so that the cat and mouse game over time becomes something at once subtler and more complex. Though the plotting is very precise, even the moment when hunter and quarry coincidentally and unwittingly cross paths didn’t feel contrived: it just added to the evidence (shared eventually by at least one of Lacroix’s pursuers) that they are not really seeking a legible or reasonable form of justice but are carrying out a more arbitrary exercise of power, playing their parts in a game none of them can ever really win because those who made the rules don’t care who they really are–or who they could be, if they were free to choose.

The linear design of the novel gives it a lot of forward momentum, but not so much that you want to rush through Miller’s wonderful prose, which is resonant without ever being florid or overly ornamental. There are some fanciful touches–I liked the description of the two pursuing soldiers walking in the woods with “the war spooling from their backs like silk,” for example. It’s the descriptions of the setting that really shine, though, as is both right and necessary given the restorative role the Hebrides play in Lacroix’s odyssey. Here’s a sample, in this case from the perspective of the Spaniard on his trail, who has had a revelation of his own about what kind of journey is really worth making:

The sun was rising swiftly and he saw that he was standing at the edge of a meadow, the grasses growing from sand, and in the grass myriad small flowers he had not been aware of when he came the first time, that must have been closed against the weather, the chill of evening. Now, discovered by the sun, they ignited, one by one. The yellow and the white, the gold and the red, so that he seemed to be looking across a field of small lights afloat on the shallow water of morning shadow. Under his bare feet the ground was fibrous with a structure of endless soft branchings. It was odd to take in the world through his feet, the soles as sensitive, as inquisitive as a tongue. … Someone, he thought, someone should have taught me how to meet joy better.

There is a lot of suffering in the novel: that harsh experience, grief, and failure should make us welcome, not turn away from, joy is one of the lessons Lacroix struggles to learn and that Miller, indirectly, offers us in our turn. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is full of the kind of historical detail that gives its world solidity, but it is not burdened by it; Miller uses his very specific and deftly dramatized story about a particular time and place to explore the kinds of choices we all have to make in our lives about where to go and why, and to ask what we hope to find if we ever get there.

This Week In My Classes: Cracking the Case

marple-storiesLast Wednesday, because of the disruption from Hurricane Dorian it felt as if we were starting the term all over again. A week later, it finally feels as if we are getting into something like a routine–even though the add-drop (a.k.a. “shopping”) period is only just ending, so the list of registered students for Pulp Fiction has been changing literally every day. Still, the majority of students in the class have been coming since September 4, and the general air of uncertainty and anxiety is fading into the usual combination of commitment and resignation. Because it’s a 4th-year seminar, Women & Detective Fiction has been a more focused group from the beginning, but there too we are past the getting-to-know-you period and are (I think) comfortably embarked on what promises to be a really good term’s discussion.

johnsonWhat have we done so far? Well, in Pulp Fiction we have done a bit less reading than usual by this point, but we’ve gone through all of the warm-up texts, starting with Lawrence Block’s “How Would You Like It?” and then, to set up our unit on Westerns, Sherman Alexie’s “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys.” If I am assigned this course again for next year, I would like to replace the Block story with something a bit more on point for the course themes. Alexie’s poem, on the other hand, has proved to be a really good opener for Westerns because it clarifies right from the beginning that this is a genre that both invites and deserves significant pushback. Our reading for Friday, for instance, is Louis L’Amour’s “The Gift of Cochise,” which I think is the worst of our Western readings in terms of flattening and dehumanizing its Apache characters. (I actually think L’Amour is trying to do better by them but does so through a version of the “noble savage” stereotype that doesn’t end up helping at all.) “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys” has primed us to see this as (among other things) a problem of point of view, one with both specifically literary and broader and still urgent social and political consequences. We read Dorothy Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” for today, which is a good story for challenging just what kind of cowboy really counts as a hero: as we discussed, the self-effacing Bert Barricune may be the best shot, but he’s a hero for a different reason–because he lets someone else take the credit and the girl. Next week we start Valdez Is Coming, which has not really gone over that well in previous years. Maybe third time’s the charm!

agatha-christieIn Women & Detective Fiction we have just wrapped up three classes on Agatha Christie. Going over my notes from the last time I taught this seminar reminded me that we were struggling a bit, that year, to find enough to talk about–enough that, though I had forgotten about this until it was too late to make the change, I had resolved to assign a novel instead of the stories next time around. Happily, even sticking with the short stories, we had no such trouble this year! The class time has seemed to fly by: not only is it a keen group with plenty to say but the things they are noticing are often things I haven’t really focused on before. We talked a lot, for example, about role playing as a motif across the stories, from the overtly theatrical Jane Helier (an “actual” actress) to Miss Marple herself and the perhaps insoluble puzzle of how far her performance of self-deprecating femininity is a deliberate feint or strategy that enables her detective prowess and how far it is a way for Christie to sincerely re-value the qualities Miss Marple displays. Today was student presentation day and in addition to some useful discussion of her life and works we did an exercise in crime solving ourselves based on her mysterious 11-day disappearance. Next up in this class: Nancy Drew–and one of my students turns out to be an avid Nancy Drew fan and collector, so she is going to bring in some of her early editions to show us. I’m excited: if everyone stays this lively and engaged, it’s going to be a great term.

This Week In My Classes: Stormy Weather

tree-trunkIt hasn’t been stormy in my classes so far–in fact, we have barely had a chance to meet because of the literal storm that passed over Halifax this weekend. Hurricane Dorian churned up the east coast of the United States, and unlike most of the other big storms that head towards us it neither cooled off into an unpleasant but basically harmless rainstorm nor turned out to sea.

Dorian is the second hurricane to make a direct hit on Nova Scotia since we moved here: Hurricane Juan made landfall more squarely on Halifax itself in 2003. There has been much discussion about how the two storms compare. Certainly our personal experience is that Juan was more destructive in our immediate neighborhood: we live quite close to Point Pleasant Park, where 70% of the trees came down, turning what was once basically a forest into, well, not a forest! Juan also knocked down most of the lovely big trees that once lined our street: perhaps it pruned away the vulnerable ones, because although there were a lot of limbs strewn about after Dorian, things didn’t look that bad–until we walked a bit further and saw scenes like this:


Other areas of the city saw much more damage, as did other parts of the province and the Maritimes more generally as Dorian crossed over Prince Edward Island and then finally left us alone. Piles of debris lined the streets I drove along to work, and looking down the side streets I could see that some of them are still in really bad shape. We were fortunate to lose power for only about 36 hours–enough to be inconvenient and (once it got dark) fairly boring, and actually longer than we lost it after Juan, but not in the end a crisis.

The clean-up and repair work continues around the city but in our lives things are getting back to normal. Dalhousie was closed Monday, so one of my own storm-related tasks was to figure out how to adjust my class schedules to take the cancellations into account. One advantage to losing a class early on is that you have lots of classes remaining to play with, but the down side is that in my first year class we hadn’t had a chance to develop a routine or build up any momentum yet, so it felt almost as if we were starting all over again this morning. Last week Pulp Fiction met just once as a whole class and then once in tutorials, so we’d barely introduced the basic concepts of the course. We covered more ground in Women & Detective Fiction, because in an upper-year course logistics are simpler and there’s no need for ‘intro to university’ stuff: in addition to setting up the basic framework for the course, I gave my one and only lecture for the term, as the course is otherwise a seminar, laying out a standard history of detective fiction along with some key points about its conventional forms and conventions are gendered, so that everyone in the class has a common set of contexts for the more specific readings and discussions to come.

catch and release by blockI decided to bump the scheduled classes along a day in Pulp Fiction and make up for it later, so today we picked up right where we left off last Wednesday, with the idea of “pulp fiction” and assumptions about differences between genre fiction and literary fiction. Then we turned to our first reading, Lawrence Block’s creepy little story “How Would You Like It?” It’s a story that doesn’t quite fit into any of the genres we’re actually studying–I suppose it is a kind of crime story, but it isn’t a detective story. It’s an attention-getting story, though, or at least I hope it is, and it’s useful for starting conversations about point of view, tone, and varieties of narrators, including unreliable ones. I wasn’t sure students would be willing to talk in class, given its relatively large size (120) and the rather formal lecture hall, but a lot of hands seemed to be going up, so I’m encouraged. I wonder if my using a microphone helps keep people involved because everyone can hear what’s happening: I am trying to be scrupulous about repeating students’ questions before I answer them, and also since it is wireless I can move around the room, including going up the stairs.

orczyIn Women & Detective Fiction, I decided we would stay on schedule: Monday’s class was supposed to be spent discussion a cluster of ‘classic’ detective stories to provide touchstones for our often subversive takes on classic tropes: I’d assigned “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Hammett’s “Death & Company,” one of his Continental Op stories. I think we can hit the main points about these quickly at the start of today’s class, and then return to them through comparisons with today’s assigned readings: Baroness Orczy’s “The Woman in the Big Hat” (one of her Lady Molly of Scotland Yard stories) and Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” Both of these stories begin our term’s work of highlighting the ways gender matters to fundamental questions in detective fiction, including who has the expertise and authority to solve the crime and what “justice” means in a context where women’s experiences in particular and a broader context of sexism mean that the law may not provide it.

So that’s what’s up this week! It was a somewhat turbulent start to the term but it’s not as if there’s anything I could have done about that, and things are settling down already. We’re also still in the deceptively calm period before much marking has to be done, so I’m not feeling overwhelmed … yet.


Still Teaching, Still Blogging About It!

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYTomorrow I kick of my 25th year of teaching at Dalhousie and my 13th year of blogging about the process. Five years ago I took stock of what I had to show for what was then just a “20 year investment in Dalhousie”:

My academic research and publications certainly count as accomplishments, but when I am having a “save Tinkerbell moment” and need my belief [in this work] restored, my surest remedy is a browse through the fat file folder I have of thank-you cards and messages from students. It’s enormously uplifting to know that the part I played in their lives mattered to them.

I also, I noted, had the benefit of experience, and “a drawer full of notes, handouts, transparencies, and other materials, as well as acres of virtual storage devoted to more of the same”–and I had worked out some effective (for me) strategies to handle the logistical chaos of term, from designated shelves for course materials to ample supplies of post-it notes.

officeIt wouldn’t make much of a post to say that five years later, nothing has changed! And yet in most respects that’s true. (Certainly my office looks more or less the same.) I think, or at least I hope, that the consistency in my priorities and methods is a sign of success, not stagnation. I still take class preparation seriously and regularly look for ways to change things up, whether it’s refreshing my reading lists (as I spent a lot of time working on during my recent sabbatical) or taking on new classes (such as Pulp Fiction, which I offered for the first time in 2017). Like the strong scaffolding I aim to provide with my materials for individual courses, my now well-established routines free me up from a lot (though never all!) of the stress of just keeping everything running, so that as much as possible I’m concentrating on matters of substance. This is one of the reasons I wish there wasn’t so much emphasis on innovation in discussions of higher ed. There’s something to be said for stability, and for sticking with things that you know are effective. Change for the sake of novelty is not desirable–but to hear some pundits and administrators talk, you’d sure think it was better to be constantly experimenting with gimmicks and gadgets than focusing your attention directly on your students and the material you’re working through together. (Also, alas, many of the innovations that are hyped these days are really attempts to compensate for the sad fact that we can’t pay as much attention to our students as we’d like given increasing class size and diminished numbers of permanent faculty.)

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsThere won’t be big changes in my pedagogy this year, then: just the usual tweaks to see if I can get an exercise or an assignment or a reading to go a bit more smoothly or get better results. That doesn’t mean there won’t be surprises or challenges, though. That’s the thing about teaching! Every time you do the “same” thing–discuss the same book, assign the same essay topic, ask the same exam question, whatever–you are doing it with a different group of people and in a different context, not just of your own changing ideas but of theirs, which are shaped by the other courses they are taking and readings they are doing and experiences they are having–and by your life in the moment and their lives too. One of the scary, exhausting, and stimulating things about teaching is that no matter how carefully you have prepared, you never know what exactly is going to happen in the classroom that day. You just show up, bring what you’ve got, and try your best to shape, steer, listen, and respond in a way that serves the goals that you have for the course. In my case, though there are more specific objectives that vary from class to class, my fundamental goal is simply to help my students have as good a conversation about our readings as possible (meaning one that is well-informed and attentive to both text and contexts) so that they will carry away with them a sense of both how to do that and why it’s worth doing. We talk a lot these days about “transferable skills,” and those certainly matter, but the reason I teach English instead of something else is that I consider that specific work well worth doing for its own sake.

cassatOn that motivational note, the two courses on my teaching schedule for this fall term are Pulp Fiction (a large introductory-level class) and Women and Detective Fiction (a small upper-year seminar). I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several weeks getting things in order for them; although I’m a bit anxious, as always at the start of term, at this point I’m eager just to get going. Once again, I will be writing about them here. Though sometimes over the years I have wondered if I’ll find anything new to say in this blog series, the exercise itself always proves that I do, and it also always proves valuable in the same ways I explained after my first year of doing it. Blogging about my teaching prods me to reflect on it rather than just get through it and move on; I think it has made me a better teacher as a result. The archive of these posts is also now a helpful resource, for me definitely, and perhaps for others: a record of ideas about both specific texts and broader pedagogical concerns. The high hopes some of us once had for academic blogging may have faded but for me at least, there are still lots of good reasons to be an academic who blogs.