The Decline of Reading (in My Classes)

trollope-wardenI’ve been ordering next year’s books — not because I’m that ahead of the game in general but because early ordering enables the bookstore to retain leftover copies from this year’s stock and students to get cash back at the end of term if they have books we’re using again. I’m teaching a couple of the same classes again in 2023-24 (my first-year writing class and Mystery & Detective Fiction) and so it isn’t too hard to get those orders sorted out. While I was at it, I thought I’d also make my mind up about which novels I’d assign for the Austen to Dickens course (this year I’m doing Dickens to Hardy — once upon a time I taught them both every year, but now I do them in alternate years) . . . and this has had me thinking about how my reading lists have changed over the past twenty years.

I don’t mean substantively, although over the years titles have come and gone and been offered in many different combinations. But going back over recent book lists to get ideas, what stood out to me the most is that in the early 2000s I routinely assigned six novels in these one-term courses, often including one really long one (Vanity Fair, Bleak House or Middlemarch, say). Then around 2008 I went down to five, which remained standard for my book lists until 2020, again usually including one of the big ones but often balancing it with one pretty short one (The WardenCranford, or Silas Marner, for example).

Then in Fall 2020, when we “pivoted” to online teaching, I took the widespread advice to reduce students’ workload, both because online pedagogy is more laborious for everyone (because of things like written discussion boards replacing more impromptu in-person discussions) and because of the additional stress of the pandemic. That term I assigned just four novels. I taught the 19th-century fiction class online again in Fall 2021 — and again I assigned four novels. Both times one of the four was a big one, but overall, there was less reading than I used to require.

OUP MiddlemarchWhen I came back to in-person teaching last term, I was wary about going back to pre-pandemic norms. Things in general didn’t really seem normal, after all. So once again I assigned just four novels. OK, one of them was Middlemarch! (But again, I used to assign Middlemarch routinely as one of five or even six.) My impression was that for many of the students, this reduced reading load was a lot — overwhelming, even, for some of them — and so I have ordered just four novels again for next year (although one of them is David Copperfield).

What this has me wondering about is what has changed. Was I delusional, back in 2003 or 2004, thinking that most of the class was actually getting through six Victorian novels in a term? My memory of those years is that they included some of the best classes I’ve taught: lively, engaged, enthusiastic, with students often showing up again and again to work with me. Perhaps that was just a very self-selecting fraction of them; perhaps I focused too much on those who were keen and keeping up and the others coasted through somehow (SparkNotes, maybe?) without my being any the wiser. What about all those years I assigned five novels? Again, I always thought things were going fine, if not for everyone, then for most of the class. I certainly don’t remember complaints about the reading load in those days, but over the last two years I have had quite a few students contact me to express concern about their ability to get through, and also just to comprehend, the novels on my reading

Did the pandemic make that big a difference, with its disruptions to students’ learning and study habits perhaps undermining their patience or capacity for sustained reading? Are students working a lot more outside of school now than they were in 2008 or 2015? Is it an ongoing generational shift, as the trend towards easier modes of media consumption continues? Or is it a question of my own lowered expectations lowering their expectations — of their classes and of themselves? If I put five novels back on the list, would they rise to the occasion? I do feel there have been losses as the number of titles we work on goes down, because there’s less variety, but I have heard the wisdom that less content actually means more learning. I could address the variety problem by replacing the one big novel with two shorter novels, I suppose, but I am reluctant to give up the chance to work through one of the long ones, not least because that kind of doorstopper is one of the literary glories of the period — and not many students are likely to try any of the really big ones on their own, so my class is a rare opportunity to offer them that experience.

copperfieldI could still add a fifth book to next year’s list if I want to. So far, I’m committed to Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreDavid Copperfield, and The Warden. In 2017 I assigned Persuasion, Vanity FairJane EyreNorth and South, and Great Expectations for the same course; in 2013 the list was PersuasionWaverleyJane EyreDavid Copperfield, and North and South (I remember that year distinctly, because it was the year of the Waverley intervention!). I wouldn’t dare add Waverley at this point, I don’t think (I last taught it in 2020, just before we all got sent home, and oh my goodness does looking back at that post make me nostalgic) but I wonder if Mary Barton or Adam Bede would break them, or maybe little Silas Marner. Or maybe I should accept that for whatever reason, at this point less really is more, or at least enough.

What about the rest of you who assign reading for a living? Do you find that the amount of reading you dare demand keeps going down? If so, do you mind, or do you think it is a net benefit? What do you think are the causes? Is it just reality catching up with us (after all, if we’re in this line of work, we do probably read more, and faster, than most) or has something really changed? Students out there — current, former, or prospective — what’s your perspective?

Specifications Grading: My First Attempt

1015StartHere-cropAs if converting my courses to online versions wasn’t challenging enough, I also used specifications grading for the first time this fall, for my first-year class “Literature: How It Works.” This is an experiment I had been thinking a lot about before the pandemic struck: in fact, on March 13, the last day we were all on campus, I actually had a meeting with our Associate Dean to discuss how to make sure doing so wouldn’t conflict with any of the university’s or faculty’s policies. Though I did have some second thoughts after the “pivot” to online teaching, it seemed to me that many features of specifications grading were well suited to Brightspace-based delivery, so I decided to persist with the plan, and I spent a great deal of time and thought over the summer figuring out my version of it.

I had originally planned to try contract grading, but one concern I saw raised about that is it can be hard for students to know enough at the outset to make a good choice about which contract to commit to, a problem likely to be especially vexing for first-year students. The same could be said about specifications grading in a way (and both systems can be configured to allow for adjustments, too, of course), but I liked the idea of students accumulating work and learning along the way how much time and effort the course was worth to them. I pored over the materials I found about people’s plans for and experiences with specifications grading, especially this essay and some other materials by Linda B. Nilson and posts by Jason Mittell at his blog Just TV. I also had to take into account the rules that govern all of Dal’s writing requirement courses, and then to think about my own usual approach to teaching first-year English classes that combine introductory material about literary interpretation with explicit attention to writing. I wanted my plan to support, not replace, the overall pedagogical approach I am used to and believe in.

conciseBILI won’t go into every detail of the plan I finally came up with (though if anyone is really keen to see the extensive documentation, I’d be happy to share it by email). Basically, I made a list of the kinds of work I wanted students to do in service of the course’s multiple objectives: reading journals, discussion posts and replies, writing worksheets, quizzes, and essays. Then I worked out what seemed to me reasonable quantities of each component for bundles I called PASS, CORE, MORE, and MOST. These bundles corresponded to D, C, B, and A grades at the end of term; students’ grades on the final exam determined if they got a + or – added to their letter grade. I also (and in many ways this is the most important part of the whole system!) drew up the specifications for what would count as satisfactory work of each kind: completing a bundle didn’t mean just turning in enough components but turning in enough that met the specifications. Following the lead of others who have used this kind of system, I tried to make the specifications equivalent to something more like a typical B than a bare pass.

All teachers know that it is a mistake to draw firm conclusions based on a single iteration of any course or any assignment sequence, because every class is different – not just its population of students (who somehow take on a collective personality that can be quite different from the character of any individual member) but the whole dynamic. Add in the stress and chaos of everyone’s first semester of online teaching (which for most of the students in this class was also their first semester of university altogether) and I have a lot of reasons not to declare the experiment either an absolute success or a complete failure. All I can do at this point is reflect on what seemed to go well and what I will do differently when I try it again. I definitely will try it again, though, which in itself I suppose is a kind of conclusion: though there were some significant hiccups as the term and the plan unfolded, on the whole I think the benefits–not so much logistical as psychological and pedagogical–made it well worth the attempt and hopefully it will go more smoothly the second time.

Grade A Plus result vector icon. School red mark handwriting A plus in circleTo start with, then, what seemed to go well? First, especially when it came time to assess the students’ longer essays, I really appreciated being freed from assigning them letter grades. Almost every single essay submitted (so, nearly 180 assignments over the term) clearly met the specifications for the assignment, so our focus could be on giving feedback, not (consciously or unconsciously) trying to justify minute gradations in our assessments. I hadn’t realized just how much it weighed on me needing to make artificially precise distinctions between, say, B- and C+ papers, or trying to decide if an unsuccessful attempt at a more ambitious or original argument should really get the same grade as an immaculately polished version of one that mostly reiterated my lectures. Once I’d read through a submission to see if it met the specifications, I could go back and reread with an eye to engaging with it honestly and constructively. This is what I thought I did already, but if you haven’t ever tried grading essays without actually grading them, you too may be surprised at how liberating it feels to let go of that awareness that when you’re done, you have to put a particular pin in it.

One reason for trying the whole experiment in the first place was that this kind of change–in which individual assignments are not only not marked but also do not carry much weight in their course grade over all–would (I hoped) relieve students’ anxiety and also (relatedly) discourage plagiarism. I think it did both. I had fewer academic integrity cases this year than in the other first-year courses I’ve taught most recently, at any rate, and though some students were definitely still anxious, I was able to tell them not to worry so much about every detail because it was clear already that they were going to turn in satisfactory work. It was nice to be able to say “relax a little!” and know it didn’t sound hollow: I could encourage them just to do their best to explain what they thought and why they thought it, and we would see how it turned out. In retrospect I think my meta-messaging about this benefit could have been more conspicuous–but that said, worriers gonna worry, and it’s not a bad thing for students to want their work to be as good as it can be!

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgOn a related note, something else that I think was good (though it was a bit hard for me to tell without having a chance to talk it over with the class in person) was that the system gave students a fair amount of control over their final grade for the course. Instead of trying to meet some standard that–no matter how carefully you explain and model it–often seems obscure to students, especially in first-year (“what do you want?” is an ordinarily all-too-frequent question about their essay assignments) they could keep a tally of their satisfactory course components and know exactly what else they needed to do to complete a particular bundle and thus earn a particular grade. That didn’t mean it was an automatic process; again, to be rated satisfactory, the work had to meet the specifications I set. I tried to make the specifications concrete, though: they didn’t include any abstract qualitative standards (like “excellence” or “thoughtful”). The core standards were things like “on time,” “on topic,” “within the word limit,” and, most important, to my mind, “shows a good faith effort” to do the task at hand. I suppose that last one is open to interpretation, but I think it sends the right message to students trying to learn how to do something unfamiliar: if they actually try to do it, that counts. When my TA and I debated the occasional submission that had arguably missed the mark in some other way, we used “good faith effort” as the deciding factor for whether they earned the credit: we used it generously, rather than punitively.

letter_paper_and_pen_vector_275746One other way I consider the experiment a success was that it seemed to me that the students’ quantity of work–their consistent effort over time–did ultimately lead to improvements in the quality of their work. The skepticism I faced from some colleagues when I mentioned this plan tended to focus on concerns about rewarding quantity over quality, or about not sufficiently recognizing and rewarding exceptional quality. Over the term I did sometimes worry about this myself: much as I liked being freed from grading individual assignments, I didn’t always like giving the same assessment of ‘satisfactory’ to assignments that ranged from perfunctory or barely passable at one end of the scale to impressively articulate and insightful at the other. You can signal the difference through your feedback, though, and that’s the big shift specifications grading requires. The other key point is that most people really do get better at writing if they practice (and get feedback, and engage with lots of examples of other people’s writing) and so making it a requirement for a good grade that you had to write a lot had the side-effect (or, met the course objective!) of helping a lot of students improve as writers. Between reading journals and discussion posts and replies, there was no way to get an A in this version of the course without writing a few hundred words every week, which is a lot more than students necessarily have to do in my face-to-face versions of intro classes. Especially in their final batch of essays, I think that practice showed.

To sum up the positives, then:

  • using specifications grading let me focus on feedback instead of hierarchical evaluations for student writing;
  • this in turn reduced some of the anxiety students feel around writing assignments;
  • it also reduced the incentives for them to cheat;
  • it gave them more control over the outcome of their efforts, rather than leaving them subject to what they often feel (rightly or wrongly) are arbitrary professorial judgments;
  • and it meant that all students and especially students who aspired to do well in the course got regular practice at applying their analytical skills (and the specialized vocabulary they learned) to a wide array of literary texts and then explaining their ideas and observations in their own words.

Because this post has gotten pretty long already, I’ll stop here and take up the question of what didn’t work so well, or what I’ll do different next time, in another post. I hope that this overview of the benefits shows, though, why my first attempt at specifications grading won’t be my last.

The Last Few Weeks In My (Online) Classes


The second half of term, and especially the couple of weeks right after our November reading week (which falls uncomfortably late in the term, as I’ve often complained), always go by in a mad rush. This term has been no different in that respect, except that the mad rush has just been more of the exact same things I’ve been doing since September: staring at the screen, typing, clicking, staring some more, typing, clicking. Because we have the same routines on Saturdays and Sundays as on every other days of the week, too, it really all just blurs into one long sameness, one continuous stretch of staring and typing and clicking, with just our daily walks, our meals, and our evening television as interruptions and diversions.

2040 SYLLABUSIt hasn’t been all bad, though. I said back in October that given the choice, I’d never teach all online again, and that remains true. But would I never teach online again at all, ever, if it were up to me? I can actually imagine, now, that there might be circumstances in which I would appreciate some features of online teaching, especially if the rest of my life were restored. I don’t miss early morning starts, and once wintry weather arrives I will be glad not to be forced out into it. If I had to – or chose to – be somewhere else for a while, I wouldn’t be so constrained by the implacability of the academic calendar. And it’s not all new to me any more: though I don’t love Brightspace, I know my way around it a lot better than I did in May, for one thing, and when I recorded my concluding lectures for my courses I felt much more comfortable and confident in front of the camera than I did when I made my first videos in August.

Over the last week or so, in the lull between the incessant weekly tasks of this term’s classes and the arrival of their final essays and exams, I have been finalizing the syllabi and working on the course sites for next term’s classes, and while I certainly don’t think I have got this whole thing figured out, I do feel as if I’ve learned a lot by doing it once that will help me do it better. Right now it seems about 50/50 that we’ll be going back to in-person teaching in Fall 2021: with the roll-out of vaccines beginning even as I write this, it isn’t impossible that by then enough of us will be protected that some semblance of normalcy will have returned, though we are still in such uncharted territory that it would be foolish to assume anything about the future. I would still rather teach online than be back in a classroom hamstrung by necessary safety measures and shadowed by anxiety. Maybe even once classroom teaching is securely the default once again, there will still be times when I will be glad to have acquired this experience and to know that I can do it again if I have to or want to.

panopto-logoSo what have I learned? In addition to the technical stuff – Brightspace and Panopto and Collaborate, oh my! – I have learned, as a lot of other people have too, that the best advice and methods for online teaching may not be the best advice and methods for online teaching in these circumstances. “Formative” assessments, scaffolded assignments, regular low-stakes engagement exercises: they may all be (and in fact I believe they are) pedagogically effective, but when we all start doing them all at once with students many of whom are used to more episodic kinds of engagement (essay assignments, midterms, final projects, etc.), the overall effect is overwhelming. I spent a lot of time puzzling over exactly the issue addressed in that linked essay: in my mind, as I planned my courses, if anything I was requiring much less work than usual, as I’d cut back the reading assignments and instead of three class meetings a week students had “just” a couple of short videos to watch and some informal writing to do, plus the usual papers and tests.

What I think I had miscalculated, however, is how little specific accountability there really was in most of those classroom hours: students could do all the reading and come prepared to discuss it, and some certainly did, but others didn’t, or didn’t always, and they could count on that time as useful but passive, a chance to listen in on what the rest of us had to say without having to generate material of their own. The new expectation that they “show up” in writing seemed like a great opportunity to make sure the talkative portion of the class wasn’t the only part that I heard from, and that was a good aspect of it. Even for the students who typically did the readings and did want to talk about them, though, the written alternatives felt harder, I think, and created more pressure, no matter how hard I tried to explain that they were meant to be low key, not high stakes. Plus, again, if every class is asking for a constant stream of input, the logistics alone probably get bewildering.

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgThat said, I’m still going to ask for online discussions in my winter term courses! Expressing your ideas about what you’ve read in words is the fundamental task and method of literary studies, after all. I lessened the requirements in one of my classes this term, once we started to hear reports of students being overwhelmed, and for next term I have (I think!) made the requirements more streamlined, and also explained better what the terms and expectations are. In retrospect I should perhaps have scaled things back in my first-year course, where I was (still am!) doing my first experiment with specifications grading – but I honestly didn’t expect that so many of them would fix on and stay fixed on fulfilling the most demanding bundle. I expected a much larger number to decide that level of effort was a bit much just to cross off their writing requirement: instead, knowing it was achievable with enough persistence seems to have motivated a significant portion of the class to do a lot of regular writing. They will have worked very hard on a whole range of tasks, so I certainly don’t begrudge them their As, though this is something I will think more about when (if) I do specifications grading again – which will have to be the subject of its own post when the term is really and truly over and I have a more complete sense of whether or how the experiment succeeded or failed.

Mmarch slide

Once again I seem to be focused in this teaching post primarily on logistics and methods rather than on the content of my courses: this has been my lament all term, really, because compared with just showing up to class with my book and my notes, offering an online lesson or module is just a whole lot more complicated. Reviewing my recorded lectures as I made up review handouts and final exams, though, I was pleased to see that they are pretty substantial. Within the relatively simple options I chose to deliver them (basically, just narrated PowerPoints, pretty much all under 15 minutes each) they are as interesting and creative as I could manage; thinking of ways to present ideas in this format, especially ideas derived from or modeling close reading, was conceptually challenging. That was my favorite part of each week’s class prep, and I’m actually kind of looking forward to doing more of it next term, especially because I’ll be working with readings that I know really well, which makes the jump from “what’s next?” to “what do I want to say about it?” much easier.

1015 slide

This term isn’t over yet, though: starting tomorrow I’ll be deep in exams and essays, which is at least par for the course, for this point in the year. Despite the monotonous way one day has blurred into the next, and the difficulty of keeping my spirits up in this surreal, isolated, scary time, I’ve been grateful that my work has continued and has kept me so busy that I can marvel that it’s “already” December. I expect that next term will be much the same – and maybe by the time I look up from my screen and marvel that it’s “already” April the tentative optimism sparked by today’s good news will have turned into genuine hope for the future.

This Week In My Classes: Going Remote

three-guineasLike everyone else in the world (and how odd for that not to be hyperbole, though our timelines have differed) I have spent the past week adjusting to the unprecedented risks and disruptions created by the spread of COVID-19. Friday March 13 began as a more or less ordinary day of classes: the cloud was looming on the horizon, reports were coming in of the first university closures in Canada, and we had been instructed to start making contingency plans in case Dalhousie followed suit. But my schedule that day was normal almost to the end: I had a meeting with our Associate Dean Academic to discuss my interest in trying contract grading in my first-year writing class; I taught the second of four planned classes on Three Guineas in the Brit Lit survey class and of four planned classes on Mary Barton in 19th-Century British Fiction. The only real break from routine was a brisk walk down to Spring Garden Road at lunch time to pick up a couple of items I thought it might be nice to have secured, just in case: Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good for my book club, which I knew had just come in at Bookmark, and a bottle of my favorite Body Shop shower gel (satsuma! it is such a sunny fragrance)–hardly essential, but potential pick-me-ups for hard times to come.


Just before my afternoon class, however, we got the news that classes were being suspended as of Monday March 16: it’s a measure of how distracted I actually was, despite the veneer of normalcy, that I didn’t quite process the details and thought for a while that we would still be in classes at least until Wednesday (which is the date the memo told us to have our detailed plans ready for the rest of the term). The first scheduling casualty was the department talk scheduled for that Friday afternoon: I was supposed to be introducing what I’m sure would have been a very interesting talk from Tom Ue on ‘Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing,’ but though Tom had come out from Toronto already, the decision was made not to go ahead with it. I suppose it’s true it would have been hard for people to settle down and pay attention, under the circumstances, not to mention inconsistent with the escalating imperative to ‘social distancing.’

OUP MiddlemarchSo I packed up and went home–but still, I realized later, without having quite focused on what was happening. For example, I brought home not just the books we were in the middle of but the books that are (were) next on the class schedule, because it still seemed plausible that we would be doing something like actually finishing the courses as originally planned. And I did not bring home a stack of books that it might just be nice to have copies of at home–any of my Victorian novels, for instance. I own around a dozen copies of Middlemarch, and right now every one of them is out of reach! We are still allowed into our building, and I’ve been thinking I should go get one, and maybe some Trollope. I can’t tell if this really makes much sense, though. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have a lot of books to read right here with me, and I also have e-books of a lot of 19th-century novels because when I bought my first Sony e-reader, years ago, part of the deal was a big stack of free classics to go with it. So what if I don’t like reading long books electronically: I could get used to it. It would be a pretty low-risk outing, given that the campus is basically a ghost town at this point, but I think it’s really psychological reassurance I would be seeking, not reading material, and what are the odds that seeing familiar places I can’t really go back to for who knows how long would actually be comforting?

remains-coverAnyway, it quickly became clear that the right strategy (and, to their credit, the one our administrators have been urging) is not to try to replicate electronically all of our plans for the last few weeks of term, including the final exam period, but to smooth students’ paths to completion as best we can: dropping readings and assignments and giving them options including taking the grade they have earned so far but still also allowing another chance to do better in as painless a way as we can think of. I think the options I came up with for my classes are pretty good, in these respects, but it may be that they don’t go far enough, because this is all turning out to be so much harder than it sounded a week ago–and of course however we might (or might not!) be managing, our students have their own specific circumstances which may make even the most “reasonable” alternatives too much. I have been feeling a lot of regret about the books we won’t get to, especially The Remains of the Day, which I was increasingly excited about as the capstone text for the survey class–what a good book to read right after Three Guineas! As for Three Guineas itself, I was so excited about teaching it for the first time. It’s definitely going back on my syllabus the next time it fits the brief. Sigh.

The Student (Dixon)One of the most emotionally painful parts of all of this has been the abrupt severance of personal relationships, which is what teaching is really all about. I have put course materials together to get us to the end of our current texts, but it is much less rewarding scripting them than it is taking my ideas and questions in to meet them with and seeing what comes of our encounter. Sure, it doesn’t always go swimmingly, but that just means you try again, or try something different. I know there are ways to include more personal and “synchronous” interaction (as we’ve quickly learned to label it!) in online teaching, and of course as someone who spends a lot of time online I already believe that you can cultivate meaningful relationships without meeting face to face. There just isn’t time for that now, though, and also the demands those tools put on everyone to be available and attentive at the same time are all wrong for our immediate circumstances. It isn’t just about finding ways to get through the course material together either: there are students I have been working with for years who it turns out I saw in person for maybe the last time that Friday without even knowing it. I have been thinking about them, and about all of my students, so much since that hectic departure from campus and hoping they know how much I have valued our time together and how much I already miss them!

macke woman readingAnd now, I guess, it’s time to settle in to what people keep euphemistically calling “the new normal.” Here in Halifax we are under strong directions for social distancing; I’ve heard rumors that something more rigorous might be coming, in the hope of really flattening that infamous curve. There are lots of wry jokes and memes about readers or introverts or others whose habits and preferences mean they have been “preparing for this moment our whole lives.” We live a pretty quiet life ourselves, so to some extent this is true of us as well (though not of Maddie, who like many young people is going to be very well served by the various ways she and her friends can stay in touch virtually). It’s pretty different having to stay home, though, and also worrying whenever you go out, even if it’s only for essentials. It’s also not spring yet here–I envy my family in Vancouver the softening weather that makes walks and parks and gardens good options. I am grateful, though, that we are comfortable and together and, so far, healthy. I am also glad I did pick up An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, because I finished reading it this morning and it is a nice bit of twisted fun…about which more soon, I hope!

I’m thinking about all my blogging and Twitter friends a lot too and I am so glad we have these networks to keep us connected. May we take strength and comfort from each other even from our usual distance!


This Week In My Classes: Not Again!

SnowBirdGiven the cyclical nature of the academic life as well as the recurrence of texts and topics in the classes I teach most often, there are lots of things I might be saying “Not again!” about! This week, however, the particularly irksome repetition is the disruption to the start of term thanks to a big storm–not a hurricane, like the fall term, but a snow storm. Once again, classes had barely begun (in both of mine, we missed our second scheduled meeting) which means not just that I’ve had to scramble to reorganize their schedules, but that we haven’t had a chance yet to establish a rapport and a routine.

I always feel very exposed during the first few class meetings: it’s hard not to be conscious that a lot of students are judging you in a hurry as they decide whether yours is a class they want to stay in. It is impossible to know, of course, quite what they see when they look at me, or, for that matter, what they want or expect to see and how or why, as a result, I might or might not be it. My goal is to be as clear and positive as possible about my vision for the course and also as authentic as possible: after all this time, I am who I am, and I am the teacher I am, too. I know I can’t be all things to all people! Still, although I am in my third decade of teaching at Dalhousie, I always get nervous; as the wise narrator says in Middlemarch, “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.” Every class that goes by eases my anxiety a little, which is why a disruption so early in the term is so unwelcome.

daffodilsSo what, besides calming my nerves (and perhaps theirs as well), is on the agenda for our remaining classes this week? Well, in British Literature After 1800 Friday will be our (deferred) Wordsworth day. In my opening lecture on Monday I emphasized the arbitrariness of literary periods and the challenges of telling coherent stories based on chronology, the way a survey course is set up to do. But I also stressed the value of knowing when things were written, both because putting them in order is useful for understanding the way literary conversations and influences unfold, with writers often responding or reacting to or resisting each other, and because historical contexts can be crucial to recognizing meaning. My illustrative text for this point was Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” which (as I told them) is the first poem I ever memorized, as a child. It was perfectly intelligible to me then, and it is still a charming and accessible poem to readers who know nothing at all about what we now call ‘Romanticism.’ Without historical context, it seems anything but radical–and yet Wordsworth in his day (at least, in his early days) was considered literally revolutionary. His poetry “is one of the innovations of the time,” William Hazlitt wrote in “The Spirit of the Age”;

It partakes of, and is carried along with, the revolutionary movement of our age: the political changes of the day were the model on which he formed and conducted his poetical experiments.

In Friday’s class we’ll talk about all of this in more detail, with the Preface to Lyrical Ballads to fill in Wordsworth’s own point of view and “Tintern Abbey” as our richer representative sample.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinIn 19th-Century Fiction it’s time for Pride and Prejudice, though I’ll start with an abbreviated version of the lecture I would have given on Wednesday on the history of the 19th-century novel. It has been several years since I’ve taught Pride and Prejudice (see here for why) but rereading it this week I have been enjoying it as much as always. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I wanted to teach it in some different way, and with that in mind I’ve been reading a range of sources on, for instance, Jane Austen and empire or Jane Austen and “the abolitionist turn” (which is the title of a very interesting essay by Patricia Matthew).  I also listened to this fascinating and, I think, really useful discussion on the podcast Bonnets At Dawn (including an interview with Dr. Matthew) about Mansfield Park in particular but also, more generally, about questions of race and empire in the Austen classroom.

moonstone-oupThere’s no doubt that if I were teaching Mansfield Park these questions would be a big part of our discussion, as they are when I teach The Moonstone. I haven’t so far arrived at any ideas about how — or, to some extent, why — we would take up this specific line of inquiry in our work on Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps I am too prone to let the novels I assign set their own terms for our analysis–to rely on their overt topical engagements more than what they leave out or obscure–but this particular novel doesn’t seem to be about race and empire, even though its characters live in a world where these things (while never, I think, explicitly mentioned) matter a lot. Beyond acknowledging that fact, which in itself is worth doing, I’m not sure where to go with it. It is disturbing, though, to know that the alt-right enjoys (their version of) her novels; I think the author of that linked essay is correct that the novels actually do not fit the narrative they are being coopted to serve, but one thing we might consider as we work through the novel is what makes it vulnerable to that particular kind of (mis)reading and political appropriation.

Notes from the Field: #GE2019conf

ge02019-logoIn retrospect, I’m glad my pitch for a article reporting back on the George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was rejected: the cognitive dissonance I struggled with during the conference was strong enough that I have been puzzling over how or whether to write about it even here, in relative obscurity and without being answerable to anyone else for whatever it is that I come up with to say.

It’s not that I have bad things to report. In many ways, it was a wonderful and invigorating experience. I spent time with a lot of lovely people, including some I have known for ages on Twitter and finally got to meet face to face but also new acquaintances met at the breakfast table or in the courtyard or at sessions. At all-purpose conferences like ACCUTE it can be hard to find a critical mass of people who share your interests, or even to see the same people at two different panels; I have typically found such events deadening rather than enlivening. This group, in contrast, was unified by a common commitment to understanding George Eliot and her work better; though there were multiple sessions in each time slot, a sense of community emerged pretty quickly as faces and names became familiar. I enjoyed many good informal conversations about George Eliot, about 19th-century literature more generally, about teaching, about academia, and about our lives. Then there was the stimulating if slightly surreal experience of seeing in person scholars who work has been familiar to me for as many years as I have been doing scholarly work on Victorian literature–most notably  George Levine, Gillian Beer, Isobel Armstrong, and Rosemary Ashton (whose biography of George Eliot I have often recommended). All of the plenary addresses were conference highlights (as they should be), but especially the moderated discussion between Levine and Beer about George Eliot studies then and now (and in the future).


Of particular importance to me was finally meeting Philip Davis. I have been interested in his work with The Reader Organisation for nearly as long as I have been blogging; their journal The Reader was one of the first non-academic venues for thoughtful writing about literature that I became aware of. He first became aware of me (as far as I know) when I reviewed his fascinating book The Transferred Life of George Eliot for the TLS a couple of years ago. He wrote to me about my review and we struck up a correspondence that led to my writing an essay for The Reader on Carol Shields’ Unless (which readers of this blog will recognize as an old favourite of mine). When I saw the announcement for the bicentenary conference the first thing I thought of was that he and I should put together a panel on bringing George Eliot to broader audiences. Happily, he liked the idea too, and that’s what we did; we called it “George Eliot in the Wider World.”

strangled-tote.pngEach of the presenters on our panel addressed quite a different “application” for George Eliot. I spoke about what I see as reasons for but also the difficulties with “pitching” her work to the kind of bookish public I have been trying to write for–at left is my design for a George Eliot tote bag meant to illustrate the case I made that her books are not, as too often assumed, too long and dull for the “common reader” but too fierce. Phil spoke about the often profound impact Eliot’s work has on participants in the groups run by the Reader Organisation; his University of Liverpool colleague Josie Billington discussed the therapeutic value of particular elements of George Eliot’s writing, especially her use of free indirect discourse; and Alison Liebling from Cambridge University talked about the relevance of George Eliot’s ideas to her work on the ethics of prison culture. I admit, hearing the other speakers made me fret for a while that my contribution was on the frivolous side: it seemed to matter much more to help people change their lives or feel more human than to compete for the attention of editors and magazine readers. But then I thought about the essays I have in fact written and I felt OK, both about them and about the people I have actually reached with them. If one thing unified our slightly disparate presentations it was a shared conviction that the more people who read George Eliot the better, in however many different ways and for whatever different purposes.


So far so good! I would also add a couple of other sessions to the unequivocal plus column. One was on teaching George Eliot, which of course is something I work on and worry about a lot; I particularly appreciated the presentations by Jennifer Holberg and Steven Venturino (both Twitter friends I was so happy to hang out with in person!), which made me think a lot about ways to slow down by, for instance, letting go a bit of the coverage model and allowing more time for things like reading passages aloud and really lingering on them. I have always done some of this, of course, but there’s no question that for many students keeping up with reading long books is a challenge these days. Jennifer offered some really useful data related to that, partly to make the point that we need to focus on teaching the students we actually have, not the ones we might wish we have or–a common problem, I think–the ones we were ourselves, or at least think we were. Steven spoke convincingly about the value of “serial reading.” The other panel I would single out was on George Eliot and the modern reader; in particular, Valerie Sanders’s paper about how George Eliot is discussed or drawn on in contemporary literary culture had strong resonances with my own.

Book Club Cover

What distinguished these three panels from the others I attended is that they were outward-facing: they were all organized around ideas for talking about George Eliot and her fiction to people besides other scholars and academics. They focused on and generated discussions about mobilizing what we know about her work, about turning our informed enthusiasm into something for other people to use or share or benefit from. I want to make sure I am very clear about this next point (because the opposite case is made too often by people with very different aims than mine): I have no objection to discourse that is exclusively for and between experts. Not every conversation has to be for everybody, and literary scholarship is a specialized field of inquiry like any other: those who pursue it need opportunities to share and test their ideas with other specialists. Although I have written many times on this site about my own vexed relationship with academic literary criticism, I have consistently explained that I don’t think nobody should do it–I just no longer believe that it’s the only (or, sometimes, the most valuable) kind of work for people in my profession to pursue. Crucially, I no longer think it is the kind of work I want to do. (I haven’t written as much about these issues lately; if you want to review what I have said about them you can browse the academia or criticism indexes and read as much or as little as you like!)

What I’m going to say next follows predictably both from what I just said and from what I’ve been saying here for over a decade. The part of the conference I (mostly) did not enjoy or find rewarding was what some people might consider the actual conference, that is, the panels of finely wrought, scrupulously argued, and (by and large) highly abstract and specialized academic papers. I really tried–to listen closely, to engage with the ideas and arguments, to think my way into the conversations they were having. Mostly, I failed. I found this genuinely disheartening, though really I should not have been surprised. I am not criticizing the presenters. They were doing what they came to do, what their profession requires of them, what–presumably–they find interesting and intellectually stimulating, and they were doing it well. Some good evidence for that is that at every panel I attended, there were questions from the audience that showed a high level of attention and engagement. As the conference wound up, there were many expressions of excitement about how stimulating and transformative and generative it had been. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. For people who like this kind of thing, there was a lot of it to like at this conference!


But I don’t like it–not much, or not usually, and, mostly, not this time either. I thought I might do better when all the papers were on George Eliot, but that just made me more frustrated–at myself, mostly, for not getting it. I have previously described my experience of attending academic talks (#NotAllAcademicTalks) as making me feel like a non-believer in church, and for all my belief–for all our shared belief–in the interest and value of paying close attention to George Eliot, that’s how I felt at a lot of the sessions I attended. I wondered beforehand if the conference would inspire me to return to more conventional academic scholarship, if not as a producer, at least as a reader. I even hoped, a little, that it would. I did hear about some projects and lines of inquiry that seemed genuinely interesting, and there was something generally encouraging about the evident energy around the scholarly enterprise as a whole (as I have said here before, whatever my feelings about individual trees, I am a committed supporter of the academic forest).  Overall, however, my conference experience reminded me of the reasons why I have been doing something else for so long. This is where the cognitive dissonance comes in, though: how can I think it’s a good thing and yet want no part of it myself?

Cover2It isn’t exactly that I want no part of it, though. As I hope I have also made clear here over the years, my own intellectual life has been shaped and enriched by many kinds of academic scholarship (though not always the most currently trendy kinds). I have contributed to that specialized work and remain proud of those contributions. Who knows: I may make more! Probably not about George Eliot, though–the conference confirmed for me that I want to keep moving in a different direction with my research. I’m not ruling out doing any more writing about George Eliot. I already have one piece in the works for the fall (I hope) and she will always have my heart. But after three immersive days listening in on what academics talk about when they talk about George Eliot now, I am more convinced than ever, not that I don’t need them, but that they don’t need me. I have nothing to add to the work they are doing, and (as I have long argued) there are enough people engaged in it that the field can spare a few of us to go and do otherwise–indeed, it not just can, but almost certainly should.

Responding to Srigley, Over and Over and Over

Lady (Waterhouse)I have been very glad to see eloquent and well-informed responses to Ron Srigley’s screed “Pass, Fail” in The Walrus (which largely reiterates his screed in the Los Angeles Review of Books). I was disappointed in both venues, frankly: it seems to me to show poor editorial judgment to publish rants of this kind without checking their intemperate anecdata and wild generalizations against at least a broader sampling of facts and opinions about the very complex business that is higher education. I would have expected both journals to think better of themselves and their readers. Both Aimée Morrison and Melonie Fullick have offered valuable critiques — but because these writers don’t go to extremes, either rhetorically or ideologically, their thoughtful pieces almost certainly won’t get as much attention, and because Srigley is preaching to a nasty choir of higher ed haters, rather than actually trying to engage people interested in meaningful dialogue, critique, or reform, the people who are gleefully linking to his article are unlikely to step back and reconsider the nature or value of his arguments.

I thought about writing a detailed response as well — not because I have done the kind of research that makes Melonie so well-qualified to speak up, but because I found Srigley’s sweeping denunciations of “contentless” classrooms, the replacement of what he considers important topics by “narcissistic and transparently self-promoting twaddle,” and professors who “pandered to [students’] basest inclinations while leaving their real intellectual and moral needs unmet” profoundly insulting — to me and my colleagues and to the generations of students we have taught. Further, the claim that “most degrees involve no real content” is not just a lie but, in our current economic and political climate, a damaging lie. Yes, there are grains of truth in his criticisms of the way universities are run and in his descriptions of the sometimes incompatible priorities of students, staff, and faculty. But most of us who are dealing with these problems every day on the job (and evenings and weekends too, much of the time) do not need “friends” like Srigley, who is actually an enemy of the enterprise we are all, collectively, engaged in, in good faith if sometimes with flagging spirits.

By the time I finished his LARB piece I was seething, and I was seething again, and also profoundly discouraged, when I saw it resurrected in The Walrus. Is this really the story about higher education that people want to read? It must be, or relatively sober publications that could certainly afford to turn it down wouldn’t run it: they must have figured that it would generate traffic, and I’m sure they were right. (You’ll notice I have not linked directly to either iteration here, because I hate that the internet incessantly rewards the worst over the best.) I fervently believe that my work, and the work of thousands of others like me, is not a “retail scam”: maybe, I thought, I should try to explain why not.

WP_20140827_005But then I realized that I have said so, that I have made my argument — over and over, for almost 10 years. Here at Novel Readings I have posted regularly about my teaching, for instance, since 2007, when I began my series on “This Week In My Classes” because of other equally vitriolic and unbalanced public criticisms of my life’s work. I have shared details about what my classes are studying, I have raised questions about pedagogy, I have fretted about students who don’t seem engaged and celebrated the much more numerous ones who care a lot, I have explored new subjects and developed new material, I have sought advice and sometimes comfort. In other words, I have tried to do the opposite of Srigley’s grand dismissive gestures: I’ve invited anyone who’s interested to come inside the academy and see for themselves what I’m up to.

I can’t rule out the possibility that someone would read through my archive of teaching posts and still reach Srigley’s dire conclusions about the state of higher education. I know, too, that I’m just one professor, so my first-person experience is also, in its own way, anecdotal rather than conclusive. But I honestly think my efforts to meet my students every time with the best that I can come up with are more representative than Srigley’s dystopian exaggerations. I’m surrounded every day with colleagues who similarly strive, with all their intelligence, creativity, and fortitude, to bring their students with them to intellectual places they think are both interesting and vitally important. Every day, we are all surrounded with students who meet us at least half way, and some who take us further than we would have gone on our own. Sure, some don’t, or won’t, for both good and bad reasons, some of them individual and some of them structural. But an imperfect process is a sign of a work in progress, which is always what education is.

Novel Readings is still a pretty quiet corner of the internet; whatever hope I had, back in 2007, that my teaching posts would make even a slight difference to the larger public narrative about higher education has long subsided. But the archive is there for those who want a different perspective: rather than grand statements, they provide a steady record of particulars. I’m not going to attempt any further response to Srigley, because in these posts I have, implicitly, responded already, over and over and over: instead, I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, both here and, especially, in the classroom, where it really matters.

Happy New Year! and New Books! and New OLM!


2016 is getting off to a good start in my corner of the world. For one thing, I have a lovely array of new books, thanks to the kind people who basically ran my entire Chapters wish list. Isn’t that an enticing stack? My problem now is that I can’t decide where to start: rereading Mr. Impossible, because I know how fun that will be? rereading Little Women, because I finally have my own elegant edition? embarking on Jane Smiley’s ‘100 Years’ trilogy? plunging into Fates and Furies? wandering New York with Vivian Gornick? I suppose I could postpone the decision by settling down to finish The Portrait of a Lady — not least because I don’t want to read The House of Mirth until I’ve done that.

It’s not just the beginning of a new year, of course: it’s also the beginning of the month, and that means, as always, that a new issue of Open Letters Monthly has just gone live. I’m in it a couple of times: in brief in our feature of most-anticipated books of 2016,and at greater length in an essay about different editions of Middlemarch that is also a review of the elegant new Penguin Classics Deluxe edition. I’m always wary of writing autobiographically, but I couldn’t think how else to approach this review, and I enjoyed reflecting on the versions of the novel I’ve accumulated over the years as well as on how the editions we read of a book affect the relationship we develop with it.

oxfordlawrenceAs usual, the issue includes a wide range of other interesting pieces. One of my favorites this time is Dorian’s essay on D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. My own experience with Lawrence so far is limited and ambivalent — but it has certainly made me curious, and Dorian writes so eloquently about both the language and the ideas of Women in Love that I’m feeling emboldened to read more Lawrence before too long. My co-editor Robert Minto offers a fascinating essay on Nietzsche’s Anti-Education, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, finding in it strains that might serve as cautionary to today’s “anxious citizens of academia”; Steve Donoghue reviews (as only he can) a new book on Sigismondo Malatesta, the only man ever to be reverse-canonized; Barrett Hathcock explores the hall-of-mirrors sensation of finding himself fictionalized by a student in his own creative writing class; and that’s just the top half of the Table of Contents. I hope you’ll check it out, and if you like anything about what we produce every month at Open Letters, I also hope you’ll consider supporting our efforts — we are entirely sincere when we say that a comment or a link is as welcome as a donation.

Very soon, I will also be launched on the new term. My classes this time are familiar ones in my teaching rotation: Mystery and Detective Fiction and 19th-Century British Fiction (Austen to Dickens edition). As usual, I’m feeling equal parts anticipation and dread at the prospect of starting it all up again. (I have already had one very typical anxiety dream in which I was unable to print notes or handouts because my files had disappeared, and the computer kept auto-updating as I desperately tried to find them, and the start time for class came and went … you’d think after all these years I would not need my subconscious warning me to prepare for class, but this did prompt me to go to campus early and print all my notes and handouts for Monday, so that’s good, I guess!) I’m also feeling very aware that this time last year my sabbatical term was just beginning: inevitably, I guess, that is provoking some reflection on how I used that time and what has become of the projects I worked on since it ended — more about that eventually, along with more of my regular posts on how things go in my classes.

But I still have one more full day, and since I did print my materials early (and have also built my Blackboard sites and labelled my folders and made my Powerpoint slides for opening day), I will spend it reading — if I can just settle on which book. Happy New Year!

This Week In My Classes: Being Beginners

woman-writing-1934My previous post on struggling to appreciate Persepolis (like the one not long before it on reading Maus badly) exemplifies one difference between the writing I do here and most of the writing I do elsewhere (especially but not exclusively writing for academic publications). Here I’m allowed — or perhaps I should say, here I’m not afraid — to be openly imperfect: hesitant, confused, even flat-out wrong. Here, it’s OK for me to be new to something and struggling with it … and to say so.

I can imagine someone reading those posts (and the other ones like them) and wondering what’s the point. Why bother writing about something I know I don’t fully understand? Why not do the research first and then write, from a position of informed confidence? Why not earn some authority before opining? Why opine at all, really, when with the right preparation I could pronounce instead?

Some of the license I enjoy here stems from the format and ethos of blogging. Though some blog posts are highly polished and, on their own terms, complete, the set-up of a blog is always potentially conversational, and good conversations flow from provisional statements, not definitive declarations. When we’re not quite certain, not really experts, not authoritative, we leave room for other people to join the discussion, whether by sharing their own confusion or, as with most of the comments on my Persepolis post, by trying to help us reach a better understanding.

That reciprocity is something I cherish about blogging. But I think there’s also intrinsic value in writing occasionally from weakness rather than strength. The truth is, after all, that we all start out as beginners in everything we do, and that’s not something we should forget, especially if we’re teachers. Doing things, reading things, that are new to me and thus puzzling for me gives me a healthy lesson in humility. It’s also a useful reminder for me about the process of learning, and it’s an opportunity to model that process, which is one that inevitably includes at least some confusion, frustration, and wrong turns.

fordTime, context, and need typically determine how far we go in learning about something new: if there is no obligation, we might set limits based on our current personal preferences, and not get much beyond that initial stumbling phase. That certainly happens for me with my reading: if my curiosity is strong enough, I might persist past an initial bad experience, but sometimes I will just let something go, knowing that my understanding remains superficial. When there’s a need, though — for scholarship or teaching especially — I put in the effort. For example, I still wouldn’t pick Hammett or Chandler to read for fun, but I knew I couldn’t responsibly teach classes on detective fiction without them. So I have done some research and a lot of rereading, and though I still don’t necessarily love The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, I get them. (And as a result, I like them much better than I used to, which is often the case.) If for some reason The Good Soldier or Persepolis became an obligation for me, I’d try again, and try harder, and, at the very least, fail better.

My point is that there is a rhythm, a pattern, to learning, and it helps to be self-conscious about it, and not to render it invisible, as if understanding isn’t something we’ve always had to work for, to earn. What does this have to do with my classes? Well, for one thing, thinking about what it’s like for me to be a beginner gives me, I hope, some insight and sympathy into what it is like for my students. I’ve talked before here about my efforts to demystify the process of literary analysis and to encourage students to think about the process of their work as much as the product. It should reassure them to know that confusion and frustration are normal parts of learning. My students are not likely to read these posts about my own struggles, but my work here helps me think of how to talk to them about and guide them through their own. One good thing about taking a class for credit is that it provides a strong incentive to get further than that initial stumbling phase: not to throw your hands up and say “not for me” (or “not now,” which is where I am with graphic novels) — and the result is that you will learn to do and learn about things you might otherwise turn away from. That pressure to stick with something unfamiliar and thus difficult is at once one of the best and one of the hardest things about being a student.

penguinmiddlemarchMy first-year students are beginners in some obvious ways. All term I have been trying to work with them in a way that recognizes that for most of them, not just the readings but the kind of writing they’re being asked for is more or less unfamiliar, and I’ve tried hard to provide steps and supports and suggestions that will help them get better at it all. This careful scaffolding comes with the territory for introductory classes. What I hadn’t quite anticipated, or thought as much about, is that in some ways my graduate students are also beginners. For instance, most of them have read very little, if any, George Eliot before. I’m finding this situation trickier to address pedagogically, because the strategies I would usually use to lead undergraduate students towards greater expertise seem out of place (not just more lecturing but also things like worksheets, exercises, or tests). Even for readers who are already quite sophisticated, four George Eliot novels in a relatively short time is a lot to wrap your head around, and the specialized academic articles we’re reading alongside the novels are not that helpful for just getting oriented. I feel rather as if I threw them right in the deep end, and though they are staying afloat, that is almost as much as I ought to expect from them. (I’m not sure how to finish that thought using the same metaphor – they won’t be doing any fancy diving? they’re not about to swim laps?) This is a criticism of me and my preparations for the class, not of my students. When (if) I teach another graduate seminar, I may structure it somewhat differently — though at this point I’m not really sure how. This time around, all I can do is be as explicit and helpful as possible. I will be their flotation device! (I can’t help it: “We all of us … get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.”)

Painting: Woman Writing (Picasso, 1934)

This Week in Class Prep: Syllabus Season

escher12It’s that time of year again for academics around here: the fall term is closing in, and that means it’s time to finalize the syllabi for our classes.

For me, this is a process that generates equal parts enthusiasm and irritation. I enjoy the optimism of course planning: it’s fun to anticipate the intellectual sparks that can fly if you juxtapose readings in a clever way; it’s exciting to review the readings themselves and be reminded of how interesting and provocative and artful they are; it’s challenging to think hard about what you hope students will learn and practice and achieve in a class, and then to tweak and add and structure assignment sequences and course requirements that you believe will support those goals.

At the same time, it is frustrating trying to formulate class policies that often have little to do with those educational goals and a lot to do with managing student behavior and expectations — not to mention anticipating complaints and appeals. Rebecca Schuman is right that once upon a time, a course syllabus was a much more minimalist document. I still have the one-page (mimeographed!) outlines distributed at the outset of my own undergraduate classes. Things they usually didn’t include: attendance policies; policies on late assignments; statements on plagiarism and academic integrity; deadlines for (or detailed information about) course assignments; explanations of course objectives or ‘learning outcomes’ … the list could go on.

I actually think there are good reasons to include most of these things — I think it’s progress, not a problem, that (for instance) it is now standard to include information about accessibility and accommodation and many of the other support systems in place to help students succeed, while expanding our syllabi to explain academic matters in more detail implicitly acknowledges that students arrive in a classroom from a range of backgrounds. A lot of what used to be taken for granted shouldn’t have been assumed then either. Just saying, as Schuman suggests (facetiously, of course, as is her style, but also with some serious intent) that “what you need is to learn and learn well” is to mystify both the process and the goals of our work in an unproductive way. I also find it very helpful, just in practical terms, to have a common document we can all turn to when there’s a question about how the class operates. Everyone, I always point out (especially when being asked for special treatment), is bound by the terms of the syllabus, including me.

At the same time, I worry that the more we try to spell everything out, the more we unintentionally send the message that anything not made explicit in the syllabus does not apply. And I get frustrated at some of the things it now seems to be necessary to spell out. Why should I need to tell students that they are expected to attend class, do the readings, and turn in their assignments? What else would they think is required of them? Indeed, why else did they register in the course in the first place? Why, too, does my individual syllabus have to reiterate the terms of university-wide policies, as if (and indeed, this can turn out to be the finding, on appeal) a student isn’t bound by Dalhousie’s policies on plagiarism if I didn’t say so in so many words? Where is the role of common sense, in some of this, and of basic respect — not just for everyone else in the classroom, but for the underlying purpose of the whole enterprise? So much of my syllabus is actually aimed, not at the students working in good faith to make as much of the opportunity as they can (and occasionally needing some consideration, because life happens), but at students who would rather not — not do the reading, not show up, not do preparatory work that will make their longer assignments better, not, not, not … unless I coerce them. I try to make the syllabus a positive document, but 20 years of teaching has taught me that it is most needed in the negative situations.

One of the things I had to do for my promotion file (now, thank goodness, all assembled) was collect copies of the syllabi for every class I’ve taught at Dalhousie since I started here in 1995. It was more interesting than I expected, looking them over. I haven’t changed my approach dramatically: I’ve always tried to be clear, specific, and detailed. The tone has varied somewhat, though, as I have experimented with being more formal or more friendly, more rule-oriented or more goal-oriented. At this point I don’t think there is one right way of writing a syllabus. (I’m also very aware that context makes a big difference: for instance, this instructor has a lot more control than I do over who joins her class and when — our add-drop period is over 2 weeks long, and students do not need my permission to enroll, so I have to think about students’ relationship to the syllabus differently. Also, and this is just personal, I guess, I hate the idea of spending that much time reading a boring document aloud. I prefer to hit on the key points then come back to larger issues of purpose and motivation over the term, as we approach different tasks.) The only rule I’d stand behind absolutely is clarity — both in how you actually write the document and in how you understand and communicate its purpose to your class. I now think of the syllabus as one important part of the scaffolding of a successful course. Ideally, it’s both stable and open enough that you and your students can rely on it and yet go beyond it to the real course content.

If you’re curious what my current fall syllabi look like, I’ve posted drafts of them here (and last fall’s are here).