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!

Books2016

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.

penguinMy 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).

Next Week in My Classes: Beginning My 20th Year

WP_20140827_005I started teaching at Dalhousie in 1995-96, which means that 2014-15 will be my twentieth academic year at the university. What with maternity leaves and sabbaticals, that doesn’t mean 40 consecutive terms (though for many years I did also do summer teaching), but that’s still a long time to be in one place doing the same thing.

Or, at any rate, that’s how it felt to me when I did this calculation a few days ago. In fact, I was suddenly and unexpectedly swept with gloom as I walked across campus with the phrase “twenty years” echoing in my head. It was a beautiful sunny day, with just a hint of fall freshness in the air, but the buildings looked all too familiar, the coming routines felt all too predictable, the inevitable administrative hassles of the new term seemed almost too much to go through yet one more time. Even the prospect of teaching Middlemarch again after a two or three year hiatus wasn’t enough to cheer me up. It’s not that I don’t know how lucky I was to get this job (even in the mid-90s the market was tough, though not as devastatingly so as it has become) and it’s not that I haven’t liked — loved, even — a lot of things about it. I just couldn’t muster much pride or sense of accomplishment. What did I have to show for those 20 years?

You’ll be glad to know that this fit of depression has mostly passed, though not entirely. I think feelings like this are a hazard of what is otherwise a great blessing and comfort, namely the stability and security of my position. If it sometimes feels like a mixed blessing, because the down side to it is a high degree of immobility, it’s obviously still, overall, something to be appreciated and (not incidentally) made the most of, as with the kinds of experimenting I have been able to do with my writing and teaching. A lot of the changes that I have brought about in my working life are not immediately visible, after all. “You know where to find me,” I tell departing students, sometimes a bit ruefully or even wistfully, as they move on to the next stage of their own adventures, and it’s true I do still spend my time in the same literal spaces. But my mental life has moved on quite a bit, to the extent that sometimes I feel strangely detached from some of the preoccupations of my departmental colleagues. (Some of that detachment grew, self-protectively, out of the lack of interest in or support some of them — not, happily, all of them — have shown for my new projects, from blogging to writing for Open Letters: being defensive is not a good long-term strategy, I found, and being an advocate also gets tiring in its own way, so I have had to stop caring so much and measuring myself by their standards.) I’m much more aware than I was in 1995 that there’s life — literary life, even! — outside the academy, and that makes some of what we worry about seem much less interesting and important. Anyway, for better or worse, that’s one way in which I do feel I have not been stagnating but changing and even growing.IMG_1276

And it’s not as if I don’t have anything to show in other ways for my 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 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. Teachers at all levels can have this incalculably diffusive effect — I know my own life would be very different without the influence of my own teachers. I hope I told them how much difference they had made; I am certainly very grateful to the students who tell me, because knowing they cared helps me keep trying to bring my best self into the classroom every time. Even at a conservative estimate, twenty years’ worth is a lot of students: even if the majority move on and don’t remember my name, much less what we studied together, there are still plenty who carry something of me away with them — as I am cheeringly reminded every so often when one of them gets back in touch. “I saw someone reading Middlemarch in a restaurant awhile back and thought of how pleased you’d have been,” one former student recently emailed me, and I was pleased, not just that someone was reading Middlemarch (always a good thing!) but that she associated the book with me.

WP_20140827_003The other thing I have to show for my twenty years — something I benefit from every day I’m at work — is experience! It’s easy to forget, now, how new to all this I was in 1995-96. I was hired while still “ABD” (all but dissertation), and my hands-on teaching experience was limited to two of Cornell’s Freshman Writing Seminars (both capped — ah, luxury — at 17 students) and one stint as a TA (in a 19thC fiction class, too, because there were no first year writing classes big enough to use teaching assistants). The class on Browning’s “My Last Duchess” that I taught as part of my on-campus interview here was quite literally the first time I’d ever stood up in front of a room full of students (not to mention a back row of professors there to see how I did). So my first full-time term was really jumping into the deep end for me. I don’t recall any massive screw-ups beyond assigning way too much reading in my first section of Introduction to Literature and way too much writing in almost every class, because I had no idea how much time it would take to mark multiple papers for a class of 50 or 60. I had the time at first: I was keen to throw myself into a job I was excited about and knew I was lucky to have, and at first I had no children, either. But the hours and hours of marking … on top of having no files of teaching notes or materials to draw on, so absolutely every part of absolutely every class had to be prepared entirely from scratch. Good thing I was so young and energetic! (I was 28 when I came here, which means I was barely older than the first crop of graduate students I taught — in fact, now that I think back, I was actually younger than some of them.)

Now, on the other hand, I have a drawer full of notes, handouts, transparencies, and other materials, as well as acres of virtual storage devoted to more of the same. I don’t have everything covered, of course: every year I work in a new book or two somewhere, and I rarely use exactly the same notes or handouts twice. It is reassuring, though, to know that for a lot of texts I teach on a regular basis I have an archive to draw on for information and inspiration. I’m glad, too, that I haven’t recycled even the oldest paper materials, because I pull out treasures sometimes — such as, most recently, a cache of old student discussion questions for Villette including a set by Dorian Stuber, who was in one of the first Victorian novels classes I ever taught. Good questions about interesting books don’t go stale!

I also have found logistical systems that work well for me. I don’t think they are particularly original (when I mentioned them on Twitter, a number of people said they have similar strategies), but those of us who started teaching long before ProfHacker existed had to fumble our way into them. Since the second-most frequent comment on my student evaluations is “she’s really organized” (first is “she’s very enthusiastic”) I think they must be pretty good ones. One is very dull and basic: setting up spreadsheets to track all administrative aspects of every class, from attendance to essay submission to test scores. I don’t enjoy Excel, but  learning to use it reasonably well has shored up my record-keeping in important ways. A more fun thing I do to keep order is use color-coded folders for each course so that I can be sure I have the right ones when I’m gathering up my materials and heading out the door to teach. Red has become standard for detective fiction, and it’s usually green for 19th-century fiction, though this year I’m using some elegant William Morris folders (thanks, EB!). Other courses vary, but the key thing is that once I internalize a term’s colors I do a lot less scrambling at the last minute.

WP_20140827_004Another very simple thing I do is designate one shelf space for each course. Often coming back from class is a distracting time, with students tagging along for conferences or somewhere else to get to in a hurry, so I don’t have time to do fine sorting. Instead, I dump all the class material onto its shelf and organize it when I get my next chance — but in the meantime if I need to find a book or paper from it, my search is neatly delimited. Again, less scrambling! I have a pretty low tolerance for stress and confusion, so for me it’s well worth the little bit of forethought required. When I see offices with indistinguishable brown folders piled in heaps all over the place, I know that — while it must work for the office’s own occupant — I would be a nervous wreck by the end of a single day in there.

My only other crucial trick is using post-it notes — many hundreds of them, cumulatively — to mark important passages in the (yes, I admit it) very long books I teach so often. One of the treats of re-using a well-worn edition is taking advantage of the existing post-it notes, which often help me regain my footing in key interpretations and patterns as I go along; one of the treats of a brand-new copy (such as this year’s handsome Oxford World’s Classics Villette) is putting in a whole new set. (Yikes, how book-nerdy is that. But it is fun!) On Twitter, people mentioned colored pens, certain kinds of notebooks, and colored printer paper as other things that make their teaching days easier, more efficient, and also brighter. However much we use and now take for granted our electronic devices, there’s clearly still a special charm and a lot of use in old-fashioned school supplies.

So far I haven’t even mentioned the 20 years’ worth of increased knowledge I presumably have: when I consider how little I had read in 1995, and how much of that was not really very useful — well, I’m almost surprised they even let me teach! But they did, and here I still am. I’ve probably got another 20 years until I retire: just think how much more I will have read and learned and filed by then. I just have to keep my spirits up — so I don’t lose that third thing I’m often thanked for in my course evaluations: my sense of humor.

This Week: A Little Class Prep Goes a Long Way

EnglishBayIt’s always hard settling back into ongoing projects after a vacation, isn’t it? Although I’ve been back in my office regular hours every day this week, my progress on my writing has been halting, despite the haunting awareness that summer is ending soon and with it the luxury of relatively uninterrupted time to do it. I’m never altogether sorry about that: I’ve written here before about my tendency to fall into the summer doldrums, and though my two cheerful trips have mitigated the effects this year, I still find myself looking forward to the return of energy and sociability that comes with the start of term.

Since thinking about classes is in fact kind of cheering for me, then, and since I wasn’t being very productive in other ways, I’ve spent some useful hours in the last couple of days puttering away on some nice, concrete course-preparation tasks. I’m teaching just two classes in the fall, both ones I’ve taught before: Mystery & Detective Fiction (you’re probably tired of my reporting anything about this one, I’ve taught it so regularly in the past few years!) and 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy (which I’ve also taught regularly but more intermittently). I’m not mixing up the mystery class this year except for taking off An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and adding back in a few more short stories, since in the last couple of rounds of teaching evaluations there was some muttering about the reading list being long and the pace being too fast. Unsuitable Job is one of my own personal favorites, but it doesn’t really represent any central issue or subgenre — I just enjoy teaching it — so if something had to go, it’s the one, not The Big Sleep or The Moonstone or The Hound of the Baskervilles. I guess Knots and Crosses could go, but it’s always very popular, while Unsuitable Job isn’t. But otherwise it will be business as usual. Still, the Blackboard site needs tidying up, dates and details need updating on the syllabus, and I’m tweaking a couple of policies about “bonus” points which in their previous generous form had the unintended consequence of bumping kind of a lot of people up into the A+ range for their final grades. Most of that is done now, though I need to give the syllabus one more careful look.

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artAs for 19th-Century Fiction, as usual I’ve changed up the reading list a bit (it’s so nice that there’s no oversight or interference to worry about with these decisions — it is entirely up to me which and how many books to assign). I’ve mixed and matched a pretty constant set of books in the past several incarnations of this course (you can see the chronicle of them here, if you’re curious) and though I’ve been happy with them, it felt like it was time to try some different ones, so this fall I’m starting with Villette and ending with The Odd Women, neither of which has ever been on my syllabus for this particular course before. In fact, I’ve never lectured on Villette, as I’ve only assigned it in seminars, and that not in well over a decade. Working up notes and materials for it, then, will be a big project for me in the next few weeks. I have taught The Odd Women much more often, but again usually in a seminar (“The Victorian Woman Question”). I do have some lecture notes for it from many years ago when I included it in a full-year class on Victorian literature. That was so long ago that the notes are hand-written! I expect I’ll do some things differently now. I gave the novel some fresh thought when I reread it recently with my book club; the general enthusiasm for it there makes me hope that my students will also enjoy it. I’ve put it last, slightly out of chronological order, so that for once we won’t be ending with Jude the Obscure (though we are still studying it). I’m not sure The Odd Women is much more cheering, really, but at least it has 100% fewer murder-suicides. For this course I needed to do the Blackboard site up from scratch; this is mostly done now, and I’ve made up study questions for the novels that didn’t yet have them and also pretty much completed the syllabus.

All of this is reassuringly finite and useful business to take care of. It all has to get done by the end of August anyway, so I’m not really stealing time away from other things, just redistributing it from writing to teaching for a while. I have set up a list of other class-related tasks, too, which is both calming (because it controls the potentially chaotic future) and practical (because now when I want to take a break from the more amorphous work of writing, I can choose something from the list to do rather than just feeling anxious).

Now that I’ve been overtly productive in these other ways for a while, I hope I’ll find that my mind and my mood are right to turn back with renewed focus to the two writing assignments I’ve given myself for these final weeks of summer. The first is to get as much as I can done on the next piece of my George Eliot book. Earlier this summer I worked hard on a more conceptual piece of it, a kind of draft introduction and sample. Now, having diligently reread Daniel Deronda with this in mind, I am working on an essay or chapter about women and marriage, particularly but not exclusively in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Its current working title is “Smart Women, Foolish Choices” (which some of you may recognize as the title of a dreadful-looking self-help book). The second is a review-essay on Elena Ferrante for Open Letters, which I think will follow (more or less) the pattern of previous “peer review” features we’ve run, that is, a survey of critical reception organized to tell a story about that reception, or to interrogate it in interesting way. I’ve been reading as many reviews of Ferrante’s fiction as I can find, and I think they raise some pretty provocative questions about anger and women’s writing and ideas about “literary” fiction.

This Week In My Classes: Marching Along

February break is only a memory now: even this short distance into March, it feels as if we’re hurtling towards the end of term. I usually find this an invigorating time in my classes, as all the ‘getting to know you’ stuff is over, we’ve developed some routines and, ideally, some rapport in the classroom, and we’re far enough along in the material that usually students’ confidence for engagement is greater.

I’m not feeling quite this surge this term. One reason is that the attendance in my Introduction to Prose and Fiction section has not been … robust. I’m trying not to take it personally; it helps that I’m hearing plenty of anecdata suggesting that absenteeism is a conspicuous issue for my colleagues and maybe more broadly around campus these days (“I’m glad it’s not just me,” said yet another colleague as we chatted about this on the stairs on Friday). I have been speculating that a discussion-based class might seem particularly expendable to students because of the excessively results-oriented culture they are currently steeped in: if they aren’t intrinsically drawn to the material (which is likely, in a course often taken to fulfill a requirement) and the results of attending (or not) aren’t overtly quantifiable, other things might well take priority. Naturally, I think that’s a shame: one day they may look back and realize that they missed a fairly rare (and potentially transformative) opportunity to get involved in a conversation with at least one person guaranteed to be “listening very intently to everything” they say. But who knows: maybe I (inevitably, egotistically) overestimate the value of spending that time in the room with me following my lesson plan! I have tried hard in recent years to make quite explicit the ways I see our classroom work feeding into the assignments on which they will be evaluated (and the skills and objectives both of these aspects of the course serve). But if they don’t see the pay-off  (or they aren’t even present to hear the peroration) and don’t care about the discussion for its own sake, there’s not much more I can do. Once again the gym analogy seems apt.

road

For those Intro students who are coming to class, we’re working our way through The Road. I put a lot of work in preparing materials when I taught it for the first time last winter, so it’s nice to have a file of ideas and notes and handouts to draw on this time around, and to feel more certain what are useful lines of inquiry. For tomorrow’s class, where we’ll be focusing on McCarthy’s style, one of the most useful resources I have is my own blog post from last year, in which I asked (not disingenuously) whether McCarthy is a terrible writer – working through the post and then keeping up with the discussion that ensued was very stimulating, and as I’ve been rereading the book this year I’ve kept trying to figure out if there’s any way to answer the question more confidently than I could then. I’m still not sure, but I will say that on this rereading I’m taking what I can only describe as a tactile pleasure in his writing: I pause to read individual words or phrases out loud and enjoy their crunkly feeling, their resistance to easy reading — “rachitic,” “gryke,” “kerfs,” “claggy” — or, more rarely, their rhythmic poetry: “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” I also found, a bit to my surprise, that having spent more time intellectualizing the novel has not distanced me from it: rereading the final section this afternoon I found myself weeping uncontrollably. As I remarked on Twitter, I realize that crying over the book does nothing to settle the question of whether McCarthy’s a “good” writer. I wonder what value, if any, does attach to this kind of visceral response. There’s a way in which being moved to tears by a book is inarguable proof of at least something — but is it something about the reader or something about the book? It’s about the connection between reader and book, I suppose, that mysterious alchemical combination by which language becomes meaning and feeling of a particular, and sometimes particularly personal, kind. I value that kind of emotional connection: surely you would hardly choose to specialize in Victorian literature if you didn’t! But at least when I’m wearing my ‘professor’ hat I try to retain some skepticism about it too. Just because you can make me cry doesn’t make you right!

In my Women and Detective Fiction seminar, I’ve also been fretting a bit, not so much about attendance (though this group has not been as reliably present as I am used to in upper-level seminars) as about participation. Last week’s classes were pretty sluggish. But yesterday there was an up-tick in energy, so for now I have deferred my cunning plan to use some of the strategies I’m more accustomed to deploying in lower level classes: “think-pair-share” exercises, break-out groups, and so on. We are currently reading Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi: I had the sense on Friday that they mostly hadn’t even tried to do more than just read it, and I wonder if at first they were lulled into passivity by the fast-paced prose and suspenseful plot and forget to apply the critical frameworks we’ve been developing. By tomorrow we’ll have read to the end, so I expect we’ll talk a lot about [spoiler alert!] what it means that Kinsey turns out to have been sleeping with not just a suspect but one of the murderers: the novel raises all kinds of interesting questions about the temptations and risks of submission and the ways sexual desire can undermine a principled commitment to independence. The novel focuses especially on sexual politics as played out in marriage, but Kinsey’s role as a detective also prompts us to consider how these “private” issues intersect with wider questions of justice and accountability. I haven’t taught Grafton in a while and I’ve appreciated getting reacquainted with her tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. I kept up with the series for a long time, but my interest in it has flagged over the years, partly because the humor that keeps this first one so fresh gives way to a much more sententious style. I should probably hunt up the latest ones just to see where things have gone. We start Indemnity Only next week and at this point I’m one Sara Paretsky behind as well.