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.


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.

Next Week In My Classes: Who, Me? Intimidating?

Teaching evaluations (or “Student Ratings of Instruction” as we apparently call them these days) are a notoriously … imperfectguide for future conduct. Probably because we all spent many, many years being graded, professors nonetheless read them obsessively compulsively carefully and fret about freak out pay special attention to the most negative ones, because at the end of the day, or the term, we want everyone to like us want to get an A hope to improve our pedagogy.

I haven’t seen my evaluations from last term yet, though I’m sure they’ll arrive in my inbox any day now (we’ve recently switched to online evaluations, which has added a new layer of complications and made the results even less robust than before). I have seen last year’s, however, and they were the usual blend of enthusiasm and disdain, gratitude and offense. Also as usual the balance tipped in the right direction, assuming that it is preferable to have more happy than discontented students. And, again as usual, what I’ve tried to focus on in them is not the outliers (good or bad) but any pattern of feedback (I so hate to think of these as “ratings,” as if I’m one option in a giant Cineplex) that teaches me something about how I teach — or at least about how I taught last year.

I did find one, and it was something I hadn’t seen before: a number of comments from students in my section of our first-year “Introduction to Literature” class who felt I was “intimidating.” It wasn’t by any means a unanimous perspective, but enough students used that very word to give me food for thought.

Now, I should say that I don’t consider it an altogether bad thing that some of my students found me or my course intimidating. To a certain extent, that was the effect I was going for, at least at the start of term. This is because I have run into enough Intro students who are taking English only to meet a requirement and fully expect it to be their “bird” course, or at any rate who are strongly inclined to make it a lower priority than their “hard” courses or the ones they see as more important (often, their science courses). There are also a lot of students in first year, including some  who consider themselves prospective English majors, who are more used to “expressing themselves” in English classes than learning specialized vocabulary and using it for well-reasoned critical analysis — who are surprised, that is, to find themselves faced with intellectually strenuous tasks and high standards. There are also, of course, students whose previous preparation — or just whose attitude and expectations — make them quite prepared to work and think hard, but they are typically outnumbered.

As a result, I usually start out emphasizing the stringency of the course. The tone I aim for is cheerful but uncompromising, about the logistics of the course (requirements, deadlines, policies, etc.) but also, and more importantly, about the skills and content it aims to teach. The message I seek to convey is quite simple: It is possible to do a better or a worse job of literary analysis. The goal of this class is to help you do a better job, which means both reading better (a matter of both knowledge and skills) and writing better (again, a matter of both knowledge and skills). It’s hard work, but it’s also fun and creative and important work (because the classroom is far from the only place we read, or write). I take it seriously, and so should you. I am passionate and enthusiastic about it, and I hope you will be too, but at the end of the day it’s not about what you like, it’s about what you learn.

In other words, I want them to take the class seriously and understand that they will have to work to get good results. It’s meant to be aspirational: I hope they will be motivated to rise to the challenge. But it’s also meant to be cautionary: don’t think you can phone it in, don’t blow me off. I mix in some inspiration too (some discussion about the value and beauty of literature), but to open the term, it’s the perspiration I usually emphasize, so that they’ll be ready to put in the work that enables us to have good, serious discussions about literature and criticism as we move through the term.

My first question, then, is: since I have always run the class more or less the same way, why was last year the first time I’m aware of that the intimidation factor persisted and became inhibiting? I was aware that the group was not (collectively) very relaxed: I fretted quite a lot last year about the low level of participation, for instance. It wasn’t a disaster — it ebbed and flowed — but compared to other sections of intro that I’ve taught, this was far from the most lively. And my second question is, how much, if anything, should I change?

I have a theory about the first question, which is that last year was the smallest section of intro I’ve ever taught at Dalhousie. Until recently, all of our first-year sections were capped at 55 and taught with one instructor and one TA. Now we have a range of class sizes, including one giant section (360, with multiple TAs), some in the middle, and some “baby” sections at 30 with just the instructor (our Writing Requirement rules mandate a maximum ratio of 30:1). I had a baby section last year that settled down at around 27 students. You’d think that would mean rainbows and lollipops and all good things, and it certainly felt luxurious in some respects, but my standard strategies evolved for bigger rooms and bigger numbers. In a group of nearly 60, the critical mass of both unmotivated and talkative students is bigger, so more students need the chastening “listen up!” approach while more students are present who are willing to join in a class discussion. My professorial presence is also more diffuse (if that makes sense) in a bigger room: in our smaller room, I may have seemed to be more “in your face.” And while in some ways it can be harder to put your hand up with more people around, in other ways you don’t stand out as much, so it can feel like the stakes are lower. I may be way off in these speculations, of course, but my guess is that I need to approach the smaller section (which is what I have again this term) aware that it’s a more intimate group and setting and thus requires a somewhat softer touch. What I don’t want to change is the overall message: that this is not a course to be taken lightly; that it requires attention and studying and commitment, not just showing up; that grades in English are not just a matter of opinion but of expertise and judgment.

So! With all this turning around in my head, as you can imagine I am both excited and anxious about our first meeting on Monday. I have been revising my notes, and I’m making plans for an ice-breaker exercise, nothing too fancy but something to get them talking to each other a bit on the first day, rather than mostly just listening or talking to me. Something I tell all of my classes is that literary criticism is something you get better at by doing — which includes class discussion (at some point I usually explain the concept of “coduction“) as well as both informal and formal writing. I hope that if they all hear their own voices in the classroom on the first day, in a nonthreatening context, it will ease them into the more important conversations to come. And I hope that if I set myself up initially as both professor and facilitator, they will find me less (but not un-) intimidating.

Do you have thoughts or experiences about being either intimidating or intimidated in class? I certainly remember professors I found intimidating, but I didn’t see that as their failing but rather as mine. Often, they were the ones I most admired and hoped to impress. I find it hard to imagine myself as intimidating (I often think of that wonderful line in Middlemarch about our “poor little eyes” behind the “big mask and the speaking-trumpet”) … but I realize we don’t always know how we strike other people, and I have occasionally had other indications that I seem harder, or harsher, than I knew. (I remember one of my own professors saying to me – quite out of the blue, it seemed! – “I always wonder what you’re thinking when you look at me that way.” Perhaps the natural cast of my face is just judgmental?)

This Week in My Classes: Term Limits and New Ideas

Arcimbolo LibrarianThis was the last week of fall term classes for us, which means concluding remarks and exam review and conferences about term papers — and then, beginning Monday, an influx of papers and exams to be marked, final grades to be calculated, and everything to be filed away and tidied up. I have an exam from 7-10 p.m. on the very last day of the exam period, which means I won’t be all done for quite a while yet.

It’s always bittersweet when the term ends. I put a lot of time and thought into preparing for each class hour, and a lot of energy goes into each actual meeting, which means I spend most of the term in a strange blend of panic and euphoria. When we’re done, I genuinely miss the buzz of meeting my students face to face and seeing what we can do with our material: even when a session doesn’t go particularly well, the challenge of it is definitely stimulating, and this year my mystery class especially was just a whole lot of fun. When a lot of smart students are really engaged and keeping me on my toes, it’s amazing how fast 50 minutes can go by! But I don’t miss the relentless pace of it all. What a relief it is to be home on a Friday night and be relaxing without the haunting awareness that by Sunday at the latest I have to be turning towards work again: the work I have to do for the next couple of weeks really can be managed in something more like regular office-job hours — unless I want to do a little puttering here and there evenings and weekends. I’m hoping that means I’ll be able to get some momentum on some reading and writing projects I’ve been deferring over the term. Ideally, I’ll get enough done that I can keep going on them when the winter term begins. This may mean not writing for the January issue Open Letters: much as I like to contribute, my recent pieces have not been entirely in line with my other writing priorities (especially the book on George Eliot I’m trying to conceptualize).

But as a wise woman once said, every limit is a beginning as well as an ending, and even as this term is winding down, things are heating up for the winter term, which starts exactly one month from today. Inquiries have been coming in about the waiting list for my intro section and about the readings for my 4th-year seminar; I’ve started roughing out my syllabi and I’ve got blank course spaces set up on Blackboard, with the goal of having materials ready for students well before the end of the month (in the spirit of ‘hit the ground running’).

And as if that isn’t enough, we’ve already had to organize our slate of classes for next year, and it won’t be long before we are asked to send in preliminary course descriptions and book lists, for promotional purposes. It usually makes me kind of cranky to be asked about next academic year when this one is still very much a work in progress, but on the other hand, the future is such a hopeful place to be! Drafting and redrafting possible book lists for the next incarnation of the Dickens-t0-Hardy course is pretty fun, and frustrations with this year’s assignments sequences are easier to handle when I think about them as learning experiences for next year’s New and Improved versions. (You can look forward to more posts about how I’m going to do everything different and better, especially the reading journals for the 19thC novels class.)

Looking even further ahead, I’ve been thinking more about the question of whether or what our students read outside of class and the perfectly reasonable point that we assign so dang much reading (ahem) that at least during the term it’s pretty challenging for them to be engaged in the book world more widely, even if that’s something they want. Of course, one reason I started this blog was because I was trying to figure out how to build some kind of relationship between my own academic reading and writing and that wider culture — and it has occurred to me that an obvious way to translate this impulse into pedagogy is to dream up a course that does something of the same thing, perhaps by combining assigned readings with readings students choose ‘from the field’ (books and reviews), and then requiring both standard essay assignments and different kinds of reports and reviews. It could be called “Books in the World” or something. Would this be a good first-year class? Or are the actual demands of any good book writing such that it would be better as a more advanced class, so that students will already have practised their writing skills and acquired some useful literary terminology and history?  In a recent interview, Daniel Mendelsohn proposes that students would be better off “reading Pauline Kael reviews in the New Yorker than Derrida” because when they begin “they literally have no idea, at first, what the point of being critical is.” I would be motivated by a somewhat similar impulse, I think: that they should have a sense of what (and where) the critical conversations are, because (as I do already say frequently in class) literature is not in fact written for the classroom but for the world.

This is still a very new idea for me, but maybe it’s actually a common approach and I’ve just been stuck (as we all so often are) in my own ‘how things are usually done’ rut. I’d be happy to know about any classes that are run along these lines, and also to know what anyone’s first impression is about this possibility.

This Week in My Classes: Processes and Products

The second full week of term has gone by already: it’s amazing how time seems to accelerate when things get busier. In both my classes we have moved from throat-clearing and context-setting to richer discussions about our readings: in The 19th-Century Novel from Austen to Dickens, we’ve wrapped up our work on Persuasion, and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve got only one more class on The Moonstone. Starting the term with these two novels eases the transition from summer’s languors to fall’s stresses because both are so delightful. At least, I think so — and it seems as if a lot of students are enjoying them as well. Discussion in the Mystery class has been particularly good so far this term, especially considering it’s a big class (capped at 90), which can sometimes be inhibiting. I hope they keep putting their hands up!

academicselfOne thing I’ve been thinking about as our work gets underway, and as I contemplate my own non-teaching ambitions for this term, is trying to make the process as meaningful and rewarding as possible, shifting some emphasis away from the product — which for students is often the course credit or the grade, and for me is the finished piece of writing. I’ve been reading Donald Hall’s The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual (thanks to @MsEMentor for the recommendation!) and while I have some doubts about whether I want to be an ‘academic self’ of the kind he describes (more about that, perhaps, in another post), I have been struck by the wisdom of his emphasis on this process / product distinction, partly because I have found myself caught up in just the kind of results-oriented moping he describes (if not for exactly the same causes):

We all know (or should know by now) that we may complete professional tasks to the best of our abilities, “play by all of the rules,” so to speak, even overachieve and push ourselves to extremes, and still be denied the book contract we have been working for, the position we have applied for, or the raise that we feel we deserve. If we tie our sense of professional payoff only to a desired reception of the end product of a process, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, perhaps even a state of bitterness or burnout.

As he discusses, there are lots of reasons, some of them good ones, to be fixated on achieving particular goals, but “we simply do not have to have a specific reaction to the products of our processes for those processes to have been worthwhile.”

I think there is actually a close relationship here between my students’ situation, as they strive for grades and credits, and my own difficulty dissociating the worth of my work from the reactions or results it gets. After all, I spent a great deal of my own life as a student, and in many ways academics carry forward the mental habit of waiting for affirmation from other people’s evaluation. How different, too, is the hiring process, the tenure process, or the promotion process from being graded? Or, for that matter, the grant application process or the article submission process? Well, OK, of course there are differences, including the presumption that for most of these professional matters we are being evaluated by our peers, and the not-insignificant point that our success in some of them (hiring in particular) really shouldn’t be understood as measures of our merit so much as of our great good fortune. But these things all feel a lot like handing in an essay used to, and I’m someone who once locked herself in a bathroom in Buchanan Tower to weep over an A- from a professor whose approval I really wanted — which is to say, I’m someone who (like a lot of academics) has a hard time believing in my own judgments of my work, and a hard time separating judgments of my work from judgments of me personally. I am making progress on this front, I’m glad to say, but I still find myself waiting anxiously for external validation when, for instance, something of mine is published online. There’s still that part of me that is waiting for my grade, for the internet equivalent of an ‘A,’ whatever exactly that is.

I know, I know: there are so many things wrong with this, and I don’t just mean that it’s kind of pathetic in a grown woman more than two decades along in her professional career (though that is certainly true). Having become self-conscious about it, I do at least now work consciously against it, and one way I do this is simply by rereading my own work, which (I am learning to assert, on my own behalf!) I think is pretty good! Why shouldn’t I be able to tell or say that, after all, considering it’s actually a big part of my job to evaluate writing? But the other thing I want to do is give more weight to, or feel more positive about, the process of doing the work. As Hall says,

I cannot know if the words that I am writing at this moment will ever appear in any form of print other than that which comes out of my computer. . . . But I can decide that this act of creation, this thinking through of ideas as they move from conscious and subconscious thought through my fingers and onto the screen is enough to satisfy and sustain me, even if the unfortunate were to occur.

He isn’t advocating that “we dispense with highly concrete goals” (as he points out, that would be “to court disaster” professionally, as well as to shirk other dimensions of our research and writing lives by not aiming to get our thoughts “disseminated”). But he’s right that “those processes . . . . must be more explicitly valued, must be recognized as professional ‘goods’ in and of themselves.”

To bring this discussion back to my teaching, I have realized that some of the greatest frustrations I’ve run into as a teacher have come from student priorities and behaviors that are results-oriented without due attention to the intrinsic value of the processes we go through (as well as to the benefits that careful attention to process can bring to achieving desired results). A simple example: papers that are clearly (or on the student’s own admission) started and finished the night before the deadline — I’m sure many other professors have had those dispiriting conversations that begin “I’m going to work on my essay tonight” and you cringe, knowing that means they won’t have time to rethink or revise, just as they very nearly have run out of time to consult. The essay-writing process matters less to that student than getting the credit for the finished essay. Or there are students who don’t finish the readings until they are studying for the final exam, or who never read them at all (I’ve had students note on their evaluations, almost as a point of pride, which books they never did actually read) — they too are circumventing the process (which is where a lot of the real learning can take place) and focusing only on the final product. I’m trying, increasingly, to disrupt these habits by building incentives to good process into the course requirements (reading journals, paper proposals, short tests). I’m also taking more time to discuss the relationship between our processes in class and the overall goals of the course, in terms of learning and practicing skills as well as in terms of getting good grades. Yes, students should aspire to earn good grades, and I should enable and support those aspirations. But the learning doesn’t take place at the moment I return the essay or exam: it takes place while we’re doing everything else, and especially while they are doing everything else. They should try to take a lot of satisfaction from those processes — from their own “thinking through of ideas.” Then even if they don’t get the grade they hoped for, they’ll be able to dry their eyes and come out of the bathroom a little bit sooner and a lot more confident.

Teaching Art: “Let me describe it to you”

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that we’ve been watching one of The Learning Company’s ‘Great Courses,’ The History of European Art. In the comments thread, I noted that the lecturer’s favorite move is to “describe” an artwork to us. At first glance (so to speak!) that seems an odd strategy: we’re looking right at the art, after all. There are many things we can’t do (interrupt him with questions chief among them) but we can see what’s right in front of our own eyes.


Or can we? That, of course, is the trick, the gimmick, the magic, even, of the process. We see it, but, as Sherlock Holmes so often says to poor Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.” The untrained eye does not really know what it’s looking at. Professor Kloss may begin by stating what seems self-evident (“there’s a woman in the center of the painting,” “the man on the left side is wearing a wonderful blue robe”) but this is only a preliminary stock-taking, prior to pointing out what requires more expertise to really see: who the woman is, perhaps, and how this version of her differs from other ones; how the blue robe makes other blue bits stand out and maybe form a design across the canvas; why that particular shade of blue is rare in frescoes; how the artist’s brush strokes create a light effect on the woman’s body; what the striking whiteness of her skin suggests about not just the design but the larger meaning of the painting. Even the stock-taking is sometimes a good prompt: perhaps I wasn’t looking at the man on the left at first, because my eye was more immediately drawn to something else.

It’s not a perfect process, especially pedagogically. Not only does Professor Kloss often not describe something we’re curious about, but he never invites us to look first and see what we notice. Realizing this is salutary, as I’ve been thinking that his method is close to one kind of thing I do all the time in my classes: focus on a scene or a passage and try to bring out what’s interesting about it. There too we typically start with a description: “what’s going on here?” Then we move to the more open-ended process of noticing: “what’s interesting about it?” Early in a course, I am likely to do sample analyses, to model what we’re trying to do. Throughout, I also provide relevant contexts, including historical, biographical, literary, or theoretical. But as we go along, the burden of noticing shifts more and more to my students: knowing what they’re looking at — being able to “describe” it with expertise — could be considered our ultimate “course objective.” When I lecture, but also when we discuss and analyze and debate in class, what we’re doing is accumulating the knowledge and skills to make their descriptions more than just statements of the obvious — in my classes, which are fiction-intensive, the crucial distinction is to make them more than just plot summary.

Watching Professor Kloss describe sculptures, lithographs, wood cuts, paintings, frescoes and everything else makes me very aware of how little I have in my own head that helps me with his task: he knows all kinds of things that I don’t, and as a result he sees all kinds of things that I wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d swear he sees things that aren’t there — and now I wonder how often my own students feel the same way. I’m also very aware of how passive it makes me knowing he’s going to do all of his own noticing, and how little room the video lecture format leaves for me to have any ideas of my own. Well, I could have speculative ideas: heck, I can pause the video and say anything I want! But what I really want is to test my tentative observations against his expertise. I feel confident in my own taste (many times I have thought, as he rhapsodized about whatever’s on his current slide, “I hate that!” or “That’s beautiful!”), but I know that visceral reaction is irrelevant to the important process of really seeing and understanding what I’m seeing. That lack of interaction with an informed point of view is the biggest obstacle to my becoming anything of an expert myself.


Of course, I’m never going to become an expert art historian, but my job is all about developing expertise in my students. Stocking their heads full of information is one thing, but it’s not the only thing, and it’s not the most important thing. In some ways, it’s also something they can do on their own, if they’re motivated, though as I’ve written about before, it’s easy to overestimate the ease and efficiency of finding good information, much less knowing how to make it useful. Watching Professor Kloss describe great works of art is very interesting, but it’s also very passive. It reinforces for me the pedagogical necessity of going back and forth. Sure, let me describe it to you — but now, tell me what you see. Then we’ll talk about it.

One question I would definitely ask Professor Kloss, if only I could: we’ve reached Monet and so far pretty much the only women in the series have been Madonnas, Magdalenes, saints, or nudes. In the history of European art to 1860, there’s not one woman artist worth including?