This Week In My Classes: Readers and/or Scholars

Arcimbolo LibrarianMore clutter to clear out of my head, if I can — something that has been on my mind for about three weeks now, but in an unfocused or inconclusive form. In fact, I’ve started and then deleted a couple of posts about this already; I just couldn’t seem to get very far before either deciding I didn’t want to get into it after all or running out of energy. But now the topic feels like mental debris, so let’s see if I can make any kind of sense of it so I can move on. One thing my blog is supposed to be for is freeing me to write about things without having to be absolutely certain about them, after all.

Basically, I recently attended an interesting presentation on (among other things) a site that makes a range of teaching tools available for people in “my” field, Victorian studies. (I put the possessive pronoun in scare-quotes because something else I’ve been puzzling over is whether I still identify with, much less operate within, that scholarly field, or any scholarly field–a subject for another unfocused inconclusive post down the road, perhaps. Consider yourself warned.) The tools looked fine! Cool, even! It is clear that people are using them in interesting and no doubt valuable ways to engage their students and further the goals they have for their courses. Still, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to use them myself–not because (and this is about the point in the post where I gave up the last two times, because I felt uneasy about potentially being misunderstood on this point!) I have any objections to them on their own terms, but because they seem peripheral to the main objectives have for my own classes, especially (though not exclusively) my 19th-century fiction classes. Just to clarify the kinds of things I am talking about, one of the tools enables you to construct a timeline; others produce maps or annotations or digital scholarly editions.

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsThis is all good! That is, it is all good if these are the activities you want your students engaged in–and I genuinely have no problem with that. I’m just not interested in doing that kind of thing myself, and what I was trying to figure out is why, and then whether this signals a deficiency of some kind in my own pedagogical approach. After some reflection, I decided the answer to the first part of that question is that increasingly, I do not approach my classes as steps towards making students into scholars, as part of a program designed to train them to do academic things. Instead, I aim to engage and train them as readers–attentive, well-informed, rigorous readers, to be sure, but with their eyes first and foremost on the page, not on contexts or scholarly apparatus or digital tools.

Another reason this post fell apart before is that I could see then, as I still can, that the distinction I just proposed between readers and scholars is reductive and perhaps unproductively polarizing. Still, I think there’s something to it, something that holds true even if you object to explaining it quite the way I have so far. After all, the vast majority of the students I teach at every level (now, really, including graduate students) are not going to enter the academy as professional literary scholars–but they are (I very much hope!) going to keep reading. My goal is to foster both the skills and the commitment they need to carry on reading as well (as intently, curiously, and critically) as we ask them to in our classes. It also matters to me that the literary works I feel most passionate about teaching are themselves oriented very much towards the world we live in and the relationship we have with it and with each other. Their ‘aboutness’ is moral, social, political; they have designs on us, dear readers,  and it takes all the time and energy we have to figure them out and see what stories we have to tell about them in our turn…and that’s not even taking into account just how long it takes to actually read the books with patience and attention.

cassatI’m not saying that the kinds of hands-on learning students get from constructing timelines (or whatever) can’t contribute to the conversations I prioritize, and clearly it can also give them valuable experience of other kinds, including building the skills set required to work with these kinds of digital tools. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that these projects take time away from, or redirect attention from, the books themselves, and there are so few contexts in which a sustained focus on reading is even possible, much less required and supported. If my own work and interests were in the field of book history, I expect I would find these tools more personally congenial. At the same time, my own estimation of the value of some forms of scholarly work has also eroded so much in the past decade or so–my own impatience with its insularity, with the feeling of playing insider baseball, has gotten so acute– that I have far less interest in drawing students into that world than I have in … well, in doing what I do in my own classes, which is pretty well documented here across the decade-plus history of posts in this series.

It’s not that I never incorporate research into my class assignments: at the upper level in particular, and of course in graduate seminars, there is always a scholarly dimension, and I do my best (albeit with mixed success) to make it relevant and valuable, not just perfunctory. And in spite of my alienation from aspects of academia (also something recorded and interrogated regularly over the dozen years I’ve written this blog) it’s not that I see no value in specialized literary research and scholarship: I have done it myself, and my teaching is suffused with insights and strategies and knowledge gleaned from my three decades as first a student and then a teacher in the academy. I routinely bring contextual information to the classroom; I have brought maps and timelines sometimes too–they are invaluable aids when teaching Waverley! I have also done some digital assignments, including wiki building–though I am much less inclined to go to that kind of logistical trouble now. So maybe I’m fretting about something that is really a difference of pedagogical degree, not kind, or maybe I’m just going through pointless mental convolutions because I felt uncomfortable during that presentation due to the gap between the student experience it championed and the one I (think I) offer and as a result I wanted (as we are all prone to, I suppose, when we feel sidelined or irrelevant) to make up some story to justify myself!Bookworm Icon

I’m still having second thoughts about this whole post: I wonder why this topic in particular is making me so self-conscious. But I don’t want to lose my nerve about thinking out loud in public, and of course one possible value of writing this up is in hearing what, if anything, other people think about the things I’ve been turning around in my head. I don’t mean to set reading and scholarship, or reading and research, against each other in any absolute way, but it has been hard for me to put the difference I’ve been thinking about in any other way. I’d like to think that my teaching award answers the second part of my earlier question–I am not shortchanging my students — but that doesn’t mean I’m not still learning all the time myself.

This Week In My Classes: Keeping Up

autumn-leaves-2017I was looking back over some old posts in this series and November entries have a certain … similarity, shall we say! We’re all–students and faculty alike–tired, busy, and kind of gloomy. The introduction of a week-long break (coming next week for us) has not made as much difference as you might think: last year I was struck by how much more tired and behind a lot of my students seemed when classes started up again, and because the break also comes quite late in the month, we all felt a bit frantic after it because the end of classes was suddenly so close.

Right now, though, a week off from the regular routine of classes seems like something to look forward to. I’ll have plenty to do! I’ve got midterms, papers, and paper proposals coming in this week that I’d like to turn around as soon as possible, and that will be a lot easier without also doing class prep. I’m also a reader for a Ph.D. student who is defending her dissertation next Friday: rereading her thesis and working up questions for the defense will be a big (though rewarding) job. And just to make sure I’m making the absolute most of the week’s more flexible schedule, I’ve got a dentist appointment, a medical appointment, and a hair cut also scheduled!

rankinWe aren’t quite there yet, however: there’s still the rest of this week to get through. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our discussions of Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. Although I think Knots and Crosses is gripping and clever, I’ve been wishing that I left The Terrorists in instead when I decided which book to cut to make room for An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, because its political engagement is in some ways more immediately relevant and its morality is more complicated. That said, Knots and Crosses offers a pretty direct engagement with what we now call “toxic masculinity.” Its Gothic games seemed a bit too pat to me this time, though–I don’t entirely disagree with Rankin’s own assessment of it as a bit too clever, a bit too much the self-conscious work of a young writer immersed in literary theory and history and eager to show off what he knew.

silas-marnerIn 19th-Century Fiction tomorrow we are finishing our time on Silas Marner. Because I have only taught Silas Marner once or twice before, and many years ago, I have been feeling my way a bit hesitantly, not being entirely certain which questions will catch students’ interests or draw them most naturally towards the novel’s big ideas or best moments. Oddly, perhaps, I’ve found it difficult precisely because the novel is so short, though I chose it hoping that its brevity would make George Eliot more accessible than usual. I dialed back the amount of context I provided at the outset, but even so it took up nearly one whole class, and that left us only three more to talk more freely about the novel. With Middlemarch, in contrast, I typically have at least three weeks’ worth of classes, or around nine hours, and we get even more time when I assign it in Close Reading. And yet three hours is actually plenty in some ways too: because not a great deal happens in Silas Marner just in terms of plot, I feel as if I have been struggling to work on the meaning of what does go on without repeating myself. Still, I think it has been OK overall. In fact, I have been pleased at both the quantity and the quality of participation in class discussion, which certainly suggests to me that they are finding the novel’s distinct combination of realism and moral fable engaging. We have already talked a fair amount about the importance of taking responsibility and making deliberate choices, rather than trusting to luck, fate, or God, as key to Eliot’s moral vision; tomorrow we will talk about this in the specific context of family, especially parenting, including both Silas’s choice to raise Eppie (in contrast to Godfrey’s actions) and Eppie’s choice to stay with Silas. I think this is the only one of Eliot’s novels that comes close to being unironically sentimental, at least in the main plot line–and it’s just so lovely.

Recently In My Classes: The Three Cs

kleenexThe three Cs are are Cold, Collins, and Chandler, and I am actually done with all of them now, but I haven’t blogged about my classes since they were all just starting up, so I thought it was time to get caught up. A trace of the first does remain in the form of a minor but lingering cough, but although I did end up having to cancel one day of lectures when I actually lost my voice for a bit, it wasn’t too bad. A number of my students and colleagues have been much sicker, poor things.

I wasn’t really sorry to wrap up our class time on either Chandler or Collins. My patience with both Philip Marlowe and his author was more limited than usual: all those slick similes are really no compensation for the misogyny and homophobia. I think I need to give In a Lonely Place a closer look to see if it would be a more palatable option for my sample of noifiction. Or perhaps someone would like to recommend a Hammett or Chandler novel (or another hard-boiled writer altogether) that they particularly admire for me to try out? Because I really don’t enjoy this genre enough to want to read widely in it before making a new selection.

collinsI also felt just a bit impatient with The Woman in White, though it is a lot more fun than The Big Sleep. At one point in our discussions this time a student actually asked a question I ask sometimes too about different novels, that could perhaps be summed up as “Are we giving this novel too much credit?” — or “Are we putting more interpretive weight on this novel’s details than they can really bear?” I feel that more with Lady Audley’s Secret (which I think is fundamentally incoherent, or indecisive, about some of its central thematic questions) than I do with The Woman in White, but I think it’s always a fair question to ask. It’s not one that I think can ever be answered definitively either way, but there’s no doubt that some novels seem less in control of their own meaning than others, while some can rather deflate under scrutiny. Some novels, too (as I ended up saying about The Woman in White, though not, if I remember correctly, to the same student) raise a lot of interesting questions or stir the pot in thought-provoking ways without necessarily resolving every aspect.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction we moved on to P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is one of my own personal favorites, partly because the confrontation it builds up to between Cordelia and Sir Ronald is about important ideas as much as about solving a crime. We had our last class on that Monday, and today we started Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses–and after that we have only two more novels and the term is done! It still feels as if we only just got started.

silas-marnerIn 19th-Century Fiction we are actually on our penultimate novel, Silas Marner. I’ve been a bit nervous about how it would go, as it starts out pretty slowly and Eliot’s prose requires closer attention than any of our other novelists’. I also haven’t taught it very often–only twice before that I can remember, and never in a lecture class of this sort. Today was “big picture” day so I set up some key ideas and then we began talking about Silas himself, first as he is seen by his neighbors in Raveloe and then as we come to understand him thanks to the narrator’s explanations and commentary. I tried to emphasize the importance of noticing the different ways people arrive at their explanations for what they see, which I think is key not just to the themes of the novel but also to its pacing, in which not much often seems to be happening but we realize, if we know to look for it, that a lot of the action is in perception and interpretation. One student brought up Silas’s beloved pot, which I thought was a particularly nice detail to have picked up on:

Yet even in this stage of withering a little incident happened, which showed that the sap of affection was not all gone. It was one of his daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, ever since he came to Raveloe, he had had a brown earthenware pot, which he held as his most precious utensil among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It had been his companion for twelve years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the ditch below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him any more, but he stuck the bits together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial.

It’s a strangely touching incident that got me thinking again about “Mrs Tulliver’s Teraphim” in The Mill on the Floss. We all need at least something to love, and the reasons we cherish something in particular are often bound up in our most inarticulate yearnings.

So that’s where we are! Snuffles aside, it hasn’t really been a bad term so far, as both courses are pretty familiar. I’ve been able to do some reading of my own, most recently Lincoln in the Bardo, and I just sent off a review of Claire Harman’s Murder By the Book, which was a pretty fun assignment. I’ll be consistently busy between now and the end of term, but not overwhelmingly so, and as I’m on sabbatical next term, I will be able to take a genuine break over the holidays.


This Week In My Classes: Corpses and Consciences

ackroydIn Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It’s been an interesting fall to be teaching this course. I always open it with some discussion of the differences between “literary” and genre fiction–not just what those differences are presumed to be but how they shape people’s expectations and evaluations of books on either side of the supposed divide. I imagine, however, that to students already accustomed to a literature curriculum that incorporates not just popular culture but a wide range of media (we have courses on both Chaucer and comics, on Shakespeare as well as Tolkien, on poetry and on television and video games) it sometimes seems as if in advocating for the intellectual gravitas of our course material I am arguing against a straw man.

keating-marpleThis term, however, both Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail and Luke Brown in the TLS stepped up to show my students in real time that the debates about the literary merits of crime fiction are ongoing and can be both intense and judgmental. Wente published an op-ed decrying the degradation of our curriculum–yes, ours in particular: she singled out Dalhousie’s English department and Mystery & Detective Fiction was among the courses she specifically mentioned as symptoms of our decline. (I won’t link to Wente’s column, because I don’t want her bad faith and shoddy practices rewarded with clicks, but here’s a link to a tweet showing the letter I wrote to the editors in response to it.)  Brown, in his turn, wrote a rather grudging review of Belinda Bauer’s Snap, which was (regrettably, in his opinion) long-listed for the Booker Prize. Not satisfied with explaining why he didn’t think highly of Snap in particular, Brown drew broader conclusions about mysteries as a necessarily lesser form of fiction. As part of my commentary on Christie, I also quoted Peter Keating’s 2018 book Agatha Christie and Shrewd Miss Marple (which I reviewed myself for the TLS), in which he observes tartly at the outset that Christie is “hugely read, greatly loved, widely admired, and critically ignored” — a situation his own book, of course, sets out to correct.

I bring these “show and tell” materials into class because I think it is valuable for students to see that our work has resonance and relevance outside the classroom. These are debates that are actually going on “out there”–though not always, as Wente’s column exemplifies, to a very high standard. She is not well-informed, but they will be, and I hope this helps them see that there is both a place and a need outside the university for what they are learning–not so much the assigned content of the course as the nature of the conversation we’re having about it.

the-wardenIn 19th-Century Fiction we’ve just finished our work on The Warden. I’ve written a couple of times already about why Trollope feels unexpectedly pertinent to our current moment, whether as a respite from or a tacit commentary on its crises. Working on The Warden during Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS hearings was … well, disorienting. Could there be a sharper contrast between meek Mr. Harding–who, faced for the first time with a challenge to the privilege he has so enjoyed (and, by some lights, done such amiable good with), resigns rather than live at odds with his now-provoked conscience–and Kavanaugh, who ranted and raved in outrage at the very idea that he should be investigated thoroughly, never mind held accountable, for any past misconduct? When John Bold rather sheepishly tells Mr. Harding that he is launching a legal inquiry that may prove damaging, the Warden replies, “if you act justly, say nothing in this matter but the truth, and use no unfair weapons in carrying out your purposes, I shall have nothing to forgive.” Then, even after he is assured that Bold’s complaint will fail and there is no legal or regulatory reason for him to give up his contested position, Mr. Harding is not satisfied, because “he was not so anxious to prove himself right, as to be so.”

trollope-wardenThe Warden is an odd little book, and in many respects it is hardly a radical one. As we discussed in class, for instance, the bedesman who speak up for what they think is theirs by right are characterized as greedy and ungrateful, and they are ultimately punished for it, ending up worse off both economically and emotionally than they were under Mr. Harding’s wardenship. The novel’s social vision is fundamentally paternalistic. There is something at least potentially radical, though, about its ethical vision–about its casting as a modern-day hero someone who, when criticized, does not lash out but turns inward, and who then will not be dissuaded even by the most powerful people around him into ignoring what his conscience decides is right. Mr. Harding’s resignation does not really fix anything: the novel explores at several levels the complicated relationship between individuals and larger systems and institutions, and in doing so it raises timely questions about the possibility of meaningful moral agency in corrupt circumstances. I think a lot of us are struggling with this right now: the things we can do on our own seem so insufficient that it is tempting to stop trying to do anything. There’s some encouragement to us in the vicarious satisfaction we get from seeing the Warden persist. Even Archdeacon Grantly, imposing bully that he is, is ultimately no match for him! We all probably face a version of the Archdeacon’s exasperated “Good heavens!” sometimes, maybe especially when we try to take some small, imperfect, corrective action of our own. The Warden is not about taking to the barricades–but most of us aren’t going to do that anyway. Mr. Harding might at least inspire us to play our imaginary cellos with renewed vigor as we carry on living our own ethically complicated lives as best we can.

This Week In My Classes: Suspicious Minds

thurber.jpg And do you know what I’m going to do now?” “No,” she said. “What?” “Buy a copy of Hamlet,” I said, “and solve that!” My companion’s eyes brightened. “Then,” she said, “you don’t think Hamlet did it?” “I am,” I said, “absolutely positive he didn’t.” “But who,” she demanded, “do you suspect?” I looked at her cryptically. “Everybody,” I said, and disappeared into a small grove of trees as silently as I had come.

We talked a lot about suspicion in my classes this past week. That seems only natural, of course, for Mystery & Detective Fiction, in which we adopt “Suspect everybody!” as our interpretive motto. As we work through our readings for the course, an ongoing theme becomes the cost of such eternal vigilance: it may be necessary for solving crimes, but it is corrosive to human relationships. We’re not reading The Maltese Falcon this time around (our hard-boiled example is The Big Sleep), but I always find that the saddest part of its ending: Sam, victorious in principle but emotionally marooned. In Sherlock Holmes that isolation seems (perhaps) more heroic; Ian Rankin’s Rebus toughs it out; Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski counteracts it with friendships and alliances.


In David Copperfield, trust and innocence and guilt and suspicion are also key themes. We’ve suffered through Steerforth’s great betrayal now, and also through David’s misguided marriage to Dora — that “first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.” There’s no doubt that practically speaking it would have been better for everyone if David had been suspicious of Steerforth. We see the clues to his character long before David does, or at least long before he admits he sees them or knows, seeing them, what they mean. One question I keep putting to my students, though, is what the cost would be of that saving suspicion. Isn’t David’s trusting heart, undisciplined though it may be, one of the beauties of the novel? Doesn’t the novel show us naiveté as something to be cherished and protected? The David who looks at Steerforth and suspects him–who believes him capable of the kind of evil Steerforth perpetrates, who even knows such evil is possible, much less lurking in someone he loves– wouldn’t that David be someone we would care less about? Maybe not: maybe we would respect him for not being a gullible fool. But I still think, even if that’s our conclusion, that we would regret that it proves foolish and gullible to believe the best of people, to be above all loving and trusting. Growing up, for David, includes outgrowing his innocence and becoming the kind of man who would not make that mistake again. This has to happen or he’d be morally like Mr. Dick, a perpetual child. But Dickens is so good at making sure we regret what is lost in the process.


I asked Friday if the same is true of David’s love for Dora: that it is wrong, a mistake, as both he and she eventually acknowledge, but that it is the kind of mistake it’s hard to wish David didn’t make. I’m less sure about this one, because he chooses Dora deliberately, while Steerforth grooms him into adoration when he is very young and very much in need of a friend. David realizes belatedly that he wants a partner, not a “child-wife.” Still, the child-like starry-eyed quality of their relationship, and Dora’s playful tenderness, while cringe-inducing considered as any kind of actual marriage, seem to me affectively like something we want to protect, to have a place for in our lives–even our adult lives. (In a similar sort of way, I often find myself defending Dorothea’s mistake about Casaubon–not because he is someone we want to have a place for, but because her innocent idealism is beautiful in a way that Celia’s skeptical realism is not.) Perhaps I indulge this feeling in spite of my intense theoretical, political, and personal dislike of Dora because I find Agnes such a dull alternative.

I’ve been thinking about suspicion in another way this week as well. I don’t teach very suspiciously, by which I mean my classes in many respects take our readings at face value rather than approaching them with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (a phrase I use somewhat flippantly, rather than really technically). It’s not that we don’t consider what they are saying and doing beyond their surface stories, or beyond what their authors might have consciously realized, or that we don’t analyze how those stories are told and to what ends. Perhaps a better way to put it is that we don’t take a deliberately antagonistic approach to our readings–or an overtly theorized approach (which is not to say–and can you tell that trying to explain this makes me defensive?–that I don’t realize all readings are underpinned by some kind of theory, if only implicitly). Sometimes when I overhear (on Twitter, say) other Victorianists talking about their classes I feel anxious because I worry that there’s something naive (innocent, even) about the kinds of conversations I encourage my students to have about our readings. But then I reassure myself that the things we talk about, the responses we have and analyze, are both interesting and urgent, and that the enthusiasm I cultivate not only (I hope) motivates students in the moment but also (I hope!) fosters their love of reading alongside the experience of reading critically in such a way that they are more likely to continue being engaged and demanding readers long after they leave university. Something would be lost–something I cherish–in trying to turn them into more suspicious readers, which is something I’m not sure I know how to do anyway. (I tried it on myself, back in graduate school; the experiment was a failure.)

felskiThinking about this has reminded me that I should finish reading Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, which looks like it will give me a more sophisticated way to understand and talk about the tension I feel between what I do and what I sometimes think I’m supposed to be doing. In her introduction she comments that many current critical approaches “subscribe to a style of interpretation driven by a spirit of disenchantment.” That sounds right to me.  “Why,” she asks a bit later on “are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves?” Since I escaped graduate school, my own critical practice has, I think, focused on becoming as articulate as I can about my loves, but I’ve sometimes felt a little sheepish about that, as if my methods, if challenged, wouldn’t really stand up to scrutiny. I look forward to Felski’s arguments–even more since I noticed that one of her chapters is on crime fiction, which rather neatly brings this post back to where it began.

This Week In My Classes: Crime & Copperfield

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYWe’re barely a week into the term but already the sultry summer weather has mostly given way to the cooler crispness of fall. There will still be plenty of warm days well into October, but we won’t be able to take them for granted: they will have the golden haze of precious time stolen from looming winter. I am grateful, this year, for the change in seasons; the heat and humidity were oppressive this summer and the sense of being stifled and confined by the weather made my usual difficulties getting through the summer doldrums that much harder to deal with.

I’m happy, too, to be back in the classroom, partly just to have people around and things to talk about but also because both of this term’s courses begin with books I love. In Mystery and Detective Fiction, after quick stops on Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Mystery” (which is a great way to foreground some of the questions about genre expectations and reading strategies that we will address throughout the course) and Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it is time for The Moonstone, which is one of my favourite novels to teach. It isn’t always universally popular, but over the years it has turned more than a few unsuspecting students on to Victorian fiction!


I’ll lead off the discussion tomorrow with some questions about the implications of the Prologue–among other things I like to make sure we notice, its juxtaposition with Betteredge’s self-satisfied view of England’s moral superiority helps us recognize the limits of his point of view, while its account of the theft of the diamond during the siege sets up key questions about eye-witness testimony, evidence, and interpretation. Then we’ll spend some time on Betteredge himself, the world and the family he represents and cherishes, and what he perceives as threats and intrusions. For Friday, when we’ve read further, we will turn our attention to the crime and the first phases of the investigation, with a lot of focus on who becomes a suspect, to whom, and why.

copperfieldIn 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy we’ve had a couple of classes on David Copperfield already. I used the first session to give some general introductory remarks on Dickens and then on Copperfield–comments on the exuberant excesses of Dickens’s style, for instance, and how we might think of it as a deliberate or strategic response to the kinds of problems his fiction is typically about. What could be less utilitarian than the joyful abundance of character and incident in a novel like David Copperfield? And what could be better nourishment for our hearts and imaginations than its sentimentality, its humor, its pathos, and its metaphorical and symbolic richness?

There are a few things about the new term that are more depressing than exhilarating — the growing number of my colleagues who are retiring without being replaced, for instance, some of whom I will miss very much personally and all of whom represent significant losses to the depth of expertise and experience in the department. There are larger trends–in enrollment and in institutional and departmental priorities–that I find disheartening too. It is no doubt true that disciplines change for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, but that is not really much consolation if the changes mean less and less attention and value to the things that drew me to this profession in the first place. Though of course I know how lucky I was to get a tenure-track position when they were already scarce (though not as vanishingly rare as they have become), I find these days that I am particularly conscious of its costs, which that very rarity makes difficult to calculate or admit to earlier on. Still, as long as one regular part of the job is showing up to have the best conversations I can with students about great Victorian novels, I will still have a reason to look forward to coming to work.

This Term In My Classes: Planning for Plagiarism

It’s that time again: through the haze of the August heat you can sense the faint glimmers, atmospheric shivers of anticipation and dread. That’s right, the fall term is coming!

I’ve already been doing a bit here and there to prepare, because I prefer that to doing it all in a big push when it’s absolutely too late not to. I understand the desire to keep summer work (and play) uncluttered with the business of the teaching term, and if that works for you, great, but I find many of the necessary chores tedious enough as it is without being in a rush. So I  started picking away at my fall to-do list around mid-July, and as a result I have my Brightspace sites mostly set up already, including draft syllabi and a lot of the other supporting materials.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is what more I can do this year to discourage plagiarism. I brought more cases to our Academic Integrity Officer (AIO) last term than ever before. It wasn’t just me, either: various forms of plagiarism seem to be on the rise across the department.  I do already address academic integrity in my course materials and in class, of course, and I have always tried to shore students up in a positive way, with lots of advice and support and discussion about their assignments, as well as being clear about the risks and penalties of plagiarizing. Still, my own experience last term, and my discussions with the colleague who has the fairly thankless job of AIO as well as with other colleagues who also had many cases, made me think I need to do more–and gave me some ideas about what.*

Because I really hate interacting with my students as if they are all potential criminals, I don’t want to focus on increasing surveillance. Rather, I want to focus on two of the three main reasons I think students plagiarize, which in my experience are panic, insecurity, and indifference.

There’s not a lot I can do about the last category: students who really don’t care about the material we’re studying or the skills I’m trying to teach, who just want to get the course credit as easily as possible. There are a few of these students in almost every class (and more than a few in writing requirement classes) and for them I have only two strategies. One is to try to win them over by making our work as interesting, challenging, and valuable as I can, which does sometimes work. The other is to emphasize the practical risks of trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own: you might not get caught, but you also might, and then instead of saving yourself trouble, you are in trouble.

My only new idea for this group is to recommend very explicitly that they do the math. If you submit an honest attempt at most essay assignments that is more or less in full sentences, that at least circles the assigned topic, and that makes at least a nod or two to actual textual evidence, it is pretty unlikely you’ll flat out fail–your worst case scenario is almost certainly a D. But suppose you do get an F: at least in my classes, that’s a 49%, which is much better for your final average than 0%, which is the typical penalty for a first-time academic offense. Also, if that F paper is actually your work, the feedback on it might steer you towards a better grade the next time–if you care. (What value is there for you, after all, in my comments on something cribbed from Shmoop?) But even if you don’t care, you’ll still do yourself a favor mathematically if you just–as one of my colleagues put it rather colorfully– vomit something up and turn it in. 

I’m more hopeful that there’s something constructive I can do for the other two groups–those who have run out of time and those who don’t trust their own work. Students with these problems need a better process for writing their essays. Our AIO said that what he’s hearing from a lot of students is some version of “I did the reading and then I went online to find out what to think about it.” These students either aren’t willing or able to put in the time to come up with their own ideas or, and this seems quite likely to me, they don’t actually know how they are supposed to come up with their own ideas. That’s where I want to catch and help them: in that moment before they decide to just let the internet tell them what they think.

I do already talk about the process of essay writing in class; I have even begun incorporating a workshop on it in my upper-level classes, while of course it is a major component of my first-year writing classes. I’ve also been trying for some time to clarify how our other class work is related to the kind of writing I ask them to do. But still I seem to spend a lot of time in office hours talking to students who think, for example, that their first step is to come up with a thesis statement. They always look bewildered when I tell them they are doing it backwards: that they will realize (or at least close in on) their argument only after doing the messy and painstaking work of rereading, note-taking, and free writing that generates the raw material that eventually coagulates into an essay. I’ve talked with students who are trying to articulate a thesis before even having finished the reading! That will never work!

As I said, I do talk about process already, but my plan is to do more of this, more of the time, and get them doing more process-related things in class as well, making explicit connections between these exercises and their longer writing assignments. I think I’ll also do up some handouts–maybe even with flowcharts! The hard truth, of course, is that they have to be prepared to spend some time in the muddy, muddy middle, and for a while it will feel like they don’t know where they are going or what they are going to say–until they figure it out. They can’t avoid that time: they have to plan for it, and not panic, and not turn to Google instead. Maybe, if I talk even more often and more positively to them about this process and provide them even more explicit advice and models, I can help them find the confidence to be uncertain for a little while, because they have a better plan than plagiarism.

I suppose “more of the same but better” isn’t a particularly grand plan on my own part–it’s not going to win me any awards for innovation!–but at least I feel clearer about where I think my intervention is needed and my guidance could be useful. Also, I like making up handouts! It’s a lot more fun than doing the paperwork for, much less sitting through, yet another academic integrity hearing.

*A lot of advice about thwarting plagiarism puts the responsibility squarely on instructors to devise assignments that are plagiarism-proof, or at least plagiarism-resistant. I agree that we should think creatively about the kind of work we ask our students to do, but I actually resist (and resent) that victim-blaming response, which, among other things, weirdly absolves students of responsibility and also ignores that there may be sound pedagogical and disciplinary reasons for specific types of assignments.