This Week In My Classes: It’s November.

scare-careAsk anyone on campus — student, staff, or faculty — how they are doing and it’s likely you’ll get some version of “hanging in there.” It is ever thus, in November! The weather has turned grey and the unrelenting chill of winter has set in, deadlines that seemed far off loom, work piles up. It can be hard to keep one’s spirits up! One of the things I try to do is stay as positive as possible in the classroom, exuding as much enthusiasm as I can manage for our work in the hope that I can give a bit of a boost to my students’ understandably flagging energy. It’s sometimes a bit tricky, especially because for them I am one of the people setting the deadlines and demanding the work: I can’t really just play nice, at least not all the time. But at least I can try to show them that I scare because I care!


The last time I posted a teaching update, we were just getting back to normal after the strange incident of the contaminated water in my building; in Women and Detective Fiction we were reading Sue Grafton and in Pulp Fiction we had just started our unit on romance. Today in Women and Detective Fiction we had our third session on Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam — the seventh of our eight readings. I worried while I was planning the class that it might seem like too many books, but I think the pace has been pretty reasonable overall, as most of them are quite fast-paced. The benefit has definitely been variety: although of course we keep circling around related questions about crime and gender and genre, we have now read books that treat them in quite different voices and versions as well as books that explore intersections between gender and class as well as gender and race. Reading Agatha Christie’s “The Blue Geranium” is a very different experience from reading Dorothy Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, which in its turn has little in common, on the surface at least, with Neely’s book.

In A Lonely Place and Blanche on the Lam are both books I hadn’t taught before–The Break, which we start next week, is another. Although it is always a bit nerve-wracking leading discussion on books I don’t know as well, it is also somewhat freeing, especially with as good a group of students as I have this term. I may not always be able to find the right example or remember the exact details of some twist in the plot (though I do try hard to be ready!), but at the same time I’m not stuck on any previous interpretation or looking for any particular outcome. I come in with ideas about how things fit together, of course, but I enjoy the work of puzzling through questions with the students, who bring their own different experience and expertise to the table.

lonelyBoth of these books seem to have gone over well. Hughes in particular seems to have been a favorite, so much so that I am contemplating assigning In A Lonely Place in the Mystery & Detective Fiction survey class next year instead of my usual hard-boiled options (The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep). But Neely too has provoked really engaged conversations: I think we all appreciated the bluntness of Blanche’s critiques as well as Neely’s resistance to feel-good outcomes. Today, for example, we talked about Blanche’s decision not to accept the position she is offered after the case has wrapped up. It would have been sentimentally gratifying for her to stay on as Mumsfield’s caretaker, but throughout the novel she highlights how condescending as well as burdensome she finds the expectation that she’ll play the “Mammy” role, and fond as she is of Mumsfield (and generously as they promise to pay her) it makes sense that she can’t say yes. More broadly, too, an ending in which she stays on with the family after everything that has happened and everything she knows–not just about them but also about the world she lives in–would endorse an optimistic but facile vision of racial reconciliation that the rest of the novel has rejected as at best naive.

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsWe are well along in our romance unit now in Pulp Fiction, and about two-thirds through Lord of Scoundrels. I think it’s going OK. Today I got peevish towards the end of class because we were working collectively through some passages–it was going pretty well, from my perspective, with a reasonable number of students participating–and as the end of our time approached quite a few students started packing up and then sat poised on the edge of their seats, clearly impatient to get away. I try not to take this personally (it happens, to some extent, almost every time): I know they are busy and anxious and for all I know the ones who were most visibly disengaging had a big midterm in their next class or something. Still, I never go over our time, and not only is it rude to me and to the students who are talking to have all that rustling going on, but it’s demoralizing to see them visibly not caring about the work we’re doing. It undermines that positivity project I mentioned! It also frustrates me that they clearly see class discussion as expendable in a way that lecture time isn’t. From my perspective, that’s the most important thing we do! I’ve made this point to the class more than once, of course. See? Peevish.

But that’s the thing: it’s November. We’re all struggling a bit to be our best selves. It doesn’t really help knowing the term will be over soon, either, because that just reminds us how much we have to get done before then!

This Week In My Classes: Desire and Disruption

mccain-buidlingI certainly did not desire the disruption that has characterized my last few days at work! My office building was evacuated Thursday morning–just as I was settling in to do, well, a whole bunch of things! It turned out that due to some kind of maintenance mix-up, some chemicals got mixed into the building’s main water supply. As a result, they had to flush the entire system multiple times and then retest it. All the classes usually held in the building had to be relocated–which, thanks to heroic efforts by the team at the Registrar’s Office, was done more or less successfully. And all of us who ordinarily work in the building were turned loose on campus, where we set up shop for office hours and whatever else we had to do wherever we could find a spot. We were allowed to go back in with an escort from Dal Security to get essentials from our offices, but that’s not the same as having access to all our books, papers, and other supplies, not to mention our computers! Happily the test results have been good and we are going to be back in the building and back to normal operations tomorrow.

I say the relocation was “more or less” successful because on both Friday and today my Women & Detective Fiction seminar was sent to a room that turned out not to be available, which meant last minute scrambling to find alternatives and then rushing to get to the new new room as fast as we could. I’ve got a great batch of students this term–very smart and engaged and talkative–and I really appreciated their persistence as we trekked around and then made the most of the time we had left. (This is not our first “crisis” either: the power went off during one of our class sessions on An Unsuitable Job for a Woman but we weren’t ordered out of the building right away so we kept going with the lights off. Fortunately our regular meeting room has big windows, so it was dim but workable!)

graftonWe have been working through Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi, which everyone seems to have enjoyed quite a bit. It is fast-moving and sassy in a way that (IMHO) Grafton’s later novels are not; she started taking the whole project too seriously, I think, but (again, YMMV) isn’t really a deep enough thinker or a smart enough writer to pull it off. In previous years I have assigned both A is for Alibi and Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only in this seminar, and I used to alternate between them in my survey course on detective fiction. In recent years I let Grafton slip out of the rotation because I think Paretsky’s novel is better, or at least its various parts cohere better. Paretsky is clearly using the form and conventions of detective fiction for a political purpose, but I think she does it deftly enough that it doesn’t feel overly didactic.

indemnityI was reminded this week, though, that besides being a bit more fun, Grafton’s novel has its own thought-provoking elements, particularly in its development of a male character who plays the part of the femme fatale and also (as other critics have noted) of an extreme form of the Byronic hero–mad, bad, and dangerously sexy to the female protagonist. In our discussion, we found it interesting that while the male hard-boiled PI rarely seems genuinely attracted to the femme fatale, whose allure (at least in the examples we could think of) is too transparently a decoy, Kinsey and Charlie do seem to have an actual spark, even an affinity. Desire is conventionally disruptive to the detective’s work, and it is to Kinsey’s too, but at the same time it almost feels as if it’s just bad luck he’s a murderer, because otherwise they’re pretty well suited! Kinsey’s resolute independence–her refusal to be domestic or to conform to gendered expectations–is refreshing, though I think some aspects of it (like the pride she takes in pumping her own gas) also feel a bit dated now.

secret weddingIn Pulp Fiction we have been wrapping up work on the second assignment, with drafts and peer editing on Friday and the final versions due Wednesday. Today I gave my opening lecture on romance fiction. Our initial readings are two somewhat polemical primers on the genre (Jennifer Crusie’s “Defeating the Critics” and Loretta Chase’s “Rules for Romance,” from Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels) along with Liz Fielding’s “Secret Wedding” . I chose “Secret Wedding” to lead off this unit because it is at once a very straightforward and fairly sweet story and a cleverly self-conscious introduction to romance tropes: the heroine is a romance novelist and each chapter opens with a bit of advice from the her “writing workshop notes.” Also, the hero writes thrillers and his publisher has sent him to one of the heroine’s workshops to learn how to put the “humanity” back into his books–so that’s a neat way to point out that romance has different priorities than the other genres we’ve been studying. Chase’s “rules” do this as well, and they also, unsurprisingly, set us up nicely to begin our study of Lord of Scoundrels–in which desire is definitely disruptive, but in a good way!

It is a busy time of term for everyone, so it was less than ideal to have our routines so disrupted. On the bright side, we have no classes next week, so while there will still be a lot to do (for instance, all those papers coming in Wednesday will need to be marked!) it will be a welcome respite from the daily grind of classes. It’s startling to be here already, though, especially knowing that when we get back from the break we will be hurtling towards the end.

This Week In My Classes: Social Media

SlideTechnically, actually, it was in someone else’s class: I was invited to come and talk about social media to our Honours Capstone Seminar, which (among other things) features a range of guest speakers talking about everything from digital humanities to graduate school to (non-academic) career paths.

Like many academics who blog and/or are keen Twitter users, I have found that these activities have become a sort of secondary expertise, one that felt exciting and envelope-pushing when I still had the feisty sense that through them we might be changing the academy for the better but which I have a much more equivocal relationship to now that it’s clear that by and large, my colleagues remain mostly either uninterested or openly skeptical about their value. There are exceptions, of course, including the colleague who not only invited me to the seminar but bravely left it up to me what to say, even knowing, as I am sure she does, that there was a chance my remarks might go somewhat against the grain.

twitterlogoAs I told the class, I really struggled with what to say. I have given quite a few talks on the subject by now, especially on blogging: these include relatively informal sessions at faculty “research retreats” and two conference papers, one of which I expanded into a more detailed and formal publication. I have also addressed it more than once in a similar seminar we run for our graduate students, with a narrower focus on the pleasures, perils, and possible profit of blogging as a graduate student. In all of these settings, my focus has been on the relationship between blogging and academic publishing, asking questions about the purpose of scholarly publishing and then how well our typical practices meet our goals–how successfully we are able to navigate between the need for professional validation and the desire to communicate widely, for instance, and the possibility that  “vigorously rubbing” scholarship with “intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars” (as John Holbo once memorably put it) might “get the blood of ideas moving.”

Owordpressnce upon a time I might have considered these topics equally relevant for our Honours students, many of whom (in those days) were likely heading on to graduate school. A lot has changed, though, and I no longer feel comfortable actively grooming students for an academic path that (as I said to them) now seems strewn with broken glass. (There’s more about how the dismal academic job market has affected academic blogging in these posts.) I couldn’t see the relevance, for this audience, of debating whether blogging is or is not a legitimate form of scholarly publishing or any of the “usual” professionally-inclined topics. What, then, should I talk to them about?

Well, I don’t know what I should have talked about. I think perhaps it would have been more in keeping with the general purpose of the seminar for me to talk about the value of a well-curated online presence for networking, perhaps with some comments about what I think of as best practices. Instead, though, I decided to speak (as I warned my colleague) from the heart about what, on reflection, I think social media has to offer them, which is, in brief, a way (multiple ways, really) to continue the kinds of conversations they have enjoyed as part of their English degrees. The university, I said, is not (despite what its denizens too often seem to believe) the only place you can have an intellectually stimulating life. In fact, it is not at all clear that “the life of the mind” is a reasonable way to describe the academic life anymore–even if you are lucky enough to join the vanishingly rare number of tenure-track faculty, which (and it is so hard to say this in a way that students can or will actually hear it) it is extremely unlikely you will be.

Grad-School-SlideIn my short talk, I did not go into more detail about the arguments pro and con about graduate school in the humanities (and I know there reasons, some of them pretty good ones, or at least not terrible ones, that other people still insist that encouraging students to head into Ph.D. programs is perfectly rational and ethical). I just highlighted some of the many articles they could read about it if they wanted, and urged them to talk to their professors if they were thinking about it. What I decided to use most of my own time for was making sure that they knew graduate school was not the only (and might be far from the best) way to keep talking about the literature they love in ways they find exhilarating. There are, I said, other places, other people, other opportunities, for people who love books, and I know that because of the time I spend on social media.

cassatI don’t know if they were very interested in what I had to say. If they were, they didn’t express it through a torrent of follow-up questions, that’s for sure, and I’m also pretty sure that I didn’t make a dent in anyone’s plans regarding graduate school applications. I said things I really believe in, though, which is consistent with what I would have said if I had talked about “best practices” instead, namely, be authentic. Further, and more important, as I worked up these remarks I realized that my own case for twitter and blogging is not really about their academic value anymore either. Whether the students needed or wanted to hear it or not, for me it was useful discovering that I still feel quite passionately about the positive value of reading, writing, and commenting on blog posts, and sharing ideas, tips, enthusiasms, and disagreements about reading via Twitter. Why should they care how much my life changed for the better because one day, without really knowing what I was doing or why, I pressed ‘publish’ on my first Novel Readings post? But I care, and really it has, in ways I could not possibly have predicted. So to the doubters and skeptics (if for some reason you happen to stop by), well, you do you, but I think you’re missing out. And to those of you who, like me, are out here living your best bookish life online and discovering friends and comrades along the way, cheers!

This Week In My Classes: Going Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In My Classes: Cracking the Case

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

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

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

This Week In My Classes: Stormy Weather

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

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


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

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

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

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

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