This Week In My Classes: P&P and Poems

new-austenWe are well into Pride and Prejudice in 19th-Century Fiction this week and I have to say that while my reservations about teaching a novel that is so intractably popular remain (and I have seen some of the same symptoms of dealing with a ‘fan favorite’ in class discussions as in the past), overall I think it’s going well. I am certainly enjoying the novel, and the energy in the classroom seems very good: participation is robust for so early in the course, which may of course be a side-effect of that same level of pre-existing comfort that sometimes makes the novel hard for students to approach critically.

I am continuing the effort I’ve been focused on in recent years to wean myself from my lecture notes, and that too is helped by my own familiarity with the novel and the questions I want us to gnaw on collectively. Looking at the fairly detailed notes I have used before, I see that the price (if that’s the right word) of loosening my grip is giving up the more careful “laying out of interpretations” that I used to do, which I always thought of as usefully modeling the construction of literary arguments and the use of literary evidence. Our more free-wheeling discussions–though never, I hope, simply unfocused or scattered–do not necessarily “add up” in the same elegant way that is possible if I’m really controlling the pace and flow of information. The benefit, however, is having the students generate more of the material and then see (as I do my best to organize and shape it on the fly) that they know how to proceed towards those kinds of conclusions themselves. The other thing I’m trying to remember to do is explain the process of our class time in a way that connects it to the process for their assignments–this is something that I realized some years ago that I was taking for granted but needed to make explicit. A key point about process I make over and over is that students often try (as I see it) to skip steps when they begin work on an essay assignment: often when they come to see me I realize that having chosen their topic, they think their next step is to come up with a thesis statement and then work back through the novel to figure out how to support it. As I point out, that’s backwards: a good thesis is much more likely to emerge from their rereading, thinking about, and doing some open-ended writing about the novel with their topic in mind. Their method accounts for why we so often see the best version of an argument in the conclusion, rather than the introduction, of student papers–because that’s the point at which they have actually worked through their ideas and examples closely enough to realize what they want to say. pride-and-prejudice-penguin

minor point of concern about how the popularity of Pride and Prejudice might affect the rest of the course is that in a show of hands yesterday it looked like nearly half of the students have decided to write their first essay on it (they get to choose among our first four novels for this assignment). That might be as much about wanting to get the essay done early, before they are busier with their other courses. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a much larger proportion of the class than usually does any one novel, never mind the first one of the term. I really hope it doesn’t mean they will be less engaged with our next books, especially Waverley. They will have to write short tests on all of them, which is one of the coercive elements I build into the course requirements in the interests of sustaining everyone’s attention. Of course, I always hope that our books and conversations will keep everyone’s attention because the novels are great and the discussions are interesting! But I’m not naive enough to think those intrinsic qualities will be enough to coax everyone along.

broadviewIn British Literature After 1800 we are skipping briskly through our small sample of Romantic poets. The rapid pace is at once the blessing and the curse of a survey course with a mandate to span more than 200 years of writing in multiple genres: we don’t spend long enough in any one place to go into a great deal of depth, which means we also don’t spend long enough on any one topic to get tired of it. I enjoy the variety myself, including the chance to talk about genres and examples that don’t come up in the courses I teach more often–such as Romantic poetry! In fact, because the introductory courses I’ve taught for the last several years have been either Introduction to Prose and Fiction or Pulp Fiction, I’ve spend hardly any time on poetry at all except for Close Reading, and the last time I taught that was Fall 2017. So I’m having fun, but also feeling a bit wobbly about how to balance attention to context and content with attention to form.williamwordsworth1

This problem wasn’t helped by last week’s snow storm, which cost us a class meeting. Because I didn’t want to cut back time on specific poets any more than the survey format already requires, I decided to sacrifice the class I’d set aside to talk about poetic form, including scansion. I’ve been trying to make up for this by integrating discussion of poetic form into our other classes, which of course I was going to do anyway but not starting from scratch. The students have a varying degree of experience with things like scansion: some of them are clearly at home with it, and with talking about poetic devices and forms, while others have looked bemused, frustrated, or completely blank when asked to think or talk about these aspects of our readings. Well, all we can do is keep moving along: I hope that with repetition and coaching from me and practice from them, we will all get more comfortable. For yesterday’s class I decided to do more of the talking myself than I had on Monday because on Monday it seemed to me a lot of them were still very uncertain about what it meant to discuss the relationship between form and meaning in poetry: it’s a bit harder (in my experience, anyway) to teach this through open-ended discussion with poetry than with fiction, where you always have the option of starting with “easy” things like plot and character as a way of opening up thematic and structural issues. I also point out that those of them who feel completely at sea need to put in some time: our readings so far have been quite short, which may be deceptive in terms of the amount of work it requires to read them well.

We’ve read some Wordsworth, some Shelley, and some Keats so far. Tomorrow we’re doing a small cluster of poems by Felicia Hemans and EBB on women and poetry, and then next week we’re on to the Victorians–some Tennyson, some Browning, and a cluster on faith and doubt including some Arnold and Hopkins and some excerpts from In Memoriam. Fun! I hope they think so too.

 

This Week In My Classes: Not Again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019: My Year in Teaching

broadview2019 began with a lot of thinking about teaching, because I was on sabbatical for the first half of the year and that meant the great luxury of time away from teaching itself. Sometimes in the past the result has been a whole new class. This time it was about ways to refresh the reading lists for classes I teach in regular rotation: 19th-Century Fiction, Women & Detective Fiction, and British Literature Since 1800, with some thought given also to mixing things up in Pulp Fiction.

In the end I did not make a lot of changes, though it wasn’t for want of ideas. More often than seems reasonable books I thought would work really well turned out to be unavailable–Andrea Levy’s Small Island, for instance, for the Brit Lit survey, or Vera Caspary’s Laura. None of the Victorian novels I (re)read inspired me to replace tried and true favorites on my syllabus, though I may reconsider Wuthering Heights for next year’s iteration of the Dickens-to-Hardy class. I’m not sorry I read Kim or Dombey and Sonand in fact thinking about Kim did encourage me to include a Kipling story in the Brit Lit survey (“The Man Who Would Be King”) as part of an effort to address questions of empire and colonialism more directly than my reading list had in the past.

remains-coverI finally settled on Great Expectations and The Remains of the Day for the representative Victorian and 20th-century novels in the survey course, partly because I love them both and feel confident about teaching them and partly because along with Three Guineas (which will be a new teaching text for me), I could imagine a range of thematic continuities within this set of readings that would work well for final essay assignments–ideas of class and social mobility; social insiders and outsiders, deference, domination, and political power; the relationship between money, privilege, and moral freedom; art and language as vehicles for advocacy or subversion; social order, resistance, and fascism. We’ll see how it goes!

Women & Detective Fiction had the most new titles: In A Lonely PlaceBlanche on the Lam, and The Break. I thought they were all good additions: they brought both different styles and different voices into our readings and discussions, they raised pressing questions about women and crime, about the sometimes problematic intersections of gender, race, and class in women’s crime fiction, and along with our other readings they helped us generate a lot of ideas about the relationship between criminal justice (or legal forms of justice) and social justice.

the-breakOne of the questions I struggled with as I finalized my book order was whether The Break was properly addressed as ‘crime fiction’. We ended up discussing this issue a few times in class. We came back every time to ways in which, while the novel is not structured like a conventional whodunit, its structure can be read (especially in the context of our other novels) as a deliberate subversion of those expectations: the novel operates both as an implicit critique of the detective form (with its tendency to identify single crimes, specific suspects, and clearly demarcated criminals) as reductive, and as a model of a different way to think about wrongdoing that is part of a complicated history and pattern of historical and social problems not really amenable to being “solved.” While many of our novelists directed our attention to social or political problems beyond the scope of the crimes at their centers, Neely and Vermette both made those problems much more than context. Both Blanche on the Lam and The Break also notably resist feel-good resolutions: one thing the class especially liked about Blanche herself is that she is not interested in playing out anyone’s fantasy of restoration or reconciliation, and though the ending of The Break is more uplifting in tone than Neely’s conclusion, it too is about healing and persistence within the family, on their own terms, not using them and their ongoing trauma as a device for reconciliation.

The-Big-SleepI thought Women & Detective Fiction went well. I feel less satisfied about Pulp Fiction, mostly because I found the change from 90 (which already felt too big) to 120 students pushed the class past a tipping point for the kind of pedagogy I want to and tried to practice. Part of the problem was just logistical: much as I believe in the value of doing lots of small-stakes exercises to maintain engagement and give frequent opportunities for writing and feedback, I don’t think I can continue with some of my habitual versions of this (such as regular reading journals). The thing about scaling up class sizes is that while the regulations for Writing Requirement classes mean that we have TAs for every 30 students, in practice this only means that we hold steady in terms of the number of finished essays we mark. Everything else remains the responsibility of the professor, from recording attendance and marking exams to handling accommodations and plagiarism cases. As a result there’s no question that larger classes (despite superficially maintaining that 30:1 ratio) are more work for the instructor. (Also, despite my best efforts to address the issue in more effective ways, subbing in The Big Sleep for The Maltese Falcon, while a nice change for me, did not dramatically decrease the rate of plagiarism for those assignments–I guess there’s something about noir that subverts morality!)

escher12The worst part of the increase in class size for me is that I don’t like teaching (especially teaching first-year students) in a large lecture hall. This is not just about my personal comfort–in fact, I am reasonably confident when giving formal lectures, which have the advantage, from a purely self-interested perspective, of ruling out the unexpected! But my preferred teaching style is interactive, because the back and forth between us reflects the way I think we actually learn to do (and improve) the kind of analysis central to literary studies (through coduction). I continued to incorporate discussion into our class meetings, but inevitably only a fraction of such a large class participates–and to my frustration and sometimes visible annoyance, many of their classmates clearly tuned out or, worse, started packing up, when these engaged students were talking. Because there’s no hope that class sizes will go down any time soon, I’m going to have to give more thought to overcoming these challenges so that next year’s intro class goes better.

woman-writing-1934

It’s not that Pulp Fiction went badly overall: enough students showed interest in and satisfaction with the course that I know I reached a lot of them, even if unfortunately I couldn’t see their faces very well from the front of the room. I just think I can do something better, though I’m not sure what or how. If you have ideas or strategies that work for you in (specifically writing) classes of around 100, I’d love to know. One good thing is that next year I am taking a break from Pulp Fiction and teaching “Literature: How It Works”–a more standard kind of introductory course that will relieve me of the sense that I am arguing with myself about the canon (and losing). I will probably approach this class more or less as I did “Introduction to Prose and Fiction” (which it sort of replaces in our curriculum)–only with some poetry too! Book orders for the fall will be due uncomfortably soon in the new year, so you can look forward (?) to ruminations about that before too much longer.

Overall, then, it was an okay term, made better by the time I’d put in during my sabbatical. Even if I didn’t end up making big changes to my reading lists, my choices were more deliberate because I’d considered alternatives. While there’s a risk of things getting stale if you repeat yourself, there’s something to be said for the confidence and pedagogical freedom that comes with really knowing your material–and it can backfire, too, if you change a lot all at once. I felt lucky to have just two courses: for various reasons including ongoing difficulty sleeping, I didn’t always feel as on top of things as I usually do, including sometimes getting a bit overwhelmed with the logistics and the paperwork (something else that is affected a lot by class size).

waverleyAnd now, on to next term. It is finally time to actually teach the Brit Lit survey and see how my decisions work out (including which readings to include in the nice custom reading Broadview Press put together for us); I’m especially looking forward to covering some poetry, which I rarely get to do. My other course this winter is 19th-Century Fiction from Austen to Dickens: this year’s books are Pride and PrejudiceWaverley (look at that handsome new edition!), The Tenant of Wildfell HallMary Barton, and Hard Times. I’m actually eager to get started: both are small-ish classes (around 35) and I know there will be at least some familiar faces in both as well.

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!

neely-blanche

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.