Taking Stock: This Term In My Classes

Arcimbolo LibrarianIt was a strange teaching term, at times hard, awkward, and demoralizing, but also at times invigorating, engaging, even restorative. This is true of every term, I suppose, but I really felt this emotional ebb and flow this time, probably because I am still grappling with what it means to carry on with my “normal” life after Owen’s death: I can’t really take any aspect of it for granted, and the more normal things seem in the moment the more vertiginous the return to my new normal. I am also just less stable myself, more susceptible or less resilient, meaning that while the highs are welcome, the lows can drop me, however unreasonably, into the Slough of Despond. I’ve had waves of plagiarism before, for example, but never before have they reduced me to tears or made me wonder how much longer I can keep doing this work.

Some of the challenges of the term (and the year), though, are not specific to me and my grieving. Every academic I talk to is dealing with high absenteeism, unusually uneven levels of student engagement, overwhelming demand for accommodations and support services, and confusion around expectations about what is reasonable, appropriate, possible, responsible—on both sides, for students (from us) and also for us (from students). The consensus seems to be that we are in a transitional period, for better and for worse. Because of the disruptions of COVID, our current student cohorts have had a different experience of both high school and university than earlier generations. One consequence seems to be that they do not recognize or understand (or, arguably, accept) the intrinsic value of showing up to class, of being present for it, tending (not universally of course) to equate “taking the course” with completing the required assignments. While of course we all want our assignments to matter, I don’t think I’m alone in believing that they are not the point of a course and that they are far from the most (or at least not the only) meaningful modes of engagement with the course material, at least not in an English course. The work we do collectively in the classroom is always going to range more widely and offer more ways to think, more questions to answer, more practice at thinking and answering questions well, than any individual component, however ingeniously devised.

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsI have always worried that students who attend irregularly are missing out on that broader learning experience, and also that sporadic attendance can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you just show up occasionally, you might not recognize the value of what we are doing or know how to join in to get the most out of it. The most obvious policy response is to require attendance, and I do believe in a version of “if you build it, they will come”—if you mandate it, they will (maybe, eventually, hopefully!) start to see the value of it. Mandatory attendance creates its own problems, though, from the administrative burden of recording it (especially with large classes) to the difficulty of having and applying fair policies that take accessibility and other issues into account and don’t lead to constant wrangling over what counts as a “legitimate” absence. For many years now I have not required or graded attendance, though I do always take attendance, so that I have some sense of who is or isn’t showing up and can reach out to anyone who seems like they might be in trouble. Before COVID, I also experimented with a range of different in-class exercises for credit, using them both for low-stakes practice at key course objectives and to “incentivize” being present. I think this is the approach I will go back to next year.

escher12Another reason to return to more in-class work is the relentless encroachment of AI. Other people have written well about what it means for those of us whose life’s work is helping students learn to read, think, and write better, and about what we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t, do in response. (See this thoughtful article in Public Books, for example.) My main practical and pedagogical concern is the way its ready availability serves the unfortunately widespread but hopelessly misguided idea that the point is to generate X number of units of “writing” in order to get a course credit, not to learn the things the writing expresses, to go through the mental and intellectual experience of grappling with questions and thinking through answers, of weighing evidence and arguments and reaching conclusions you, personally, understand and believe in. It has always been possible to substitute other people’s writing for your own, and in fact the majority of the plagiarism cases I submitted this term were of the old-fashioned “copied from the internet” kind. Students in these cases sometimes seemed surprised when I emphasized in my statements that the words and ideas they had used came from other actual people, not from some abstract entity called “the internet”—when you Google something, what comes up is (or was!) the product of someone else’s effort to do what you’ve been asked to do. AI is a stranger kind of thing: nobody “knows” what the bot generates. At the moment students seem naïve about the bot’s capacity in ways that help us spot its presence and intervene: “AI wouldn’t make this kind of mistake,” a student in a recent hearing insisted, but in fact the bot makes a lot of mistakes—or, to put it more accurately, it generates a lot of nonsense. I’ve been running tests on ChatGPT and it has offered up some remarkable howlers, including this hilarious answer to a prompt asking it if the narrator of Middlemarch is judgmental about Celia and to give a specific example from the novel (this seems to be a good strategy, btw, to expose its limitations):

ChatGPT on Mmarch

OUP MiddlemarchActually, I kind of love the idea that the novel’s narrator “would rather have tea than everything else in the world” (me too!)—but of course this is absolutely not a passage from the novel; it’s just a jumble of nonsense. Students are already willing to put in a remarkable (to me) amount of effort “hiding” or “fixing” material they have copied from other sources, to conceal their reliance on it, but I doubt most of them are up to the task of getting crap like this into passable form. Mind you, to know it’s crap, they would need at least some familiarity with the novel: what shocked me with the ChatGPT cases I had this term was that they included quotations that were simply not in the actual assigned text, and the students didn’t even notice. As students get more familiar with the bot’s limitations, they may (may!) find it is actually less work (and less risk) to just do the reading and assignment themselves.

But of course the real answer to this kind of subversion of our teaching and learning goals is to convince students of the value of the work itself. Lots of folks giving advice about ChatGPT emphasize this. I couldn’t agree more, but I think it’s naive on their part to just say this, as if, however good our intentions, our circumstances don’t militate against it. Good writing pedagogy alone, without even worrying about plagiarism, ought to be reason enough for small class sizes that would enable real working relationships between professors and students, that would make process work (outlines, drafts, revisions, portfolios) feasible and meaningful. For the last few years my first-year writing classes have had 120 students in them (up from 90, which was up from a longstanding norm of 55). One good result of some otherwise very unfortunate budgeting issues in our department may be that these caps come back down, maybe even by half. That’s still a far cry from the caps of 17 in the writing seminars at Cornell where I trained, but a lot of things are possible with 60 students that aren’t with 120—and I don’t just mean logistically, although that matters too. With 60 students you can see all of their faces and learn all of their names! If I’m going to convince at least most of them (some of them will never believe this, or care about this) that reading and writing well is exciting and important, that poems and stories are worth their time, that Virginia Woolf is worth their attention (it was crushing how many students copied and pasted material for their journals and discussion posts about “The Death of the Moth”) then making our classrooms even a little bit more personal is surely an essential first step. woolf-by-bell

This post has already gotten pretty long and I haven’t said anything very specific about my actual classes this term! I think that reflects the kind of term it was for me: one in which big questions about the job, about pedagogy, about how and why to do all of this really dominated. Still, for my own sake I think it’s also important for me to note, so that I don’t forget, that there were some wonderful students and some really rewarding moments in both classes. I think specifications grading went reasonably well in the first-year class: as before, a number of students have commented explicitly on ways in which they found it effective and supportive. Although attendance was the worst I’ve ever seen in Mystery & Detective Fiction, it settled in to a pretty consistent group, and we had some excellent discussions; I think these students did see that there was more to “taking the class” than paging through the books and completing the basic requirements, and it was heartening that several of them told me on the last day how much they had enjoyed the class. Some of them are even coming back to read more books with me next term!

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973Next term: what a thought. A year ago the very idea of being back in the classroom was completely overwhelming. It seemed impossible, unthinkable. “How do they do that?” I puzzled as I reflected on all the other sad people I knew were around me:

I don’t imagine that it feels easy to any of them, or that they are “over it” or have “moved on,” but there they all are, carrying on with their lives while also somehow carrying their grief.

I know now how easy the answer is, though the reality it reflects is so difficult: they just do. We just do. We have to. “You don’t get over it, you just get through it” is one of the many clichés about grief that turn out to be exactly true. Getting through it is pretty hard work, I find, and I am so grateful for the help and support I have had and still have, from friends and family—my elephants—and from the excellent therapist I had my first appointment with last May, whose compassion, insight, and expertise continue to be invaluable. I am also truly grateful to the many students who showed up, in person and online, to engage with me about our readings, and whose curiosity, hard work, and good will helped me resolve that yes, I do want to keep doing this job: they make the endeavor worthwhile, and I hope I managed to convey my enthusiasm and commitment to them in spite of the term’s challenges.

The Decline of Reading (in My Classes)

trollope-wardenI’ve been ordering next year’s books — not because I’m that ahead of the game in general but because early ordering enables the bookstore to retain leftover copies from this year’s stock and students to get cash back at the end of term if they have books we’re using again. I’m teaching a couple of the same classes again in 2023-24 (my first-year writing class and Mystery & Detective Fiction) and so it isn’t too hard to get those orders sorted out. While I was at it, I thought I’d also make my mind up about which novels I’d assign for the Austen to Dickens course (this year I’m doing Dickens to Hardy — once upon a time I taught them both every year, but now I do them in alternate years) . . . and this has had me thinking about how my reading lists have changed over the past twenty years.

I don’t mean substantively, although over the years titles have come and gone and been offered in many different combinations. But going back over recent book lists to get ideas, what stood out to me the most is that in the early 2000s I routinely assigned six novels in these one-term courses, often including one really long one (Vanity Fair, Bleak House or Middlemarch, say). Then around 2008 I went down to five, which remained standard for my book lists until 2020, again usually including one of the big ones but often balancing it with one pretty short one (The WardenCranford, or Silas Marner, for example).

Then in Fall 2020, when we “pivoted” to online teaching, I took the widespread advice to reduce students’ workload, both because online pedagogy is more laborious for everyone (because of things like written discussion boards replacing more impromptu in-person discussions) and because of the additional stress of the pandemic. That term I assigned just four novels. I taught the 19th-century fiction class online again in Fall 2021 — and again I assigned four novels. Both times one of the four was a big one, but overall, there was less reading than I used to require.

OUP MiddlemarchWhen I came back to in-person teaching last term, I was wary about going back to pre-pandemic norms. Things in general didn’t really seem normal, after all. So once again I assigned just four novels. OK, one of them was Middlemarch! (But again, I used to assign Middlemarch routinely as one of five or even six.) My impression was that for many of the students, this reduced reading load was a lot — overwhelming, even, for some of them — and so I have ordered just four novels again for next year (although one of them is David Copperfield).

What this has me wondering about is what has changed. Was I delusional, back in 2003 or 2004, thinking that most of the class was actually getting through six Victorian novels in a term? My memory of those years is that they included some of the best classes I’ve taught: lively, engaged, enthusiastic, with students often showing up again and again to work with me. Perhaps that was just a very self-selecting fraction of them; perhaps I focused too much on those who were keen and keeping up and the others coasted through somehow (SparkNotes, maybe?) without my being any the wiser. What about all those years I assigned five novels? Again, I always thought things were going fine, if not for everyone, then for most of the class. I certainly don’t remember complaints about the reading load in those days, but over the last two years I have had quite a few students contact me to express concern about their ability to get through, and also just to comprehend, the novels on my reading lists.new-austen

Did the pandemic make that big a difference, with its disruptions to students’ learning and study habits perhaps undermining their patience or capacity for sustained reading? Are students working a lot more outside of school now than they were in 2008 or 2015? Is it an ongoing generational shift, as the trend towards easier modes of media consumption continues? Or is it a question of my own lowered expectations lowering their expectations — of their classes and of themselves? If I put five novels back on the list, would they rise to the occasion? I do feel there have been losses as the number of titles we work on goes down, because there’s less variety, but I have heard the wisdom that less content actually means more learning. I could address the variety problem by replacing the one big novel with two shorter novels, I suppose, but I am reluctant to give up the chance to work through one of the long ones, not least because that kind of doorstopper is one of the literary glories of the period — and not many students are likely to try any of the really big ones on their own, so my class is a rare opportunity to offer them that experience.

copperfieldI could still add a fifth book to next year’s list if I want to. So far, I’m committed to Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreDavid Copperfield, and The Warden. In 2017 I assigned Persuasion, Vanity FairJane EyreNorth and South, and Great Expectations for the same course; in 2013 the list was PersuasionWaverleyJane EyreDavid Copperfield, and North and South (I remember that year distinctly, because it was the year of the Waverley intervention!). I wouldn’t dare add Waverley at this point, I don’t think (I last taught it in 2020, just before we all got sent home, and oh my goodness does looking back at that post make me nostalgic) but I wonder if Mary Barton or Adam Bede would break them, or maybe little Silas Marner. Or maybe I should accept that for whatever reason, at this point less really is more, or at least enough.

What about the rest of you who assign reading for a living? Do you find that the amount of reading you dare demand keeps going down? If so, do you mind, or do you think it is a net benefit? What do you think are the causes? Is it just reality catching up with us (after all, if we’re in this line of work, we do probably read more, and faster, than most) or has something really changed? Students out there — current, former, or prospective — what’s your perspective?

This Week In My Classes: A Hybrid Experience (For Me)

We’re back at it: our winter term officially began on Monday, meaning today marks the end of the first full week of classes. The very familiarity of it is intensely familiar: that’s how it feels after a long time doing any work that is as cyclical as teaching, I expect. The familiarity of it also continues to be disorienting for me; that too, in its own strange way, is now familiar.

moonstoneThis is my first term teaching both online and in person – not in the same course, but with one of each. So far I like it, actually. My in-person course is an old favorite, Mystery & Detective Fiction. I haven’t taught it in the classroom since Fall 2018, which feels a lot more than four years ago. I taught it online more recently, with some success, measured at least by the number of students who showed up in my Fall 2022 classes at least in part because (according to them) they’d enjoyed it a lot. I’ve remarked here before about the oddity that this has become my most frequently taught course, because it’s such a popular elective. It’s full again this term, at 64. I am grateful for its familiarity: I hope to be able to relax into it. Usually it sparks some of the liveliest discussion of any of my classes, I think because everyone’s there out of interest (it doesn’t fulfill any requirements, so nobody has been coerced into taking it). We warmed up this week with “big picture” stuff about genre fiction, with an overview of the history of detective fiction, and then, today, with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Monday we start The Moonstone, which I omitted, reluctantly, from the online version. I was rereading our first instalment this afternoon and it’s just such a lot of fun. I hope they think so too!

My online course is Literature: How It Works, which is the same first-year writing course I’ve offered online twice before. I am really glad to be getting more use out of the materials I prepared for it, which took hours and hours, first to conceptualize and then to make. Some of them, of course, have already had to be updated, but I’m not changing a lot of the content for each new iteration of the course because I’m still putting  a lot of thought and energy into the specifications grading approach I’m using. I’ve revised the bundles again this year, simplifying and reducing or rationalizing them further based on my previous experience. The second time I taught this course this way it was already an improvement on the first time, so I’m hopeful that I have ironed out more wrinkles and we’ll all—me, my teaching assistants, and the students—have an even smoother term. I don’t want to reduce the students’ workload to the point that it doesn’t have the desired outcome: I do think that forcing them to just keep writing is, overall, an excellent approach for a writing course. The challenge is finding the line between productive work and busy work, or between work they have time to care about and work that is perfunctory because they are scrambling to get the credits they want.1015StartHere-crop

It’s too early in the term in both classes to have much sense of how they’re going, or going to go, but I can say that I don’t hate going to class first thing and getting energized by the in-person session and then having the rest of the day to do everything else, from follow-up and preparation for the next class meeting to all the various tasks for my online course (mostly emails and introductions, so far, but soon to include a steady flow of discussion posts and journal entries). I’m used to recuperating in my office just long enough to head out and teach my second class, and then needing some recovery time after that class (hey, I’m getting old—pacing around and manifesting enthusiasm while talking a lot and fielding students’ comments and questions is tiring for me!) before I can dig in and get more work done. Today I did a couple of reference letters as well as my course-related stuff, and I reread Monday’s portion of The Moonstone, which I almost certainly would have put off until the weekend if I’d had to show up in person for a second class hour. I like the balance, and I’m perfectly happy not to be meeting my big first-year class in person. (Of all the classes I teach, it’s often the least rewarding to be doing face to face, because what I’m often face to face with is indifference.)Rocks and Clouds PPP

Despite the difficulties I still have adjusting to a reality that seems (still) unreal, I’m glad to be back to the routine. I was quite busy until late in December with work from last term; the time in between then and now was restful in some ways but wearing, personally, in others. Work is a good distraction; being with students forces me out of my head and into a more cheerful space; and I honestly do believe in the value of all of this—that it is worth keeping up, keeping at, even if, as today, I have to take a break from it sometimes to grieve the person whose presence is everywhere in my office, just as it is at home.

Still the World: This Term In My Classes:

I’ve been reading through my archive of posts about “This Week In My Classes,” which goes back to September 2007, nearly the very beginning of Novel Readings itself. There are some (possibly) practical reasons for doing this, including considering what to say in my contribution for a forum on teaching Victorian literature today that my colleague Tom Ue is organizing for the Victorian Review.

I’ve also been thinking more generally about the unbearable lightness of blogging—the flip side of the immediacy that is such a big part of its appeal as a form is its ephemerality. I have put so much effort, and so much of myself, into writing here at Novel Readings; as it becomes increasingly evident that, however persistently some of us keep up the habit, the ‘Golden Age of Blogging’ is past (something that is clearer to me than ever as I review the vigorous discussions that once happened in my comments sections), I find myself wondering if any of this archive is worth revisiting, revising, repurposing in some way that might be—I don’t want to say “more substantial,” because I fondly believe it is already substantial, if in a diffuse way—so let’s say a bit stickier.

The exercise so far has been at once invigorating and strangely mournful, or maybe not so strangely, given the context. For one thing, it’s not just blogging as a phenomenon that is past its prime but also, perhaps, my teaching career, although in my brighter moments I hope that there is time, and that I will have the energy, to make its last decade meaningful to both me and my students. Another context, of course, is Owen’s death and my continuing sense of disorientation in my own life, a feeling that is somehow harder, more confusing, to deal with when I am in the midst of what used to be normalcy, including especially, this term, on campus. So much is the same, including the work I am doing and (more or less) the person that I am while I’m doing it: how can that be? The discrepancy between my two realities continues to give me emotional vertigo, and rereading my old posts intensifies the effect, because they immerse me, in the moment, in the world before everything split apart. They are full, too, of casual references to my children—to sick days and holidays, to March break camps and Christmas shopping. Many of those years were actually hard times in many ways, both personally and professionally; frank as I have been about some aspects of my life, there’s a lot I’ve never talked about here. Now, though, they seem like such innocent times. Whatever my struggles, whatever I imagined or dreaded about the future, it was never this.

One question in the back of my mind throughout this term was: should I say anything to my classes about Owen’s death? Was there any way in which that recent experience of mine was relevant, not just to me personally but to what we were doing there together? Most of the time the answer pretty clearly seemed to be “no.” I did say, once or twice, that for personal reasons I wasn’t necessarily at my best and they should feel free to remind me or correct me about things if I got muddled. But in general I like fairly clear boundaries with my students (“be friendly, but not their friend” is the advice I got early on, and I still consider it sound); of course I’m always communicating my enthusiasms, interests, and values, just through what I teach and how I teach it, but I’m not a fan of oversharing, on either side. Suicide is also a fraught topic, and it is impossible for me to know how bringing up my own trauma might affect other people in the room. I think some of my students did know—and in fact one or two kindly extended their sympathies to me outside of class, which I appreciated.

I did finally bring it up, though, on the last day of class in 19th-Century Fiction. I usually end that class with a peroration about why I think our work is worthwhile, on what I hope they have learned from our readings and discussions, and, most important, on what I hope they will take away from it all. For many years (and my review of my teaching posts has shown me just how long this has been true) I have thought about my classes as less about conveying specific content than about teaching reading—about training better readers. Always, in these closing remarks,  I note that they will only be assigned “required reading” for a fragment of their reading lives; the rest of the time, what they read and how they read it will be up to them, as will be their relationship with books in other ways, from supporting public libraries to attending book festivals, from joining book clubs to getting involved in debates about the curriculum in the public schools. I do care about their engagement with the particular books I’ve worked on with them; I am always delighted when I hear from a former student who has carried away a love of Victorian novels and continues to seek them out, or who thinks back on our journey through Middlemarch as a highlight of their university years (and some do!). But I also hope that my students carry away a set of habits and skills for reading, and a set of questions to ask of anything they read, questions like the one Booth proposes as fundamental in The Company We Keep:  “Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends might well pursue together?” (The best literary “friends,” he elaborates, are identified by “the irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own,” which is as good a definition of literary merit as I know.)

In my closing peroration in 19th-Century Fiction this year, I said a lot of the same things, but I also commented on two specific contexts for our work together that really mattered to me this term, both of which had given new urgency, in my mind, to questions about how we all spend our time, not just but especially in the classroom. The first was my return to in-person teaching after two+ years of teaching online, an experience which has prompted a lot of pedagogical reflection for me. Before COVID, I made a lot of assertions about the importance of teaching in person (some of them prompted by MOOCs, which seem to have fizzled out conspicuously as both promise and threat). I have learned a lot in the past three years about online teachingenough not to dismiss it or recoil from it, but also enough to know that I was right that, for me and the kind of teaching I enjoy and value most, being in the room with my students is preferable. I struggled a lot this year because it wasn’t clear that a number of my students thought the same; I hope that this is a lingering effect of the COVID years (not that they are really over, sadly) and that eventually those meetings will hum with their old energy. I didn’t go on and on about this to my class, not least because the ones who were present were the ones who had pretty much always been present, so they had shown their own commitment to what I strongly believe is, at its best, a collaborative venture.

And the second context I brought up was that this had been my first term back in the classroom since my son died. I did not go into any details about his death, but I told them that, inevitably, it had prompted a lot of questions for me about how I spend (and have spent) my life and my work, about what my priorities have been over the years. I have worked hard, I told them, to recover and sustain my conviction that if  teaching was the kind of thing that had been worth doing before Owen died, it was still worth doing, and doing as well as I could manage, after he died as wella principle I have tried to believe in and live up to in other ways as well, including maintaining this blog.  I got a bit choked up talking about this, which I knew was a risk, and maybe it was too personal a thing to say. Rightly or wrongly, though, it really mattered to me to tell themthis group who had stuck it out with me all term in our grim, windowless room, heads up, masks onthat our time together had really meant something to me, that I wasn’t just going through the motions, that teaching might be “just a job” in some respects, but that it is a lot more than that in others. I guess that’s something I hope they will carry away from my class as well, that (as Aurora Leigh tells us), “the world of books is still the world,” and that how we read, and how we think about reading, is inseparable from how we live.

October Reading & Teaching

atkinson-shrinesOctober was a terrible reading month for me. I didn’t even start many books, much less finish them. A last minute push (and, I’ll admit, a bit of fed-up skimming) got me to the end of Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety, which I had acquired precisely because I figured that, whatever gripes I have had in the past with her logic or narrative trickery, I could trust Atkinson to tell a story that would carry me along out of my slump. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen: Shrines just never clicked for me. Its overly elaborate plot is delivered piecemeal, with lots of chronological jumping around; although there are a lot of well-conceived characters, none of them came to life for me, at least not enough to provide any momentum; and the ending is beyond bad — the last several pages read as if Atkinson got tired of the whole project and just transcribed everything that was left in her notebooks. YMMV, of course: the novel has gotten a lot of glowing reviews, and many readers on Twitter replied to my grumpy report about it saying they’d enjoyed it just fine. flynn-berry

The only other (new) novel I finished in October was Flynn Berry’s Northern Spy. It’s a thriller, well paced and plotted and with a bit of intricate moral dancing around questions about how far it is right to go, for your family, for a cause, or for your conscience. I’m not rushing out to buy Berry’s other novels, but if I saw one at the library I’d definitely pick it up.

I’ve been reading steadily for my classes, of course. In Women and Detective Fiction we’ve finished Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place and now also P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; tomorrow we have our first discussion of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi.  Rereading Grafton today I appreciated the light-heartedness of it. I mean, obviously as it’s a murder mystery there’s a grim aspect to it, and at times it is very serious indeed, but Grafton has a sense of humor about the genre and is clearly having fun up-ending its tropes. My experience in previous years is that students find her revisions more dated than they do Sara Paretsky’s; there’s usually a certain impatience with Kinsey’s “I’m not a girly-girl” shtick. I admit, I relate to it, perhaps because my own early introduction to feminism was by way of Free to be You and Me and not being allowed to have Barbie dolls. I do think V. I. Warshawski is a more interesting character and Paretsky overall is more thoughtful about the politics of her novels. I also got pretty tired of Grafton’s series well before the end of the alphabet (she only got as far as Y). But A is for Alibi is brisk and smart and has plenty of unexpected twists, which I hope will help keep the students’ attention.

oupIn 19th-Century Fiction we have been working on Middlemarch for a couple of weeks. I wish I could say it is going well. I don’t think it’s going badly exactly, but honestly this term I don’t really know. Attendance is just appalling: most days, maybe 60% of the class shows up, which is unprecedented, in my fairly long experience. I don’t know what to make of this. I know it’s not personal, or at least I’m trying not to take it personally, but that doesn’t make it any less disheartening. The students who are present are pretty quiet; I think – I hope – they are engaged, but much of the time it’s hard to tell, and I worry that at this point I am mostly performing enthusiasm, not eliciting it. The ones who do speak up have good things to say, but I’m not used to having to work so hard to get anything out of the class, to get any energy back from them. I’m going to keep trying! The ones who are showing up deserve no less, and I remain hopeful that between us we can and will make the most of this opportunity to read this great novel together.

I was really looking forward to these classes on Middlemarch because I thought, or hoped, they would shore up my faltering faith in all the ways I have spent my “one wild and precious life.” Whatever else was going wrong in my life before all of this, I could count on my classroom hours to make me feel better, by taking me out of my own head for a while and also because of the joy of engaging with students about books in ways I really do value and cherish and believe in. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it isn’t so simple this term. The image I keep returning to lately is that it’s like I’m crossing a suspension bridge. It’s a bit unsteady underfoot, but as long as I look straight ahead it’s not too bad moving forward, just doing the next thing that’s in front of me, and the next, and the next. It’s when I look down and realize all over again what’s below it, or it’s shaken by a gust of wind (a memory, a place, a picture, or just a feeling) that the vertiginous sensations return —  “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” — and I am overcome, unbalanced, beside myself, in spite of myself.

capilano suspension bridge

Recently: Classes & Senior Moments

I haven’t been doing well at my plan to return to regular posting about my classes, and in fact today I don’t really have a lot to say about them, except that overall I think they are going okay—though not great. Gaudy Night fell pretty flat in Women & Detective Fiction this time around, which was disappointing, but In A Lonely Place has clearly caught their interest, so that’s encouraging. It’s unusual for discussion of Lady Audley’s Secret to be as sluggish as it was this time in 19th-Century Fiction, which makes me anxious about starting Middlemarch next week. Attendance in that class this term is also the worst I’ve ever seen it, but I think that is mostly due to COVID (infections and exposures), and of course I’m glad those students are staying away. I do worry that the strategies I put in place to mitigate the effects of those absences might be influencing other students; missing classes can have a snowball effect on their (dis)engagement. But all I can do myself is keep showing up and trying to make our class time worth it to all of us. I’m doing the best I can at this. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to get myself there, but once the class is underway I usually feel better. Task-oriented coping ftw!

The things I’ve been brooding on lately, more than these specific and quite familiar pedagogical ups and downs, have been work-related in a more general way. It turns out—unsurprisingly, I suppose—that going back to campus after everything that has happened in the last three years, and especially after Owen’s death, has prompted a lot of what I’ve been thinking about as “senior moments,” meaning not dithery forgetfulness (although I do experience those kinds of senior moments too!) but reflections on my career, on what it means to me, both personally and professionally, to be one of the most senior members of my department. Indeed, in just a couple of years I will be the most senior, in age and in years of service.

One factor is that I have come back to a changed department, one where many of the colleagues I was closest to or worked most closely with have recently retired. Thanks to previous retirements (and some departures for other reasons), our full-time complement had already shrunk by around 40%; we have been fortunate to be allowed to hire some great new full-time faculty, but there has been nothing like a 1 to 1 replacement rate. So before COVID struck we were already a much smaller community than we once were, and now in many ways the department feels like an unfamiliar community to me, one in which I don’t know many of my colleagues very well, much less my own place among them. I don’t feel well-equipped to be a mentor or a role model: my relationship with our discipline and with our institution is too equivocal, not to mention that I’m hardly a good example of professional success, on academic terms and perhaps on any terms. I’m not sure what I have to offer my newer colleagues, then, and I’m not sure they want or need anything from me—or if they do, whether it would be something I’m willing or able to give at this point. (I was asked about teaching a course on book reviewing, for example, something I have no interest in doing, for both petty and principled reasons.)

What do I want from my professional life now? As I stare down the remaining years towards my own retirement, what goals or hopes do I have for them? If you’d asked me where I stood in 2019, I would have described myself as mid-career: poised for what I hoped might be a period of expansion and flourishing as my family responsibilities lightened, as I recovered from the blow to my self-confidence and sense of purpose inflicted by my failed promotion bid, and as my years of experience began to really pay off in the classroom. I also had projects on the go I was excited about. Now here I am in 2022 feeling as if I have missed that phase and gone straight to the end game—and, in the shadow of Owen’s death, wondering what it has all been worth, and how or if or when to put that kind of energy in again. All those guilt-ridden years of trying to be both a good mother and a good academic, all the crises and compromises, all the books and paperwork and panics, about parenting, on the one hand, and productivity on the other—and before too long it will all come down to a giant recycling bin outside my office door and discovering nobody else wants my shelves of marked-up Victorian novels or my complete 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. The writers of this article seriously underestimate the degree to which our department lounge, with its stacks and cartons of discarded books, is all the memento mori any of us really needs.

These are melancholy reflections, perhaps unduly so, both because my grief is still so raw and the reality of Owen’s death still so bewildering—its meaning and its impact both still unfolding every day—and because I have been on campus again for such a short time. Once, I imagined that a lot of the questions I have entertained about my life and my work since Fall 2020, when we first went online and I also got my first invitation to consider early retirement, would be answered by being back in the classroom. I knew then that it wasn’t the right time to decide: I didn’t feel ready to go (mid-career, remember?) and I didn’t think teaching online during a pandemic was the right context for deciding when I would be. Owen’s death raised more existential questions; I didn’t think returning to teaching in person would necessarily sort those out, but work—or teaching, anyway—has always given me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, so I thought it would at least help. It has helped, I guess, but the sensation of time travel I had over the summer as I tried to re-familiarize myself with campus has shaded into something different, something more like suspension between a past I can vividly imagine and a future that so far I can’t.

In My Classes: Stopping and Starting

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYIt has been a somewhat chaotic time in my classes since I last posted—not in the classes themselves, really, which have gone on much as usual, when they have actually met. But there have been a couple of unanticipated disruptions to the term, as a result of which it feels as if we are struggling to build up any momentum.

First, Queen Elizabeth died. I did not expect this to affect my class schedule at all, but when the day of her funeral was declared a provincial holiday, Dalhousie decided to follow suit, so all classes were cancelled that day. I was not in favor of this plan: it’s embarrassing enough that we still have a hereditary monarchy in the first place, and the university doesn’t close for every non-statutory holiday (we are business as usual on Easter Monday, for example). A lot of other folks still had to work that day, too. However, once the public schools were closing there were certainly pragmatic arguments for making parents’ lives easier, and although it was a pain having to revise course plans with so little notice, once I’d done that I decided just to embrace the extra day off.

fionaWhen I announced the schedule changes for the “day of mourning,” I commented “Let’s just hope we don’t also have a hurricane!” Well, what do you know: Hurricane Fiona headed straight for us this past weekend, and classes are cancelled again today, as crews clean up the debris and work on restoring power. The storm was not as severe in Halifax as in other parts of the region, where it did really catastrophic damage. Other parts of the city also fared worse than we did in our particular corner, where there were lots of limbs and branches blown off and some trees sheared in two, but no huge trees or poles down. We lost power for about 38 hours; we got it back last night and then lost it again for a short time this afternoon, meaning we are definitely not taking it for granted! Our freezer packs did a decent job keeping the food in the fridge chilled, and luckily the freezer itself wasn’t packed and what was in it stayed pretty much frozen solid. We have a small camp stove we use to boil water and do a bit of cooking as needed. Increasingly, folks around us have generators, and more than one neighbor kindly offered us whatever help we needed; if the outage had gone on much longer, we would have taken them up on it gratefully.

Assuming we are back on Wednesday, that will actually be our only day of classes this week, as Friday is another day off, although this time deliberately so, in recognition of National Truth & Reconciliation Day.

agedIn between these disruptions, we have actually met a few times and I think it has gone basically fine. The energy seems a bit low to me in 19th-Century Fiction, although I blame it partly on our dreary windowless room, and it’s also possible that it seems that way to me because I can’t see students’ faces. I’ve been encouraging them to nod at me the way Wemmick nods at the Aged:

“Here’s Mr. Pip, aged parent,” said Wemmick, “and I wish you could hear his name. Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes. Nod away at him, if you please, like winking!”

“This is a fine place of my son’s, sir,” cried the old man, while I nodded as hard as I possibly could. “This is a pretty pleasure-ground, sir. This spot and these beautiful works upon it ought to be kept together by the Nation, after my son’s time, for the people’s enjoyment.”

“You’re as proud of it as Punch; ain’t you, Aged?” said Wemmick, contemplating the old man, with his hard face really softened; “there’s a nod for you;” giving him a tremendous one; “there’s another for you;” giving him a still more tremendous one; “you like that, don’t you? If you’re not tired, Mr. Pip—though I know it’s tiring to strangers—will you tip him one more? You can’t think how it pleases him.”

I tipped him several more, and he was in great spirits.

I have wondered if stretching out our time on each book (which I did because of the advice we keep getting to ease up on students because of, well, everything) might be backfiring, because we’ve been talking about the same book for so long now. On the other hand, my competing fear is that a lot of them are quite behind in the reading, which could suggest I’m not allowing enough time. Well, we’ll be done with Great Expectations this week, one way or another, and next week we start Lady Audley’s Secret, which (if previous years are any indication) will perk them up, with its lurid and fast-moving plot and utter lack of subtlety (albeit it plenty of ambiguity, some of it, IMHO, evidence of authorial ineptness, not artistic complexity). (I do enjoy the novel a lot, and wrote an appreciation of it years ago for Open Letters Monthly.)

the-secret-of-the-old-clockWe’ve finished with Agatha Christie already in Mystery & Detective Fiction. I used to allot two class hours to Miss Marple stories, but for all Christie’s significance to the genre, I honestly don’t find there’s all that much to say about them, so I don’t regret having trimmed away one of those hours this year. We had a good student presentation on her, which gave us a productive second round of discussion. On Friday we had our first hour on Nancy Drew; we’re losing an hour on her to Fiona but will get another chance on Wednesday, with another student presentation. I always enjoy these so much: the students are so smart and creative and engaged, and they come up with such good ideas for class activities. Overall the energy in this seminar started off pretty good and seems to be getting better: spirits were high on Friday, partly because Nancy always proves very provocative. She’s just so good, and so good at everything: it’s annoying, I agree!

Personally, I continue to feel somewhat disoriented and unfocused, and I’m struggling to find my rhythm and pace in the classroom, especially (to my surprise, as it has long been my favorite lecture course) in 19th-Century Fiction. I don’t think (I certainly hope!) that this wavering isn’t evident to my students—that as far as they can tell, I’ve got my head in the game. I did mention to my seminar, in the context of one confusion I fell into, that (without going into details) I wasn’t as on top of things this term as I usually expect to be and that they should just ask or set me straight if they notice me getting something wrong. These recent cancellations and the last-minute changes they have required to my carefully laid plans are not helping: I don’t enjoy uncertainty at the best of times, which these definitely are not. Here’s hoping that once Fiona is well behind us, we don’t get any more unpleasant surprises for a while.

The First Week

3032-Start-Here-cropMy classes have been meeting for a week now, and I said I was going to try to get back in the habit of reflecting on them, so here I am, although to be honest I find myself at something of a loss about what to say. Should I just focus on the classroom time, on what we’re reading and talking about, as if it’s just another year? Or should I try to explain how surreal it feels to be in the classroom, talking about our readings as if it’s just another year, and then, when the time is up, to be back in the strange disordered world of grief?

I’ll start with the basics, the way I did in the early days of this series.

In 19th-Century British Fiction From Dickens to Hardy I have done my usual contextual introductions and now we are working our way through Great Expectations. I have mentioned here before, I’m sure, that sometimes I get a bit tired of Great Expectations, which I assign a lot. The last time I taught it was in the British Literature survey course in Winter 2020, right before we all got sent home. In my online courses since then we did Hard Times and Bleak House, and I think stepping away from Great Expectations for a couple of years has been good for me—I’m really appreciating it this time. It has an intensity and also (at least in some parts) a restraint that shows Dickens’s control and maturity as an artist. Today we talked about the novel as a version of a Bildungsroman except that, so far, Pip is developing in all the wrong ways. We talked about Miss Havisham and Estella as (bad) influences, and we looked especially at Chapter XIV as an illustration of the way Pip’s retrospective narration not only makes sure that we see how he’s going wrong but shows us that, eventually, he sees that too. “It was not because I was faithful,” he reports,greatexpectations

but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain. It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me.

It isn’t young Pip who knows to call himself “ungracious,” as he does twice in this chapter; it’s an older, wiser Pip. But (and essentially, for this eventual moral growth) even young Pip knows enough to break into tears when he leaves Joe behind:

I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, “Good-bye, O my dear, dear friend!”

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before,—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then.

4205 start hereIn Women and Detective Fiction I also began with some broad overviews, of detective fiction as a genre and of some of the questions that organize the course and will frame our readings. For last class we read a handful of “classic” stories to serve as touchstones for the resisting or subversive versions to come: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and, as a sample of hard-boiled detection, Hammett’s “Death & Company,” which is one of his ‘Continental Op’ stories. These give us a good sense of the masculine milieu of so much classic detective fiction, of the habits and practices of their detectives, and of the reductive roles assigned to women, or assumed of the women, in them. Today, as a contrast, we discussed Baroness Orczy’s “The Woman in the Big Hat,” which is one of her stories about Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. It has a delightful “reveal”:

“The big hat,” replied my dear lady with a smile. “Had the mysterious woman at Mathis’ been tall, the waitresses would not, one and all, have been struck by the abnormal size of the hat. The wearer must have been petite, hence the reason that under a wide brim only the chin would be visible. I at once sought for a small woman. Our fellows did not think of that, because they are men.”

You see how simple it all was!

Baroness_Emma_Orczy_by_BassanoWe had already talked about Sherlock Holmes’s condescending remark, “You see, but you do not observe!” and now we could revisit it with observations about how gender affects what you see, or what you understand about what you see, and about kinds of expertise that are typically devalued because they are women’s and therefore considered trivial. This issue was also key to our other reading for today, Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” a wonderful story that highlights the way the law fails women, making justice something that can only be achieved by subverting it. We talked about the way Glaspell’s story, instead of offering up a big reveal at the end by the superior figure of the detective, instead allows the story to unfold gradually, the women’s dawning awareness drawing us along with them as our sympathies shift from the murdered man to the woman whose happiness he destroyed. Their solidarity grows partly in reaction to the men, who are lumbering around doing more typical (but, we easily see, entirely misguided) kinds of investigating. Every time they come in and make their jovially condescending remarks about “the ladies,”  we too close ranks against them:

“Oh well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”

The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners—and think of his future.

“And yet,” said he, with the gallantry of a young politician, “for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?”

 In both classes, it feels as if we are still warming up, but all things considered I think participation has been good. We are all masked, and that’s a bit hot and uncomfortable and makes some things a bit harder—since I can’t see people’s whole faces, for instance, it is taking me longer to match them with names, and also I can’t really see people’s reactions, to get a sense of how things are going. It’s worth it, though, obviously, for the risk reduction. Considering how sheltered I’ve been for the last two and a half years, I’ve actually been more relaxed than I expected about suddenly being surrounded by so many more people, and I think the mandatory masking (even it if isn’t everywhere) has really helped with that. 

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973Other than the masks, nothing about teaching has changed, as far as I can tell, and in the moment I find I still enjoy the things I have always enjoyed about it: the material, the students, the dynamics and demands of discussion. I am relieved that (a few minor hiccups aside) I seem to staying on top of things in spite of being tired, distracted, and out of practice. When I’m not teaching, though, or busy with the other ever-proliferating work of the term, I feel more, not less, disoriented with the difference between the sameness of it all and my new changed reality. It’s a good thing, I know, that I am able to show up and be (more or less) my old self in the classroom, but at the same time I don’t know how to make sense of that or be at ease with it.

It has been a strange, confusing, and exhausting week, with some pretty good moments and some really bad ones. But at least it’s over now, after so much anticipation, and that’s one more “first” I never have to face again: my first week teaching again in person, after.

This Week: Classes

It’s 15 years now since I began posting regularly about “this week in my classes.” The series was hard to sustain during the past two years of teaching fully online, not because teaching wasn’t taking up a lot of my time and attention but because teaching ansynchronously made the concept of a “week” a lot less meaningful (among other challenges). Under different circumstances, I would be eagerly looking forward to tomorrow’s in-person class meetings. Ongoing concern about COVID (allayed only somewhat by Dalhousie’s decision to require masks in classrooms—but not in other shared spaces) would be reason enough for some ambivalence; add in that I am still grieving, and that campus is saturated with memories, and the result is a complex mixture of anticipation and anxiety, relief and sorrow. I have always loved teaching, so I do expect the demands, distractions, and rewards of being back in the classroom to be good for me, as it has been in the past. Those of you who have also experienced difficult losses will appreciate, though, that I have mixed feelings even about that.

Just as it hasn’t been possible for me to keep Owen’s death away from my reading or out of my writing, I expect it will come up as I reflect on my teaching experiences this term. In fact, because one of my ongoing challenges is finding ways to integrate his loss into my life, compartmentalizing—which has its uses for my day-to-day functioning—can also be counterproductive, not to mention painful and artificial, as an overall strategy. I don’t really know at this point what it’s going to be like for me this term, or, in a way, who I’m going to be. Maybe what I’ll discover is a healing continuity; maybe I’ll realize ways in which I have changed, or need to change. One of my worries is that, because of the strain I am under myself, I won’t have the emotional capacity to support my students as much as I usually aspire to—but perhaps exerting myself to meet their needs will be a useful counter-measure to the exhausting self-absorption of grief. In any case, I’m about to find out, and as I have always found posting about my teaching valuable for me pedagogically as well as personally, I’m going to try to return to it as a regular routine, so if you’re a regular reader, you’ll find out too.

So what exactly lies ahead? I am grateful that my department allowed me to change some course assignments around so that I have two upper-level classes this term, both of which are among my very favorite ones to teach. One is The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy; I have assigned Middlemarch as one of our readings, and allowed a relatively luxurious five weeks for it, because I can’t think of any better way to remind myself why my work matters to me (and, I hope, to my students). The other is Women and Detective Fiction, which has always prompted really high levels of student engagement. This week’s class meetings are primarily warm-ups: introductions to the courses on Wednesday, with an emphasis on broad framing themes and questions; and then on Friday in both classes, background lectures (on the ‘rise of the novel’ in 19thC Fiction and the history of detective fiction in the other), to make sure everyone has something like the same preparation for the readings and discussions to come.

I’ve been doing this for a pretty long time now (27 years, thanks for asking), so ordinarily I’d feel quite confident at this point. Practically and logistically, I’m well prepared—though it will be interesting to see how more than two years of working from home on a very flexible, if still often very intense, schedule, plus the psychological upheaval of the past 8 months, have affected my executive function. “To-do lists are your friends,” grief experts say, and I believe them. I have a new planner and good intentions; we’ll see how far they get me. This may be the term I feel most acutely the truth of this observation from Middlemarch‘s wise narrator, though:

Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that 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.

Behind my (hopefully adequate) Layfield KN-95 mask, there’s going to be a lot of emotional turmoil, more or less under control.

This Week In My Classes: The End of Term – and of Online Teaching?

3031 STARTI’m in the little lull between the end of routine class work and the arrival of final essays and exams. Pre-COVID, this was a time for two ritual activities: cleaning my office and going Christmas shopping. Since I’m still working almost entirely at home, the first of these is mostly, if not entirely, beside the point: my current workspace, set up in what was once my son’s bedroom (and still furnished for that purpose, including his 20-year-old mate’s bed), could use a bit of tidying, but because online teaching means there’s a lot less physical debris from the term’s work, it’s not particularly chaotic. I’ll take the teaching-related books and folders to campus for storage when my courses are well and truly wrapped up – and bring home more books related to my sabbatical projects – but there won’t be any major housekeeping to do here until I return to working full-time there.Office

As for Christmas shopping, I’ve done a very little bit in person, in quiet local shops, and some online, but I’m not comfortable going back to the mall yet. I’m actually sad about that: I know a lot of people abhor malls, but I enjoy their cheerfully hectic impersonality. In the before times, I often headed out to the Halifax Shopping Center, ostensibly to do an errand or two, but also to get a little break from the relative isolation of my typical weekends. Much as I cherish quiet ‘alone time,’ sometimes it is (was) also good to be surrounded by the buzz of other people – people who have no expectations of and are placing no demands on me. A leisurely browse in Coles, a bemused poke around in Sephora, feeling old while idly rifling through the racks at H&M: honestly, I miss it, but not enough to do it while masked (and so overheated) and anxious about distancing, especially not now with an outbreak making our case counts spike and omicron on the rampage across the globe.

1015StartHere-cropSo what have I been doing instead of cleaning and shopping? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where the “extra” time has gone. One factor, I think, is that online teaching actually doesn’t end neatly the way in-person classes do, or at least my classes haven’t: there has been a fair amount of tidying-up stuff to do, especially record-keeping and wrangling problems of one kind or another. One thing I suppose I didn’t have to do but considered worthwhile was an audit of students’ course bundles for English 1015 (where I am, again, using specifications grading). I would have had to do this eventually to determine their grades, but doing it now has given me a chance to identify a few students who, for whatever reason, were just one component short of a particular bundle, and then to see if there was a bonus exercise they hadn’t already completed that they could do to make it up, rather than ending up with a lower grade for lack of, say, a single discussion post. Of course the students themselves were supposed to be tracking their completed components, but I know that for some of them this was an unfamiliar and/or difficult expectation to meet: there were a lot of moving parts. One thing I like about specifications grading is that you can plug holes in this way, without creating different rules or requirements for different students (which I am always really reluctant to do). Overall, this process went much better this year than last year, when I ended up revising the bundles because so many students had (much to my mystification!) completed such a random assortment of components that an awful lot of them could not have passed the course at all if I hadn’t. I think my new slide presentation using a shopping metaphor to explain how specifications grading works really helped! Shopping Cart

I have also been preparing my final exams, including not just making up the questions but building them in Brightspace, a boringly complicated process with many opportunities to set a switch wrong and create problems, for them or for me. I have now ‘previewed’ and reviewed the settings for both exams multiple times! I also wrote up detailed announcements with information and instructions for the students about everything from the timing of the exam to where to get technical support while writing it. One of the most stressful things about online teaching turns out to be the pressure of putting absolutely everything in writing! Say the wrong thing, put the wrong date, explain something with inadequate clarity – or in too much detail – and there’s endless follow-up work to clean up the mess. There are definitely advantages, of course, over making announcements in person, exactly because the information is there, in writing, available 24/7. I think that weekly Brightspace announcements may be one of the elements of online teaching that I carry over into my in-person classes when I return to them next fall.

Latour reading womanNext fall! Yes, because much to my immense relief and gratitude I am on sabbatical this winter term. This means – although nothing seems absolutely certain about the future anymore – that this term may have been my last term of online teaching. Please let that be true! This is not to say that I’ve hated everything about it. There are some aspects of it I have grown to like, and others that I have learned the value of, whether I like them or not. I will probably never give an in-person quiz or exam again: the simplicity of arranging make-up tests is a gift, for one thing, and especially valuable as we are likely (I hope and expect) to be much more aware from now on of the importance of letting students stay home when they are sick. I also like online reading journals: I had used them in the past as a way of encouraging students to keep up with the reading and getting them to practice expressing ideas about it with low stakes, but then ‘upgrades’ to our LMS took away the journal function I had used and I gave it up. Now that I know how to set up one-on-one discussion boards in Brightspace, I can see keeping up some version of these, especially because Brightspace makes it pretty easy to keep the records.

2040 FAQWhat else has been good about online teaching? Well, while I still greatly prefer the energy, intellectual stimulation, and good cheer of class discussions, I have been impressed at the level of commentary on the discussion boards, especially, this term, in my 19th-century fiction class. I was frustrated all term at how much of it went on at the very end of each module, which meant only rarely was there substantial back-and-forth among the students, but that logistical griping tended to subside when I read through the posts that had come in. I am certain that I “heard” from more students this way than I would have in the classroom: I have pretty good participation rates, and I work hard to make space for students who are shy or just slower to know what they want to say (by, for instance, requiring everyone to put their hand up and wait to be called on), but even so it is typically a minority of students present who actually contribute. As was much discussed last year, when so many of us were new to online teaching, discussion boards proved to be fraught requirements, mostly because their demands felt really burdensome to students – particularly, perhaps, those who were used to coasting a bit by showing up to class and just listening, without (in some cases, not all, of course) doing the reading. The past 18 months of trial and error around online forums has given me a lot to think about in terms of how or whether I will build them into in-person classes. GE-Help-Icon-crop

I haven’t thought through yet how or whether I will incorporate recorded lectures into in-person courses. Happily, my sabbatical buys me time to brood about that! I am teaching English 1015 in person for the first time in Fall 2022; it is the first course I have designed from the start as an online offering, so it’s the one that will require the most reconsideration as with my other courses I can revert pretty easily to my old ways if I want to. For the upper-level courses I’ve created online versions of, my aim was to use the recorded lectures to replace my “front of room” work: some straight lecturing of the “here are the facts, here are the frameworks” kind, but then prompts for discussion, ideas to think through, and passages to focus on, with the work of talking these things through handled through the forums. They were never, that is, designed to give the whole story about our readings, which is also not a goal of mine in the classroom. If I’m (we’re) back in the classroom engaging in these conversations together, I am not sure there’s much point in laboring over slide shows even as supplements, and I would welcome the freedom to follow discussions where the students take them, too, rather than steering students down pre-ordained PowerPoint paths. That said, I have thought and learned a lot about accessibility since COVID struck – more than I ever had before, to my shame.

cow-cranfordThe single thing I have missed the most in my online classes has been laughter. You can do a lot of things asynchronously, and honestly I’m proud of the courses I offered. But asynchronicity is incompatible with spontaneity, which in turn is essential to the kind of fun we so often have in my classroom. The two best qualities I have as a teacher, according to generations of students, are that I am very organized and that I am very enthusiastic. The former has definitely helped me as an online professor: I feel confident that my students always knew exactly what was happening in every module; they knew exactly what was expected of them, and they could count on me to have prepared what they needed for it. I tried hard to convey my enthusiasm, through the tone of my announcements and lectures and through my own participation in the online discussions. I also tried to give some idea of my sense of humor in my slides, replacing what one student fondly (?) called my “demented stick figures” drawn on the whiteboard with the finest graphic design PowerPoint makes possible. smileyface


I know, because they have been generous enough to tell me, that some of my students over the past three terms have felt engaged and connected and motivated by my online teaching, and I’m proud of that! I am definitely eager, though, to be back working with students in person. I think none of us will ever take that experience for granted again.