This Week In My Classes: Going Remote

three-guineasLike everyone else in the world (and how odd for that not to be hyperbole, though our timelines have differed) I have spent the past week adjusting to the unprecedented risks and disruptions created by the spread of COVID-19. Friday March 13 began as a more or less ordinary day of classes: the cloud was looming on the horizon, reports were coming in of the first university closures in Canada, and we had been instructed to start making contingency plans in case Dalhousie followed suit. But my schedule that day was normal almost to the end: I had a meeting with our Associate Dean Academic to discuss my interest in trying contract grading in my first-year writing class; I taught the second of four planned classes on Three Guineas in the Brit Lit survey class and of four planned classes on Mary Barton in 19th-Century British Fiction. The only real break from routine was a brisk walk down to Spring Garden Road at lunch time to pick up a couple of items I thought it might be nice to have secured, just in case: Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good for my book club, which I knew had just come in at Bookmark, and a bottle of my favorite Body Shop shower gel (satsuma! it is such a sunny fragrance)–hardly essential, but potential pick-me-ups for hard times to come.

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Just before my afternoon class, however, we got the news that classes were being suspended as of Monday March 16: it’s a measure of how distracted I actually was, despite the veneer of normalcy, that I didn’t quite process the details and thought for a while that we would still be in classes at least until Wednesday (which is the date the memo told us to have our detailed plans ready for the rest of the term). The first scheduling casualty was the department talk scheduled for that Friday afternoon: I was supposed to be introducing what I’m sure would have been a very interesting talk from Tom Ue on ‘Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing,’ but though Tom had come out from Toronto already, the decision was made not to go ahead with it. I suppose it’s true it would have been hard for people to settle down and pay attention, under the circumstances, not to mention inconsistent with the escalating imperative to ‘social distancing.’

OUP MiddlemarchSo I packed up and went home–but still, I realized later, without having quite focused on what was happening. For example, I brought home not just the books we were in the middle of but the books that are (were) next on the class schedule, because it still seemed plausible that we would be doing something like actually finishing the courses as originally planned. And I did not bring home a stack of books that it might just be nice to have copies of at home–any of my Victorian novels, for instance. I own around a dozen copies of Middlemarch, and right now every one of them is out of reach! We are still allowed into our building, and I’ve been thinking I should go get one, and maybe some Trollope. I can’t tell if this really makes much sense, though. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have a lot of books to read right here with me, and I also have e-books of a lot of 19th-century novels because when I bought my first Sony e-reader, years ago, part of the deal was a big stack of free classics to go with it. So what if I don’t like reading long books electronically: I could get used to it. It would be a pretty low-risk outing, given that the campus is basically a ghost town at this point, but I think it’s really psychological reassurance I would be seeking, not reading material, and what are the odds that seeing familiar places I can’t really go back to for who knows how long would actually be comforting?

remains-coverAnyway, it quickly became clear that the right strategy (and, to their credit, the one our administrators have been urging) is not to try to replicate electronically all of our plans for the last few weeks of term, including the final exam period, but to smooth students’ paths to completion as best we can: dropping readings and assignments and giving them options including taking the grade they have earned so far but still also allowing another chance to do better in as painless a way as we can think of. I think the options I came up with for my classes are pretty good, in these respects, but it may be that they don’t go far enough, because this is all turning out to be so much harder than it sounded a week ago–and of course however we might (or might not!) be managing, our students have their own specific circumstances which may make even the most “reasonable” alternatives too much. I have been feeling a lot of regret about the books we won’t get to, especially The Remains of the Day, which I was increasingly excited about as the capstone text for the survey class–what a good book to read right after Three Guineas! As for Three Guineas itself, I was so excited about teaching it for the first time. It’s definitely going back on my syllabus the next time it fits the brief. Sigh.

The Student (Dixon)One of the most emotionally painful parts of all of this has been the abrupt severance of personal relationships, which is what teaching is really all about. I have put course materials together to get us to the end of our current texts, but it is much less rewarding scripting them than it is taking my ideas and questions in to meet them with and seeing what comes of our encounter. Sure, it doesn’t always go swimmingly, but that just means you try again, or try something different. I know there are ways to include more personal and “synchronous” interaction (as we’ve quickly learned to label it!) in online teaching, and of course as someone who spends a lot of time online I already believe that you can cultivate meaningful relationships without meeting face to face. There just isn’t time for that now, though, and also the demands those tools put on everyone to be available and attentive at the same time are all wrong for our immediate circumstances. It isn’t just about finding ways to get through the course material together either: there are students I have been working with for years who it turns out I saw in person for maybe the last time that Friday without even knowing it. I have been thinking about them, and about all of my students, so much since that hectic departure from campus and hoping they know how much I have valued our time together and how much I already miss them!

macke woman readingAnd now, I guess, it’s time to settle in to what people keep euphemistically calling “the new normal.” Here in Halifax we are under strong directions for social distancing; I’ve heard rumors that something more rigorous might be coming, in the hope of really flattening that infamous curve. There are lots of wry jokes and memes about readers or introverts or others whose habits and preferences mean they have been “preparing for this moment our whole lives.” We live a pretty quiet life ourselves, so to some extent this is true of us as well (though not of Maddie, who like many young people is going to be very well served by the various ways she and her friends can stay in touch virtually). It’s pretty different having to stay home, though, and also worrying whenever you go out, even if it’s only for essentials. It’s also not spring yet here–I envy my family in Vancouver the softening weather that makes walks and parks and gardens good options. I am grateful, though, that we are comfortable and together and, so far, healthy. I am also glad I did pick up An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, because I finished reading it this morning and it is a nice bit of twisted fun…about which more soon, I hope!

I’m thinking about all my blogging and Twitter friends a lot too and I am so glad we have these networks to keep us connected. May we take strength and comfort from each other even from our usual distance!

 

This Week In My Classes: Novels and Novelty

SnowBirdLast week was our winter term study break, which is always a welcome interlude–more welcome even, I think, than the equivalent week off from classes in the fall because the winter term is grueling in ways the fall term is not, simply because it’s winter! Everything just takes more time and energy. We’ve been having a spell of unusually mild weather over the past few days and it has been so nice not to have any shoveling or scraping to do. There have even been days when it made perfect sense not to wear boots! Imagine that, in February. 🙂

But we’re back in class now, and from here to the end of term it will feel to all of as if we’re hurtling down hill. Why does the second half of term always seem to go by so much faster than the first? It’s not like we don’t still have a lot to get through! So: let’s take stock.

greatexpectationsIn British Literature After 1800 we have just finished a couple of weeks on Great Expectations. More than half the class chose to write their first paper on it, which may be a sign of engagement, though it might also be a sign that they don’t want to write on poetry, or that they realized they would like to get the paper out of the way before the later option. In terms of our class discussions, I think it was nice to park ourselves in one place for a while, as the course overall, just by its nature, moves quite briskly along through a range of quite different material. As I look ahead to the other long texts I chose for the course (Three Guineas and The Remains of the Day) I’m pleased at the thematic connections I can see opening up. From a pedagogical point of view, that means they pair up in interesting ways for the later assignments, which include a comparative essay. But they are also different enough in form and voice that our conversations won’t get repetitive.

three-guineasI’ve taught The Remains of the Day quite a few times, but before we get to it there’s quite a lot of material on the syllabus that I haven’t assigned often or at all before, starting on Friday with Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (which is the first Kipling I’ve ever taught) and including Three Guineas. I have assigned A Room of One’s Own enough times to know some of the challenges of working through Woolf’s long winding arguments. With Room I have found it helpful to start by modeling very carefully how to follow her from one step to another, literally drawing a map of the associative connections from one idea to the next. Skimming is much more hazardous here than it is with Dickens, where you may well miss details or delights if you aren’t paying close attention but you are likely to catch on again eventually. With Room there are set pieces that are particularly good for close reading and discussion (the contrasting dinners in the opening, for instance, or the story of Shakespeare’s sister): I think there are similar exemplary moments in Three Guineas but I haven’t had a chance to test them out and see which ones catch on. Our sessions on it will thus be necessarily experimental, but I hope the students will find the book as brilliant and provocative as I do.

waverleyIn 19th-Century British Fiction from Austen to Dickens we have wrapped up our work on Waverley — and I have to say, it seemed to go pretty well! I allowed more class time for it than I have before, and I really dug in on the historical context early on, both of which I think helped, but credit definitely also goes to the students: they just didn’t seem to find it as difficult, or at least as off-putting, as the previous batch did, or if they did, they were more good-natured about it! There was not nearly the precipitous falling off in class discussion after Pride and Prejudice that I’d feared. Something else I’ve already noticed is Waverley (and Waverley) coming up in discussions of other readings (including of Great Expectations, as I have a number of students who are in both classes), which confirms my sense that whatever its challenges, it is a novel that sets the terms for a lot of what happens after it.

OUPTenantNext up in this class is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which we started on Monday. I have assigned this often in my seminar on the ‘woman question’ but I realized it has been nearly a decade since I worked through it in a lecture class instead. As always, I am enjoying rereading it. I think it is such a smart novel, especially in its complicated narrative and chronological structure. (Here’s my Open Letters Monthly essay laying out my ‘reading ‘ of it.) But it’s also very direct and emotionally engaging, making it a rather different experience than Waverley in ways that are both refreshing for us as a group and interesting for us as students of the 19th-century novel. One of the things I thought about a lot during my sabbatical last winter was whether it was time for me to slot Wuthering Heights into this course. I admit, I’m glad I didn’t. For one thing, I’ve got enough new stuff on my plate right at this moment in the term. But the key thing is that I can’t get past how unpleasant I find Wuthering Heights. If I had time to do two Brontë novels, I could do Tenant right after it, as a tonic and a corrective (which is, some critics think, something Anne herself intended it to be), but in a class with only 5 novels altogether, that’s not an option. Still, maybe next time. Or maybe not.

hardtimesAfter Tenant we will be doing Mary Barton and then wrapping up with Hard Times. We’ve already been asked to submit course descriptions and tentative reading lists for 2020-21, and one of the courses I’ll be doing is the Dickens to Hardy course. Dickens is the only novelist explicitly named in both course titles, and every so often I wish I didn’t feel obliged to include him on every reading list–or to include Hardy at all–so I asked this group if they’d feel cheated if they signed up for “The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy” and discovered they would not be reading either Dickens or Hardy. A bit to my surprise, most of them said an emphatic “Yes!” I guess those names have more traction than I realized. The problem for me is that I really (really) want to assign Middlemarch for the class, and I’m wary of including two monstrously long novels, which means once again I’d have to choose among the short(er) Dickens options, which are getting a bit stale for me. Or would I? Would it be so tough to read both Bleak House and Middlemarch in one term? What if I included two really short novels in between, to balance them out (The WardenCranford?) and then ended (as apparently I must) on Hardy? I have a couple of months to think about this before the actual book orders are due: I’ll run some scheduling scenarios and see what looks reasonable.

This Week In My Classes: Regrouping

Waterhouse (Lady)We have had more storms since the last time I posted but happily no more storm days, so we are still on schedule … for now! (In fact, things are looking pretty nice–by January standards–for the rest of the week, especially considering that we’ve been having some days with wind chills in the -20 range.)

In 19th-Century Fiction, it did seem a bit rushed at the beginning of our classes on Austen because of the hour we’d lost, but by our last discussion of Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to me that we had done a good job with the novel. You never address every detail in class, of course: the goal has to be to develop a kind of interpretive map, with central cruxes and questions suggesting possible directions through the text. That way students can consider examples we didn’t explicitly talk about as parts of the patterns we’ve been considering and think for themselves about how they fit–or don’t!

new-austenI really did enjoy rereading the novel this time, especially the reliably hilarious as well as deliciously subversive final encounter between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine. One thing we spent a fair amount of time on in class is the way Austen manipulates us into liking or disliking characters, only, much of the time, to undercut or at least complicate our “first impressions” so that we realize we are vulnerable to the same interpretive mistakes as the characters. In this respect I think even Mr Collins gets a bit of a reprieve from our initial distaste. Not only is his offer to Lizzie actually quite honorable, despite also being laughable, considering he has no obligation to make up to the Bennet sisters for the future loss of their home, but at Hunsford we see that while he is still absurd, he treats Charlotte well and has made it possible for her to live a dignified life. I don’t think there’s any backtracking on Lady Catherine, though: she remains an antagonist to that bitterly delightful end:

“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”

In her absolute consistency I think she shows both Austen’s brilliance and her limitations. Austen manages to keep Lady Catherine entertaining and provocative without ever making her three dimensional, but if you compare her characterization to, say, Mr. Bulstrode’s in Middlemarch, you realize how much more interesting it actually is to have your worst character be someone so fully developed that your judgment has to sit in awkward company with your understanding. The moral tests are much easier to pass in Pride and Prejudice.

beardsleyIn British Literature After 1800 we are still reading poetry and I am still struggling with “how to balance attention to context and content with attention to form,” as I put it in my last post. After a somewhat sputtering discussion on Friday–which was largely my fault, as I did way too much lecturing, partly as a wrongheaded reaction to my anxiety about how class discussions had been going!–I spent a lot of time on the weekend reading blog posts and articles about improving student discussions (such as this one) and decide that my best strategy given all the variables at play (class size and composition, the nature of the readings, the already established set of course requirements, etc.) was to provide more prompts to guide them during their reading outside of class. The result of this was that I spent several hours preparing study questions for each of this week’s little clusters of poems, starting with our “Victorian medievalism” cluster (Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Epic,” and “Morte d’Arthur”) on Monday. My hope was that the questions would bring them to the room better prepared to try out answers to my leading questions in class, rather than my simply hoping they would be able to generate ideas on the spot.

Lady (Waterhouse)This is hardly a radical strategy, including for me. I do often (and did this term) provide study questions for the novels in my 19th-Century Fiction classes, for example, to help students organize their observations as they read the long books–to know what, of all the many details flooding past them, to really pay attention to. But I also find it pretty easy to ask questions in 19th-Century Fiction that will get at least some answers, and usually lots of them, because we always have plot and character as starting points, from which we can level up to questions about form and theme. Maybe because I don’t teach poetry often, I underestimated the difference it makes to be working on, not just poetry, but poetry much of which is in a somewhat archaic diction. My impression (though I may be mistaken) is that many of the students are struggling with the literal meaning of the poems–their basic paraphraseable content. Perhaps, too, the variety in our reading list that keeps things interesting for me (and is to some extent necessitated by the survey format) is making things harder for them because each poet is so different and thus makes different demands on our attention as readers. With that in mind, in the study questions I came up with I tried to make the assigned poems more legible for them, combining questions about theme with prompts to consider form, and making some connections across the poems.

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So far, however, even with these questions provided to them in advance, I feel like I am struggling to find the right questions to raise in class that will launch a good conversation–the poetry equivalent of leading off a fiction class with “OK, so which characters do you like or dislike so far and why?” (which is a sure-fire way to get people talking, and almost equally sure to lead after a while to much more subtle and important questions). There are some people talking, which is great, and actually today, in our class on “Victorian Poetry of Faith and Doubt,” there was good participation about the general issue of what religion means to or provides for people in their everyday lives, and thus what people might feel they have lost or want to fight for when their faith is challenged. When it came time to see what our poets were saying or doing about that, though, it got much quieter again. I am not used to “Dover Beach” sparking so little (evident) interest! Well, all I can really do is keep trying different things–and hope that they are just quiet, not bored, confused, or (worst of all!) not actually doing the reading. If nobody can make the case for the Duchess’s innocence in Friday’s class on Browning, that will be a bad sign.

One of the poems we read for today is Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” which (atheist though I am) I always find extraordinarily beautiful and moving. I really liked the slide I made for it, so for no better reasons than that, here it is!

English 2002 Faith and Doubt (Winter 2020)

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!

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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!