This Week In My Classes: Corpses and Consciences

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In My Classes: Suspicious Minds

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

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


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


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

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

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

This Week In My Classes: Crime & Copperfield

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

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


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

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

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

This Term In My Classes: Planning for Plagiarism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



It’s June Already? Taking Stock

Bluhm PergolaAs a member of Jo VanEvery’s Academic Writing Studio (which I highly recommend, by the way, if you need a bit of structure, encouragement, and/or advice), I receive her helpful weekly newsletter by email. Last week’s had the timely subject heading “It’s June! You Are Not Behind,” and included the calming observation that “you may not be where you thought you’d be or where you wanted to be on the 1st of June. But you are where you are.” I thought I’d use this post to follow her advice and take stock of where I am and where I should be going next.

Jo’s not wrong when she says “June may have snuck up on you.” One reason June’s arrival can feel sudden and thus disconcerting for me is that it follows immediately on May–which is obvious, of course, but here’s the thing: every year it seems as if May should be the real start of the summer writing season, but every year I realize, as if for the first time, that May is actually the end of the previous academic term, and the transition to the summer. Exams finished here in late April, and though my only exam was relatively early, the practical result was not that I could get my marking done sooner but that the 90 exams came in while I was also receiving final papers in both courses. April was nearly over by the time I had filed my grades. Then there is always a flurry of committee meetings. In the English Department, they usually culminate in our annual May Marks Meeting, which requires a lot of preparation from the Undergraduate Committee, which I am on. The work is mostly done by its chair (not me right now, happily), but in consultation with the other members.  Because our department underwent a review this year (an institutional requirement involving both internal and external reviewers), and because of the wave of retirements we are experiencing, we also held a full-day “retreat” to talk about the kinds of stress our program (and faculty) are under and how we might respond.

ScreamFor me personally, the “retreat” (how I hate that term, which falsely suggests there’s something soothing about being closeted for hours with my colleagues and having to talk about fraught topics about which in some cases we profoundly disagree) was extremely stressful and undid some of the progress I’d made, post-promotion-debacle, towards restoring my trust in our collective operations and feeling once more like I have some kind of intellectual home here. I know it was undertaken with the best of intentions, but my experience of the day was that the event, which was pitched as an opportunity for “open” discussion, ended up feeling uncomfortably like an occasion to push us in a pretty specific direction–one much more aligned with the “skills” argument than with the actual content (for want of a better word) of what most of us study and teach. We’ll see how this plays out, and I may also be reacting to the loudest and most persistent voices rather than to any genuine underlying consensus that this is how we should seek to define ourselves–but I certainly left in a hurry and in a funk at the end of the day, and it has taken a while for the bitter aftertaste to wear off.

oup-persuasionAnyway, Jo recommends taking stock of what we did accomplish in May, and dealing with meetings and administrative tasks was a big part of that. I also completed the final draft of a report: I was part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ internal review committee for the King’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction (spoiler: overall, it’s a great program). I returned comments on a Ph.D. thesis chapter. I’ve written a couple of reference letters. I submitted three writing assignments, all relatively short but each posing its own kinds of challenges: an “In Brief” review for the TLS, a review for Quill & Quire, and a guest post for Sarah Emsley’s series “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” (it will be up on her blog later this month). My post for Sarah is pretty personal, which actually made it harder to write, for reasons that are explained, at least by implication, in the post itself.

82780-eliotdrawingOne of the things I’d intended to do in May is work out a definite plan for some larger writing projects to focus on over the summer. For some reason I have found this very difficult to do: I have sketched out and even done scraps of writing for a lot of possibilities but I have struggled to commit to any one of them. I have continued to explore places to pitch pieces that aren’t book reviews, and I have some ideas I like, as well as a firm commitment to doing a piece for The Reader, a publication I have long admired for its combination of sophistication and accessibility. I really want to get back to writing about George Eliot; I think what I may need is to stop focusing on venues for a while and just write, the way I could when I always had the option of running something in Open Letters Monthly. Trying to think of the pitch first becomes an exercise in self-defeating second-guessing. Getting going on this–whatever it turns out to be–is a top priority for me this month.

English-Bay-RocksThese are all work things, and of course that’s never everything that’s going on. Maddie had her wisdom teeth out on May 18th, for example, and that meant a week or so of disruption (and a lot of smoothies) while she recovered, but she is basically better now. As previously mentioned, I’ve been taking a drawing class; I’ve been feeling much better about it since I learned it was okay to copy pictures, which removes a lot of the frustration of trying to get proportion and perspective right on my own. I’ve been enjoying my practice sessions a lot more, as a result, and that in turn is building up my confidence–I even sat on our back deck on the one really hot day we’ve had so far and tried to draw the trunk of our big elm tree (not bad) and our small stone wall (not so good). After my initial discontent, I am now definitely glad I decided to try this. In addition to the intrinsic satisfaction of creating something (not that copying is that creative, but it’s a step towards it!), I often spend a lot of time alone, especially in the summer, and being able to bring along my sketch pad and pencils to someplace like Point Pleasant Park or the Public Gardens will be a nice substitute for company.

obrien-chairsLast but not least, Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs ended my reading slump; I picked up Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen on the weekend and feel excited to start both of them–though right now I’m actually reading Ann Cleeves’ Thin Air, to see if I like the books Shetland is based on as much as I liked the series. (So far, I don’t.) I’ve realized that getting out of the reading doldrums is not just important for me personally: I rely on my underlying enthusiasm about reading to keep me motivated about my writing projects, most of which now are done not because of any external demand but because I want to do them, because I think they matter in some way. When I feel myself getting bored or disillusioned or disconnected from the current literary conversation, it gets much harder to see why or how I should contribute to it.


So: that was May. Jo is right: it’s useful to reflect. Though there were long spells last month when I felt extremely grim and unproductive, it turns out I still got quite a lot done, which is reassuring, but that there are also things I really want to do next, which is bracing.

This Week In My Classes: Loose Ends and Lessons Learned

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsClasses have been over for a while now, but the business of the teaching term isn’t quite over. I mentioned before that one unfortunate feature of marking season is academic integrity hearings: I had more this year than I’ve ever had before, which has taken up a lot of my time and also given me a lot to think about. Individual cases are confidential, of course, but at some point I plan to write a separate post about some trends I’ve noticed around plagiarism and some ideas I have about how to address both its causes and its consequences. Some of what I’ve been dealing with and thinking about is addressed in this article in University Affairs, but I’m wary of focusing too hard on how we design our assignments. For one thing, though there are many things I might do in an ideal world that would be helpful, it seems likely that before long we won’t have any writing classes in our department with fewer than 120 students, and an awful lot of “best practices” simply don’t scale up, especially given strict contractual limits on our use of Teaching Assistants. At the end of the day, too, I’d like to see the responsibility for not cheating rest with the students, who always do have the choice not to cheat. That doesn’t mean we and our pedagogy don’t play a role, of course, including in making sure they understand what constitutes cheating…but more about that thorny topic later.

On a happier note, this is also the time of year when we award departmental prizes and scholarships; I have a committee meeting this afternoon dedicated to this task, which–though it can get a bit thorny in the details–is a pretty good job to have, as we get to focus on the many students who are doing really splendid work. It’s not just top academic marks that get rewarded: we also have prizes for students who shine creatively or who stand out for taking intellectual risks. One of our perennial favorites is the Paul McIsaac Memorial Prize, for example, which is dedicated to a student “who demonstrates an enquiring and original mind.” Reading the nomination letters for this and our other discretionary prizes is always uplifting, though we do sometimes wish donors would be slightly more specific or, as in the case of the memorably named “Throw the Switch Igor” Bursary, maybe a bit  less colorful! Our committee meeting is in preparation for Wednesday’s May Marks Meeting, which, as I’ve written about before, is “one of our department’s most cherished and loathed rituals.”

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsSince classes ended, I’ve been thinking a lot about what seemed to work and what didn’t this term. It’s always hard to know what are actual lessons about pedagogy that you can carry forward and what are idiosyncratic reactions or developments based on the specific and unpredictable population of a particular class. For instance, I thought that overall Pulp Fiction went much better this year than last. What did I do differently? Not much logistically: I used the same readings and course structure, and more or less the same assignments. Class participation was way up, though, and most of the time the atmosphere felt happier: is that because (anxious to avoid whatever went wrong last year) I tried even harder than usual to be positive, friendly, and encouraging? Did we all benefit from my having broken in this material last year and so being more adept with it this time? Or did I just get lucky and have a larger proportion of reasonably talkative students who softened the atmosphere for others to join in and thus helped increase overall engagement?

Even though I thought the class in general went well, I still finished it wondering if I want to teach it again. One reason, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is that I felt a bit worn out by the effort of making these readings interesting enough to keep talking about. I spent time in class talking about the concept of ‘horizontal reading’ as an important strategy for working with genre fiction: you need a broad sense of norms, tropes, and conventions to be able to talk with insight and confidence about specific examples and how they use, subvert, or revise expectations. This isn’t to say that our readings didn’t reward deep or close reading, but the interpretive process for them required (or so I thought, anyway) a fair amount of hand-waving towards what you might call the geographies of the different genres, territory that students who are mostly beginning readers of these kinds of fiction had no initial familiarity or ease with. If I do the course again, I will have to keep thinking about that challenge and whether I got the balance between generalizations and specifics right.


If I do teach Pulp Fiction again I think I will change the main readings. There are practical reasons for this: once there are marked papers out in circulation, for example, there’s a risk that they will be recycled. (Of course, there are ways to make this more difficult, and to check for it.) I have other reasons for making some changes, though. Chief among them is that The Maltese Falcon is a brilliant novel but a plagiarism nightmare, and I’m fed up with dealing with this problem. In case any students are reading this, let me make one point that should be obvious but clearly isn’t: your professors are also familiar with Shmoop! More generally, anything you turn up using Google we can find just as easily. If you’re struggling, for any reason, to put your own ideas about the readings into your own words, consulting your instructor is a much better move than going online to see what you can find.

valdezI have also concluded that Valdez Is Coming is not a good choice for my representative Western. When I read it on my own, I thought it was gripping, fast-paced, and rich with discussion points from race and identity to masculinity, violence, and heroism. It turns out that for quite a lot of students, it is dull, a bit confusing, and too subtle in its effects (literary and thematic) to analyze effectively. This is not to say that none of them wrote well about it–but overall, across both years, it was by far the least popular of our three major texts. Lord of Scoundrels overall was more successful as a novel to write about, and though of course individual responses to it varied, more people seemed more engaged with it. I’m not sure at this point what substitutions I would make. These three novels made a nice sequence, especially for thinking about masculinity: a triumphant but problematic tough guy, then a tough guy who pays a high price for refusing to be vulnerable, and finally a tough guy who is “cured”  of the compulsion to be a certain kind of man and as a result gets to live happily every after. Having a through-line like this helped us layer our discussions as the term goes on, so I’d want to find another trio of books that also work well together, though they wouldn’t have to be unified by that same theme.

broughtonAs for Victorian Sensations, I thought it was quite a successful seminar. Participation levels were consistently high and (as important) were of high quality; as I told the class at the end of term, I genuinely looked forward to showing up and talking with them about our readings. The only novel I hadn’t taught before was Cometh Up As A Flower; we found it provocative and sometimes puzzling, and quite a few students chose to include it in their term paper, which is a sign that they were engaged with it. It might be fun to include it in one of my standard Victorian fiction class, where it would fit well with other novels in which passion and duty collide (The Mill on the Floss, for instance), or in which the ‘romance’ of marrying for money is overtly stripped away. One slight surprise for me was that discussion flagged a bit for Fingersmith. Everyone seemed to  really enjoy reading it, but it was conspicuously harder to get them to talk about it. This might have been (a bit paradoxically) because they found it fun to read and so their critical faculties shut down in ways they really can’t with a novel like East Lynne (which is pretty hard work to slog through, honestly); it might also have been that we read Fingersmith last, and by the final weeks of term everyone’s tired and overwhelmed with work.

victorianstudiesLess of a surprise, but still a challenge, was how difficult it was to generate discussion on the classes I’d set aside for “critical approaches” to our novels. After the first of these sessions I realized that I needed to approach them differently, so I ran those classes more overtly than I usually do in a seminar class, adding some contextual information about the history of literary criticism and devising a set of “metacritical” discussion questions to supplement students’ questions on the specific readings. Even so, discussion was halting. I think the main reason was actually closely related to my goals for these readings. In my experience, when students read criticism they are often mining it for usable quotations, which they then drop into their own arguments as if the fact that somebody else said it proves their claim. I wanted to get them to engage with other scholars in a more equal and conversational way, learning how to see what kind of criticism they are reading (by considering its original date of publication, the venue it was published in, the kinds of questions it asks, and the kinds of evidence it considers) and then if they use it in their own work, signaling how and why in a different way. Just saying “As Critic Smartypants argues” instead of “Critic Smartypants argues” is an improvement: it implies “I’ve thought about this and agree,” not “Smartypants said it, so it’s true.”


The other thing I hoped to do with these sessions is spark some interest about the ways literary criticism has changed between the 19th century and today: for each of these classes, we read some reviews or essays contemporary with our novels as well as a selection of modern academic criticism. This is a longstanding interest of mine, and we read a couple of pieces that are included in my Broadview anthology, as well as others included with the Broadview editions of East Lynne and Cometh Up As A Flower. Again it was hard to get discussion going, though it got better when I opened up some more general questions about things like the difference (in their experience) between reviews and what they think of as “criticism,” or whether they expect or want criticism to include clear evaluative statements or (as is often found in the Victorian examples) moral judgments. In the end I don’t know how much the students felt they gained from these exercises. Will I include designated criticism sessions again? Probably not, at least not in quite this way. We would probably have had more fun reading another novel–or some short fiction, as the reading load was already quite heavy.

After Wednesday, Winter 2018 will (I hope) be really and truly cleared away–not just at work, but here in Halifax, where very gradually things are turning green and coming to life again.


This Week In My Classes: #amgrading

IMG_6321Last week and this week, actually. That’s not quite all I’ve been doing since classes wrapped up on April 10: there has been a spate of committee work, and also (one of the less pleasant features of this time of term) some academic integrity hearings, which take up a fair amount of time. Then on the home front, Maddie was in her high school’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone, which had its four-performance run April 19-21, so in addition to ferrying her to and from rehearsals and doing what I could to mitigate the stress on her schedule in other ways, I’ve also been to two performances–which, on the bright side, was the most fun I’ve had in ages. (In case you know the musical, she played Mrs. Tottendale, with great comic flair. The whole cast was great, actually, as was the production, especially the costumes.)

I’d say the end is in sight, though still further away than I’d like. I am making good progress on the second of two batches of essays; then I have two (out of three) sections left to mark on the Pulp Fiction exam. I have high hopes that it will all be done and I’ll have final grades filed by the end of this week–though if I’m right and I’m coming down with the cold that Maddie sadly got just as the show opened, it might be harder and thus slower going. Tonight is not a good night to do any more of it, though: I’m exhausted, because we were up at 4 a.m. to get Maddie onto a flight to Washington D.C. She is spending a whirlwind three days there with her I.B. History class. I’m envious: I’ve only been to Washington once and barely had time to get started on the sights.

holy-ordersI’ve been too busy and distracted to settle in for any intense reading, though I did join a few Twitter friends in reading The Warden last weekend. Then I had to take all the books off my mystery bookcase (we needed to move it out of the way temporarily, to do a household project) and in the process of sorting them I was reminded how long it has been since I read most of my P. D. James collection. I’ve put An Unsuitable Job for a Woman back on the reading list for Mystery & Detective Fiction in the fall, so it seemed like a good time to revisit one or two. As a result, I’m happily rereading Death in Holy Orders, which turns out to follow very well on The Warden as it has a number of explicit references in it to  Barchester Towers. James herself said she saw the 19th-century novelists as her predecessors more than the Golden Age mystery writers, and in a book like this, that genealogy is clear. There are plenty of murderous moments in Trollope but his world is (mostly) too genial a place, his morality too committed to shades of grey, to allow for outright irremediable violence. (There are exceptions, of course). Like Trollope, James is very good at depicting institutions, with all their intricate politics and emotional dynamics. She’s also exceptionally good at setting, something I emphasize when we discuss Unsuitable Job (where the beauty of Cambridge makes a poignant contrast to the horrors of the novel’s central crime). After reading several hastier or lazier stylists in this genre recently, I am appreciating the leisurely pace of her descriptions, along with the meticulous depth of her characterizations. I don’t like all of her novels equally, but when she is good, she’s very very good.