This Week In My Classes: Looking Ahead

20180404_120119-1As if things in this term’s classes aren’t busy enough (and about to get busier, as next week I get in both sets of term papers and give the final exam for Pulp Fiction) but book orders for next fall were also due. It’s not a set-in-stone deadline, and quite reasonably a lot of my colleagues put it off until the summer, but I’ve actually been playing around with possible book lists for my Dickens to Hardy class since Austen to Dickens wrapped up last term, so I figured I could at least get that one settled.

You can see in the photo above which choices I made. The course title makes both Dickens and Hardy obligatory, of course. I don’t have to unify the reading list around a theme, and I didn’t used to think about that at all: I just picked 5 (or, years ago, 6) novels that represented a range of forms and authors. Last term Austen to Dickens was just “5 books I really like,” and as always, plenty of interesting comparisons emerged from their juxtaposition. But for Dickens to Hardy in Winter 2017 I picked books about “troublesome women”–Bleak HouseAdam BedeCranford, Lady Audley’s Secret, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (Clearly, they are all troublesome in different ways, though having three novels explicitly about “fallen” women was particularly interesting.) That was fun, so this time I’m flipping it and choosing books about “men in trouble”: again, their troubles are of different but sometimes related kinds. I don’t usually include two “short” novels, but both David Copperfield and The Woman in White are pretty long, so this way the overall reading load seems reasonable. I wonder what unexpected insights juxtaposing these particular books will shake loose! That’s the fun of teaching the two 19th-century fiction courses so often but never in exactly the same way.

20180404_125241In the end I also submitted my book order for Mystery and Detective Fiction today. If I’d waited I might have made more changes to what has become my ‘standard’ book list for the course, but though I have been considering some more recent Canadian books for inclusion, I wasn’t completely convinced either of them would work well in class (not every book does, which is something I think about a lot) and so as I was in the mood to cross this task off my list, I went with the usual suspects. The one change from the course’s last incarnation is that I’ve switched out The Terrorists and put An Unsuitable Job for a Woman back in. I think The Terrorists is brilliant, and it usually provokes good discussion (though some students understandably find it heavy-handed by the end). But I also really like Unsuitable Job and have missed it.

woolfThose are my only two courses for the fall and then I’ve got a half-year sabbatical next winter, so that’s it: my book orders for next year are done! For the first time in a long time I’m not teaching a first-year class in 2018-19. I’m glad, not because I don’t enjoy teaching introductory classes but because I want to think carefully about which one I’ll teach next, and especially about whether I’ll put in for Pulp Fiction again. We recently revised our suite of first-year classes, which means that the two that used to be my standard offerings (our full-year Introduction to Literature and our half-year Introduction to Prose and Fiction) aren’t options any more. Pulp Fiction is still on the books, and I’m certainly not ruling it out. In many ways I have really enjoyed teaching it: conceptualizing my approach to it was intellectually challenging, as was choosing my readings and preparing materials on them. If I do teach it again, though, I probably don’t want to use all the same novels–and even with different ones, I think I might still miss teaching a different kind of readings. Introductory classes are the only place I get to play with writers like John Donne and Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Alice Munro and Carol Shields. There’s lots to say about the books I’ve assigned in Pulp Fiction, no question, but after going through them twice I can’t imagine sustaining my own interest in them at that level of detail for another round–which is not something I’ve ever felt about “Death Be Not Proud” or A Room of One’s Own. Anyway, I’m glad to step off that particular moving sidewalk for a bit. I’ll have to put in my 2019-20 course requests in the fall, and I’m sure a first-year class will be among them, but I’m going to think hard about which one it should be.

And that’s all the time I have for dreaming about the future! The next two to three weeks will be focused entirely on this term’s courses.

 

 

This Week In My Classes: Some Good News

daffodilsThe good news isn’t specifically about what’s happening in my classes this week (although I hope there is some connection): it’s good news about my teaching more generally. This week I learned that I am this year’s recipient of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Regular readers of Novel Readings will know that I put a lot of time, thought, and energy into my teaching. (Novel Readings itself includes an extensive archive of that process over the past decade.) Teaching is one of the most demanding parts of my job, and sometimes one of the most frustrating, but it is also the part that is most rewarding and that seems likely to make the biggest difference in the world–not in any big, cataclysmic way, but in the “incalculably diffusive” way so beautifully invoked in the Finale to Middlemarch. Precisely because its effects are so variable, so diffuse, and so intangible, teaching is a very difficult process to measure–and to measure the success of. The recognition by my peers and my students that this award represents is thus especially precious, a rare marker on a long, winding, and often foggy road.

cassatGiven the role that Novel Readings has played in my teaching life–as a vehicle for reflection and a place where I have both shared and received ideas and encouragement about teaching–it is gratifying to know that my blogging was part of the case made on my behalf, and that my success at generating “conversations both within the university and in wider circles” was cited by the committee that selected me to receive the award this year. I started blogging about pedagogy when this kind of outward-facing work was still relatively uncommon for academics and was (as it still largely remains) not entirely congruent with the university’s standard operating procedures. I have found it intrinsically valuable, for the process itself and for the conversations and communities it has brought me into. For that reason alone I would keep it up in any case, but I admit it is nice to have some institutional recognition that it contributes to our core mission.

On a more personal note, as most of you know the last couple of years have been a bit rocky for me professionally; as a result I have often found myself, both professionally and psychologically, in either a defensive or a defiant posture. I’ve been nominated for this teaching award before, and I didn’t have any particular reason to think that this time would be the charm. Still, I figured that if I wasn’t the one this time, at least I wouldn’t be any worse off than before. I underestimated, however, just how much better it would make me feel to actually win it. It feels great! It’s easy to tell yourself (again, defensively or defiantly) that you don’t need anyone’s approval to keep doing what you think is worth doing as well as you can do it, but that doesn’t mean approval isn’t nice to have.

peacockAnd it has felt even better sharing my good news and basking in people’s happiness on my behalf. I got a lot of help from my friends, both online and off, when things went badly for me; now everyone has been wonderfully supportive about this good news. Social media certainly has its down sides (as we are only too well aware at this point), but there’s also something magical about the way it creates a vast web of connections–intangible perhaps, but still very real–between so many people across such distances. I hesitated before putting my good news out there in case it seemed self-aggrandizing, but I’m so glad I did. Why should we be afraid to invite a bit of cheering for our accomplishments, after all?  I was reminded of one of my favorite points from Molly Peacock’s wonderful and inspiring book The Paper Garden. Peacock emphasizes how much her subject Mary Delany benefited from the “applause” of her friends, which spurred her to further artistic accomplishments. “Compliments,” Peacock observes, “aren’t superficial … They are the foundation of recognition of who we are in life.” She describes Delany as pinning her friend’s admiration “to some emotional equivalent of a ‘gown or apron'” so that in later life, when she needed it, she could “[dress] herself in its esteem.” I will certainly draw strength in the future from the praise of my friends, colleagues, and, especially, my students.

Thank you very much to everyone who wrote in support of my nomination, and to everyone who has celebrated this good news with me.

 

This Week In My Classs: Springing Forward

“Springing forward” seems an optimistic way to put the feeling I always get at this time of term that we are hurtling downhill towards its end: papers and tests and proposals come in even as you’re still planning lectures and making up slides and handouts and trying not to show up without your books … Add in the time shift and a series of storms to remind us that it’s definitely still winter and it has been a busy and tiring week.

falcon-vintage-coverBut good things happen in the second part of term too. For one thing, students have got their bearings in the course materials and expectations, so I can spend less time on logistics and reminders and saying “it’s in the syllabus.” And for another, the reading and discussion continues and sometimes even gets better because we’ve all warmed up. In Pulp Fiction last week, I thought there was a noticeable improvement in the students’ Reading Journals, as if they “get” The Maltese Falcon better than they did Valdez Is Coming–which, I’ve belatedly realized, is a more subtle novel than I thought, hard to get an interpretive grip on if you aren’t used to reading that way. Though the actual plot of The Maltese Falcon is plenty bewildering as it unfolds, the prose and the issues and the characters give us more to grab on to. The class is writing their papers on it now: we’ve got an editing workshop for their drafts on Friday, then they turn in revised versions next week and we start our unit on romance, which I’m quite looking forward to. I hope they are too!

broughtonIn Victorian Sensations we’ve started Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower. When I first read it I wasn’t convinced of its merits, but it turns out the magic trick is to read it right after you finish reading East Lynne! What a relief to turn from Wood’s dreary moralizing and Isabel’s unrelenting gloom and repentance and the whole tawdry, disorganized assortment of subplots to a sassy young heroine who hates her sister, canoodles with a handsome soldier in the garden and finds it blissful, not shameful, and just adores her dear old dad! Not much actually happens in Broughton’s novel, but in the context of our discussions of other sensation novels, that in itself has provoked some discussion, as has figuring out what made Broughton’s very different work equally scandalous–mostly, Nell herself. In general, the consensus in the class seems to be that Nell is refreshing, if not altogether likable; there will be lamentations, I’m sure, about the turn her story is about to take as well as the shift in her tone from defiant to repentant by the end. I’m so impressed with this group of students: often on the way to class I’m wondering a bit anxiously if we’ll find enough to talk about, and  I always end up surprised that we’ve run out of time and I have to shut down discussion. One factor is that there are always two students charged with bringing in talking points to get us started, and of course I bring notes and materials myself–but basically, they’ve got this, which is great.

This Week In My Classes: The Meaning of Life

falcon-vintage-coverIn Pulp Fiction, this is our second and final week on The Maltese Falcon (no, it does not seem like enough time, but we have other work to do too!). Leading up to our discussions of the novel I made a big deal about Raymond Chandler’s claim that the novel “demonstrated that the detective story can be important writing. The Maltese Falcon may or may not be a work of genius,” he says in “The Simple Art of Murder,” “but an art which is capable of it is not ‘by hypothesis’ incapable of anything.”

I’m not sure I admire The Maltese Falcon quite as much as all that, or that I think the detective story hadn’t already shown its literary potential, though much depends on what you rule in or out as an example (if The Moonstone counts, then that’s pretty old news by 1930). But it’s a great starting point for discussion, especially about what we think it takes for writing to be “important.” One suggestion about what distinguishes The Maltese Falcon from the kind of mystery Chandler’s contrasting it with in his essay (basically, the Golden Age detective novel) is its thematic ambition: the crimes its plot is organized around are really just devices for raising questions about what is worth living and dying for–about what, if anything, gives life meaning. Any murder mystery will address motives and consequences at a literal level, but in The Maltese Falcon the black bird takes on symbolic significance in excess of those requirements. I never feel any need to interpret the dagger in Roger Ackroyd’s throat symbolically: it’s enough to know that it came from the table with the glass lid in the drawing room that Dr. Sheppard examines so attentively when he comes to visit Ackroyd the night of the murder. That’s the difference, right there.

falconTwo of the questions I asked my students to think about for class discussion this week were what the falcon ultimately stands for–to individual characters and, perhaps not the same thing, in the book as a whole; and how they viewed Brigid O’Shaughnessy by the end–as a femme fatale or a woman fighting for survival in a man’s world. Today we also considered what it means that the actual statuette the characters have been chasing (and have killed and died for) in the novel turns out to be a fake. It’s one thing to imagine what it might mean to actually get whatever it is that you most want: what if it isn’t worth it after all, or it is but now you don’t know what to do next? But what if you think you’ve got it and it isn’t real? Gutman recovers quickly and proposes they keep looking: after all, the real one is still out there, isn’t it? Isn’t it the quest itself that really matters? Or in chasing their dream are they missing their chance to actually live?

black maskIt seems pretty clear that Sam is missing some kind of chance by following his dream, except that his is a dream of justice for his murdered partner. One of my favorite things about this novel–which in many ways I find deeply unpleasant–is how shadowed Sam’s choices are by their consequences. In the end he chooses justice over love, which is (as Effie comments) the right thing to do; Sam himself gives a long list (literally numbered) of reasons why he should turn Brigid in, against which there is only “the fact that maybe you love me, and maybe I love you.” “It isn’t always easy to know what to do,” he tells Brigid when she first comes to see him pretending to be the innocent and vulnerable “Miss Wonderly.” He may in fact know exactly what to do, but the ending to the novel shows that that, too, isn’t easy: he may live up to his principles, but he also has to live without love, without trust, and probably without happiness. In a different novel, the alternatives might not be so stark, but Sam lives in world where “if they hang you, I’ll always remember you” really does, I think, count as romantic. While Effie may agree with him in principle, though, she also recoils from him, a judgment I share.

9536030_wood_lynne.inddIn Victorian Sensations we finished up East Lynne this week–with some relief, I think, though I was glad to hear some students saying they did enjoy it: curiosity about what would happen next helped them keep going, even though it dragged a bit at times. One of the reasons I think this novel falls short of being “important writing” is its ineptness, artistically speaking: a lot of it seems quite haphazard or just plain incoherent, and our well-trained desire to find patterns and unities was frequently frustrated. That’s not to see it doesn’t contain many interesting elements, but I don’t really think that, through them, Wood is saying something worth really thinking about. She does have plenty to say, but it’s the very heavy-handedness of her overt message that becomes tedious. I said before that the novel reads very clearly like a cautionary tale–but so, of course, is Vanity Fair, which has a similar moral lesson for us: live well so you have no regrets on your deathbed. “Oh, Barbara,” says the tediously honorable Mr. Carlyle after presiding over the pathetic deathbed of his first wife:

never forget–never forget that the only way to ensure peace in the end, is to strive always to be doing right, unselfishly, under God.

Why does that solemn conclusion make me go “yeesh!” while I find Chapter LXI of Vanity Fair both touching and morally compelling? It’s not just that Wood is so prescriptive (and it’s not as if Thackeray isn’t prescriptive). Thackeray has in common with Hammett a rich awareness of social and human complexity, for one thing, and a wry understanding of what drives us: in fact, his indictment of the vanity of human wishes fits nicely with the ultimately futile quest most of Hammett’s characters are on–“everyone is striving for what is not worth the having,” as Lord Steyne remarks, and yet both authors also see that that’s where the drama, the energy, is. Wood’s moral world seems simplistic by comparison. If Hammett makes us wonder about the meaning of it all, Wood seems too quick to tell us, and to reduce it to following the rules. One of the critical articles we read concludes that “it is clear that Mrs. Wood does not possess the insight of a major novelist.” That’s not the kind of conclusion a more recent critical article is likely to hazard (this one is from 1976, a simpler time in literary criticism, for better and for worse)–but I have to agree.

This Week In My Classes: Tears and Tough Guys

We’re back from our February break and now nothing stands between us and the end of term except everything we have to get done before then!

In the short term, that means pressing on with East Lynne in “Victorian Sensations.” The portion we are reading this week could be subtitled “Crime and Punishment”: Lady Isabel, having, in a fit of jealous pique, abandoned her kind but somewhat distracted husband for a handsome cad, has been living abroad, miserable and repentant, for a year. Things only get worse after she gives birth to the sad little baby who could have been legitimate if only her lover weren’t such a complete jerk. How much of a jerk is he? Well, after initially hiding from her the news that her divorce is final so that she can’t insist he marry her, he then tells her that he can’t lower himself to marry a divorced women–even though her husband’s grounds of her divorce is her affair with him! Double standards ftw.

On the bright side, by that time she wants nothing more to do with him–even though her only other options are poverty, despair, and death. Then [spoiler alert] a train wreck (a bit conveniently, we thought) kills the poor baby and everyone thinks it has also killed Isabel, so she is free (if that’s the right word) to roam the world like a miserable, repentant ghost…an opportunity she uses to go back to the home and children she abandoned, where thanks to the literally defacing effects of the accident and her “grief and remorse,” she is able to serve, unrecognized, as her own children’s governess under the management of her husband’s new wife.

Although I am more and more convinced that East Lynne is overall a pretty bad novel, it is certainly a provoking one, and our discussions have been much livelier than Isabel herself ever is. Our previous two novels have offered significant critiques of the many constraints on Victorian women’s lives–economic, social, political, and sexual. The most transgressive women don’t necessarily fare well–Marian Halcombe, for instance, may outwit her enemies and climb around on rooftops in the first half of The Woman in White but she loses her gumption in the second half and ends up happy just to be an honorary aunt, while Lady Audley is “buried alive” (metaphorically! but still…) for her sins. Still, it’s impossible to read either of those novels and not appreciate these subversive characters as contrasts to the tedious passivity of their more angelic counterparts. Isabel’s grievances, on the other hand, are mostly in her mind, and while we can see that things would have gone better for her if she’d been differently raised and more self-sufficient, it’s hard to conclude that she’s anything more than a cautionary tale. “Oh reader, believe me!” exclaims our narrator:

Lady–wife–mother! should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you waken! Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, though they may magnify themselves to your crushed spirit as beyond the endurance of woman to bear, resolve to bear them; fall down upon your knees and pray to bear them: pray for patience; pray for strength to resist the demon that would urge you to escape; bear unto death, rather than forfeit your fair name and your good conscience; for be assured that the alternative, if you rush on to it, will be found far worse than death!

Lady Isabel certainly thinks so: she is not so unladylike as to pray for her own death, the narrator reassures us, “but she did wish that death might come to her,” which seems rather a hair-splitting distinction to me. I think my students would be glad if she used her undercover job as a chance to strike back at the woman who has taken her place, as Lady Audley surely would in such a situation–but alas! From here to the end of the book things are only going to get more miserable, for her and thus for us.

Lady Audley has a closer cousin in Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whose acquaintaince we are just making in Pulp Fiction. Like Lady Audley, she’s a dame making her way in a man’s world, using her beauty as a resource, playing the damsel in distress (the noir version of the angel in the house!) when it suits her purposes and showing her more demonic side when she can’t win any other way. Sam is a better match for her than Robert Audley is (at first) for Lady Audley, though, because he is never under any illusions: he’s always suspicious, of everyone, and so never beguiled by her beauty. Or is he? One of the subtler mysteries of The Maltese Falcon is whether he does in fact love her–a question which in its turn provokes more questions about what exactly we mean by “love.” “If they hang you, I’ll always remember you” may not sound very romantic to us, but coming from Sam it’s a lot, I’d say. And yet of these two novels I think it is The Maltese Falcon that–if only implicitly–puts the higher value on idealism and tender feelings. By the end of Lady Audley’s Secret it’s pretty clear that to be a hero Robert has to toughen up and fulfill his role and duties as a real man. Sam lives up to a similarly hardhearted standard in The Maltese Falcon, but I always find Effie’s “broken” request that he keep his distance–“You’re right. But don’t touch me–not now”–suggestive of the price he has paid, as is the fate he faces with his own shiver of distaste: “Iva is here.” Braddon’s novel concludes, as she blithely declares, with “all the good people happy and at peace.” There’s little peace and even less happiness for Sam.

This Week In My Classes: February Break

bones-season1Not only is February a short month already but it includes two of the winter term’s time-outs (times-out?): Munro Day and Reading Week. Because February is often one of our most difficult months weather-wise, it’s usually a big relief to have the pressure ease up at work a bit, even if there’s always still plenty to do. This year, the February weather actually hasn’t been that bad, but the change of pace is welcome just the same.

So what’s on my to-do list for this week? Well, of course, though there are no classroom hours, I still have teaching-related work to do. The students in Pulp Fiction turned in their first formal assignments last week, and I’d like to make a dent in my portion of them before lectures start up again. They’ll also be wanting details about their next assignment soon, so I will be finalizing the topics and instructions. Then I have to be ready to go for next Monday’s class, which means rereading our first installment of The Maltese Falcon and refreshing my lecture notes–which reminds me that I also need to post the topic for their next Reading Journals in time for them to write on it for Monday, which is just the kind of routine business it’s easy to lose track of when we aren’t otherwise following our weekly routine! For Sensation Fiction, I need to keep rereading East Lynne and prepare some notes for our class discussion. In this class I have the luxury of a group of students who are generally both well prepared and keen, so I get to play coach and prompter more than teacher, which is as it should be (but isn’t always) in an upper-level seminar.

east-lynne.jpg

I’d have all that to do even if we didn’t have a week “off.” But in that case I wouldn’t also be hoping to write a book review (I finished reading the book for the first time this morning, so that’s one task well underway), and I wouldn’t have been able to schedule nearly two full days’ worth of meetings–I’m one of two members of an “internal review committee” for the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at King’s. Reviews of this kind are a regular part of academic life; I’ve been on many such committees doing reviews of individual departments in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and this year my own department is itself the subject of just such a review. The review I’m working on now is on behalf of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, but the process is basically the same; we’ve got a lot of documents to read and this week we will be interviewing faculty, staff, and students. It’s a program I’ve taken a peripheral interest in since it was launched, so I’m glad to be getting a closer look.

Finally, in terms of formal obligations, I have two reference letters to take care of a.s.a.p. This has been kind of a slow year for reference requests (though that can always change). I think one factor is that fewer and fewer students are asking me for letters to MA or PhD programs (and thus for letters for SSHRC funding). Students applying to graduate programs need multiple letters, as do graduate students moving into the academic job market, so when their numbers decline there’s an exponential decline in references. One reason I don’t have a lot of these requests this year is presumably that I’m not teaching in our own graduate program right now, so I’m not a highly visible resource for them, but I’ve also stopped actively encouraging students I know to apply for MA or PhD programs. This puts me somewhat at odds with some of my colleagues, who in response to the decline in applicants to our own MA and PhD programs (and thus a corresponding slump in admissions) have been urging the rest of us to do what we can to improve the numbers. If students approach me about graduate school on their own, I’m happy to talk over the pros and cons and support them if they are sure about their direction, but knowing what I know, I just can’t bring myself to recruit them. (On that topic, I thought this recent piece in University Affairs did a good job pointing out some problems with the narrative about how valuable PhDs are for non-academic jobs.) In any case, more of the letters I’ve been asked for in recent years have been for options such as Dal’s MLIS or MPA programs, as well as (as always) for law school and education degrees.

devils-cubI haven’t started a new book since I finished Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though I did reread Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub last week after recommending it to a Twitter friend looking for a Valentine’s Day present for his wife. I hope she liked it! Sometimes I reread just the final third but this time I started from the beginning. It does take a little while for all the pieces of Heyer’s plot to get lined up, but once they’re in place it’s comedy gold, I think, and also pretty romantic–though YMMV depending on your tolerance for bad boy heroes. (But Mary is so having none of his self-indulgent nonsense!) It’s also good preparation for teaching Lord of Scoundrels, which will be up in Pulp Fiction in just a few weeks!

Then when I’ve had enough of feeling busy and just want to relax and be entertained, I’m watching Bones, which I am really enjoying. It’s strangely perky for a show about grisly deaths and serial killers! The plots can be kind of absurd (I just finished Season 3, and the whole Gormogon plot was pretty annoying, especially the twist ending!) but I like the camaraderie between Booth and Bones a lot. Although I have avoided more specific details, I do know that their relationship eventually changes, but for now what I like best about it is precisely that it is a partnership and not a romance. The idea that a man and a woman actually can be just colleagues and friends seems not just realistic and refreshing but, in this #metoo era, valuable.

And that’s how my February break looks from here! I’ve had busier ones, and snowier ones: this one looks like it might be a good balance of useful work and welcome diversion, with minimal shoveling.

This Week In My Classes: Counts, Cowboys, and Critics

I have to stop putting pressure on myself to make these update posts more than they have to be. When I started doing this, all I had in mind was opening up my classroom to anyone curious to know more about what English professors actually get up to–rather than fulminating against what they imagine we’re doing. The reality is both more mundane and (I think, anyway) more inspirational than people who think we should “ALL be flushed down the toilet” believe. I thought I could at least illustrate this widely misrepresented aspect of my professional life–the day to day (or at least week by week) effort I make to guide students towards being better (more thoughtful, more experienced, better informed) readers and writers–while also giving a sense of the kinds of books we read in my own classes and the kinds of discussions we have about them.

A lot of what I’ve written in this series is more or less straight reportage along those lines but then I began writing posts with more of a conceptual angle, and that seemed to raise the stakes. I still hope to do that, and often that’s actually what generates the teaching posts I look back on with the most satisfaction–but sometimes I just don’t have anything that profound to say! Lately that has made me hesitate about posting at all, and then I end up missing it. I like the process of it: as usual, I need to stop fretting so much about the product and just get on with it.

So, without more ado, here are some updates on my classes this week!

In Pulp Fiction we have just begun our discussions of Elmore Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming. I still feel as if I’m doing a lot of preparatory work in this class–maybe too much, I thought today, as I went on and on about issues of terminology and then the methods of close reading until by the time I actually tried to get the students involved in doing some close reading, they didn’t have much energy. That’s my fault: lesson learned! I also felt off my game the whole class: I was well prepared, in theory anyway, but the things I had planned to say didn’t come out that coherently, and once I started worrying about that and second-guessing myself, of course it just got harder to keep my focus! Self-consciousness is indeed, as Carlyle said, the beginning of disease: when things are going well I’m just absorbed in the discussion, with none of this meta-level anxiety. Of course, who really knows if that means I’m doing a better job then–or that today’s class really was in some way worse than usual! It was probably fine, and there are lots more chances to make up for it if it wasn’t.

I thought the discussion was a bit stuttering in Victorian Sensations this morning too–maybe that’s what set me up for my unease in the afternoon! We’ve been having very lively discussions of The Woman in White, but today was the first of our sessions focused on ‘critical approaches’: we read a selection of contemporary reviews, then a couple of modern critical essays, one from 1977 and one from 2006. My idea is that over the term these classes will add up to a mini-seminar in critical trends, though I haven’t chosen the readings that systematically–I just want us to engage with a range of different kinds of critical approaches and see how the conversation about these books has changed over time. That kind of meta-critical conversation is not as easy or familiar as talking directly about Marian’s subversion of gender norms or Count Fosco and the mysterious Brotherhood–and students understandably seemed less certain where or how to jump in. As always, a couple of students brought in discussion prompts for us, and these were very good. Next time I’m going to prepare a bit differently myself–particularly for the 19th-century material, which is (as we discussed) more diffuse and–to students more accustomed to working with very focused and analytical modern scholarship–more difficult to recognize or engage with as criticism, because the apparatus is much less explicit.

Friday is a very student-centered day: in Victorian Sensations we have our first group presentation, and I’m looking forward to that, as there’s usually so much intelligence and creativity on display, and then in Pulp Fiction it’s tutorials, which this week will be focused on a close reading activity.

I haven’t had much marking yet, beyond the reading journals I collect in random clusters in Pulp Fiction. That will change soon, though, and more generally I can already feel the term picking up speed. Next week we have Friday off for Munro Day, then it’s not long until Reading Week–and then it will feel like a mad rush to April and exams. But for now, it’s just one foot in front of the other. And that’s what’s up this week in my classes!