This Week In My Classes: Asynchronicity

cassatI miss writing my regular updates about what we’re doing in my classes. Given that I am still teaching, and covering much the same material as usual, I have been puzzling over why it nonetheless feels nearly impossible to talk about it right now–not the process or the logistics of it, which I have written about several times now, but the substance of it. So much is the same, even though we’re online, after all: as I’ve pointed out more than once to my students, we always read the books outside of the classroom, and we always did at least some of our work on them in writing, including sometimes reading journals or discussion boards much like what I’ve asked them to do for the online versions. Why is it that without the actual classroom time, I can’t figure out what to say about the weekly experience of my classes?

It’s nearly a year now since the Big Disruption: this time last January, and in February, and in early March, I was puzzling, not over what to say here, but over how to fix a class that felt like it was really faltering (the British Literature survey). I was also enjoying the usual (ah, usual!) challenges of running discussions in the 19th-century fiction class, working especially on my resolution to wean myself from lecture notes and allow it to be more spontaneous (ah, spontaneity!). Looking back at those posts this morning, it clarified for me that what I’m missing now is the sense of teaching as an occasion, something that is a clear and necessary casualty of the asynchronous model I am using now. Whatever else we were doing, at least several times a week we did something together, and a lot of my thought and energy went into those specific common experiences–what to do in them, what we talked about in them, what went well (or didn’t) in them.

2040 FAQIn contrast, our online class discussions, even though we cover the same kinds of topics, are diffuse. Lots of good replies get posted to questions; lots of good comments get made on passages. But these things happen really sporadically, on the students’ own schedules. The earlier someone posts, the more likely another student will specifically reply and so the more conversation-like it feels, but (especially since this term I have relaxed my earlier attempts to micromanage this process) it’s haphazard and unpredictable, and you can never be sure if the original poster will look at the replies or that other students, writing in other threads, will check in to see what is unfolding elsewhere. As a result, there is no common ‘discussion’ for me to write about here: I can’t say “today we focused on X” or “after today’s discussion I realized that the thing I really need to bring up is Y.” Even for me–and of course I’m trying diligently to be as attentive as I can across every thread–it is hard to gather up the various pieces into a story about what, collectively, has gone on. One of my original plans for my own role in online discussions was exactly that: I was going to mostly hover, during the week, and then post something synthesizing the main lines and insights and gaps. It proved much harder than I thought it would, though, and in the spirit of giving myself a break too, I stopped trying.

OUPTenantThe other thing that muddles me up about reporting on ‘this week’ is that most weeks I am actually focused on next week in my classes, as I need to get the lectures composed and recorded, the discussion prompts up (when they are my job), the quizzes made up and created in the tedious quiz tool with its endless drop-down menus — everything needs to be ready to go ahead of time, so that when the module begins they actually can do it at their own pace, as the asynchronous model promises. Again, this is very different from a regular term, in which preparations for lectures, assessments, and activities are often done close to (sometimes too close to!) the specific hour in which I’m going to use them. This lets me shape them to our current discussions, and it keeps me mentally right in the moment. Today, though, as an example of what’s different, for Mystery and Detective Fiction I will be creating a lecture about “Chasing Meaning in The Maltese Falcon,” while my students work through materials on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – which I completed almost two weeks ago. (Notice I say “for” this class, not “in” this class, and that’s the key to the difference!) For The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ I just made my slides for next week, our last week on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I already made my slides introducing The Mill on the Floss for the week after that. My mind is all over the place, not here, now, in this week.

4604 New Syllabuswill spend two hours this week with my students, if not in my classes: Thursday mornings I meet for an online but real-time discussion with the students who are taking The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ cross-listed as a graduate seminar, talking about the novel and also about some secondary readings. Then Thursday afternoon I’m having a drop-in office hour, which I’m pitching as a chance to ask questions about the courses or just to come and hang out for a while. I floated the idea of having some actual real-time class discussion, but scheduling presented a lot of obstacles and students’ reluctance to be recorded (so as not to disadvantage those who couldn’t attend) also proved, understandably, another disincentive. So we won’t dig into questions about our reading except, perhaps, incidentally, but at least we can see each other’s faces and infuse a little shared time into the otherwise radically dispersed experience of this online semester–hopefully, possibly, maybe our last one. Also, maybe, hopefully, possibly, we’ll get nice enough weather in April, before this term is over, that we can try holding that drop-in office hour somewhere outside, near enough to see each other’s faces if still distant enough not to put each other at risk.

Recent Reading: Hession, Enright, Steiner, McTiernan

leonardI’m doing pretty well working my way through my Christmas book stack. Girl was a holiday acquisition, and so too are Ronan Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul and Anne Enright’s The Gathering, both of which I have now read.

I actually read Leonard and Hungry Paul before Girl, but because I liked it so very much, I perhaps paradoxically wasn’t sure what to say about it. I do often blog about books I like a lot, so what made the difference–or makes the difference, since I still feel somewhat at a loss for words? One factor I’m aware of is that Dorian wrote such a good post about it. Go read it! Or go read Leonard and Hungry Paul. Read both! The novel is quirky, comforting, and hopeful without being twee, facile, or saccharine. Underneath its lightness there is what I would describe as gravitas, but it is understated, unpretentious. It’s maybe not a perfect novel (unlike Dorian, for example, I wasn’t convinced about the role of speeches in it, though he makes a thoughtful case for them), but like Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise (which is more ha-ha funny but also pulls off a special combination of eccentric and moving), it’s a novel I know I will both carry with me in spirit and reread when I want a reminder that books don’t have to be dense and ponderous to be profound.

gatheringThe Gathering is also a very good novel–probably an excellent one. I feel much less inclined to urge you to read it if you haven’t already, though, because it is also a fairly lugubrious one. It is a family story of a particular kind: I want to say, of a particularly Irish kind, which may or may not be fair. Insofar as it has a plot, it is organized around the gathering (of course) of the remaining members of a large family (and assorted spouses and children) after the suicide of their brother Liam. It is narrated by his sister Veronica, and around this present gathering she weaves together a sad tapestry of memories and questions, at first mostly about her grandmother Ada and about Liam–who has never really been ‘right’ since they were first sent as children to stay with Ada-and eventually about what might be painful secrets in Veronica’s own past. If you suspect that the story’s original sin is sexual abuse, you are right, and how awful is it that this revelation not only does not come as a surprise in the novel but felt like a cliché?  Enright’s treatment of it is not clichéd, or prurient, or sensational: it is sad and angry, and short on redemptive promises. She writes beautifully, and says a lot of things that will linger with me, like this bit, from early on before we know for sure why Veronica’s outlook is so shadowed:melrose

And what amazes me as I hit the motorway is not the fact that everyone loses someone, but that everyone loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy–and we all do it, all the people beetling along between the white lines, merging, converging, overtaking. We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more. And there is no logic or use to this, that I can see.

By the novel’s conclusion, love doesn’t seem quite so illogical or useless (“for every time he wanted to undo me,” Veronica finally says about her husband, Tom, towards whom she feels an unpleasant blend of affection, loyalty, and antagonism, “there was love that put me back together again–put us both back together”). Still, the novel felt really unhappy to me throughout, and while that obviously fits its subject, Enright’s artistry wasn’t compensation enough for the time spent in its world. (A more extreme version of this conflicted response for me would be Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books: they are also beautifully written but horrible.) I’m not sorry I read it, though: I’ve been curious about Enright for a while and might still follow up with Actress, which I see will be out in paperback soon.

steinerMy other recent reading (besides reading for my classes, of course) has been two pretty good mysteries. One was the first in Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw series, Missing, Presumed, which I read out of order because when I first looked, only her most recent was locally available. The one I read then was good enough that I put this on my wish list, and I actually thought it was better in some ways–though that might because I already knew a bit about Manon. It was especially interesting to see how the family situation she’s in, in the later book, comes into being in this one. The other is the second of Dervla McTiernan’s series about Cormac Reilly (Ireland again!), The Scholar. This was very well done but–and this is very rare for me, suggesting I’m either a lazy or an inept reader of detective stories!–I more or less figured out the crime pretty early on. It didn’t matter that much to my enjoyment of the book, as I read crime fiction more for character and atmosphere than for the mystery itself.

I’ve had a pretty good run of reading in 2021 so far, I’d say. Next up is probably Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, also from my holiday stash, and then Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island for my book club’s next virtual meeting.

“I am not a girl”: Edna O’Brien, Girl

GirlHe apologizes if the buffoons have been heavy-handed, but I must realize that to them I am not a girl, I am not even a person, I am the portent of death, I am a decoy, sent to create a distraction before an attack.

Do I even want to write about Girl? I’m as ambivalent about doing this as I felt about Girl itself, beginning as soon as the end of the first chapter and continuing until I finished reading it–which didn’t take very long, as it is both fast-moving and sparse as a narrative. What’s the problem–what’s my problem–with this novel?

I think I can best sum it up by saying that it seems, somehow, like a category error: it should be non-fiction. I know: there’s probably no way that objection to it can be cogent, can be defended. Still, that’s what I felt, reading it. That’s how I still feel, reflecting on it. It’s not that the novel isn’t artistically done. O’Brien is too good a stylist for that. The telling of the story from inside the girl’s head is risky (it is potentially invasive) but perhaps better than the alternative (observing her trauma from the outside could be voyeuristic, prurient). The imaginative reconstruction of her consciousness is what makes the difference between Girl as a novel and the carefully and sensitively researched documentary that it also, sort of, is. But (and I rarely think this, much less argue for it) it didn’t seem right to me to make art out of this tragically real story.

The obviously beneficial impulse is to make sure more people know about (and feel, vicariously) the horrors it relates, which are not at all fictional. I am an advocate for fiction that puts a human face on suffering that might otherwise remain abstract or safely distanced. When the horrors are contemporary and well-documented, maybe we shouldn’t need that, though I did in this case, at least insofar as I’d known already about the Boko Haram abductions but not allowed myself to think hard about them. I’ve wondered before about the point of reading about suffering: I concluded then, with the help of Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, that there is some value to it, if only that it is better to know than not to know. One reason I chose to read Girl was exactly that: to know better, to look closer (and also because I though O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs was a really compelling novel about a different traumatic history, and I was interested to see what she had done this time).Girl2

Why am I left dissatisfied and uncomfortable, then? Why do I think I would have liked the book Gourevitch would write about Boko Haram better than I liked Girl? The very things that make Girl good as a novel–that it is reticent, personal, careful not to turn intimacy into intrusion, and also highly stylized–are the same things that made me restless because the story of this one girl (O’Brien says “I decided that my only method was to give the imaginative voicings of many through one particular visionary girl”) felt inadequate to the bigger picture, meaning not just the appalling number of girls who suffered as she does but also the larger context in which such stories could unfold. Maybe O’Brien’s point in leaving out any explanations, relaying only the immediate experience, is that it doesn’t really matter what the context is: that there is no framing that makes sense of a story like the one she tells.

I can’t decide if I think Girl is a good novel. Its true and painful subject is critically disabling, for me. Other critics have said all the right things: “searing, savage,” “immensely painful,” “heart-wrenching,” “empathetic.” J. M. Coetzee is quoted as calling it “a courageous book about a courageous spirit.” It must have been a very difficult book to research and write: fast as it was to read, it still meant spending more time with a lot of horrific specifics than I wanted to. Its narrative is broken up and fragmented: I see the logic of that, but it also seems like too obvious a narrative solution to the novel’s problem of how (not) to recreate its own traumas. Its events have no meaning to its narrator; kept in her head with her, we can find no meaning either, and maybe we shouldn’t, but I would have liked some–I would have liked something in the novel that did what Gourevitch does in We Wish to Inform You, which is to provide a way of looking, a way of thinking, about what happened.

If you’ve read Girl, I’d be very interested in knowing what you thought.

“And then what?” Margot Livesey, The Hidden Machinery

liveseyStevenson’s advice to the young writer is misleadingly simple, a Zen koan in disguise. Read everything that is good, nothing that is bad. And then what? … Then, learn to read as a writer, to search out that hidden machinery which it is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend … And then you have to hope for grace and luck, the Lares and Penates of fiction, to knock at your door.

I don’t have a lot of specific things to say about Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. I’m more interested in what I learned (or didn’t learn) from it about teaching creative writing, something I have been–mostly idly–curious about for some time, for personal and professional reasons. I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic about it: none of the novelists I admire the most, after all, had any kind of training in “craft,” and given the impossibility (in my view, anyway) of setting reliable standards for good or bad art, I have never been convinced that creative writing can or should be graded. These opinions are, I frankly admit, more prejudices than convictions or conclusions–they are not supported by extensive study on my part of how creative writing programs work or whether on balance they do seem to be good or bad for the literary world. I have read a number of essays and articles about this question over the years, both pro and con, but it hasn’t been an issue of great importance to me. Lately I have thought that perhaps it should be, not least because creative writing is an increasingly large part of the curriculum in my own department. I certainly have no doubt whatsoever about the talent, dedication, and good faith of the people who do this work at Dalhousie, and that is actually one reason I have been feeling more curious lately about creative writing as a process or a discipline.

between-the-coverrsWith that in mind, I asked the Twitter ‘hivemind’ for examples of what people consider the best books for or about teaching creative writing. I got a lot of suggestions: Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House; Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends; Sarah Painter’s Stop Worrying, Start Writing; Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World; Graywolf Press’s The Art Of series; Tin House’s Between the Covers podcast; Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.* One that got a few strong endorsements was Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery. It sounded appealing, so it’s the one I decided to read first (and, I now think, maybe last).

I did learn something from The Hidden Machinery, but it wasn’t quite what I expected or was looking for, though I suppose I’m not exactly sure what that was–something concrete, I think, about the actual pedagogy of writing, about the movement from reading to doing. Livesey’s book is not a textbook (of the list I compiled, I now see that only Burroway’s is of really of that kind), but it is described as a “masterclass,” so it’s not unreasonable to think that it is meant to do more than talk about how other people’s books are written. And yet that’s really all that it does, with a few nods towards using them as models and some stories about Livesey’s experiences writing her own novels. Rather than being a book of an unfamiliar kind, it turned out to belong to a category of books I spent a lot of my early blogging years exploring: “books about books.” Only I was reading them, back in the old days, looking for models of criticism, trying to answer my questions about what kind of literary analysis had any traction outside the academy. It hadn’t occurred to me (though maybe it should have) to look at these books as how-to-write guides, not (or not just) how-to-read ones.

oup-persuasionThe Hidden Machinery is a perfectly fine book about how some really good novels are written. It is mostly close reading. There are zero revelations in it for anyone who has read, say A Passage to India or Persuasion or Madame Bovary attentively with an eye to things like point of view or narrative form or metaphorical patterns or character development. Livesey does a good job walking us through her examples; she is an observant and insightful reader. In her discussion about her own fiction, she explains clearly what she thinks she learned, where she thinks she succeeded or failed, as a result, at least in part, of the attention she learned to pay to other writers. These sections are interesting, but they are not really transferable “lessons”, because each of her novels (like every novel) is unique. There is absolutely no specific advice about how to be as good as her exemplary writers are–and how could there be? There is, near the end, a list of “rules” (derived, a bit unexpectedly for a novelist, from her study of Shakespeare) and it is as useful and as useless as every such list I’ve ever seen: “don’t keep back the good stuff”; “negotiate your own standard of plausibility”; “don’t overexplain”; “write better sentences.” “Don’t overexplain” would probably rule out a novel like Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I loved. “Write better sentences” is a good Flaubertian proposal–but for some of us, one Flaubert is more than enough. “Negotiate your own standard of plausibility” at least allows for the ridiculous level of coincidence in Dickens…but he (and those who love him for, rather than in spite of, his excesses) would laugh off “be careful how you repeat yourself.”

the_new_novelI was looking for something in Livesey’s book that would be an “aha” moment for me about creative writing as something that can be taught. There was such a moment, but it didn’t exactly confirm for me that what’s most important is classes or programs dedicated to the how-to side. Many, many times I have sat at the English Department’s table at the “academic program fair” held yearly to showcase and recruit students to our various majors and honours program. Year after year, since we started offering creative writing courses, the vast majority of student inquiries are about them, not about our “standard” literature courses. But in those literature courses we do exactly what Livesey does in The Hidden Machinery,** and if you do a majors or honours degree in our department you will perforce study examples across a range of periods and genres–not just the contemporary ones or the ones students already know they are interested in, but the ones they don’t know they are going to love, the literary “unknown unknowns.” Many, many times I have asked prospective creative writing students what other writers, what literary periods or forms, they are most interested in, and many, many times they have had no answer: they just “like to write.”

burrowayI love that they like to write! But I have always thought (and sometimes said, as tactfully as I could) that to write well you really, really need to read widely. If Livesey’s typical at all–and in this respect I do think she is–that’s what creative writing teachers think too. I’m just still left wondering why an English degree isn’t, then, the right or even best way for these students to proceed, and why they don’t know that. The counter-argument probably turns as much on time, encouragement, and mentorship as on the belief that you can actually teach someone to write something worth reading or even, one day, something that is itself worth studying as an example. Those are definitely good things for aspiring writers to have, even if they are neither necessary nor sufficient factors for producing good, much less great, writers.

I’m not trying to take a stand for or against creative writing programs as such: that’s really not my place as a non-expert, for one thing, and there are lots of reasons (including administrative and financial ones) that make it inevitable that they will not just continue but expand. There can be (and there is, at Dalhousie, I’m glad to say) valuable integration or at least intersection between creative writing and English, in individual courses as well as in the programs as a whole. For these reasons among others, I’m still interested in questions about how reading leads to writing, and about craft, creativity, and pedagogy. I like the look of the Tin House podcast, so I might have a go at some of its episodes next.


*I don’t know what, if anything, to make of the fact that these are by and large not writers I had heard of or read before (I’d heard of Livesey, but not read any of her novels; I’d obviously heard of LeGuin!).

**While I was thinking about this post (and, to be honest, second-guessing the wisdom of wading into these waters at all), I happened to read a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of George Saunders’s new book about writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, that included this comment: “One doubts that a lesser writer could recognize the skills of the masters so readily, or be able to analyze the short stories as cogently and incisively as Saunders does.” That immediately struck me as absurd: it describes precisely the work of literary criticism, and it reflects what I have always found a problematic assumption, which is that authors make the best critics. Review assignments (in Canada especially) often seem to assume this as well. I think the two skills sets are intimately related but different, and I wonder if this assumption that those who are critics and not practicing novelists lack insight is what leads to books like Livesey’s and Saunders’s being hyped as revelatory, expressions of some special creative power, rather than a good reflection of (some of) the things an English degree will teach you about and how to do.

Specifications Grading: Lessons Learned

My previous post ended on a high note: a list of the benefits I believe came from my decision to try specifications grading. Most of these things are hard to be absolutely sure about, but that’s true of most questions about pedagogy, especially when your only sample is a single iteration of a course. Still, I have taught first-year writing classes almost every year since 1995, so I give some weight to my own impression that on balance, this change in strategy had some good results for them and for me. It wasn’t all good, though, and especially as I do intend to try specifications grading again, I am already thinking a lot about what needs to change in the second version of the course policies and requirements.

The first problem I need to fix is one that I tried very hard to prepare for and fend off, but (perhaps inevitably) without complete success: unfamiliarity. As far as I could tell, specifications grading was a brand new concept to everyone in the class, and though some students seemed to grasp its procedures and implications very quickly, others clearly struggled–some of them right to the very end of the term. There were clear indications that some students just did not understand the mechanics of it: they did not realize (or not until it was almost too late) that their final grade was going to depend, not on doing well on an individual essay or exam, but on how consistently they did or did not do satisfactory work across the entire term.

I am confident that my explanations were clear and explicit and abundant–but the very care with which I laid out the assessment model probably backfired in some cases, as it meant there was a lot of information to take in. I tried (so hard!) to clarify and simplify, including having ‘quick reference’ tables that summed up exactly what each bundle required and what the standards were for a satisfactory assessment. I reiterated essential points in announcements and assignment instructions and in the FAQ discussion board … but I think the difference between what we were doing and what they were used to or assumed about grades and grading was just too much for some students to process. Specifications grading was an unknown unknown for them: for whatever combination of reasons (other challenges related to online learning or with information management, or the same kind of indifference or inattention to the syllabus that we always see some of, no matter what the mode of course delivery) some students not only didn’t realize it was not business as usual but they didn’t even think to check or ask. They were a minority of the class, and it was equally obvious that some students very swiftly grasped the system and made their plans and did their work accordingly. Still, next time I will be more aware of how hard the conceptual leap can be and work even harder to leave nobody behind.

On a related note, by the end of the term it was clear to me that the specific set of requirements and bundles I had devised was much harder for many students to makes sense of and (even more important, perhaps) to keep track of than I’d expected. Again, I took a lot of measures to make it all legible and easy to follow, including my handy reference tables. I am still actually quite puzzled about why so many students completed such a random array of components, such that their final tallies were not consistent with any particular bundle. As the end of term approached I did an audit of what everyone had done to that point and there were a surprising number of cases in which, if I had not changed the bundle requirements, the students would not have been able to earn even a passing grade, because they had completed a high number of one kind of components but completely dropped the ball on others.

I did revise the requirements, mostly to reduce them, although I had some misgivings about doing so. The process of revision also helped me think about ways of totting things up that might actually work better: requiring an overall number of journal entries for the term rather than a consistent number per week, for example (although, without getting too much into the weeds of my plans and planning, one goal I had and don’t want to give up on is ensuring steady effort, not a crush of last-minute contributions). Perhaps my bundles just had too many moving parts: again, a significant number of students didn’t seem to have any problems, but confusion was widespread enough that one of my key take-aways is that I need to simplify things.

(As an aside, though, one thing I did like about the bundles system with its many moving parts, however, is that it was possible to sort out particular cases where a student was far short of passing the course or just short of a better bundle by counting up the components the student was missing and devising a make-up plan. This felt much more constructive than any options we usually have for a student who has done poorly on a midterm or otherwise compromised their standing under a regular assessment scheme.)

Finally, and I’m not sure if this is a problem or it just feels like one, far more students than is typical ended up with A or A+ grades in the course. Clearly, knowing that they could earn an A if they just put in the work was highly motivating for a lot of students–and also stress-inducing, in some cases, because having set their sights on that goal, students could not let go of it, even if they were finding the work more difficult or time-consuming than they’d expected. Heading into the semester, I expected a lot of students to decide (eventually, if not immediately) against the MOST bundle, on the grounds that all they wanted was their writing requirement credit and their other courses were higher priorities. Over the years I have encountered that attitude a lot in first-year classes, often quite explicitly. Now I wonder if some of that hasn’t been the side-effect of students (especially those in STEM programs who do not think of themselves as “good” at English) simply writing off the course, especially if they get below an A on their first paper: resigning themselves to it or telling a story about it that makes it matter less. This time, told they could end up with an A if they just did X, Y, and Z, students who might not have bothered before decided to go for it…which is great! As I said in my last post, they did the work and that paid off.

And yet I can’t shake a lingering concern that the number of A+ grades I filed tells me my standards were not high enough: my requirements, or the specifications, or (more likely) the enforcement of the specifications, was lax. It’s true we were not as fussy as we originally intended to be. This was partly about grading fatigue (we had to process a lot of discussion posts!) and also about the pressure we were constantly under (arguably rightly) to give students a break during a term that was already difficult for them. I did end up filing grades across the whole range of possibilities from F to A+: there were just significantly more As and A+s than I’m used to seeing. Should I–could I–have made A and A+ grades harder to get? My guess is that increasing the requirements for the largest bundle would not have deterred most of those who went for it on the terms I set, and why would I want to deter them anyway? I think my lingering unease comes from the same doubts my colleagues expressed about quantity vs. quality and what exactly we think letter grades are supposed to mean or signal. Specifications grading is designed to sideline judgments about “excellence,” but the habit of thinking in those subjective qualitative terms is deeply ingrained in most academics, even though we know perfectly well that grades, publications, grants, awards, and tenure-track jobs depend more on other factors (including luck and privilege) than on intrinsic and objective kinds of excellence.

Summing up my own “lessons learned” from my first attempt at specifications grading, then:

  • you can’t explain too clearly or too often how the system works, and even then some students will not grasp the difference it needs to make to their work habits, so I need to anticipate problems and prepare interventions;
  • relatedly, I need to make my bundles simpler and more flexible: they should (probably) have fewer moving parts overall, and I should have more flexible ways of adding them up;
  • and I need come to terms with the potential for what will look like grade inflation–whether this means raising (or being stricter about) standards, putting the very top grade a bit further out of reach, or accepting (maybe even encouraging!) a larger than usual number of As and A+s.

If you’ve used specifications (or contract) grading, I’d love to know if these are concerns you too have had, and if so, how you have handled them. It’s especially hard to know how big a part the transition to online teaching and learning played in the successes and failures of specifications grading for me (and for my students) last term. It might have been exactly the wrong time to try it! I’m teaching the same course again next fall, and right now we don’t know if it will be in person or online. Whichever way it goes, I have lots of time between now and then to rethink, revise, and regroup.

Specifications Grading: My First Attempt

1015StartHere-cropAs if converting my courses to online versions wasn’t challenging enough, I also used specifications grading for the first time this fall, for my first-year class “Literature: How It Works.” This is an experiment I had been thinking a lot about before the pandemic struck: in fact, on March 13, the last day we were all on campus, I actually had a meeting with our Associate Dean to discuss how to make sure doing so wouldn’t conflict with any of the university’s or faculty’s policies. Though I did have some second thoughts after the “pivot” to online teaching, it seemed to me that many features of specifications grading were well suited to Brightspace-based delivery, so I decided to persist with the plan, and I spent a great deal of time and thought over the summer figuring out my version of it.

I had originally planned to try contract grading, but one concern I saw raised about that is it can be hard for students to know enough at the outset to make a good choice about which contract to commit to, a problem likely to be especially vexing for first-year students. The same could be said about specifications grading in a way (and both systems can be configured to allow for adjustments, too, of course), but I liked the idea of students accumulating work and learning along the way how much time and effort the course was worth to them. I pored over the materials I found about people’s plans for and experiences with specifications grading, especially this essay and some other materials by Linda B. Nilson and posts by Jason Mittell at his blog Just TV. I also had to take into account the rules that govern all of Dal’s writing requirement courses, and then to think about my own usual approach to teaching first-year English classes that combine introductory material about literary interpretation with explicit attention to writing. I wanted my plan to support, not replace, the overall pedagogical approach I am used to and believe in.

conciseBILI won’t go into every detail of the plan I finally came up with (though if anyone is really keen to see the extensive documentation, I’d be happy to share it by email). Basically, I made a list of the kinds of work I wanted students to do in service of the course’s multiple objectives: reading journals, discussion posts and replies, writing worksheets, quizzes, and essays. Then I worked out what seemed to me reasonable quantities of each component for bundles I called PASS, CORE, MORE, and MOST. These bundles corresponded to D, C, B, and A grades at the end of term; students’ grades on the final exam determined if they got a + or – added to their letter grade. I also (and in many ways this is the most important part of the whole system!) drew up the specifications for what would count as satisfactory work of each kind: completing a bundle didn’t mean just turning in enough components but turning in enough that met the specifications. Following the lead of others who have used this kind of system, I tried to make the specifications equivalent to something more like a typical B than a bare pass.

All teachers know that it is a mistake to draw firm conclusions based on a single iteration of any course or any assignment sequence, because every class is different – not just its population of students (who somehow take on a collective personality that can be quite different from the character of any individual member) but the whole dynamic. Add in the stress and chaos of everyone’s first semester of online teaching (which for most of the students in this class was also their first semester of university altogether) and I have a lot of reasons not to declare the experiment either an absolute success or a complete failure. All I can do at this point is reflect on what seemed to go well and what I will do differently when I try it again. I definitely will try it again, though, which in itself I suppose is a kind of conclusion: though there were some significant hiccups as the term and the plan unfolded, on the whole I think the benefits–not so much logistical as psychological and pedagogical–made it well worth the attempt and hopefully it will go more smoothly the second time.

Grade A Plus result vector icon. School red mark handwriting A plus in circleTo start with, then, what seemed to go well? First, especially when it came time to assess the students’ longer essays, I really appreciated being freed from assigning them letter grades. Almost every single essay submitted (so, nearly 180 assignments over the term) clearly met the specifications for the assignment, so our focus could be on giving feedback, not (consciously or unconsciously) trying to justify minute gradations in our assessments. I hadn’t realized just how much it weighed on me needing to make artificially precise distinctions between, say, B- and C+ papers, or trying to decide if an unsuccessful attempt at a more ambitious or original argument should really get the same grade as an immaculately polished version of one that mostly reiterated my lectures. Once I’d read through a submission to see if it met the specifications, I could go back and reread with an eye to engaging with it honestly and constructively. This is what I thought I did already, but if you haven’t ever tried grading essays without actually grading them, you too may be surprised at how liberating it feels to let go of that awareness that when you’re done, you have to put a particular pin in it.

One reason for trying the whole experiment in the first place was that this kind of change–in which individual assignments are not only not marked but also do not carry much weight in their course grade over all–would (I hoped) relieve students’ anxiety and also (relatedly) discourage plagiarism. I think it did both. I had fewer academic integrity cases this year than in the other first-year courses I’ve taught most recently, at any rate, and though some students were definitely still anxious, I was able to tell them not to worry so much about every detail because it was clear already that they were going to turn in satisfactory work. It was nice to be able to say “relax a little!” and know it didn’t sound hollow: I could encourage them just to do their best to explain what they thought and why they thought it, and we would see how it turned out. In retrospect I think my meta-messaging about this benefit could have been more conspicuous–but that said, worriers gonna worry, and it’s not a bad thing for students to want their work to be as good as it can be!

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgOn a related note, something else that I think was good (though it was a bit hard for me to tell without having a chance to talk it over with the class in person) was that the system gave students a fair amount of control over their final grade for the course. Instead of trying to meet some standard that–no matter how carefully you explain and model it–often seems obscure to students, especially in first-year (“what do you want?” is an ordinarily all-too-frequent question about their essay assignments) they could keep a tally of their satisfactory course components and know exactly what else they needed to do to complete a particular bundle and thus earn a particular grade. That didn’t mean it was an automatic process; again, to be rated satisfactory, the work had to meet the specifications I set. I tried to make the specifications concrete, though: they didn’t include any abstract qualitative standards (like “excellence” or “thoughtful”). The core standards were things like “on time,” “on topic,” “within the word limit,” and, most important, to my mind, “shows a good faith effort” to do the task at hand. I suppose that last one is open to interpretation, but I think it sends the right message to students trying to learn how to do something unfamiliar: if they actually try to do it, that counts. When my TA and I debated the occasional submission that had arguably missed the mark in some other way, we used “good faith effort” as the deciding factor for whether they earned the credit: we used it generously, rather than punitively.

letter_paper_and_pen_vector_275746One other way I consider the experiment a success was that it seemed to me that the students’ quantity of work–their consistent effort over time–did ultimately lead to improvements in the quality of their work. The skepticism I faced from some colleagues when I mentioned this plan tended to focus on concerns about rewarding quantity over quality, or about not sufficiently recognizing and rewarding exceptional quality. Over the term I did sometimes worry about this myself: much as I liked being freed from grading individual assignments, I didn’t always like giving the same assessment of ‘satisfactory’ to assignments that ranged from perfunctory or barely passable at one end of the scale to impressively articulate and insightful at the other. You can signal the difference through your feedback, though, and that’s the big shift specifications grading requires. The other key point is that most people really do get better at writing if they practice (and get feedback, and engage with lots of examples of other people’s writing) and so making it a requirement for a good grade that you had to write a lot had the side-effect (or, met the course objective!) of helping a lot of students improve as writers. Between reading journals and discussion posts and replies, there was no way to get an A in this version of the course without writing a few hundred words every week, which is a lot more than students necessarily have to do in my face-to-face versions of intro classes. Especially in their final batch of essays, I think that practice showed.

To sum up the positives, then:

  • using specifications grading let me focus on feedback instead of hierarchical evaluations for student writing;
  • this in turn reduced some of the anxiety students feel around writing assignments;
  • it also reduced the incentives for them to cheat;
  • it gave them more control over the outcome of their efforts, rather than leaving them subject to what they often feel (rightly or wrongly) are arbitrary professorial judgments;
  • and it meant that all students and especially students who aspired to do well in the course got regular practice at applying their analytical skills (and the specialized vocabulary they learned) to a wide array of literary texts and then explaining their ideas and observations in their own words.

Because this post has gotten pretty long already, I’ll stop here and take up the question of what didn’t work so well, or what I’ll do different next time, in another post. I hope that this overview of the benefits shows, though, why my first attempt at specifications grading won’t be my last.

Novel Readings 2020

“2020 will begin on a high note,” I wrote at the end of 2019’s “Year in Reading” post. As far as reading goes, at least, I wasn’t wrong: the books I was so looking forward to were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm, and I enjoyed them both thoroughly.

It hardly needs saying that 2020 turned out to be anything but a good year overall. Was it a good reading year? I wish I could say that I turned the relentless isolation of the pandemic into an opportunity to read deeply and voraciously. I feel perhaps unduly ashamed of how difficult I often found it to concentrate, of how often I gathered promising stacks of unread books from my shelves determined to make my way through them only to reject them one by one — usually for no good reason except that in the moment, they just didn’t appeal — and put them back where they came from. Maybe it was the long hours I put into learning about and then laboring over online teaching; maybe it was the suppressed but constant struggle to keep at bay the worst fears and feelings about the pandemic; maybe, also, it’s not embarrassing but understandable to be uneasy and distracted in the midst of a global crisis, and so to fall back more often than you’d like into the passive forgetfulness offered by television. 

And yet, looking back over my posts for 2020, though they are far fewer than usual (blogging, not just about books but about anything, also became harder this year, from screen fatigue and because of the way time kept seeming to pass without actually passing, if that makes sense), I find that I did read a lot of good books, ones that held my attention, that delighted or moved or provoked me in all the best ways. I also read — or at any rate finished — fewer books that really disappointed me, probably because I was less likely this year to press on with something I wasn’t engaged by. Of course, a number of books that I read were in the middle, in that largest zone that stretches from “not really my thing” to “good but not great.”

In a tradition that stretches back to 2007, the year I began Novel Readings, here’s my look back at the best, the worst, and some of the rest of my 2020 reading.

The Best Books I Read In 2020 

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead  was the last book my book club read before our meetings went virtual; I think our dinner out to discuss it was also my last pre-lockdown social event! When will we six (sometimes seven) meet again?! This fall was our 10th anniversary, so it seems particularly sad that we haven’t been able to get together in person: Zoom just isn’t the same. We all loved Drive Your Plow — rare unanimity. The novel is extraordinary: strange, intense, compelling, and morally serious without ever being didactic:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is about someone who reacts to the perception of universal suffering by seeking justice, not sympathy. The surprise of the novel is that someone so odd, crusty, and uncompromising turns out to be so appealing. I enjoyed her abrasiveness, her frankness about her aches and pains, her determination to live on her own terms … the punishment fits the crime in a morally and philosophically satisfying way.

I was mesmerized by Miriam Toews’s Women Talking — I’m glad I overcame my initial skepticism to give it a try. I found it “at once ruthlessly specific (what should these women, who have been abused, tortured, raped, silenced, rendered extraneous to the meaning of ther own community, do?) and almost shockingly expansive: what should (or can) we all do, once we recognize how deep and entangling the world’s systemic injustices are?”

It seems inevitable in retrospect, but that shouldn’t diminish the extraordinary fact that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is as brilliant as the first two novels in the trilogy. I thought it was not quite as good as Bring Up the Bodies, but that’s such a high bar that the comparison doesn’t really reflect badly on it. The last 100 pages or so of The Mirror and the Light are particularly remarkable, not least because I read them knowing exactly what was going to happen and yet was utterly gripped. “It is hard to mourn a man like Cromwell,” even Mantel’s version of him, but the series is so good that “she has made it impossible not to miss him now that he’s gone.” What will Mantel do next? I would love to read her novel about Elizabeth I, if she would ever write one.

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Maggie O’Farrell, but Hamnet and Judith exceeded my expectations:

In her author’s note, O’Farrell explains just how little we know about the real Hamnet, and also tells us that the central event of her novel, Hamnet’s sudden death from the bubonic plague, is a fiction: “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died.” From this slight material O’Farrell develops a novel that is a delicate combination of historical recreation and literary excavation, of intimately portrayed human lives and undercurrents of meaning that flow almost unnoticed towards Shakespeare’s tragic drama.

One thin silver lining of our locked-down world is the movement of many interesting cultural events online: I really enjoyed “attending” O’Farrell’s Hay Festival interview.

Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey was a delight, though by that I don’t mean to imply that it is a slight or easy nbook. Out of a very unlikely premise (and the risk factor is actually one of the things I appreciated most about the novel), Rooney created something that is at once grim, tender, and morally consequential.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was one of the long-unread books I plucked from my shelves and actually read, and I’m so glad I did: I absolutely loved it. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that is quite like it:

It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. 

Steven Price’s Lampedusa also exceeded my expectations, joining “Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel.”

Turning to non-fiction, Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life  is “a marvelous, inspiring, touching, and extremely wide-ranging account of the myriad ways needle crafts of all kinds have mattered and made meaning throughout history.” I enjoyed it both for the story she tells and for the connections between it and my own work on needlework in the context of Victorian historiography.

Like Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet had malingered on my shelves for some time; the meditative comfort I have found in jigsaw puzzles since our stay-at-home protocols began inspired me to take another look, and it turned out to have found its moment:

It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death.

Last but not least, I was both gripped and impressed by Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing:

Say Nothing is not just a gripping work of historical reconstruction and exploration, it is also a morally weighty book. Like good fiction, it insists over and over on the complexity of its topics and its people. It has no heroes and, surprisingly, not really any villains either, because those categories rely on absolute perspectives that are simply not sustainable.

Other Books I Liked A Lot

I expected to like Sarah Moss’s new novel Summerwater, which I reviewed for the Dublin Review of Books (one of a sadly small number of writing projects I accomplished in 2020). I did like it, though I did not love it: it is a lot like Ghost Wall in scope and subject, and equally terse and intelligent, but I would like to see Moss do something more expansive, and also less emotionally reticent. Still, a “lesser” novel by Moss is still better than a lot of other books, and as with Ghost Wall, I also think this is one that gets bigger and better the more you think about it

The novel has the tense atmosphere of a thriller and clues to its eventual crisis are deftly deployed throughout, but its multiple layers mean that the most important revelations are less about what ultimately happens then about how the novel asks us to interpret it. How can we live together in a world being reshaped by the weather? What expectations should we bring to communities no longer defined by the artificial borders of nationalism? What really makes a good neighbour?

William Trevor’s Love and Summer was very good – not as good as The Story of Lucy Gault, for me anyway, but good enough (and so beautifully written) that it solidified Trevor’s place on my list of writers to read more of. 

Elizabeth von Armin’s sharply funny Father was a real treat and deserved a post of its own, which it didn’t get. I highly recommend it for fans of Barbara Pym, Angela Thirkell, or the Mapp and Lucia books.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Jones’s comic family novel We’re All In This Together, which I thought had “the intimacy and precision of an Anne Tyler novel but is done in bolder colours, with stronger contrasts and, especially, deeper shadows.”

I also enjoyed Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, though in the end I couldn’t escape the feeling that its premise was less an urgent reason to group its subjects together than an ingenious device for doing so and then marketing the results. Still, 

it’s an elegantly constructed and well-written introduction to five remarkable women–the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle); classicist Jane Harrison; historian Eileen Power; Dorothy L. Sayers; and Virginia Woolf. Starting from the very literal connection that all of them at one time … lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, Wade explores other commonalities between them, especially their conviction that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms, not to allow one’s identity to be proscribed or limited by anyone else.”

Square Haunting made me long to be back in Bloomsbury, where for some reason I have always felt strangely exhilarated and also very at home, as if I can be more myself there than elsewhere.

I found Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel engrossing: it is interesting and highly readable. Yet somehow I couldn’t quite make sense of it all: “I wasn’t 100% sure why all of its specific ingredients belonged together in this particular novel: I couldn’t quite discern the underlying thematic unity, the meaning of it all.” That left me dissatisfied, though it also raised questions for me about what I look for when I’m reading, and why.

Books I Expected to Be Better 

My book club really enjoyed Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, so we chose Detective Inspector Huss to read next. I didn’t like it, though she’s a good character and the novel had a lot of interesting aspects. Maybe it was a poor translation?

Sandra Newman’s The Heavens had been on my reading radar for a long time: I proposed it to the TLS for a review, in fact, and they turned it down. Now that I’ve read it, I’m relieved, as “I just couldn’t sort out my thematic and conceptual confusions well enough to feel satisfied with the novel as a whole” — though, I concluded, “it is quite possible that the fault lies not with The Heavens but with me.”

My Least-Liked Book of 2020

I know how much Dorian likes the Bernie Gunther books, and he writes so convincingly about them that I decided to try the first one, March VioletsBernie and I (or Kerr and I) did not get along:

While I find Philip Marlowe’s misogyny disturbing, I give Chandler credit for showing the price Marlowe pays for it, in his embittered isolation, while Bernie Gunther’s sexism (“Her breasts were like the rear ends of a pair of dray horses at the end of a long hard day”) serves only to show off Kerr’s own hard-boiled credentials. (“There’s only one thing that unnerves me more than the company of an ugly woman in the evening, and that’s the company of the same ugly woman the following morning.”)

Maybe the later books improve, and there’s no doubt that it’s a great concept for a series and that this one is well executed in other ways. With so many other books to choose from, though, I’m unlikely to try Kerr again any time soon.

My Biggest 2020 Reading Project

My one larger writing project for 2020 was a feature article for the TLS in honor of P. D. James’s centenary. I thought rereading all of her Adam Dalgliesh novels, which took up a lot of my summer, would be more fun than it was. They are all very good, but they are good in particular and strikingly similar ways — ways I ultimately found limited, or limiting, as I explain in the essay.

Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New

Overall, that’s really not a bad year’s reading, especially for an otherwise pretty bad year! It proves that — gloomy, difficult, and uncertain as other things might be — a good book is still a good book and worth celebrating. As for 2021, well, it feels foolhardy to express much optimism about it in other respects, but I’m excited about the first book I have lined up, Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. I got Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and Anne Enright’s The Gathering as Christmas gifts (thank you!), and I’ve got Edna O’Brien’s Girl and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom on their way thanks to Boxing Day sales. The next book lined up for my book club, also, is Elsa Morante’s enticing Arturo’s Island. We aren’t able to ring in the new year with much confidence or enthusiasm, but it is both comforting and cheering to have these books to look forward to.

Recent Reading: Two Hits and a Miss

monkshoodI don’t usually look back on my year in reading until I’m pretty sure the reading year is actually over: traditionally, I get some good books as gifts, for instance, and sometimes the last week of December is my best chance for happy, uninterrupted reading. So I won’t plunge into retrospection just yet! Instead, I’ll just briefly note three more books that could be in the running for best or worse of the year.

Actually (spoiler alert!) none of these three is at either of those extremes for me. The first, Monk’s Hood, was fine: exactly what I expected after my happy experience reading the first Brother Cadfael mysteries. In this turbulent year, Brother Cadfael’s quiet but firm moral rectitude felt particularly soothing. It calmed and satisfied me, but it didn’t inspire me to binge-read the rest of the series immediately. I remain very pleased that I inherited it from a colleague who was “downsizing” her library, though: it is nice to know they are all there, neatly lined up and ready for me the next time I want just that kind of an interlude.

fatherElizabeth von Armin’s Father was better than fine: it was funny, touching, and somewhat acerbic, never tipping over into sentimental but also without quite the edge of cruelty that turned me off Mapp and Lucia. As Simon Thomas notes in his Afterword to the nice new British Library edition, it is one of a number of novels from around the same period treating the place or plight of single women – he notes Lolly Willowes as another along with a few I’d never heard of such as May Sinclair’s The Life and Death of Harriet FreanFather tells a superficially simple story about a daughter finally freed from her care-taking duties to her austere and imperious widowed father (a highbrow if somewhat scandalous novelist) by his impulsive second marriage. “Papa is wed, and I am free,” Jen thinks joyfully, as she sets off, during what is supposed to be Father’s honeymoon in Norway, to find herself a home of her own. She does, and it is everything she ever wanted. The initial period of her setting up housekeeping is just so happy – but between her clergyman landlord and his possessive and interfering sister and her father and stepmother (who, it turns out, never made it further than Brighton) things do not go quite as Jen had planned–with what specific results, I will leave it to you to find out when you read Father for yourself!

spoonstealerThe recent book that did not go over so well with me was Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer. I decided to buy it after enjoying an online event put on by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia about historical fiction. All of the authors on the panel read excerpts from their work, and The Spoon Stealer sounded charming–and it is, in many ways, but it fell flat when I read it for myself. I’ve been wondering if the problem might lie somewhere in the difference between how books sound read aloud and how they sound in my head, or with something about what I read novels for and prefer to get from them: perhaps Crewe’s style tilts towards oral storytelling, for instance, while my taste tends in another direction. When I paused over an incident or paragraph or sentence in the novel that seemed especially stilted or unconvincing, I could almost never point to anything specifically wrong with it, and I like the novel’s premise and (in theory at least) its protagonist. But I became increasingly impatient with it, though just to be sure I gave it a fair chance, I did read all the way to the end. I am always aware that not all books are for all readers and this one turned not to be for me–it’s not always good enough (depending on the circumstances) to shrug a book off this way, but in this case, I am OK with just moving on.

The Last Few Weeks In My (Online) Classes

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The second half of term, and especially the couple of weeks right after our November reading week (which falls uncomfortably late in the term, as I’ve often complained), always go by in a mad rush. This term has been no different in that respect, except that the mad rush has just been more of the exact same things I’ve been doing since September: staring at the screen, typing, clicking, staring some more, typing, clicking. Because we have the same routines on Saturdays and Sundays as on every other days of the week, too, it really all just blurs into one long sameness, one continuous stretch of staring and typing and clicking, with just our daily walks, our meals, and our evening television as interruptions and diversions.

2040 SYLLABUSIt hasn’t been all bad, though. I said back in October that given the choice, I’d never teach all online again, and that remains true. But would I never teach online again at all, ever, if it were up to me? I can actually imagine, now, that there might be circumstances in which I would appreciate some features of online teaching, especially if the rest of my life were restored. I don’t miss early morning starts, and once wintry weather arrives I will be glad not to be forced out into it. If I had to – or chose to – be somewhere else for a while, I wouldn’t be so constrained by the implacability of the academic calendar. And it’s not all new to me any more: though I don’t love Brightspace, I know my way around it a lot better than I did in May, for one thing, and when I recorded my concluding lectures for my courses I felt much more comfortable and confident in front of the camera than I did when I made my first videos in August.

Over the last week or so, in the lull between the incessant weekly tasks of this term’s classes and the arrival of their final essays and exams, I have been finalizing the syllabi and working on the course sites for next term’s classes, and while I certainly don’t think I have got this whole thing figured out, I do feel as if I’ve learned a lot by doing it once that will help me do it better. Right now it seems about 50/50 that we’ll be going back to in-person teaching in Fall 2021: with the roll-out of vaccines beginning even as I write this, it isn’t impossible that by then enough of us will be protected that some semblance of normalcy will have returned, though we are still in such uncharted territory that it would be foolish to assume anything about the future. I would still rather teach online than be back in a classroom hamstrung by necessary safety measures and shadowed by anxiety. Maybe even once classroom teaching is securely the default once again, there will still be times when I will be glad to have acquired this experience and to know that I can do it again if I have to or want to.

panopto-logoSo what have I learned? In addition to the technical stuff – Brightspace and Panopto and Collaborate, oh my! – I have learned, as a lot of other people have too, that the best advice and methods for online teaching may not be the best advice and methods for online teaching in these circumstances. “Formative” assessments, scaffolded assignments, regular low-stakes engagement exercises: they may all be (and in fact I believe they are) pedagogically effective, but when we all start doing them all at once with students many of whom are used to more episodic kinds of engagement (essay assignments, midterms, final projects, etc.), the overall effect is overwhelming. I spent a lot of time puzzling over exactly the issue addressed in that linked essay: in my mind, as I planned my courses, if anything I was requiring much less work than usual, as I’d cut back the reading assignments and instead of three class meetings a week students had “just” a couple of short videos to watch and some informal writing to do, plus the usual papers and tests.

What I think I had miscalculated, however, is how little specific accountability there really was in most of those classroom hours: students could do all the reading and come prepared to discuss it, and some certainly did, but others didn’t, or didn’t always, and they could count on that time as useful but passive, a chance to listen in on what the rest of us had to say without having to generate material of their own. The new expectation that they “show up” in writing seemed like a great opportunity to make sure the talkative portion of the class wasn’t the only part that I heard from, and that was a good aspect of it. Even for the students who typically did the readings and did want to talk about them, though, the written alternatives felt harder, I think, and created more pressure, no matter how hard I tried to explain that they were meant to be low key, not high stakes. Plus, again, if every class is asking for a constant stream of input, the logistics alone probably get bewildering.

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgThat said, I’m still going to ask for online discussions in my winter term courses! Expressing your ideas about what you’ve read in words is the fundamental task and method of literary studies, after all. I lessened the requirements in one of my classes this term, once we started to hear reports of students being overwhelmed, and for next term I have (I think!) made the requirements more streamlined, and also explained better what the terms and expectations are. In retrospect I should perhaps have scaled things back in my first-year course, where I was (still am!) doing my first experiment with specifications grading – but I honestly didn’t expect that so many of them would fix on and stay fixed on fulfilling the most demanding bundle. I expected a much larger number to decide that level of effort was a bit much just to cross off their writing requirement: instead, knowing it was achievable with enough persistence seems to have motivated a significant portion of the class to do a lot of regular writing. They will have worked very hard on a whole range of tasks, so I certainly don’t begrudge them their As, though this is something I will think more about when (if) I do specifications grading again – which will have to be the subject of its own post when the term is really and truly over and I have a more complete sense of whether or how the experiment succeeded or failed.

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Once again I seem to be focused in this teaching post primarily on logistics and methods rather than on the content of my courses: this has been my lament all term, really, because compared with just showing up to class with my book and my notes, offering an online lesson or module is just a whole lot more complicated. Reviewing my recorded lectures as I made up review handouts and final exams, though, I was pleased to see that they are pretty substantial. Within the relatively simple options I chose to deliver them (basically, just narrated PowerPoints, pretty much all under 15 minutes each) they are as interesting and creative as I could manage; thinking of ways to present ideas in this format, especially ideas derived from or modeling close reading, was conceptually challenging. That was my favorite part of each week’s class prep, and I’m actually kind of looking forward to doing more of it next term, especially because I’ll be working with readings that I know really well, which makes the jump from “what’s next?” to “what do I want to say about it?” much easier.

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This term isn’t over yet, though: starting tomorrow I’ll be deep in exams and essays, which is at least par for the course, for this point in the year. Despite the monotonous way one day has blurred into the next, and the difficulty of keeping my spirits up in this surreal, isolated, scary time, I’ve been grateful that my work has continued and has kept me so busy that I can marvel that it’s “already” December. I expect that next term will be much the same – and maybe by the time I look up from my screen and marvel that it’s “already” April the tentative optimism sparked by today’s good news will have turned into genuine hope for the future.

Briefly: Maurizio de Giovanni, By My Hand

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Christmas was looming over everyone, midway between a promise and a threat.

I picked By My Hand up a bit randomly the other day: I was browsing my shelves for books I haven’t read yet (I have a reasonable number of these, though not nearly as many as some people!) and I remembered how much I’d liked the first two Commissario Ricciardi mysteries–and also de Giovanni’s ‘Bastards of Pizzofalcone’ books. With the holiday season upon us but little chance that it will be a particularly festive time this year, it seemed like the right moment for “The Christmas of Commisario Ricciardi,” and it was.

I won’t go into detail about the plot. While it’s a neat enough murder mystery, the appeal of the novel lies in its characters: Ricciardi himself, and this time also his colleague Raffaele Maione, still awash in grief and anger about the murder of his son. Ricciardi is a unique variation on the familiar figure of the gloomy detective. As I said in my post about the first in the series, I Will Have Vengeance, “the strange and somewhat risky gimmick of the series is that he sees dead people — or, rather, dying people.” It is indeed a risky premise, but it works, because we feel on every page the burden of sorrow that his grim visions place on Ricciardi. In this novel, as he moves through the crowds of people bound on holiday errands and outings, he reflects,

My crowd is made up of the living and the dead, indifference and sorrow, cries and silences. I’m the sole citizen of a city made up of people who are dead but think they are alive, or of people who breathe but think that they are dead.

The other strength of the series is its atmosphere, both local and historical. In this particular instance, politics are pervasive but also peripheral: the victims are well-placed parts of the Fascist regime, but while that enables the abuses of power that create possible motives for their killing, our detectives are not drawn into any confrontation with Mussolini’s minions and the crime itself turns out to be deeply personal. What dominates is Naples: the city’s sights and sounds and traditions, particularly of elaborate carved nativity scenes. There are pages, too, devoted to the enticing food and drink of a Neapolitan Christmas:

The shop windows of the confectioners and pastry shops were especially spectacular, and at the center, enjoying pride of place, was a Christ Child made of spun sugar. Surrounding him was an overabundance of cookies and cakes, small hillsides of struffoli, balls of fried dough dripping with honey and colorful candy pellets, cassata, along with the traditional pastries and confectionaries that no Christmas in Naples could do without, from the brightly colored almond pastries arranged on specially cut biscuits to the hard almond-dough taralli also known as roccoco; from the rhomboid-shaped Neapolitan Christmas cookies known as mustacciuoli covered with a chocolate glaze to the spicy, aromatic quaresimali …

Not all the treats are quite so appetizing: there’s also a detailed description of the evasive maneuvers and ultimate bloody death of a saltwater eel, and in the end, that grisly spectacle sums up the mood of the novel as a whole better than the cheerful cookies. By My Hand is a pretty depressing book: its glimmers of light are low and muted, like wintry sunshine, and give us just the faintest hope that for those in the novel who are suffering, things will get a bit better someday. I’ll certainly read the other Commissario Ricciardi novels waiting on my shelf eventually, but I’m glad I’ve got Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer lined up to read next: it looks a lot more cheerful.