This Week In My Classes: Finishing Touches

Today was the last day for my fall term classes, which means the last meeting altogether for two of them. One of them, Introduction to Literature, continues in January, when I will also be adding another round of The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy–a very different round, just by the way, from the last one, since not one of the books will be the same and a couple of them are ones I’ve never, or very rarely, assigned before. But I can’t think about that now! That’s next term … and tempting as it is to wander away from the remaining obligations of this term, they do still have to take precedence.

In Intro it was our third editing workshop of the term: we’ve been doing one before each due date. The last two were peer editing, but today they did reverse outlines, using a worksheet I adapted (with acknowledgment) from this useful one prepared for the Writing Center at U of T Scarborough. The only real change I made, besides some tweaks to the explanations to fit our particular assignment, was to add a space between the block for each paragraph for them to put in a transition word or phrase indicating the logical relationship between the paragraphs. I think peer editing has its uses, but it often seems like the blind leading the blind, and I’ve seen papers turned in with crazy problems that peer editors apparently were fine with–so I wanted to focus on their ability to scrutinize their own writing and judge its strengths and weaknesses for themselves. I think it was an effective exercise for turning up problems: certainly they did not simply fill in the blanks and try to leave early! These essays are due in their final versions on Wednesday, so that will be my next big job this week.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction I gave a review lecture, a useful thing, I think, for reminding them about the specific material but also, and more important, for going once more through some of the framing ideas and unifying themes of the course. It was also our last chance to talk about Devil in a Blue Dress. I think it works reasonably well to incorporate comments on the novel into the review session, but I do feel we ended up giving it short shrift, so maybe next time around I’ll be sure to allow one more class on it. After my talk we used the review handout I’d prepared for some Q&A, so students could ask about the material they felt least certain about and get help from their classmates as well as from me. And that’s that, until we meet again for the final exam next week. A handful of students are doing the optional final essay instead, due the same day as the exam, so that’s a lot of what I’ll be doing next week.

In The Somerville Seminar, we had our last round of Pecha Kucha presentations today. Five in one class is too many–not because we ran out of time for the presentations, but because it didn’t leave us much time for discussion after each session. I had originally planned for four a day but we all felt the end of term crowding in on us so I proposed starting them a bit later and tightening up the schedule. Overall it was still probably the best choice, but next time I do them I will allow more space around the presentations. I do think I’d like to use them again as an assignment, though. They were really well done, and though the format does impose constraints that can seem artificial, the dynamic is very different than with standard PPT slides or with other kinds of student presentations. The brisk pace keeps everyone’s attention, and the emphasis on graphics to illustrate concepts or support ideas, rather than using slides as alternative versions of the same things being said aloud, made the experience much more entertaining. The strict time limit moderated by the impersonal settings on the computer also frees me from having to be the Presentation Police. It’s very stressful to see someone running over time and crowding out whoever comes next, and to have to choose between letting them go on and publicly calling attention to the problem by stopping them. The most anyone ran over this time was about 10 seconds. So at this point I’m a fan of this new style, and as for substance, well, it’s amazing how much information and insight you can fit into 6 minutes and 40 seconds if you really think about it.

I felt quite distressed last week as I felt the wiki projects for the seminar were not coming together–despite (she says defensively) my having warned them and warned them about not putting off collaborative work until the last minute, and my having stressed as much as I possibly could that this kind of project is best done in small increments rather than large doses, including regular ‘gardening.’ As I watched the daily reports come in from PB Works, I knew that many (though certainly not all) of the students had nonetheless been putting off their contributions. Facing that reality, and taking into account that the projects for the course were not familiar kinds–for them or for me–and that thus perhaps we had all underestimated how much time it would take to do them well, I took a very rare step for me and acted on the regulation that allows a change to course requirements with a strong vote in favor by the class. I put up a proposal for an alternative plan removing one of the course requirements, and it did get basically unanimous support. There were a few complications, and for a while I regretted having even raised it as a possibility, but we got it all sorted out, so now my only regret is having waited as long as I did to propose it. As I said to the class, I really do believe it was possible to complete all the originally planned components, but this way I hope that everyone will do better work and feel better about it too. There will be more weight, now, on the wiki projects–and reading and evaluating the final product will be my other significant work after the deadline passes next week.

So now I have a very short window between wrapping up the classroom work and getting in my first batch of assignments. I have reference letters to do and department minutes to write up, and a plagiarism hearing, and a dentist appointment! Not all fun and games, in other words. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll get in a little Christmas shopping too. Then I’ll be in what we on Twitter fondly (?) call #gradingjail. In the meantime, also, I have finally begun Anna Karenina, because I’ve been craving some really good reading.

Catching Up

When I said I was posting my review of Crewe Train a bit early because I had another big deadline coming up, in a way I misspoke. It wasn’t exactly my own deadline, although I was involved in it: a Ph.D. student I have been supervising defended her thesis on Friday, so my part of the event (reviewing the thesis and preparing questions for the exam), though time-consuming, was not nearly as important as hers! I’m happy to report that the defense was very successful and, aside from some odds and ends of paperwork and the submission of the very final copy, she and I are both done. I am very pleased for her: she should be proud of her hard work and its results. However ambivalent I may be about recommending graduate school as an option, there’s no question that the graduate students I have worked with over the years are some of the best and smartest people I know, and once they have made the commitment to do these degrees, I do my level best to be helpful and supportive.

In some ways, though, I have to admit that in recent years graduate supervision has been harder for me to do. The advice I have to give students based on what I know to be the standards and conventions within the discipline and profession is often not congruent with my own doubts about those standards and conventions, and my aversion to reading some kinds of academic criticism has only worsened as I spend less time doing it myself, making it tricky to coach students to write it! For these reasons, among others, I have been cautiously scaling back my role in our graduate program. As of yesterday, though, that contribution includes supervision of four completed Ph.D. theses and 16 completed M.A. theses. We had a celebratory dinner at Estia for the candidate and all six members of the examining committee. A small point, or maybe it isn’t so small: we couldn’t help but notice that from the external examiner on down, we were all women.

Preparing for Friday’s defense took up a lot of my time and energy last week, but there was routine class business to get done as well. I managed to return a set of papers in my first-year class, which was really worth the extra push so that they weren’t hanging over me this weekend. My conscience needs a break! In Mystery & Detective Fiction we were working through Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. I know he doesn’t consider it his best, and in many ways it is also atypical, but it teaches awfully well because it is so deliberately literary–not to mention terse. Still, I’ve been wondering if next year I might take a chance on one of the longer ones and cut something else from the reading list. It’s such a challenge in that class finding the right balance between providing variety and overwhelming the students with too many different books. My own view has usually been that most of the books we read aren’t really complex enough to require a lot of classroom hours, so just taking longer on them would be counterproductive: we’d go more slowly, yes, but also feel that less was happening, that we were discovering less. The books are not particularly long or difficult reads, either, and I figure they can sub in easily enough for whatever leisure reading students might otherwise be doing! It’s hardly punishment to “have” to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Indemnity Only, right? But students do often remark that there are a lot of books to keep track of. I might cut An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (even thought it’s a personal favorite) and put in Fleshmarket Close or The Naming of the Dead. Actually, since these are both in the 400-page range, I’d probably have to cut something else too. Well, something to think about. In the meantime, they write a mid-term on Monday which will be my next marking chore.

In the Somerville Novelists seminar, we have moved into the collaborative projects phase, and I’ll admit, I’m a bit worried. I had a sinking feeling last week that though we had been doing very well with our discussions of the individual novels–better and better, in fact, as the weeks went on–I had not done a good enough job keeping the larger frameworks of the course in view, or preparing the students to feel confident with the meta-level questions I’ve been hoping we’d address. I did some intervention once I realized that they were still thinking mostly in terms of local or close reading issues, and as I see the draft material starting to appear for their wiki projects, I think it worked. I also felt that they were tense and uncomfortable approaching their independent and collaborative projects despite the careful and detailed instructions and rubrics I’d given them. My intention was to make sure they had enough information about basic structures and expectations to think creatively and even have some fun working within them. What I’ve been feeling is that they still find them unpleasantly open-ended. I decided that I had to stop responding to this discomfort with yet more specifics. I tried to demystify the Pecha Kucha assignment by preparing one of my own–it worked better than intended, because if anything, I think they were underwhelmed by my efforts!* And now I want to keep out of their way a bit. We have one more group session, to discuss some secondary materials most of which we read before, as we were starting up the course: I’m really hoping that now they will feel ready to engage critically with this criticism, bringing their own sense of the material and its (and their) priorities to what these scholars have said and done about it. And then we don’t convene again until the first of their presentations: I’ll be available for consultations, and I hope they’ll take advantage of that, but otherwise it’s over to them.

In book news, I did manage to putter through Sue Grafton’s latest, ‘V’ is for Vengeance. I didn’t have much to say about it, but what I did say is here. I’ve been reading with interest the other posts on Crewe Train and resolving to make The Towers of Trebizond my next Rose Macaulay read, and I’ve started Wide Sargasso Sea for my local book group, which meets next Saturday. I have been feeling frustrated that nothing I’ve read recently has been really transporting, and when I’m done with Rhys I think I might either buckle down and get a lot more of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon read or start on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which has been beckoning to me from my TBR shelf–along with Anna Karenina, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and Colm Toibin’s The Master. All of these look very tempting…but I worry that the last weeks of term are exactly the wrong time to commit to a book that really deserves my full attention.

*Speaking of those efforts, here are the slides. You’ll have to imagine the commentary that went with them! For this assignment we’re allowed two exceptions to the “1/1/5” rule, to demonstrate literary style.

Honourable Estate