Teaching Art: “Let me describe it to you”

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that we’ve been watching one of The Learning Company’s ‘Great Courses,’ The History of European Art. In the comments thread, I noted that the lecturer’s favorite move is to “describe” an artwork to us. At first glance (so to speak!) that seems an odd strategy: we’re looking right at the art, after all. There are many things we can’t do (interrupt him with questions chief among them) but we can see what’s right in front of our own eyes.

holmes

Or can we? That, of course, is the trick, the gimmick, the magic, even, of the process. We see it, but, as Sherlock Holmes so often says to poor Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.” The untrained eye does not really know what it’s looking at. Professor Kloss may begin by stating what seems self-evident (“there’s a woman in the center of the painting,” “the man on the left side is wearing a wonderful blue robe”) but this is only a preliminary stock-taking, prior to pointing out what requires more expertise to really see: who the woman is, perhaps, and how this version of her differs from other ones; how the blue robe makes other blue bits stand out and maybe form a design across the canvas; why that particular shade of blue is rare in frescoes; how the artist’s brush strokes create a light effect on the woman’s body; what the striking whiteness of her skin suggests about not just the design but the larger meaning of the painting. Even the stock-taking is sometimes a good prompt: perhaps I wasn’t looking at the man on the left at first, because my eye was more immediately drawn to something else.

It’s not a perfect process, especially pedagogically. Not only does Professor Kloss often not describe something we’re curious about, but he never invites us to look first and see what we notice. Realizing this is salutary, as I’ve been thinking that his method is close to one kind of thing I do all the time in my classes: focus on a scene or a passage and try to bring out what’s interesting about it. There too we typically start with a description: “what’s going on here?” Then we move to the more open-ended process of noticing: “what’s interesting about it?” Early in a course, I am likely to do sample analyses, to model what we’re trying to do. Throughout, I also provide relevant contexts, including historical, biographical, literary, or theoretical. But as we go along, the burden of noticing shifts more and more to my students: knowing what they’re looking at — being able to “describe” it with expertise — could be considered our ultimate “course objective.” When I lecture, but also when we discuss and analyze and debate in class, what we’re doing is accumulating the knowledge and skills to make their descriptions more than just statements of the obvious — in my classes, which are fiction-intensive, the crucial distinction is to make them more than just plot summary.

Watching Professor Kloss describe sculptures, lithographs, wood cuts, paintings, frescoes and everything else makes me very aware of how little I have in my own head that helps me with his task: he knows all kinds of things that I don’t, and as a result he sees all kinds of things that I wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d swear he sees things that aren’t there — and now I wonder how often my own students feel the same way. I’m also very aware of how passive it makes me knowing he’s going to do all of his own noticing, and how little room the video lecture format leaves for me to have any ideas of my own. Well, I could have speculative ideas: heck, I can pause the video and say anything I want! But what I really want is to test my tentative observations against his expertise. I feel confident in my own taste (many times I have thought, as he rhapsodized about whatever’s on his current slide, “I hate that!” or “That’s beautiful!”), but I know that visceral reaction is irrelevant to the important process of really seeing and understanding what I’m seeing. That lack of interaction with an informed point of view is the biggest obstacle to my becoming anything of an expert myself.

Édouard_Manet_-_Le_Déjeuner_sur_l'herbe

Of course, I’m never going to become an expert art historian, but my job is all about developing expertise in my students. Stocking their heads full of information is one thing, but it’s not the only thing, and it’s not the most important thing. In some ways, it’s also something they can do on their own, if they’re motivated, though as I’ve written about before, it’s easy to overestimate the ease and efficiency of finding good information, much less knowing how to make it useful. Watching Professor Kloss describe great works of art is very interesting, but it’s also very passive. It reinforces for me the pedagogical necessity of going back and forth. Sure, let me describe it to you — but now, tell me what you see. Then we’ll talk about it.

One question I would definitely ask Professor Kloss, if only I could: we’ve reached Monet and so far pretty much the only women in the series have been Madonnas, Magdalenes, saints, or nudes. In the history of European art to 1860, there’s not one woman artist worth including?

This Week In My Classes: Sitting Around Admiring Significant Texts

This week in my classes, which are traditional English classes rather than warm and fuzzy creative writing classes, I am burdening students with historical background, wrapping ideas in grad-school jargon, and generally obscuring the pleasures of reading and the power of literature. No, really!

NYT illustration by Pete Gamlen
NYT illustration by Pete Gamlen

OK, not really, but if you believe this recent encomium on the virtues of creative writing classes in the New York Times, that’s what I’m usually up to. Bad English professor! Bad! Don’t I understand that “students don’t like to be told to sit around and admire something simply because it is theoretically or historically significant”?

The really frustrating thing for me about pieces like this is that I agree that love is an important part of reading – and that it can and should be an important starting point for discussion. (At least, it should be a starting point some of the time. I wonder what Professor Bakopoulos recommends his students do about works they don’t love. Should they stay away from them? Or just not talk about them or learn from them? What if they don’t have a “favorite line” — how does the discussion proceed then? What if the seduction fails? What if that “instinct” you’re urging them to trust is actually a prejudice or presupposition?) What I don’t agree with is that love is always and only a visceral reaction, a thing of the heart, and not of the head. There’s a not-so-subtle anti-intellectualism in proclaiming that pleasure is “something they may have experienced with Harry Potter but lost when they wrote a five-paragraph essay about Hawthorne.” Analysis can be dry and distancing, sure, but it can also be thrilling: fiction, after all, can make us think as well as feel, and novels are built by writers who thought deeply and worked hard, and not always with the primary goal of making us shiver. Appreciating their craft, understanding their historical context, and asking theoretical questions about their work are also ways to see how it “ripples with energy.”

The thing is, I don’t think Professor Bakopoulos wants his students to rest content with subjective first impressions any more than I do. That’s why he keeps using phrases like “to begin with” or “at first.” He understands that love is not all you need to be a really good reader (much less a really good writer). Indeed, not only is it not a sufficient condition for that, but it is not even a necessary one. For he also, I hope, (though you can’t tell this from his essay) does not want his students staying safe within a bubble of fiction they find immediately lovable–or even lovable at all. Surely he wants them to test and expand and redefine and go beyond what they already know they love. He doesn’t really want the bar for pleasure set by Harry Potter, or reading responses to be effusions rather than five-paragraph essays.

I’m also morally certain that he would not know nearly as much as he presumably does about the fiction he reads with his students without the training he has had in “traditional” English classes. When he talks about putting “further pressure” on favorite lines, he’s talking about prodding his students to notice aspects of form and meaning for which he provides, I’m sure, explanations, vocabulary, context — maybe even a little theory!

Why, then, does he set up such an artificial opposition — why set up as a straw figure the tiresome stereotype of the buzz-killing English professor? Who on earth in any kind of classroom tells their students to “sit around and admire something” f0r any reason, anyway? Well, it’s a big world, and there are tens of thousands of English professors in it, so I guess I can’t rule this out as a complete impossibility. But as for the rest of us, just because we may aim a little higher than the viscera (anatomically speaking only, of course – no other judgment intended!) does not mean that we are doing it wrong: we head into the classroom every day fired up to bring our students into the critical conversation, keen to equip them as best we can to be part of it in all of its complexity. It can be a difficult process — an intimidating one, even. If the comments on my teaching evaluations are to be believed, however,  a lot of students actually love doing exactly that.

This week, we’re reading Carol Shields’s Unless and Hardy’s Tess, by the way. I haven’t so far asked anyone to identify a favorite line. I have asked a lot of other questions, though.

As a final note, I’ll add that I started posting about ‘this week in my classes’ in response to negative stereotypes of what English professors do. It’s most depressing when they come from other English professors. (You can read the whole archive if you want – maybe you’ll catch me out ruining everyone’s fun.)

This Week in My Classes: Anger and Passivity

Donkey Ears

Andrea Kaston Tange’s post on ‘the chastising professor‘ at Curiouser and Curiouser was timely: on the very day it went up, I had started my intro class with a brief rant pep talk about last week’s disappointing attendance and lackluster participation. It was a subdued occasion: no hissy fits, I promise! My intervention was very much along the lines of Andrea’s “Sincere and Concerned Speech on Investment in Your Own Education,” with a dose of “We’re Talking About Things That Really Matter.” We were reading Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, for crying out loud! This is not material to be encountered passively.

I share Andrea’s concern about whether these speeches are in fact motivating. In the moment, they are guaranteed to be downers: nobody who’s been publicly criticized is going to feel a lot like cooperating with the person who just chastised them. I thought hard over the weekend about whether to bring this negative energy into the room, but in the end I decided that it was important for me to make a public statement about expectations, and about what real success and productivity look like in a discussion-based class. It’s not like you get a lot of positive energy going anyway when people are arriving unprepared, or at any rate not prepared enough to contribute to discussion, or are putting their heads down on their arms to nap during discussion, or not showing up at all. We have been going along pretty well all year and the recent slump has been conspicuous – not for all of the students, of course, but for enough to make a significant difference in the overall class experience. I don’t know if it’s feminism causing them to disengage, or midterm exams in other classes, or what — but it seemed wrong just to press on as if nothing’s the matter, as if it’s quite OK to treat our class as a time and place when they can just show up and that will be good enough.

Things seemed a bit better yesterday. We’re working our way through A Room of One’s Own, which is not an easy text to make sense of, but I had given them a couple of specific things to think about beforehand (as I almost always do), and I also let them warm up in small groups first before we came together to talk as a class. We focused on the two college meals Woolf describes in such detail in the first chapter, working out the connections she makes, both implicitly and explicitly, between eating and writing. Then we went with her to the British Museum and considered her attempt to find “facts” — and the resulting analysis of the angry Professor she discerns behind the studies she reads. We’re reading Chapter 4 for tomorrow and I’ve asked them to focus on her comments about Austen and Brontë, especially about her idea that in great writing we are unaware of the writer’s state of mind. Since a lot of them don’t know Austen and Brontë well or at all, I suggested they think back over our course readings for examples of writers whose state of mind is or is not conspicuous in their work, and whether they agree that when we become aware of it, it deforms the writing the way she thinks Brontë’s anger deforms Jane Eyre. Martin Luther King is one of the first of our other authors that occurs to me: I’ll be interested to hear what they came up with. A follow-up question, of course, will be whether they think Woolf’s own quite discernible anger (beautifully controlled though it is) in any way diminishes the artistry of A Room of One’s Own.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we’ve moved on to Lady Audley’s Secret. I was a bit petulant yesterday when my questions for discussion elicited very little response. Maybe I need to give them the “Sincere and Concerned” speech too! But actually, in that class I think I probably just need to back off a bit more than I have been doing. When I have a lot to say, student passivity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I think I’ve just been too quick in the last couple of weeks to fill in when their answers weren’t forthcoming. Lady Audley’s Secret certainly gives us plenty to talk about. So for now, I’ll do my best to stay upbeat, and hope that their apparent inertness is just fallout from the hour we lost with the time change.

This Week In My Classes: Information and Education

cranfordWe’re starting new books in both of my classes this week (well, weather permitting, we are, anyway!): The Road in Introduction to Literature and Cranford in 19th-Century Fiction. What makes this a particularly exciting but also daunting prospect for me is that they aren’t just the next books on our syllabus but they are also both novels that I have not taught before, in any course. So: no lecture notes, worksheets, handouts, discussion questions, slides, or other materials lurk in my archive of teaching materials. Also, I have no experience of, and therefore no expectations for, what ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ about these books for students: what will be the sticking points? what will get them fired up? what will I discover, as we go along, that I need to know more about?

I’m not just going to show up, book in hand, of course. I’ve read them both before, and reread them both last week (and will reread them again in the assigned installments as we go along in class). For The Road, I’ve been collecting background information from books and scholarly articles as well as from online resources such as the website of the Cormac McCarthy Society or Oprah’s Book Club guide to The Road (which, just by the way, has some pretty good stuff, including these bits on ‘Fiction and Science’ in the novel and clips from McCarthy’s apparently very rare interview with Oprah). I’ve got some of my own materials on Gaskell, but they focus on Mary Barton and North and South, both of which I’ve taught fairly often, so though I don’t need to look up much general background, I’ve been surveying academic sources specific to Cranford (which are not nearly as abundant as for her social-problem fiction — something we’ll talk about in class, actually) and, again, peering around online for things to help get me thinking. One stimulating source is one of my long-time favorite bloggers, Amateur Reader, whose posts on Cranford at Wuthering Expectations are models of insightful brevity: here, for instance, on ‘Cranford and the Strong Female Character‘, or here on the trickier-than-she-seems narrator, Mary Smith.

This process of class preparation has had me thinking (not for the first time!) of the odd way our work as professors is often characterized. Recently, to give just one example, Melonie Fullick tweeted a link to an article proclaiming that recent developments in online education signal “the coming end of the monopoly of information held by professors in classrooms.” If it were true that professors believed they held some kind of monopoly on information, and that suddenly there was an unprecedented challenge to that monopoly because of the internet, a lot of the end-of-the-university-as-we-know-it rhetoric would ring true — but there have always been abundant sources of information outside of classrooms, and outside of universities altogether. It’s true that some of what I’ll be doing is passing along to my students information that they could get for themselves somewhere else — if they knew where to look, and, more important, if they knew what to choose from the flood of information out there. One of the things I’m doing is filtering information for them: for our purposes, here are the kinds of things we need to know, or know enough about that we can follow up in other venues. Another thing I’m doing is framing that information: what are our purposes, after all? what do we want to be able to do with these texts? And I’m synthesizing and shaping it for them, and looking for new directions it could send us in — and here’s where it gets more idiosyncratic, because the ways I will do this are not exactly the same as someone else would do it, because I am who I am — and because they are who they are, and so I’ll be responding to them as we go along. Information transfer is part of my job, but it’s silly and reductive to imagine that it’s a straightforward part of my job, or that students new to this material, and beginners in this discipline, could effectively (never mind efficiently) conduct the process of finding, sorting, and making meaning from available information without any guidance. Also, that transfer of information is only the beginning of what we will do together, because ultimately my goal is not for them to memorize facts about Elizabeth Gaskell or Cormac McCarthy but for them to become better readers and critics, which means they have to engage independently with the texts, framing their own questions and trying out their own answers. They can get a lot of information from Wikipedia (I get some of mine there, too), and if that was all our classroom time was about, then sure, that’s the beginning of the end. But that’s not education: not really. I strongly agree with Melonie’s characterization of education in her post “Can education be sold?“:

My friend Dr. Alex Sevigny has an analogy that I think works much better: education is like a fitness program. Yes, you can pay for access to a gym with top-of-the-line facilities. You can pay for a trainer to take you through the best possible individualized regimen. You can buy the shoes and expensive gym clothes. But ultimately if you don’t get yourself to the gym, multiple days a week, and push yourself to get fit–there’s no benefit in any of it.

Education works in much the same way: it is a process, one in which the student plays a necessary part, and an experience, in which the student plays a major role in the “outcome”. In fact every student actually receives a different “education”, with different outcomes, even if they’re all paying the same amount. What you pay for with tuition money is not “education”, but access to resources–libraries, expert staff, teaching and mentorship, even social contact–and access to a formal credential. Even the credential isn’t guaranteed, since students must complete academic requirements in addition to paying tuition and fees.

Another common way to dismiss what happens in ‘traditional’ classrooms is to scoff at the ‘sage on the stage’ model. I don’t agree that there’s never a good time, or a good way, to lecture. In addition to offering information, lecturing can model ways to argue, or, in my field, ways to build and support an interpretation. Even when transferring information, as I’ve said, there’s a process of filtering and framing that makes a thoughtful lecture something more than a list of facts or claims. Passivity in the face of information, though, is never the point, the process, or the purpose. It’s the interaction between a thinking person and information that really matters, and that we aim to promote, ultimately, in our students. Professors don’t have a monopoly on that process either, but it’s what we train for, it’s what we stand for, and it looks like it’s also what we’re going to have to fight for, as the pressure mounts for ways to automate, commodify, and depersonalize our classrooms. It’s frustrating to see how often the arguments for a revolution in higher education turn on reductive stereotypes of the work we actually do.

This Week In My Classes: Wrapping Up

The last ten days or so have been all about evaluating the final assignments for my two fall-term classes, Mystery and Detective Fiction and The Somerville Novelists. The students in my Intro to Literature class wrote a last essay for the term too, but that came in earlier and so I was able to turn it around before the final exams and essays and projects came in from the other groups. That means, though, that basically, for about two weeks, I’ve been in what we refer to on Twitter with the hashtag “#gradingjail.”

I went to a teaching workshop a few years ago where the very helpful advice offered was not to assign any writing you won’t want to read when students turn it in. That’s a good idea, but it’s also a ridiculous idea, as any writing instructor knows: there is no assignment so meticulously conceived, there are no instructions so compellingly worded, that every student will be motivated to, much less able to, do a wonderful job. And it’s not the well-intentioned imperfections in assignments by motivated students that drag us down at this time of year: it’s the lame-ass ‘I’m only doing this because you’re making me’ ones, or the ‘everything else was a higher priority so I threw this together at the last minute’ ones, or the ‘I really have no idea how to do this but even though I never came class or to your office hours, I’m still turning something in to see if I can pass’ ones. It’s the ones in which even the authors’ names are misspelled, despite being right there on the book cover for easy reference, or the advice on three previous assignments was ignored, or that show beyond a reasonable doubt that the student never finished the book they are writing about. Though it would be fun (and fast!) to grade a batch of final essays or exams all of which deserved A+ grades, we don’t expect perfect work: these are students, after all, and they’re learning — that’s the point of their being in our classrooms in the first place. But learning really is a two-way street. Exciting as a truly great assignment by an already flourishing student can be, often it’s the students who have, by effort and persistence and caring, and also by consultation, just made their work better who give me the best feeling when I’m marking.

mosley

Happily, I did see some examples of that this term, and overall my sense of all three classes was that most students were doing their level best. One of the biggest surprises of my recent marking was that a significant majority of the answers to the essay question on the Mystery and Detective Fiction exam (on social justice in Devil in a Blue Dress and Indemnity Only, in case you wondered) were very good: smart, articulate, and supported with detailed discussion of examples. It was hard work going through the entire stack of exams, and it took a long time (between students who did the optional final paper and students who mysteriously vanished from the course over time, there were 74 exams in the end, which certainly felt like plenty) but it was a familiar experience, and I think it gave me a good sense of who was really on top of the course material and who really wasn’t, which after all is the point of the exercise.

south riding

Evaluating the wiki projects for the Somerville Seminar, on the other hand, was a new kind of effort. As my Twitter friends know, I felt a lot of stress about these projects while they were still in progress, mostly because despite my urging, not a lot of students put even draft material up early, thus making ‘gardening’ as well as some aspects of collaborating and conceptualizing difficult. But it was also stressful because of the difficulties I knew some groups were having organizing meetings and getting everyone to participate. As I said, rather defensively, to people who responded to my stress by wondering why I assigned group projects in the first place, I have included a group project of some kind in nearly every 4th-year seminar I’ve taught in my 17 years at Dalhousie, and they have always seemed to go very well! So what was different this time? A couple of things, I think. First of all, this time I had a backstage pass: the projects were going up on a shared PBWorks site, so not only could I see posted content, but I got daily reports of which users had been doing what – including, sometimes, discussions among group members about logistics and frustrations. If I had seen only the finished product, as in the past (not counting the mandatory ‘confer with me at least once about your plans’ sessions that are always part of the process), I might never have known it wasn’t a seamless, harmonious process.

Would it have been better for me to hide my eyes? More important, would it have been better for them? In both cases, I think the answer is no. Because the assignment was experimental, for one thing, I needed to know if clarification or intervention was required, which sometimes it was. Also, because one aspect of the assignment was precisely ‘good collaboration among group members,’ I needed to see if this was going on. Without watching the sausage get made, too, there would be no way for me to learn if I had done my part well, in terms of designing the assignment, laying out the instructions, and supporting the class in meeting the requirements. From their point of view, I think my surveillance, though no doubt occasionally felt as intrusive, was mostly a good thing: I did step in with suggestions when I felt they were heading in unhelpful directions, and when I realized how imbalanced the (visible) contributions were getting, I did some covert, as well as some overt, er, motivating.

All in all, then, I think it was not just useful but responsible of me to pay attention to how things were unfolding. Looking over the final projects, which range from good to outstanding, I’m not sorry, either, to have put everyone (myself included) through this difficult process. But I have certainly been thinking about whether I could have made it any less stressful, and this leads me to another way in which these projects differed from previous group assignments: instead of being staggered across the term, they all came due at once; and though there were multiple components, there was really only one explicit deadline. I thought that it would suffice to address the various components through in-class workshops aimed at developing concepts and getting people started, but clearly, though that was not wasted time, people didn’t (mostly) get started. Probably 75% of the final content on the wikis went up in the 2-3 days before the final deadline, and as far as I could tell, a pretty significant amount of the research was done during those days as well. I talked and talked about the importance of doing the projects in stages, and especially about putting content up early so that others could ‘garden’ it, but I think this advice was just too abstract, the required work too amorphous or theoretical. Also, I think most of them wildly underestimated how much work would actually be involved in building the different components (something earlier attempts would, of course, have alerted them to). As a result, these projects lost out in the day-to-day triage, as they did other work that felt more urgent because it had concrete deadlines coming right up. Lesson learned: when (indeed, if) I do anything similar again, I’ll build in more staged deadlines. To me that goes against the atmosphere of open creativity I was trying to foster: setting deadlines means spelling out exactly what has to be done by then, and that’s tricky if you want them to make decisions about what needs to be done in the first place. That’s why I didn’t have more interim deadlines this time–that, and because I thought they would be better at managing their own time. Some of them were, amazingly so, but that didn’t help them too much when they were dependent on others to do their parts. I’m of two minds, really, about how much responsibility to take for some students’ work habits, which is really what we’re talking about here. But ultimately what I want (what I wanted) is to see everyone involved and successful and excited: it made me sad to see, instead, people feeling frustrated, stymied, and harried. If there’s a next time, I’ll see what I can do to structure their time better for them.

Evaluating these projects was challenging for me. There was a lot of content (eventually!) and there were a lot of different aspects to take into account, from layout to research to clarity and focus to effective linking between sections: it made reading a traditional essay seem like a reductively linear process! But in many ways it was a much more interesting task than reading a stack of critical analyses. One reason is that a lot of students wrote about quite obscure books, so I learned a lot myself from the work they had done. Another is that several of the components were more reportage than literary criticism, which meant that the prose was crisper and more straightforward and didn’t need to be read with a painstaking eye to argument or interpretation. One of the hardest parts of commenting on literary essays is trying to grasp what thesis would have worked to unify the examples, or even just to understand what a conceptually garbled sentence or paragraph might have been intended to mean, in order to propose a better version of it. There wasn’t much of that involved here, and that was great! Freed from the obligation to write academic-ese, they proved perfectly capable of saying very insightful things and making all kinds of good connections between texts and contexts and concepts we worked on in the course. That was very satisfying to see, and it encourages me to keep looking for different kinds of writing to assign. Hardly anybody in my classes is going to become an academic critic, after all, so teaching them to write like one seems less and less like it should be my priority. As far as that goes, in fact, everything about these assignments still, in spite of everything, seems like a good idea.

And now my final grades are filed for the two courses that ended, and I’m going to take a break from fretting about teaching for a few days before I turn my attention to the final planning for the winter term. My Introduction to Literature class continues, and I start another round of The 19th-Century British Novel From Dickens to Hardy. As usual, I’ve tweaked the reading list by a book or two, and I have ideas for yet another twist on course requirements … but first, I’m looking forward to returning to Anna Karenina.

This Week in My Classes: Amidst the Mess, Three Mysterious Morsels

The past week or so has just felt crazy with tasks and details to keep on top of. When we’re planning courses, we (or maybe it’s just me?) tend to focus on big picture issues, like which books to assign and which assignment sequences to use. Once that’s all decided, there’s filling in the syllabus, usually a happy task full of dreams of lively discussion prompted by clever juxtapositions (like this week’s cluster of ‘poems by women poets about women poets’ right before we start Aurora Leigh!) and supported or solidified by informal and formal writing. What we (or maybe just I) tend not to prepare so well in advance are things like spreadsheets for record-keeping or evaluation forms for seminars, or attendance sheets–which it is nearly pointless to get to organized about anyway, at least until the add-drop period ends and the list has some stability! I’ve reached the point in all of my classes where I needed all these things firmly in place, as assignments have been coming in, quizzes have been written, students have given seminar presentations, and so on.  Luckily I do have templates for all these kinds of things, or at least a set of best (or usual) practices, so I’m not dreaming them up from nothing, but I am drawing them up or finessing them to suit this year’s particularities. And of course this administrative stuff (plus the marking of quizzes and evaluation of assignments and so on) has to happen in addition to the other aspects of class prep, so just when you are starting to think “see, the teaching term isn’t that busy after all–I’m getting all my readings and class notes ready in plenty of time!” you are reminded why the teaching term actually is quite intense.

Then as if this year’s classes aren’t enough to be worrying about, the deadlines for course proposals and timetabling for next year have been moved way up, and in fact we were asked to submit our teaching preferences for 2012-13 by last Friday. I’m reasonably certain that this deadline has nothing to do with program planning or pedagogy (heaven forbid we should think about next year once we have some kind of idea how this year is going) and everything to do with recruiting: Dal’s big fall Open House is October 14, and it probably helps to be able to point prospective students to at least tentative course listings. This process was further complicated for us this year by bad budget news in the faculty that had repercussions for our TA allocation and thus, potentially, for our graduate student funding–which meant rejigging much of our curriculum on the fly to ward off various worst-case scenarios. Once again, program planning and pedagogy were given short shrift because of external imperatives! This is not to trivialize the budget difficulties, but it’s a real shame the timetable for figuring out how to deal with them was not different. Book orders for the winter term also came due, though luckily I had made most of my decisions about that already. Still, I’ve been stymied by discovering, to my great surprise, that a book I had counted on assigning (Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day) appears not to have a Canadian edition available at the moment. Seriously? The bookstore and I are working on this, but if we can’t find a workaround, I’m going to have to decide on something else in something of a hurry.

Add in the three tenure and promotion cases I’m involved in, the three Ph.D. students I’m supervising who persist (darn them!) in being industrious and thus giving me work to do, the two Honours students I’m now mentoring in preparation for our year-end Honours “conference,” the reference letters I’m already assembling documents for (and then writing, collating, addressing, and mailing), and the two other committees I’m on that persist in holding meetings or circulating materials for us to read (darn them too!)–and whew! My head has been buzzing, and my stress levels nasty, by the end of most days. The student union president who blithely commented in a recent Maclean’s story that “Professors have a pretty good gig . . . You put in some office hours, you teach for a few hours and then you end up with a decent paycheque” should maybe job-shadow a professor or two before concluding that it’s only reasonable for us to return all student emails within 12 hours. (Yes, that’s right: we were born knowing even the most recent developments in our field–amazing, eh?–and basically just sit around until it’s time to go pontificate. Assignments appear from nowhere, and magically reappear with comments and grades! Hmm: I just might contribute a little to that Facebook group mentioned in the article…)

Happily, at the center of all this you still do have those “few” hours in the classroom, and even more happily, it is often a treat getting ready for them because you are working on something you find genuinely interesting and exercising not just your expertise but your creativity in figuring out how to get your students equally involved in it. I’ve been teaching a lot of quite familiar material so far this term, but as always I’ve tweaked my syllabi here and there for variety and to keep me alert. One regular source for new material is whatever reader I’ve chosen for Mystery and Detective Fiction: it’s easier to change up smaller readings, and I’m often dissatisfied with an anthology for one reason or another so I have used quite a few over the years. This year, after much (much!) exploring, I settled on the inexpensive and perfectly suitable Dover collection Classic Crime Stories, and this week, much welcome relief from the other dull or worrisome things I’m taking care of comes from the three short stories we’re reading about “Great Detectives”: Jacques Futrelle’s “The Problem of Cell 13,” G. K. Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross,” and R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” All of them are models of ingenuity in both the construction and the telling of the plot. All of them feature detectives who reason their way to solutions beyond the reach of us ordinary people, but each detective has a unique character and very particular gifts–and one of them, Father Brown, of course also has enormous endearing charm. Futrelle’s Thinking Machine is the least appealing of them, I think: his sheer arrogance is interestingly offset by the way his promise to think his way out of his solitary cell turns out to be, let’s say, misleading (of the three, he’s the one whose solution to his problem is ultimately most un-astonishing–though certainly surprising until explained–and relies the most on quite ordinary kinds of help from other people). The fellow-convict who believes his guilty conscience is driving him to confess provides another example of the Holmes-like trope of the seemingly unnatural element that has a perfectly natural explanation. Father Brown brings a new dimension to the uncomfortable proximity between the criminal and the crime-solver that we have been discussing from the beginning of the course: unlike many famous detectives, he manages to retain his innocence despite his deep understanding of guilt.  “The Case of Oscar Brodski” is the most formally interesting, with its first part (“The Mechanism of Crime”) telling us the crime going forwards, and its second part (“The Mechanism of Detection”) taking us backwards as each bit of evidence is traced to its source and the events are reconstructed. It is also the one with the most violent crime, and thus the one that most emphasizes another uncomfortable aspect of this kind of detective fiction, namely, the lack of human feeling so often displayed as the intellectual problem is given priority. Nobody is particularly upset by the decapitated corpse of poor Brodski! We’ll be spending a lot more time on this problem (if it is one) when we discuss The Murder of Roger Ackroyd starting Friday. Today, I have planned an in-class exercise designed to prompt the students to generate their own commentary on the stories: I asked them to read with an eye to “teachable” moments, explaining (as per my previous post) that they are supposed to be reading actively enough to get what’s interesting and relevant on their own. I’m going to put them in pairs and then larger groups and circulate transparencies for them to write up ‘lecture notes’ on, and then put them up on the overhead projector and see what they’ve come up with.

 

This Month in My Sabbatical: It’s Over!

Six months ago, I posted the first in a series of updates on my progress (if that’s what it was) through my winter-term sabbatical. As of July 1, I’m back on regular duties. Though in some ways, unless you’re doing summer teaching (which I am not, this year), July and August have a lot in common with sabbaticals, the several hours I have already spent preparing for, attending, and following up on committee meetings are clear signs that times have changed.

Looking back at my original goals and plans for this “teaching-free” interval is sort of disorienting. As the subsequent posts in the series show, my actual accomplishments differ  somewhat from those on the list I made in January! I would not say, exactly, or only, that I did not get them done, but that the plans mutated or evolved. For instance, my top priority then was to finish my essay on Ahdaf Soueif and submit it to an academic journal. I did finish an essay on Ahdaf Soueif, but it was this one at Open Letters; I have yet to decide if I want to do more with the academic one.

My next stated priority was a series of essays on Virago Modern Classics, specifically Margaret Kennedy’s novels. I did read both The Constant Nymph and The Ladies of Lyndon, but Kennedy disappointed (or puzzled and stymied) me. Spurred on in part by what I read on other blogs during Virago Reading Week, I did look into other writers of this period: a great highlight was reading Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship. I still aim to read more of the Viragos I have gathered, starting soon (I hope) with Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Street. I also read a biography of Dorothy Sayers, and this plus what I’ve read by and about Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain and my general interest in the period has made me quite thoughtful about proposing an honours seminar on the Somerville novelists for 2012-13. I don’t think I could work up to the level of expertise necessary for a graduate seminar, but I think I’d be spurred on to read with more focus with such a course in mind, and an honours seminar can be a great venue for exploring material you are somewhat but not completely knowledgeable about. Branching out like this, provided it is done with due humility, seems to me a good thing on all fronts: students get exposed to something we wouldn’t cover otherwise, and I get the fun of feeling a bit like a student again as I learn my way into the material. Imagine: the reading list could include Testament of Youth, Gaudy Night, and South Riding, plus something by Margaret Kennedy so I’d finally have to figure it out.  I’m nearly through Testament of a Generation now–a proper post on that should follow before too long.

I did do a lot of the things described in my paragraph about refreshing my teaching. I reviewed and, to an extent, revamped my reading list for Mystery and Detective Fiction. The amount of time this took, especially surveying options for the anthology, reminded me why so often–especially as ordering deadlines for fall books creep further and further back into the spring–I just stick with what I’ve done before. This is a good example of bureaucratic processes hampering pedagogical innovation–that, and the absence of any kind of book-buying budget for course development, since I find “trade” publishers more stingy with exam copies than, say, the very helpful Oxford University Press, and popular titles are hard to get at the public library. I also did some extensive re-organization of my electronic files: instead of being filed by course and then year, now my syllabi, handouts, lecture notes, worksheets, essay topics, and exams are now mostly sorted by teaching area, and then by author or function. In theory, it should be quick to find lecture notes on Wilkie Collins or all the versions I’ve done of final exams for English 3031, without having to remember which year I taught which book or which course, or which year I did or did not give a final exam. We’ll see how this works out!

With an eye to my Victorian classes as well as my own edification, I looked at a number of new books in my field, mostly without much excitement, and I read, or at least skimmed, dozens of articles and reviews. What I realized, going through this material, is that most of it makes no difference to me at all. I don’t mean that there aren’t interesting individual insights or original readings, but most of it operates on a very small scale or turns on a very particular interest or angle. None of it is paradigm-changing; nothing I saw made me feel I needed to re-think (rather than, say, re-tool a little) the approach I take when I teach Victorian fiction. Much of it is filed away for me to come back to when or if I need to take my critical attention to the next level–in a graduate seminar, for instance, or in more specialized work of my own. I’m glad to know it’s there. But I’m also, truth be told, glad to discover that I don’t need to feel so anxious about “keeping up.” What’s the benefit to it, in general, if I can read so much after such a long gap and still be satisfied that what I have to say about Jane Eyre or Middlemarch to my undergraduate fiction class remains what I want to say, has not been undermined or rendered inadequate or outdated? A year or so ago I read two good overview texts on Victorian fiction (George Levine’s How to Read the Victorian Novel and Harry E. Shaw and Alison Case’s Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel) and they were similarly reassuring. Note that I don’t conclude from the minimal significance of this published scholarship to my immediate pedagogical goals that it is insignificant in a more general way: its purposes are different, for one thing. But also, as I have written about here before (but where? I can’t find it!), the cumulative effect of specialized critical inquiries can be dramatic–the undergraduate Victorian novels courses I teach have little in common with the one I took at UBC, and sensation fiction (on which I teach an entire seminar) had no place in either my undergraduate or my graduate coursework.

One thing that went just as expected was the steady stream of thesis material from the four Ph.D. students I’m working with. It is a very good thing that they are all writing steadily, and they are all working on interesting and substantial projects–but I admit, I wasn’t always glad to see another installment appear, especially when it often seemed I had barely turned around the last batch. Speaking of which, there’s one waiting for me now…

I had a general plan to read a lot, because, I proposed,

the more you read the richer your sense is of what literature can do, of how it can be beautiful or interesting or problematic or mediocre. I am convinced that I talk better about Victorian literature because of the contemporary literature I read, and that I teach with more commitment, and more hope of making connections with my students and their interests, because I read around and talk to them about books as things of pressing and immediate significance

I think my reading this term definitely added to my intellectual life and resources in the ways I’d hoped. Besides Testament of Youth, I’d point to the Martin Beck books as a great “discovery” for me (thanks very much to Dorian for the prompt). I’ll be teaching one in my mystery class, and I’ve written an essay on them which will be appearing elsewhere later this summer. Among the other books that really made an impression are  Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, May Sarton’s The Education of Harriet Hatfield, Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,  Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, and Carolyn Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time. Less successful reading experiences included Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Terry Castle’s The Professor, along with Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which is the first book in a very long time I have deliberately decided not to keep reading.  I have my two book clubs to thank for steering me towards titles I might otherwise not have chosen, or not have stuck with. The Transit of Venus is one I’m especially interested in teaching, but it seems a risky choice, so I’d have to pick the right course.

While there are things on that original list that I did not exactly get done, I also accomplished some things on sabbatical that I didn’t specifically anticipate. I wrote three more pieces for Open Letters, including the Ahdaf Soueif piece already mentioned but also two book reviews, one of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work, the other of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature. Though not, strictly speaking, academic publications, both of these (like the Soueif essay) are based on my professional expertise. I wrote a number of posts on academic issues, including one on “The Ph.D. Conundrum” and two on aspects of academic publishing (“Reality Check: ‘The Applicant’s Publication Record is Spotty’” and the recent one on Leonard Cassuto and blogs). I got feisty about Rebecca Mead’s high-profile, low-substance New Yorker essay on George Eliot, and went on and on about Sex and the City. I kept on soliciting and editing pieces from other writers for Open Letters, a process that is always satisfying. Finally, I accepted an invitation to participate in a conference panel, submitted a proposal and then the funding applications. Now I’m beginning to organize my miscellaneous notes and links into what will eventually be my lively, coherent (!) presentation. Along with my next essay project for Open Letters (on gender, genre, and novels about Richard III–no, really!), preparing this presentation will be my priority for the next few weeks–that, and getting things in order for my return to teaching, by which I mean preparing Blackboard sites, updating syllabi, keeping on top of waiting lists, and psyching myself up for the return to the classroom. I’m actually happy to be heading back: I have missed teaching a lot (remind me in October that I said this, will you?)

And so, onward! If I’m counting correctly, I am eligible for another half-year leave in 2014/15, provided the powers that be are convinced that I used the time wisely this year. Here’s hoping. I know that I feel pretty good about it. I have indulged my intellectual curiosity, expanded my horizons as a reader and a writer, and contributed in a variety of ways to discussions I think are very important to my profession and my discipline. I have advanced projects I’m excited about and discovered literary interests I didn’t know I had. I am eager to get back to teaching. To me, that adds up to a pretty productive sabbatical.