Next Week in My Classes: Beginning My 20th Year

WP_20140827_005I started teaching at Dalhousie in 1995-96, which means that 2014-15 will be my twentieth academic year at the university. What with maternity leaves and sabbaticals, that doesn’t mean 40 consecutive terms (though for many years I did also do summer teaching), but that’s still a long time to be in one place doing the same thing.

Or, at any rate, that’s how it felt to me when I did this calculation a few days ago. In fact, I was suddenly and unexpectedly swept with gloom as I walked across campus with the phrase “twenty years” echoing in my head. It was a beautiful sunny day, with just a hint of fall freshness in the air, but the buildings looked all too familiar, the coming routines felt all too predictable, the inevitable administrative hassles of the new term seemed almost too much to go through yet one more time. Even the prospect of teaching Middlemarch again after a two or three year hiatus wasn’t enough to cheer me up. It’s not that I don’t know how lucky I was to get this job (even in the mid-90s the market was tough, though not as devastatingly so as it has become) and it’s not that I haven’t liked — loved, even — a lot of things about it. I just couldn’t muster much pride or sense of accomplishment. What did I have to show for those 20 years?

You’ll be glad to know that this fit of depression has mostly passed, though not entirely. I think feelings like this are a hazard of what is otherwise a great blessing and comfort, namely the stability and security of my position. If it sometimes feels like a mixed blessing, because the down side to it is a high degree of immobility, it’s obviously still, overall, something to be appreciated and (not incidentally) made the most of, as with the kinds of experimenting I have been able to do with my writing and teaching. A lot of the changes that I have brought about in my working life are not immediately visible, after all. “You know where to find me,” I tell departing students, sometimes a bit ruefully or even wistfully, as they move on to the next stage of their own adventures, and it’s true I do still spend my time in the same literal spaces. But my mental life has moved on quite a bit, to the extent that sometimes I feel strangely detached from some of the preoccupations of my departmental colleagues. (Some of that detachment grew, self-protectively, out of the lack of interest in or support some of them — not, happily, all of them — have shown for my new projects, from blogging to writing for Open Letters: being defensive is not a good long-term strategy, I found, and being an advocate also gets tiring in its own way, so I have had to stop caring so much and measuring myself by their standards.) I’m much more aware than I was in 1995 that there’s life — literary life, even! — outside the academy, and that makes some of what we worry about seem much less interesting and important. Anyway, for better or worse, that’s one way in which I do feel I have not been stagnating but changing and even growing.IMG_1276

And it’s not as if I don’t have anything to show in other ways for my 20 year investment in Dalhousie. My academic research and publications certainly count as accomplishments, but when I am having a “save Tinkerbell moment” and need my belief restored, my surest remedy is a browse through the fat file folder I have of thank-you cards and messages from students. It’s enormously uplifting to know that the part I played in their lives mattered to them. Teachers at all levels can have this incalculably diffusive effect — I know my own life would be very different without the influence of my own teachers. I hope I told them how much difference they had made; I am certainly very grateful to the students who tell me, because knowing they cared helps me keep trying to bring my best self into the classroom every time. Even at a conservative estimate, twenty years’ worth is a lot of students: even if the majority move on and don’t remember my name, much less what we studied together, there are still plenty who carry something of me away with them — as I am cheeringly reminded every so often when one of them gets back in touch. “I saw someone reading Middlemarch in a restaurant awhile back and thought of how pleased you’d have been,” one former student recently emailed me, and I was pleased, not just that someone was reading Middlemarch (always a good thing!) but that she associated the book with me.

WP_20140827_003The other thing I have to show for my twenty years — something I benefit from every day I’m at work — is experience! It’s easy to forget, now, how new to all this I was in 1995-96. I was hired while still “ABD” (all but dissertation), and my hands-on teaching experience was limited to two of Cornell’s Freshman Writing Seminars (both capped — ah, luxury — at 17 students) and one stint as a TA (in a 19thC fiction class, too, because there were no first year writing classes big enough to use teaching assistants). The class on Browning’s “My Last Duchess” that I taught as part of my on-campus interview here was quite literally the first time I’d ever stood up in front of a room full of students (not to mention a back row of professors there to see how I did). So my first full-time term was really jumping into the deep end for me. I don’t recall any massive screw-ups beyond assigning way too much reading in my first section of Introduction to Literature and way too much writing in almost every class, because I had no idea how much time it would take to mark multiple papers for a class of 50 or 60. I had the time at first: I was keen to throw myself into a job I was excited about and knew I was lucky to have, and at first I had no children, either. But the hours and hours of marking … on top of having no files of teaching notes or materials to draw on, so absolutely every part of absolutely every class had to be prepared entirely from scratch. Good thing I was so young and energetic! (I was 28 when I came here, which means I was barely older than the first crop of graduate students I taught — in fact, now that I think back, I was actually younger than some of them.)

Now, on the other hand, I have a drawer full of notes, handouts, transparencies, and other materials, as well as acres of virtual storage devoted to more of the same. I don’t have everything covered, of course: every year I work in a new book or two somewhere, and I rarely use exactly the same notes or handouts twice. It is reassuring, though, to know that for a lot of texts I teach on a regular basis I have an archive to draw on for information and inspiration. I’m glad, too, that I haven’t recycled even the oldest paper materials, because I pull out treasures sometimes — such as, most recently, a cache of old student discussion questions for Villette including a set by Dorian Stuber, who was in one of the first Victorian novels classes I ever taught. Good questions about interesting books don’t go stale!

I also have found logistical systems that work well for me. I don’t think they are particularly original (when I mentioned them on Twitter, a number of people said they have similar strategies), but those of us who started teaching long before ProfHacker existed had to fumble our way into them. Since the second-most frequent comment on my student evaluations is “she’s really organized” (first is “she’s very enthusiastic”) I think they must be pretty good ones. One is very dull and basic: setting up spreadsheets to track all administrative aspects of every class, from attendance to essay submission to test scores. I don’t enjoy Excel, but  learning to use it reasonably well has shored up my record-keeping in important ways. A more fun thing I do to keep order is use color-coded folders for each course so that I can be sure I have the right ones when I’m gathering up my materials and heading out the door to teach. Red has become standard for detective fiction, and it’s usually green for 19th-century fiction, though this year I’m using some elegant William Morris folders (thanks, EB!). Other courses vary, but the key thing is that once I internalize a term’s colors I do a lot less scrambling at the last minute.

WP_20140827_004Another very simple thing I do is designate one shelf space for each course. Often coming back from class is a distracting time, with students tagging along for conferences or somewhere else to get to in a hurry, so I don’t have time to do fine sorting. Instead, I dump all the class material onto its shelf and organize it when I get my next chance — but in the meantime if I need to find a book or paper from it, my search is neatly delimited. Again, less scrambling! I have a pretty low tolerance for stress and confusion, so for me it’s well worth the little bit of forethought required. When I see offices with indistinguishable brown folders piled in heaps all over the place, I know that — while it must work for the office’s own occupant — I would be a nervous wreck by the end of a single day in there.

My only other crucial trick is using post-it notes — many hundreds of them, cumulatively — to mark important passages in the (yes, I admit it) very long books I teach so often. One of the treats of re-using a well-worn edition is taking advantage of the existing post-it notes, which often help me regain my footing in key interpretations and patterns as I go along; one of the treats of a brand-new copy (such as this year’s handsome Oxford World’s Classics Villette) is putting in a whole new set. (Yikes, how book-nerdy is that. But it is fun!) On Twitter, people mentioned colored pens, certain kinds of notebooks, and colored printer paper as other things that make their teaching days easier, more efficient, and also brighter. However much we use and now take for granted our electronic devices, there’s clearly still a special charm and a lot of use in old-fashioned school supplies.

So far I haven’t even mentioned the 20 years’ worth of increased knowledge I presumably have: when I consider how little I had read in 1995, and how much of that was not really very useful — well, I’m almost surprised they even let me teach! But they did, and here I still am. I’ve probably got another 20 years until I retire: just think how much more I will have read and learned and filed by then. I just have to keep my spirits up — so I don’t lose that third thing I’m often thanked for in my course evaluations: my sense of humor.

Next Week In My Classes: Who, Me? Intimidating?

Teaching evaluations (or “Student Ratings of Instruction” as we apparently call them these days) are a notoriously … imperfectguide for future conduct. Probably because we all spent many, many years being graded, professors nonetheless read them obsessively compulsively carefully and fret about freak out pay special attention to the most negative ones, because at the end of the day, or the term, we want everyone to like us want to get an A hope to improve our pedagogy.

I haven’t seen my evaluations from last term yet, though I’m sure they’ll arrive in my inbox any day now (we’ve recently switched to online evaluations, which has added a new layer of complications and made the results even less robust than before). I have seen last year’s, however, and they were the usual blend of enthusiasm and disdain, gratitude and offense. Also as usual the balance tipped in the right direction, assuming that it is preferable to have more happy than discontented students. And, again as usual, what I’ve tried to focus on in them is not the outliers (good or bad) but any pattern of feedback (I so hate to think of these as “ratings,” as if I’m one option in a giant Cineplex) that teaches me something about how I teach — or at least about how I taught last year.

I did find one, and it was something I hadn’t seen before: a number of comments from students in my section of our first-year “Introduction to Literature” class who felt I was “intimidating.” It wasn’t by any means a unanimous perspective, but enough students used that very word to give me food for thought.

Now, I should say that I don’t consider it an altogether bad thing that some of my students found me or my course intimidating. To a certain extent, that was the effect I was going for, at least at the start of term. This is because I have run into enough Intro students who are taking English only to meet a requirement and fully expect it to be their “bird” course, or at any rate who are strongly inclined to make it a lower priority than their “hard” courses or the ones they see as more important (often, their science courses). There are also a lot of students in first year, including some  who consider themselves prospective English majors, who are more used to “expressing themselves” in English classes than learning specialized vocabulary and using it for well-reasoned critical analysis — who are surprised, that is, to find themselves faced with intellectually strenuous tasks and high standards. There are also, of course, students whose previous preparation — or just whose attitude and expectations — make them quite prepared to work and think hard, but they are typically outnumbered.

As a result, I usually start out emphasizing the stringency of the course. The tone I aim for is cheerful but uncompromising, about the logistics of the course (requirements, deadlines, policies, etc.) but also, and more importantly, about the skills and content it aims to teach. The message I seek to convey is quite simple: It is possible to do a better or a worse job of literary analysis. The goal of this class is to help you do a better job, which means both reading better (a matter of both knowledge and skills) and writing better (again, a matter of both knowledge and skills). It’s hard work, but it’s also fun and creative and important work (because the classroom is far from the only place we read, or write). I take it seriously, and so should you. I am passionate and enthusiastic about it, and I hope you will be too, but at the end of the day it’s not about what you like, it’s about what you learn.

In other words, I want them to take the class seriously and understand that they will have to work to get good results. It’s meant to be aspirational: I hope they will be motivated to rise to the challenge. But it’s also meant to be cautionary: don’t think you can phone it in, don’t blow me off. I mix in some inspiration too (some discussion about the value and beauty of literature), but to open the term, it’s the perspiration I usually emphasize, so that they’ll be ready to put in the work that enables us to have good, serious discussions about literature and criticism as we move through the term.

My first question, then, is: since I have always run the class more or less the same way, why was last year the first time I’m aware of that the intimidation factor persisted and became inhibiting? I was aware that the group was not (collectively) very relaxed: I fretted quite a lot last year about the low level of participation, for instance. It wasn’t a disaster — it ebbed and flowed — but compared to other sections of intro that I’ve taught, this was far from the most lively. And my second question is, how much, if anything, should I change?

I have a theory about the first question, which is that last year was the smallest section of intro I’ve ever taught at Dalhousie. Until recently, all of our first-year sections were capped at 55 and taught with one instructor and one TA. Now we have a range of class sizes, including one giant section (360, with multiple TAs), some in the middle, and some “baby” sections at 30 with just the instructor (our Writing Requirement rules mandate a maximum ratio of 30:1). I had a baby section last year that settled down at around 27 students. You’d think that would mean rainbows and lollipops and all good things, and it certainly felt luxurious in some respects, but my standard strategies evolved for bigger rooms and bigger numbers. In a group of nearly 60, the critical mass of both unmotivated and talkative students is bigger, so more students need the chastening “listen up!” approach while more students are present who are willing to join in a class discussion. My professorial presence is also more diffuse (if that makes sense) in a bigger room: in our smaller room, I may have seemed to be more “in your face.” And while in some ways it can be harder to put your hand up with more people around, in other ways you don’t stand out as much, so it can feel like the stakes are lower. I may be way off in these speculations, of course, but my guess is that I need to approach the smaller section (which is what I have again this term) aware that it’s a more intimate group and setting and thus requires a somewhat softer touch. What I don’t want to change is the overall message: that this is not a course to be taken lightly; that it requires attention and studying and commitment, not just showing up; that grades in English are not just a matter of opinion but of expertise and judgment.

So! With all this turning around in my head, as you can imagine I am both excited and anxious about our first meeting on Monday. I have been revising my notes, and I’m making plans for an ice-breaker exercise, nothing too fancy but something to get them talking to each other a bit on the first day, rather than mostly just listening or talking to me. Something I tell all of my classes is that literary criticism is something you get better at by doing — which includes class discussion (at some point I usually explain the concept of “coduction“) as well as both informal and formal writing. I hope that if they all hear their own voices in the classroom on the first day, in a nonthreatening context, it will ease them into the more important conversations to come. And I hope that if I set myself up initially as both professor and facilitator, they will find me less (but not un-) intimidating.

Do you have thoughts or experiences about being either intimidating or intimidated in class? I certainly remember professors I found intimidating, but I didn’t see that as their failing but rather as mine. Often, they were the ones I most admired and hoped to impress. I find it hard to imagine myself as intimidating (I often think of that wonderful line in Middlemarch about our “poor little eyes” behind the “big mask and the speaking-trumpet”) … but I realize we don’t always know how we strike other people, and I have occasionally had other indications that I seem harder, or harsher, than I knew. (I remember one of my own professors saying to me – quite out of the blue, it seemed! – “I always wonder what you’re thinking when you look at me that way.” Perhaps the natural cast of my face is just judgmental?)

This Week in My Classes: Processes and Products

The second full week of term has gone by already: it’s amazing how time seems to accelerate when things get busier. In both my classes we have moved from throat-clearing and context-setting to richer discussions about our readings: in The 19th-Century Novel from Austen to Dickens, we’ve wrapped up our work on Persuasion, and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve got only one more class on The Moonstone. Starting the term with these two novels eases the transition from summer’s languors to fall’s stresses because both are so delightful. At least, I think so — and it seems as if a lot of students are enjoying them as well. Discussion in the Mystery class has been particularly good so far this term, especially considering it’s a big class (capped at 90), which can sometimes be inhibiting. I hope they keep putting their hands up!

academicselfOne thing I’ve been thinking about as our work gets underway, and as I contemplate my own non-teaching ambitions for this term, is trying to make the process as meaningful and rewarding as possible, shifting some emphasis away from the product — which for students is often the course credit or the grade, and for me is the finished piece of writing. I’ve been reading Donald Hall’s The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual (thanks to @MsEMentor for the recommendation!) and while I have some doubts about whether I want to be an ‘academic self’ of the kind he describes (more about that, perhaps, in another post), I have been struck by the wisdom of his emphasis on this process / product distinction, partly because I have found myself caught up in just the kind of results-oriented moping he describes (if not for exactly the same causes):

We all know (or should know by now) that we may complete professional tasks to the best of our abilities, “play by all of the rules,” so to speak, even overachieve and push ourselves to extremes, and still be denied the book contract we have been working for, the position we have applied for, or the raise that we feel we deserve. If we tie our sense of professional payoff only to a desired reception of the end product of a process, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, perhaps even a state of bitterness or burnout.

As he discusses, there are lots of reasons, some of them good ones, to be fixated on achieving particular goals, but “we simply do not have to have a specific reaction to the products of our processes for those processes to have been worthwhile.”

I think there is actually a close relationship here between my students’ situation, as they strive for grades and credits, and my own difficulty dissociating the worth of my work from the reactions or results it gets. After all, I spent a great deal of my own life as a student, and in many ways academics carry forward the mental habit of waiting for affirmation from other people’s evaluation. How different, too, is the hiring process, the tenure process, or the promotion process from being graded? Or, for that matter, the grant application process or the article submission process? Well, OK, of course there are differences, including the presumption that for most of these professional matters we are being evaluated by our peers, and the not-insignificant point that our success in some of them (hiring in particular) really shouldn’t be understood as measures of our merit so much as of our great good fortune. But these things all feel a lot like handing in an essay used to, and I’m someone who once locked herself in a bathroom in Buchanan Tower to weep over an A- from a professor whose approval I really wanted — which is to say, I’m someone who (like a lot of academics) has a hard time believing in my own judgments of my work, and a hard time separating judgments of my work from judgments of me personally. I am making progress on this front, I’m glad to say, but I still find myself waiting anxiously for external validation when, for instance, something of mine is published online. There’s still that part of me that is waiting for my grade, for the internet equivalent of an ‘A,’ whatever exactly that is.

I know, I know: there are so many things wrong with this, and I don’t just mean that it’s kind of pathetic in a grown woman more than two decades along in her professional career (though that is certainly true). Having become self-conscious about it, I do at least now work consciously against it, and one way I do this is simply by rereading my own work, which (I am learning to assert, on my own behalf!) I think is pretty good! Why shouldn’t I be able to tell or say that, after all, considering it’s actually a big part of my job to evaluate writing? But the other thing I want to do is give more weight to, or feel more positive about, the process of doing the work. As Hall says,

I cannot know if the words that I am writing at this moment will ever appear in any form of print other than that which comes out of my computer. . . . But I can decide that this act of creation, this thinking through of ideas as they move from conscious and subconscious thought through my fingers and onto the screen is enough to satisfy and sustain me, even if the unfortunate were to occur.

He isn’t advocating that “we dispense with highly concrete goals” (as he points out, that would be “to court disaster” professionally, as well as to shirk other dimensions of our research and writing lives by not aiming to get our thoughts “disseminated”). But he’s right that “those processes . . . . must be more explicitly valued, must be recognized as professional ‘goods’ in and of themselves.”

To bring this discussion back to my teaching, I have realized that some of the greatest frustrations I’ve run into as a teacher have come from student priorities and behaviors that are results-oriented without due attention to the intrinsic value of the processes we go through (as well as to the benefits that careful attention to process can bring to achieving desired results). A simple example: papers that are clearly (or on the student’s own admission) started and finished the night before the deadline — I’m sure many other professors have had those dispiriting conversations that begin “I’m going to work on my essay tonight” and you cringe, knowing that means they won’t have time to rethink or revise, just as they very nearly have run out of time to consult. The essay-writing process matters less to that student than getting the credit for the finished essay. Or there are students who don’t finish the readings until they are studying for the final exam, or who never read them at all (I’ve had students note on their evaluations, almost as a point of pride, which books they never did actually read) — they too are circumventing the process (which is where a lot of the real learning can take place) and focusing only on the final product. I’m trying, increasingly, to disrupt these habits by building incentives to good process into the course requirements (reading journals, paper proposals, short tests). I’m also taking more time to discuss the relationship between our processes in class and the overall goals of the course, in terms of learning and practicing skills as well as in terms of getting good grades. Yes, students should aspire to earn good grades, and I should enable and support those aspirations. But the learning doesn’t take place at the moment I return the essay or exam: it takes place while we’re doing everything else, and especially while they are doing everything else. They should try to take a lot of satisfaction from those processes — from their own “thinking through of ideas.” Then even if they don’t get the grade they hoped for, they’ll be able to dry their eyes and come out of the bathroom a little bit sooner and a lot more confident.

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.

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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?

The May Marks Meeting: That’s What It’s All About

Today we held one of our department’s most cherished and loathed rituals: the “May Marks Meeting.” It’s called that because one of its key elements is the annual review of students’ marks in aid of awarding our departmental scholarships and prizes, and also because we go over the standing of all of our current graduate students. Other fun features include receiving year-end reports from all the department committees.

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In the old days, this meeting used to run all day and leave everyone bitter and exhausted. One reason was that before so much of the university’s business was computerized, things like calculating credit hours and grades often had to be done manually, while many other questions could be settled only by phone calls to the Registrar’s Office. Many of the awards we administer also have very particular terms set by well-intentioned but ill-advised donors that leave too much open to interpretation (word to the wise: if you want to leave a bequest to set up an academic award, please confer with some academics about wording): does “woman student who leads her class in English” mean “woman student majoring in English who has the highest grades”? or, our long-time favorite, what exactly is “an inquiring and original mind”? Oh, the hours, quite literally, that sometimes went into impassioned debate, or frantic recalculations, or reassignment of prize money on the discovery that for some reason the chosen candidate was ineligible!

Over the years we have refined our processes, and not just because we can now call up student records instantly online: wherever possible, we have clarified or set precedents for vague award terms, and we have essentially banned nominations from the floor and shifted the burden of decision making from the department as a whole to our undergraduate committee. Today, only about half an hour was spent on this business. In so many ways, this is a huge improvement — not just because it’s more efficient but because the results are less arbitrary. I would not want any of my colleagues who happened to read this post to imagine that I am in any way nostalgic for the old days! (Well, OK, sometimes I miss the old department lounge, which was a friendlier place to spend a day.)

What I have been thinking since today’s meeting ended, though, is that the half hour we spent talking about the nominees and recipients of our prizes and scholarships was by far the best half hour of the meeting (which, today, actually ran less than 5 hours, including our lunch break). Almost everything else on the table, you see, was bad news: budget woes, declining enrollments, graduate recruiting challenges, disappointing graduate fellowship results. So much of this seems beyond our control (as one colleague finally exclaimed, “Look, I don’t know how to change the Zeitgeist!”), and so much of it seems to reflect not just a broad cultural disengagement from the humanities but the failure of our more immediate leaders to stand up and fight for us — even though, as another colleague pointed out, we teach a lot of students and we do it, on the whole, very cheaply compared to other faculties. When you go to a VP’s office seeking support for something of national significance and get turned down coldly even as all around you are the signs of administrative expansion (not to mention office renovations) … when you’re aware that there is always money for something but that we are constantly told we need to cut and cut  … well, over time it’s pretty demoralizing, and as I’ve written about here before, our work turns nearly as much on our energy and creativity as it does on our expertise and professional training.

Despite the atmosphere of generalized gloom in which we have all been working for some time, though, most of us still find ourselves excited about and renewed by our classroom time and our students. And finally, during that last half hour, that’s what we got to focus on. Listening to people speak with such obvious delight about their students’ merits and successes — from admission to Oxford to clever revisions of 18th-century poems — did a lot to counterbalance the cynicism and pessimism brought on by the earlier items on our agenda. Our collective appreciation of our students as interesting, promising individuals also confirmed (as if I needed it) how much more our teaching is about than “content delivery.” It’s not, ultimately, the marks the students earn that matter the most, after all: it’s the mark they will make in the world. Our role in making that future possible may be difficult to measure, but it’s still important to remember, and to value.

Is Cormac McCarthy a Terrible Writer?

roadFor the record, I don’t think so. In fact, I think he’s brilliant. Mind you, so far I’ve read only The Road. [Update: now I’ve also read No Country for Old Men.] Still, though I had my doubts when I began it for the first time, by the time I finished it I was under the spell of its strange, difficult, deeply poetic language. I’ve been reading and rereading it as I work through it with my class, and for me it just gets better — I find McCarthy’s prose weirder and more interesting and more affecting on each pass.

At the same time, paradoxically, as I reread it I’ve also been very aware that my admiration is a decision on my part, and that it’s one that could quite conceivably have gone the other way: I can see perfectly well that the same prose could be experienced as awkward, pretentious, and affected. I’m not sure I can objectively justify my own belief that it is written with integrity and redolent with artistic significance. There are certainly moments in the novel that I don’t like, sentences I can’t make sense of or that seem to me near misses, if not outright failures. “The snow fell nor did it cease to fall” is one. The last sentence of this passage is another (I’m quoting the whole bit to give it its best chance):

He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms soaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

But despite the bits that make me stumble or wince, The Road reads to me like writing that matters, that deserves to be taken seriously. I don’t mind the sentence fragments, or the eccentric punctuation (though I do find the absent apostrophes distracting). I enjoy the dense vocabulary and the occasionally florid imagery. I find the oscillation between severe minimalism and poetic expansion exhilarating. This week I did an exercise with my class on “found poetry” in the novel. One reason I thought it would work is that we accept or forgive irregularities and difficulties in verse to a degree we don’t, typically, in prose; reading The Road as poetry freed us up to appreciate its peculiarities without fretting too much about lucid intelligibility or standard syntax. Consider the novel’s first sentence, for example:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

Or, just a bit further along,

Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.

The cadence of the lines makes poetic sense of them, doesn’t it? I also think they’d sound just right read in an Irish brogue – again, it’s something about the rhythm, the rise and fall and slight excess of them. Yet I can see how they could strike another reader as mannered, almost self-aggrandizing: look at me, writing!

I haven’t done a systematic survey of critical responses to The Road, but what I have seen shows judgments divided over just this problem of whether the writing is good (even brilliant) or bad (awful, even). In the NYTBR, Janet Maslin is appreciative:

Since the cataclysm has presumably incinerated all dictionaries, Mr. McCarthy’s affinity for words like rachitic and crozzled has as much visceral, atmospheric power as precise meaning. His use of language is as exultant as his imaginings are hellish, a hint that “The Road” will ultimately be more radiant than it is punishing. Somehow Mr. McCarthy is able to hold firm to his pessimism while allowing the reader to see beyond it. This is art that both frightens and inspires.

In The New Republic, James Wood argues that McCarthy’s “dumbly questing, glacially heuristic approach matches its subject, a world in which nothing is left standing. . . . Short phrasal sentences, often just fragments, savagely paint the elements of this voided world.” He doesn’t find it entirely successful:

The second register is the one familiar to readers of Blood Meridian or Suttree, and again seems somewhat Conradian. Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not. But many of its effects are beautiful — and not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry. . . .

Yet McCarthy’s third register is more problematic. He is also an American ham. When critics laud him for being biblical, they are hearing sounds that are more often than not merely antiquarian, a kind of vatic histrionic groping, in which the prose plumes itself up and flourishes an ostentatiously obsolete lexicon. (Blood fustian, this style might be called.)

Closer to home, one of my colleagues said she is convinced McCarthy is a genius (to be strictly accurate, she was speaking about Blood Meridian, but the stylistic features she described sounded very familiar). But wise Colleen at Bookphilia maintains that The Road “is bad because the writing is bad and because the plot in no way makes up for this deficiency”, and others express the same opinion with less economy, as in this blog comment I turned up while idly googling opinions on the apostrophe issue:

 I just tried to read this book and had to put it down after around thirty pages due to the absolute atrocious writing style and complete disregard for language structure. Fragments, overuse of conjunctions, lack of multiple different kinds of punctuation. Overall it makes the book a very slow read due to having to re-read passages multiple times.

Language structure is there to aid communication, it should not be modified willy nilly by some hack author as a literary device in a way to inject what he is unable to convey through language. In this case all you have is a clumsy, choppy, piece of sub-par writing.

And speaking of language, the text reads like it was written by a freshman with a thesaurus. There is excessive use of bizarre adjectives and over-description. Simple sentence structure with over use of a inappropriate descriptors just reeks of poor undergrad writing.

 Or there’s this post:

McCarthy’s writing is full of incomplete sentences and anastrophe, completely lacks quotation marks, and frequently embeds dialogue in the middle of paragraphs. What truly annoys me, though, is McCarthy’s inconsistent use of apostrophes for contractions. Each of these conventions is a barrier to straightforward reading (though I finished The Road in only a few hours). If they made me stop and think about the language, characters, or plot, I wouldn’t object, but they’re merely distracting.

We’re looking at the same evidence but drawing very different conclusions. I wish I could assert confidently that I’m reading right and the naysayers are ill-informed, mistaken, or obtuse. I do think that fixating on non-standard grammar, unfamiliar vocabulary, or other technicalities is a superficial way to evaluate the quality of literary writing. And McCarthy’s odd prose did make me stop and think — not so much about “the language, characters, or  plot,” but about the themes and values of the work, and also about the role of language itself, in making meaning and in creating aesthetic and emotional effects. Can I do better, though, than saying “it worked for me”? Can the haters really get past “it didn’t work for me”?

This is the reason I think debating “literary merit,” or ranking or rating books, quickly becomes an exercise in either folly, futility, or bullying. If you’re going to ask “but is it any good?” you need to flesh out the question: good at what? for what? for whom? There are myriad ways a novel can be. A much more interesting discussion will come from asking “what does McCarthy’s prose do?” or “what are the connections between McCarthy’s literary strategies and the central ideas of The Road?” then from asking if he is a good or a bad writer. Why would you even ask those questions, though, if you didn’t think the work was worth spending that kind of time and thought on? By assigning The Road to my class, I’ve implicitly endorsed it as good writing, haven’t I? And, to return to where I began, I think it is good writing. Good at what? Good for what? Well, one of the things it is unequivocally good at, or good for, is provoking discussions about good (or bad) writing.

Update: More Critical Views

Ron Charles in the Washington Post:

even with its flaws, there’s just no getting around it: The Road is a frightening, profound tale that drags us into places we don’t want to go, forces us to think about questions we don’t want to ask. Readers who sneer at McCarthy’s mythic and biblical grandiosity will cringe at the ambition of The Road. At first I kept trying to scoff at it, too, but I was just whistling past the graveyard. Ultimately, my cynicism was overwhelmed by the visceral power of McCarthy’s prose and the simple beauty of this hero’s love for his son.

Jennifer Egan in Slate (the review overall asks thought-provoking questions about the novel’s “literary masculinity”):

There is no limit to the devastation, only new forms of its expression, and McCarthy renders these up in lush, sensuous prose that belies the inertness of its object and keeps the reader in a constant state of longing and alarm.

Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe:

Unfolding in a spartan, precise narrative that mirrors the bleakness of its nuclear winter . . . even with his lapses into grandiloquence, McCarthy is too seasoned a writer to over dramatize what may be the last drama of all . . . he has written this last waltz with enough elegant reserve to capture what matters most.

Mark Holcomb in the Village Voice:

[McCarthy’s fans] should be satisfied with the current offering’s characteristic helpings of hypnotic, gut-punching prose and bracing depictions of emotional longing (“She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned” )—qualities McCarthy’s detractors seem bizarrely content to underestimate or overlook.

Sycorax Pine:

His prose is plain, but shows the almost baroque love of unusual and archaic language amidst this plainness that I have always heard associated with him (this is my first finished McCarthy novel). At a certain point in the novel, it was teaching me an average of one new word per 8 pages: discalced (unshod!), fire-drake, lave, mastic, rachitic, siwash, skift,claggy, quoits. The boy picks up clichés out of nowhere, it seems, magically resurrecting conventions of language that died in the cataclysms of his pre-speaking life. From time to time, a turn of speech will seep through from our time, revealing the possibility that this is an allegory for our politically embattled world

 Further Update (2/18): A thoughtful dissenter:

In setting The Road in a post-apocalyptic world where plot is beside the point and the two main characters are — given their hazily remembered past, monochrome present, and probable lack of a future —inevitably archetypal, McCarthy overuses the stark-but-somehow-simultaneously-baroque tone that eventually threatens to send all his work off the rails. McCarthy is a writer who could make a casual brunch read like the end of the world, so when he’s actually writing about the end of the world, his grandiosity grows numbing. In this sense, his language fails The Road, distracting from the emotional potency it might have had. (Clearly, there are many who disagree.) [from John Williams at A Special Way of Being Afraid]

And yet another update (2/27): At least two commenters (so far) in this FlavorWire thread are not fans.

This Week In My Classes: Cranford and The Road

roadThe honeymoon is over. At the beginning of every term things putter along easily enough while I wonder why I felt so stressed out at the end of the previous term … and then marking starts to come in, and the new assignment sequences dreamed up over the break loom on the horizon and require planning and handouts and Blackboard drop-boxes, and forms for the letters of reference I forgot I still needed to do appear in my inbox, and the thesis material I made my students promise to have ready duly shows up. And that’s about where I am now, staying on top of things but with effort. It doesn’t help that it’s winter (when has winter ever helped with anything?). It takes more energy to do everything in the winter, from driving away in the morning (bundling up, scraping, clearing) to just staying warm (even my LL Bean fleece slipper socks are just not enough this year, down in my basement office with the cold, cold floor).

So that’s how things are going, in a general way. It’s a good busy, mostly, especially the class prep for the novels that are new for me this term: I enjoy figuring out what I want to do with them and trying out my ideas in the classroom. I’m out of time for Cranford now: next time, I think I’ll allow more than four classes, because it feels like our work on it ended too abruptly. But then, I don’t typically have more than six classes on any but the longest novels! I’m going to miss its subtle good humor, which has been a good antidote to the relentless gloom of The Road in my intro class. One of my favorite bits on this read was the Great Pea-Eating Challenge:

When the ducks and green peas came, we looked at each other in dismay; we had only two-pronged, black-handled forks. It is true the steel was as bright as silver; but what were we to do? Miss Matty picked up her peas, one by one, on the point of the prongs, much as Amine ate her grains of rice after her previous feast with the Ghoul. Miss Pole sighed over her delicate young peas as she left them on one side of her plate untasted, for they would drop between the prongs. I looked at my host: the peas were going wholesale into his capacious mouth, shovelled up by his large round-ended knife. I saw, I imitated, I survived! My friends, in spite of my precedent, could not muster up courage enough to do an ungenteel thing; and, if Mr Holbrook had not been so heartily hungry, he would probably have seen that the good peas went away almost untouched.

I’ve always found peas quite inconvenient myself — and not particularly tasty, though I do occasionally serve them now that I’m All Grown Up (my parents could testify that this is a sign of maturity beyond what they would have predicted, given my childhood aversion to most green vegetables). Next up in this class is The Mill on the Floss. It’s not cheerful (well, the first part is pretty funny, but after that … ) but I’m really looking forward to it, especially after having worked up my essay on it for this month’s Open Letters.

In Intro to Lit, we had our first general class discussion of The Road today, and the students seemed quite engaged with it. We warmed up by talking about things like the title (I always start there with novels!) — why “the” road, why not any road in particular (especially considering they have a map), why just “the man” and “the boy,” what seems to have happened, what matters to them now, what is their relationship like, and so on. There’s lots more to talk about, but for Wednesday I want us to focus on the language of the novel for a while. I am aware that admiration of McCarthy’s style is not universal, and I’m not altogether convinced about some aspects of it myself, for all that I find the novel both gripping and moving. It’s a conspicuous style: there’s no illusion of transparency and there are a lot of what could be considered affectations, from the eccentric punctuation (argh! the apostrophes!) to the use of obscure words (obscure to me, anyway — words I had to look up for today’s installment included “rachitic,” “gryke,” and “kerfs”). Most sentences are very short, and indeed many are fragments, but some are longer and more elaborate, even florid. Because the novel is quite suspenseful, it’s easy to read along quickly and not fret the details (I didn’t look up any of these words on my first reading), but that’s obviously not good enough. I think we might try an exercise on “found poetry” in The Road. I think that this would focus our attention very closely on details of wording, including not just meaning but also sound, placement, and relationships to major themes. It would also probably prompt some useful discussion about what we think makes prose “poetic.” So! A handout for a group activity along these lines goes on the to-do list for tomorrow.