The Past Couple of Weeks In My Sabbatical: Various!

How’s that for a vague title for a blog post? But it is accurate, really: for the past couple of weeks my attention and energy have been focused on a range of different things. I  haven’t felt inspired to write a sabbatical update for a while precisely because my activities seemed so miscellaneous, and not that variable, either, from week to week. But it seems like time to round things up.

First, some good news! One of the questions Jo asks us at each ‘Meeting With Your Writing‘ session is how we’d like to feel while we’re working. At the top of each new entry in my MWYW notebook is my answer, which has become a kind of mantra for me this term: “engaged, optimistic, productive.” It’s optimism that has given me the most trouble, what with winter and all, but sometimes it has also been hard to tell if I’m being productive because I haven’t been quite clear on my goals. The past week has been a particularly good one in all these respects, though, because I decided on a concrete task I wanted to accomplish that turned out to be really fun to work on. Imagine that: I have been enjoying writing! In fact, it came so (relatively) easily and has caused, so far, so little hair-tearing and second-guessing that I’m starting to think I must have gone horribly astray. It’s a subset of the larger plans I have been following for the George Eliot book project, something I thought would work well at essay-length. It’s now in a reasonably clean draft awaiting a final round of editing and revision. We’ll see what becomes of it, but right now I’m just happy and energized by the experience of pulling it together.

In other good news, the May issue of Open Letters Monthly went up on schedule; if you haven’t already checked it out, I hope you will! As always, the pieces range very widely — more widely, we think, than in most other literary journals. Books reviewed include Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar; John Cotter contributed a thought-provoking essay on the possibility that the gigantic glass atrium at Boston’s MFA is a symptom of our changing relationship with art; Steve Donoghue tests (as only he can) the claims of a new translation of the Iliad to be “declaimable”; and I offer a “Second Glance” at Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I thought about Open Letters today when I read this piece on the effects of Britain’s REF: “Taking on a journal editorship? That means you’ll be helping other scholars publish their REF research, but what about yours? Can you spare that kind of time?” I realize that Open Letters is not necessarily the kind of journal editorship she has in mind (though I have had British scholars tell me that writing for it is something that they think works in their favor), but I have often felt particularly pleased that one thing I’ve been able to do there is show off how smart and interesting my academic colleagues and connections are. I don’t know if that kind of editorial role will count in my favor if I ever go up for promotion, but I think (I hope) that we are still clinging to more generous and collegial models of scholarship on our side of the pond — for now, and maybe just barely, as that piece emphasizes.

unbrokenThe other writing I’ve done has already shown up here, in my posts on my recent reading. I’m currently completing my “war in the Pacific” unit with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which I gave my husband for Christmas. I rarely risk buying him books, but he likes good nonfiction, and this one seemed ready-made for him, as he’s a long-time track and field enthusiast and his father piloted a B-24 during WWII. He really enjoyed it, and I’m enjoying it too — though “enjoy” probably isn’t quite the right word for either of us, since it’s rather a grim story! A lot of it is, naturally, very reminiscent of elements of both The Narrow Road to the Deep North (particularly the treatment of the Allied POWs in the Japanese camps) and Shame and the Captives (especially the context and commentary Hillenbrand provides on the aspects of Japanese culture that contributed to the extreme brutality of the camps). I find Hillenbrand’s narrative a bit clunky or heavy-handed at times: it has that “one damn thing after another” rhythm that is perhaps inevitable when you’re putting together a lot of material into a fairly straightforward chronological account. I suspect that images from the novels will stick with me longer than anything from her book except the outline of Zamperini’s undeniably astonishing story.

Once I’m done with Unbroken I think I’ll be happy to read something that doesn’t involve beatings, excrement, or hungry sharks. I picked out Nicola Griffith’s Hild and Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy with my birthday gift card to Bookmark, so one of them will likely be next, though I also got Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us from the library today because a friend highly recommended it. I’m starting to be more aware of the luxury it is to be choosing my reading material this freely: it won’t be long before my sabbatical is officially over (June 30 suddenly doesn’t seem so far away!), and I’ve already started thinking a bit about fall classes, as book orders were already due. I’m second reader on an MA thesis that should get to me in early June, and I’m also participating in a PhD comprehensive exam coming up in just a couple of weeks, for which I’ve been having semi-regular meetings with the student. A sabbatical is not, in fact, ever a period of complete isolation or exemption from one’s regular duties! But come September I’ll be doing required reading again.

This Week in My Sabbatical: Out of Sync

thedanceToday is the last day of classes in Dal’s winter term. Usually, that would mean I am feeling elated, relieved, deflated — and a bit panicked at the looming prospect of grading final papers and exams. But because I’m on sabbatical, it’s just another day, which brings on its own feelings, including some disorientation. The thing about academic life is that it has such strong rhythms, such intense recurring cycles of highs and lows, from the optimistic frazzle of the first day of classes through the mid-term slump and slog to the year-end celebration. Everyone goes through these phases, teachers and students alike, and the result is a strong, if occasionally fraught, camaraderie as we go up and down together.

I’m not sorry, of course, to be out of that rhythm for a while, though as my sabbatical goes along one of its beneficent effects is that I’m thinking positively about teaching again (which was not so much the case late last December) and I’m almost (almost) ready to enter wholeheartedly back into conversations about graduate student funding, curriculum reform, class scheduling, and all the other topics that draw us together even as they drive us apart (academics are nothing if not fractious!). It’s nice not to be on that erratic hamster wheel and to pace myself according to my own priorities, and also to follow my own energy as it rises and falls instead of forcing myself to meet a steady stream of external demands. When you’ve been “in school” one way or another as long as I have, though, it is odd to have time passing in this steadier, more self-reflective way, especially when you are working on campus and everyone around you is caught up in the familiar pattern.

WP_20150409_002My own sabbatical rhythm — which has never quite settled into a regular beat thanks to the nightmarish winter we’ve had — has been more disrupted than usual this week, first by the Easter weekend and then yet another snowstorm Tuesday morning, and then by the beginning of a long-anticipated kitchen make-over. We are finally saying goodbye to our aging laminate cupboards and vintage 80’s appliances, which were failing bit by bit and thus ultimately forced our hand: there comes a point where it seems like throwing good money after bad to keep them running. We aren’t doing anything structural — just taking the old stuff out and replacing it with new stuff — but even so there’s a lot of domestic disruption (something they rather downplay in those TV shows where a top-to-bottom renovation appears to happen in 60 minutes less commercials). To my surprise, the thing I find most frustrating is not having a proper sink. Even filling a kettle becomes a logistical challenge in a shallow bathroom sink, and you know how important my morning tea is to me!

I did manage a Meeting With Your Writing session on Thursday, and I’m puttering away at my George Eliot stuff. I think I have reached some tentative conclusions about the book vs. essay question, but I’m still turning things around in my head. While it’s true I don’t have to decide now, I think I will work better if I have a better understanding of my goals (short term and long term), so it’s useful brooding provided I can keep the neuroses under control. I haven’t gotten much concentrated reading done since I finished The Good Terrorist (which we discussed energetically at my book club meeting last night): inspired by Oleander, JacarandaI have begun rereading Moon Tiger, and I’m dipping into Ellis Peters‘s One Corpse Too Many in the interstices of the day. I also read, or really skimmed, Nora Roberts’s The Next Always. I kind of liked the ones I read from her Bride Quartet, because I liked the insider look at the different expertise each heroine had. But they were like literary jello: smooth, sweet, but nothing at all to sink your teeth into! The Next Always is about the same except it has a ghost and a stalker plot that seemed like a cheap way to provide the crisis and resolution required to come to the HEA.

And that’s where I am as this week in my sabbatical wraps up! Work on the kitchen continues next week and then there’s a lull before the final stages can be done; now that the planning and packing and reorganizing is done and the project is actually underway, it should be easier (in between specific events) to get back into a writing rhythm. I hope so! One thing about witnessing the end-of-term rush is that it reminds me that this time to work on my own terms is both precious and fleeting.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Writing and Brooding

OxfordIt has been kind of a stuttering week for me. My “Meeting With Your Writing” session on Monday helped me work up some positive energy about the next part of the George Eliot project I want to work on — this was good, as I had been getting kind of fed up with the other piece I’ve been working on since January. That piece is at about 18,000 words right now and it’s definitely still a messy early draft, which is one reason I’d become frustrated with it. But I realized that trying to “finish” it, or even polish it, when I’m not quite sure about my overall direction would be unproductive, so starting the next section made both practical and psychological sense.

Soon after, though, I found myself in the writing doldrums, mostly because the new bit seemed so disconnected from the first part and that started a whole mental chain reaction of questions about what exactly I was trying to do. This kind of metacriticism of my own work-in-progress is something I’ve been deliberately avoiding this term: my plan was just to write as much as I could while I have the time to dedicate to it, and then contemplate the results in July, when my sabbatical is officially over. Who knows, by that point, I might have accidentally provided myself with answers about what exactly I was trying to do! And I wouldn’t any longer be trying to answer questions about it in the abstract — what kind of thing might this be? what would it look like? what would it say? — but would know, and could revise and reconsider and repackage from there.

Because I am prone to both brooding and self-doubt (they go together so awfully well, don’t they?), this plan was basically a good one. It has proved harder to follow than I’d hoped, though. I am steeped in self-consciousness by both nature and training, after all; falling off the wagon as I did this week was probably an inevitability. I got myself back together by Thursday, partly by doing an extra session of MWYW during which (in service of the writing, I promise!) I got to spend a lot of time surfing around in Middlemarch choosing examples to discuss. That was truly restorative! Jo always advises us to start, if we can, with an aspect of the writing project that we really want to do — something that we think will be fun. I’ve made a note to remind myself that when I feel stuck, I should go back — if only for a little while — to one of the novels and just read for a bit. After all, they are the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place!

I’m back on track now, ready for a better, steadier time next week. I don’t think the time I spent in the doldrums was necessarily wasted, though. Though Jo rightly pointed out to me on Twitter that I don’t need to decide this question now, what I found myself mostly brooding about was whether I was wrong to be thinking about this project as a book (recall the trigger, that the two sections didn’t seem connected, except by method) — or, to approach it from the other direction, why I wasn’t satisfied thinking about it as related but distinct essay projects. I’ve honestly never been sure I had a sufficiently motivating and unifying book-sized idea, so in fact the book plan (as far as it has gotten at this point) has always been for a carefully framed and integrated series of essay-like chapters that remain primarily exercises in expansive close reading — I know, I know, not a marketable idea, at least for a literary nobody — don’t knock me off the wagon again! But any book is a struggle to get published, and Tom isn’t the only person who has pointed me to venues like the Hudson Review that already do publish literary pieces of the sort I have been writing (and of which my current material is really just a larger and messier version).

Obviously, I can’t simply assume my work would be accepted at places like that, but what if essay-writing actually suited me and my work best — what would be wrong with making that kind of publishing my ambition? After all, even the critical books I’ve liked best in recent years have in fact been made up of … you guessed it, essays (I’m thinking of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, for instance, or James Wood’s The Broken Estate). Why, then, have I become fixated on somehow producing a book?

During my brooding period, I finally admitted to myself that, in part at least, it’s for the wrong reasons, that is, it’s not because I have something to say that can’t be said properly in any other format but because I imagine it would bring me (in addition to what I hope would be some genuine personal and intellectual satisfactions) some professional validation. “Look!” I could say (to the kind of person, for example, who waved a dismissive hand at my list of essays and reviews and said they didn’t “add up to anything in particular”). “It’s not quite your kind of book, but it is at least a book, the kind of thing you can display at your book fairs!” That’s not the only reason, but recognizing that it was definitely one reason was at first depressing, and then strangely liberating. I routinely give presentations in which I bring up the MLA’s proposal that we “decenter” the monograph: I strongly believe that books (as I also discuss here) aren’t always the best form, though they have become the professionally essential form. Loving books as I do, it’s not surprising that I love the idea of producing (another) one, and I’m not 100% sure that what I’m working on now won’t eventually prove to be a book. But the next time I get fretful, I’m going to remind myself that (by principles I myself have argued for repeatedly), it’s okay if it doesn’t.

So that’s where I end up another week of my sabbatical! In the moment, it didn’t feel like a very productive week, but in retrospect I think both the writing and the brooding I’ve done actually were productive in their own ways.

This Week In My Sabbatical: More of the Same

Sadly, that includes more winter: not only did we get another storm yesterday that dumped another foot or so of snow (it was hard to tell exactly, because it was very windy and so there were lots of big drifts), but apparently there’s yet another one looming. Whatever. It’s the kids’ March break; I’m not teaching; we don’t have anywhere we need to be before Friday: let it snow! But then, please, let it stop — because enough already.

In happier news, there has also been more reading and writing. If you’re reading this, you probably already saw my post on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act as well as the one on Rex Stout’s A Right to Die. Neither book was a great hit with me, but McEwan is a writer I’m never sorry to read — his worst recent books are still much better than most other books I read, at least in their scrupulous intelligence and their ambition to be about something interesting, and I always admire his prose. And I understand better now why Nero Wolfe is such a favorite for so many mystery lovers I know, even though I don’t think he’s going to become one of mine.

senseofanendingOver the weekend I also read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and reread (most of) Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. I didn’t feel like writing a “proper” post on the Barnes novel. I didn’t like it much while I was reading it — it seemed really heavy-handed in its not-telling, and unduly portentous given what turned out to be the big revelation, which was a lot less revelatory than I expected. I’m sure there are all kinds of nuances in the novel’s treatment of memory and evidence, but I couldn’t motivate myself to go back and work up an appreciation of them. There’s lots of good writing on it: I recommend the typically thoughtful post at Tales from the Reading Room (which includes links to some extended discussions about the “what actually happened”) or this trenchant critique from Jessica at Read React ReviewMr. Impossible was a perfect storm-day diversion: it’s a perfect example of one of my own favorite romance tropes, namely “severe bluestocking discovers passion with a man who finds her intelligence alluring.” (I’m sure that says nothing about me at all! But seriously, as I said the first time I wrote here about reading romances, it’s interesting to me how personal romance preferences seem, compared to, say, detective fiction.) Now I’m reading Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights. I’m liking it a lot so far: it’s quiet and a bit melancholy.

Besides the blog posts, I’ve also written more of my George Eliot chapter. It’s still a long way from being finished, but I think it would be a mistake to keep at it until it seems perfect and complete: I still don’t quite know what the larger project should be, and the more I polish this piece the harder it will be to mess it up again later. So I’ve resolved to stick with it for another week, at which point all of its parts will be there in rough form. Then I’m going to start the process again on the topic I’ve chosen for the second chapter, work away at it until it too is in rough but full form, and then take off the blinkers and try to figure out what I’ve done, whether I should persist along similar lines, or reconsider altogether, or what. I have been feeling a bit grim about all this effort going into something that may be entirely quixotic — but I got a boost today reading Dan Green’s review of Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel“Ultimately,” Dan says,

[Gorra’s] goal is to enhance our appreciation of this novel (and indirectly of Henry James as a fiction writer), in the most old-fashioned sense to account for its greatness. What Gorra has really produced in Portrait of a Novel is a work of critical eclecticism. He borrows from a number of critical approaches, including some of those currently ascendant in academic criticism, as well as more traditional “scholarly” concerns, and in the process demonstrates how criticism can draw on a variety of ways of thinking about literature as a phenomenon of human expression and culture in order to satisfy the ultimate goal of providing a clarifying perspective on a morally and aesthetically complex work of literature.

gorra“Our current literary culture,” he concludes, “could certainly benefit from more books like Portrait of Novel, books that avoid both the intellectual trendiness and abstraction of academic criticism and the undisciplined impressionism of popular criticism.” I’m not (at the moment, anyway) including much biography, but I am trying to do “the sort of ‘in-between’ criticism” Gorra’s book apparently provides (I’ve put a hold on it at the library and will take a look for myself as soon as I can), and as Gorra’s book has been well received, maybe Dan isn’t the only one who likes to read that kind of thing. Gorra, of course, already had the right profile to make a book like this seem to a publisher like a plausible venture, but that’s an anxiety for another day. David Pierce’s Reading Joycewhich I have already looked at pretty carefully, is another example of “in-between” criticism — more than, say, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, which for all its good qualities, really does not offer a rigorous reading of its touchstone novel.

Last Week In My Classes: Exams and What’s Next

The final exams for my classes were last Friday and Saturday, both at 8:30 a.m., both in Dalplex, our main athletics facility, which is converted during the exam period into, well, this:

desks

Looks depressing, doesn’t it? And it is, but it is also efficient: a cadre of assistant invigilators patrols the aisles, helping to bring extra exam booklets or escort students to the washroom, while an appointed Chief Invigilator works out the seating plan, makes announcements, and keeps track of the time. Though in some ways I prefer being in a smaller room alone with “my” students, the impersonality of this set-up is not all bad. And I always put out candy (toffees, this year), which I hope is at least very mildly cheering. (I was always too nervous to eat before exams, which meant my blood sugar would crash in the first half hour or so: a toffee or two would have really helped me out, which is why I do this. That, and because despite any rumors to the contrary, I’m a friendly person!)

Anyway, the consequence of having both exams back to back like this and quite late in the exam period is that I went from being completely caught up on work the previous Thursday night to having approximately 120 exams to mark. I decided not to start on them until Monday — I’m trying to reclaim my weekends, which is rarely possible during the term when you have a Monday morning class, but it seems like a good principle as far as work-life balance goes. So Monday morning I settled in, and Friday around mid-day I filed the second set of final grades.

It was not a pleasant week, and as usual it raised all kinds of questions for me about final exams. This is such familiar territory on this blog now that I’m reluctant to rehash the arguments for and against them. I wish I could do without them altogether, but experience teaches me that I can’t, at least not in classes that aren’t as self-selecting as 4th-year seminars (where I have never given exams). I’m almost as tired of fretting about exams as I am of marking them! The solution that seems most reasonable to me at this point — since the chief purpose of them in lower-level classes is to motivate work and attention during the term — is to change the kind of exams I give to make them less laborious for me to mark. I’ll be thinking more about that when I work out the assignment sequences for my next classes … which won’t be for months, because I’m on sabbatical as of the end of December!

Yes, that’s right, I have made it through to another teaching-free term. I was on sabbatical when I first started this blog, in 2007, then again in 2011. I got a lot done both times, but in somewhat miscellaneous ways. This time I am determined to be more deliberate about how I use my time, to get less distracted by small projects (essays and reviews that aren’t really part of anything, even if individually I’m proud of them). It has been very intellectually stimulating paying more attention to “that tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” but this sabbatical is about my “particular web” — which, yes, means that George Eliot book I keep talking about but not actually writing.

Actually, that’s not quite fair, since in the summer I wrote a kind of prospectus for the book — and since the five essays I’ve written on George Eliot (for Open Letters and the Los Angeles Review of Books) are all, in a way, trial runs at the kind of criticism I want the book to represent. That’s a long way from producing something longer and more unified, though, and I have been realizing how long it has been since I really thought on a larger scale than “essay” or “article.” I haven’t really worked at anything book-length since I turned my thesis into my first book; my second book was an edited collection, for which I did a great deal of work and wrote an introduction, but that’s not at all the same thing! The first challenges for me, then, are both conceptual and logistical. The prospectus really helped me with the former; now I have to face up to the latter by breaking down a large and still fairly vague plan into manageable first steps. And I have to make sure that I don’t let myself get too tempted away from this still frighteningly open-ended project to more concrete things I can finish up now. The short-term sense of accomplishment is like psychological toffee, really: you get a useful little sugar rush from it, but it won’t serve you well in the long term.

And that’s one reason I’m going to block off further thoughts, meditations, plans, and preparations for next fall’s classes. I love drafting syllabi! Choosing reading lists is fun! Even building Blackboard sites has its satisfactions, because it involves many discrete tasks that can be neatly itemized and checked off — but they really do not need to be done now. If you catch me working on them before July 1, when my sabbatical ends, rap my virtual knuckles, please! (Well, I will have to submit course descriptions and book orders in March or April, I think, but anything beyond that is not allowed!) I think this blog shows how seriously I take my teaching and how much time I put into it, but the point of a sabbatical is that you focus on the other things you’re supposed to be doing as a scholar.

Something I think may help me maintain a different kind of focus next term is spending less time in my office. We’ll see: it can be a very quiet, productive space for me. But it has been an emotionally very up-and-down term for me, especially where thinking about work is concerned, and there have also been a lot of specific work-related stresses. As a result, I’ve been feeling a strong desire to put a little distance between myself and the campus. I had been imagining I might take my laptop to our new library, which has finally opened to the public. But although it does seem to be a very exciting, vibrant space, my two visits so far have been discouraging about it as a potential workplace for me. We live close to the Atlantic School of Theology, which has a library with a pretty nice view; my guess is that it’s pretty quiet, so I might give it a try. Even just fixing on a different campus location for writing might be enough to break the mental cycle of weariness and discouragement.

The other thing I’m committed to is signing up for Jo VanEvery’s “Meeting With Your Writing” — for which, it occurs to me, I’d best be in my campus office, so I have a landline, but that’ll be fine for such a specific purpose.

So! That’s this term put to bed and next term planned out — in theory, at least. But now I’m taking a break to read, bake, and generally unwind and enjoy our quiet holiday traditions.Inspired by Howards End, I’m rereading A Room with a View, which I love as much as always; I’ve got a mental TBR list yards long; and I see several book-shaped parcels under the tree, which is always exciting. I’ll also be putting up a couple of year-end round-up posts here soon (here are last year’s).

This Week In My Classes: Counting Down

todolistActual classroom hours left this term: 6
Essays still to grade this week: 17
In-class tests incoming: 42
Reading Responses incoming: 84
Reading Journals incoming: 60-ish
Final essays and exams looming: 130
Reference letters in the queue: 24
Early morning hours that will be spent in Dalplex in the limbo of exam invigilation: 7
Weeks until I’m officially on sabbatical: 6
Department meetings before then: 1

This Week In My Classes: What Makes a “Teachable” Novel?

This week I decided to call my own bluff.

knots_crossesI spend a lot of time fretting about which books I assign in my Mystery and Detective Fiction course — because once you get past the few absolute “must haves” (something by Poe, some Sherlock Holmes, The Moonstone, something to represent the Golden Age, one of the hard-boiled essentials) there are many good reasons but no real imperatives to help me choose from the tens of thousands of possibilities. My guiding principles are coverage (of the major subgenres, such as the police procedural) and diversity (of voice or point of view), but that doesn’t really narrow things down that much. I’ve asked for suggestions quite a few times here, with great results: I have readers like Dorian to thank, for instance, for prodding me to read Sjöwall and Wahlöö, whose The Terrorists is currently a staple of my course reading list.

I tweak that list pretty regularly, and I’m always turning over alternatives in my mind. One of the books I’ve assigned the most is Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, which is his first Rebus novel. As often the case with the first books in a series, it is in some ways his most self-conscious, and it doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of Rebus on our part, which is useful for classroom purposes. It’s also a nifty little book in its own way, neatly constructed, with lots of clever twists; its deliberate invocations of the Scottish gothic tradition make it nicely literary and its inquiry into masculine identity, military “bonding,” and repression usually spark good discussion. It’s not the best Rebus novel, though (I know Rankin doesn’t think so either): the others, especially the more recent ones, have a broader social and political reach and do more as police procedurals, while Knots and Crosses (which was not intended as a “crime novel” to begin with) is really more of a psychological thriller. Every time I teach Knots and Crosses, then, I mutter to myself (and sometimes remark to the class) that to really see what Rankin and Rebus can do, we should read something else. Yet I have never acted on that conviction.

This week, then, I decided I should reread one of the others that has long been in my mind as an alternative: 2006’s The Naming of the Dead. Set in Edinburgh during the 2005 G8 meeting, it balances its murder investigations against political crimes and misdemeanors of all kinds. Siobhan Clarke is on the case too, but involved personally as well as professionally, and Rebus’s old antagonist, “Big Ger” Cafferty, becomes an uneasy ally. My recollection of the book is that it explored lots of themes we’re always interested in in this class, especially gray areas between crime and detection, or tensions between the law and real justice. Rereading it, this impression has been confirmed, as has my sense that its political context gives Rankin the opportunity to do something similar to what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do, that is, extend particular criminal investigations to larger critiques of systems of power. Rankin’s novels have been acknowledged as contemporary versions of the Victorian ‘condition of England’ novel: with Knots and Crosses, you can’t see why, but with The Naming of the Dead, the genealogy works and would, I think, be really interesting to discuss.

namingofthedeadAnd yet … I am not convinced that I should replace Knots and Crosses after all! Much as I’m enjoying rereading it, I’m not sure it would be as teachable as Knots and Crosses, and my hesitation over this has had me wondering: what do I mean by “teachable”? It’s not something I ever really consider about Victorian novels when choosing among them for my 19th-century fiction classes, but when I’m scouting for mystery novels to assign — or contemplating assigning some new (or new to me) novel for an intro course — “How would this work in the classroom?” is always a concern. And for the majority of mystery novels I read, the (usually unarticulated) response to this question is “it wouldn’t”: I put most of them aside without seriously considering them for my syllabus, which strikes me as interesting. Why would that be? Might it (she says a little nervously) have something to do with the “literary” vs. “genre” fiction distinction? Or, to be more precise, with the ways that methods for “teaching” a novel (at least for me) align with qualities that are more likely to occur in “literary” fiction?

What qualities am I looking for in a novel I assign? I suppose the fundamental requirement is that there be something in it for us to talk about — not just for a few minutes, but for enough classroom hours that we can spread our work on the novel across whatever seems like a reasonable amount of time for the students to read the whole thing. The formula for this will vary depending on the level and nature of the class, of course, but anything that will take up a week or more of class time has to be of a certain complexity — and not just of plot, because just rehearsing what happened is not particularly valuable or interesting. It might sound foolish to put it this way, but to teach a book there also has to be something about it that needs explaining, as well as something that rewards discussion. Not all of this has to be generated by the intrinsic qualities of the book: a book might get some of its interest from external contexts — (literary) historical, for instance, or theoretical. But you don’t (well, I don’t) want to spend a lot of time on stuff around the book and only point to the book itself in passing: you want to dig in and really get to know it!

One way of labeling the process I’m most used to, pedagogically, would be “deep reading,” or “close reading.” Not all books reward that particular kind of reading equally. An alternative is “horizontal reading,” where the individual text is seen as part of a broad array of related and perhaps even quite similar material. Its interest arises at least in part, in that case, by comparison: among things of this kind, how is this particular one different or interesting? In Mystery and Detective Fiction we actually do a combination of the two. I spend a fair amount of time describing a broad horizon of comparison (because we don’t have time to read lots and lots of examples to establish it on our own) and then we consider how our specific example fits into or revises common conventions and tropes. Mystery fiction really is strongly governed by recognizable patterns which in their least interesting versions seem simply formulaic — which is not to say that there aren’t tropes and conventions and formulas in “literary” fiction too, and one reason I’m using scare-quotes is that I am very aware that the distinction I’m invoking is a vexed and imperfect one. But it seems silly to pretend there aren’t books that are very clearly of a kind, perhaps even repetitively or predictably so, and that whatever the pleasures they afford many readers, they don’t individually hold up under the kind of scrutiny I am inclined to give them in class. Or, in another variation on the problem, they don’t do something new and thought-provoking enough to those tropes and conventions that they jump out as examples we need to consider. I’m not judging these books in any absolute way, of course. I’m just measuring them by what I perceive as my pedagogical goals.

moonstoneThen there are other constraints on teachability: more pragmatic ones. Again, with Victorian novels I mostly don’t worry too much about these, though I am wise, or cautious, or jaded, enough never to assign two genuine door-stoppers in the same term  (say, Bleak House and Middlemarch). Students who sign up for “The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy” have to know what they are getting into! But the mystery class is a lower-level course that is purely an elective for everybody in it. I can barely get them all through The Moonstone (and in fact I am confident there are always some who never make it to the end) — and that’s a book that’s so interesting I can barely stop talking about it myself! It earns its two weeks of class time by being not just important but really complex and (for the class) quite challenging. This is actually where I fear The Naming of the Dead  falls apart as an option (though I’m not 100% sure yet). Its nearly 500 pages are not nearly as dense as The Moonstone‘s, but in a way that’s just the problem: it goes on for almost as long a time without actually being as complex. It is broad, I might say, and it’s smart, but it’s not particularly deep. I’m not sure about this, because I haven’t tried to map out any lecture topics, but it would be a bad idea to assign 500 pages and then end up feeling like we were spinning our wheels in class.

It’s true that you can find something to say about almost anything, and that there is no one uniform approach that works for teaching all novels. The Naming of the Dead seems to me an in-between case: I’m ruling it out (I think) because it requires too big an investment for the likely payoff in this particular course. It also matters to me that Knots and Crosses — which is both short and suspenseful — is always very popular with students: it is often singled out in course evaluations as a favorite, for instance, and class discussions about it tend to be pretty lively. (This year The Terrorists has been our most-discussed book so far, though.) Maybe it will inspire students to go on and read more of Rankin’s (better) novels on their own; I’m guessing that the number who are inspired to read more Wilkie Collins is very small! I suppose I could swap it out for a different example of the police procedural. I’ve tried that before, actually: one year we read Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which earned its spot on the list because the 87th Precinct series was ground-breaking of its kind. But for all that is interesting about it, Cop Hater is a really badly written novel, or so we ended up thinking by the time we’d talked it through. In that case, being teachable turned out not to be enough to teach it again!

If you’re curious about which books I’ve chosen over the years, in Mystery and Detective Fiction or in my other classes, you can get a good sense of the range by scanning the On Teaching page of this blog.

This Week In My Classes: Falling Back

We set our clocks back an hour on the weekend. Whle I concede that it’ss nice to have it lighter in the morning, I never feel that makes up for how dark it gets in the afternoon, which tends to be my low energy time anyway. In any case, this plus our first flurries of the season makes it impossible for me to keep pretending winter isn’t setting in. I can hardly express what a drag this is on my spirits. Winter increases my stress levels exponentially — mostly because I hate driving in snow and ice. In fact, if I could configure my life so that I never had to get behind the wheel of a car between December and April, I might not mind winter at all. Well, OK, I would still not be a fan of the freezing-rain-sleet-snow mix Halifax specializes in, but it would not fray my nerves or ruin my plans in the same way. On the bright side, I do have a sabbatical next term, which somewhat relieves the pressure, and at this point the worst still lies ahead. In the meantime, we’re not done with the fall term yet.

theterroristsI think things are going reasonably well in both my classes right now. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just finished working through Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists, which provoked quite a lot of discussion this time around. As always, I’ve been meditating on how to change up the reading list for the course’s next incarnation; I think The Terrorists is a keeper, precisely because it gives us a lot to talk about. It is, arguably, somewhat tendentious — I’ve been wondering if I should hold the authors’ Marxism in reserve next time (rather than emphasizing it in my opening lecture) and let the novel’s politics reveal themselves inductively. I don’t find the novel too doctrinaire to be humanly interesting and dramatic, though: I think Sjöwall and Wahlöö successfully walk the line between the picture and the diagram, with Martin Beck himself especially standing between us and a narrow didacticism. Rhea may have a portrait of Mao on her wall, but Beck remains committed to (if ambivalent about) the flawed system he polices. Today we started Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses — time for my annual comment that I’d love to try one of his longer, richer novels, except that this one (like The Terrorists) is always really good for discussion, and always gets singled out in student evaluations as a general favorite.

In 19th-Century Fiction we’ve moved on to Jude the ObscureJude is usually the last novel I cover in the Dickens-to-Hardy class, so it feels odd that it isn’t this time: we’re following it up with The Odd Women. I made room for Gissing by skipping sensation fiction for the first time I can remember in this course. I kind of miss it, because it’s a lot of fun (I usually assign either Lady Audley’s Secret or The Woman in White), but I’m anticipating a good response to The Odd WomenJude seems to have perked people up, too, which might seem perverse, considering how grim it is, but depression has its own agonistic charms, and the novel also moves much more quickly, and is expressed much more bluntly, than Middlemarch (which, to my delight, thrilled a handful of students but also clearly daunted or deterred a fair number of them). One of the things we talked about today was Hardy’s emphasis on buildings and architecture. The novel is so intensely tactile and visual that I thought it might be nice to put some pictures in our minds’ eyes, so I put together a simple slide show, including these photos from my own one and only (so far) visit to Oxford.

pulpit

martyrs

The pulpit at St. Mary’s isn’t, strictly speaking, a Jude landmark, but Newman is one of the ghostly presences Jude communes with on his first night in the city, and I was surprised how moved I was to see where he had preached. The Martyrs’ Cross, of course, is where Sue and Jude first meet — or, more precisely, where Jude first suggests they meet, only to have Sue call out, as they approach it, “I am not going to meet you just there, for the first time in my life!” Jude is definitely not one of my favorite novels, but it is a favorite of mine to teach, because however heavy-handed I find it (and however annoying I find Sue), it is also passionate and occasionally profound, including in the challenge it issues to the more conventional morality of our other readings. Reading it right after Middlemarch also really brings out continuities: they share interests in aspiration and vocation, in hopes crushed, in loves that press against convention, in learning and religion and compassion for flawed, suffering humanity. Middlemarch may seem melancholy in its treatment of these themes, but put Jude up against it and suddenly Eliot’s meliorism seems downright buoyant!

Even though Jude is not our last book, it’s astonishing to realize how close we already are to the end of term: it seems to be rushing past. At the same time, it has felt like a particularly effortful term to me. I can’t remember ever feeling quite so tired after each class meeting: I come back to my office and have to just sit still for a while before I can gather up the energy for my next task. Am I getting old? Well, yes, of course I am … but I hope that the real culprit is the tendinitis that has kept me from my running routine for months now. I am just gradually getting back into a modified exercise program. One reason I have to sit down after class, though, is that standing and pacing (as I inevitably do during lecture and discussion) seems to be about the worst thing for my aches and pains! I’ve been very frustrated that even after diligently following all my physiotherapist’s instructions I am not significantly better and more mobile! I’m cautiously optimistic at this point. I never ran very far or very fast at the best of times, but I would like to get back at least to where I was. I miss the psychological benefits as much as the physical ones. Here’s hoping!

This Week In My Classes – An Update: Middlemarch Unplugged

WP_20140827_005I’m sure you have all been wondering whether I have managed to get my control-freak tendencies under control for this week’s classes on Middlemarch. Well, the week isn’t over yet, but so far the answer is both not really (Monday) and more or less (today). I had all kinds of good intentions on Monday, but I also had quite a lot of notes in hand, and though I did use them to frame the questions I hoped we would discuss, I went on too long and in too much detail in what was supposed to be the set-up portion of the class. I left feeling quite dissatisfied with myself, but also with a better understanding of why things keep turning out that way — an insight that I confirmed by leafing through the rather sizable folder of Middlemarch materials I have accumulated over the years.

Here’s what I figured out: it’s my notes that are the problem! Once upon a time, they were looser and more open-ended. Over the years, in the well-meaning but ultimately mistaken belief that I was doing the right thing, I have filled them in more, elaborated on them, figured out ways to fill “gaps” in the topics and examples they cover. They are good notes, don’t get me wrong: the lectures they support are good ones, or at least I think so! In some settings, delivering them — not as a completely closed production, without any interaction, but as a more or less set “piece” with a clear structure — is a fine idea and goes over well enough. Sometimes, too, there really is content that needs to be passed along in an orderly way. But this is an upper-level class on the 19th-century novel and having wide-ranging discussion is a genuine goal of mine, especially now that I hope have laid the groundwork for it. And the thing is that while having detailed notes feels like it will help me lead a good discussion, what I realized on Monday is that I have come not just to rely on them but to feel controlled by them myself — moving in order through the topics and examples, and trying to include everything. Not 100%, not all the time — but enough that I need to take some self-conscious steps in the other direction.

For today, then, instead of revising and presenting my lecture on “reform in Middlemarch,” (which comes complete with a handout of excerpts from Arnold, Mill, Carlyle, and Felix Holt, as well as Middlemarch), I worked out a list of likely topics and collected the pages numbers of some key scenes under each heading — but nothing more! Before class, I reviewed that scanty page or two again and manually jotted some big ideas next to topic, to make sure I had some big ideas in my head to work towards. I also chose a short excerpt from the BBC adaptation to show, because my impression had been that we were a bit lost in the abstractions and the human drama of the novel was perhaps escaping them. It felt oddly like a leap of faith to go so “unprepared,” but I think it went fine. The film clip loosened everyone up, and we didn’t have any trouble finding things to talk about for the rest of the time — and I didn’t feel we were just drifting, even though we weren’t following a script.

I am emboldened, as well as reassured: for Friday I have selected two specific passages as launching points, and that will be (almost) everything I bring along. Maybe one day I can get (back) to the openness with Middlemarch that I find much easier to achieve and accept with other novels.

This Week In My Classes: Micromanaging Middlemarch

OxfordMaybe there should be a question mark in the title of this post. I hope there should be! But I’m not sure, and that makes me just a little anxious.

It is always hard to find a good balance between showing students what’s interesting and important in the novel we’re studying and letting them explore and discover things on their own. But it is particularly challenging with a novel as dense as Middlemarch, and I fear that — in recent years especially, as I’ve become more certain of my own ideas about the novel — I have become a little too controlling during our class time.

In my defense,  Middlemarch is long, our time is short, and an inductive or Socratic approach guarantees some serious inefficiency in arriving at anything like a thorough understanding of the novel. More than that, it’s flat-out unreasonable to expect anyone reading the novel for the first time to keep good enough track of the details (whether of plot or of narrative commentary) to put the pieces together confidently into an interpretation they feel ready to defend. It takes a lot of time and rereading to do that! And that’s not even taking into account the kinds of contextual information — historical, political, theoretical — that helps make sense of things that happen in the novel, or that enriches a reading that otherwise might focus (of necessity) quite superficially on the plot.

It’s true that, as Steve recently argued about Wuthering Heights, it is perfectly possibly to have a thrilling reading experience “without a speck of annotation,” or its in-class equivalent. My own first reading of Middlemarch was innocent in just that way. But in class, we come to study Middlemarch, not (just) to praise it, and I believe strongly that “expert guidance” can enhance that reading experience in myriad ways — else how would I show up for work every day? At the same time, it’s my job to train students to read well themselves, not just to show them how well I can read! With that in mind, I proceed in all of my classes through a blend of lecture and discussion, laying out facts and, where it seems appropriate, big-picture interpretive frameworks, but also asking open-ended but purposeful questions that begin with observations and then build towards interpretations by looking for connections and patterns. Even when I am outright lecturing, I’m not “just” transferring information (something I think is in fact easily undervalued) — I’m also modelling the process; class discussion is a collaborative way of doing the same thing. The further along we get in our discussions the less distance there is between observation and analysis, because (if all goes well) the early classes demonstrate the most fruitful lines of inquiry, or lay down tracks to pursue as we continue our reading.penguin

But, again, open discussion has built-in inefficiencies, and with Middlemarch — both because I love it so and because I have worked hard myself to connect its ideas across its many parts — I am always tempted to minimize them by doing more demonstrations, more set pieces of explanation. For instance, over time I have developed a range of detailed of lecture notes that focus on particular themes or problems (interpretation and misinterpretation, say, or reform, or religion) and trace them through examples from across wide swathes of the novel. This is precisely the kind of thing that’s hard for students to do: by the time they get to Chapter 31, Chapter 15 is a long way behind them; by the time they get to Chapter 77, how much detail can they remember of Chapter 43? I also have a few favorite examples of the novel’s formal properties that I like to work through with some care so that they see how its structure reflects its central ideas. Again, these are hard things to notice on a first reading (the chronological shifts especially), so it seems right that I should steer the class pretty closely through all of this. But it’s not good if my well-meaning guidance precludes their — and my — finding out what they are interested in or letting them work out connections on their own, or if it means I am just using our class time to insist on my own way of reading the novel. That’s sort of what they are there for, but in some important ways it is not what they are there for at all!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking at them without interruption for the whole class period! Last week, precisely because I’ve been worrying about this micromanaging tendency, I did not stick rigidly to my notes but consciously tried to throw out more open-ended questions and see where they took us. It’s pretty clear, though, that for many of them the novel is a lot to manage on their own (I’m not sure I want to know how many have fallen behind in the reading). When not a lot of answers are forthcoming, what’s a micromanager  control-freak  enthusiast responsible teacher to do but fill in the gaps herself?

But I’m hopeful that they are oriented reasonably well in the novel now. We’re heading into sections that lend themselves to genuine debate, too, and that should give the discussion some good momentum. Toomorrow, for instance, we’ll consider whether Dorothea should have promised Casaubon to “carry out my wishes . . . [and] avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” His request prompts a painful inner struggle for her, so presumably there are genuine reasons on both sides. And we’re not far from Raffles’s death, which raises lots of interesting questions about culpability. Overt crises in the action typically help bring more abstract problems (here, about sympathy and morality) into focus and make them seem more urgent.

I do have more specific ideas I very much want us to “cover” about Middlemarch — points I think it is genuinely important to make, moments I believe we should pay particular attention to — before we reach the end of our allotted time for the novel. What I have to keep in mind is that it is impossible to actually cover everything we might conceivably address. Even my own “must-do” list is incredibly partial (Fred and Mary, for instance, always seem to get short shrift, which is all kinds of wrong). But that’s OK! “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending”: the narrator says so! I just need to keep my inner Casaubon under control . . .  Still, it’s both funny and frustrating to realize that it is getting harder rather than easier to find that ideal balance with this, my favorite book of all to read and teach.