This Week in My Classes: My Waverley Intervention

My sincere thanks to everyone who weighed in, here or on Twitter, with advice about handling the classroom slump brought on by Waverley. Here’s an update on what I decided to do.

highlanderFirst of all, I did decide to do something different, rather than just pressing on with my usual strategies. I had to admit to myself — and I admitted this morning to my class — that if year after year a critical mass of students just isn’t getting engaged by the novel, at least to some extent this is a failure on my part — a pedagogical failure. Dropping Waverley from my reading list was also a failure: some students in Waverley-free years have told me how happy they were to have missed it, but missing out on it was not a win for them any more than it was one for me. As I told my class this morning, it’s a novel that deserves its place on our syllabus, one that is well worth reading for our curriculum, whatever anyone’s personal response to it. But the failure isn’t all mine. To use the analogy I suggested to my class, if you’re stumped by a difficult calculus problem, you don’t blame the problem: you work it as hard as you can, get more help if you need it, and try to bring your skills up to the level you need to solve it.

I decided to approach the class, then, as a problem-solving opportunity: we all, collectively, needed to think about what was going on and what our own role could be in addressing it. I said frankly where I thought I had been going wrong: struggle is part of learning new things, and they needed to be free to talk about their difficulties without my getting all judgmental. I told them that I thought I needed to back off a bit, and listen, so that they could trust me to work with them. But so that we didn’t fall into an unproductive gripe session, I suggested they approach Waverley in the spirit of couples therapy: avoid “you” statements in favour of “I” statements, to stimulate not blame but agency. “Waverley is boring” doesn’t help: you can’t change Waverley, after all! “I am finding Waverley boring / frustrating / confusing” is more constructive because there may be something you (or I, as the teacher) can do differently.

All of this preamble took only a  few minutes at the start of class. Then I went to work on getting out of their way. I’d made up a handout with three simple questions:

  1. How is Waverley going for me? What do I like about it? What specific challenges does it pose?
  2. Given the specific ways I’m finding Waverley challenging, here are some ideas for things I could try to make it go better:
  3. Given the specific ways I’m finding Waverley challenging, here are some ideas for what Dr. Maitzen could do to help:

I gave them about 10 minutes to respond honestly to these questions — the handout was explicitly not to be submitted or evaluated. Then on the other side of the handout they each had one of five different passages I’d picked out, and they got into small groups with the other students who had the same passage. They had two tasks in their groups: first, to talk freely about how they’d answered their questions, then to read their passage aloud and discuss it, considering it in light of their general comments about reading Waverley as well as in the context of the issues we’d been working on in our previous classes. I left the room entirely for the first five minutes of the group work, literally getting out of their way so they would be uninhibited in their discussion.

The room erupted into noise behind me as I went out, and the conversation seemed energetic for the whole period. While they talked over their passages, I went around offering my help and inviting comments on the question about what I could do to help with their reading of the novel. I got some very specific requests: the most frequent was to go over the political / historical factions again, clarifying who was on what side. A couple of people thought a handout listing characters and their affiliations (and their various names) would be great, so I think I’ll do some version of that. Another suggestion was for some straightforward plot summary: because a number of them are really struggling through Scott’s prose, they lose track of what’s actually happening. Plot summary is not usually high on my priorities for class time, but I can see how confusion about the novel’s events would inhibit class participation! So I’ll do that too, though I’m going to think about ways to make it interactive.

As for things that they could do, a couple of students said that reading the passages out loud helped their comprehension, so that might be something they’ll try on their own (we talked about the audiobook option, though sadly there doesn’t seem to be a really good one available). I showed them the e-text available through the University of Adelaide, which might help anyone struggling with the small print of our Oxford edition. I think others realized that looking more words up in their dictionary will help, and I continued to urge them all to get started trying to write about the novel. It was clear that not everyone had the same issues, and not everyone even had any problems with it — I hope the students who were already getting along fine don’t feel the class was wasted: I think we will all benefit if our remaining two sessions go better.

However it goes on Wednesday and Friday, I won’t regret having tried to change the dynamic that was developing. Lecturing more is one way to get through a slump like this, but it isn’t the best way, since (as I often remind them) the objective of an English class is for them to be better readers themselves: the process of reading and discussion is not just important, but in some ways it’s the whole point.

This Week in My Classes: In which I return to Waverley after many years.

waverleyIn class this week one of my students asked me when I last taught Waverley. “2006-7,” I promptly replied — I knew this because I had gone back to my old files to see what notes and handouts I had in reserve.* It used to be a fixture on my syllabus for The 19thC Novel from Austen to Dickens — but it was also, without fail, the least popular book on the syllabus. While I don’t typically let such considerations steer me in choosing assigned texts (a literary education is about challenging and extending our existing taste and skills as readers, after all), it did get to be a drag coaxing and cheerleading and exhorting the students to get any kind of discussion going. Sure, Scott is probably the most popular and influential author of the early 19th century: all of our other novelists read him (mostly, with passionate affection) and learned from him. And sure, Waverley itself is heaps of fun if you can get into the spirit of things, and if you can get past the garrulous, curmudgeonly, oversharing, occasionally pedantic, highly self-conscious narrator … and sure, there’s all kinds of metafictional proto-post-modernist fun to be had with that narrator, too, if, again, you can get into it. But when at least 75% of the students really can’t get into it, then their boredom and resentment infects the classroom atmosphere, and not necessarily just for the two or so weeks spent on Waverley itself. So I stopped assigning it, and have been teaching Austen to Dickens with no Scott at all since then, except for “The Two Drovers” in a recent summer session of the course.

But I’ve missed Waverley: unpopular as it was, and its intrinsic merits aside, it provided an infinitely valuable touchstone for interesting features of our other novels. As I was already tilting this year’s incarnation of the course towards the Bildungsroman by including both Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, I knew I was going to miss it even more. So it’s back  — and, judging by the last two class meetings, so is the stupified resentment it inspires. Not, by any means, among all the students — but even those who are writing smartly in their reading journals seem uncharacteristically reticent in class, and I have numerous indications that a lot of students are falling behind in their reading as well as in their appreciation of the novel. And so I’m back wondering, as I was in 2006-7, what I could be doing differently to make things go better, or whether it’s just not worth the effort.

My basic approach is a ramped-up version of what I do with every assigned novel, which is to present the novel as enthusiastically as I can, front-loading our time on it with a lecture or two clearing up historical information and setting up some interpretive frameworks which then, in theory, enable everyone to read on and consider how the particulars of the novel fit into those broader patterns. There is a bit more context to be established here than usual, but as Scott himself says,

I beg pardon, once and for all, of those readers who take up novels merely for amusement, for plaguing them so long with old-fashioned politics, and Whig and Tory, and Hanoverians and Jacobites. The truth is, I cannot promise them that this story shall be intelligible, not to say probably, without it.

If that was true in 1814 (or 1805), it’s even more so today, when there’s barely any chance at all that those terms will mean anything, even to a History major. But once you see what the stakes are, it seems to me that it’s not impossibly difficult to follow the story! It takes patience for a modern reader to settle into the prosy narration, but it’s great stuff once you do, and there’s as much “action, laffs, and romance” as in any Captain Underpants novel!  So once we’re launched on the more discussion-based classes, I start from my stock of open-ended questions (“What kind of a fellow is Waverley?’) and then draw us along into analysis of the answers (“What’s the value of such a ‘wavering’ hero in a novel about civil conflict?’) — focusing, along the way, on particularly fun or revealing scenes. An early episode in Waverley that’s good to discuss, for instance (in theory) is the banquet at Tully-Veolan that ends in a drunken brawl at Luckie Macleary’s inn. In addition to being a great comic scene and one that illustrates Waverley’s uncanny (and symbolic!) habit of falling down in times of crisis, it shows the living importance and potentially violent results of the broad political conflicts we’ve gone over: the fight begins with “a toast which seemed . . . to have a peculiar and uncivil reference to the government that [Waverley] served.”

bustofscottAgain, this is all standard classroom procedure — lecture mixed with discussion prompted by questions designed to build interpretations out of observations. But it just doesn’t go well with Waverley, though there are always a few stalwart souls who put their hands up (thank you!). I’m always a bit puzzled by the conspicuous collapse: the novel doesn’t strike me as that opaque, especially once we’ve done our warm-up sessions. On the assumption that incomprehension is a problem, though, my first response is usually to step up what I think of as the ‘modeling’ component of class — that is, walking the students through those key episodes and showing them what’s in there to notice, enjoy, and work with. Then I try backing off again — but still with lackluster results. Is it me, I wonder? Perhaps I come on too strong: if they are feeling bemused or bored, then my enthusiasm, rather than ‘selling’ them on the novel, may just alienate them from both it and me. Also, sometimes I catch myself hectoring them: this week, for example, I gave them a heads-up that we’d be discussing three particular incidents, and when hardly anyone seemed prepared to do that, well, I did take them to task! But that backfires too, I bet: rather than feeling challenged to do better, they probably just feel defensive.

I really want them to rise to the challenge of this novel. I really don’t think it’s an impossible task. But for many of themI think it does require letting go of the expectation that class reading will be immediately accessible and ‘relatable.’ It’s a class , after all: you’re supposed to learn from it — cue the speech about this not being a book club! Last class I urged them to get started writing about it, if they hadn’t already: they’ve got study questions they can use as prompts for their journals, plus the questions we’ve been working on in class. Active engagement of that kind is a good way to learn, and Waverley is a genuinely interesting novel to write about even if you aren’t finding it a treat to read. But I’m stumped about what else to do, and about what attitude to take in class. I should probably just go on as usual and try not to make a big deal out of the slump we’re experiencing — but that’s easier said than done.

Any tips? Teachers, how do you handle it when you think you’re losing your students and, as a result, they’re missing out? Students, what tactic is most effective, in your experience, at motivating you to get on board with something you don’t find immediately compelling?

*2006-7! That means it was in the era Before Blogging, which is why I have never blogged before about the pleasures and perils of teaching Waverley.