This Week In My Classes: Erring Women

In both of my classes this week we are focusing on young women making mistakes. It’s interesting for me (and I hope also for the students who are in both classes) to compare the very different ways their novels approach their rather different errors.

Both of them do wrong things for right reasons. Jane Eyre, for starters, is angry, rebellious, vengeful, even violent, in her early days at Gateshead Hall, but she is this way because she is miserable and unfairly treated and yearns for both justice and love. When she gets to Lowood, she continues to resist injustice and insist on her right to strike back against her oppressors: “you are good to those who are good to you,” she tells her new friend Helen Burns,

It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.

But Helen counsels her to “read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example.” “You will change your mind, I hope, when you grow older,” she tells Jane; “as yet you are but a little untaught girl.” Jane never does stop fighting for what she thinks is right, but she learns to control (or repress) her anger, and we know she takes Helen’s lesson to heart when adult Jane describes Helen’s grave: “now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word ‘Resurgam.'” One formal aspect of the novel that is easy to miss on a first reading, because the narrative of her childhood is so gripping and feels so immediate, is precisely that retrospective aspect: it would be our mistake to identify too completely with young Jane, to think she’s in the right–just as we would be replicating Jane’s own error if we didn’t see, well before she flees Thornfield, that her (initial) relationship with Mr. Rochester is all kinds of wrong. (If she read more novels, she too would quickly recognize the split chestnut tree as a warning sign!)

Dorothea Brooke’s errors are easier to spot, because George Eliot gives us not just Dorothea’s perspective but that of everyone around her and, most important, of the narrator. It mystifies every person in the novel that Dorothea chooses to marry Mr. Casaubon: they all believe that it’s a terrible mistake. We understand why she marries him, though, because we know all about her, meaning not just her desire to lead a spiritually significant life but also her impetuous nature and her tendency to interpret things according to her own desires. Of course, that last bit is at once her greatest failing and the one thing we all have in common with her, as the narrator will take pains to teach us. We are given more information in Middlemarch, but we are also kept at more of an emotional distance–both formal choices that serve the novel’s larger purposes.

In my experience, students sometimes find it frustrating that Dorothea is not more “relatable”: the things she wants are strange to them, and thus her decision to marry Mr. Casaubon just seems perverse, rather than something to sympathize with or pity her for. Also (and they aren’t wrong about this) they find her annoying–inconsistent, prone to displays of superiority (“How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?”). Working through this initial response is usually good for helping students see some key things about reading the novel–for instance, that you aren’t supposed to sympathize only with people you like, or who are like you, and that Dorothea too has some work to do, especially in learning to understand and sympathize with Mr. Casaubon. Like Jane, she will grow into greater wisdom. Also, as the students read on they will probably come to see her strangeness as a good thing. It is not actually better to be Celia and fit in than it is to be Dorothea and stand out, even though Celia never makes mistakes (not even when she gets the shocking news of Dorothea’s engagement–“The paper man she was making would have had his leg injured, but for her habitual care of whatever she held in her hands”) and Dorothea makes a lot of them.

Education and Failure: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers

“To understand the stories of the seven lost students who are the subjects of this book,” Tanya Talaga begins her devastating, angry, and thought-provoking book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City,

you must understand Thunder Bay’s past, how the seeds of division, of acrimony and distaste, of a lack of cultural awareness and understanding were planted in those early days, and how they were watered and nourished with misunderstanding and ambivalence. And you must understand how the government of Canada has historically underfunded education and health services for Indigenous children, providing consistently lower levels of support than for non-Indigenous kids, and how it continues to do so to this day.

Seven Fallen Feathers provides a lot of that necessary context, beginning with a summary of the history of the area on the norther shores of Lake Superior that was once a meeting place for the Indigenous people of the area, then became “the hub of the fur trade,” and then saw the development of the modern city with its “two faces”: “the Port Arthur side is the white face and the Fort William side is the red face.”

Throughout the book, more general historical background is interwoven with the stories of the seven students. Their deaths eventually prompted an inquest intended both to probe what happened and to issue recommendations to improve conditions for and better protect other students who, like them, traveled to Thunder Bay to attend high school. By addressing each student’s case separately, Talaga is able to emphasize their individuality: their personalities, their family situations, the specific conditions of their lives, hopes, struggles, and premature deaths. By presenting them collectively, as the inquest also finally did, she is also able to highlight the common systemic factors that contributed to their deaths: the devastation wrought on their families and communities by the residential school system; the restricted opportunities that forced them to travel far from home to a hostile city to continue their educations; the abuse and racism they faced in Thunder Bay both from residents and from the police, who were slow to investigate when they disappeared and then quick to blame the victims.

Talaga is a good storyteller; her anger and grief are often obvious, but the emotional undercurrents reinforce the book’s purpose, which is not just to inform but to motivate. “Can the settlers and the Indigenous people come together as one and move forward in harmony?” she asks in the Epilogue. This is clearly one of the most important questions currently being raised in “the country that we call Canada”; her book offers, as the subtitle says, “hard truths,” ones that are necessary to face before the next stage, reconciliation, can really be contemplated.

Seven Fallen Feathers left me with a lot to think about. Some of my lingering questions are historical or sociological; more reading, presumably, is the next step there. On a more personal level, the book prompted me to reflect uncomfortably on my own education in the B.C. public schools in the 1970s and early 1980s. If you’d asked me then, I would probably have said that we did pay attention to Indigenous history. Mostly, as far as I recall, this took the form of visiting museums with exhibits that included First Nations art, clothing, and tools — the kind of things always on display at the Museum of Vancouver, for example. We made regular trips to the Museum of Anthropology, too, where we saw the art and artifacts, looked with awe at the vast carvings in the great hall, and wandered through the Haida houses on the grounds. I was used to seeing totem poles on display, in parks as well as in museums, and I always found them impressive but didn’t really inquire into their meaning or how they were being used.

Back then, I would probably have explained all of this as a benign part of Canada’s larger commitment to multiculturalism: to me it was positive and interesting, but also remote from my own life in present-day Canada. I don’t recall ever hearing the terms “residential school” or “sixties scoop,” or learning anything specific about treaties, land claims, or anything else related to the current political or social situation of Canada’s Indigenous population. We took trips to Fort Langley and took away square nails as souvenirs — but the idea that we are still in some sense settlers, that colonialism is an ongoing process, not just something to be reenacted by guides in “period” costumes, would have been wholly unfamiliar to me.

In retrospect, I still think some of this early experience was benign: it’s good that I took for granted the interest and value of Indigenous art and culture, for instance, seeing them as as part of my own national habitus. It’s thought-provoking, however, to consider how the whole idea of multiculturalism, with its celebratory overtones, might have contributed to a certain kind of complacency: for me, as far as I even thought about it self-consciously, looking at Haida carvings and going to Greek Day were about on a par as ways of appreciating “other” cultures.

Though to some extent I do blame public schools that surely should have made the history and politics of my own country seem more urgent to me, my comfortable oblivion to grimmer contexts was certainly, as I got older, partly my own fault. I was never particularly interested in politics, or in Canadian history, so when I got old enough to look outside the school curriculum, I was going in different directions. I almost never read the newspaper as a teenager–though if I had, I wonder if I would have seen anything, in those years, that would have shown me the part of Canada’s history that Talaga’s book addresses, or shown it in the light she does. That I am learning more about it only so belatedly is itself a symptom of educational failures, some of them my own but some of them also systemic, part of the same large and uneven patterns of race and privilege, knowledge and power, that Talaga’s book indicts. Now at least I can see something my childhood self couldn’t: that my ignorance was a luxury her seven subjects never had.

This Week In My Classes: Politics and Moral Complicity

The 2016 U. S. election has given some books I regularly teach new resonance–and not in a good way. In March 2016, Hard  Times was indeed “for these times,” with Mr. Bounderby running for President:

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

“Remember,” I wrote sadly this February, “when the possibility that he would actually win…seemed absurd?” In the wake of Trump’s victory last November, Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day felt (as its author intended) like a cautionary tale, one we can only hope it isn’t too late to heed.

This week I am teaching Vanity Fair, and now it’s Sir Pitt Crawley who seems unhappily familiar:

Vanity Fair — Vanity Fair! Here was a man, who could not spell, and did not care to read — who had the habits and the cunning of a boor: whose aim in life was pettifogging: who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, but what was sordid and foul; and yet he had rank, and honours, and power, somehow: and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state. He was high sheriff, and rode in a golden coach. Great ministers and statesmen courted him; and in Vanity Fair he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius or spotless virtue.

Vanity Fair isn’t really about what a bad man Sir Pitt Crawley is, or even what a bad woman Becky Sharp is. It’s at least as much about their enablers: the toadies and sycophants and patsies and stooges who either actively or passively make it possible for bullies and boors to rule the world.

Yesterday was our last class hour on the novel, and I used part of it to lay out the argument I make here: that the novel isn’t really about its characters, but in fact is primarily about us, its readers, the ones who might rise to the moral challenge the novel sets them of asking ourselves (before it’s too late!) how far we are complicit in the evils and injustices, both petty or grandiose, of the world we live in. Nobody in Vanity Fair is without vanity; even the most loving and loyal characters are prone to delusions, or are selfish even in their devotion, and their generosity does not excuse (and often exacerbates) their reluctance to face harsh truths or take decisive action.

If there’s something disheartening about such a grim evaluation of our moral lives, there’s also something bracing about it, as there is about Dickens’s closing injunction: “Dear reader!” he says, “It rests with you and me,” and Thackeray’s implication is the same–the kind of world we live in is ultimately up to us. It’s not that we can individually fix everything that’s wrong: Dickens does put a fair amount of faith in personal actions, but Vanity Fair shows us a tangled web of interconnected systems of wrongdoing, including sexism, racism, class antagonism and snobbery, and colonialism. Still, all these “isms” are embodied in individuals with at some agency, and lest we think there’s no point even trying to exert ourselves against their systemic force, we get Lady Jane Crawley, née Sheepshanks,  who takes a decisive stand against our heroine Rebecca:

“Upon-my word, my love, I think you do Mrs. Crawley injustice,” Sir Pitt said; at which speech Rebecca was vastly relieved. “Indeed I believe her to be —”

“To be what?” cried out Lady Jane, her clear voice thrilling and, her heart beating violently as she spoke. “To be a wicked woman — a heartless mother, a false wife? She never loved her dear little boy, who used to fly here and tell me of her cruelty to him. She never came into a family but she strove to bring misery with her and to weaken the most sacred affections with her wicked flattery and falsehoods. She has deceived her husband, as she has deceived everybody; her soul is black with vanity, worldliness, and all sorts of crime. I tremble when I touch her. I keep my children out of her sight.”

“Lady Jane!” cried Sir Pitt, starting up, “this is really language —” “I have been a true and faithful wife to you, Sir Pitt,” Lady Jane continued, intrepidly; “I have kept my marriage vow as I made it to God and have been obedient and gentle as a wife should. But righteous obedience has its limits, and I declare that I will not bear that — that woman again under my roof; if she enters it, I and my children will leave it. She is not worthy to sit down with Christian people. You — you must choose, sir, between her and me”; and with this my Lady swept out of the room, fluttering with her own audacity, and leaving Rebecca and Sir Pitt not a little astonished at it.

Though Rebecca is not one to be kept down forever, Lady Jane’s judgment prevails to the extent that Rebecca never is welcomed again into her house, and Lady Jane’s influence helps point the next generation towards a future that’s at least not altogether discouraging. If only more people in a position of power today would show a fraction of Lady Jane’s courage and take a decisive stand against the false and heartless person currently imperiling the world with his vanity…

I’ve been thinking that another novel for our times is Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. It has none of the Victorian Sage’s tendency to prophesize and declaim from on high: instead, it has a bracingly practical focus on what ordinary people without extraordinary power can actually do locally to make things work a little better. We don’t all have what it takes (personally or logistically) to be a literal politician, but one thing all of the novels remind us is that the root of the English word “politics” is the Greek word polis, which Merriam-Webster explains means “city or community”: “Words from Greek polis and polītēs have something to do with cities or communities or the citizens who live in them.” It really is all about us.

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving today. If you aren’t Canadian (or even if you are) and you’ve never understood why we celebrate Thanksgiving (“isn’t that an American thing?”), here’s a really informative post by Andrea Eidinger at “Unwritten Histories” on just that topic.

I was industrious last week and returned two sets of assignments, plus with today off, I don’t have to fret (much) about class prep until tomorrow. My weekend has thus been unusually free of the typical haunting sense of guilt. I took advantage of that to spend a nice couple of hours in the Public Gardens on Saturday: the fall colors are only just coming in, so the park had a lovely muted green and gold ambience:

The planters are still overflowing with glorious abundance:

In the formal flower beds you can see the last roses of summer, beautiful yet inevitably poignant:

It’s my favorite spot in the city, and it won’t be open that much longer (it shuts completely during the winter), so I was happy to wander around soaking in its orderly loveliness. It’s also dangerously close to Bookmark, one of our remaining independent bookstores, where I stopped and picked up Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. It’s sad and often harrowing reading, and it seemed like an appropriate choice for a weekend when we spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be “Canadian”; I expect I’ll have more to say about it here when I’ve finished it.

Our traditional holiday meal is roast pork with various fixings–cranberry sauce (homemade, of course!), mashed sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, apple crumble–so I have a lot of cooking to do! Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

“The Lesson Will Live”: Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey

One of the strange things about teaching is that you can never know what your effect will be on others; can never know, if you have something to teach, who your real students will be, the ones who will take what you have to give and make it their own . . . can never really  know which of the young people clustered around the seminar table is someone whom the teacher or the text has touched so deeply, for whatever reason, that the lesson will live beyond the classroom, beyond you.

The subtitle of Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book is “A Father, a Son, and an Epic.” The book is, or does, many things at once: it is an accessible introduction to the Odyssey, recounting its main stories as well as explicating its structure and major themes; it is an inquiry into the relationship between Mendelsohn and his father, Jay, as well as into parts of Jay’s individual history previously unknown or misunderstood by his son; it is also a reflection on teaching and learning, prompted by Jay’s attendance at Mendelsohn’s Bard College seminar on the Odyssey but extending far beyond that occasion to broader questions about the purpose, value, and methods of education; it is a travel narrative about the Mediterranean cruise Jay and Daniel take after the seminar called “Retracing the Odyssey“; it is an exposé, too, though a quiet one, of the conflicting feelings a grown man can have towards the man who raised him–mingled love and anger, resentment and gratitude–and the story of his effort to move beyond those fraught and immediate emotions to a different kind of recognition.

I loved An Odyssey. I have had my doubts about the genre to which it belongs–the “bibliomemoir”–because I worry that we are too prone these days to subordinate literature to our own personalities. Although I ended up appreciating Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch a lot more than the earlier essay that began the project, still, I ended it feeling I had not learned anything about Middlemarch, or seen any great insight about the novel on display, and also that Mead had been disappointingly reticent about her own life, reserving her privacy, smoothing the rough edges, making both life and reading sound easier than Middlemarch itself ever does. An Odyssey struck me as a riskier book, in its treatment of both the Odyssey and the father-son relationship that motivates it. Perhaps because Mendelsohn projects such assurance as a critic and an intellectual, I was surprised and impressed at the vulnerability that comes across here–at his ready admissions of fault, of uncertainty, of occasional lapses of generosity, and of neediness, especially for his father’s approval. “Let me finish,” Jay says one day in seminar, cutting Daniel off

in a tone I recognized from many years earlier . . . the dismissive rhythm of his argument, the jackhammer emphasis on certain words, familiar from other, much-older arguments, arguments whose climactic, clinching phrases I could remember years later, Oh, what do you know, that’s just a college-boy argument or Trust me, I know what I’m talking about, numbers aren’t your strong point. And now: It’s really just the gods.

You can tell how much young Daniel hated being overruled in this way, and how that old grievance infects the present moment as Jay puts his authority ahead of his son the teacher’s. But interlaced with that lingering anger is something more wistful that comes out when Mendelsohn, looking at his father lying very ill in the hospital, thinks about “him saying to me, after the lecture about [Cavafy’s] ‘Ithaca,’ something I’d yearned so often to hear from him when I was a boy, and didn’t: You did good, Dan.”

Theirs is not an easy relationship, and the more I learned about it the more the idea of bringing it into the classroom struck me as brave, on both sides but especially–perhaps because I too am a teacher–on Mendelsohn’s. He tells the students in advance that his father will be sitting in, “so his presence on the first day of class wouldn’t be a distraction.” Jay has promised, however, that he’s just going to observe, not participate: “I’m just gonna sit there and listen.” Mendelsohn never explicitly says as much, but it’s easy to imagine that, to him, this seemed a bit like payback: this would be his class, his room, his rules, his authority. On the very first day, however, his father puts his hand up and makes both his presence and his rather contrarian opinions felt: “‘Hero’? I don’t think he’s a hero at all,” he says about Odysseus, and from then on he is a regular contributor who not only engages vigorously with the Odyssey but changes the whole classroom dynamic, because Jay’s parental claims can sideline Mendelsohn’s professional role.

It’s not that Mendelsohn expects total control over his students, though often reading his accounts of the seminar meetings–his leading questions, his attempts to steer the students, delicately or directly, to see what he sees in the text, his occasional frustration when they don’t get it, or go in a different direction–I was struck by how subtly coercive the process of teaching literature inevitably is, for all of us, in spite of our best intentions. It’s not as simply dictatorial as insisting on one finite interpretation, or it shouldn’t be; it’s more like coaching, using your experience and expertise to model and guide and illustrate, so that your students can join you in a common understanding, a shared and hopefully a mutual experience of insight. Still, we’ve all been reading the texts we teach (and reading about them) for a long time, and our interpretations do and should carry some weight: there’s a reason we’ve settled on them, even if we don’t imagine they are absolutely definitive. I admired Mendelsohn’s honesty about the difficult balance required in teaching between open-mindedness and certitude, and about how hard it can be to deal fairly with a new idea from a student that you aren’t prepared for or initially convinced by. In that situation, it is easy to come across as either dogmatic or defensive or both, as one of his students clearly finds Mendelsohn at one point:

Then Jack blurted, I’m sorry, Professor, I don’t mean to offend you. I don’t. But sometimes–right now I have the impression that you have some interpretation in your head that you think is the right one, and you want to lead us to see things your way, and you just sort of squash anything that doesn’t fit that interpretation. I think this idea is pretty cool actually.

Much later in the book, Mendelsohn connects this moment to something one of his own professors said to him: “You’re so fixated on your own ideas that you don’t see what’s right in front of your face.” He connects this to his seminar experience:

Suddenly I thought, I’ve done it again–I’ve been doing it all semester. Again and again, I’d been so intent on having the kids see things my way, so fixated on making sure that the interpretations I had absorbed as a student would be the ones that they took away, too, that I’d seen their resistances, their failures to notice what I wanted them to notice, as a problem, rather than as a solution–as a way to see something I’d never noticed myself.

At that point, he’s also thinking about the different ways he has interpreted his father over the years, about the difficulty he still has integrating the varied and conflicting versions of this man he has known for so long but realizes he may never really know. This, he concludes (though we can also infer this is where the book began, as an idea) is also one of the lessons of the Odyssey:

A father makes his son out of his flesh and out of his mind and then shapes him with his ambitions and dreams, with his cruelties and failures, too. But a son, although he is of his father, cannot know his father totally, because the father precedes him; his father has always already lived so much more than the son has, so that the son can never catch up, can never know everything. No wonder the Greeks thought that few sons are the equals of their fathers; that most fall short, all too few surpass them. It’s not about value; it’s about knowledge. The father knows the son whole, but the son can never know the father.

I thought, No wonder Odysseus can’t lie to Laertes at the end of the poem.

But the quest for knowledge itself is a learning experience; that’s one of the lessons of An Odyssey, and the book shows that one of the rewards will be self-knowledge.

I wondered as I read if I enjoyed An Odyssey partly because I have never read the Odyssey, so in contrast to my reading of My Life in Middlemarch, in my reading of Mendelsohn’s book I was in a student-like position myself. I have always enjoyed hearing passionate experts, and Mendelsohn’s love for his subject makes the discussions of the Odyssey positively hum with energy. I worried that my own ignorance would be an impediment to my pleasure, but while I might have enjoyed the book even more if I had read Homer, it’s possible that the opposite is true: the book is clearly written with people like me in mind, and I don’t know if someone familiar with the Odyssey would find much of interest in the analysis, or perhaps would take issue with some of the interpretations. I thought at first the book might inspire me to read Homer for myself at long last–but in the end both the quotations and Mendelsohn’s commentary made me think I might not like it very much, or be very good at it. The idea of its “ring composition,” for instance, is compelling in theory, but must be quite baffling, even frustrating, in practice, at first. (The irony is not lost on me that I am saying this and yet in just a couple of weeks I will be waxing eloquent to my own students about the web-like narrative structure of Middlemarch!) Perhaps, like Jay, I need to sit in on a seminar, both for motivation and for elucidation.

I might never get around to that, but at least I take away from An Odyssey a much richer sense than I had before of the Odyssey, an appreciation for it in itself as well as for what it is like to immerse oneself in its questions, stories, and ideas–about heroism, about fathers and sons, about life and death and traveling and loving and grieving. An Odyssey is a probing and often touching memoir, but the pedagogical impulse runs through all of it. “You never do know, really,” Mendelsohn rightly observes, “where education will lead; who will be listening and, in certain cases, who will be doing the teaching.” That’s the fundamental uncertainty that teaches us, as teachers, humility. If one of his hopes, in writing this book, is that “the lesson will live beyond the classroom,” it seems to me that he has surely succeeded.

This Week In My Classes: Keeping Up

The first couple of weeks of the new term are always deceptive: you anticipate them with so much anxiety after the slower pace of summer work, but then for a while, though the logistics are a bit hectic and there are more day-to-day deadlines, it doesn’t seem that bad. But then the first significant assignments come in, and you have to keep up the day-to-day stuff on top of marking them, and there are more meetings, and they both take time and generate things to do, and the next thing you know you are barely keeping track of it all. And that’s about where I am now!

Really, it’s not so bad. I am lucky this term to have a relatively light teaching load – not just because I’ve got only two courses but because one of them that was capped at 64 only filled to around 40, so between the two I’ve got just about 80 students instead of a possible 100, and instead of the much larger number involved when one of the classes is a big section of one of our introductory classes. When you reach those bigger sizes, you have the support of teaching assistants with the marking, but the other administrative aspects of teaching still increase dramatically. A colleague who was teaching our biggest intro class, at 360 students, had more than 30 plagiarism cases one year, for instance, all of which he had to handle himself. Even with our new admirably streamlined process, you can estimate that each one took at least 2 hours, including compiling and filing the documentation and then attending the hearing. Yikes!

I’ve also been thinking about how much harder it was for me to manage my teaching obligations when my children were small and needed (and wanted) a lot more attention from me than they do now. My teaching load was higher then, and I had less experience and fewer prepared materials to draw on. I regret, now, the number of times I shooed the kids away or freaked out because they were making it hard for me to work — but at the same time, I can’t really see how I could have kept on top of the work and given them more than I did. And now I have less work to do in some ways, or I’m better at it, or more efficient, but sometimes I feel just as tired, probably because now I’m not so young anymore! After class, it takes me a while to recuperate, just sitting quietly in my office — often, right now, in front of the fan I brought in, because we are having unseasonably warm and humid weather.

Still, I always like the energy both demanded and generated by the actual classroom time; regular readers will know how often I complain about summer doldrums, too, brought on by too vacant a schedule and too few opportunities for interaction and engagement with other people. As more and more of my colleagues head into retirement, I do sometimes fantasize about what that phase will be like for me, and how soon I might be able to enter into it. (Not that soon, since I’ve just turned 50!) I think when the time does come I will have to be careful that it isn’t like an endless summer, without any structure. For now what I have to do is make sure I can maintain my energy and enthusiasm — by, for instance, trying to bring less work home with me than I once had to, and making time as best I can for the reading and writing that I want to do.

As for what’s happening in my actual classes this week, it’s Vanity Fair in one and short fiction in the other, specifically, this week, “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Boarding House,” and then on Friday, “A Rose for Emily.” The short stories are for Close Reading, so our focus is on learning to identify specific elements of fiction (point of view, characterization, setting) and how they contribute to the meaning and effects of the fiction. In 19th-Century Fiction I am working on weaning myself from my lecture notes, something I did quite well with in last year’s seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question’ but still get a bit anxious about in a lecture-style class. I’m still bringing my notes in, and I do usually stick to the planned topics on them, but I don’t “follow” them carefully unless I have a very specific argument I want to lay out. With Vanity Fair, there’s not much risk of running out of things to talk about!

This Week In My Classes: Blather, Rinse, Repeat

I’ve put off writing this post, hoping that I’d get some bright idea about what to say in it. Is it possible that I’ve been reporting on my weekly class business for too long? Everything I have to say seems like something I’ve said before. Actually, that in itself might be worth considering, because I have also been feeling as if a couple of the topics and activities I’ve covered in my classes since the start of term have lost their interest or their urgency for me, and that as a result it has been harder for me to present them with as much conviction as usual. I don’t think (or at any rate, I hope) that my students are likely to have noticed, since they don’t have previous iterations of these courses to compare their own experience to. But if things are feeling a bit repetitive here, that is almost certainly a sign that I may be repeating myself a bit too much in the classroom, and that it’s time to shake things up, if only for my own sake.

In Close Reading, for instance, I am feeling impatient with the basically very good textbook I’m using. Its explanations of key terms and its models of close reading are as sound as before, but this is the third time I’ve used it, and it has quite a limited selection of poems and stories, many of which the author uses extensively in her own discussions, leaving me with even fewer to choose from for the students’ assignments. In our poetry unit, I do bring in “outside” texts sometimes for in-class exercises (tomorrow, for instance, we’ll be discussing Robert Graves’s “The Cool Web,” which as I’ve mentioned before here is not just one of my favorite poems but the one that transformed me into an English major). There are logistical, copyright, and other reasons, though, why this gets harder as we move into short fiction. I’m hoping not to teach this class again next year, partly because there are other courses I haven’t had a chance to teach in a while and partly because I’d like to look around again for different possible readers. The first couple of times I taught it, back in 2003 and 2004, I used a somewhat eccentric book from Broadview Press called Visions and Revisions: The Poet’s Process. Comparing different versions of the same poem is a great way to focus attention on the effects of particular words, forms, or rhythmic variations. I don’t know if I’d go back to it: the range of really usable options was not that great in it either, as I recall.

This is not to say that I’ve tired of enthusing over Donne’s “Death, be not proud,” even in the context of trying to teach scansion, and I am absolutely looking forward to teaching both Middlemarch and The Remains of the Day again. As the great Samuel Johnson said, “When a woman is tired of Middlemarch, she is tired of life!” OK, he didn’t exactly say that–but surely it is true. Similarly, I am enjoying working through Persuasion in 19th-Century Fiction from Austen to Dickens — which I haven’t actually done that recently, since last time around I made the mistake of assigning Pride and Prejudice. I mentioned last week that Persuasion might be losing its place as my favorite Austen novel; if that were true, Pride and Prejudice would certainly replace it. But Persuasion has the great advantage, in the classroom, of being not nearly so familiar, beloved, or frequently adapted. (It is familiar, beloved, and adapted plenty, as all things Austen are … but I will back slowly away from the rant this topic too easily provokes.) I do feel it’s time to rework my start-up material for this course, and for its alternate (19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy). I always give an overview of “the rise of the novel” and talk a bit about social contexts, publication methods (like serialization), and other background information that I can’t assume the students have learned about before: I think this is important, and I try to keep it up to date, and to tweak it, also, to reflect the particular novels we’ll be reading and any specific issues they raise. But I would like to find a catchy way to start off that doesn’t make the students so passive, because as I move out of lecture mode and into Socratic mode, it takes a while for participation to pick up. I’m pretty sure to be teaching the Dickens to Hardy class next fall, so this is something I will put on my to-do list for the summer.

We’ve just wrapped up work on Persuasion in that class and on Monday we start Vanity Fair. I’m excited, even if the one student in the class who read it ahead of time already told me she didn’t like it. I will convert her! Or maybe not, but I do believe, not least because I’ve so often found it to be the case with my own reading, that it is possible to learn to appreciate something, if not necessarily to like it. (Update: Another student who has just started it tells me she’s finding it “hilarious” so that’s encouraging!)

On a side note, the painting that is my first graphic here is Duncan Grant’s “Interior with the Artist’s Daughter”: it has no particular relevance to this post but I like paintings of readers and I can’t find any of teachers.

This Week In My Classes: Every Word Counts

We’re one week into the fall term and I’m starting to feel that I’ve got my sea legs back. Every new term seems a bit herky-jerky at first, but before long it smooths out, or at least becomes routine again.

In Close Reading, where my initial goal is to foster a habit of paying close attention (our mantra is “don’t take the words on the page for granted”), we have started working on scansion. It’s not an advanced poetry course so we don’t get too fancy about it: the point is just to learn how to pay attention to rhythm and versification. So in this class we are literally counting this week — not words, of course, but syllables, then feet, and then lines. I happen to think this kind of thing is both fun and interesting; I hope I conveyed some of that enthusiasm on Wednesday while I walked them through the basic elements, and that they show some of their own when we practice it together tomorrow. I always enjoy choosing examples to show the reason rhythm matters, the difference it makes. Consider these two excerpts, for instance:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

and

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the fields and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes…

Both Tennyson, of course, but what a contrast, and so much of that has to do with how he has arranged the stressed and unstressed syllables.

Here and in all the topics we cover in Close Reading, what I’m trying to do is turn a habit (reading) into a methodology, with the short term payoff being more detailed analysis of specifics and the longer term payoff being (I hope) more confidence in the interpretations they generate of whatever they read. Part of my pitch for the course is that these skills are supremely portable as well as enormously important–aesthetically, but also ethically and politically. It’s true that in this context scanning lines of verse remains somewhat niche skill, but appreciating poetry is also virtuous in its own right!

In 19th-Century Fiction, we’re reading Persuasion. For a long time I have identified Persuasion as my favorite Austen novel, but this time through, my allegiance is wavering: more than usual when reading it I am frustrated by Anne Elliot’s not speaking, when all it would take to bring about the consummation so devoutly to be wished is a few clear words at the right moment. I know, I know: her reticence and self-control are admirable, and just going for what you want makes you Louisa Musgrove, a literally fallen woman who clearly signals the dangers of undisciplined desire. When Anne finally does say something (“she speaks!” say my marginal notes at one point) it is also always significant: a breakthrough of feeling, an assertion of principle, a lesson in values. Still, one key to the novel’s happy ending is that she finds her voice, or figures out how to use it to win for herself the kind of happiness someone of her high character can accept: not simple pleasure or self-gratification, but a marriage of true minds.

Image: The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)

Burning Down the House: Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

On the very first page of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Elena Richardson’s house burns down. Everyone, including Elena, immediately and rightly identifies her renegade youngest daughter Izzy as the arsonist, but it’s not until three hundred pages later that we learn why she did it–that to her it was not act of destruction, but of renewal: “sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over.” But why would her family’s comfortable suburban home be the place to start such a revolution? What is wrong with the way the Richardsons live, or with Elena in particular, that could justify what Izzy has done? “Even she knows she’s gone too far this time,” observes Izzy’s older sister Lexie as she and her brothers watch their past lives reduced to ashes; “that’s why she ran off.” The question for us is whether, by the end of the novel, we agree with Lexie–or whether we understand, maybe even sympathize with, Izzy’s radical gesture.

Little Fires Everywhere is too smart and nuanced a novel to make this an easy question to answer. If “burn it all down” is the novel’s ultimate message, Ng has certainly presented it in the least incendiary way imaginable, because there’s nothing fiery at all in the novel’s tone. In many ways, Little Fires Everywhere is a small-scale domestic drama of a pretty familiar kind: a patient unfolding of the consequential intersections of the lives of a cast of fairly different but intricately connected people. In that respect Little Fires Everywhere reminded me of novels by other chroniclers of contemporary America–Anne Tyler, say. It doesn’t have Tyler’s ultimate benignity, though: even in their most friction-filled moments, Tyler’s novels never really posit any irremediable harm–even death often turns out to be something you can get over! Little Fires Everywhere, however, has an undercurrent of frustration, if not rage, not so much at Elena individually as at the impenetrable density of white liberal privilege she exemplifies.

Little Fires Everywhere begins, as stories so often do, with the arrival of an outsider, in this case Mia Warren, who moves with her daughter Pearl into the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. It’s a planned community reminiscent of Columbia Maryland, where my husband grew up. Columbia is an attractive place, but I’ve also found it somewhat alienating in its tidy and high-maintenance conformity (you need, or at least once needed, special permission to paint your front door anything beyond a specific approved palette of colors). In Ng’s novel, Shaker Heights comes to represent something more than the stifling sameness of suburban life: it stands for an idea–for some of its residents, an ideal–of America more broadly, at once perfectly homogeneous and, in theory, perfectly welcoming. To Pearl, the Richardsons’ home, and their settled life there, is like a fantasy compared to her own itinerant life with her rootless artistic mother:

It wasn’t the size–true, it was large, but so was every house on the street, and in just three weeks in Shaker she’d seen larger. No: it was the greenness of the lawn, the sharp lines of white mortar between the bricks, the rustle of the maple leaves in the gentle breeze, the very breeze itself. It was the soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass that mingled in the entryway, the one corner of the throw rug that flipped up like a cowlick, as if someone had mussed it and forgotten to smooth it out. It was as if instead of entering a house she was entering the idea of a house, some archetype brought to life here before her. Something she’d only heard about but never seen.

Mia and Pearl get gradually more and more involved with the Richardsons: Pearl gets close to three of the Richardson children, and Mia accepts an uncomfortable but financially helpful housekeeping job from Elena, who is also her landlord. Mia also becomes something of a mentor to Izzy, giving her permission to be herself in a way Izzy feels Elena, constantly critical, never has.

Elena’s an interesting figure. It would have been easy to create her as a caricature, and there is something Stepford-Wive-ish about her:

Mrs. Richardson had, her entire existence, lived an orderly and regimented life. She weighed herself once per week, and although her weight did not fluctuate more than the three pounds her doctor assured her was normal, she took pains to maintain herself. Every morning she measured out exactly one half cup of Cheerios, the serving size indicated on the box . .. Three times weekly she took an aerobics class, checking her watch throughout to be sure her heart rate had exceeded one hundred and twenty beats per minute. She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depending upon her compliance, and follow them–and believe–she did. 

Though I didn’t think she was ultimately a very sympathetic figure, Elena comes across as someone stunted by these rules, which she thought would keep her safe:

All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never–could never–set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.

“Rules existed for a reason,” she believes: “if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”

The first third or so of Little Fires Everywhere requires a bit of patience while Ng builds up this world and these families, but she needs us to know them pretty well so that we understand the stakes of the novel’s central conflict once it is introduced. The novel’s crisis is precipitated by an adoption that pits different values and identities against each other, all of them tangled in ideas about motherhood and race and what it really means to flourish, or to live a good life. Elena’s old friend Linda McCullough and her husband adopt a baby who was abandoned at a fire station with only a note: “This baby name May Ling. Please take this baby and give her a better life.” The McCulloughs, who have been trying to have a child for years, are thrilled, and their friends, including the Richardsons, rejoice for them–but when Mia hears the story, she has a different reaction, because she knows May Ling’s birth mother Bebe, who is now “desperate to find her daughter again.” With one phone call, she changes everything: “There’s something I think you should know.”

It’s interesting that this conflict is in a sense peripheral to the novel’s main characters. We hardly know either the McCulloughs or Bebe, except through Elena and Mia, so as a result the adoption case–in which the McCulloughs’ legal rights are pitted against Bebe’s rights as her biological mother–ends up being primarily a device to expose things about the people observing it. Whose side people are on reveals how they answer the fundamental question the highly publicized custody battle raises: “It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother?” What is really best for May Ling, or, as the McCulloughs call her, Mirabelle? The McCulloughs are devoted parents, loving and able to provide every comfort for their adopted daughter, to meet every need she has, except one. “She’s not just a baby,” one of Bebe’s supporters argues

when Channel 5 sent a reporter to Asia Plaza, Cleveland’s Chinese shopping center, in search of the Asian perspective. “She’s a Chinese baby. She’s going to grow up not knowing anything about her heritage. How is she going to know who she is?”

“You can tell,” says one of Linda’s supporters, in turn, “that when she looks down at that baby in her arms, she doesn’t see a Chinese baby. All she sees is a baby, plain and simple.”

There’s no doubt that Linda comes across as unbearably shallow–indeed, almost malignantly thoughtless–when she’s asked in court about what she and her husband have done “to connect [May Ling] with her Chinese culture.” “Well. . . . Pearl of the Orient is one of our very favorite restaurants,” she replies, and also when they chose her teddy bear they “decided on the panda. We thought perhaps she’d feel more of a connection to it.” Cringe-worthy as this is, though, and naive, too, as Elena’s argument that interractial adoptions might “solve racism once and for all” is, Linda’s not wrong (is she?) when she finally insists in their defense that “it’s not a requirement that we be experts in Chinese culture. The only requirement is that we love Mirabelle.” Culture isn’t something we’re born with, after all: we learn it. And though our family history is in one sense our heritage, there seemed something uncomfortably essentialist about the argument that May Ling / Mirabelle’s identity must be decided by her biology. I found myself wishing that the arguments within the book about these polarized views (“race should mean nothing”; “race means everything”) were more complicated–though perhaps what Ng wanted was for us to be dissatisfied with both answers, just as I think she leaves us feeling that there isn’t an obviously right answer about who should raise the baby.

Maybe a better way to put it is that the novel makes other factors seem at least as important to the case as race. The novel’s most persistent interest is in parent-child relationships, especially mother-daughter ones; it includes many variations on this theme, all of them fraught with difficulty, from the gradually uncovered story about Mia and Pearl to Elena’s struggle to come to terms with Izzy. Mia doesn’t call Bebe because she’s worried about preserving her baby’s heritage but because “the thought of someone else claiming her child was unbearable”: “how could these people take a child from its mother?” Is love–even (or especially) the kind of intensely possessive love that motivated Mia’s own decision to keep Pearl when she might not have–really all a child needs? But then again, Elena is an example of someone who has given her children everything and yet somehow left at least one of them feeling out of place in the world; while Mia’s seemingly rootless existence may have deprived Pearl of some vital kinds of continuity, of ongoing connection to a community, or to place, Mia’s artistic vision offers insights (including to Elena) that the insular smugness of suburban life obscure.

At the end of Little Fires Everywhere I felt as if we were left with more questions than answers about parenting, about race, about coexistence, about how to move forward collectively when we all see and experience the world in such different ways. When the novel opens, at the chronological end of the story it then tells, the characters are still arguing about whether the verdict in the McCullough case was right or wrong, and 300 pages later I still don’t know for sure which side I’m on, just as I don’t quite know how I feel about Mia’s long-ago decision about Pearl. In both cases I feel as if my emotional response is in some tension with other factors that also seem to matter. I suppose that could be why “burn it down and start over” is a reasonable response (ideally, shouldn’t desire and logic, love and justice align?) but I couldn’t tell what Ng thought we ought to be building or growing on the newly cleared ground. Still, she gave me a lot to think about, and on top of that Little Fires Everywhere is an engrossing and well-told story.

This Week In My Classes: (Bad) First Impressions

Or maybe not. I hope not. I don’t mean that my students in the classes that started up today made a bad impression on me–far from it, in fact, as they seemed pretty attentive and ready to go, which is impressive considering the circumstances of my first class meeting this morning, at least. But their first impressions of me probably could have been better, and given the research that shows students make up their minds about professors pretty quickly (for better and for worse), it’s a bit discouraging to start the term off this way.

Actually, maybe it wasn’t so bad. My afternoon class seemed basically fine, though in an ironic contrast to the sweltering room my morning class was in, its room was so cold it gave me the sniffles! I was more comfortable in other ways, though: my afternoon class is 19th-Century Fiction (Austen to Dickens), and especially once I got to talking about our actual novels, I felt my own enthusiasm for the new term rising. I didn’t choose the reading list to follow any deliberate theme (not like last year’s Dickens to Hardy version, for instance, which focused on ‘troublesome’ women). It’s just a greatest hits list, starting with Persuasion then moving through Vanity FairJane EyreNorth and South, and Great Expectations. There are definitely some common threads, as I began pointing out today: one will be the Napoleonic Wars, another the ‘condition of England,’ another paths (and impediments) for women, and another versions of the Bildungsroman. Because students arrive in this class from so many different paths now, I typically begin (as I will on Friday) with a capsule history of the 19th-century novel. Then it’s on to Austen on Monday and away we go!

My morning class was Close Reading. I don’t think it was a disaster–I did more or less get through my introductory lecture, in which I lay out the underlying concepts of the course as I’ve developed it–but it did not go well. One problem both was and wasn’t my fault. It was my idea to find us a new room when I saw that we’d been assigned to one of the dreary (and very dusty) rooms in our Life Sciences Centre (which is where pedagogical dreams go to die, in my experience). Don’t let the picture fool you: there may be perfectly nice, bright, airy rooms somewhere up high, but the ones we’re typically stuck in are at ground level or below, and they are terrible. I taught Mystery and Detective Fiction once in a windowless concrete block that might as well have been in a prison–which I guess was thematically appropriate, but it was no fun, and neither was teaching Bleak House in a similar room another time. Anyway, with the help of my indefatigable colleague in our department office I was able to move out of LSC into what sounded like a much better room, upstairs in the library, with windows all around (to the library, not to the outside, but still!) and recently refitted technology. Unfortunately, though my class is sized for the room’s theoretical cap, there was barely room for everyone, and the poor students were crammed in cheek by jowl as the temperature rose steadily to a truly unhealthy level. Not good! Then, as I was sweating my way through my lecture, my laptop froze, which has been one of the regular perks of my recent “upgrade” to a Windows 10 machine. I managed to reboot it without too much trouble and more or less managed to carry on with my lecture–I think! But I was so overheated and flustered by that point that I can only hope I remained coherent.

Well, I’m sure they’ve seen worse–right? I did at least cover what I’d meant to, and I think I made helpful noises when students asked questions, and now we are working on relocating the class again so none of us have to endure quite that level of discomfort again. Ironically, the only room that is currently available is the same one in Life Sciences that I worked so hard to get out of. If it’s big enough and not too hot, I guess I can put up with having a chalk board instead of a white board and needing to sign out cables any time I need to hook up my iPad for slides. (I won’t be using my laptop again, that’s for sure: I don’t need that extra layer of worry!)

And so here we are: another year begun. To be honest, I hadn’t been feeling that excited for the start of term: I’ve been feeling tired and mopey for much of the summer, and the shadow of my promotion debacle still hangs over my relationship with some of my colleagues and with Dalhousie as a whole. Once upon a time I was ready and willing to put my work for the university ahead of almost everything; looking back, I actually regret the extent to which I made it a priority, and now when I’m asked to do things that aren’t necessarily in my job description I find myself reflecting on the sacrifices I made to be in this profession (which are never acknowledged as such by universities)–like settling far from my family–and thinking maybe that’s actually enough “extra” commitment for one lifetime! It really helped my attitude to see students again, though. My goal for the year is to do as well by them as I can. I feel pretty confident that if I put my energy where they are, it will have a good effect on other aspects of my life and work as well.

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