This Week In My Classes: End of Term Reflections

Vanessa BellI’m always relieved at the end of the term, because the last phase is always quite stressful. But I’m also always aware that it’s really only the end of a term — another one immediately looms, and another, and another! Every limit is, indeed, a beginning as well as an ending, and so this in-between time inevitably prompts reflections. What went well — and what could I do better next time? What fell flat — and what might, nonetheless, be worth trying again? From class policies to book lists, from the layout of the syllabus to the assessment of final exams, teaching is always a work in progress, isn’t it?

I don’t think there’s really any way to judge if a course as a whole has been a success: what would that mean, especially for my first-year class, which was populated largely by people taking it, not out of interest, but as a requirement? Their success (in learning to write better, for example, or learning more about literature) is only partly in my hands, too: this term I was particularly struck by the difference it makes when a student really shows up for class — meaning, not just attending (though that is very important), but being truly present and engaged, following up on feedback, and so on. Another article complaining about a consumerist mindset among students recently made the rounds on Twitter, and again the gym membership analogy seemed apt to me: you literally cannot buy an education, but if you energetically use what you are paying for (expertise, guidance, support), you can get what you came for. Another measure of success, this one perhaps more dependent on my efforts, would be seeing students who arrived with low expectations  discover how interested they get in our readings and discussions. That was me, once upon a time — an avid reader but one who didn’t really understand why or how to “study” books, who lit up at what I found in my own first-year class. So I try to keep in mind, as I work with my first-year students, that both they and I can’t predict what this required class will end up meaning to them.

woolfI was more or less happy with the reading list this year for intro, which wasn’t much changed from the course’s last iteration. Because, with a larger class size, we had regularly scheduled tutorial meetings, I did cut back the reading: our only two long texts were A Room of One’s Own and Unless. (Last time, we also did Night and The Road.) I didn’t make this choice because of the recent Dentistry scandal, but that context gave these readings new urgency, and (perhaps because of it?) this group seemed more receptive than usual to the discussions these books invite.

During our discussions of Woolf and Shields, I also felt very aware of ways that my years of reading and writing with an eye to the book world outside the academy enhanced our discussions. I brought in things like the VIDA counts and the recent kerfuffle over David Gilmour‘s narrow-minded braggadocio; I also provided a link to one of many stories about the way YA writers get segregated by gender. My point was to show that the literary history both Woolf and Shields talk about and intervene in is an ongoing one; that these are not just academic issues; that the problems that frustrated them as women writers aren’t solved, though they may have some new forms; and that the feminist critique Woolf made so eloquently is still necessary. One of my most important goals as a teacher is to help my students think about how and what they’ll read when they aren’t under orders: I hope that some of this discussion will stick with them and they will look out for these things, not just in their own reading but in their parenting, in their work as librarians or teachers or editors or journalists or programmers, or in any other context where books and reading and gender matter. Now that would be a success!

mylifeinmiddlemarchI enjoyed a lot about my graduate seminar on George Eliot, but it was a source of some pedagogical frustration for me. I felt all term that I was talking too much, for instance. But also I felt somewhat confused about the aims of the seminar now that we’ve all openly admitted that graduate school isn’t now (if it ever was) wholly populated by people aiming at academic careers. I couldn’t decide how much that could or should change the conversations we had in class, the research I asked the students to do, or the kind of writing I asked for. I don’t think it’s possible to turn a specialized seminar in a particular discipline into an all-purpose smorgasbord of skills and knowledge, so in the end I didn’t change much of what I’ve routinely done in graduate seminars.  But I did (for the second time) include a blogging component aimed both at encouraging preparation for our once-a-week face-to-face sessions and at increasing the students’ comfort with the idea of writing more publicly. I also included as options seminar topics on George Eliot ‘outside’ the academic context, which led to three presentations on recent ‘popular’ versions of George Eliot: Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, and the BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda. These examples all gave them real-life proof that people talk about, write about, and care about Victorian literature in non-academic contexts, and the presentations all raised good questions about how and why they do, especially in comparison to the kinds of reading and writing that are more typically academic.

For me, it didn’t feel like a great term, but I think overall it went smoothly — as surely it should, after all these years. I think one reason it felt rough at times is that I was mentally (and sometimes emotionally) preoccupied with my promotion case, which has been moving slowly along through its various stages. For obvious reasons, this is not something I can address in detail here, at least before it’s all over. I will say, though, that in general it has already been a learning experience, in some ways a very good one (thought-provoking, constructive, illuminating) and in other ways an unwelcome one —  it’s one thing to anticipate what executive types call “pushback,” after all, and  another to see what form it actually takes. Eventually (once I know the ending!) I may have a longer tale to tell.

Next term I hope to have a bit more straight-up fun in the classroom — even though it is winter. I’m teaching the mystery class again, which I still find really stimulating even after teaching it almost every year for a dozen years. One reason I think the atmosphere is generally so positive and the students so engaged in this class is that it’s an elective for everyone: this can have its down sides (sometimes it’s not a top priority for students, for example), but mostly it means hardly anyone is there who doesn’t want to be. Plus, of course, I do try to make it as lively, interesting, and thought-provoking as I can!

vanityfairMy other course is yet another incarnation of “The 19th-Century Novel from Austen to Dickens,” for which as usual I have mixed up the reading list: instead of Persuasion, I’ve switched in Pride and Prejudice (which I haven’t done in 5 years); instead of Waverley, I’m bringing back Vanity Fair; instead of Jane Eyre, we’ll read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall*; and then I’m pairing Mary Barton and Hard Times at the end. Mary Barton is not as accomplished a novel as North and South, but its raw power always surprises me, and its importance as a social novel is perhaps greater. Hard Times is not everyone’s favorite Dickens novel, but I think it too is very powerful in its strange, excessive, fabular way. It’s a line-up I chose more for variety than continuity: the last time around, the novels were all variations on the Bildungsroman. I am most curious about how Vanity Fair will go over; I think the last time I assigned it was 2008. Will I need to stage an intervention, as I did last time with Waverley? Or will the inimitable Becky carry them all along with her, in her unscrupulous clamber up the social ladder?

*Update: So much for working from memory: I chose Jane Eyre again for this round, as I was reminded today when I went to check the stock in the bookstore! I was a bit disappointed to realize that at first, but actually it’s good, as 2016 is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, so we really ought to be reading her most famous book. And I do love Jane Eyre.

5 Comments to This Week In My Classes: End of Term Reflections

  1. December 20, 2015 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this Rohan–I’m teaching our large introduction to literature lecture for the first time next fall, so this gives me lots to think about. I did Vanity Fair last year as a serial reading project, where we read a chunk every couple of weeks throughout the term and students blogged about it, and I think it went really well. I was worried about the length (900 pages!) but Becky carried the day. In the end it was Mary Barton that was a harder sell.

    Thanks so much for such an open post about teaching. Sometimes I think I’m fretting too much over things like whether to give reading quizzes or how to grade participation too much because I’ve only taught for five years or so, but I can see it’s probably going to be a career long work-in-progress!

  2. December 22, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to do a class on George Eliot. When I was an undergraduate, back in the early 1980’s, it was possible for senior citizens to audit classes at San Francisco State University. There was a small group, four I think, who regularly turned up in my literature classes. as a young adult, I found their contributions to the discussion valuable. And I thought, that may be me someday.

    Now I’m heading towards being a senior citizen but most universities nearby have stopped programs like that one. It’s too bad really. They could make some extra money if they let people like me audit them. Not a lot, sure but it would be fifty dollars they didn’t have before.

  3. December 22, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I think you’d get a lot of takers on your mystery class, by the way.

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