Book orders for the fall term were due April 1. Apparently this early deadline helps the bookstore know which books are being re-used and thus which books they can buy back from students to re-sell next year–which makes sense and is a good thing to do for students! But April 1 is still very early to have worked out what you want to do next year, unless you are happy to just do exactly what you’ve done before and aren’t teaching any new classes. You know those legends about professors who show up with the same yellowed teaching notes they have used for 100 years? None of us wants to be that professor, honest! But this is the kind of bureaucratic thing that discourages innovation. When you are in the thick of one term, the easiest way to meet this deadline is by repetition. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that! You can in fact teach the same books over and over (cough *Middlemarch* cough) and never feel you are just going through a tired routine. There’s always something new to learn, new to say–or a new way to say it, or to try to engage students with it. But I do try to shake up every reading list every time, if just by a book or two, so that the new juxtapositions will keep me fresh.
Anyway, April 1 has come and gone and I’ve only submitted two of my three fall term orders. Sorry, bookstore! The course I haven’t ordered for yet, English 1000 (Introduction to Literature) is not a repeat for me, though: the books I’ll be probably be ordering have not, to my knowledge, been assigned by anyone else this year, and I haven’t taught the class myself since 2000-2001 in its full-year version, though I have taught a half-year introductory class three times in the past decade. It’s really the shift back to a full-year version that has slowed down my ordering: you can do so much in full-year classes, and they have become such rare creatures. I haven’t in fact taught a full-year class of any description in many years: I’m almost giddy with excitement about the increased chances of my learning every student’s name well before the class is over. And it’s equally dizzying to think of all the many, many different books I could conceivably assign…which, of course, is why it has taken me too long to make up my mind. Our intro classes are, deliberately, not historical surveys (we offer those at the 2nd-year level) but introductions to genre, to university-level writing, and to literary critical terms and skills. The genres we are supposed to cover are non-fiction prose, poetry, fiction, and drama–but it is entirely up to us how to do this. The range of different reading lists that results is supposed to be a strength of our first-year program: in theory, students can peruse the different offerings and choose a section they like the looks of. This almost never works in practice, as despite our efforts to publicize the variation, students (and advisers) usually assume all the sections are the same, and they choose based on timetable more than anything else. As a result, it is not uncommon to have a conversation that begins with a student saying things like “But my friend in Dr. Flumberly’s section of English 1000 isn’t reading any novels, only short stories. It isn’t fair that we have to read this long book.”
I don’t actually think there are any sections of English 1000 that assign no novels at all (possibly, just possibly, students’ reports of what goes on elsewhere may not be 100% accurate). But absent any particular principle about which novels to assign, it’s always hard for me to decide which ones to go with. Over the years I have assigned Hard Times, The Wars, A Christmas Carol, A Room with a View, Saturday, and The Remains of the Day – always along with an array of shorter texts. I was thinking of going with A Christmas Carol again this year (it’s fun to teach it in December just as holiday madness is breaking out) but I wanted to do a more contemporary novel as well, since I do have a whole year. English 1000 is the teaching assignment that gives me the most latitude, so it’s a great chance to get outside my comfort zone. I mentioned this on Twitter and within about 10 minutes I had a whole array of tempting suggestions, most of which I had heard of but not read. I couldn’t possibly consider them all by April 1!
As the tweets were flying back and forth, Mark Athitakis asked an important question: what makes a novel a good choice for teaching?’ This is obviously a key issue: you can love reading a book but still conclude that for one reason or another, it would not work in the classroom, or at least in a particular class. For an intro class, what are the desiderata? It will vary for individual instructors, I know. Those of you who also teach similar classes, what are the factors for you? For me, one issue is length–shallow, maybe, but I think realistic. 200-300 pages seems to me about right, though I have colleagues who regularly teach Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights in their intro sections and it seems to go fine. Then there’s significance. It makes some sense to me that you would pick a book that either has some standing (why? is something you’ll want to talk about) or that you think deserves some standing — this helps you begin what you can hope will be a life-long engagement on their part with the puzzle of literary merit and reputation, and it gets them into an ongoing literary conversation. Merit itself is also a factor — I can’t see teaching a book you can’t in some sense get behind, as you are going to have to bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the classroom day after day, and it’s hard to do that for material you don’t think is any good. Sometimes it’s still important to do it, mind you: I teach novels I don’t think are great qua novels all the time, but in courses where coverage is a requirement in a way it is not for our intro classes. Then it has to be a book that gives us something to talk about and then something to write about — it needs to require and reward interpretation. Doesn’t every book? Well, no, at least not in isolation. Some very formulaic novels are much more interesting collectively than they are individually (from variations on repetitive patterns and tropes as in [some] romance or mystery novels, for instance). But I think that a certain level of complexity (thematic as well as aesthetic) makes for the best teaching texts. You want the feeling that the book is about something, and not just a simplistic, obvious single something but a problem, a crux. And you want the language and form to be related to that problem or crux in an interesting (and, again, not simplistic or obvious) way. Finally, it helps if you can see ways the book will create interesting conversations with the other texts you’re teaching in the course.
I looked up a number of new (to me) books, online and in the library. I started a couple and read two all the way through. One of these, The Talk-Funny Girl (recommended by D. G. Myers) was extremely interesting and gripping, but I felt in the end that not only was it a bit too alien for my purposes but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The other one I read in its entirety was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This is a book I have deliberately avoided until now. Not only did it sound very depressing but it sounded gimmicky, cheesy even. Well, as those of you who have read it will know, it certainly is depressing! I was teaching Jude the Obscure the week I read it and I announced with some perturbation to my class that I had finally found a novel that made Jude look optimistic! But gimmicky? I don’t think so. From the beginning, it interested me, and though it horrified me, it also moved and surprised me. The father-son relationship is intense but stripped bare of sentiment, as is everything in the novel’s landscape: we’re left with just the essentials, and that simple idea is what makes the novel so powerful. What does matter? Why – how – do we keep going? The language put me off a bit at first, as it seemed unduly self-displaying, but ultimately I thought it provided the art, the artifice, that made the story bearable. It also highlights its literariness: we are clearly in allegorical territory here. I couldn’t stop reading
When I finished the novel, I was struck by the glimmer of optimism it offers at the last minute (I don’t know yet if I think the ending undermines the novel) and I found myself thinking about it a lot. At first I thought there was no way I would assign it. I couldn’t imagine spending hours and days in that world — or making my students come along with me. Poor things! Isn’t their first term at university hard enough? But then I began to reconsider. At the heart of the novel there is something that is anything but depressing, isn’t there? The father and son talk a lot about “the light” they are carrying. It’s a metaphorical or symbolic light, and it’s something the novel carries too. Then I thought about one of the non-fiction texts I’m assigning, Eli Wiesel’s Night. Night is also about surviving devastation, hanging on to shreds of humanity. One of the moments in Night that is particularly haunting and terrible is the selection scene:
‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’
Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand.
This scene breaks my heart. I expect every parent has felt the magic of a little hand in theirs, realized the awesome, beautiful, devastating weight of the innocent belief that if we say it’s OK, if we go there, if we hold hands, it is OK. “It’s OK,” the father in The Road tells his son over and over. “It’s OK.” And the son goes along. Now I can’t stop thinking about that resonance between the two texts. The underlying theme of my sections of Introduction to Literature is usually something as simple as “words matter.” One way I think I can show this and make it meaningful and alive to our students is to work with texts that are about things that really matter. I’m not sure yet how the pieces will fit together or what exactly we’ll talk about, but at any rate I’ve decided to order The Road and see where it takes us.