This Term in My Classes: "Thank you for such an odd yet interesting course!"

As of late yesterday afternoon, I had finally filed all of my grades for my fall term course: a late exam (December 18th) proved both a blessing (because I had time to finish up other things in the meantime) and a curse (because I couldn’t wrap things up sooner even if I wanted to). I know that writing exams is very stressful, so I’m always touched when a student takes a precious minute or two to include a little “thank you” or “happy holidays” message to me at the end. There were several of those this year (and thank you, too, if any of you are reading this, and enjoy your well-earned break!), including the one quoted in the title to this post. As you can imagine, it gave me pause. “Odd yet interesting”? Of course, I’m glad it was interesting, but I wish I knew what was odd about it. Like the frequent comment on my course evaluations that I am “so organized,” this one makes me wonder just what my colleagues are doing, which in turn makes me think about how hermetically sealed our classrooms are, at least to each other. I haven’t had a colleague sit in on one of my own classes since I was compiling my tenure dossier nearly a decade ago; I’ve observed teaching demonstrations by job candidates and sat in once or twice at the request of a graduate student or junior colleague also working on his or her teaching dossier, but that’s it. Although teaching is done in front of an audience, when I think about it it is a strangely isolating experience also: you prepare alone, by and large, you carry out your plans as best you can and measure your success, or not, against your own standards and intentions, then you shuffle back to your office and get ready to do it all over again. Inevitably, after you’ve been doing it for a while, you find strategies (and handouts, and assignments, and textbooks, and so on) that you like and because there aren’t that many opportunities to compare what you are doing to what other people are doing, you start thinking of yourself as the norm–until you discover that, at least to someone, you seem “odd”! Actually, now that I think about it, last year I got a very nice card from a wonderful Honours student who also made a remark that made me wonder about myself: to paraphrase, she said that I had shown her that there were “other ways” of studying literature. Other than what?

Hazarding a guess, it has something to do with my attempts to talk about literature as something of personal and moral significance. I end my Victorian novel classes, for instance, after reviewing the historical and literary contexts we have studied and the major thematic and critical arcs of the specific texts, with a little speech about the conviction most Victorian novelists display that we, the readers, are where the real action has to go on: not only do they engage us in the novels, with strategies such as intrusive narration and direct address to us, the ‘dear readers,’ but they frequently point to public apathy, indifference, ignorance, or prejudice as the source of their characters’ difficulties. Lydgate’s failure? Dorothea’s unhistoric life? We made it possible, with our pettiness and self-absorption. Jo’s death? Well, aren’t they “dying thus around us every day”? The whole of Vanity Fair? Isn’t that where we live? I wrote a bit about these ‘closing perorations’ last year:

A further, and related, feature of these novels, and one that seems to me of increasing importance, is the imperative they communicate that we, as readers, have a lot of responsibilities: to read well, to judge carefully, and to think about our own role in the social worlds and institutions the novelists examine so imaginatively and often so critically—many of which have continuations or counterparts, after all, in modern society. At heart, this is the demand these novels make on us—to get involved, as readers—to acknowledge that the world they talk about is always, if not always literally, our own. When still an aspiring novelist herself, George Eliot remarked that “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” Right now, there is a lot of interest in fiction in this way, as a literary form that perhaps is specially suited to bringing about change in the world as well as in individuals. For example, Martha Nussbaum has published a book called Poetic Justice in which she holds up Dickens’s Hard Times as exemplary of the potential role of the literary imagination in public life—holding up a vision of human flourishing that contrasts with the theories most at play in socio-economic theory today, and that she argues is best cultivated precisely through the form of the novel. This is part of a broader attempt on her part to get the novel as a genre recognized as a form of moral philosophy. I myself have published a paper arguing for the value of George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an ethical text.

My general point is that the very qualities that make 19th-century novels problematic if your approach is formalist, aesthetic, or modernist can be those that make them matter if your approach is philosophical, activist, humanist, or communicative—why not, we might ask, use the powers of language and story-telling to get people thinking and talking about the way they live with other people, or about their ability to face themselves in the mirror in the morning? Yes, these novels are demanding in their length and complexity. But the greatest demand they place on us as readers is to be active, rather than passive, whether through the great moral “labour of choice” we experience vicariously in The Mill on the Floss or through the exercise of our sympathetic imagination and social conscience on behalf of those who need our help, as Bleak House might inspire us.

When I describe myself as a ‘Victorianist’ these days, I don’t really mean ‘someone who is immersed in scholarship about Victorian literature and culture’ (in fact, I confess my interest in ‘Victorian Studies’ as a field has been steadily declining, to the point that for the first time in almost twenty years I have changed my settings for the VICTORIA listserv to “digest”–though I still consider this list exemplary for its wisdom, generosity, and collegiality, I’m just not engaged with the topics it covers). I mean something more like ‘someone who embraces some key Victorian ideas about the novel in particular, and about literature more generally.’ Maybe, again, just guessing, this is what seems ‘odd’ or different. But without knowing what other people do or say in the classroom, I can’t be sure.

Otherwise, things have wrapped up without incident this term. The Victorian Sensations seminar picked up a lot of momentum towards the end, or so I thought. I had to put in some strenuous work for a while, especially when we turned our attention to contemporary criticism, but it seemed to pay off, and the discussions in our last couple of weeks showed that, despite what I thought was a stuttering start, everyone had accumulated a range of good critical strategies and contextual frameworks for discussing our primary texts, including the two I consider the most interpretively elusive, Aurora Floyd and East Lynne. And the Victorian novel class (odd though it may have been) seemed typical enough to me. I do think, though, that it might be time for me to re-imagine it, as I have been teaching the two ‘halves’ of it more or less the same since 2003. I enjoy both the Austen to Dickens and the Dickens to Hardy versions a lot; I vary the texts at least a little every time; and I have used a range of assignment structures. It’s great to have notes and handouts ready to be tweaked and reused. But I think it’s starting to make me a little intellectually lazy, knowing so well what I want to do or say with each novel, or at any rate each author. I have no idea how else to run the courses, but next year, for the first time since 2003, I’m not teaching either of them–in fact, we’re hiring a sessional to cover them, as I’m on half-sabbatical starting in January and will be doing other teaching in the fall. So between now and September 2011, maybe I’ll get some new ideas. Maybe I should sit in on some colleagues’ classes, too, and see what they do. I bet in their own ways, they are odd too, but it would be nice–and probably instructive–to see what the difference is.

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