This Week in My Classes: Almost the End!

The last couple of weeks of term always feel like the mental (and organizational) equivalent of coasting hands-free down a steep hill on a bicycle while wearing an unzipped backpack spewing pieces of paper. Though to some extent the pressure of new content subsides (I have really only two more class hours in which I am responsible for lecturing or leading discussion), there are a lot of moving parts. This week these include practice exams and peer editing worksheets, for instance. Also, realizing the end is nigh, students suddenly start actually coming by my office hours for help with their papers, or (less endearingly) brandishing medical notes or sob stories of various kinds to explain their many absences or failure to meet course requirements along the way. Complaints about scheduled exam times are not uncommon, either. For the record, I too would be much happier not to have an exam at 8:30 a.m. on December 18!

Tomorrow, then, is my last real lecture in the British Literature After 1800 survey class. Last year, due to an oversight when I drew up the original syllabus (I forgot about Good Friday!) I had to cut my planned final lecture on Atonement and use that hour for our peer editing. This term I have that hour back, and I hope to use it not just to highlight and discuss some of the most interesting things we learn about Atonement from its concluding revelations but also to elicit some reflections on the course overall. After all, Atonement raises a number of questions about what we want or expect or need from art–particularly the novelist’s art, but also, along the way (with its invocations of Auden and Yeats, for instance) from poetry, and through The Trials of Arabella, perhaps from drama as well. Friday is peer editing, and Monday is exam review, and that’s a wrap. Well, except for the grading,  of course, which (between final essays and the late exam) will take me right through to Christmas, I expect. Sigh.

And tomorrow is also our last seminar discussion in Women and Detective Fiction, as Friday’s class is a student presentation and Monday I have set aside our class time for conferences on their final papers, as these are their major assignment of the term. They’ve done proposals already. We are working our way through Prime Suspect, and have been having some good discussions–with wide-ranging allusions back across our other texts, which I’m happy to see at the end of a course–especially about what many critics discuss as the dual crimes of so many women’s crime novels: there’s the specific crime under investigation, and there’s the broader ‘criminal’ context of what I suppose is easiest to label misogyny, though depending on the example, it may be something that seems to deserve a subtler name, like discrimination, or marginalization, or depreciation. Even going back to Miss Marple we find that one aspect of the case is the detective’s gender: for Miss Marple, there’s the way she is constantly underestimated by those around her because of her little old lady persona (as we discussed, this can be a strategic advantage for her, of course) and who also often solves a puzzle thanks to experience or expertise that is also gendered–domestic knowledge, for instance. So not all of the works we looked at take gender as a problem, but it’s always an issue, because it always does make a difference to who someone is and how they live in the world. I think the first novel we read this term that clearly stakes out territory as a feminist analysis of this context is Death in a Tenured Position, though An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a tricky case (James disavowed any feminist intention, but the reasons for feminism are all over the place in the novel). With Prime Suspect, one of the questions we haven’t finished with is how far Tennison’s efforts are ‘feminist’ and how far they are self-interested, with sexism simply an obstacle she needs to overcome to succeed. (Is there a difference?)  Like Miss Marple, Tennison uses knowledge she has because of her sex (recognizing the labels on victims’ clothing, for instance), but she also makes an issue of looking closely at women’s faces: the initial misidentification of the victim is a result of the men on the case not differentiating between women, which is a theme continued through the series, including the incident we discussed yesterday in which Tennison is approached by a ‘john’ while interviewing two prostitutes. At key moments like this her proximity to the victims is played up and her power as a DCI shown to be unstable, or at least something that needs to be repeatedly asserted. One important sequence near the beginning has her standing next to a photo display of two murdered women, both blonde: in that shot, she can easily be seen as the next in line, a possibility recharged near the end when one of the forensic team holds up a hair he’s pulled from a crime scene and asks, “Your girl blonde?” Tomorrow we’ll look closely at the final interview with Moyra and then at Tennison’s triumphant celebration with “the lads” after the case is cracked. Many of the early scenes emphasize (through camera angles, for instance) her isolation from the team. At the end she has certainly won them over:  is that success? On what terms?

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