We’ve almost settled into a routine in my three classes, I think. The one I feel least certain about is my section of Intro. I think we’re doing OK, but I wonder if I made things a bit too intense at the very start of term as I focused on establishing expectations and framing our work as the preliminary stages in mastering a discipline. In my defense, I can say that the course is supposed to be a ‘writing across the curriculum’ offering and thus is supposed to teach writing in the context of training as a literary critic. But since I have a whole year to work with this group, I could have spared a bit more time, maybe, for getting-to-know you kinds of things. Well, we have the rest of the year to keep getting to know each other, and as far as I can tell, they are a nice group and seem willing to do what’s asked of them, and quite a few also seem willing to contribute to discussion already. Next week I’ll see if I can lighten things up a bit.
Mystery and Detective Fiction seems fine too. It’s a much bigger class (around 90) but a reasonable number of people are putting their hands up and saying smart things, and considering we’re working through The Moonstone, which is our longest and most formally complicated book, I’m hopeful that as we move into more accessible ones it will get more lively. The Moonstone is always such fun; though I occasionally wonder if I can make it through the sessions one more time (I think I’ve taught it for at least one class pretty much every year since 2003), once it’s underway I really have no complaints. I can’t imagine doing this particular class without it: I’ve rotated in different titles for many of the other subgenres I cover, but The Moonstone is a fixture.
Of greatest concern to me as this week began was how the first discussions of Testament of Youth would go in my Somerville Novelists seminar. I am so pleased to report that they have gone extremely well! Or, at any rate, that I have thoroughly enjoyed both preparing for them and participating in them–and judging by the level and the quality of the students’ participation, they too are finding plenty to interest them. Hooray! For each class there are three students bringing what I call “Start-Ups”: handouts with two questions and two passages they’ve chosen, to start up our discussion. We take a few minutes at the beginning of class to go through them (I used to require students to post them before the class so their classmates could come prepared, but I learned that invariably, students didn’t do that, or if they had, they still liked having the handout). Then we just go where people want to go.
We’re nearly half way through the book at this point–we’ve just passed Roland’s death–and so the personal drama has become more gripping, and we’ve started sorting out some of the ways she tells the story to make particular kinds of points. Last class, for instance, we talked about her idealization of Roland and how he becomes the embodiment of everything the war destroyed, and we also talked about the attention she pays to the physical bodies of the soldiers she nurses and how for her, that becomes a way of recognizing and valuing the physical side of her love for him. We’ve noticed the ways she emphasizes her feminist principles and the tensions this creates not just in the story she’s telling (for instance, she and Roland are reluctant to announce their engagement because they resist the conventional implications of marriage) but also in how she tells it (is her idealization of Roland perhaps symptomatic of an anxiety about having become one of “those women” she initially disparages, who have love and marriage and children as their first priorities?). We noted how strongly she dichotomizes first her provincial experience and her dreams of Oxford, and then the academic life at Oxford and the harsh realities of war: she seems to approach the world in terms of such antagonisms, and she also always wants to end up where the action is. We’ve talked about her desire to be taken seriously as an individual, not belittled or constrained as a woman, and then about Testament as a way of asserting serious value for a woman’s experience of war; we’ve talked about the frequent exchanges she and her male friends have about courage, and about the different ways they seek to overcome their fears and prove their valor. There’s more, too, but you get the idea: everyone’s noticing lots of interesting things, and we’re working out connections and trying to see where they take us. I’ve done a reasonable amount of steering and also of trying to abstract from particulars to draw out their implications, but there’s been no need for me to step in and fill awkward silences. Here’s hoping the energy continues, and that it motivates everyone to get busy with the wiki projects, which we’ll be focusing on pretty soon.