This Week In My Classes: Hunkering Down!

Ah, the holiday weekend, with its leisure reading! It’s just a fond memory right now … Well, I exaggerate slightly, as I’ve certainly had more hectic terms than this one (this time last year, just for instance, I was teaching three courses, including one entirely new one), but I have been pretty busy with class preparation, grading, and meetings in the last couple of days, and so far I haven’t really focused on another fun book to read in the interstices.

The-Big-SleepToday I finished marking the 75 midterms for my Mystery & Detective Fiction course (which means, in case any students are reading this, that the grades should be checked and posted to Blackboard tomorrow afternoon). In class, we’ve just started working through The Big Sleep. It’s my first time teaching it, after going endless rounds with The Maltese Falcon. I’ve been thinking about making this switch for years but it took me a while to get over my initial aversion to The Big Sleep (soon after that 2009 post, however, I did add The Hound of the Baskervilles to the syllabus, where I have enjoyed it ever since). There are a few things I already miss about Hammett, but I think Chandler is going to give us plenty to talk about, and now that I have the plot more or less sorted out and some interpretive threads to follow, I am relaxing enough into the book that I almost like it a little bit! (Hard-boiled fiction is never going to be my favourite thing, but note to David Gilmour: teaching outside of your comfort zone is good for the brain as well as the character…) Yesterday was mostly warm-up stuff, with background on hard-boiled detection, Black Mask, “The Simple Art of Murder,” and so on. Then we started in with some consideration of the title: how does the gently euphemistic The Big Sleep suit the novel in a way that, say, Stone Cold Dead would not? (“Why this, not that?” is one of my favourite conversation starters for class discussion.) We had time for a few preliminary comments on Marlowe and that’s where we’ll pick up tomorrow: what kind of knight-errant is he, what kind of candidates for his version of chivalry are the Sternwoods, what’s the world like that he moves in, what hope does a lone hero — however untarnished and unafraid — have against the kinds of crime and corruption he’s up against? I would like to be able to talk about Spenser, but there’s just no room for Robert B. Parker on this syllabus: if I were ever to propose a 4th-year seminar on this subgenre, it would be to have an excuse to assign him. Actually, a course like that would be a great complement to the one I already offer on Women & Detective Fiction (coming up next term). Hmmm…something to think about. It wouldn’t play to my own tastes the way the other seminar does (oh, how I’m looking forward to reading Gaudy Night again) — but given how hard it sometimes is to be scholarly and objective about books I really love, that might not be a bad thing.

In 19thC Fiction we’re done with Waverley (to everyone’s relief, I think) and on to Jane Eyre, which is always a much easier sell. I’m not as passionate about Jane Eyre as I once was. It’s partly that I’ve gone through it so often (though reiteration doesn’t seem to diminish my enthusiasm for Middlemarch), but this time I’m also finding its relentlessly high emotional pitch tiring and somewhat artless (can I say that? is it heresy, for a Victorianist?). And yet I suppose that’s kind of the point (one point, anyway) of the novel itself — that our passions need to be checked by reason, that rage (however justified) quickly becomes self-destructive. I find myself coaching my students in quite the opposite way than I was doing with Waverley: instead of saying ‘try to throw yourself into it more,’ I’m saying ‘be careful about identifying with Jane too quickly or easily.’ She gives us lots of clues that she herself has grown up since she was thrown into the Red Room for fighting back against John Reed’s oppression. My favourite parts of the novel are the sparring matches she has with Rochester: so much of their dialogue is just so unexpected. By tomorrow everyone should have read through to Jane’s discovery of her inheritance and her relationship to St. John and his sisters: I want to start with some discussion about why she doesn’t marry Rochester (not the plot reasons, of course, but the reasons that marrying him at that point would be risky even if he weren’t already married) — that means looking at the shopping spree, probably, and talking more about Bertha and whether she’s a cautionary tale for Jane, an ally of some kind, or an antagonist. Then we can consider what Jane gains at Marsh End, as well as what risks she faces there, too, to her personal development.

oxford jane eyreI’m feeling a bit mad at myself for not learning the lessons of last term about the assignment sequence I’m using in 19th-Century Fiction. I’m doing reading journals again, and I’m also repeating the strategy of allowing students to choose which of our first novels to write their short essay on. Last time I worried that the journal entries were not well distributed across the term, and I’m seeing the exact same pattern this year — I didn’t change the instructions and rules because the degree of micromanagement required to key credit to specific stages of the reading seemed too much, but I’m not sure I can justify (to myself) doing the same thing again, given what actually happens (as opposed to what I’d like to happen). It’s a process-vs.-product problem again: mostly, they want credit for doing the journals, not the benefit the journals could be to their learning experience. (As always, there are exceptions who are absolutely making the most of the journals.) This term, I’m also seeing really uneven distribution in the essays: fully a third of the class wrote on Persuasion, nobody at all on Waverley, and it looks like the remaining two thirds are planning to write on Jane Eyre, which means nobody is writing on David Copperfield. (They all have to write ‘mini-midterms’ on each novel, though, and then a final exam with an essay question on our last book, North and South.) I want them to write on the books that interest and motivate them, but one effect of this uneven selection is to unbalance my workload. Before I design next year’s 19th-C novels class, I’ll revisit the great coercion conundrum. Maybe I’ll do a different assignment sequence altogether — though at this point I don’t think I can go back to the letter exchanges that I used to like so much. They had just become too much of a logistical nightmare!

But it’s too soon to fret about 2014-15 when 2013-14 isn’t even half over yet.

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