This Week in My Classes (January 6, 2010): Beginnings

It feels as if this year there was an unpleasantly (even, unconscionably) short time between the end of exams–or, more significantly, the end of marking exams–and the beginning of our new term. The feeling of hurtling headling into another round of, well, everything was exacerbated by the entire administrative structure of the university being closed from the day I submitted my final grades until the day I showed up to teach again. Well, it’s nice that some people weren’t working between December 24 and January 3, but for some reason I didn’t think I could just show up on January 4, walk into the classroom and start talking. Good thing I didn’t need the library, a/v support, answers about anything from room booking or the Registrar’s Office, or a printer.

Sigh.

But I was, mostly, ready. And the truth about teaching (one truth, anyway) is that there’s only so much you can do in advance. I find I can’t even draft detailed lecture notes much ahead of time if I want to really mean the things I say. For one thing, transitions and examples that seem absolutely reasonable at one moment can look wholly obscure at another (“Why have I put ‘quote Arnold’ here, again? Which Arnold?”). And for another, each class meeting has to be to some extent responsive to the one that came before it (and the ones that came before that). So I usually focus a lot of energy and attention on the scaffolding for my classes–planning reading and assignment sequences, tweaking course policies, setting up Blackboard sites and so forth. This time I obsessed about the wiki projects I am doing with my Brit Lit survey class (very similar to the one JBJ describes here), especially the instructions (detailed! with screen shots!) and the evaluation rubric. I also puzzled for some time over what assignments to use in my graduate seminar, as I am tired of going through the ritual round of in-class seminar presentations (in the end, I decided to move a fair amount of writing and discussion onto, you guessed it, a class blog). I’m hopeful that these mildly innovative formats for our work will be energizing for the students as well as for me, but right now I feel exhausted from the effort it took to create the sites and then explain (and justify, pedagogically or methodologically) their use.

And even having laboured over syllabi and websites and reserve lists and discussion questions until my eyes were all starey and red, the problem still remained: what to say in class? Luckily, for one class (Mystery & Detective Fiction) I have a lot of material to draw on from previous years, so this time all I added was some pizazz in the form of PowerPoint slides. There really is no lecture that can’t be improved by a large picture of Humphrey Bogart. For my graduate seminar, I knew I wanted to begin with an overview of George Eliot’s life and philosophy, also something I’ve done before. I also had asked them to read three of her major essays (“Woman in France,” “The Natural History of German Life,” and “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”), so we could begin our seminar work with some discussion of, among other things, gender and voice.

The big blank for me was how to start up the Brit Lit survey. In the end I decided to go with a sort of ‘motivational speaker does literary history’ thing, emphasizing ways in which a text can hum with unexpected significance if we bring to it a keen enough sense of the contexts and forms on which it draws, or to which it responds. To feel that energy ourselves, we have to stock up on ideas and information, including historical and literary-historical, so that, for instance, we can look at something that otherwise might seem entirely innocuous, even trivial (my example was “I wandered lonely as a cloud”) and see it as, in its own way, revolutionary. Why would someone say this thing, in this way, at this time? Under the circumstances, what did it mean? And then, of course, given all that and everything else we know, what does it mean for us? I had the idea that they should not take the class, or literary history for that matter, for granted–not just sit there and be writing down things about what the texts meant, or who wrote them and when. Nobody has ever (I think!) written literature in the hope of being anthologized, after all. People write (or so I assume) so that other people will join with them, if only temporarily or provisionally. Anyway, I tried to communicate some sense of why I think it matters (and helps) to know something about literary and historical contexts; I tried to make the discussion at once abstract and personal (for them, not for me). Today, on the other hand, I made large generalizations about “Romanticism” and pointed to some sections of “Tintern Abbey.” I think that was more what they were expecting from the course.

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