We are rapidly nearing the end of term, which means a lot of time and thought on all sides is going into final assignments. In my Intro to Lit class, I’m particularly conscious of this phase of the course as a time in which I pull back and see if the scaffolding I have tried to build for the students, starting on the first day of classes, supports them now that they have to do their biggest independent project. Last week I gave them a self-assessment exercise that, among other things, asked them to let me know what they thought the teaching staff could do to help them succeed — what else, I should say, since it’s not as if my TAs and I have been passive so far. It was useful to see what they identified as their own strengths and weaknesses. Their anxiety pretty clearly centers on building a viable and interesting argument out of the details they notice while reading. A number of students said that they wished we would “explain” the readings to them more clearly: as I discussed with the class, if this means “tell them the answer to the readings,” tell them what to argue about them, then they aren’t going to get their wish, since learning to develop and support their own interpretations is really the primary course objective. I’ve been stressing the process that leads to a good interpretation, which is what we model and practice in every class, but I’m not going to offer them a “nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of [their] notebooks and keep on the mantel-piece forever,” even if (as Woolf ironically observes) this is “the first duty of a lecturer.”
Still, I can see that it’s stressful working towards a goal that maybe you can’t quite picture, not having seen a strong thesis before, or not having seen details from a close reading integrated into an essay’s overall argument. So I devised a couple of exercises that I hope have helped bring that desired result into better focus, including a handout with a sample paragraph drawing on an example we’d worked on together in class, and in today’s tutorial we’re working with a sample thesis statement for a text they aren’t writing on for their final essays (as I told them, I don’t want 61 essays all arguing for my interpretation of Unless!) and, again, a process-oriented worksheet focusing on choosing good evidence and organizing it into an interpretive argument. I hope this boosts their confidence about what to do — what steps to take — and makes them feel better about the fact that they need to do it in service of their best reading and thinking about the novel. I have said since day 1 that there aren’t “right answers” to the kind of work a critic does. There can be wrong ones (if you just flat out misunderstand the words on the page, for instance), but after that there are just better, more convincing ones or weaker, less persuasive ones. Next week they have drafts due and tutorials will be spent on peer editing, so that gives them one more chance to run their plans past another reader before they commit fully.
My graduate students too are facing end-of-term hurdles. Here my scaffolding has been somewhat less meticulous or overt, but I hope our directed conversations all term have given them lots of ideas to work with as well as a good sense of how to talk about them. They also wrote proposals for their final essays last week, which I have returned to them with comments and suggestions. For the next two weeks, our class time will be dedicated to their presentations. In previous years I’ve integrated presentations into the term’s work, but this year I wanted to use them to extend our class discussions beyond the assigned readings, so I have two students presenting on works by George Eliot that weren’t otherwise on our syllabus, and three presenting on contemporary interpretations of Eliot’s work — Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, and the BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda. (These were the students’ choices from a menu of options I gave them.) I’m looking forward to these! I have kept my own reviews of Souhami and Mead a bit under wraps (though I suppose the students might turn them up during their research) as I didn’t want to preempt what might be very different responses.
In terms of my own teaching chores, I’m in a bit of a lull at this point. There are still classes to prep on Unless, but I’ve got notes to work with, and I’ve drafted both the quiz I still need to give in Intro and the peer editing worksheet they’ll use. It will all come crashing upon me at once as soon as classes actually end, though, with both sets of papers coming in and the final exam for Intro scheduled the very first day of the exam period. I’m taking advantage of this week’s lighter demands by getting a start on the syllabi for next term. I’m also digging in to Portrait of a Lady, which I had been making only slow progress on. It really isn’t that irritating, it turns out — or maybe I’m just acclimatizing.
Update: As Stacey requested in the comments, here are the handouts I drew up for my Intro class to model and them help them practice moving from close reading details to using those details to support an interpretation: English 1010 Worksheets Close Reading in Context.