This Week In My Classes: March Madness and #IWD

I can’t believe Reading Week is already two weeks ago — but that’s what it’s always like when we come back. I don’t like to say that it’s all downhill from there, but it does always seem as if the term accelerates, even as the work accumulates. And there are just so many moving parts! All the routine business of class meetings continues, including doing the readings, preparing lecture notes or handouts or worksheets or slides, keeping attendance records, and just plain showing up and going through the whole song and dance number — which is the most fun part, but also the most tiring part. From now until after exams, there’s also a constant flow of assignments in and out, and that means getting topics and instructions up in plenty of time; there are tests to prepare — which has to be done earlier than it used to so copies can be dropped off for students with accommodations — and then to mark; there are forms for this and emails about that.

You’d think I’d be used to this, after almost 22 years, and really, I am. Academic work is very cyclical, and this is just, always, a particularly intense part of the cycle. Then suddenly, before it seems possible, classes will be over and there will be “just” exams and papers left, and then everything quiets right down for the summer, when both the work and the pace are different. I’m hanging in there reasonably well in the meantime, though every so often I feel a bit panicked. Clearly, though, one thing that has fallen by the wayside is blogging, partly because I haven’t been getting much interesting reading done outside of class. (I am now happily started on Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, though, so there’s hope!)

One nice thing is that the readings for both classes provided rich fodder for discussion recently. In Pulp Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our time on The Maltese Falcon. For our last session we talked mostly about Sam’s choice between love and justice at the end of the novel. “If they hang you, I’ll always remember you” is hardly a conventionally romantic declaration, but coming from Sam, it seems like a lot! What I find so interesting is that it seems at least possible that he really does love Brigid (though he doesn’t seem quite sure, and neither were we, overall), but it just doesn’t matter to him that much: he’s not even torn over it. We’re so used to stories (and songs, and greeting cards) in which all you need is love, but Sam believes other things matter more (“when a man’s partner dies, he’s supposed to do something about it”), and why not, really? I’m reminded of the scene in The West Wing when Leo’s wife complains that to him, his job (as White House Chief of Staff) is more important than his marriage. “Right now, it is,” he says, and in context that doesn’t seem unreasonable. Sam is a pretty objectionable guy in other ways, so I would never hold him up as exemplary, but it’s refreshing to have someone take the position that “maybe I love you, and maybe you love me” might not be what matters the most. Plus, what a neat segue that sets up for our unit on romance fiction, which starts very soon.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we’ve just finished Adam Bede. I don’t know why I was worried about how it would go over with the students: compared to The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch, it has been really easy going! Though it does start slowly, it develops in quite a clear and dramatic way, with main characters who provide strong contrasts to each other in ways that are easy enough to see but still really interesting to examine. I haven’t had any trouble generating discussion, especially once we’d followed Hetty on her journeys in hope and despair and then through her trial, her confession to Dinah, and her [spoiler alert!] dramatic rescue. Though I think the novel has some weaknesses that show Eliot’s inexperience as a novelist (the wooden-headed Adam, for one, and, arguably, the heavy-handed — if delightful — Chapter 17, “In Which the Story Pauses A Little,” for another), it is still astonishingly good, full of wisdom and beauty and humor and pathos. One of the best moments of my whole week — really, of my whole term — was walking back to my office from class on Friday behind a stream of students who were still talking with great animation about Seth, whose happy generosity in the face of [spoiler!]  Adam and Dinah’s marriage does, as the students noted, strain credulity. (I know, I know. Nobody reading here cares about spoilers. But you’d be surprised: I remember a graduate seminar being extremely annoyed with their assigned Broadview edition of Adam Bede because its footnotes gave key plot points away in advance.)

On a different note, I actually wrote most of an entirely different post on Wednesday in honor of International Women’s Day. I wanted to pay tribute in some way to the many women who have made a positive difference in my life: the women in my family, my dear friends, the women I work with, the women writers whose books enrich my life in so many ways, the amazing women characters they envisioned who have also served as my inspirations and role models. In the end, though, I decided not to post it, not because I didn’t mean it, but because I couldn’t seem to write it in a way that didn’t sound like vacuous gushing. Maybe that would have been fine, I don’t know, but it seemed shallow to me, when my intentions were just the opposite. Instead, then, you got this rather dull housekeeping post! I really do want to thank and celebrate these wonderful people: I’m just going to find a different way to do so.

2 Comments to This Week In My Classes: March Madness and #IWD

  1. David's Gravatar David
    March 11, 2017 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I realize that this might be off-topic, but I just wanted to say that I’m about two-thirds of the way through rereading Daniel Deronda, and I’m seeing it in a whole new light. There is a kind of epistemic drama at work in this novel (I came to this thought after rereading the well-known epigraph about Knowledge and Ignorance, and thinking of it in terms of the work of Miranda Fricker). Gwendolyn is ill-served by her ignorance of the world and of Grandcourt in particular. Deronda struggles with not knowing his origins, and Mirah is brought to despair in her search for her mother and brother. These epistemic injustices matter in this novel, though just how they matter I don’t want to speculate on until I’ve reached the end.

    Anyway, I’m very much enjoying the novel the second time around.

  2. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    March 12, 2017 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Love can be a motive for ill as well as good. That’s a point Sayers’ Gaudy Night makes, isn’t it? Personal loyalty leads people into all sorts of immoral and unethical behavior as well as into excusing it in their loved ones.

    It sounds as though Adam Bede may be a better novel to teach than some of Eliot’s more artistically accomplished novels.

    I imagine for many first-time readers it is a disappointment to know plot points in advance. I am one of those weird people who often reads ahead to break the tension. That can make it easier to read on and to notice any clues seeded in the text that foreshadow the ending, thus having some sense of what reading the book with full knowledge would be like without having to read it twice.

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