This Week In My Classes: Micromanaging Middlemarch

OxfordMaybe there should be a question mark in the title of this post. I hope there should be! But I’m not sure, and that makes me just a little anxious.

It is always hard to find a good balance between showing students what’s interesting and important in the novel we’re studying and letting them explore and discover things on their own. But it is particularly challenging with a novel as dense as Middlemarch, and I fear that — in recent years especially, as I’ve become more certain of my own ideas about the novel — I have become a little too controlling during our class time.

In my defense,  Middlemarch is long, our time is short, and an inductive or Socratic approach guarantees some serious inefficiency in arriving at anything like a thorough understanding of the novel. More than that, it’s flat-out unreasonable to expect anyone reading the novel for the first time to keep good enough track of the details (whether of plot or of narrative commentary) to put the pieces together confidently into an interpretation they feel ready to defend. It takes a lot of time and rereading to do that! And that’s not even taking into account the kinds of contextual information — historical, political, theoretical — that helps make sense of things that happen in the novel, or that enriches a reading that otherwise might focus (of necessity) quite superficially on the plot.

It’s true that, as Steve recently argued about Wuthering Heights, it is perfectly possibly to have a thrilling reading experience “without a speck of annotation,” or its in-class equivalent. My own first reading of Middlemarch was innocent in just that way. But in class, we come to study Middlemarch, not (just) to praise it, and I believe strongly that “expert guidance” can enhance that reading experience in myriad ways — else how would I show up for work every day? At the same time, it’s my job to train students to read well themselves, not just to show them how well I can read! With that in mind, I proceed in all of my classes through a blend of lecture and discussion, laying out facts and, where it seems appropriate, big-picture interpretive frameworks, but also asking open-ended but purposeful questions that begin with observations and then build towards interpretations by looking for connections and patterns. Even when I am outright lecturing, I’m not “just” transferring information (something I think is in fact easily undervalued) — I’m also modelling the process; class discussion is a collaborative way of doing the same thing. The further along we get in our discussions the less distance there is between observation and analysis, because (if all goes well) the early classes demonstrate the most fruitful lines of inquiry, or lay down tracks to pursue as we continue our reading.penguin

But, again, open discussion has built-in inefficiencies, and with Middlemarch — both because I love it so and because I have worked hard myself to connect its ideas across its many parts — I am always tempted to minimize them by doing more demonstrations, more set pieces of explanation. For instance, over time I have developed a range of detailed of lecture notes that focus on particular themes or problems (interpretation and misinterpretation, say, or reform, or religion) and trace them through examples from across wide swathes of the novel. This is precisely the kind of thing that’s hard for students to do: by the time they get to Chapter 31, Chapter 15 is a long way behind them; by the time they get to Chapter 77, how much detail can they remember of Chapter 43? I also have a few favorite examples of the novel’s formal properties that I like to work through with some care so that they see how its structure reflects its central ideas. Again, these are hard things to notice on a first reading (the chronological shifts especially), so it seems right that I should steer the class pretty closely through all of this. But it’s not good if my well-meaning guidance precludes their — and my — finding out what they are interested in or letting them work out connections on their own, or if it means I am just using our class time to insist on my own way of reading the novel. That’s sort of what they are there for, but in some important ways it is not what they are there for at all!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking at them without interruption for the whole class period! Last week, precisely because I’ve been worrying about this micromanaging tendency, I did not stick rigidly to my notes but consciously tried to throw out more open-ended questions and see where they took us. It’s pretty clear, though, that for many of them the novel is a lot to manage on their own (I’m not sure I want to know how many have fallen behind in the reading). When not a lot of answers are forthcoming, what’s a micromanager  control-freak  enthusiast responsible teacher to do but fill in the gaps herself?

But I’m hopeful that they are oriented reasonably well in the novel now. We’re heading into sections that lend themselves to genuine debate, too, and that should give the discussion some good momentum. Toomorrow, for instance, we’ll consider whether Dorothea should have promised Casaubon to “carry out my wishes . . . [and] avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” His request prompts a painful inner struggle for her, so presumably there are genuine reasons on both sides. And we’re not far from Raffles’s death, which raises lots of interesting questions about culpability. Overt crises in the action typically help bring more abstract problems (here, about sympathy and morality) into focus and make them seem more urgent.

I do have more specific ideas I very much want us to “cover” about Middlemarch — points I think it is genuinely important to make, moments I believe we should pay particular attention to — before we reach the end of our allotted time for the novel. What I have to keep in mind is that it is impossible to actually cover everything we might conceivably address. Even my own “must-do” list is incredibly partial (Fred and Mary, for instance, always seem to get short shrift, which is all kinds of wrong). But that’s OK! “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending”: the narrator says so! I just need to keep my inner Casaubon under control . . .  Still, it’s both funny and frustrating to realize that it is getting harder rather than easier to find that ideal balance with this, my favorite book of all to read and teach.

6 Comments to This Week In My Classes: Micromanaging Middlemarch

  1. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    October 20, 2014 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking recently about the ways my teaching changes over time, as my familiarity with the text increases. The better I know something, and the more I’ve taught it the more insistent I become on hitting certain points, offering certain interpretations. The less well I know something, the looser I am, the less able to offer an overarching picture. Each has its own rewards. The first few times, I’m more open to being led by where students want to go, which is a good thing. But those iterations also are prone to aimlessness. As I become more sure of my take on the text, I usually do a better job of situating it within the context of the course (period, problem, what have you). But I think I become less open to being led by the vagaries of a particular group’s inclinations. Of course, when students teach me new things about texts I know really well, I’m really impressed.

    Because I tend to spend long amounts of time on particular passages, I sometimes get criticized by students for losing the forest for the trees. Do you find that a problem? Sounds like you’ve organized things amazingly well.

  2. October 21, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I ran into a similar problem a fair amount last year while teaching Orhan Pamuk’s art/murder/mystery novel My Name is Red. The students in my lower div fine arts course sometimes struggled to find points of entry into a novel translated from Turkish about sixteenth century Ottoman artists working in Islamic traditions. And, of course, it doesn’t help that it is a postmodern novel with about twenty different narrators. I basically settled on a hybrid approach: I’d ask students to look for passages in specific chapters that dealt with particular topics (representations of Venetian art styles or moments where the characters acknowledge the reader’s presence). It worked really well–they choose the passages we close read, we stay on certain paths of thought, and we get there largely through analysis. I often prepped a few important passages as well, and if the students didn’t discover those passages on their own, then I’d direct class discussion there after talking about the passages they selected.

    Been enjoying this series of posts! I’ll be teaching Our Mutual Friendin a few weeks and suspect that I’ll be running into a similar set of problems!

  3. RT's Gravatar RT
    November 5, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    You say: (I’m not sure I want to know how many have fallen behind in the reading).

    I also am uncomfortable about knowing that ugly fact of life in literature classes. I became so concerned about it that I began using regular “pop” quizzes. That may be a simple-minded and insulting solution, but it does encourage reading. Have you considered that strategy?

    As for student participation versus teacher domination, I think we need a proper balance so that we can hope to achieve the learning objectives. When I notice that participation is evaporating, the dominant lecturer takes over. It may not be the ideal solution, but at least I can be content in the knowledge that students have at least learned something about the reading assignment(s). I think you should not worry so much about being the “dominant lecturer” in the classroom. Learning must happen. The ends justifies the means.

  4. RT's Gravatar RT
    November 5, 2014 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    And I need to add this: Your postings on Middlemarch have been a needed catalyst; the book is moving off the shelf and into my hands. Let the (re)reading begin. Thank you for providing the push that I needed.

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