This Week In My Classes: Moving Right Along!

We seem to have passed that tipping point past which we hurtle towards the end of term. I feel as if it was only just the weekend, and tomorrow it will be Friday again! Happily, it will also be the Friday before a long weekend, which will give us all time to catch up, or rest up, a bit.

beckIn Mystery & Detective Fiction it continues to be a good term. For whatever reason, I have one of the most lively groups I’ve had in that class, with 15-20 students who pitch in regularly to discussion. In a class of about 80, that’s a pretty good percentage, especially considering that larger classes can themselves be intimidating. It makes the class time go by very fast, and it keeps me on my toes: the closer I stick to the notes I’ve brought in, the less likely I am to be asked a question I can’t answer easily enough, whether it’s about a detail of the plot or a broader issue of interpretation. In my own rereadings I don’t (I can’t) pay equal attention to absolutely everything, and I’m usually focused on the elements that are most important to what I’m planning to talk about. The more open the conversation, the more likely, in contrast, that I’ll discover what I don’t know, or know enough about. I like it, even if it’s sometimes disconcerting. I hope my having to say, occasionally, “Actually, I don’t know,” or “I really can’t remember — can anyone help me out by finding a relevant passage?” doesn’t undermine my students’ confidence in my expertise. Besides, keeping the plot of The Big Sleep straight is hard enough that Chandler himself couldn’t do it, right? This week we’ve wrapped up our discussion of The Terrorists, and tomorrow we start on Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. In what’s probably becoming a boring refrain about readings for this class, I’ve been wondering for ages about switching it out for one of his longer, richer ones — but Knots and Crosses is usually a crowd-pleaser, and I do enjoy working through its Gothic twists and turns.

In 19thC Fiction from Austen to Dickens we are almost done our time on David Copperfield. It was a rocky start, but the last couple of classes have felt better to me, not just because the level of participation has been higher but because my own sense of what I want us to get out of the conversation is also improving. It has been feeling like a somehow spongier novel to work with than Bleak House or Great Expectations, and though I thought I had a lot of ideas about it, I haven’t been entirely clear in my own mind about how to bring them into focus. The further we read, though, the clearer Dickens’s own patterning becomes, and that has helped. Tomorrow we will have read up to the end of the amazing chapter called “Tempest,” so I’m going to focus on the three major crises of this installment (**spoiler alert**!): Micawber’s take-down of Uriah HEEP, Dora’s decline and death, and Steerforth’s drowning. We’ll talk about them as things that have to happen for David to complete his development — but why? I’ve got some suggestions about Steerforth and Heep as important examples of “not-David”: reflections of David himself that he has to outgrow or reject, figures of what he isn’t, or doesn’t want to be. (There’s plenty of critical writing about this that has been helpful to me as I’ve thought about this, including Oliver Buckton’s essay on ‘Homoerotic Secrets in David Copperfield” and Tara MacDonald’s on ‘race, sexuality, and Uriah Heep‘). As for Dora, I think it’s painfully obvious that she’s not the mature choice for David (some students have already expressed their shock that he actually marries her, instead of realizing his mistake in time). So we’ll talk about his love for her as evidence of his ‘undisciplined heart,’ I expect; I’m interested in why she’s presented with so much pathos and tenderness, too, rather than satirically, given how bad a choice she is. I expect we’ll tie his feelings for her into his love for Steerforth. There is something precious and beautiful in these mistakes, I think: just because childish love is not right (and may even be destructive) doesn’t mean the world would be a better place if we were all smart and knowing and invulnerable to error. My idea for our final class, next Wednesday (after the long weekend!) is to go through some of the claims made for David Copperfield in the context of ethical criticism, looking especially at work by Martha Nussbaum and Marshall Gregory, so trying to get at the value Dickens places on Dickens’s loving mistakes should be good preparation.

Maclise DickensI will be a bit relieved to be done with David Copperfield and on to North and South, which I know much better, but I do relish the challenge of working up a new novel, and I do think, too, that I should assign it again before too long, because teaching it is definitely a learning experience for me as well as for the students. I like the open-endedness of working through a novel without a strong pre-existing interpretation or set of priorities, but it is also hard to lead a discussion without being entirely committed to a particular direction! The ideal class discussion is a good blend of purpose and freedom: next time I think I will get closer to that.

The other major assignment I had this week was presenting to our graduate students’ professionalization seminar, something I also did last year (which prompted this post on whether graduate students should blog). I think it went fine! I have lots to say, and there was plenty of discussion and, as far as I could tell, interest. One thing I found myself stressing that I don’t remember feeling as strongly about last year was that there is exciting literate life outside the academy. My understanding is that the majority of our current cohort of MA students are not heading into PhD programs, and of course PhD students too need to be thinking about non- or alt-academic routes. Lately I have heard from quite a lot of students that they think about doing at least an MA because they want to continue the serious discussion of literature that they have enjoyed as undergraduates. So a new part of my “thinking of going to grad school?” talk is “but you don’t have to be in school to do that”! I don’t think I would have really understood that myself, despite having grown up among passionate readers, if it weren’t for the time I’ve spent among bloggers and reviewers in the last few years.

4 Comments to This Week In My Classes: Moving Right Along!

  1. Susan in TX's Gravatar Susan in TX
    November 7, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    So glad the David Copperfield discussions picked up. This is the perfect time of year to read North and South – cold outside, curled up inside with a warm mug in front of the fire. I hope your students enjoy it as much as I do. 🙂 Just saw your tweet about Brat Farrar and had to smile. Last year at our Book Club Christmas swap, it was the most fought for book. Happy reading to you!

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      November 8, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      I’m about half way through it and thoroughly enjoying it. It is very different from Ripley! Much less sinister yet, in its own way, just as suspenseful. And equally preoccupied with the dream of belonging.

  2. November 8, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    I’m planning a French Detective Novel (or maybe Mystery Novel?) class for next spring. Probably begin with Phantom of the Opera and make a grand sweep. I love hearing about your class, stealing ideas for mine!

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      November 8, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Ooh, that sounds fun! I wouldn’t really know where to begin with French material: except for Sjowall and Wahloo, my class stays very much within the Anglo-American tradition — as I explain to them, that’s partly because you need to draw lines somewhere, with so many potential texts, and partly so as not to exceed my own expertise too far. I’m not at all expert in the European novel. So I’ll learn a lot from you as you do this!

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