This Week In My Classes: The Dust Settles

I filed final grades for my winter term courses this week: apart from a couple of make-up tests that still need sorting out, my work for them is over. I have sorted and recycled or filed all my notes and paperwork, and put the books back where they belong — which for some of them means on the shelf where I will gather materials for next year’s courses, but for all of them means out of the way of the space I will use to stash everything for my summer projects. (These will get their own post, once I’ve sorted out better just what they are!)

Looking back over my 2016-17 teaching, a few things stand out.

First of all, while classroom teaching is always, for me, the best part of this job–the part that makes up for a lot of the nonsense and the stress and the long hours it entails–this year it mattered to more than ever, because I was doing it under the shadow of my promotion appeal, a process that significantly undermined my confidence, my self-esteem, and my collegiality. During the fall term especially, I often found it hard to concentrate, never mind to be my best self, but almost without fail, my time in the classroom was both intellectually stimulating and emotionally therapeutic.

Some of that was due to my specific teaching assignments this year. My fall term courses were both ones I have taught before and really enjoy. Since I first designed my version of Close Reading, I have tried to infuse its more technical aspects with both critical and moral purpose, and the result is that it generates some of the most interesting discussions and assignments I get. It was also balm to my soul to spend five weeks on Middlemarch for this class: that is not enough time, of course–what would be?–but still feels comparatively luxurious (when I teach Middlemarch in my standard 19th-century fiction class, we get three weeks). Finishing with The Remains of the Day is always marvelous, but Ishiguro’s novel felt particularly and painfully relevant right after the U.S. election.

My other fall term class was The Victorian ‘Woman Question.’ For this class we read works from a range of genres, including Mill’s The Subjection of Women, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and EBB’s Aurora Leigh–another text that resonated powerfully with current events. I had a particularly keen and engaged group in this seminar: class discussions were exceptionally smart and lively, and the group presentations were among the best I’ve ever seen.

In the winter term, I taught 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy, which is familiar territory in most respects as I teach either it or its Austen to Dickens version pretty much every year. (I’m fearful that might change when we revise our curriculum to cope with our shrinking faculty complement–that would be sad!) I do try to mix things up at least a little bit every time, and this year’s innovation was putting Adam Bede on the reading list. I thought it taught beautifully: it is more schematic than Middlemarch and more accessible than The Mill on the Floss (both of which I have taught in this class). I think some students found it a bit slow–but imagine, then, how they would have found either of the other two! It also stood as a wonderful contrast to Tess of the d’Urbervilles; a lot of students wrote on these novels for their essay question on the final exam, and the results were usually excellent.

The big teaching adventure for me this term was Pulp Fiction. I’m not really sure yet how it went: I’m still thinking about it! I found it much more difficult than I’d expected to get discussion going in class–both in the lectures and in the smaller tutorial sessions–and this made me worry that nobody was finding the readings or the class engaging, but based on some feedback I’ve had since, I think at least some of the students were enjoying themselves just fine, they just weren’t talking. This is not ideal, obviously, so as I prepare to teach the class again next winter I’ll be thinking about ways to liven things up.

One thing I realized as the term went by is that the big questions that, in my mind, really motivated the course–questions about the difference between “pulp” or “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction, for instance–were not of great interest (at least, as far as I could tell) to most of the students: they did not seem to be invested in either the distinction or arguments against it. My guess is that most of them had never thought much about genre categories or literary prestige before; certainly I got no sign that they believed themselves to be victims of or participants in any kind of “culture war” by virtue of having been assigned Elmore Leonard and Loretta Chase instead of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. It’s possible that some of them are now more interested in how and why we might draw these kinds of lines, but it was at once disorienting and refreshing to realize that they were not nearly as exercised about them as people often are in the media or in the world of literary criticism and book reviewing. In the end it was just another thing I was trying to teach them about.

I also found that the issue of how to deal with “inappropriate” or potentially offensive content in our readings–such as racist language or explicit sex scenes–which is something I fretted about a lot as I drew up the course materials and my early lecture notes–did not seem to be much of a problem either. It is possible that I successfully preempted some kinds of knee-jerk reactions: for the first time ever, for example, I included a kind of “content warning” statement in my syllabus, acknowledging the presence of elements that we would need to exercise care, precision, and maturity in addressing. One of the first technical things I talked about was the use/mention distinction, and I took care also to work on the difference between a character’s point of view and what we could discern to be the position the novel as a whole took on issues like race or gender. It’s also possible that I will learn more about students’ reactions to these issues when I read the course evaluations: it may be that students who did find some of the material uncomfortable also did not feel free to tell me so. In a way, that is fine, provided they were not unhappy with how we (or just I) dealt with the material in class discussion.

I know how fortunate I am that these four courses comprised my entire teaching load this year, especially as two of them were upper-level courses in my own field of specialization. When we adopted 2/2 as our standard teaching load a few years ago, we did have to raise class sizes, sometimes significantly,  which meant that though contact and preparation hours went down, the marking load stayed more or less the same. Larger classes also increase administrative time–everything from data entry to alphabetizing assignments to handling student appointments and emails takes longer the more people you are keeping track of. (This term, for instance I had about 130 students between my two classes: I’ve had more some terms, though I’ve also sometimes had fewer.) As we head into 2017-18 we are facing a significant reduction in the number of full-time faculty members in our department: inevitably, we are reconsidering how to allocate the resources that will remain. My teaching next year is going to be almost identical to this year’s, but after that, who knows?

You can read more about my classes going all the way back to 2007; posts about it are indexed on the Teaching page (so far I haven’t added links to this year’s entries), or you can click on the tag for ‘This Week In My Classes’ and work your way backwards.

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