This Week In My Classes: No More Classes!
Classes ended last Wednesday, and I held my first final exam at 8:30 the following Saturday morning. That seemed hasty to me! Students have a lot going on at the end of term, and two days isn’t much time for them finish other assignments, regroup, and rest up a bit. On the bright side (for me, at least) I don’t have another exam until next Tuesday, so this has given me plenty of time to get that first batch graded. Since the only thing I have left to do for my other exam is copy it, I have a nice little window to sort out my own end-of-term mess and start organizing — literally and mentally — for my summer reading and writing projects. I spent some cheerful time this afternoon filing papers, reorganizing my bookshelves, and reflecting on the year that was.
It was kind of an odd teaching term for me, because I was frequently quite distracted about other work-related business, to an extent that is unprecedented for me. It’s not that I was busier this term than I have been before: in fact, in some ways this was quite a light term for me. It’s just that the business I was involved in was quite fraught, and the stress it caused affected me more than I expected. My concentration was particularly bad, which showed up in my proofreading: there were mistakes in some of my handouts, for instance, and for the first time I can remember I had to make a correction to an exam question during the exam — little things of that sort that I am not usually prone too. I was having trouble sleeping, too, which didn’t help. I think nonetheless my classes went fine overall, and I was especially pleased as we neared the end of term to find I was comfortable keeping my notes in hand but not right in view, as discussion was steady and I didn’t need a script to keep things moving or focused. There’s something to be said for experience!
Often at the end of term I am full of resolutions about things I will do differently next time. One thing I am almost certain I’m going to change is my use of reading journals in the 19thC Fiction course. I’ve grumbled here before (and more than once on Twitter) about my difficulties making these work quite the way I want: my idea is to coax students into valuing the ongoing process of reading, as well as to give them low-stakes practice with critical writing. Despite my attempts to micromanage the process further, though, I still find that a lot of students push their journals until the last minute, so they get little benefit from what their choices have basically converted into busy-work. The students who do a really steady job of it are often the students who would be keeping up with the reading and seeking advice on writing in any case. It’s true that it’s not particularly difficult for me to keep tabs on this work (or at least it hasn’t been with Blackboard, though who knows what wrinkles our new LMS might introduce), but I will either revamp the structure next time or abandon it and just redistribute the marks across other assignments. I have time to think about this as I’m not teaching 19thC Fiction again until January.
My only other real take-away from this year’s teaching is that I’m not in any hurry to teach another graduate seminar. It had been a few years since my last one, and though I had a lovely group of keen, cheerful students this time, I still found myself puzzling over the purpose of the whole exercise, and especially over how to approach it given my own alienation from standard kinds of specialist research. It doesn’t help that the dispersal of the undergraduate curriculum means that the graduate students themselves often arrive in these seminars as relative beginners: add unfamiliarity with the primary materials and their basic contexts to the challenge of making sense of complex critical and theoretical arguments about them and you risk running everyone into a frustrating muddle. Undergraduate teaching just seems a much more straightforward business to me right now.
As for next year, I’m glad to be taking a break from the Mystery and Detective Fiction class: I always enjoy it, but I’ve taught it almost every year since 2003: though I’ve changed around the book list pretty often, it still feels a bit repetitive to me at this point. The good side of this is that I feel well prepared for every discussion — but that in itself becomes something of a risk, as it means I get tempted not to refresh or rethink or even (occasionally) reread. What will I be teaching? In addition to the 19thC Fiction (Dickens to Hardy version), I get to teach Close Reading: it’s a class I put a great deal of work into conceptually when I first offered it, and I think the results are more interesting than you might expect from its generic title. I’m doing an upper-level seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ another one that’s in my regular rotation but which I haven’t done for a while. And in the winter term I’m doing our first-year “pulp fiction” class, which I’ve already written about here a couple of times. Because it’s new for me, this is the one that I expect to do the most work on over the summer: as well as choosing my readings (definitely still a work in progress), I need to decide how to frame it for the students — and because I’ll be teaching in at least two genres I haven’t taught before (Westerns and romances), there’s lots of reading to be done in both primary and secondary materials. I like that work of exploration and then synthesis: I’m looking forward to it! In fact, it’s already begun: I’ve just finished reading Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels, and once I wrap things up here I’m off to the library to pick up Louis L’Amour’s Hondo.