December 24, 2009

This Term in My Classes: "Thank you for such an odd yet interesting course!"

As of late yesterday afternoon, I had finally filed all of my grades for my fall term course: a late exam (December 18th) proved both a blessing (because I had time to finish up other things in the meantime) and a curse (because I couldn't wrap things up sooner even if I wanted to). I know that writing exams is very stressful, so I'm always touched when a student takes a precious minute or two to include a little "thank you" or "happy holidays" message to me at the end. There were several of those this year (and thank you, too, if any of you are reading this, and enjoy your well-earned break!), including the one quoted in the title to this post. As you can imagine, it gave me pause. "Odd yet interesting"? Of course, I'm glad it was interesting, but I wish I knew what was odd about it. Like the frequent comment on my course evaluations that I am "so organized," this one makes me wonder just what my colleagues are doing, which in turn makes me think about how hermetically sealed our classrooms are, at least to each other. I haven't had a colleague sit in on one of my own classes since I was compiling my tenure dossier nearly a decade ago; I've observed teaching demonstrations by job candidates and sat in once or twice at the request of a graduate student or junior colleague also working on his or her teaching dossier, but that's it. Although teaching is done in front of an audience, when I think about it it is a strangely isolating experience also: you prepare alone, by and large, you carry out your plans as best you can and measure your success, or not, against your own standards and intentions, then you shuffle back to your office and get ready to do it all over again. Inevitably, after you've been doing it for a while, you find strategies (and handouts, and assignments, and textbooks, and so on) that you like and because there aren't that many opportunities to compare what you are doing to what other people are doing, you start thinking of yourself as the norm--until you discover that, at least to someone, you seem "odd"! Actually, now that I think about it, last year I got a very nice card from a wonderful Honours student who also made a remark that made me wonder about myself: to paraphrase, she said that I had shown her that there were "other ways" of studying literature. Other than what?

Hazarding a guess, it has something to do with my attempts to talk about literature as something of personal and moral significance. I end my Victorian novel classes, for instance, after reviewing the historical and literary contexts we have studied and the major thematic and critical arcs of the specific texts, with a little speech about the conviction most Victorian novelists display that we, the readers, are where the real action has to go on: not only do they engage us in the novels, with strategies such as intrusive narration and direct address to us, the 'dear readers,' but they frequently point to public apathy, indifference, ignorance, or prejudice as the source of their characters' difficulties. Lydgate's failure? Dorothea's unhistoric life? We made it possible, with our pettiness and self-absorption. Jo's death? Well, aren't they "dying thus around us every day"? The whole of Vanity Fair? Isn't that where we live? I wrote a bit about these 'closing perorations' last year:
A further, and related, feature of these novels, and one that seems to me of increasing importance, is the imperative they communicate that we, as readers, have a lot of responsibilities: to read well, to judge carefully, and to think about our own role in the social worlds and institutions the novelists examine so imaginatively and often so critically—many of which have continuations or counterparts, after all, in modern society. At heart, this is the demand these novels make on us—to get involved, as readers—to acknowledge that the world they talk about is always, if not always literally, our own. When still an aspiring novelist herself, George Eliot remarked that “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." Right now, there is a lot of interest in fiction in this way, as a literary form that perhaps is specially suited to bringing about change in the world as well as in individuals. For example, Martha Nussbaum has published a book called Poetic Justice in which she holds up Dickens’s Hard Times as exemplary of the potential role of the literary imagination in public life—holding up a vision of human flourishing that contrasts with the theories most at play in socio-economic theory today, and that she argues is best cultivated precisely through the form of the novel. This is part of a broader attempt on her part to get the novel as a genre recognized as a form of moral philosophy. I myself have published a paper arguing for the value of George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an ethical text.

My general point is that the very qualities that make 19th-century novels problematic if your approach is formalist, aesthetic, or modernist can be those that make them matter if your approach is philosophical, activist, humanist, or communicative—why not, we might ask, use the powers of language and story-telling to get people thinking and talking about the way they live with other people, or about their ability to face themselves in the mirror in the morning? Yes, these novels are demanding in their length and complexity. But the greatest demand they place on us as readers is to be active, rather than passive, whether through the great moral "labour of choice" we experience vicariously in The Mill on the Floss or through the exercise of our sympathetic imagination and social conscience on behalf of those who need our help, as Bleak House might inspire us.
When I describe myself as a 'Victorianist' these days, I don't really mean 'someone who is immersed in scholarship about Victorian literature and culture' (in fact, I confess my interest in 'Victorian Studies' as a field has been steadily declining, to the point that for the first time in almost twenty years I have changed my settings for the VICTORIA listserv to "digest"--though I still consider this list exemplary for its wisdom, generosity, and collegiality, I'm just not engaged with the topics it covers). I mean something more like 'someone who embraces some key Victorian ideas about the novel in particular, and about literature more generally.' Maybe, again, just guessing, this is what seems 'odd' or different. But without knowing what other people do or say in the classroom, I can't be sure.

Otherwise, things have wrapped up without incident this term. The Victorian Sensations seminar picked up a lot of momentum towards the end, or so I thought. I had to put in some strenuous work for a while, especially when we turned our attention to contemporary criticism, but it seemed to pay off, and the discussions in our last couple of weeks showed that, despite what I thought was a stuttering start, everyone had accumulated a range of good critical strategies and contextual frameworks for discussing our primary texts, including the two I consider the most interpretively elusive, Aurora Floyd and East Lynne. And the Victorian novel class (odd though it may have been) seemed typical enough to me. I do think, though, that it might be time for me to re-imagine it, as I have been teaching the two 'halves' of it more or less the same since 2003. I enjoy both the Austen to Dickens and the Dickens to Hardy versions a lot; I vary the texts at least a little every time; and I have used a range of assignment structures. It's great to have notes and handouts ready to be tweaked and reused. But I think it's starting to make me a little intellectually lazy, knowing so well what I want to do or say with each novel, or at any rate each author. I have no idea how else to run the courses, but next year, for the first time since 2003, I'm not teaching either of them--in fact, we're hiring a sessional to cover them, as I'm on half-sabbatical starting in January and will be doing other teaching in the fall. So between now and September 2011, maybe I'll get some new ideas. Maybe I should sit in on some colleagues' classes, too, and see what they do. I bet in their own ways, they are odd too, but it would be nice--and probably instructive--to see what the difference is.


wcutler said...

Isn't presenting the same material the same way year after year a bit like performing in a play night after night? Just because audiences for three months have seen the performance is no reason to deprive the new audiences of the same experience. It must be quite a feat for performers to make it seem for each audience that the presentation is new for both parties, and there are aspects of the interplay that make the experience vary for the performers.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't want to do new things, only that you needn't feel that doing the same thing year after year is anything but a great opportunity for each year's students.

Dan said...

I enjoy your blogs and can't help but comment on a couple of points.

Odd but interesting: Your blogs on Middlemarch seem to emloy both analysis and synthesis. That doubled capacity might alone make you quite different from many teachers I've known. In fact, I've known many who seem interested in neither. In my first teaching job I met a man who taught Beowulf. I asked him what he wanted his students to get from it. My question wasn't hostile; I expected to admire his answer. But he could only say he supposed he hoped they would recognize a passage from Beowulf if they saw it referred to in the Ladies Home Journal. Yes, he said just that. It was several years before I found Tolkien's wonderful Beowulf essay. Later, when I started reading Mallory, I could find no one in a well-regarded English Department (US) who could explain the signficance of a white hart leaping into the scene. I discovered none of them was interested in meaning. They exclusively tracked sources and history of the stories.

Read in the light of those experiences and others similar to them, "odd" might be a real plus, although other teachers might be excellent in some different ways.

Wcutler's idea has some appeal, but although students may continue to benefit long after you've learned everything there is about the subject, the question is whether something else might be equally or more beneficial to sudents. All learning in depth has value, even if it is not about Victorian lit. If there were but a single theater (as there is a but a single you), I doubt if we would say the theater should forever play only Hamlet.

My other comment runs a little in the opposite direction. I always felt in both in teaching and in law practice that the changing personnel made every year (and every case) new and different, even when the subject matter was the same. I mean the students in the class and the parties and witnesses in the case, although in US law teaching there are so many new decisions each year it's a new world every year anyway.

Craig Monk said...

Merry Christmas, Rohan! The "other ways of studying literature" really resonates with me. After courses in which I teach how to scan, or how to distinguish certain figures of speech, or where to find an author using different manners of irony, I love to challenge students in third- or fourth-year courses to connect the technical mastery of the material with a consideration of its significance. I encourage students to ask "so what?" Oh, so that's a Christ image, and the doctor is compared to a priest. How does this reflect a wider desire to use science as a salve to religious skepticism?

Though we owe senior students some remediation, it is possible that some of them have little technical knowledge of literature, and even those who do might never before have been challenged to ask "so what?" While it feels like a progression to me, I have seen it really puzzle some students, and they have said to me, "How funny it is that we're trying to fit the literature into its society; it's like you don't really care about the novel at all!"

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thanks, all of you, for these thoughtful responses. I think Wendy's theatre analogy is a pretty good one. It's true that, as both she and Dan point out, because the "audience" changes all the time, it's never exactly the same class anyway, and in any case it is bound to be fairly fresh to them even if it starts to seem stale to me--and their questions and ideas add new dimensions every time. I'm not in favour of change for the sake of change, either; I find the rhetoric of innovation so prevalent in edu-speak tiresome because it so mindlessly presupposes that different is always better. Doing things over and over helps you get better at them, too.

I guess my concern is that if I'm repeating things I've more or less said before, there's a risk that I won't really think about them anymore, and then I won't actually discuss them but just insist on them. Also, it isn't possible that I have exhausted what there is to say about, say, Bleak House or Middlemarch, so why rest contented with the limited set of things I've gotten used to? There's also the benefit to me of saying intellectually challenged and engaged.

Dan, your Beowulf anecdote is startling--but that it is startling to me is perhaps a good sign that such an attitude is atypical. On the other hand, I've never asked any of my colleagues what they hope their students will get from their classes. Maybe I should try it!

Craig, that's exactly what I ask them to consider as well--I spend all kinds of time trying to get across the importance of asking "so what?" But surely we all do that? Or maybe not, or maybe we mean such different things by it that we can still seem inconsistent to our students.

Craig Monk said...

I would wager that the "so what?" probably does differ more than we realize. I might have colleagues who do development of an author's oeuvre or development of a national literature, or -- I suspect, with some horror -- consistency with a political ism. As a modernist, mine is transnational, a contrast with the historical avant-garde, rupture and continuity with romanticism, victorianism, postmodernism.

If you'll allow me a little on the repetition: I understand the concern about handouts, illustrations, powerpoint slides. But I have never been concerned about repeating books. When I taught five half courses a year, I had nine different courses going every two or three years, and I longed to get back to To The Lighthouse, only to have to defer it one more rotation because it was taught in intro by someone else the semester before. But, even now, with a lighter load and fewer courses, I always think that I am just one more repetition away from understanding what is happening in Faulkner, et al, etc, etc.

Jeanne said...

I thought it was only adjuncts who feel so odd because we never find out how others in the department teach! I've been a TA and then an adjunct at four different places in the past 25 years, and I can count on one hand the number of class visits.