Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What was I thinking?

I'm teaching two new classes this term (out of three, the other being first year writing). What WAS I thinking? Seriously? (I did this to myself.)

When the opportunity for the second came along, I'd sort of forgotten that it was my turn to do something new for the first.

And in one of those new classes, about half the texts we're reading are novels. NOVELS! As in, prose fiction of more than a few pages, and not wildly fun like, say, Sidney's Arcadia. (And why isn't Arcadia a novel? Or Beware the Cat? Deep down, I've never really understood the distinctions people make at the "beginning" of the novel, which seem to be broken by later prose fictions they still call novels. It's like, if Arcadia were written today, it'd be called a novel, right? But not since it's written in the 16th century?)

I find novels (or more broadly, longer prose fictions) incredibly difficult to teach; they're just so big. And they aren't conveniently broken into passages of speech, either! Often, the same narrator just talks and talks.

Things will calm down in a couple of weeks, when I get into more familiar territory with Titus (yeah, you'd never have guessed, right? Me? Titus? A complete surprise!). Meanwhile, since we're working with a common text in our first year writing class, I've also added that, so for now, everything in all three classes is looking rather new.

I feel like I'm trying to dance one of those 18th century Jane Austen movie dances to a synchophated beat, and I just haven't found the rhythm to keep moving.

I was taking my usual obsessive teaching notes on the novel today, and it occurred to me that I'll probably never teach this particular text again. Usually, I take obsessive teaching notes with the knowledge that they'll be useful again at some point. But today's realization frustrated me a bit. (Okay, after a deep breath, I know I could put in to teach this same course in a couple years. So it's not like all that paper's just going to waste.)

There I was, guffawing in my office, and wondering if my students will think this book's nearly as funny as I do, and hoping beyond hope that they have something to say about it tomorrow.

I managed to get elected to another committee today. It should be really interesting, steep learning curve interesting.

I feel like I'm entering a new period of growth and learning in my work these days. In the ed biz, I often have conversations about how fruitful it is when students get out of their comfort zones and are really uncomfortable, how much they can learn from those situations. And more than once, I've done my part to push students out of their comfort zone. But I'm reminded this week how uncomfortable it is to be out of my comfort zone.


  1. The first paper I wrote about a novel I was so scared -- there's so much IN there! How could I possibly write about a whole novel?? So I know the feeling.

    But there are always close readings and smaller-scale analyses to be done. (That's how I comforted myself, at least.)

    Good to hear like you're feeling this is a potentially productive difficulty, though.

  2. Some suggestions for prepping novels (which of course you can feel free to try or to ignore - I feel like I come off a bit bossy, and I don't mean to be - just don't have a lot of time to write as I should be prepping for my class - hehe!):

    1) Don't take obsessive notes throughout - you won't use them all, and too many notes make it difficult to find what you're looking for to discuss in class. Rather, take very hplot-oriented or sense-of-the-narrative oriented notes, like "William goes to London," or "Paul is embarassed by his mother" (for the most part).

    2) I find it useful in notes to make lists of themes and to just list page numbers next to them when I notice the theme cropping up. This can be useful for having students do group work (asking each group to trace a theme, and find, say, three examples in the text that they think best illustrate how the theme works).

    3) Choose only a handful of significant passages to discuss in detail in each class period. And you may not even get to all in the handful, but that's ok. The point with teaching novels is not to go over the entire thing, but rather to use representative moments to allow you to talk about the whole thing.

    I hope these help. I know that i feel like a fish out of water teaching poetry, and so I've thought a lot about the differences between teaching poems and novels.

  3. You're teaching Arcadia? Insane woman! Brave woman! Kudos to you. Don't teach all of the plot details and themes. No way to do it. Focus on major devices and themes, with a only a few significant passages for each. And I totally second Dr. Crazy, who taught me a lot about teaching novels.

    On the novel vs. the prose romance--one way of thinking about the novel in its nascent form is as a satirical response to the prose romance.