October 10, 2008

This Week in My Classes (October 10, 2008)

Thankfully (which is appropriate, as we head into the Thanksgiving weekend), things were a bit quiet in my classes this week--for me, at least. The students in my intro class are working on their first formal papers, so we spent Monday's class talking about how to develop a good thesis and argument for their assignment and then 'worked' a couple of sample passages from Night so that they could see how to put the literary vocabulary they've been learning to use. They had a draft due on Wednesday, and we did a peer-editing session. While I always hope they find the editing itself valuable, one of my main goals is quite practical: students often (for good and bad reasons) don't start serious work on an assignment until very close to the due date, and then they print it out and hand it in as soon as it reaches the required word count. By forcing them to do a draft a week before the final deadline, I've given them the gift of time to rethink and revise. Many of them won't take advantage of this, but those who do will be glad. Today I set aside our class hour for individual meetings--also a good opportunity for them, and I admit it's nice not to have to be ready with lecture material for 9:30 a.m.

In my 19th-century fiction class, we wrapped up Vanity Fair on Wednesday. I offered up my theory of the novel as a deathbed revelation for its readers: it is full of characters who realize too late, if at all, the vanity of their lives ("all of us are striving," as Lord Steyne says, "for what is not worth the having"). If only they had read Vanity Fair! The gist of my argument is in the post I made at The Valve a week or so ago. I handed around an excerpt from Robert Bell's well-known criticism that "More light and air would have rendered [the novel] more agreeable and more healthy," along with Thackeray's response that making the novel lighter and airier would have defeated his purpose of leaving everyone dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction (as I also argue about George Eliot's problematic endings, especially The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch) is essential if one of your goals is to stimulate your reader to moral or social action. What possible call is there, after all, at the end of Pride and Prejudice, to change anything in yourself or the world? Lizzie is the best and she gets the best guy and the best house. OK, Lydia's stuck on the margins with Wickham, but she deserves it...and so on. But when the ending disappoints, we are prodded to asky why that is the best that could happen, who's to blame, and what part we might have played in it. About half of my students are writing papers on Vanity Fair (the other half already wrote on Persuasion), so I set today's class hour aside for consultations as well. Strategic, don't you think, given how unlikely good attendance is on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend? And in fact, several of them did come by for advice. Next week, on to Jane Eyre--dedicated to Thackeray, which is always worth some class discussion, given how dissimilar the novels are.

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