Category Archives: Teaching

Reading list question

So I’m teaching a new course next fall, and I’m thinking about what books I should put on the syllabus. I would prefer to think about this sort of thing during the summer, but my school requires that we submit our book orders sometime around March or April, so I don’t have that luxury. The course needs to do a number of things: it’s a “Great Books” course, so we are supposed to cover canonical works, mostly, although there is some room for other things as well. It’s also interdisciplinary. While my instinct would be to assign all literature, we are supposed to cover at least two or three different disciplines. Finally, each instructor picks a theme for the course, which is supposed to be phrased as a Socratic question, such as “What is justice?” This theme will organize the readings/assignments/discussions for the whole semester.

My idea is to use the question “What is a journey?” and to read books that deal with travel in some way. We’ll talk about various types of journeys (physical, mental, spiritual) and how they relate, and about what happens when people travel and when people from different cultures interact. I have some books in mind to teach, but I’m wondering if you all have other ideas. Books that come from a discipline other than English are especially welcome (although English departments end up “colonizing” texts from other disciplines for study all the time, so to me just about everything seems like a “literature” text). Here’s what I’m thinking about:

  • Some basic Postcolonial theory such as Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt,
  • Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe,
  • Some Montaigne essays, including possibly “Of Coaches,” “Of Cannibals,” and “Of Vanity,”
  • Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative,
  • Mary Wortley Montague’s Turkish Embassy Letters,
  • E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India,
  • Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques,
  • Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (for something a little lighter and contemporary).

Any other ideas? I’ve thought about de Tocqueville, but I’m not sure I want to read him! (Maybe I should?)


Filed under Books, Lists, Teaching

Currently reading

I’m slowly emerging from my middle-of-the-semester fog. Many teachers find the last couple weeks of the semester to be the worst, but I have the hardest time during the middle. It’s in the middle that I spend lots of hours writing comments on papers and helping students improve their work. At the end of the semester I get the chance to say, well, you learned it or you didn’t, end of story. That’s much easier and less time-consuming. So I still have grading to do, but I find it goes by quickly and I have more and more reading time.

I also have more time because I’m spending fewer hours on the bike because … I reached my goal of 5,000 miles! I finished up on Tuesday. I plan to ride some over the next couple weeks, but only now and then, and nothing difficult or terribly long. In January I’ll start thinking about next year’s racing, and in the meantime, I’m spending more time on the couch.

So, about my “currently reading” list. I just finished The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart, which is the latest selection for my mystery book group. We will meet in a week and a half to discuss it, and I’ll write a post soon. For now I’ll just say that … it wasn’t my favorite that we’ve read for the group. Not by a long shot, in fact. It should be interesting to discuss!

With that book finished, I’m returning to Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. I’m not quite halfway through the book, and I’m very grateful that it finally, finally picked up the pace a bit. The first 150 pages or so were pretty dull. Brontë introduces some potentially interesting situations and characters, but she doesn’t do much with them. The focus keeps shifting in such a way as to diffuse any tension she has built up, and there is just no spark or energy. But finally Shirley herself arrives, and at that point, things begin to improve. Now there are some interesting dynamics among the characters, including a love triangle, and I’m more content at the thought of the 350 pages or so I have left.

I also picked up a volume of poetry once again. I haven’t read much poetry this past year; I finished up the Wallace Stevens volume I began the previous year, and I read my friend’s chapbook, and that’s it. I decided it was time to return to the genre, and so I picked up the Faber collection of Ted Hughes’s poetry I have on my shelves, part of their Poetry Classics series. The books are beautiful, but I wish they had more information about each poem. There is an introduction by the editor, but nothing to tell you when each of the poems was published and in what collection. The upside to this is that you are left with just the poem itself; there is something satisfying about confronting the words alone. But I’m someone who likes to know a little more contextual information, especially about which poems were published originally in which books. There might be connections among poems that become clearer if the reader knows they were published together.

But still, the books are beautiful, and I’m looking forward to reading further.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life, Teaching

Keats and authorial intention

I’m continuing to enjoy The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays on literature, many of which (although not all) are written from a personal perspective. This is the kind of book I read slowly, an essay at a time, whenever I feel inspired to pick the book up. I’m about seven essays in at this point. I won’t write about each and every one, as not all of them inspire me to write, but Sven Birkerts’s essay “On a Stanza by John Keats” is one I don’t want to neglect.

Birkerts starts off on a lofty level, considering what it means to encounter beauty in art. He decides that:

When we are stirred by beauty in a particular work of art, what we experience is the inward abolition of distance. It is only when we try to put our finger on the source of the sensation, when we try to explain the beauty, that the horizons are reversed. At that moment the near becomes the far, much as it does when we try to fathom our own reflection in the mirror: The more intently we look, the stranger becomes the object of our scrutiny.

He then turns to a more specific mission: “I set myself what seemed at first a simple task: to say why Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ was beautiful.” This mission leads him to embark on one of the closest readings of a poem I have ever read. The essay is about 12 pages long, and about eight pages of it is devoted to looking as closely as possible at the 11 lines of the poem’s first stanza. Birkerts does all the usual things people do when they close read — he looks at the meanings of words and their order and their sound qualities, but he does it in such loving detail and with such beautiful writing that it’s no ordinary close reading. He also looks at aspects of words people don’t often focus on — the way we move our mouths as we recite the poem, and how those movements affect our experience. Here’s what he decides about what makes “To Autumn” beautiful:

I am convinced that the beauty of the ode is to be sought with the fine crosshairs of sound and sense, that it inheres in the subtlest details and is sustained from breath to breath — that generalizations will serve for nothing. We experience such a rapid succession of perfectly managed sensory magnifications that we are, in a strange way, brought face to face with the evolutionary mystery of language. The absolute rightness of the sound combinations forces us to a powerful unconscious recognition: Sound is the primal clay out of which all meaning has been sculpted.

After finishing his close reading, Birkerts briefly considers a question that comes up in my literature classes a lot: the question of whether the author “meant to put that there.” Are these consciously created effects Birkerts is uncovering? Are those effects there but not consciously created? Or is Birkerts just reading too much into the poem?

When these questions come up in class, I tend to answer in two ways — answers that seem contradictory, as a matter of fact, but I’m open about that and don’t mind their contradictions. One is that yes, the author probably did “put that there,” because generally the effect we are discussing that provokes my students’ skepticism isn’t a terribly complicated one and I’m pretty sure the author really did know what he or she was doing. My students just aren’t used to the idea of an author having such great control over language and that’s because they are relatively new at literary analysis. My other answer is that it doesn’t matter what the author intended, both because language takes on a life of its own beyond the author’s complete knowledge and control, and because we can never truly know what an author intended. Even if the author tells us what he or she meant, we still can’t really trust that report because does the author really know what happens at the moment of creation?

Birkerts offers answers to these questions that are similar to mine, but expressed in terms I like and will probably borrow. He says, first:

Let’s not forget that we read poetry in the odd hour, as amateurs; Keats pressed his lines into place with the full intensity of his being. When a poet is composing, the value of every sound is magnified a thousand-fold. His radar is attuned to frequencies that we are not even aware of….I would argue, therefore, that not only (A) if you find it, it’s probably there, but also (B) however much you find, there is sure to be more.

I like that. Keats was a professional! He can work magic with language that we amateurs can only marvel at. His other answer is that as long as you believe the unconscious is involved in the poetic process — which he thinks it obviously is — then:

it is not a case of the poet’s inventing lines, but rather of his finding sounds and rhythms in accordance with the promptings of the deeper psyche. The poet does not rest with a line until he has released a specific inner pressure.

So there’s more going on when a poet writes a poem than he or she is consciously aware of, and it’s impossible to account for what a poet intended or didn’t intend. It’s all part of one big messy process that, as Birkerts says, the poet “presides over.” It’s too mysterious to analyze much further than that.

Birkerts essay is a beautiful one — a fitting tribute to a marvelously beautiful poem.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Teaching

Maisie Dobbs and other things

Now that summer is here I thought I’d have all the time in the world to blog, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. This is partly because I’m teaching online, which doesn’t keep me too busy to blog, but it means that often I’ve maxed out on computer time before I sit down to write a post. There’s only a certain amount of time that I can stare at a computer comfortably before my eyes start to hurt and I get restless.

I’ve also kept busy riding my bike: last week I rode nearly 13 hours and almost 220 miles. I’m not sure if that’s a personal record or not, but it’s a lot of miles for me.

And then there are bike races to go to, and … well, unexpected visits to the hospital. Hobgoblin is just fine, but he did crash last night and suffered a concussion. Initially he seemed okay, if shaken up, but then he got dizzy and detached and slow to respond, so I got the car and we zipped off to the hospital. They did a CAT scan and everything looked fine, so they sent him home with some percocet. He’s recovering but still has a headache. As you can imagine, this kind of thing changes our plans pretty drastically. No one ever knows what’s going to happen to them ever, but sometimes this seems particularly true when a person spends hours and hours every week on a bicycle and rides in dangerous bike races …

But on to books. I’m considering participating in Infinite Summer, a website and a group of people dedicated to reading David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest over the course of the summer, from June 21st to September 22nd. There will be some regular posters at the Infinite Summer blog, and then there will be forums for discussion. They say we need to read only 75 pages a week to finish the book over the summer, and that seems entirely doable. Since I’m a new but ardent Wallace fan, and since Hobgoblin got me a copy of the novel for my birthday, the time seems right to read it.

And now on to Maisie. I finished Among the Mad, the latest Maisie novel recently, and enjoyed it, although with some mixed feelings. I think I’ll continue to read this series and continue to have mixed feelings.

This time around, Maisie seemed just a little bit too perfect. It struck me that she’s always right. The intuitions she has never lead her in the wrong direction and whenever anybody disagrees with her, you know they are going to be wrong. Maisie has a particularly strong and reliable intuitive power, one that borders on the supernatural at times, and that can get … boring.

I suppose this is a potential problem in all detective novels, since the detective does end up solving the case, and we read them partly to get to see our hero outsmarting everyone else. There’s always a danger the outsmarting will get dull. So a detective novelist has to find a way to keep this from getting too predictable, and really interesting heroes need to make mistakes, or at least have some believable flaws that keep them realistic.

And I’m not sure Maisie really has any flaws. She suffers, definitely, but her suffering comes from her experiences in World War I and not through any fault of her own. If anything, her flaws are that she works too hard and won’t allow herself to have a personal life, and this does become one of the recurring storylines, but for me, it’s not enough.

That aside, though, the story was interesting, not so much because of the mystery, but because of the historical context. All the Maisie Dobbs novels deal with the legacy of WWI in one way or another, and the author continues to keep this fresh and intriguing. This novel takes place in the winter of 1931 and tells about people who fought or worked in the medical field during the war and were damaged by it and who now feel that society has abandoned them. It deals with the history of chemical weapons development and animal experimentation, and one of the characters is a potential domestic terrorist, which gives the book a contemporary feel. The novel also makes it clear that World War II is on the way with references to fascists and political unrest.

I like the way the novels allow me to get a sense of the time period, and that’s really why I keep returning to them, besides the simpler motivation of wanting to know what happens to the characters. They aren’t perfect books, but they are really great light reading for when I’m in the mood.


Filed under Blogging, Books, Cycling, Fiction, Life, Reading, Teaching

On being a student again

So the online course in how to teach online continues; I’ve completed almost six weeks worth of work and have another three weeks to go. For the most part the class is a lot of fun. I enjoy being a student — doing my readings and completing my assignments and getting rewarded with good grades. There’s something very satisfying about the whole process.

But I’ll admit that I did not really enjoy last week’s group project. Or perhaps I should say that while I enjoyed working with my fellow classmates and felt a sense of accomplishment at the project we completed, I found that the most memorable things I learned are bad things about myself. I don’t think that’s what the instructors intended.

I learned, for example, that I am a control freak, or, rather, I was reminded once again of my control freak tendencies, a lesson I’ve learned many times before. I don’t like letting anybody else participate in work I’m going to get graded on. If I’m going to get graded on something, shouldn’t I have the right to do everything myself? I was reminded of my perfectionism, and how hard it is to see ways I could improve on someone else’s work but at the same time to fear that making suggestions would be entirely too obnoxious. I felt I knew exactly how the project should be done, and I had to keep reminding myself that other people’s opinions have merit too (or at least I need to pretend they do).

I was reminded of how bossy I can be. I pretty much immediately took charge of the project, making lists of things we needed to accomplish and signing people up for duties. I got annoyed at the two members (out of six) who did very little work, although I did resist prodding them to do their part. Whenever anybody asked for suggestions or ideas, I posted some right away, politely saying that people could take them or leave them as they wished, but secretly thinking they would be better off taking them.

And I learned once again how obsessive I am. I logged on to our class website constantly to check what other people were doing and to see if there were any new messages on the discussion board. I couldn’t let the thing alone. I spent way more time than necessary on the stupid thing — time I don’t have much of right now.

The class involves discussion boards and reflection assignments that are designed to get us to think about how we will change our online teaching, and this week’s lesson was obviously encouraging us to consider using group projects in our classes. But I have to say I didn’t learn that lesson very well. I do want to do smaller peer review-type assignments, but I don’t think my future students need to worry about a big collaborative project. They are just too painful.


Filed under Teaching

Saturday thoughts

  • I am resolutely ignoring the fact that I will be racing tomorrow, and, even worse, riding in two races. I find that denial is the best way to manage nerves. So — tomorrow will be a quiet day where I sleep in, spend lots of time reading, see some friends, and that’s it. Yes, it is.
  • I am the kind of dork who does homework on Saturday nights. I just spent a good bit of time reading through material for the online class I’m taking on how to teach online classes. It was interesting, although now my head is spinning with educational and technical jargon, including ugly words like “chunking,” which refers to the practice of breaking up text into manageable bits.  Apparently in an online class you are not supposed to simply upload your lecture notes for students to read, but instead are supposed to break the material up into separate shorter pages that are easier to process and then to intersperse activities and assignments and such to help students understand and remember everything. Makes sense to me.
  • I finished the book for my next mystery group meeting, Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers. I’ll post more on it later, but in the meantime, I’ll say that I liked it, although it’s very different from the sort of thing I usually like. It’s fast-paced and focused on the action, without a whole lot of character development or analysis. But the style fits the subject it covers — the dark, crime-ridden side of Harlem in the 1950s. What interests me about the book is the fact that Hobgoblin read a chapter or two and declared he couldn’t stand it and thought the writing was horrible. I picked it up thinking I’d probably agree and found I didn’t at all. So now I’m really looking forward to the discussion next week.
  • I couldn’t resist wandering over to the town library the other day and there I found a few nonfiction books I’ve been meaning to read, including Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking and Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil. What I brought home, though, is Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which is sort of a memoir, sort of an extended essay on death. So far (I’ve read maybe 30 pages), it’s rambled around and touched on his family history, his relationship with his brother, his religious history, and his fear of dying. So far, so good — this is exactly the kind of book I like, and Barnes is such a great writer.
  • I’m looking forward to picking up Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl very soon for the Slaves of Golconda discussion beginning at the end of the month. As usual the group has chosen a book that sounds great and is one I’m happy to read although I probably wouldn’t have gotten to it soon on my own. That’s precisely why I’m so happy to be a part of that group — it gets me reading things I might not otherwise.
  • I’m going to try to finish the William Cowper biography I’ve been working on before I begin the Zweig, though — I don’t want to have too many books underway at once or I might start to feel overwhelmed.
  • And no, I’m not racing tomorrow … no, really …


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction, Nonfiction, Reading, Teaching


I’m taking an online course! I’m weirdly excited about this. It’s an online course in how to teach courses online — and yes, I’m doing this backwards because I’ve already taught courses online. Two, in fact. And it’s only now that I’m taking the course to learn how to do it. But that’s the way things generally work when it comes to college teaching — you get thrown into it with only the tiniest bit of training or maybe none at all and you figure things out on your own. You learn things from colleagues and maybe pick up some training here and there and you do the best you can. The course I’m in will run for nine weeks and I’ll get a certificate at the end of it if I complete at least 80% of the work.

I guess I’m just a nerd who likes learning new things. The fact that I’m looking forward to the class tells me that while teaching is fun, being a student is much more so (especially since I won’t be getting A, B, C-type grades).  Maybe I should take classes more often.


I really loved the recent New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace. It gives an overview of his life and, most interestingly, talks about his unfinished novel and what it was he was trying to do with his fiction. It sounds like the unfinished novel — which will be published some time next year — is fascinating and majorly ambitious, so much so that Wallace had a lot of trouble making progress. Part of the trouble is that its subject isn’t well suited for fiction — it’s about boredom and tells the story of IRS workers dealing with the dullness of their jobs, so the issue is how to make boredom interesting. He took on a difficult subject, but he also was trying to write in a new style:

Wallace was trying to write differently, but the path was not evident to him. “I think he didn’t want to do the old tricks people expected of him,” Karen Green, his wife, says. “But he had no idea what the new tricks would be.” The problem went beyond technique. The central issue for Wallace remained … how to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” He added, “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

This is such an interesting combination to me — acknowledging the darkness of life but not succumbing to despair and managing to write about “the possibilities for being alive and human” without being trite or cheaply sentimental. I’m also intrigued by the way he is influenced by postmodernism — its irony and self-consciousness and playfulness with language — but also cared about writing fiction with a moral interest and with real emotional weight to it, things that the postmodernists sometimes ignored.

Apparently his last novel was only about one third finished, but it still sounds well worth reading.


My cycling is coming along pretty well, with the exception of a few days last week when I couldn’t ride because of a snow storm. I was supposed to ride in my first race last Sunday, but it was canceled because of snow, so now my first race of the season will be this coming Sunday.  It may rain that day, but it’s supposed to be in the upper 50s, so I doubt we will be in danger of snow.

This week was bitterly cold, but it’s finally warming up a bit, and I am more than ready for the change. I really should have gotten on the trainer on those cold days, but I just couldn’t. I don’t like the trainer ever, but it’s particularly bad when it’s March and spring is on the way. Riding on the trainer in January is tolerable, barely, but riding on it in March is just impossible. I’d prefer to sit around and do nothing, even if my I lose some fitness and my mood plummets. That’s silly, probably, but oh, well.


And now I want to go read some more of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book I’m greatly enjoying.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life, Reading, Teaching

Book Chat

This semester I teach Tuesday afternoon and on into the evening until 8:30 and then again on Wednesday morning (and I teach Monday and Thursday, too, but those days are easier), and I’m realizing today just how taxing that schedule can be.  So far this semester I haven’t actually had to teach a full week because snow days always got me out of it, but now I’ve done it and my brain is shot.  So I thought I’d just chat a bit here before I turn to my books.

I’ve been meaning to write about Peter Ackroyd’s The Lambs of London, but I’m not sure I’ll get around to it.  It’s been a couple weeks since I finished it, and I’ve lost the sense of urgency to write about it and don’t have a strong sense of what I want to say.  I didn’t love the book, although I wanted to.  It’s historical fiction about Charles and Mary Lamb and their obsession with Shakespeare, and that sounds fun.  But the book never quite grabbed my attention or captured my imagination or made me care all that much.  I think I wanted a little more narrative tension, and the characters always felt a little bit unreal.  Which is odd, since many of them were really real.  Perhaps this is often a problem with historical fiction that turns real people into characters? I imagine it would be very hard to turn their real lives into an interesting plot for a novel and to make up enough about the people to ensure they are strong characters without violating what we know about the real people’s lives.

Those of you who know Ackroyd’s work, is The Lambs of London typical?  Are his other books better/worse?

I’ve begun reading Dorothy Sayers’s book Gaudy Night for my mystery book group, and while I’m only a little ways in, it’s turning out to be such a fun book.  I do like reading about Oxford and all its odd people and interesting traditions, and Harriet Vane is a great character — she’s a successful mystery novelist with some experience as a potential suspect herself, and she now has Lord Peter Wimsey pursuing her in search of a romantic relationship.  She can’t quite decide how she feels about this.  I haven’t gotten to the crime yet, but surely something will happen soon …

I think I’ll go find out!


Filed under Books, Fiction, Life, Teaching

Intro to the Arts

So my Intro to the Arts (not its real name, but you get the idea) is almost over. We’ve done all the substantive work we’re going to, and now we’re preparing for the final. I have to say I’m very glad to be almost finished teaching this class for the first time; it went very well and I had a great group of students, but teaching it for the first time required a lot of preparation and was a little nerve-wracking. It will be easier next time around.

My students have been doing presentations on their creative project. They were supposed to create some kind of art work in any medium they wanted to, and then present it to the class and talk about what their creative process was like — where they got their idea, how it developed, wrong turns they took, difficulties they encountered, the number of attempts they made before they got it right, etc. It’s been a huge pleasure to see what the students produced and to hear them talk about it. I don’t think I should describe any of their projects in detail, as that seems like an invasion of privacy, but I got some paintings, some poems, some photography, and some projects that don’t fit any traditional category. Those uncategorizable ones were among the most interesting, as those students seemed to be creating something that related to their lives and came out of their experiences in a very direct and genuine way. I could feel the energy in the room as they talked about their work and as the rest of the class asked them question after question about how they created what they did and where they got the idea from.

It was fun listening to the students talk about what they learned. Many students discovered that creating art isn’t as easy as they thought it was going to be. Many of the students who chose photography had that experience — they thought, what’s so hard about taking pictures? But then they got out and tried it and realized that it’s a more complicated endeavor than they realized.

My students also had to go out and have some kind of arts experience — visit a museum, see a dance, go to a concert, etc.. I was reading their papers about the experience today and noticed that quite a few of them had tried something they had never done before; a few of them mentioned, for example, that they had never gone to an art museum as an adult. It’s a little sad that so many people have so little interaction with the arts, and I’m glad the course requires them to get out and see some art because at least it gives them a taste and they might want to go back and see more. The students wrote very well about how exciting and new their experience was and how much they enjoyed it. (They could, of course, just be trying to make me happy, but what they wrote seemed genuine.) We covered so much about various art forms in such a short period of time, but they seemed to have gained some confidence in their ability to understand and appreciate art. Even if they don’t remember any of the vocabulary we learned, I hope they keep that sense of confidence.


Filed under Teaching

Too tired for anything but bullet points

  • But it’s a good kind of tired, an “I worked out very hard and now I’m ready for a good night’s sleep” tired.  I rode my bike for two hours this morning and swam for an hour this evening.  Can I just say that I love my teaching schedule this semester that allows me to do this?  Teaching online frees up just enough time to get in some nice long workouts during the day, and it’s wonderful.  I’m so spoiled and I’m going to hate it next semester when I’m back to a more normal routine.
  • But I pay for the long workouts when I have stacks of papers to grade on the weekend that I didn’t have time for during the week.
  • Yesterday I ran in the morning, taught class in the afternoon, and then went to a friend’s poetry reading in the evening.  A nice day, don’t you think?
  • Today I taught music in my Intro to the Arts class, and I didn’t mess it up!  Yay!
  • And now on to books.  I have three books on the way from Book Mooch: Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, which I found out about through the excellent Richard Holmes’s Footsteps; and Elizabeth George’s A Great Deliverance, which was strongly recommended by a friend, and which I’m getting from fellow-blogger Charlotte.  (Thanks Charlotte!)  I also received a book from fellow-blogger Iliana: Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes.  (Thanks Iliana!)  It’s a novel about Anne Boleyn, and it looks perfect for when I want some historical fiction.
  • I just started two new books, Hermione Lee’s Viginia Woolf’s Nose, which looks at the ways biography gets written and particularly the relationship of biography and the body.  It’s short but good.  More on that later.  And I’ve read the first few pages of Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, which promises to be odd but good.
  • Today I began listening to Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know, which so far has been a fast-moving, exciting story, perfect for the car.  I recently finished listening to Colum McCann’s The Dancer, which wasn’t so good for the car.  More on that later.
  • And now I’m off to bed …


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction, Teaching, Triathlon

Intro to the Arts

I wrote last January about sitting in on an “Intro to the Arts”-type class in order to learn how to teach it myself, and now I’m actually doing the teaching.  So far it has gone well.  I wasn’t particularly pleased when a student I’ve taught in several classes and who is taking my Intro to the Arts class now figured out that I’m teaching it for the first time; I prefer to act as though I’ve got experience in the classroom even when I don’t.  It’s not that I need to be an expert all the time — I have no problem telling students when I don’t know something or acknowledging that in some fields they know more than I do — but it’s easier to feel like an experienced authority when the students think I am one, so the pretence helps.  And this particular class requires that I teach fields I’m not an expert in, so I need all the help projecting authority that I can get.

The class starts off with discussions about creativity (what it is and why we need it) and the creative process — how we go about fostering creativity and trying to find moments of inspiration.  Those discussions were fun, if a little abstract, but now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of various art forms: visual art, music, dance, literature, and film.  We spend a few days (such a short time!) on each area, breaking it down into its elements (line, color, shape, space, and texture in the visual arts, for example) and learning how to use those elements to analyze various works of art.  Here is where I have to work hardest to know what I’m talking about because in some cases the students will know more about areas such as music or painting than I do.  But all those piano lessons I took as a kid are paying off, as, thank God!, I have some idea about things like 4/4 time and what a quarter note is.

The first major assigment the students complete is to look at one example of each of the five types of art we study and to write a response to it where they discuss their first impressions and their sense of the work’s meaning.  I’m reading through their papers now and am pleased.  The papers are fairly informal, which means they have the chance to respond personally, discussing emotions the work conjures up or memories it evokes.  The students who produced the best papers take this seriously, using their personal experiences to say interesting, new things about the art.

I’m also pleased at the way some of the students are trying their hardest to keep an open mind about the art.  I’ve asked them to watch a dance that they find challenging, mostly because it doesn’t have a clear narrative to it and so is hard to interpret.  They have to look closely at the dancers’ movements and use their imaginations to figure out what they think it means.  Several students described the process they went through while watching it — surprise, bewilderment, and frustration at first, and then after another viewing or two the inkling of an idea, and finally some confirmation after they came to class and figured out other students were thinking along the same lines they were.

It’s hugely satisfying to watch them go through this process and realize that some art takes time and patience to understand, and that the more they understand it, the more likely they are to enjoy it.  I don’t kid myself that all students are responding this way, but teaching is always like that — you reach some and consider that a success, and then you try to reach more.  The class scares me a little bit, I’ll admit, but it’s a good kind of scared.  It’s probably not so different from what the students themselves feel.


Filed under Teaching

Thoughts for Thursday

I seem to be having trouble blogging regularly this week. It’s low motivation partly, which surprises me, as I’d expect to have all kinds of energy because it’s summer and my schedule is much slower than usual.  But instead I feel sluggish. It’s also harder to blog this summer because I’m spending more time online than usual with my online class.  After an afternoon of grading papers on the computer, I just want to put the thing away.  Posting may be light for a while, although generally when I write such a thing here, my motivation comes back almost instantly.

My online class is going well, by the way, although summer courses have such a fast pace, I can tell my students’ energy is flagging, as is my own.  It will be over in a week, which is hard to believe, as I feel I’ve just gotten started.  I’ve had a few students not appear in the class at all, and some are there only occasionally, but the ones who are into it are doing a great job.  It’s fun to look through the discussion board and see them politely agreeing or disagreeing with each other, backing each other up, debating things.  I’m generally a nice person in the classroom (sometimes with some effort), but it’s even easier to be nice and friendly online, when I don’t actually have to see people.  I like seeing people, I really do, but it’s nice sometimes not to have to 🙂

As for reading, I’m almost finished with Nam Le’s The Boat, which I will write more about later, but for now I’ll say that I’m amazed at the range of material he’s got to work with.  The stories are set in various places all over the world and deal with an incredible variety of people and situations.  I’m curious what places and experiences the author has had himself, what ones he has learned about from other people, what ones he learned about solely through research, or what it was he did to get all that material.  I suppose what I want to know is the answer to that obnoxious question I would never ask an author: where do you get your ideas?

Finally, I realize I never wrote my final thoughts on Fingersmith.  I don’t suppose there is any real need for another review of the book, though, as it’s one that most people out there seem to have heard a lot about if not read themselves.  So I’ll just say that it’s a fabulous story, very well told, and if you like historical fiction at all, you’ll be likely to enjoy this.  I thought there were a few places where the pacing was a little off and a few places where the action was implausible, but that was very minor compared to all the pleasure this book offers.  If you read it, you will enjoy the story, but you will also learn interesting things about 19C London and how thieves operate and what it was like to be a woman at the time.  I’m looking forward to more Sarah Waters already.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading, Teaching

Monday Miscellania

I meant to write a review of Catherine O’Flynn’s novel What Was Lost today, but it will have to wait for another time when I feel more up to it.  I have already spent an awful lot of time online today, so this will be relatively quick.  I’m preparing to teach my first online course beginning at the end of June, and all that online time went toward getting started on that work.

The problem was that once I got going it was hard to stop.  It’s work I get absorbed in easily, and then questions came up that didn’t have easy answers and I couldn’t let them go, even though I have weeks to solve them.  The hardest part of setting up this course has been organizing everything, figuring out how much work to give students, when to make things due, how to set up the due dates so that they aren’t confusing or overwhelming, how to set up all the pages and subpages and arrange all the information so it’s clear.  It feels like I’m giving students a lot of work, but I have to remember (and they should too!) that we have no class time whatsoever, so asking them to do a lot of work really isn’t asking too much.  I’m thinking now that all I can ask for is that the first time through this not be a disaster and then maybe I’ll learn enough to do it better next time.  Anybody out there who has taken an online course who has ideas about what works and what doesn’t?

So, yesterday was my first race after last Tuesday’s crash, and this time around it was crash-free, although barely so.  On the last lap there was some bumping and jostling right in front of me that made me nervous enough to hit my brakes hard, but everybody stayed upright and everything turned out okay.  I was the 12th person across the line (out of 18), although officially I got 11th place because the officials relegated the woman who was doing the bumping to last place.  I was a little nervous riding with the pack, but only a little; Thursday’s long group ride helped me get back to normal.  I’m still a little afraid of crashing, but I’ve always been a little afraid of crashing, so that’s okay.

And now on to book news.  First, I’m participating in Kate’s group read of Anne of Green Gables (how could I resist this!?), which so far has been tremendous fun.  I’m maybe 50 pages into the book, and I’m loving every minute of it.  And remembering practically every detail of the book too — I read it so many times as a kid that I practically had it memorized. Check out the group blog here — there are some interesting posts up already.

I also began Amanda Vickery’s book The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England, which is a fascinating read; it’s very much academic in nature, so she spends a good bit of time arguing with what other historians have claimed about the time, but it’s very clearly written with an engaging style, and it has lots of great information on what women from the ranks of the lower gentry experienced and believed.  More on this later.

I have bought and mooched a few books too, including the latest selection for my mystery book club, Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones. The novel was published in 1952, and it takes place on New Guinea, describing a young woman who is trying to find out why her husband committed suicide.  Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?  I also ordered Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book; Shonagon is a woman from 10th century Japan, and the book contains her thoughts about her life and the world around her.  I read an excerpt of the book in Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay as part of my essay project (see sidebar) and was intrigued.

Also, Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon for the next Slaves of Golconda read at the end of June (plenty of time to join us if you like!).  And from Bookmooch, Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, because I’ve been wanting to read Janet Malcolm forever and this book is bound to be interesting, and James Woodforde’s Diary of a Country Parson, because Woodforde is from the 18C and I love reading about that time period.

Okay, now I’m off to do some reading!


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life, Reading, Teaching

Reading notes

I have begun a new book of nonfiction, Alan Lightman’s A Sense of the Mysterious, a collection of essays that look at science — what it is, how it works, and what its connection to language and the arts is. Lightman is both a scientist and a novelist, so he’s got some intriguing ideas about how, for example, metaphor works in science as opposed to literature and about the creative process in science and in the arts. He starts off with a personal essay telling about his love of both science and writing and about how he’s managed to make both disciplines work in his life. He started off with science because he figured out that most scientists do their best work while they are relatively young, and many novelists produce their best work when they are older. Science, he points out, doesn’t require much experience of the world; you need agility of mind, but not necessarily years and years of living. Novel-writing, on the other hand, benefits from that experience. So he made a career for himself as a physicist, and then later began writing essays and eventually novels. His novel Einstein’s Dreams was a bestseller, and I’m very curious about it, as I like his essay writing. Has anyone read it?

I’m also still reading Wuthering Heights, or rather looking it over again as I teach it. I’m learning to love the book as I’m spending so much time thinking about it; it’s so wild and gothic and deeply weird. My students seem to be enjoying it too, somewhat to their surprise, I think. One student asked what makes this book anything more than a potboiler, and in response we generated a list of ideas it deals with and themes it takes up, and I think this student ended up surprised and impressed by our long list.

I’m looking forward, though, to picking up a new novel, and I have no idea what it will be. I alternate between wanting something challenging (Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives maybe? or another Brontë novel? — I have three unread ones on hand after all), something more familiar (another Alison Lurie novel? another Rosamund Lehmann?), and something new and fun (Clare Clark’s The Nature of Monsters?). We’ll see what mood hits when I’m finally ready to pick up something new.

I have also acquired a couple new books, including Edward P. Jones’s collection of stories All Aunt Hagar’s Children, which I’ve heard wonderful things about and am looking forward to. I’ve been wanting to read some more short stories, after all. I mooched a few books, including William Gass’s book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, which promises to be wonderful, and two Georgette Heyer books, Venetia and The Masqueraders. I feel lucky to have gotten these, as they get snapped up quickly.

But now I’m off to do a little reading before bed …


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction, Teaching

A new semester

So far at least, I think I’m staying true to the spirit of my New Year’s resolutions post, which is to say that I’ve stayed pretty relaxed about what I’m reading and how much and not worrying about whether I’m fulfilling challenges or finishing as many books as I did last year.

I may be taking this relaxed attitude even further in the coming months as I’ve got a busy semester ahead of me and may not have time to do as much reading as I’ve done in the past. The truth is, in pre-blogging days I probably read a lot less than I have been in the last couple years; I probably lingered over books longer and read fewer of them at once. I didn’t keep records then, so I don’t know for sure, but that’s what memory tells me.

The mood I’ve been in lately has me returning to this older, slower mode. This is not to say that blogs have been a bad influence (quite the opposite in fact!) or that I haven’t enjoyed all the reading I’ve done in the last couple years. But I’m looking ahead to the semester right now (which begins on Monday), thinking about the new class I’m teaching and all the work that will involve, about the class I’m sitting in on and all the time that will take, and also about all the exercising I want to do this spring and how I don’t want to quit going to yoga class when things get busy like I usually do, and I wonder how much time I’ll have to read.

I do hate being busy. And you should know that my definition of busy is probably pretty tame compared to most people’s. I like having lots and lots of time to myself that I can fill in any way I want to. I’m not someone who thrives on stress and tension — these things wear me down and make me unhappy.

Anyway, my point is that in order to stay calm and sane, I will need to have very low expectations for myself when it comes to reading and to blogging. If I’m busy I’ll have less time to post, but also less material to post on, as I’ll be reading less.

We’ll see how that goes; I’ve made claims about posting less in the past but have found the number of posts each week creeping up. But I may really need to back off a bit this time.

By the way, the new class I’ll be teaching is a British Literature survey from the Romantics up to the 20C. It should be fun. And I’m sitting in on a class that’s sort of a survey of various art forms — visual art, film, dance, literature, and music — in order to get ready to teach it next year. I’m excited about teaching this class, although not so excited about the time it will take to sit in on someone else’s version of it and the fact that my school is requiring that I do the observation before I teach the class itself (I’ve never had such intense training like this before, not anything like it; I always just figure out what to do on my own). On the other hand, I haven’t sat in on an entire class in quite a while, and it will be interesting to see how another teacher handles things. It may make me want to become a student again.


Filed under Books, Life, Reading, Teaching

Totally pointless post

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you’re reading this and you start to get annoyed because you’re discovering that I’ve got absolutely nothing to say, don’t get mad at me about it. You probably shouldn’t be spending your time reading this anyway.

It’s only the second day of NaBloPoMo and I’m faltering! It’s not that I don’t have things to write about. I do, as a matter of fact — I want to write about Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music now that I’ve finished it and I also want to write about Seneca. But I’m still sick, all coughing and sniffly and woozy, and I’m not sure I can think straight to write about something serious. And I just got terribly annoyed because I read through some student essay revisions and found that they hadn’t revised at all. After ten years or so of teaching writing, why this would surprise me, I don’t know, but I am still always surprised when it happens. I mean, why would anyone think it’s a good idea to hand in an essay revision that is almost exactly the same as the first draft? Don’t they realize I will get frustrated at them, which is, surely, the last thing they want? So I’m more in the mood to vent than to write something thoughtful and smart.

I have discovered over the years that the best approach for me to take in the classroom is to be all happiness and cheer all the time. Somehow I’ve never figured out how to make any other teaching persona work for me. If I let myself show frustration or annoyance, things go downhill fast. Given that I am by no means a cheerful person generally, staying so cheerful might sound hard, but since I see students only for three hours a week, I usually do okay. But what it means is that I have a powerful need to vent when the students aren’t around! Not that teaching is so hard or unpleasant, or that my students are so terrible, let me clarify. Most of the time they are a pleasure to teach. It’s just that … well, I’m a perfectionist and was a perfectly obedient, perfectly diligent student myself, and I (still) don’t understand why students aren’t more like I was. I have to remind myself that, yes, occasionally, even I skipped the reading now and then or asked for an extension or took the easy way out in an assignment. I think this is one of the hardest things to learn about teaching — so often (although not always) those who end up teaching were the model students of their day, and they have to learn that not all students are perfectly-organized perfectionists like they were. (But why not? why not?? Don’t they see how much easier things would be if they were?)

So, this has turned into a post about teaching, which is something I rarely write about. But at this point in the semester with all the grading I’m doing, it’s hard to think about much else. I do have the pleasure of choosing a new novel now; perhaps that will cheer me up after that disastrous grading session …


Filed under Blogging, Life, Teaching

Reading and school

I would guess most readers have books and authors that school has ruined for them, probably because of a disliked teacher or a bad classroom experience. For me, whenever I come across Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of An Author, I can’t help but think about this one teacher I had who could take the most interesting experimental play and say the most bland things about it. He’d make sure to find a positive message in the darkest, most despairing play we read, and he’d be sure to make the positive message sound as cliché as possible. I always wondered how someone so drawn to sermonizing and uplift came to teach 20th-century experimental drama.

When I took a class in the Romantic period I didn’t have a bad experience, exactly, but something about the class turned me off. Maybe it was a combination of a not-terribly inspiring teacher and a semester of poetry that I had a hard time getting into. We read a Jane Austen novel and Frankenstein, but other than that, it was the six major Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats) and that’s it. I suspect a lot of Romanticism classes are like this, and I felt at the time like I’d had enough. Romanticism wasn’t for me.

But in grad school I needed to take a course in the 19C, and Romanticism it was. This time, however, I learned that there’s more to Romanticism than those six major poets — we did read some of those, but that included plays as well as poetry (Shelley’s The Cenci, for example). And we read other people like the poet and novelist Charlotte Smith and the playwright Joanna Baillie. I learned that there are all kinds of interesting novelists from the time period like William Godwin and Elizabeth Inchbald. I got excited about Romanticism and read as much as I could in the area.

And now I find myself wanting to return to those six major poets again, to see if I feel differently about them out of the context of that first class I took. Authors and books often have a completely different feel to them when we read them for fun instead of for class, don’t they? Shelley for class struck me as inscrutable; Shelley for fun is a lot more exciting. Also, reading for class is often so rushed. I want to read poetry at my own pace now, rather than trying to get through as many poems as I can before class.

So I’m reading some Keats and finding it amazingly beautiful. I’ve only gotten as far as some of his early sonnets, but I am inspired to read more and more, and I’d like to get a collection of his letters also, as I’ve heard he was an excellent letter writer. I feel like I’m giving Keats a better chance to move and impress me than I ever have before. I do sometimes like to give authors a second chance, if they didn’t reach me the first time.

Here’s a piece of his poem Endymion, with a famous first line:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
And endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast,
They alway must be with us, or we die.


Filed under Books, Reading, Teaching

Interview meme

The wonderful Litlove has agreed to interview me — thank you! So here it is:

1. I love the way you write about the 18th century; it’s clear how much you appreciate that era. Can you put your finger on what it is about that age of literature that attracts you to it so much? Thank you! I made it through college without taking a course in the 18C and so got to grad school knowing little about it, except for a few things I read in surveys which didn’t interest me. But in grad school I needed a course in the area, and signed up for one called “Women and the Novel,” which covered the 18C century, plus a little bit of the 19C. We read The Princess of Cleves, Moll Flanders, Pamela, The Female Quixote, A Simple Story, Pride and Prejudice and others. I was captivated. I took another 18C novel course the next semester and liked it so much I decided to specialize in the area. So it’s really the novel that pulled me in; I love studying the beginning of the genre — what people wrote when a definition and theoretical understanding of the novel didn’t exist. The 18C feels like the beginning of a lot of things — the novel, biographies, newspapers, the ability of more and more people to make a living writing, contemporary ways of understanding the family, psychological ways of thinking, modern economic structures, and I could go on.

2. I feel I’ve learned so much about bike racing from your site. What made you take up the sport in the first place? Hobgoblin has a lot to with it — he’s the one who encouraged me to begin riding, and the one who picked out my first bike (my first adult bike, that is — I rode around the neighborhood a bit as a child). I got that bike in January, 2000, and I remember taking it out to the parking lot of the school where we taught at the time, which was a safe place where I could get used to being on a bike again away from traffic. It didn’t take me long to pick it up, and I rode regularly from then on, eventually joining a cycling club and going on training rides with a group a couple times a week. Cycling suits me, I think; in high school I was a runner, and I liked the training and the endurance work, but I couldn’t motivate myself to run without a coach making me do it. For me, cycling is more fun than running, so I don’t have to work as hard to get myself outside for a ride. As for what made me move from being a recreational rider to a racer: I got tired of being a spectator at races. It seemed to me that too often it was the men riding and the women watching, and I was annoyed to be such a stereotype. And since I was spending a lot of time at races already, I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to join in.

3. You’ve changed jobs not so long ago. Tell us what your average day at work is like now, and are you pleased you made the change? I’ve had two different jobs in the last year, but they are similar jobs at similar schools, so the real difference for me was leaving an administrative job last summer to move into the faculty positions I’ve had this year. I am very pleased I made the change. Working as an administrator was okay, and I was able to do some teaching in that job too, but I’m much happier focusing solely on teaching. I know this is a little self-indulgent of me, but I chafe at having to be in the office when there is no work to do, which is what happened in my administrative job. As a faculty member, as long as I show up for class and meetings, I can do my prep work and grading wherever and whenever I please. So — a typical day: I’ve been teaching in the mornings and, unless I have an afternoon meeting, taking time after class to come home and ride my bike. I prepare for class and grade when I’m not riding in the afternoons and on weekends. To be perfectly honest, this is what it’s all about — having a job that gives me enough free time to do what I want.

4. You and the Hobgoblin have such a lovely relationship. What’s your secret? Oh, this is a hard one! The truth is I don’t have a secret. Or maybe the real truth is that Hobgoblin is remarkably patient. I think most people who don’t live with me think I’m a nice person, but I’m often not — Hobgoblin (and my mother) could tell you the real truth, if they wanted to. But Hobgoblin and I have a wonderful time riding together and hiking together and reading together. We like to spend our time in the same way. Neither of us are terribly social, so most evenings you’ll find us up in our studies reading and blogging, on occasion watching a movie. I find it interesting that we don’t tend to read the same books — he’s got his, and I’ve got mine, and although most of them share the same shelves, it’s clear which ones belong to whom. But that keeps things interesting, I suppose — we can’t be exactly alike, after all.

5. If you were stranded on a desert island with two historical figures of your choice, who would you take and why? Another hard one! I suppose I could pick people who might be useful on a desert island — people who could help me build a shelter, maybe, or who could hunt for food. But I’d prefer to think of this is a more idyllic desert island, and so I’ll consider who I’d want for company. First, I’d pick Dorothy Wordsworth, I think, who would be wonderful to go on walks with. We’d explore the entire island, and make observations about the landscape the whole way. And then — I’ll stick to my favorite time period — Samuel Johnson. We’d have scintillating conversations with that great talker once we returned to our camp.

That was fun! Below are the directions; let me know in a comment if you’d like me to interview you.


1. Leave a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Please make sure I have your email address.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment, asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.


Filed under Life, Memes, Teaching

A Doll’s House

One of my reading goals for the year was to read a play, which I have now completed, as today I finished reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I was hoping, however, that the play I read would be one I hadn’t read before, which didn’t turn out to be the case, as I’ve read A Doll’s House multiple times. I read it this time around because I’m teaching it in my Literature and Composition class. Perhaps I’ll still read a new-to-me play this year. We’ll see.

But I do love A Doll’s House. The thing I appreciate about it most, having read it I don’t know how many times, is the way Ibsen doesn’t waste a line. Everything is so tightly structured, so carefully crafted, that every line every character utters furthers the plot or the themes, and it’s a delight to see the way he leads the plot toward the stunning conclusion.

Is there anybody who hasn’t read this play? I read it in High School and have taught it so often that I feel like it’s an educational staple, but I might be wrong. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a couple, Nora and Torvald, who act in the first scene as though they have a perfectly happy marriage and family, but right from the start you pick up on some warning signs, and as the play goes on, you learn that Nora has a secret, that she’s desperately scrambling for money, that Torvald has little understanding of and respect for her, and that their family life is about to fall apart.

Here’s where I give away the ending, which is the best part of the play — Nora realizes just how little her husband knows about her, how much he cares about his own reputation even if she has to suffer for it, how poor of an education she has gotten and how little she knows about herself and the world, and she decides to leave Torvald and go live by herself until she has a chance to grow up. She leaves the doll’s house, and she leaves it dramatically; the play closes with these stage directions, “The sound of a door slamming is heard from below,” and the play is over. The play was first performed in 1879, and, as you can probably imagine, audiences found it shocking.

Ibsen doesn’t follow the classical unities of time, action, and place exactly, but he’s very close; the play takes place over the course of a few days around Christmas time, it’s all set in Nora and Torvald’s apartment, and it tells one unified story, that of the dissolution of the marriage. There are three other characters beside Nora and Torvald, two of whom, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, operate as foils to the main couple; they have lived difficult lives, lost reputations and family members, and suffered in ways Nora and Torvald can’t really understand. But by the end of the play, they have found happiness, while Nora and Torvald have found their lives ripped apart; as the fortunes of one couple fall those of the other rise.

The other character is Dr. Rank who appears to have little to do with the plot; he’s the one character who is possibly expendable, if one is concerned about keeping the action unified. But Dr. Rank brings together many of the play’s themes. He’s suffering because of his father’s excesses — his father contracted a venereal disease which he then passed on to his son — and so introduces the idea of inheritance and the legacies, both good and bad, that parents leave for children. We learn that Nora’s father supposedly passed on his spendthrift ways and dubious moral character to her, and now Nora is deathly afraid of passing along her own errors to her children. As Dr. Rank says,

“To have to pay this penalty for another man’s sin! Is there any justice in that? And in every single family, in one way or another, some such inexorable retribution is being exacted.”

Nora’s decision to leave at the play’s end is partly an attempt to break this chain of heredity; she wants to live on her own until she has figured out what she believes and how she will live, and only then will she consider living with a family again.

But, of course, her leaving is also about her refusal to live with a man who won’t recognize her as a human being and who treats her as a child instead. Although Ibsen backed away from the claim that this is a feminist play, it’s very hard to read it otherwise; what Nora walks away from is a very narrowly defined role of wife and mother — she walks away from the husband who, when Nora talks about the sacred duty she has to herself, can say, “Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.” I noticed this time through that Mrs. Linde talks eloquently about the value of work, and Nora herself speaks of enjoying the little work she has been able to do, sewing to earn a little extra money. She’s longing for a taste of independence, for a challenge, for something to push her so that she can discover who she is.

So, yes, I enjoyed this play, and I think my students are enjoying it too. We’re discussing the conclusion to the play this week; we’ll see what they make of Nora’s dramatic exit.


Filed under Books, Teaching

Hills Like White Elephants

Here is my late post on Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” for A Curious Singularity; I couldn’t quite find the time to read it when everybody else did (short as it is), but I taught it in my Composition and Literature classes this morning and so thought I could write about it now. I’ve taught this story in many freshman-level literature classes and I like it for teaching; there are so many things to talk about in such a short short story — the symbolism of the white elephants, the significance of the setting, the exterior point of view, the concision of language, the troubling dynamic between the two main characters.

Invariably students are confused by the story and they don’t figure out on their own that it’s about an abortion — which I wouldn’t have figured out either most likely; they tend to think it’s about the two characters deciding whether or not to have sex — although the textbook I’m using this semester gives this information in the discussion questions following the story and sometimes students look up the information on the internet. A couple of students, upon hearing that it’s about an abortion, got a look of enlightenment and relief on their faces — it does make sense after all! — and said they would now have to re-read the story.

I ask students in this class to give a short presentation in small groups and to lead class discussion for a while, and the student who was responsible for this story wrote me a slightly panicked email last night saying she couldn’t understand what was going on, and so we met this morning to talk about it and she ended up doing a fabulous job in class. She’d spent some time thinking about white elephants and led the class into a good discussion of their various meanings. My early morning class was a little reluctant (or too sleepy) to talk much, but my later class did such a good job with the story that I kept telling myself to keep my mouth shut and let them do the work of figuring out the story, because eventually they cover pretty much everything on their own. When that happens, I have the fun of sitting in the back of the class and just taking it all in.

Anyway, one of the textbook’s discussion questions was about the significance of the number two in the story — the number gets mentioned ten times, apparently (I didn’t count) — and my students had a great time playing around with the meaning of this. Two is important, of course, because the couple has to decide if they will remain only two or if they will add another person to become three, but also we have the two parallel train tracks that don’t meet and the two strings of beads that Jig holds, both illustrating the two main characters traveling together, side-by-side, but never meeting, never really communicating.

My students can be fairly quick to personalize their readings and to make sweeping generalizations as they’re grappling with the story — about gender in this case; as some students began to describe how weak and pathetic the man comes across in this story, some of the men in the class began to get a bit uncomfortable and wanted to defend their gender from what they felt was an attack. I start squirming in my seat when the conversation takes this kind of turn, wanting both to let students have the fun of discussing what the story means to them but also to step in and point out that we can talk about the character’s weakness without making broad claims about human nature that are distressingly vague and that distract us from the story itself.

I’m happy when students make a personal connection with what we’re reading, but I’m often unsure what to do when their personal connections lead them into interpretations of the story I don’t agree with or toward conclusions I’m tempted to argue with. Figuring out how and when to correct students when we’re talking about something as complex as a short story is difficult.


Filed under Books, Short stories, Teaching