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