Teaching Big Books

This semester, I’m teaching a class on the Victorian novel and a class on British Modernism. And in each, we’ve reached the part of the semester where we’ll be reading big books. Not just big as in physically big, though that’s true as well: lugging them back and forth on the train commute has made my luggage considerably heavier. (Haha…get it? ‘Lug’…’luggage’? Okay…it wasn’t very clever at all.) These books are also ‘big’ because they’re important. Canonically speaking, they are oft considered the quintessence of, respectively, Victorian Noveldom and British Modernismdom. I speak of Middlemarch and Ulysses.

The responses I’ve received from people about my teaching these novels have varied.  Some have said, “Oh.” Some have raised their eyebrows and said something along the lines of, “Good luck with that.” One or two have told me that doing this seems overly ambitious. Even I’m not sure this is such a great idea. It’s not strategic to be sure. If the volume of reading and, for Ulysses, the incomprehensibleness of the reading is too much for the students, they may get grumpy, and it may result in poor student feedback: which, since I’m on a one-year contract, might make the powers-that-be think twice about extending my contract.

I definitely thought about this. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t bring myself to assign Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Dubliners–“easier” works by James Joyce–instead of Ulysses. Partly, it was because I am not a huge fan of either Portrait or Dubliners on a personal level, though like a good literary academic, I understand and appreciate their merits. Ulysses, I think, is just more fun. Mostly though, it was because I felt that I couldn’t bring myself to have students come out of a course that was supposed to get them to learn about and explore British Modernism without having read Ulysses. And I felt the same about Middlemarch for the Victorian Novel class. Sure, I could have just suggested it for some point in their future. But (assuming they’re not going to graduate school in English…an eminently practical course of action) if not now, when? If not with me, whom? Okay, okay. Obviously, I’m not the first person in the history of the world to tackle teaching these novels. But I’m a newbie at it, and it’s a bit daunting and exciting at the same time.

And so, we’ll see how it unfolds. Whether it turns out disastrously, very well, or both, or neither, I’ll let you know. So far, the Victorian Novel students have read the Preface through Chapter 12 of Middlemarch, and the Modernism students have read Episodes 1-3 of Ulysses, and so far things have gone all right. Although it might have been because at least half the students in each class had not turned up because their first essay assignments were due this week as well. So the ones who did turn up, I’m assuming, were either more gung-ho, or had actually done the reading.

But we’ll see how the weeks after the Easter break go!

In other news: I continue to read and build up a base familiarity with short stories from East Kalimantan. I’m going to be giving a presentation at a conference on the subject at the Asian Studies Association of Australia conference in July, so I should continue reading with all due speed. And I’m presenting a working paper on April 18th on orangutans in two 19th century naturalists’ accounts of their respective trips to Borneo. Which I should also continue to work on calmly but with some rapidity.

The editor from Ethos Books–the Singaporean press that is publishing my novel–told me a few weeks ago that he’d start the editing work on my novel, well, around now (early April). So hopefully I’ll hear news from that front at some point too!

In the betweentime, the spouse and I are off to Cambodia for a few days to see Angkor Wat. And I’m guessing about 50-100 student essays on Jane EyreThe Good Soldier, and the like will be accompanying us as well. Aren’t they lucky!

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