Having Taught Big Books

As promised, I’m reporting back on how teaching Middlemarch and Ulysses went for the two classes I’m teaching this semester (respectively, a class on Victorian novels and a class on Modernist Literature). It went indeed, and with mixed results!

A bit of context: I gave my students three weeks to read Middlemarch. They read from the Prelude to Chapter 12 the first week, Chapters13  to 53 the second week, and Chapter 54 to the end for the third week. For Ulysses, I gave them four weeks. They read Episodes 1-3 the first week, 4-10 the second week, 11-15 the third week, and 16-18 the fourth week.

In hindsight, for each novel, I would have assigned an extra week (i.e., four weeks for Middlemarch and five weeks for Ulysses). The sense of the reading burden being too heavy and the reading process being too rushed was further exacerbated by the confusing way I wrote out the reading schedule for the classes. The second and third weeks actually fell partly during Easter break, and for some reason, I had typed it so that, if one didn’t look closely, one might be forgiven for thinking that one was only supposed to do the second week’s reading during the break instead of the second and third weeks’ reading. In fact, when I was doing the re-reading and preparation for the classes immediately after the break, I mistakenly only did the second weeks’ readings. How embarrassing. The unfortunate result was that most of the students, who had made the same mistake as me, were faced with doing the third and fourth weeks’ readings in one week. I tried to ameliorate it by cutting the critical essays on the works that they were assigned to read as well. I also delivered more of a lecture on the last parts of these works and cut down on the participation expected of them during the class, expecting that many of them would have skimmed or, overwhelmed by the burden (especially in the case of Ulysses), not have finished the reading. And that’s no way to read either book!

The students in the Victorian Novel class seemed to like Middlemarch quite a lot, despite the mistake in scheduling. I took a general survey during the last class discussion on the novel, and almost everyone agreed that it was a novel that definitely should be included in the syllabus. The students who actively advocated on its behalf said that they enjoyed the wide range of different characters, classes of society, and personalities they found in Middlemarch. They also felt it gave them a more holistic understanding/insight into life during the period. They liked Jane Eyre and North and South (the two works they had read before Middlemarch), but they liked the scope of Middlemarch’s subject-matter and they found the work interesting to read. One student said that she didn’t think I should teach the work again because she found the characters rather annoying. Other students responded by voicing disagreement. It wasn’t clear that she wasn’t completely serious about this being grounds for striking it from the syllabus.

Ulysses received much more of a mixed reception. There were some students who really enjoyed reading it and told me so: they thought it was fun to read and that it wasn’t as bad as they had been lead to believe. A number of the students who said they really enjoyed it were students who had actually read Ulysses before the assigned time for it, with the intent of lessening their workload during the middle of the semester and keeping up with the work for all their classes. I’m guessing that not reading under the pressure of a hard and fast deadline freed their minds up to find pleasure in reading the novel. Many more students said that as Ulysses was the ‘quintessential Modernist novel’, they did feel that it was really important to read, but wished they had more time: a whole class perhaps, or at least a few more weeks. I am guessing that there were a few students who disliked Ulysses immensely but kept silent. But the number of students who did say that they would like to read it, but have more time to do so, was large enough that it encouraged me to try again in the future, but in the context of a class where I have room to devote more time to it. Since this course is a survey course, in which range of reading material plays an important part, I would probably teach Ulysses in a course on Joyce, in its own course, or a course, perhaps, focusing just on two ‘epic’ texts—this text and another big, fat text that would be hard to squeeze in elsewhere.

So, revising my statement in my last post—‘If not now, when? If not me, who?’—I would now say: ‘If not now, then later. If not me, then me, but a wiser me who now can avoid the mistakes she made the first time she taught these works.’

One Comment

  1. I made the mistake of assigning a series of two books (coming to around 1200-1300 pages) for the end of my course– what with schedule complications throughout the semester, they ended up with just a couple weeks left for this series. We read the first book, since they’d already bought it– if they like it, they can read the next one on their own. Not the best planning on my part, I’m afraid. At least it wasn’t “big” in terms of canon.

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