Sunday, January 23, 2011
January 23, 2011 [Academic Work Post 2]: Master Class
An interesting, mostly unintended (or at least unplanned ahead of time) link between my first two Tribute Posts—last week’s on Professor Heimert and yesterday’s on Mr. Heartwell—is the idea of staying in the room, of finding ways even late in a teaching career to remain present for each semester and each class and each group of students. Certainly that’s a central goal of mine, one based on all sorts of positive and negative experiences of my own, in and outside of the classroom: from the ones described in those two posts on the very positive end of the spectrum to, at the other end, the college class where a professor pulled out lecture notes that, judging by the yellowed and edge-curled state of the paper, had been written sometime in the late 1950s and most likely not revised since; and, most consistently and enduringly, the experience of seeing my Dad reading and notating the books he was teaching, each and every time he taught them, no matter how many times he had already read or taught one.
To me, the best reason to do that preparatory work each and every time is likewise the best way to make sure that we stay in the room: pushing and challenging ourselves, refusing to fall too fully into readings or routines, ideas or practices, with which we’re already comfortable. And if such classroom challenges are indeed a crucial part of being a great teacher for the long haul, then this semester is going to be a particularly beneficial one for me, because I’m teaching a senior-level English class (a section of an overarching shell course entitled Special Authors) on one of the most challenging and confounding American writers: Henry James. When I have told three of the people I know who most love and enjoy American literature—all of them very talented teachers of it to boot—about that focus, their responses have ranged from surprised to impressed to, well, nauseated, and in each case the reason is more or less the same (if the opinions behind it vary for sure): James is no picnic. Working in the same period in which Mark Twain was developing a vernacular fictional voice that (according to Ernest Hemingway) would inspire all subsequent American literature, James consistently wrote instead in a dense and demanding and highly literary style that echoed Hawthorne’s but without the sense of humor; and while Twain’s most famous narrator, Huck, makes us an important part of his story from the text’s first word (“You”), James famously believed that an author had total control over his audience and should guide them, from an important distance, at every step of the way.
So why did I choose James as the class’s focus? The challenge is not and can’t be the end in and of itself—I’m not a sadist, nor a masochist. For one thing, I think there’s a reason that James was known as the Master—I’m not sure that any American author has ever been better at employing the elements of fiction (especially narration and characterization, but also in crucial ways setting, tone, structure, and many others) to create ambitious and perfectly unified texts, ones that engage with many of our most huge and complex issues (gender, class, post-Civil War American life, love, family, psychology and identity) without losing sight for a second of fiction’s need to engage an audience’s interest and attention. But for another—and for me, in any college class but especially in a senior-level one, even more important—thing, working with James will help me to tap into whatever literary and/or artistic passions my 21 students bring to the mix: for the first of each week’s two days of discussions, the students will be creating quick online posts to highlight a couple interests and questions of their own, and the goal there is to allow them to think about issues of artist and audience, style and goals, choices and effects, that intersect with their own work, whether as literary critics, as analyzers of films or music, as creative writers in their own right, as future teachers, and so on. I plan to build on those starting points on the second day by adding a bit more of my own perspective, especially on historical and cultural contexts and frames, making my work and ideas a parallel and complement to theirs.
The goal, as I put it in the intro paragraphs of the syllabus, is to create a class full of Masters, a project with which it seems to me James would be in sympathy. Also a very challenging project, of course, one perhaps destined for at best partial success. But at the very least that challenge will make very sure that I stay in the room every day and in every way. And if it goes as well as it could—and I promise to provide some sort of update in this space come May—then maybe it’ll be a class and semester worthy of the link to Heimert and Heartwell with which I began this post. More tomorrow, on (I’m pretty sure) the only military officer who also served as the closest literary confidante to a poetic genius.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) James’s “Daisy Miller” (1878) the long story (or short novella) with which we’re beginning this coming week: http://www.online-literature.com/henry_james/1100/
2) And, in case I made it seem like James couldn’t be just plain fun, the full text of The Turn of the Screw (1898), which is either a chilling Victorian ghost story or a tale of sexual repression and longing or a combination of both: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/209/209-h/209-h.htm
3) OPEN: What classes most challenged you?