Summer Book Club Week 3: The Signature of All Things

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

sigofallthingsSometimes I think I just don’t like reading any more.  Then I pick up a book like The Signature of All Things.

If Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love and other fine stories, hadn’t been the author, I wouldn’t have given this novel a chance.  There are several strikes against it.  First, it’s a big fat book (499 pages long). Given how short an interlude I have between the end of all my work responsibilities (I finished my last major tasks last Thursday) and their return (the middle of August), and the difficulty I have reading anything for pleasure during the school term, I’m rarely tempted by long books.  Second, the story begins with the birth of the protagonist, Alma Whittaker, in 1800.  I don’t usually care for historical fiction, so this was enough to put me off immediately.  Third, Alma is a botanist, and a lot of the story is about plants.  Now, I love to garden, and I love reading gardening how-to books, but “nature writing” has never been my bag.  (Don’t get me started on Annie Dillard.)

But you don’t have to care about plants, or the 19th century, to love this book.  You just need to care about being told a good story, no matter how long and rich and sprawling it is.

If Jane Austen were writing now, and writing historical rather than contemporary novels, she might write a book like The Signature of All Things. After Alma’s birth, we learn about the life of her father, a plant theif-cum-entrepreneur whose experiences help shape Alma into the scientist she becomes.  We learn about her loving but troubled relationships with her father, her mother, her sister, her mad best friend, and the various men who float in and out of her life.  At the centre of the story are a few  subjects that are both timely and timeless: the opportunities and limitations a woman faces when she is brilliant and homely; the complicated and unexpected forms that love can take; the precarious balance between one’s own happiness and that of others.

The force that drives the reader forward is Alma, who is wonderful: self-possessed and yet self-questioning, perceptive but occasionally shamed by her own blindness, determined to learn about both the natural world and the humans who live in it.  She is surrounded by other wonderful characters, like Hanneke the housekeeper, the only person Alma trusts with her deepest fears and griefs, because Alma knows that sobbing in Hanneke’s arms will bring about real consolation and not empty soothing:

“But I loved him,” Alma said.

Hanneke sighed. “Then you made an expensive error.  You loved a man who thought the world was made of butter.  You loved a man who wished to see stars by daylight.  He was nonsense.”

“He was not nonsense.”

“He was nonsense.

The prose is stunning: precise, transparent, fast-moving, meticulous, and often surprising.  Gilbert describes Alma in one of her writing frenzies as “like a besotted drunk – who can run without falling, but who cannot walk without falling” – this made me laugh out loud.  Portraying the cool childhood relationship between Alma and her recently adopted sister Prudence, Gilbert explains,

Unkind words were never once exchanged.  They respectfully shared an umbrella with each other, arm in arm, whenever they walked in the rain.  They stepped aside for each other at doorways, each willing to let the other pass first….Prudence made for Alma [at Christmas] an exquisite satin pincushion, rendered in Alma’s favorite color, aubergine….”Thank you for the pincushion,” Alma wrote to Prudence, in a short note of considered politeness. “I shall be certain to use it whenever I find myself in need of a pin.”

The novel is riddled with these exquisite moments of characterization, and for this reason, I couldn’t put it down.  Which just goes to show: when it comes to reading novels, it is essential that we put aside our prejudices for the first fifty pages or so, because we never know what we might find.  You might think you don’t like long novels, or historical novels, or novels about the history of science, but maybe that’s because you haven’t yet read The Signature of All Things.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?  What about Gilbert’s other work; if you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love or any of her other works, are you a fan?

If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club Week 2: The Chairs are Where The People Go

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

chairs2Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? was one of my Top 10 Books of 2012.  I described that book as “exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring…self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.” The Chairs are Where the People Go is an entirely different sort of book. It still sounds like Sheila Heti, but it isn’t, really; it’s her friend Misha Glouberman, channeled through Heti’s typing hands.  It’s neither exhilarating nor befuddling; it might be inspiring, but I’m not sure.  It’s not self-absorbed, nor is it miniature, really, and its scope is – medium-sized.

In the introduction, Heti says that she finds Glouberman so interesting that she tried to write a novel about him, and failed, because her imaginary Misha just didn’t measure up to the real one.  So instead, she decided to spend a lot of time with him, ask him a bunch of questions, and transcribe his answers.  The result is this book, a collection of mini-essays on topics ranging from charades to neighbourhood associations to monogamy to absenteeism.

Some of it is boring.  I studied improv as a teenager, and so should probably be intrigued by Glouberman’s insights into how to improvise correctly, but I’m not.  Performance, as art and as metaphor, is the subject of a number of chapters, and I feel that it wears thin. However, the good thing about brief chapters is that if you don’t care for this one, the next one could be (and in this case often is) a nice surprise.  Let’s look at a couple of observations that I like.

I had certain ideas about what kind of person my girlfriend might be.  I met Margaux and I was pretty fascinated by her.  She’s a remarkably unusual person…I was with her for a while and I kept thinking, This is so not like the person I’d imagined. And at the same time I thought, once the relationship got at all serious, Well, I’m kind of stuck, because there’s no way in the world that I’m going to be able to find someone who’s sort of like Margaux but better, because there’s no one like Margaux.

Or this:

Margaux and I [watched] some terrible monologues being performed at some club in New York.  I was so angry and outraged that they thought that it was fair to make the demand, I’m going to talk now and you all have to shut up and listen.  I told Margaux, You have to be really sure that what you are saying is worthwhile and good before you ask that of people. She thought I was wrong…If the contract is that you have to be absolutely certain that it’s going to be worth people’s while, nobody would do anything…I think she’s probably right, but I can’t help feeling this way.

These little moments where you stop and realize “I’ve thought things like this but didn’t even know I was thinking them” are masterful.  They sneak up on you, like a neighbourhood cat who’s always around, but whom you don’t notice until he’s sitting in a different driveway.  Glouberman is opinionated but self-questioning, and that’s my favourite sort of person, so hanging out with him and listening to him hold forth on random stuff is…fine.

One difficulty is that the back cover and some other reviews I’ve read describe this book as funny, but I don’t find it funny at all.  And I think I’ve figured out why not.  Glouberman is the straight man, and the world around him is the funny guy.  I think his serious, rather naive tone is what people find amusing.  For example, in a chapter on preparing a bar audience for a performance, Glouberman explains,

One of the very last things I do when I give people instructions on how to enjoy the show is that I encourage them to shush other people if they are talking.  I give them some different techniques for doing this.  I tell them if they want to be direct and aggressive, they can turn around an shush the person angrily, or if they prefer a more passive-aggressive style, they can cover their mouths with their hands so no one will know who did the shushing….Inevitably during any show in a bar, people eventually do talk, and instead of me having to reprimand them from the stage in some authoritarian way…a number of people in the audience do the shushing….As a performer on stage, this saves you the terrible indignity of having to ask the audience every five minutes to simmer down and listen to you.

Is this funny?  I suspect it’s funny.  It isn’t funny to me.  Why?  In my life, I’m the straight man.  (I happen to be married to the funniest person alive, so this works out pretty well.) What Gloubernan’s describing here is, as far as I’m concerned, an excellent idea.  It sounds like something I’d do if I thought of it.  In fact, I might even start using this technique in my classes so that students will shut each other up.  This has been happening throughout my reading; I think, “Well, sure.  That’s a good idea,” or, “Yes, exactly.  Isn’t that how everyone sees it?” And then I think, “Why am I reading these incredibly ordinary thoughts?”

Glouberman is a lot more intelligent and articulate and experienced than I am.  He does a lot of brave things that I would never do, like teaching classes in charades or becoming a neighbourhood residents’ rights activist.  However, his view of the world is more or less mine, and  he is, much like me, very serious about his view of the world.  This may be entertaining to people who find him odd, but is not terribly entertaining to me, because I don’t find him odd at all.

I’m 115 pages in, and I feel like I could take or leave the last 60, but I have the sense that maybe something I don’t expect is going to happen, so I may follow through.  Have you read this book?  Would you recommend I finish it?  Have you encountered any of Heti’s or Glouberman’s other work?  If so, what did you think?

If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club Week 1: Rutu Modan’s The Property

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

a50f6e32da351bI recently finished The Property, the latest book by Rutu Modan, the graphic novelist responsible for one of my other favourite books, Exit Wounds. I love graphic novels, but they are sometimes self-indulgent and demanding.  Modan’s books take difficult subject matter and make it often funny, sometimes oddly sweet, and always powerful.  Modan’s art is meticulous, delicate and bright; I tend to barrel through graphic novels because I’m visually lazy, but with Modan’s work I have to slow down and savour and smile.  This book feels like a dense, multi-coloured jewel.

Mica insists on accompanying her grandmother Regina to Warsaw, where a mysterious family property is located and maybe is waiting to be reclaimed.  It’s soon clear, though, that Mica doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into, and that her understanding of her trip, her family and her grandmother’s past is partial at best.  Regina is ornery and secretive, Mica is long-suffering and a bit stubborn herself, and along the way they meet a number of characters whose motives are suspect but who might be friends.  Romance, both past and present, is an important part of  both women’s stories, but their relationship with one another is what matters most: if Mica didn’t love her grandmother, her life would be a lot easier, but what are you going to do?

I devoured this book in an evening, and now have to go back and read Exit Wounds again.  Have you read either, or any of Modan’s other work?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club: What Are We Reading This Week?

1368361_28917487I love the idea of book clubs, but the last thing an English teacher needs is more assigned reading.  So I thought: what if we had a book club where we all just talk about whatever we’re reading right now?  That way, we can read whatever we want!  And talk about it!

Once a week, I’m going to post about a book I’m reading, or have just finished reading, or would really like to read next.  It would be great if you guys would chime in.  If you’ve read the book I’m posting on,  you could comment on that, and we’ll discuss.  But you could also comment on a book you’re reading right now, and we could discuss that.  Or you could write on your own blog about a book you’re reading, and link here. Maybe I’ll ask you some specific questions about books I’m reading and books you’re reading, and you could respond to them here or elsewhere.

If no one wants to chat about books, I’ll just post about the books I’m reading anyway.  This will be a way for me to keep in touch with you all, but maybe it’ll also mean I’ll spend more of my summer reading books, and less of it watching Project Runway on  YouTube and playing Fishdom.

In the next couple of days, I’ll post on the book I’m reading now, and thereon in, I’ll try to post on Wednesdays.  I hope you’ll tell me about your summer reading too!  Here’s to books we read just because we feel like reading them!

Image by pear83

My Top 10 Books of 2013

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2013, but they were all a part of my 2013 experience.

interestings1. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer:

I’m a difficult-to-please reader.  I give up on books a LOT; if I get to page 50 or so and am able to put the book down without hesitation, I’m not likely to pick it up again.  When I got to page 50 or so of The Interestings, I just kept barrelling along, to the detriment of everything else I needed to do.  This is the story of a group of friends who meet at an arts camp when they’re teenagers.  I know: privileged white Americans doing privileged white American things; who cares?  Well, I do.  The words “teenagers” and “arts camp” in the reviews of this book meant that I got my hands on it the moment I could, but it was the fine and pitch-perfect evocation of their experiences from that summer onward that made me want to spend all my time with Jules and her friends through their adult misadventures.  Wolitzer writes, with the sprezzatura I aspire to, about the ins and outs of real human relationships.  (When I was done with The Interestings I downloaded Wolitzer’s novel The Wife to my e-reader and enjoyed it almost as much.)

hyperbole2. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh:

No one familiar with Allie Brosh’s blog will need any convincing to pick up this book.  The centrepiece is her stunning graphic essay on depression, but Hyperbole and a Half is also filled with stories about difficult dogs, the complications of a childhood that is in no way “universal” and yet is impossible not to relate to, and the challenges of being an adult while also being a person.  It’s visually gorgeous the way a four-year-old’s drawings would be gorgeous if that four-year-old were also a meticulously trained and scarily intelligent artist.  It’s painful and it’s incredibly funny.

buildingstories3. Building Stories by Chris Ware:

Another graphic “novel”, if a box full of pamphlets, foldouts, chapbooks, and even a “Little Golden Book” can be called a novel.  This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and as I plucked at it in the days following, I kept trying to explain how something as heartbreaking and bleak as Chris Ware’s work can also be an uplifting place to spend the holidays.  I came out the other side in tears and transformed.  If you love the tactile nature of real paper books, this will be an intense extension of that experience for you.  And the access Ware gives us into the inner lives of his struggling characters will make you feel lucky to feel so sad.

faultstars4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:

John Green makes a series of “Crash Course” videos on literature and other topics, and I show a couple of them in my classes: his lecture on “How and Why We Read” and his first discussion of The Catcher in the Rye.  When I showed the first video to my Adolescence and the Novel class this term, several students told me that I needed to read John Green’s novels about adolescence and put them on my courses.  It was only then that I discovered that this John Green is the same John Green who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, which had been on my “to-read” list since its publication.  I was knitting a blanket at the time of this discovery, and so didn’t have time to read anything; instead, I downloaded the audiobook and listened to it as I knit and occasionally as I went running.  It is (with the possible exception of the book at #5) the best young adult novel I’ve encountered in my adult life.  The narrator, Hazel, is living with cancer, and falls in love with a young man she meets at her cancer support group.  Lots of complications ensue, many of them centering around Hazel’s favourite book.  The genius of The Fault in Our Stars is in Hazel’s voice – she is wry, sharp and never self-pitying – and her love interest, Augustus, is as fully realized a character as she is.

abstruediary5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie:

This is another reading that grew out of my Adolescence and the Novel course.  This course includes a list of 8 novels that students can choose from, and I try to switch up some of the texts every semester.  I try to balance male and female authors, and male and female protagonists, but my greatest challenge is finding authors of different cultural backgrounds whose books I think students can read without too much teacher guidance.  Alexie’s book was such a happy discovery.  It addresses the hard realities of being a teenager on a reservation, a teenager with physical disabilities and social challenges, by creating the character of Junior: smart, hilarious, and driven to do something meaningful with his life no matter what the obstacles or the cost.  My students loved this book, and so do I.

womupstairs6. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud:

This is a very angry novel.  The anger is so perfectly rendered and so justified that it is cathartic.  If I’d been keeping this list in 2007, Messud’s earlier novel The Emperor’s Children would have been on it that year; this novel lives up to and maybe surpasses the earlier one, showing us what it’s like to take all your youthful promise and channel it into middle-aged delusion, obsession, and disappointment; at the same time the novel is built around a psychological-thriller plot that pays off nicely at the end.

wheredyougo7. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple:

This multi-format, multi-voiced novel, about an enigmatic and infuriating heroine who disappears, leaving her daughter to piece together her story from any material she can find, is hilarious and consistently surprising.  The resolution – which takes us away from the initial setting and to a locale so exotic as to strain what plausibility Semple’s bizzarro universe has – is a bit rushed and feels forced, but endings are always hard, and it’s not hard to forgive this one when the characters who bring us there are so much fun.

misspym8. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey:

I had initially entered Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair in this spot, but as the year wound down I found that her novel Miss Pym Disposes, which I purchased and read because I loved The Franchise Affair so much, has stayed with me more firmly.  As I tried to recall the events of The Franchise Affair, it was Miss Pym who kept returning to my mind.  Is it because Miss Pym Disposes is set in a boarding school and revolves around a case of plagiarism?  Probably.  One way or another, Josephine Tey is my Mystery Writer Discovery of the year.

beautifulruins9. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter:

I am not usually a fan of the epic, the historical, the lush and dense, the swoon over foreign locales.  I don’t care for evocative descriptions of Mediterranean beaches or stories that whirl from one corner of the world and one moment in history to the far-flung next and back again.  Fictionalized stories about real people: meh.  Nevertheless, I loved Beautiful Ruins, in all its lavish, complicated narrative glory.  The thread that ties it all together is the author’s evident love of all his characters, from Richard Burton to a lovesick elderly hotel keeper to the despicable producer who is not as soulless as he would first appear.

carry-the-one-paperback-cover110. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw:

This was the first novel I read this year, and it’s stayed with me ever since.  It’s the story of three siblings and the disaster that befalls them at the beginning of the novel and haunts them until the end, twenty-five years later.  I loved this family, and I believed every moment of their suffering and their unwavering attachment to one another, as they struggle with what that attachment means when you are all so terribly, terribly flawed.

*

And now I need something new to read!  Please tell me what you read and loved this year.

“I AM the Teacher”

After a long and infuriating day of grading final papers, here’s a random quote from my favourite writer that makes me feel oddly, ambivalently better.

‘You act,’ said one of her Senior Seminar students at a scheduled conference, ‘like your opinion is worth more than everybody else’s in the class.’

Zoe’s eyes widened.  ‘I AM the teacher,’ she said.  ‘I DO get paid to act like that.’ She narrowed her gaze at the student, who was wearing a big leather bow in her hair, like a cowgirl in a TV ranch show. ‘I mean, otherwise EVERYBODY in the class would have little offices and office hours.’ … She stared at the student some more, then added, ‘I bet you’d like that.’

‘Maybe I sound whiny to you,’ said the girl, ‘but I simply want my history major to mean something.’

‘Well, there’s your problem,’ said Zoe, and with a smile, she showed the student to the door. ‘I like your bow,’ she added.

Lorrie Moore, from “You’re Ugly, Too”

Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

Image by Dahlia

This Book is Too Sad

o3XIW26A reader and colleague sent me this question the other day.  What would you do in her position?

Dear Siobhan,

A few of my college students (note, not the class as a whole) have told me they’re having a really hard time with the book we’re studying in class because it’s too sad. It’s The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. The principal person in this small group suggested that at her age, she’s too sensitive to read a book like this. She’s studied slavery before, but finds this book– which follows a slave woman’s life– too graphic, too emotionally difficult. How would you handle this?

H.

I’m not sure.   Dear readers, what do you think?  Should college students be obligated to read texts that challenge them emotionally in ways they might not be prepared for?  Please leave your thoughts below.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

Image by matchstick

When the Syllabus Goes Wrong

mhC7ZMoI cannot tell a lie.  My new course is a failure.

This semester, I did a complete overhaul on the English course I teach for Child Studies majors.  The earlier version of the course was a solid one.  It focused on the topic of childhood relationships in literature: parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships.  We read a couple of books, wrote a couple of essays, researched famous childhood relationships and presented them to the class.  The final assignment was to write a story, fictional or non-fictional, about a childhood relationship.

It always went pretty well, but I was sick of it.  If I had to hear another presentation on the Jackson Five and their father, I was going to lose it.  And I was on a high from another course in which students chose their own readings, I course that I enjoyed teaching more than any other.  I wanted to try blogs again, and I was in love with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, an exploration of the character qualities that lead to success.

So I had a few epiphanies and redesigned the course.  I knew I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for most of it, but, because this had worked out well for me in recent memory, I wasn’t too worried about it.

  1. Because I wanted to use Tough’s book, I called the course “A Question of Character.”  The guiding questions: What is character?  How do we define it in real life?  How do we experience it in literature?  Can reading literature influence a child’s character?
  2. I wanted each student to read a different classic work of children’s literature.  I compiled a list of books for them to choose from, all of which I was excited about reading or re-reading, and they dutifully signed up.  The plan was for each student to present his or her book, and its lessons about character, to the class.
  3. I wanted to use blogs as a way for students to exchange ideas and explore their own thoughts.  In the first few weeks we spent a lot of time setting up blogs, addressing questions about image copyright and moderating comments, and ironing out other issues.  In the first month, I fastidiously read and commented on every post, and compiled lists of the best posts of the week on my own blog.  They were to receive a grade for February, a grade for March, and one for April, with suggestions and feedback as we went along.

In the beginning, everything rolled along nicely.  I didn’t have a lot of grading to do, so reading the blogs was not stressful – in fact, I loved reading them.  Even the banal ones were interesting at first, as I got to know the students and the way they thought and wrote.  We started the term by reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all together, and the students were mostly ecstatic about it.  They also seemed interested in the ideas in Paul Tough’s work, and wrote thoughtful first essays in which they discussed whether Harry Potter and his friends supported or contradicted Tough’s theories.  I slowly read my way through the book list, revisting old favourites and discovering new ones.

Things started to come apart around midterm.

First, I started feeling the burden of reading 80 blog posts every week.  Which is to say: I stopped reading 80 blog posts every week.  I couldn’t grade everything else and do that too.  I’d met with students individually in mid-March to discuss how they’d done on their blogs in February.  I’d planned to do that again after the March blogs were done, but there simply wasn’t time; once I’d given them all their blog grades for March (by entering them into the online gradebook with a couple of comments), April was almost over and there was really no time for them to implement the feedback.

I was also utterly bogged down in the book list.  I resented the volume of non-voluntary reading I’d assigned myself.  I found myself beginning a book and casting it aside, feeling sorry for the student who’d chosen it – The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Call of the Wild… why on earth did I inflict these on anyone? I wondered.

Then we started with the oral presentations.

One of the requirements was that they each find at least one scholarly article on their book and discuss it.  It turned out that the literary databases at our college are so limited that it was impossible to find even a book review on novels as classic as The Naughtiest Girl in the School or From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I had to adjust the criteria to the point that the research component of the assignment became basically meaningless.

I’d instructed each of them to present for 10-15 minutes, and we spread the presentations over 8 classes (5 presentations per class).  The first handful of presentations was enjoyable, but it became clear early on that requiring a “plot summary” without practicing how to make a plot summary clear and concise had been a big mistake.  The plot summaries dragged on endlessly, rife with minute detail, and the rest of the required components were treated in a couple of moments – a number of presentations were over 20 minutes long but consisted primarily of a brief biography of the author, lifted straight from Wikipedia regardless of my warnings, and a meticulous overview of the plot, followed by 90 seconds of analysis.  By the time we’d dragged through 5 or 6 of these, there was little time for anything else in the class period, and regardless of how different the books were, the presentations were ALL THE SAME.  It was agony.  Students stopped showing up for class.  I didn’t blame them.

One of my two classes is, for whatever reason, considerably weaker than the other.  I just finished grading the blogs for that weaker class, and the class average is 59%.  Ergo: this assignment was not a success.  The oral presentations were not a success.  They are working on their final papers right now, and were required to come in small groups to work on their outlines; barely half of them showed up for their small-group meetings.  The other class is faring better but there is still a general feeling, at least in my mind, that this course is a random, pointless mess.

Despite the issues, I feel some good things came out of this course.  Those students who kept their blogs diligently wrote some really inspiring things, and the conversations in the comments sections showed some deep and broad learning.  I certainly enjoyed reading the blogs more than I ever enjoy grading papers.  Some students reported being inspired by the children’s novels they read, and passing them on to younger siblings.  Some reported finding Paul Tough’s book extremely interesting, and their papers, blog posts and discussions about it indicate that most of them understood his ideas well and are applying them constructively to their lives and the literature.  So it’s not that there’s no learning happening, but I’m expecting a lot of scathing reports on the course evaluations about the confusing and meandering way that learning came about.

At this point, my plan is to shelve this course and return to its earlier incarnation, and take a couple of years to revise, revamp, reorganize, and reconceive.  I would love to hear your advice, and your stories.  Have you ever given, or taken, a course that just seemed like a bad idea?  If you gave it, what did you do to improve it?  If you took it, why was it bad, and what would you have changed?  Beyond that, can you see any solutions to the problems I describe above?

Image by Steve Woods

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