Thursday, November 30, 2006

Housekeeping #3

I have been a bad housekeeper. It seems like a good time now, before our second collaborative reading, to take stock of the status of The Long Eighteenth.

(Click the graphic to enlarge.)

Our upcoming reading will include posts by myself, Dave Mazella, Jen Golightly, Bill Levine, Alex Seltzer, Carrie Hintz, "KW," Shayda Hoover, and Blanford Parker, as well as anyone else who chooses to jump in. (Don't be shy!) I met with Blanford this morning and he is looking forward to our conversation.

Please feel free to publicize this event to your colleagues.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Blogging or Web CT in Graduate Seminars?

We had our final meeting in my Austen and her Predecessors grad seminar last night, and I was pretty pleased with our final discussions of Persuasion. (It's interesting, by the way, how personally I take those discussions, if it's a book I'm really invested in. Fortunately for me, I find that Austen is one of the few writers I teach whose works are never a hard sell; students almost always come in with a lot of enthusiasm for, and interest in, her writing.)

I'll probably post something more definitive on the course in a little while, perhaps after I see how the papers and final projects go, but for now I want to discuss a topic that emerged from my "unfinished business" post of last week. Since I've never blogged while teaching a course, I've been experimenting this term with using this blog as an additional venue for reflection and discussion, and it occurred to me that I could also encourage (i.e., require) my students essentially to do the same kind of writing, either in a public blog or in some Web CT format, which I'm not very familiar with.

After posting last week, I discussed it with the class, and I was surprised to hear that a number of my colleagues had been doing such things in their grad seminars for some time, usually by requiring students to post and respond to their readings or to one another. I was also surprised that students were as receptive to the idea as they seemed. I had a bad experience with an undergrad class listserv ages ago, and I'm very concerned about requiring something that would seem like "makework" to our students. But it also sounds like something that could be very effective for encouraging better discussion.

So I'm putting it out there. Any suggestions, advice, or experiences you'd like to share about using a blog or Web CT fora for class discussions at the grad level?



Sunday, November 26, 2006

What would you like to see in new editions of novels?

Strictly hypothetically, if a publisher were to produce a new line of 18c novels, what would you like to see in terms of editorial policy?

There are of course a dozen ways to buy, say, Robinson Crusoe. The market is competitive. You have the Penguin edition, the Norton, the Oxford World's Classics, the Bedford Cultural Edition, and the Broadview. There are still others for general readers--Signet, Barnes & Noble, Everyman, etc.

If there were to be one more available, what would you like for it to include or exclude that would set it apart from the other editions? Do you and your students actually use the substantial textual and critical support routinely included in the Nortons and the Broadview editions? Do you find the current scholarly editions limiting or overwhelming? Are your students happy with their prices, the format, etc.?

Specifically, how would you feel about the return of the hardback edition? If Penguin, for example, were to publish the same text, introduction, and notes in a hardback edition with more durable paper within $5 or so of their paperback price, would you order that book for your students instead and do you think they would be glad you did?

Dates Finalized for Parker

I've heard from Professor Parker and he's verified that the week of December 3rd is good for the group reading, so I will put it in our sidebar and send another note to C18-L. Please feel free to publicize this event wherever it is you publicize things! The conversation that comes out of this book should be useful to scholars at all levels and in most areas of interest in our era of English literary studies.

I also would like to remind the assembled that we still have twoone chapters ("Transitional Augustan Poetry" and "Johnson and Fideism") available for anyone who'd like to lead discussion on those days. If we don't have a volunteer, I will go enlist one of my colleagues, or, especially in the case of the Johnson chapter, I may just do it myself. Also remember that, as with the McKeon discussion, anyone should feel free to jump in with a post at any point in the conversation. The purpose of the schedule is merely to ensure we cover the whole book, not to stifle any other ideas that come to mind.

(Isn't it nice not to be doing this with the constraints of either print or a conference panel?)

Also, Bill Levine, if you're reading this, please send me an email at carrieshanafelt at so I can add you to our roster of contributors. Done.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Rounding out the semester with Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving, with an appropriately Dickensian feast at mid-day, and without any Pumblechookian elbows being thrown. (Orwell once made a crack about Dickens' endings, which simply imagined the future as a endless succession of enormous meals).

This is the second to last week of the semester, the time when I really start feeling regrets over what I haven't said or discussed or elaborated properly during the semester.

[Incidentally, A colleague of mine in Anthro just told me that he uses Web CT to deal with this issue in his undergrad classes, since he can post whatever portion of his lectures he failed to deliver during the allotted time. I must say this is intriguing, though I wonder whether my undergrad students would follow those kinds of readings up, when it's hard enough to get them through the required readings. I suppose it would work best if one lectured from fairly finished notes, which I generally don't do.]

In any case, I've been thinking this week of what I haven't really taken up in the Austen grad seminar, largely because during the give and take of discussion, it just never seemed the right moment. Maybe I'll do an "Unfinished Business" segment in our next and final meeting, asking everyone to think of an issue that they'd wished had been followed up during discussion.

Here's my unfinished business, anyway:

1. The literary status of the novel, as signified by the famous defense in Northanger Abbey. I've never bought the notion that NA represented a purely destructive parody of the gothic, for the same reason that the Juvenilia for me never represented simply the annihilation of sentimental paradigms.

I always thought that there was some kind of criticism--displacement--recuperation process going on there, with new forms of distinction developed for fiction and fiction-readers, with the result being a certain "psychological" realism being equated with literariness, at the expense of bodily displays of sentiment, exotic location, "melodramatic" plot, and the broader view of society and the social order fostered by novelists between Richardson and Wollstonecraft. So I think that the refunctioning of the sentimental novel (and the sentimental heroine) that occurs in Austen must entail a new sense of what the novel as a genre can and cannot, should and should not, attempt to accomplish. For me, this is the big literary-historical significance of Austen: she helps redefine the function of the novel "after" the sentimental novel has run its course (a demise, of course, that she helped to hasten)

This brings me to my other unfinished business:

2. Austen's relation to the prudential narratives and conduct-book morality that we can still sense in, say, Evelina's struggles with propriety and delicacy, seems really strategic, if not inconsistent. I suppose this is where I agree with Marilyn Butler, though I'm not sure it represents an aesthetic fault in the way that Butler assumes.

Sense and Sensibility to me has the classic didactic structure of the comparison of the respective fates of parallel characters, and features a not-quite-punitive lesson for its imprudent "sensible" Marianne, and a not-quite-satisfying reward for its prudent, quietly stoic and "sensible" [in the other sense, right?] Elinor. One might say that the point of the novel is to question whether lives as arbitrarily determined as E and M's can be described as "lessons to be learned." But the prudence of E does not really seem to guarantee much happiness, and the imprudence of M, though certainly dangerous and self-indulgent at times, does not seem inferior to the calculation and self-seeking of the Steeles. So my guess is that the real issue in S&S lies in the viability of the didactic structure that she has nonetheless retained for this novel.

So there you go. Two unfinished thoughts that somehow never came up in discussion, with only three more hours of classtime before this semester comes to an end.



Postscript: Though the Web CT option might work fine for an undergrad class, I'm still thinking about ways to make the relatively limited number of hours in a grad seminar work more effectively.

I'm seriously considering adding some type of blogging or online writing component (possibly Web CT, but maybe just a regular public blog) to the seminar to deal with this problem of my own sense of unfinished business, though I'm very conscious of the limited number of hours grad students have available to prep their classes, and whether going through my afterthoughts in this manner would be productive for anyone. I also wonder how formal my own presentations would have to become to work in this format. And, lastly, I should note one thing: when I wondered aloud about students bothering to make it through such notes, I was thinking about my undergrads, not my grads. (Thanks to SD for helping me clarify this point)

Best wishes,


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Finals bad! Hulk smash!

Briefly, I will note that I've updated the Parker reading schedule here. There is just one chapter up for grabs, though I encourage any of our contributors to feel free to post at any point during the reading alongside the scheduled posts.

As I think about things coming up in December, I realize I have to give a final exam to my British Literature Survey students. I am dreading both writing the exam and grading it, as both will make me come face-to-face with the problem of what different groups of students are actually learning from my class.

This is, as I've mentioned before, my first class whose focus is on absorbing a body of literature, as opposed to learning about writing or analytical methodologies. (My evaluator seemed to think I had turned my Brit Lit Survey into a methodology course, which I think was a compliment.) At the end of the semester, I not only need evidence that my students are able to analyze poems and do a lit-crit research paper on a novel, but I also require proof that they, like, read the stuff on the syllabus. I can't pass someone who can't name some Romantic poets.

In the past, when I've been told to give a final exam, if my students seemed to be keeping up just fine with the material during the daily writing, I've followed the example of one of my favorite undergraduate professors and cancelled the final, asking them all instead to read a shortish novel of my choice and to lead a discussion during the allotted final hours. I would grade them on their ability to focus on passages, come up with interesting interpretations, and respond to one another's ideas. Usually, I bring a nice red velvet cake and some nut brittle. It's a pleasant way to end a semester, and everyone goes home feeling good about themselves.

But this semester, there have been too many students, too many readings, and too many absences for me to keep up with who is doing the reading. Every day, when they come into class, I ask them difficult analytical questions as a little seven-minute writing prompt. When I get their responses, it is easy to tell who the best students are because they have clearly read the material to a depth that allows for this level of thought. The rest of the responses I get are usually so off-base that I simply cannot tell whether they've not done the reading, or whether they have, but need help knowing what it means. There is a level of difficulty that allows the best students to shine, but levels out the rest of the students to the point of unevaluability.

So in order to give some kind of credit for just having followed along at a basic level, I have to give a quizzy final. Of course I'd rather do an analytical thing where I ask for differences between Renaissance and Augustan aesthetics, but not all of my students are really able to follow along at that level. Some of my students will feel cheated because sitting around memorizing the syllabus isn't going to help them, and the students who missed a lot of classes will certainly fail, since they've missed so much lecture and discussion content. On the other hand, if I give a quizzy "who/what/when" final, the better students in the class, who are keeping up marvelously with the sense of the passage of time and the changes in prose and poetry, may not remember what the titles of the poems we read are, and they will wonder what all that heavy-duty talk about aesthetics and ethics was about.

Is it possible to balance the two? Who here has written final exams for lit surveys before? What did you do? What worked? What didn't?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Patriotism and Nationalism in the Long Eighteenth

My exchanges with Jen over the late-18th novel, romantic or otherwise, have reminded me of how problematic a term like "nationalism" really is when we discuss most writers in the long eighteenth. Nationalism, like Empire, seems like a word with a teleology built right into it, and which consequently makes it hard to read contingent events as anything BUT movements toward some nineteenth-century destination. But is this really true?

For one thing, patriotism is even harder for us to understand than some so-called "rise of the nation," because of patriotism's associations with radicalism and Wilkite agitation in the mid-century. But clearly one of the stakes in the 1790s was about which conception of the nation, and of the people, either radical or conservative, would win out over the other. To the participants in those debates, the outcome hardly felt preordained.

So what kinds of primary texts, genres, and authors, and what kinds of scholarly arguments do you draw upon when you try to think about the nation in the long eighteenth?



Friday, November 17, 2006

It's Time for Teaching Carnival #16!

OK, folks, this round of the Teaching Carnival is taking place at Ancarett's Abode, at this address:

Lotsa useful stuff, particularly at this panicky time of the semester. Highly recommended.



Thursday, November 16, 2006

In which my obsession with Romantic novel continues

I've just finished reading an essay by Robert Miles, published in Novel: A Forum on Fiction 34.2 (Spring 2001), titled "What is a Romantic Novel?" It's an interesting essay; Miles investigates the "embarassment" with which he says the Romantic novel has always been viewed as a result of the institutionalization of Romanticism. He identifies what he terms the "hermeneutic paradigm" as part of this institutionalization and describes this paradigm as one focused primarily on the transcendental aspect of Romanticism--and thus on Romantic poetry. Miles writes, "The hermeneutic paradigm the Kantian narrative was designed to protect can best be put in terms of transcendentalism. To the Romantic poet, as Romantic hero, there falls the task of peering into the life of things in order to spy out the noumenal presence that ultimately binds together subject and object, words and things, the material world and its underlying meaning, a transcendental glimpse capable of rebuilding the ruins of history" (184).

Thus Miles says the problem in defining the Romantic novel is actually a problem of defining Romanticism itself: "'What is a Romantic novel?' is a version of another, equally problematic question: what is Romanticism?" (184). Transcendentalism as a defining characteristic of Romanticism will of course lead to definitions of Romanticism that privilege poetry: "The centrality of the hermeneutic paradigm in the construction of Romanticism adversely affected the reception of the Romantic novel, as even the subjectively driven Romantic novel...with its residual attachments to narrative, community, and realism, is at a disadvantage in comparison with poetry when it comes to giving literary form to the drama of fleeting transcendental insights" (185). Miles goes on to suggest that Romantic poetry and the Romantic novel actually have more in common than has been hitherto suggested. He argues that the basis for the Romantic novel is its "historic mission of articulating ideology, as ideology. Of course, all works are ideological, as everything else is too. My proposition, rather, is that a significant difference of a subset of Romantic-era novels is their striving toward not ideological representation, but representations of ideology as 'ideology.' I am not saying that the Romantic novel does this, and the Romantic poem does not. On the contrary, I am arguing that this is an important affinity between the two" (186).

Using this idea as the basis for his definition, Miles goes on to identify several characteristics of the Romantic novel: it is, he writes, preoccupied with questions about family origin, a feature that he finds to be drawn from Shakespeare's romances; it makes extensive use of theatricality as characters whose family origin is unknown struggle with questions about their identities and thus take on a variety of "roles," usually linked to a particular nationality; and it employs a self-conscious rejection of the novel in favor of the romance, which, Miles suggests, allows writers to explore positions outside history and probability. It is in these novels, according to Miles, that we can first see an awareness of ideology as ideology in the modern sense.

Here's my standard disclaimer: by no means am I doing justice to Miles' argument, which is quite "involved," as he himself admits. However, I am troubled by two aspects of his essay, and the first is that it seems to focus selectively on national tales, novels that deal primarily with questions of national and/or family origin as their primary plot. For instance, he talks a great deal about Sir Walter Scott's novels, particularly Ivanhoe. He traces the type of novel he's describing (which, by the way, he calls "philosophical romances" rather than "Romantic novels," though he uses both terms) up through the novels of Hawthorne and Melville: "If the philosophical romance is antagonistic toward the renewed legitimacies of nationalism, it remains the case that both it and nationalism arise out of the same cultural moment of questioned origins. Hence the unsurprising recrudescence of the philosophical romance in Ireland, Scotland, and mid-nineteenth century America, as these were similarly rich periods in which the spirit of critique conflicted directly with nationalist myth-making" (198). By the end of the essay, the focus of Miles' observations about the Romantic novel are all pointed toward this sort of nationalism or rejection of nationalism, which is interesting to me in the extreme but seems to exclude a large number of novels that other scholars have termed Romantic novels--primarily (of course, for me) the Jacobin novels of the 1790s. This leads to my second reservation about Miles' essay: though he writes that "No theory of the Romantic novel that did not account for Caleb Williams or Frankenstein would be worth much," he really only devotes a paragraph or two to Godwin at all, and the bulk of this discussion does not concern Caleb Williams but rather Godwin's unfinished essay "Of History and Romance" (197). The other Jacobin novelists are not mentioned at all: the exception is Mary Hays, who is mentioned in passing by name only in a list of writers. This seems to me (as it of course would) a striking omission in an essay arguing that the Romantic novel is "the class of prose fictions that has the historic mission of articulating ideology, as ideology" (186). However, by the end of the essay, it seems that Miles' argument is focused on a specific type of ideology--nationalism--and the ways in which the Romantic novel was deployed against this ideology. At this point, the Jacobin novels of the 1790s no longer seem to fit with his definition. I don't find, for instance, massive concern with questions of origin in the Jacobin novels, especially national origin, nor do I find theatricality a prominent feature in the novels I have studied.

And so while I am intrigued by his ideas about form--he writes at length about the special form of romance employed by these novels and its connection to epic--at last I remain frustrated by the problems that seem to me inherent in the use of the term "Romantic novel." As always when I read these essays, I am left thinking of many, many examples of works that are omitted or excluded through the attempt to pin down what precisely determines which novels are "Romantic." My suspicion is that the definitions of "the Romantic novel" depend in large measure (as is perhaps obvious) upon the particular works being used as examples. Thus, if you use Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, Charles Maturin, and Clara Reeve as your core group of Romantic novelists, you get a very different idea of what the Romantic novel is than if you use Jane Austen and Frances Burney, or Mary Shelley, William Godwin, Matthew Lewis, and Ann Radcliffe, or indeed Mary Hays, Eliza Fenwick, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Charlotte Smith. My other suspicion is that this problem is precisely why so many Romantic scholars now define Romanticism by period rather than by characteristics: the most obvious similiarity of these works is their historical situation.

Upcoming reading of Parker

All systems are go for a group reading of Blanford Parker's The Triumph of Augustan Poetics. I think we decided that things are very busy for people around Thanksgiving, but sometime in the weeks that follow would be good. I think Prof. Parker is flexible then. What about the first week in December? We could start Sunday, Dec. 3rd and carry it through the week.

For those who'd like to volunteer, let us begin choosing specific chapters. I am happy to cover whatever anyone doesn't volunteer for, but Parker writes extremely interesting things about people I don't feel like much of an expert on, like Butler and Thomson. If you see something in your area of study here, don't be too shy to lay a claim on it. Below are the chapters and their subtitles.

Please volunteer in the comments so we all know what you'd like to do, and I'll update this post with the names (or pseudonyms) of participants. Likewise, I'll post this to C18-L to see if there are any of our other colleagues who'd like to jump on board.

Introduction (Shanafelt)

1. Samuel Butler and the end of analogy (Mazella)
The curious man, Butler and the formula of exclusion, The low road of the Augustan

2. Transitional Augustan poetry
The eclipse of analogy, The cases of Cowley and Dryden, The transformation of prose style, The reinvention of nature, Benlowes: the survival of conceit

3. Pope and mature Augustanism (Golightly)

Belinda alone in the world of things, Pope's spatial art

4. Thomson and the invention of the literal (Levine)

The new objects of poetry, Augustan naturalism, The anxious eye: Thomson's Summer

5. The four poles of the Christian imagination in relation to Augustanism (Hintz)

Introduction, The four poles of Christian poetics, The logist, The analogical, The mystical, The fideist

6. The fideist reaction (KW)

Fideism in Restoration and eighteenth-century culture, Prior's fideism, Solomon and David, Young's Night Thoughts

7. Johnson and fideism (Hoover)

Fideism and humanism, The two Johnsons, Johnson and the critique of analogy, Epilogue

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Jane Austen's Juvenilia

Chapter the 10th

Cassandra was next accosted by her freind the Widow, who squeezing out her little Head thro' her less window, asked her how she did? Cassandra curtseyed and went on.

(from The Beautifull Cassandra. A novel in twelve chapters, in Doody, ed., Catherine (42)).

The grad novel class has finally reached some of my favorite materials in this course, Austen's juvenilia. For whatever reason, students feel less inhibited about commenting about her style and her technique when these are laid out in her tiny vignettes. I sometimes feel that Austen's novels appear so strong, and so self-sufficient, that students, even grad students, feel that they have little to say about them except in terms of her characters. And since I've been pushing the literary historical reading of the novel this term, I want students to see JA as a reader and, in effect, as a critic, as she engages in those early parodies.

One of the effects of teaching this course has been to force me back onto my chronologies, and to think about Wollstonecraft's struggles with the novel form in the eighties and nineties, while a 15 year old Austen seems able to swallow Burney whole, and deliver up exquisite little routines like the masking scene in Jack and Alice, where we admire a male Masker dressed as the Sun:

The Beams that darted from his Eyes were like those of that glorious Luminary, tho' infinitely superior. So strong were they that no one dared venture within half a mile of them; he had therefore the best part of the Room to himself, its size not amounting to more than 3 quarters of a mile in length and half a one in breadth. The Gentlemen at last finding the fierceness of his beams to be very inconvenient to the concourse by obliging them to croud together in one corner of the room, half shut his eyes by which means, the Company discovered him to be Charles Adams in his plain green Coat, without any Mask at all (12).

This is as good a joke as I've seen on the male paragon, which I suppose is as much Grandison as anything else, but a lot of the class were left wishing that they had more like this in Austen (oddly, this semisurrealist style seems to have crept back into Sanditon). There is something so consciously indelicate in these skits, so deliberately improper, and so inventive stylistically, that everyone was hoping to see a whole novel like this.

Having said all that, I always feel a twinge teaching Austen, because I believe that Austen's reworking of the sentimental novel helped to eclipse, permanently, her sources: Johnson, Richardson, Lennox, Burney, Edgeworth, possibly even Wollstonecraft, all these writers never seemed the same after she was done. She is a strong reader, perhaps one of the best readers of the preceding century's fiction, and as such she becomes as much an obstacle as an aid to understanding the writing that she reworked. And I wonder whether my own loyalties are with her or with the eighteenth century writers whose work made that amazing self-assurance possible.

Best wishes,


Sunday, November 12, 2006

R.I.P. Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

This may seem a peculiar thing to run on an eighteenth-century blog, but I only learned about it this weekend (no obit in my local paper), and dammit, he was a fine writer and essayist, and someone whose review essays I always enjoyed rereading in the NYRB. So here's the official announcement from the Institute for Advanced Study:

I've always thought Geertz had an underestimated impact on literary and especially cultural studies with his notion of "thick description." But that's for another day. Pay tribute to the man, the next time you teach his "Balinese Cockfight" essay.

Best wishes,


PS: I forgot to mention that our Sharon has a nice post, with useful links, on her blog, Early Modern Notes, at


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Teaching Carnival #15, etc. etc.

Since we've had some good, substantive teaching-talk this week from Carrie, KW, and MH, I'd urge everyone to look at the latest Teaching Carnival, which is hosted here:

with the permanent site at this location:

This is a great pedagogical resource, and please report back to us if you found anything particularly helpful (or maybe less than helpful).

If others have syllabi or proposals they'd like to share, please pass those along. Teaching anecdotes, heart-warming or otherwise? Let us know.

Best wishes,


Thursday, November 09, 2006

So what is your view of student-centered learning, Prof. Foucault?

For example, with regard to the pedagogical relation--I mean the relation of teaching, the passage from the one who knows the most to the one who knows the least--it is not certain that self-management is what produces the best results; nothing proves, on the contrary, that that approach isn't a hindrance . . . .

. . . . .

I would say, rather, that [the goal of consensus] is perhaps a critical idea to maintain at all times: to ask oneself what proportion of nonconsensuality is implied in such a power relation, and whether that degree of nonconsensuality is necessary or not, and then one may question every power relation to that extent. The farthest I would go is to say that perhaps one must not be for consensuality, but one must be against nonconsensuality.--from "Politics and Ethics: An Interview," in Foucault Reader, 378-9.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What makes a successful discussion?

In light of a meeting I am having tomorrow with the faculty member who observed my class this semester, I have been giving some thought to the problem of deciding whether a class discussion has been successful. I'm beginning to think our measurement of success is almost completely dependent on the subject matter and goals of the course.

When I was taking composition pedagogy back at Case Western Reserve, I read plenty of material arguing that the only good class discussions are ones in which the students themselves are creating questions, addressing one another, feeling free to analyze relevant personal experience, and so forth. That is, in the ideal composition classroom, students are creating the content, leading discussion on the content, and responding to one another's comments. The instructor should, after modelling this behavior, barely be in the room at all. In order to create this kind of environment, there has to be almost constant sharing of their written content, an appropriate model and direction for the conversation, and trusting relationships between class members, usually created in group work. If the class gets off-topic, then and only then is it up to the instructor to figure out how to reinterpret the ongoing conversation in a way that will result in learning.

And when I teach composition, I shoot for this model. They do lots of peer review and are responsible for leading most of their own discussions of the reading. I try to assign readings that are immediately translatable by them into useful writing skills, like essays from Dave Eggers's Best American Nonrequired Reading series. They're current, they cover a wide variety of subject matter, they clearly demonstrate various rhetorical and creative strategies, and they require very little prodding by me to get students to relate to them and respond to them as models of writing. Also, in the composition classroom, emerging with a clear understanding of all the readings is not as important as being able to use the readings as a model for written work.

But when I started teaching Intro to Lit, I realized the difference in the content of the class made a huge difference in how I conducted class discussion. I tried putting them in groups to discuss the readings, but I noticed as I walked around that, since discussion wasn't about their own content, only a few students in the class were participating in the group conversations. And though I tried to insert a few comments and questions here and there, the readings were simply too difficult for them to lead the conversation on their own. I found their personal anecdotes in relations to texts to be mostly irrelevant, and I saw some eyes going dull with frustration when a student held onto the conch too long. The more I taught Intro to Lit, the more I found myself removing those opportunities for the class to guide itself. I went from a model in which five groups each chose one of five books to discuss and research to a model in which everyone read Les Liaisons dangereuses and I led the discussion. Everyone seemed happier, even if it wasn't following the more desirable model of a "successful conversation."

In my current British Literature survey, I have finally become a tyrant. We still sit in a circle, and I give them seven minutes at the beginning of each class to answer a few written questions and get their heads in gear for the day's discussion, but now most of the class is me reading passages, asking questions, calling on everyone who raises a hand, responding to their comments, providing a little historical/biographical background, suggesting connections with other authors we've read, trying to repeat as boldly as possible anything fruitful that comes up, returning to comments made during previous weeks, and even giving a little personal content of my own. My students seem to really love the class, and they have developed into quite sophisticated readers and thinkers about literary history, but I can't help but feel something has been lost.

My observer told me he was extremely impressed by the sophistication and excitement expressed by my students, and that he liked how they came up with difficult connections between authors and eras on their own, but he challenged me to think of ways to move away from the question-answer-evaluation model of class discussion. I'm worried about the groupwork thing, partially because I hated groupwork in lit classes myself, and partially because some of my students are really hostile to one another. They're juniors and seniors, mostly, and they've been around each other for years. At this point, I feel more like letting them express their competitiveness through class discussion than like watching them eyeball each other in repressed-hostile groupwork.

There's also the possibility of making them do presentations. I've said this before, here, but I really hate undergraduate presentations. They take up valuable classtime, they're never very good even when they're done well, and no one gets the information they need when they need it. Hence the wiki.

Especially when teaching historical literature to undergrads, it seems like the elusive instructor-free model is almost impossible to achieve in class discussions. If I leave them to their own conversational devices, we'll never get around to talking about aesthetic differences between Augustan and Romantic poetry; we'll be too busy talking about which literary characters our ex-boyfriends remind us of.

One thing that has decentered the class a bit is that a few of my students are already experts of a sort on different topics their research has led them to. One woman has taken several classes on the Romantics, and she's been able to ask the class quite complex questions for discussion. Another woman who has been researching the racialized discourse of pre-Dracula vampirism has been able to bring up her research to the class. A few paid really close attention in their Milton class and are able to suggest interesting connections there. The problem is that not many of my other students have done historical thinking of this kind before and are still in "I liked it; it reminded me of me" territory.

I'd love to know what kinds of discussion methods you use. How do you lead (or not lead) the discussion? How do you bring out certain kinds of analytical responses? What preparation do the students have, beyond reading the primary material? How do you deal with off-topic (or even wildly inappropriate) responses? Do you find, as I do, that the more the class is about reading and understanding a particular historical literature, the less ready you are to drop the reins?

A Few Thoughts about Democracy, on this Election Day (from Alan Keenan)

Since it's Election Day, I thought I'd share this passage with all of you today, as we watch the elections unfold. This is from his article, "Twilight of the Political: A Contribution to the Democratic Critique of Cynicism," from Theory & Event (2) 1 (1998):

Democratic politics is constituted out of a series of tensions, even paradoxes, to which there are no final answers, but at best more or less satisfactory negotiations. The simple demand that the people rule themselves, without any prior definition of who the people are or how they should rule, produces the difficult, often frustrating democratic experience of having to abide by a rule that the community must develop in the very attempt to follow it. Thus the classic debates over direct or representative democracy, over the particular forms of representation, over voting, citizenship or language qualifications, over where and how to draw internal political boundaries; the difficulties that attend to "the people"'s self-construction, and the uncertainties they raise about the legitimacy of any rule in their name, are endless.

[available at Project MUSE at]

Keenan's book Democracy in Question: Democratic Openness in a Time of Political Closure (Stanford University Press: 2003) contains an interesting reading of Rousseau's temporal paradoxes in the construction of the social contract. It is well worth looking at, though this article is really an offshoot of that discussion. I found Keenan very helpful for my own thinking about cynicism.

One last point: Keenan's description of the temporal problems of decisions and decision-making in democracies, the problem of interminable debate, or deliberation that leads nowhere, seems to be the flip side of the "social imaginaries" described by Charles Taylor and McKeon, as these virtual communities struggle to become visible and to have their opinions registered in the formal political process.

Best wishes,


Sunday, November 05, 2006

What is Enlightenment, the Prequel, Or, Crappy Teaching Jobs in the Eighteenth Century

The other day I was teaching Foucault's What is Enlightenment? to my Intro Lit Studies class, which included one student wearing what I took to be his reserves camo outfit with big leather boots. One research group had just presented on Kant, and, unsurprisingly, they were still puzzled by Kant's counter-intuitive treatment of public and private reason. Kant's example of the army officer who exercises his reason and renders obedience at the same time did not make these distinctions any easier for them to understand.

So I mentioned an anecdote about Kant I have always prized, to talk a little about Foucault's treatment of Enlightenment as an exploration of historical limitations:

From Schneewind et al.'s Introduction to Kant's Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge, 1997):

Kant began to teach at the Albertina University in Konigsberg in 1755, when he was thirty-one years old. He taught there for more than four decades, carrying what seems today an astonishlingly heavy load. Usually he gave four or five courses each semester, meeting classes four or five hours a week. He taught logic, metaphysics, physical geography, anthropology, and many other subjects. (He even taught the rudiments of making fortifications to the officers of the Russian army that occupied Konigsberg in the late 1750s.) (xiii)
. . .

[a little further on, after explaining the careful attention Kant gave to religious worship, control of the passions, cautions about sexual indulgence, and so on, Schneewind observes:]

One is reminded that Kant's audience consisted largely of unsophisticated boys, younger than present-day college students, usually away from their rural homes for the first time, and for the most part ill-educated (xvii).

[Schneewind also mentions that Kant routinely lectured to audiences numbering somewhere between fifty and a hundred, which included not just the students but also tutors, civil servants, military officers, intellectuals like Herder, etc. Here is a little glimpse of his lecture style:]

Until the 1790s, his lectures were reported to be witty, somewhat rambling, full of life and feeling, with scattered references to current events and to books. In his early and middle years, at least, if not toward the end of his life, Kant answered questions and held discussions during the lecture hours. And as we have noted, he did not want his students to spend their class time taking notes. He wanted to teach them "not philosophy, but to philosophize; not thoughts to repeat, but thinking . . . thinking for themselves, investigating for themselves, standing on their own feet" (xix).

Not bad for a statement of one's Teaching Philosophy, eh? And it couldn't be farther from the style of the Critiques.

So, indeed, we talked a little about the historical limitations placed upon Kant, limitations represented by Frederick and those army officers sitting in his lecture-halls. We discussed how Foucault argues that Enlightenment, to be worthy of the name, cannot be restricted to an individual process of self-education and self-care, much less a finite group of historical texts and events, but also represents an ongoing collective process in the present, one which involves an assessment of the past to see what kinds of openings it can suggest for us for in the present, whether for action or reflection.

And these anecdotes of Kant's teaching are one more touchstone I carry around, to discuss the difference that geography makes in our images of Enlightenment.

Best wishes,


Thursday, November 02, 2006

KW's Course in Later Eighteenth Century Literature

[KW, whose comments we've been seeing for some time now, asked me to post the following course description, for a course she'll teach next semester.--DM]

Later Eighteenth-Century Literature: The Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World

The challenge presented by later eighteenth century British literature speaks to our own cultural moment: How do you discern excellence and identify representative works when new media are blurring the boundaries between pop culture and high art? To answer this question as it relates to the literature produced between the 1740s and the 1790s, we will NOT tour a preselected array of greatest hits. Instead, we will map the embattled terrain of late eighteenth-century literature, where the literary elite tried to create and define a national literature at the same time that the growing market for reading matter produced new texts faster than cultural boundaries could evolve to contain them.

With the instructor’s guidance, you and your classmates will determine what aspects of this literary period most warrant your scrutiny, from its preoccupation with pirates to its arguments about slavery, from its explorations of the dark recesses of the human soul to its bawdy sense of humor, from its depictions of the peasant’s hearth to its travels in the outer reaches of British colonialism. No prior knowledge of eighteenth-century literature will be required or presumed.

For the first third of the course, a short course packet of primary readings and recent critical assessments will help you build your skills in reading and comprehending eighteenth-century writing and introduce you to the literary culture of the period. The remaining two-thirds of the syllabus will emerge from your research in the Rare Book Library, full-text online eighteenth-century databases, and the textbooks that have canonized certain authors and texts while neglecting others. Your goal will be to create and master a class anthology of selected readings, which will convey the breadth of this period while addressing the themes that most interest you in greater depth.

By the end of the semester you will be able to read a wide variety of late eighteenth-century texts with comprehension, insight, and enjoyment; you will have a well-grounded critical framework for taking part in the ongoing scholarly debate about how to weave these texts into narratives of British literary development; and you will have first-hand knowledge of how scholarly research creates a teachable order out of the chaos of literary history. An important element of meeting these goals will be determining how your instructor can best guide and evaluate your mastery of the course objectives. You and your classmates will decide whether your learning can best be demonstrated by a series of short interpretive papers, final research projects, exams or some combination thereof.

[KW then asks us:]

Advice? Suggestions? Warnings? Relevant concerns for me: this course (for some reason) always seems to draw a lot of secondary education majors who are eager to connect what they learn to their pre-professional context; I've had success in other C18 courses in getting students excited about the course material by researching and writing about primary texts of their own selection.

The omission of particular readings was deliberate: late C18 names either mean nothing to them or alienate them. Plus: I'm not sure what I want to teach. As I see it now, the only primary texts I will assign will be a number of shortshortshort excerpts, presented in a "Learn to Read Late Eighteenth-Century Poetry and Prose" course reader with lots of tear-out worksheets for paraphrase and imitation exercises, with authors selected not so much for the intrinsic value and teachability of their particular works as for how well I can isolate discrete snippets on which students can practice their ability to disentangle latinate heroic couplets, read and interpret personification, recognize and "fill in" elision, identify appeals to the emotions, and the like.

About secondary sources: until very recently it has been an article of faith with me (one I absorbed in my own undergraduate education) NOT to assign secondary reading to undergraduates, but I have come to see the error of my ways. Which means I don't have much information to go on about which or what kind of articles and book chapters my students would find particularly illuminating and accessible. I'd be grateful for any suggestions.


[Well, any suggestions for KW? And please feel free to swap syllabi or brainstorm upcoming courses on the Long Eighteenth. We're always interested to hear about the forms taken on by the Long Eighteenth, at every institution and at every level of the curriculum--DM]