Wednesday, 05 October 2005

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On Courseblogs, Update II; or Tales of a Teaching Carny Quickly: I hereby tag thee Teaching-Carnival. On to the actual post: For the second time this week, I fulfill a promise to post about a given topic; namely, my courseblog. (Regular readers know what I'm talking about. Those drawn here by the carnival can read my initial musings here.) I've been meaning to talk about how this experiment proceeds, but life has intruded. Now that I'm living it at its proper remove again, I have time enough to say that courseblogging works. I'll discuss the benefits first, then share a few reservations. Class prepartation My old class preparation routine consisted of re-reading the essay I'd be teaching the next day and considering its place in the course. If I'd taught an article before, I'd look over my old notes to determine whether they're still germane. If they were, I reaquainted myself with them; if they weren't, I worked up new notes. Now I sit down, open my laptop, look over my notes and determine what aspect of the essay could benefit from careful dissection. For example, before teaching John McPhee's "Atchafalaya" on Monday, I spent Sunday morning piquing the students interest in his characteristically revealing metaphors. I did this despite knowing that I would spend the majority of Monday's class discussing his research methodology and structuring techniques. One blog post allowed me to accomplish two days worth of teaching in a single class period. It also relieved the pressure we all feel to cover everything in a single period. Of course, in addition to supplementing the assigned reading with extended discussion, I can also supplement the course itself with readings I didn't assign but think the students ought to read. In addition to the extensive list of resources scrolling down my sidebar, I've also posted emails from Pulitzer Prize-winning on the subject of foreshadowing and exceptional works of literary journalism published that week, like an excerpt from Joan Didion's latest book or her 2002 profile of Martha Stewart. (Lest you think the students don't read the supplementary material, here's a comment in which a student incorporates it into her argument.) The Actual Class Because I had analyzed McPhee's metaphors in a post they had already mulled over, I was able to discuss them with a much higher degree of sophistication. The responses from the students were correspondingly higher. Because we will be talking in more detail about literary journalists' special relationship with metaphorical writing, I didn't need to (nor did I) discuss McPhee's at great length. However, in today's class the students brought up Susan Orlean's metaphors in "Lifelike" and compared them to McPhee's in "Atchafalaya." That means when I address the subject formerly in Week 5, the students will already have been processing the subject in a sophisticated manner for four weeks. The corresponding benefit is that when we have the formal discussion in Week 5, it will be far more informed by the reading they've already done than past classes have. Why? Because they've been processing the information...
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How to Open a Victorian Novel; or, The Greatest Opening Sentences That Never Were I'm always stumbling across sentences in the middle of paragraphs buried deep within chapters nestled in some sub-sub-section which, if I had my druthers, would instead find themselves the opening line of a classic Victorian novel. "Why," I ask myself, "would someone bury this perfectly serviceable first sentence of a Victorian novel in the middle of the middle of the middle of a book?" I've often thought of keeping a notebook of such sentences, or at the very least, a running list of them on this humble blog. It could be a series easier to update than the failed "A. Cephalous Word of the Every Other Day or So." (Which, I should add, I remind myself to update whenever I bump into words like "calcate," which means "to trample or stamp under heel." But while I'd love to show my shiny new word to the world, writing faux-usage histories seems so been-there-done-that I can't bring myself to go there and do it again.) But I digress. This sentence from the third chapter of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking should be opening some dusty Victorian tome: It was deep into the summer, some months after the night when I needed to be alone so that he could come back, before I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. Marvel at its potential. Looking at it now though, I wonder whether this particular example is more Victorian or postmodernly faux-Victorian. Because I think I may've read that Paul Auster novel. Back to the point: I'm going to start a collection of such sentences, and if you run across any feel free to deposit them in the comments section. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with this collection, or what possible purpose it could serve humanity, but at the very least it could be a way to think more systematically about great opening lines without having to limit ourselves to idiosyncratically great opening lines. (As we did a few months back at Bérubé's place.) We'd limit ourselves to Victorian or postmodernly faux-Victorian novels instead.

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