Well, one of the things I learned this semester was that I would not teach this version of the novel course again. Interestingly, it did finally take off as a discussion course after about 10 weeks, after I’d shed a bunch of students who just hadn’t been working. Then I had about 12 people able to sustain some discussion of the novels.
But I learned that the advanced junior-level course I’d taught five years ago was now essentially a sophomore course, and filled with students who had no experience reading pre-20c literature, and without much experience with the novel, either. It could have been this particular group, but I’m hearing from other faculty that they’re having similar problems in their courses. We just have a younger, less-experienced group in the major than we had 10 years ago. So I have to decide whether to pitch it one way or the other.
Now that I’ve complained about my students, though, I should say that I was pleased with a review exercise that I did this term, where I let them submit questions for the final, with the incentive that any question picked would give them a modest boost in extra credit on the exam. I do a three-essay, three hour final exam, and I was happy with the final review class spent going over their questions, and the way that the final reflected at least some of their perspectives on the material.
Here are some sample questions, which I tricked up a bit to make them meaty enough for an extended essay. I have a single novel question, an Evelina and Emma comparative essay, then a historical overview question that demands readings of three other novels.
In three episodes, show how three writers used language, either their own or their characters’ to express social hierarchy? How does such language help to convey expectations of subordination, deference, politeness, and obedience, or conversely, the more or less overt resistance to such expectations, in the form of rudeness, “impertinence,” “sauciness,” or outright disorder? What might these episodes tell us about what is happening to social hierarchy during this period?
Focus upon a single episode to show concretely how values like sensibility or sympathy are incorporated into the novel’s plot. How important are such “sentimental” episodes, whether isolated or repeated, to the overall shape and direction of the plot, or to the presentation of its characters as moral or otherwise?
Take up three novels to describe the differing ways that authors incorporate the range of the senses into their fiction, at the level of narration, scenic description, characterization, and so on. How does this sensory dimension affect the degree of realism of these novels?
Compare the degree to which the heroines Evelina and Emma evolve toward independence, even while they approach marriage, the conventional destination of the marriage-plot. How are their social gaffes and improprieties part of this process of “maturation” and “growth”?
And so on. I know that my students had an incentive to echo my concerns, but it was interesting seeing how they selected from my lectures to sum up the course in their own ways. And once I’m done, I’ll be able to gauge whether this helped them to retain the information from the course.