Winging It: On Teaching Novels Blind

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[[This blog was originally posted on January 15, 2013]]

I’m sitting on the train from New York City to Boston, writing my talk for the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association which I don’t have to give for a couple of days yet so please don’t judge, and I’m watching the trees and snow fly away from me, backward. I sat down facing the wrong way, but it seems the appropriate orientation for a year-end post.

The past year of teaching, looking back, was a lesson in the value of being unprepared. I say this with some trepidation, for the obvious reasons—as academics, former good students all growed up, we are conditioned to do all our homework and the extra credit—but due to circumstances both beyond and entirely under my control, the last two semesters were My Year of Winging It. In the spring I took a course over from an instructor a few weeks into the semester, inserting myself into a preexisting syllabus and telling the story of American Literature since 1865 that it was designed to tell. So my winging it here was not completely improvised; like the actors hurrying to learn their lines just offstage and receiving prompts from the wings, I had a script, I just didn’t write it.

This past semester I taught a new course on the rock novel (which I’ve already written about here). In the past, I’d occasionally included a novel in a course that I hadn’t read prior to putting it on a syllabus. Once or twice I’d not read it until the semester had already started. This time out, for reasons practical and pedagogical, I hadn’t read most of the books on the syllabus prior to putting together the syllabus, and chose not to read them until teaching them—that is, I taught  the novels blind, reading only the pages assigned to the students and reading them the night before.

Was this a little terrifying? In some cases, it was. Day to day, I couldn’t depend on the big picture, knowing where things were leading and what themes would emerge as major; I was unable to rely on having the whole novel under my belt in choosing where to direct discussion. The downsides to this are obvious. The upsides were not, always, so I got to discover them as I went, and foremost among them was this very process of discovery. Threads of ideas and form emerged for me as I read, at the same time as the class made their own discoveries. A central tactic of my pedagogy has always been (as I suspect it is for many teachers) the creation of an atmosphere for discussion in which discoveries can happen collaboratively, rather than the leading by the nose I too often fall back into (which I occasionally realize I’m doing mid-discussion and end the string of leading questions with “What number am I thinking of?”). Teaching unread novels did this work for me. The “we” in the question “So what did we learn last night?” was genuine.

Reading without knowing the plot—or without knowing the end—was quite instructive for me as, well, an instructor, and helped me see that this is what students are always doing. This seems an obvious point, and maybe it is, but I tend to forget from class to class that I usually have the benefit of hindsight when I teach fiction. Not knowing how things would turn out made me more cognizant of the construction of plot, of the narrative devices employed, and more aware of the existential fact that a plot can turn any way it wants to. We have the sense after we’ve read a narrative that it could only have gone the way it went (this is the moment of retrospection Peter Brooks describes), but as we read a story for the first time, we can only guess.

Another effect of reading without knowing where the plot is going is that it encourages something I value but don’t always practice as much as I’d like, which is close reading. Focusing only on the pages at hand makes it easier to focus on the pages at hand—that is, to pay sustained, slow attention to the words in front of us. As Jane Gallop has discussed so eloquently (here and elsewhere), the historicization of literary studies has tended to lead to a focus on the thematic to the exclusion of the kind of close attention to form that is one of literary studies’ chief joys and benefits. Whether we are arguing for the value of the English major or just the occasional English class from the instrumental side (employers value the skills associated with textual interpretation) or the humanist (citizenship of the world values the attention to ambiguity, irony, beauty, etc., that exposure to the literary affords), we can agree on the value of close reading.

One last effect of effect of Winging It in this way was, in one case, the assigning of a novel that wasn’t very good, one to which I’d been pointed by someone whose literary judgment is unimpeachable (though maybe should receive censure for this one offense). While I won’t be teaching this novel again, there was something positive to doing it. Practicing full disclosure, I had told the class at the beginning of the semester that I hadn’t read most of the books, so as we read this one and discovered that many of us didn’t love it, we were able to talk about our own tastes and what they consisted of and even about taste as a thing in itself and, without bringing in Bourdieu and taste as a social phenomenon, were able to get pretty far into what it means to like or not like artworks.

I’m not much for resolutions, and even if I were, a resolution to work harder to prepare less assiduously wouldn’t be one I would make. I am still one for working up pages of notes about career, context, theme, form, and divergent interpretations. I am hoping, looking back at the year flying away behind me, that I can find ways to remind myself of the value of not knowing the end of the story.

About the Author
Teacher and scholar of 20th- and 21st-Century American literature and culture. Author of 50 Essays and Literature: The Human Experience. Author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s, coeditor of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace and The Clash Takes on the World: Transnational Perspectives on the Only Band That Matters. Series Editor of The New American Canon: The Iowa Series in Contemporary Literature and Culture. Website: faculty/