Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why Installments?

I spent the first five summers of my teaching career earning my Master of Arts in English at Bread Loaf; if I could continue to spend every summer there I would. Each spring, a letter would arrive telling us our two courses for the summer and recommending that we, if possible, complete all the reading before arriving on campus.

Hilarious, right?

Of course, this was actually possible for teachers who lived in states that ended their school years early in May, but I taught in Washington state at the time, and school for me would typically end the Wednesday or Thursday before the Tuesday that I had to report to campus. Reading a dozen or so classic novels during the last several months of school just wasn't going to happen.

One year, however, I'd signed up for a course called Fictions of Finance, and when I looked through the reading list, there were some familiar texts (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and some unfamiliar ones (The Financier by Theodore Dreiser). Then there was this:

I'll admit it: When I saw Anthony Trollope's The Prime Minister on that list, I was scared. That novel is a brick. (I just went to check how many pages are in the copy I used, and was surprised to discover only 432. This didn't feel right, and it wasn't; when I flipped through the pages, I remembered that it's two volumes, and the second starts over at page one, a cruel trick that fooled me when I first read it. It's 381+386, not including notes.) And so, for the only time in my graduate career, I set out to finish a book before the summer started.

Between March and May of 2002, I spent a few evenings each week at the Sixth and Pine Starbucks (the closest store with easy parking and good seating), reading an hour or two of Trollope. I know the dates because I wrote them in my book. I scribbled a family tree on the title page, underlined passages in pencil with brief notes, and even marked a few pages with post-its. It was a deeply satisfying experience to spend two months slowly working my way through a text, and when it was time to discuss the book in class, I was one of the few who actually liked it because I hadn't tried to cram it in over a weekend in July.

Ten years later, the experience stuck with me, and when I thought about teaching Charles Dickens, and about teaching it in installments, I remembered those evenings with Trollope. I didn't kid myself that my 8th graders would have some kind of sublime experience while struggling through A Tale of Two Cities, but were there advantages to taking it slow, even super-slow? Dickens, of course, originally both wrote and published the novel in installments; he published the first before the last was written. Cliffhangers, for example, are built into the text at several points along the way, encouraging readers to go back and buy a new issue the following week. What value would there be in reading the text at the same pace that it was read in 1859?

It was an experiment, and our rules were simple. We would follow Dickens' original publication schedule (available online and in several editions of the text), reading one to two chapters each week. We would discuss our reading on the first day of the school week, meaning we didn't skip it if we had Monday off, though we took a break for longer vacations. I posted a prompt on Edmodo early in the week, and students were expected to respond, privately, before the weekend was over. It was okay if the response was "I don't know what the heck is going on." We typically spent no more than 30 minutes on discussion; as the year went on, I forced myself to stay within that time limit. Sometimes I gave them time to work on the next week's installment in class, sometimes I didn't. A fair amount of 'discussion' was me, projecting my copy on the screen, pointing out what I thought was important ("Highlight this passage."). Other times, particularly when we were discussing the characters, the discussion would be lively, with students picking teams ("TeamJarvis! TeamCarton!") (For those of you who haven't read it in a while, Jarvis Lorry was never really part of the love triangle.).

There's much more to say, but this post is already long enough. Do you have specific questions? I'll expand on some of the above in a later post.

Currently reading: Middlemarch by George Eliot
Why I'm reading it: Because after spending a year reading and rereading A Tale of Two Cities each week, I decided to finally read Middlemarch, slowly, bit by bit. I only read a chapter or two at a time.

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