I might never have the chance to teach Middlemarch over the course of 8 weeks again, so I figure I ought to blog about it. Way back in January, after the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel that seems to have become a touchstone event for Anne and I, I decided to theme my modern literature “survey” on slow reading, and what text better exemplifies slow progress than Middlemarch? And, thanks to John Jay’s pre-emptive round of layoffs, it’s not very likely I’ll be teaching lit next year. I’m crossing my fingers for a writing fellowship.
So how did it go? It was, as always, a mixed bag, which means it must have been pretty good considering what a Slough of Despond this semester has been. My students didn’t revolt, and some of them actually *liked* it. Go figure. (These are all non-English majors, to the best of my knowledge.)
I went into the semester with a lot of trepidation, worrying about my ability to teach on something so focused, without my usual fallback of, if you don’t like the reading today, just wait to next week. When it actually got to the teaching, though, it didn’t feel slow at all. After all, each of the eight books is plenty long for an intro-level lit course for non-majors. And GE’s original readers would have waited 2 months, not 7 days, between books. I feel like there’s so much stuff that I should have covered but didn’t. Which brings me to this question I’ve been struggling with–should you try to teach in a structured way such that you cover all the important points, or do you just try to teach “in the moment,” taking as long as necessary to cover a single passage. I tended towards the latter this semester, partly because of the course’s theme, partly because I think it’s more conducive to my style.
I chose the title as an oh-so-clever homage to Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling and to reference what my marginal notes now describe as “The thesis of Middlemarch:

There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.

What struck me about this passage was how perfectly it answers the question of “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” “Literature,” presumably, more than any other kind of text, teaches this fellow-feeling; the literature habit, a fortiori, instills this deep-seated habit. It’s the literature as moral improvement argument we all know and hate. But what’s suggested here is that Eliotic sympathy works in opposition to “general doctrine”–by extension, literature serves as theory’s antogonist, functions as a check against it’s potential soul-eating force.
So here’s another way of thinking about the paranoid vs. reparative reading paradigm: paranoid reading acts as general doctrine (what Sedgwick following Tomkins calls “strong theory”), threatening to eat out one’s prose, while reparative reading doesn’t so much refuse paranoid reading but acts as a check on it.
This isn’t all that much of a post, but I’ve been sitting on it for a few days already, so I’ll save the second, less sunny part of it for later. I’m still trying to get back into the swing of things, and will try to use this blog to get back to a vaguely productive schedule.