Pedagogy


One of the passages I didn’t get to this semester was the bit where the local yokels rough up the railroad surveyors, and Caleb Garth and Fred Vincy come across them. EF paid particularly close attention to this scene, and the phrase I’ll be discussing.
“Old Timothy Cooper” utter’s the book’s most Radical words:

I’n seen lots o’ things turn up sin’ I war a young un–the war an’ the peace, and the canells, an’ the oald King George, an’ the Regen’, and the new King George, an’ the new un as has got aa new ne-ame–an’ it’s been all aloike to the poor mon. What’s the canells been t’him? They’n brought him neyther me-at nor be-acon, nor wage to lay by, if he didn’t save it wi’ clemmin’ his own inside. Times ha’ got wusser for him sin’ I war a young un. An’ so it’ll be wi’ the railroads. They’ll on’y leave the poor mon furder behindm. But them are fools as meddle, and so I told the chaps here. This is the big folks’s world, this is. But yo’re for the big folks, Muster Garth, yo are.

Then follows narratorial smackdown:

Timothy was a wiry old labourer, fo a type lingering in those times–who had his savings in a stocking-foot, lived in a lone cottage, and was not to be wrought on by any oratory, having as little of the feudal spirit, and believing as little, as if he had not been totally unacquainted with the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man. Caleb was in a difficulty known to any person attempting in dark times and unassisted by miracle to reason with rustics who are in possession of an undeniable truth which they know through a hard process of feeling, and can let it fall like a giant’s club on your neatly carved argument for a social benefit which they do not feel. Caleb had no cant at command, even if he could have chosen to use it; and he had been accustomed to meet all such difficulties in no other way than by doing his “business” faithfully.

When I was teaching this semester, a lot of what I did was simply taking apart sentences that require some cognitive work. It took me a while just now to realize the bite of that first sentence. Timothy is totally unacquainted with the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man, but he believes so little in the spirit of feudalism that it’s as if he weren’t totally unacquainted with them. It goes without saying that he’s unacquainted–he’s an illiterate rustic, remember? Even in my copiously annotated Broadview edition, there’s no footnote for the Rights of Man, which of course refers to Thomas Paine’s pamphlet supporting the French Revolution. The irony of this is that The Rights of Man was the bestseller of the Romantic era, marking the beginning of the long nineteenth century’s working-class mass reader and listenership. It might have been improbably that a rural subaltern would have read it, but I don’t think it’s unimaginable that he would have heard of it. In any case, when the narrator switches from Timmy to the second person and your experience with rustics, who are perhaps not as rural, it’s not unlikely that some autodidactic prole will club your bourgeois arguments with lessons learned from the radical press. The point is that those who would disagree with your bourgeois philosophies don’t read; what they know they know only through “a hard process of feeling” (the phrase I remember EF emphasizing).
I’ve been thinking about feeling and affect a lot lately, and I think it might be central to the diss project. I’ve been looking through Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings again, and she makes the argument that ugly feelings straddle the boundary between subjective and objective. The “fellow-feeling” of the last post and the “hard process of feeling” here point to two related poles: feeling as active and feeling as passive. One could go any number of ways with this, but since this is about teaching feeling, I wonder what active feeling and passive feeling mean in the classroom. Do the pair correspond to the canonical opposition of active and passive learning?

Hmmm. I’ve been sitting on this post for about a week now, and haven’t really been inspired to finish up this post. On the other hand, I’ve been looking through Brian Massumi and Rei Terada on affect, and they’ve got good stuff on active/passive emotions. I think this could be really useful for me. Lately, I’ve been thinking about having the central idea of my diss be the experience of nineteenth-century modernity in relation to the experience of China, experience being deeply inflected by active/passive feelings. Hopefully I’ll be able to make sense of that sentence one day.
One thing I’ll say in response to those questions I raised is that passive feelings, unlike passive learning, can be incredibly useful in pedagogy. So much of teaching is performing, and I don’t just mean performing in the sense of entertaining. Anne H. once said that the one thing she’s felt she’s been able to do best in the Lehman literature classroom is performing her love of literature. I think I might have actually succeeded in doing that, even if I’ve been going through some heavy-duty literature bed death (ahem) this semester. This semester, I semi-consciously allowed myself to go off on tangents. I’d never put myself in the same category of pedagogue as Wayne or Eve, but I’m reminded of a sentence from WK’s piece on mourning Eve in the latest PMLA:

Once when I told her that perhaps my classroom manner was slapdash, she kindly said, “At least you’re giving them a sense of the thrilling life.”

Perhaps it’s this very passive feeling–the feeling of being thrilled–which the phrase “slow reading” captures that the more clinical “close reading” doesn’t.

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.