Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lost in Austen

Hmm, scratch that last post, unfortunately. Jane Austen -- or, perhaps, the first really heavy chunk o' reading this group has encountered -- seems to be making them glaze over in a big way. I hadn't really expected this to happen, since all of my students at New SLAC loved, loved, loved Austen -- or rather, all of the ones who came to the English club meetings did, which is quite a small and self-selected subset of "all," come to think of it!

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, because anecdotally, I have observed that most people either adore Austen or are bored silly by her -- there is no middle ground. I actually did have the "bored silly" reaction when I first encountered her, at the age of twelve. Too young, insufficient context. I had grown into her by the time I was in college, but most of these students haven't, and I'm not sure how you create that context (besides showing a film version so they can visualize this world -- which I do plan to do, just not immediately). I am also very, very unsure how you teach students to see how and why Austen is funny; if you have to explain humor, you're pretty much sunk, yes?

I'm sure the students who adore her (there are bound to be one or two, surely, in a class of seventeen if sixteen of them are female?) are feeling frustrated as well; I know I am, because there's only so much painfully slow teasing out of meanings one can take. ("OK, what impression do we get when we're first introduced to Lady Russell? Anyone? Bueller? Umm ... "carefree"? That's ... an interesting way to describe her, can you show me in the text where you're getting that? ... OK, yes, you're right, she doesn't marry Sir Walter when people expect her to. Let's take a look at what she does care about..." And on and on.)

Also, is it just my early modernist bias, or are novels in general really hard to teach? I think this group might be overwhelmed by too much text to sift through, too many details.


Bardiac said...

I agree, novels are HARD to teach!

I usually start out by figuring out what I want them to get out of the novel; if it's Austen's humor, then great.

I map out the basic characters, so everyone has a good sense of who's related to whom.

And then I start picking out passages, really carefully, and talk about irony (and the narrator, probably, for Austen).

I usually aim to talk about social class, feminist issues and such with Austen, myself. I think I didn't get the humor til I was over 30, but I could have gotten the social stuff and feminist issues. It's fun to set out what's happening in England at the moments, and how focused her novels aren't on most of that. And if some of the students have had Shakespeare, you can bring out similarities to the comedies.


I have two big complaints about Austen, though.

1) I have no critical response. She just wows me. Makes it hard to say anything intelligent beyond "ooo, look, brilliant!"

2) She didn't write enough!

Which book are you reading?

heu mihi said...

I'm starting Austen next week, and it's a novel I haven't taught before (S&S), so we'll see how that goes. But when I taught P&P last year, it went *really* well--partly, I think, because the students were happy to get out of poetry dissection and into narrative. (I also gave them--this year as last year--really light readings in the week leading up to Austen.) While I do remember some students getting into the humor (the first line of P&P, as well as Mrs. Bennett herself, are pretty obviously funny), we mostly talked about mercenary marriages and how both women and men are constrained by the class system. Once they started looking for that dynamic, it wasn't hard to find, and led into some good discussions about characters' motivations and what Austen is critiquing in her novel.

I think that I like P&P better than S&S, which is making me a bit nervous for this year; the latter just has so many more really obvious examples of ways in which relationships can go wrong. But S&S has some outright ridiculous characters, so hopefully we'll find some stuff to say!

But I do like teaching narrative, in whatever form, better than lyric. While I *love* some of the Romantic poetry we've been reading, and I think that I'm doing a pretty good job teaching it, there's only so much time that I/they can stand spending in collective close readings.

Fretful Porpentine said...

We're reading Persuasion, and mostly focusing on the serious-ish stuff, because it's one of her more serious-ish books, and besides, I have no great faith in my ability to teach comedy in ways that will make sense to students who don't get it on their own.

We started off with the first six chapters and a hefty chunk o' Wollstonecraft today (in retrospect, that may have been a bit much, but the class only meets twice a week, so I'm always tempted to pile on the reading). I was hoping to get some discussion going about to what extent Austen's characters seem to bear out Wollstonecraft's criticisms, but so many of them were looking blank that it turned into a very slow-paced round of "OK, what does this passage tell us about the characters?" (and we never did get to Mrs. Clay, who would've been really interesting to talk about in light of MW). Ah well.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heu Mihi -- For some reason, I think I'm the opposite way; lyric poetry and drama just kind of "click" in the classroom in ways that narrative rarely does, for me. (This may, however, simply reflect the fact that students can usually read a short poem on the fly in the classroom, and with drama I can always show clips, whereas if I'm trying to teach a novel to a class that hasn't read or doesn't understand what they read, I'm pretty much up a creek.)

S&S seems like it would work really well in the context of the survey. One of the things that drew me to Persuasion is the way so much of it seems to be written in response / rebuttal to Romantic-era artistic values, although she does end up giving them their props in the end (yay for Captain Benwick and Louisa bonding over poetry!) IIRC there's a fair bit of that going on in S&S, as well, only perhaps without the props.

Sisyphus said...

Hee, I am such a structuralist weirdo, I guess. I had a Jane Austen seminar as an undergrad and loved, nay, was absolutely blown away, when the teacher showed us you could map out the plots of her novels in completely parallel manners. So I usually talk a lot about the "function" of characters and have them map them all out (as potential marriage partners, options for how to live a life, class strata, etc.) and make big funny graphs. You know, I hadn't considered before that other people would not find this fun. Hmm.

Susan said...

Well, Persuasion is my favorite novel, but I'd think it would be hard to teach because it's a bit dark. And I think it's older -- that is, it's a novel that has grown on me, whereas P&P is just a romp and great fun.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sisyphus -- Heh, I have to admit that it would never have occurred to me to make a chart of an Austen novel -- but I am not so good with Order and Method, and my 19th-Century Women's Novel prof in college really wasn't, so I have never had the opportunity of seeing it done.

Susan -- Truth be told, I picked Persuasion partly because of the darkness -- I figured it would be easier for students to see that there is some serious social and ethical stuff at stake in the various marriages and potential marriages, while you have to take a much closer look at P&P to recognize that this is the case.

R said...

See, I want, so badly, to teach Austen at some point, and yet I worry that I would wind up in exactly this situation, and I would just wash my hands of my students and dismiss class for the day, telling them that there was nothing to be done with them. :) Okay, not really, but I probably *would* get defensive of Austen, because I do that already in my everyday life, and that would be bad for discussion.

For Persuasion, I might consider putting some of the passages about poetry up against an actual Romantic poem ("Tintern Abbey," maybe?) and seeing if that sparks any discussion.

R said...

Oh! And I've just remembered that when I first read this novel in high school, my teacher spent a while beforehand going over the character relationships ("and this Elliot is related to that Elliot because...") and the houses people lived in. There was even a chart on the board. I found this odd, because we'd already read NA and P&P without much trouble in previous years, but maybe part of the problem is basic who-knows-whom stuff?

I think we also spent some time talking about the title. Who else, besides Anne, gets persuaded? Who doesn't? Is that good or bad? Who's trying to persuade others? Of what? That sort of thing.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Thanks for the suggestions, R!