Once more unto the breach

For my students at Georgia State University, the first weeks of school mean looking forward and thinking about how much reading, writing and research they can expect over the coming semester.

For faculty, the process is reversed. We already have a pretty good idea of where we’re going to end up, so we’ve crafted and crammed our lesson plans to make sure we can do justice to roughly 1/28th of that material every class.

Things don’t always go as planned; there will be fortuitous diversions and necessary retrenchments, which I embrace gratefully as they guarantee I’m not yet replaceable by a computer.

The texts in my Modern British Novels seminar remain perennially fresh and relevant despite the fact some of the books we read are over a century old (“modern” is relative). Joseph Conrad’s 1899 “Heart of Darkness” will have us thinking about modern-day globalism and the commercial, ecological and ethical networks that link poorer and oppressed cultures with those that are more powerful. “Howards End,” E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel about class and the English manor home, will inevitably evoke comparisons with “Downton Abbey” and the nostalgic (anti-egalitarian?) phenomenon it has fostered.

Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness narrative in her 1925 work “Mrs. Dalloway” will remind students of the maddening-but-fascinating structures of such films as “Inception,” “Memento” and “The Matrix.” We will examine an author’s decision not to be as straightforward as she could be; why “less” (objective precision) might be “more” (authentic insight into what it is like to be a human being).

Students will chuckle at the odd mannerly foibles of the English on display in Barbara Pym’s mid-20th century novel “Excellent Women” and Ian McEwan’s recent “On Chesil Beach.” And then we will turn the mirror on ourselves and think about how a British reading audience might appraise our own peccadilloes.

We will “read between the lines,” in colloquial terms (and believe me, we have fancier literary jargon for this), as we tease out the resonances of psychological, social, political and aesthetic commentaries lurking beneath the surfaces. And while these commentaries may be just some dead writer’s opinions, they also not infrequently affirm Albert Camus’ contention that “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” We will encounter many more truths by the end of the course than we’d known at the beginning, which is a pretty satisfying accomplishment.

The braver students may try to posit what the novels “mean,” which will certainly (if past experience holds true) provoke others to try to take them down and offer up their own competing interpretations. There are not necessarily always right answers, but there are lots of interesting ones. A good class is a contentious class: Our arguments brim over with the rampantly unfettered exercise of critical inquiry and intellectual analysis that prepares our students for any one of a thousand possible productive pathways once we’re done with them.

And that is what one college class will be doing between August and December. I want the good citizens of Georgia, whose taxes help pay for all this, to know what they’re getting for their investment. My students are amazingly dedicated to what they do; they come in smart, and they leave, I’m pretty sure, a good bit smarter. I hope that I’ve had something to do with that value added, though I think they really do a good deal of the heavy lifting themselves.

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