Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Notes From This Morning's English 380 "Literary Analysis" Class

I've been taking advantage of the computers in my classrooms to keep a weblog in which I document my teaching. Although I have a plan when I go into a particular class session, I improvise a good deal. Depending on what students contribute, the class may turn out exactly as I had imagined or very differently. I've been frustrated in the past by the degree to which the notes I compose in preparation for class bear little relation to the class session they were written for. This is why I've been so happy to have the chance to copy down the whiteboard -- I'm a heavy user of the board, white or black -- after class and fill in the blanks with my still-fresh recollections. Sometimes I'm too pressed for time to compose anything but the most skeletal notes. Today, though, I had a little more time. Since I'm going to be writing about my teaching over the next couple months, how I perceive it and how it is perceived by others, I thought I'd share today's notes, from a class that was far from my best and far from my worst, perhaps just a little better than average:
Topic: "Bartleby" by Herman Melville.

Terms: unreliable narrator, author vs. narrator (vs. narration)

Focused on paragaph #53 in the edition, the one one starting with the sentence, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance."

We spent a lot of time on that sentence. I had students paraphrase it different ways, talked about the utility of paraphrasing sentences or passages to come up with words with which to begin a critique. For example, I isolated the substitution of the word "open" for "earnest" in one of the sentences volunteered by students, then drew a chart on the board in which the denotation/dictionary meaning of those words were not co-terminous but the spheres of their connotation overlapped. While I was making this point, I kept thinking about the concept of "family resemblance" and related topics in Wittgenstein, but kept that insight to myself.

Then we "took an inventory" for the entire paragaph, with students singling out various sentences and phrases. I zeroed in on, "He was useful to me," pointing out that, in terms of the story as a whole, it is a curious formulation -- I used the word "formulation" a lot today for some reason -- because the narrator keeps going on about how Bartleby is not useful once he stops working. Others of note were, "The passiveness of Bartleby sometimes irritated me," and "But one afternoon the evil impulse in me mastered me."

I did a little riff on the fact that the narrator is a boss and gave an example of a supervisor at Kinko's trying to get a subordinate to do something.

I then read the first paragaph of the story, in which the narrator seems like he will be of the more conventional "participant observer" sort, with less of an interest in the outcome, because he doesn't mention how or why he encounters copyists until the second paragraph. I also made light of the idea of there being lots of fascinating stories of copyists, referring again to life at Kinko's.

Later in the class, I talked about the idea of the unreliable narrator. I mentioned classic examples such as "The Yellow Wallpaper" and The Good Soldier, said that, while the narrator of Bartleby is not wholly unreliable he is so sometimes. That, I went on, is a result of his interest in the story. He not only wants to tell the story because it's interesting, but because he feels the need to explain himself. He has a guilty conscience to assuage.

I went over the third paragraph in the story then, pointing out that the "narrator protests too much" when he goes on about John Jacob Astor and his trustworthiness. "You aren't likely to trust someone who keeps saying, 'Trust me, man,' I added.

The final portion of class was devoted to discussing the ways in which the narrator ends up seeming a lot like Bartleby, how the adjectives used to describe them overlap. [NAME DELETED] called him "a bit loony." [ANOTHER NAME DELETED] referred to the narrator as a "wuss," a term that I wrote on the board with delight. I explained that, in previous classes where I taught Bartleby, an inventory of their respective traits invariably led to the conclusion that the two had a lot in common.

I referred them to paragraphs 110-114, then read 115, in which the narrator explains that, "Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word 'prefer' upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions." This paragraph, I noted, seems to confirm our suspicion that the narrator ends up being more like Bartleby than he'd like to admit.

We talked about active and passive voice and how an active voice sentence can seem passive by taking the doing out of human hands and ascribing it to concepts or things. I directed them once more to the first sentence of paragraph #53, in which, although the verb is active, the doer -- in this case Bartleby -- is erased entirely in favor of the vague "passive resistance" and the "doee" -- in this case the narrator -- is rendered as an abstract "person" and not an individual. Students then pointed out that two other formulations from that paragraph, the one, "The passiveness of Bartleby irritated me," and, "The evil impulse in me maastered me," also take transfer agency from people to concepts or things.

I went on a little tangent on George W. Bush's tendency to use simple, active-voice sentences and contrasted it to Bill Clinton's masterful use of the passive. At one point I said, "You can imagine Hilary saying, 'Don't be such a wuss, Bill.'" I also paraphrased Bush's comments about working with the EC this morning, noting that he's also fond of counting. "Twenty-six nations. . ." My Texas accent was not up to the task, alas, but the students still laughed. I think I did a good job with my "equal time," where I avoid seeming too partisan by making fun of both sides.

In closing, I noted that we hadn't made it to the topic of allegory, which I would address on the course weblog and laid out the parameters for the midterm, adding that I will put a list of "fair game" terms on the weblog also.
When I can, I like to attribute student comments, particularly if they come from someone who isn't a regular contributor. The best part of the class was the bit on active voice at the end, because several students took the idea I was presenting and ran with it. It was also fun talking about Presidents. I only poke light-hearted fun at them, fully aware that there are limits to what I'm going to be permitted to say. I've found, however, that this sort of light-hearted fun can actually lead to good teaching. The student who recognizes that our current President uses a lot of short, active voice sentences to give the impression that he is "not a wuss," will have a better chance of distinguishing rhetoric from reality. That's a small pedagogic victory, to be sure, but far preferable in my eyes to the defeat that might come from taking a more strident approach.

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