[DWJ] long ago thread called Book recommendations

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Thu Mar 29 12:57:26 EDT 2007

>>> Robyn Starkey wrote:
>>>> Actually, I think Frankenstein is heaps easier to teach, and as I said
>>>> before, I've never been tempted to teach Wuthering Heights, although I
>>>> did appreciate it as an undergrad. A little less cynicism about other
>>>> people's professions would be nice.
>> Mark Allums responded:
>>> Cynicism?  Did that bit about professors keeping a "straight face" seem
>>> cynical?  I couldn't say anything about _Frankenstein_, having never
>>> read it, much less tried to teach it, but I believe what said about
>>> professors using _Wuthering Heights_ for its being easy to teach because
>>> a professor told me that when I asked him.

>> Exercise for the student:
>> Take the set "academics" with the two subsets "professors" and "lecturers"
>> Is it realistic to suggest that a sample of one is representative of the

Mark Allums now responds:

>Since one of my rare delurkings has born fruit, I shall respond.  The
>answer is:  Yes.  It *is* realistic.  In my experience, English teachers
>are a cynical lot.  And since presumably a professor knows other
>professors, he would be in a position to know about the habits of a
>subset of teachers, the teachers he knows.  One professor represents not
>just himself, but a sample of a larger population.  I would estimate
>that that particular professor could answer for twenty other professors.
>  That's about eighty classes in English Lit.  Which represents
>something like 2400 students per semester.

Having lived in university circles pretty-much all my life, it has been my
experience over fifty years or so that the people who hold teaching posts
in universities are as varied as the people on this list, if not more so
were such a thing possible.

I'm sorry about your experience of cynical professors, and I am glad mine
wasn't so unfortunate when I finally got round to doing an undergraduate
degree course.

The English university that I attended at the beginning of this century, in
its medium-sized English Department, had (thinks) three professors, eight
full-time lecturers and some part-time, and under 120 undergraduate
students in the year (perhaps 350 in the Department at any given time,
including some doing Joint Honours with another subject).

What follows needs to have the distinction between "lecture" and "tutorial"
clarified, perhaps: a lecture involves a talk on a general subject selected
by a tutor, being given by that tutor to the entire year-group who sit in
rowws and listen and take notes but are not required to have read anything
for that lecture in advance.  A tutorial involves a group of between six
and twelve students (the tutors' rooms not being big enough for more)
discussing with the tutor a book they have been told at the beginning of
the semester will be that week's study, which book they are expected to
have read and thought about in advance.  One of them will have been asked
to prepare a five-minute talk about it, to set the ball rolling, and the
tutor will probably have given that student some guidance as to what would
be good points to raise or questions to put forward.  (If that student
"cuts" that tutorial, the tutor will curse and then start the ball rolling

Of the tutors I knew during my three years, I'd say that almost all were
not in the business of churning out the same lecture year after year (there
were three "standard lectures" in the first year that were known to be
repeated, each about very basic stuff like "how do I read this Old English,
it's a different language with funny letters, HELP!", and the two tutors
who gave them got very bored with them indeed and spent time swapping off
and trying to think of new ways to present the ideas in them), and none was
repeating the same tutorials: each taught from different books each year,
as we knew from looking at the book-lists.  Some did have one or two books
they always seemed to include if they could, but since they might be
teaching a module on a period in which those books didn't fit, sometimes
they couldn't.

>Which would you rather teach, a Bronte or anything else?

That would depend on whether I liked the book.  If one had to teach "a
Bronte", there *are* other books written by Brontes besides *Wuthering

>Given that
>you've already done that lecture twenty times so far in your career, and
>know it like the back of your hand?

Definitely anything else.  I'd be bored to tears doing the same thing year
after year.  I'd tidy that lecture up and publish it, and go on to
something new, after about the third time at most.

>Given that it seems to be a
>tradition among the English teaching rank and file?

Definitely anything else.  I wouldn't want to trespass on my colleagues'
fields of expertise.

>Given that the
>bookstore already carries the book,

The University bookshop will order in any book in print; the tutors told
them in advance what they would be teaching at a given time, and the number
of students enrolled on that course.

>the students won't stand for anything with more than 200 pages

The students on my course coped with *Gulliver's Travels* (370 pages),
*Emma* (440 pages), *David Copperfield* (900 pages) and *Beloved* (275
pages) as well as *Wuthering Heights* (280 pages).  That's a random
selection from the Oxford Classics paperbacks I bought, the ones still on
the shelf behind me: the only one under 200 pages seems to be *Daisy
Miller* (88 pages), and the week we did that we did *The Great Gatsby* too.
Even *To the Lighthouse* is 224 pages long, and *Frankenstein* 240.

We had a week to read each of those and produce intelligent comment on it,
unless we'd done some work in advance, and we rarely had...

>and the head of the department expects it to be taught?

The head of the department very sensibly did not attempt to dictate what
book by a particular author any tutor elected to teach, nor even which ten
of the many authors deemed to be important in any given period should be
taught by any particular tutor.  600 years in 4 modules is 150 years' worth
of authors per module (in the other two semesters one module was
Introduction to Poetry, the other Introduction to Criticism, the other
semester it was Old English and Shakespeare).  You couldn't possibly study
them all in ten weeks, so the tutors very sensibly taught what they enjoyed
and knew well rather than something with which they were unfamiliar or
which they disliked.  I swapped Shakespeare tutors after one tutorial
because I couldn't be doing with the man I'd been allocated to: he wasn't a
bad tutor, he just wanted to do plays I wasn't much interested in and in a
way I found tedious.  Only one of the plays he had planned to read with us
-- *King Lear* -- was in my new tutor's list, which meant that I ended up
having to buy Arden editions of nineteen of the plays instead of only ten,
but I don't mind having them.  That rather shows how much choice the tutors
had about what they taught, though.  (The other four modules were choices
such as "Elegy" or "Writing and History" or "Erotic Literature" or
"Arthurian Literature" or "The Poet as Witness" or one particular book or
author not covered in the rest of the course, say "Paradise Lost" or
"Kipling", and it was hell deciding which ones you could bear *not* to

>If my straw men haven't convinced you, remember:  It is a fact that
>Wuthering Heights is being taught.  There must be some reason for it.  I
>can only think of the one (not so) good reason.  You are free (as an
>exercise for the student) to come up with as many plausible alternate
>reasons as you wish.

The tutor who did teach *Wuthering Heights* taught it because he enjoyed
it.  Had I been doing that module with any of the other tutors, I might
well not have studied that book -- I might have copped the *Tristram
Shandy* enthusiast instead, and you can imagine the anxiety each student
felt when waiting to be told his or her assigned tutor for each semester.
There was no lecture (of the three lectures a week) devoted to the works of
the Brontes as a group, certainly not to Charlotte alone, nor to *Wuthering
Heights*.  (Nor to *Tristram Shandy*.)   Individuals books were taught in
tutorials, not lectures, on the whole.

I thank the Powers that I was taught by a bunch of enthusiasts and
eccentrics, with only one lazy cynic among them  ---  not the Shakespeare
bloke, a different one.

The tutors were not identikit clones, but individuals with their own
preferences about what they taught and how they taught it, and that was the
point I was trying to make, mostly in the bit you snipped.

OTOH and obDWJ, the tutors in that Department at that time were mostly
still the ones appointed when her husband was head of department, so they
may not have been typical, what with him being a maverick and a medievalist
and all.  On the *other* other hand, would Frank Leavis have appointed the
same people Frank Kermode would have, and which of those two would be a
more typical professor of English?  (Does a typical professor of English
live on a narrow-boat?)


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