Talk About Teaching and Learning
November 26, 2013, Volume 60, No. 15
Teaching Long: Reasons and Ways to Assign Big Books
Paul K. Saint-Amour
I’m that disastrous thing: a slow reader who teaches long novels. This wouldn’t be such a problem if I retained what I read with photographic clarity. But I don’t: the pages start to fade quickly, like retinal after-images in low light. So every time I teach Vanity Fair or Bleak House or Middlemarch or Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, I must carefully re-read the whole book alongside my students. And each year while I’m putting together my course readings, I’m confronted anew with two questions: Why teach 350,000-word books in the age of the tweet? And what is the most effective way to teach such a book or books?
There are a few standard answers to the why question. Lengthy, culturally consecrated books are writing’s answer to the great cathedrals, long in the making and worthy of immersive study. Such immersion is a good in itself, mending our shattered attention spans and connecting us with others through a medium that will outlast Snapchat. College affords students the time for undertaking such readings, and the college course can provide the ideal mix of guidance, structure, and company. Finally, teachers can harness the prestige of the masterwork—its way of glamorizing immersive reading as an extreme sport that confers bragging rights on the reader—to get students in the door.
Although there’s some truth to each of these answers, I’ve never found them very satisfying. The problem is not just that they’re variously circular, uncritical, scolding, and opportunist. They’re also unspecific. They treat Big Books as a genre and don’t get us any closer to the particular intellectual and pedagogical questions that should drive a given course. I’ve learned that there are different kinds of length and difficulty, different paces at which long books move and can be taught, and a variety of frames in which a given book can be productively read. So my first piece of advice to anyone considering assigning a long book is to know as clearly and specifically as possible your motivations for doing so. Yet it’s also true that confronting the how can sometimes clarify the why. What follows are some practical suggestions about how to build long books into a course, offered in the hope of catalyzing other instructors’ thinking about field- and course-specific reasons for doing so.
The Book As Syllabus. A course syllabus storyboards a series of readings and meetings that are necessarily modular, looking for some optimal balance of variety, coherence, and cumulative force. Bearing this in mind, I’ve found that many long books are born syllabus-ready. Exhibit A in my field would be Joyce’s Ulysses, which consists of 18 episodes, each one stylistically distinct yet revising and building on its predecessors; many a Joyce survey has let the book’s structure be the organizational lattice for part or all of the course. Long works that were first published in weekly or monthly installments, as was true of most nineteenth-century British novels, can lend their pacing and suspense to a course while giving students an understanding of how plots were shaped by the material constraints of serial publication. The simple takeaway here: long works don’t always have to be “carved up” into assignments but can often cue the instructor as to the course’s form and tempo.
The Long Book As World. Students of an extensive text don’t just read it; they co-inhabit it. I’ve found it helpful to imagine the long work as a world the class is collectively mapping, and whose laws we’re attempting to fathom over the course of weeks or months. This can entail many kinds of collaborative work, from discussion threads and course blogs to more discrete group projects. It’s equally important, though, for each student to become engrossed by at least one corner of the book-world in question. A brief presentation and annotated bibliography about a specific theme or thread can lead to this sense of local mastery. So can a detailed engagement with a particular passage. I ask each student in my Finnegans Wake seminar to select, memorize, and perform a page of the book for the class, then to gloss the passage extemporaneously and in detail. Although students sometimes quail at the prospect, I find they end up valuing the chance to contend intimately with a passage, to make decisions about how to perform and interpret it, to feel it has become their own.
World Extension. Capacious books invite readers not only to traverse but also to extend them. As an alternative to a conventional analytical essay, I sometimes offer students the option of writing a “lost” or apocryphal section of a long book—a nineteenth episode of Ulysses, say, complete with annotations and a brief scholarly introduction. By fusing imitation, invention, critique, and analysis, such an assignment allows students to break out of exclusively genuflective or resistant relationships to the work. It suggests that the rewards of immersive reading can take many forms, including parody, pastiche, tribute, immanent critique, and creation-in-kind.
Sometimes Only Too Much Is Enough I. Although a dense and lengthy book might be a semester’s worth of reading on its own, it can also cause palette fatigue. An obvious way to reduce the burnout risk is to supplement the main readings with critical texts that refocus the discussion from week to week. But I’ve found a more extreme version of supplemental assignments even more appealing. My Finnegans Wake seminar, which I’ve taught to both grads and undergrads, pairs weekly readings from Joyce’s novel with a series of “collateral” texts: mostly post-Joycean experimental works that are in some kind of dialogue with Joyce’s. Three months on the Wake alone would be a slog for most readers. But by offering what’s in essence a double syllabus, the seminar preserves the benefits of a full reading of the Wake while admitting more voices to the proceedings and raising questions about how the central work has been venerated, resisted, and repurposed by other writers.
Sometimes Only Too Much Is Enough II. My friend Eric Hayot, who’s in Asian Studies and Comparative Literature at Penn State, teaches a graduate course on global prose fiction from the eleventh century through the nineteenth. His syllabus lists a major work between 500 and 800 pages long for each session: Murasaki’s Tale of Genji one week, Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur the next, Cervantes’s Don Quixote later on. But here’s the kicker: only one student is responsible for finishing the reading each week and acting as that work’s ambassador to the rest of the class. This design forgoes the shared, immersive reading experience on which my previous examples are based, but it gains something else: a broader cultural sweep, a greater chronological velocity, and an unusual distribution of readerly labor. It asks students to consider what kinds of comparative insights we miss by defaulting to close and unified reading.
Less As More. Heavyweight texts tend to produce robust interpretive industries. There’s a strong temptation to reproduce that burliness in the course apparatus—to assume that a group ascent of The Critique of Pure Reason, Capital, or The Golden Notebook requires massive provisioning. This isn’t always a temptation to resist, and most of us have stories to tell about how our courses have been enhanced by reading-journals, response papers, discussion boards, and the like. But courses, like courseware, can suffer from feature creep. Whether they revolve around 12 long books or just one, reading-intensive courses with a light apparatus can offer our perennially multi-tasking students something rare: the chance to mono-task for several hours a week.
Why teach long books? Again, the best reasons are specific to the course rather than to the generic matter of a work’s length. But to the extent that long books aim to encompass a world, a field, or a problem, they exert, as a class, a particular pressure on our reading and teaching. They put questions of scale unavoidably on the table. They model worldedness, introducing the problem of how to represent or imply a totality without simply replicating it. And they invite us to think about the phenomenology of comprehension, including the speed and depths at which we read and the different ways we apportion the work of sense making. The book that seems unteachably long might alter the pace and scale of our teaching—as well as our sense of what it means to do the reading.
Paul K. Saint-Amour is an associate professor and graduate chair of English in SAS.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.