The Novel (Q3060), Spring 2015: Convenor’s response to module evaluation

Many thanks to the students who took the time to evaluate this module. Your input is very helpful.

For Spring 2015, the other tutors and I met to reevaluate the existing reading list. We agreed to skew the secondary reading toward theoretical texts that would be useful for understanding other novels in Year 3, to streamline the reading list, and to add a post-45 novel, while maintaining good continuity with the previous year’s list. I’m grateful to the tutors this term—Sam Cooper, Andrea Haslanger, Bethan Stevens, and Joseph Ronan—who contributed their expertise and intellectual energy toward shaping the module this year.

I’m pleased that so many students enjoyed the novels that were set, and that for some students, at least, the pairing of novels with critical theory worked well. And while this module focuses primarily on the British novel, I’m glad that students noticed and appreciated our commitment to a relatively diverse list that included both some usual suspects (Robinson Crusoe) and some less obvious choices (Good Morning, Midnight).

By far the most common dissatisfaction that students seem to have found with the module is the reading load. We agree that the reading load is relatively heavy. It was actually even heavier last year: when we adjusted the reading list, we reduced the total number of novels from eleven to nine (the student who wrote that we were “reading a novel every week” is incorrect). Unfortunately, this is simply a feature of the novel as a form: comparatively speaking, they are long. Looking at it from another perspective, trying to cover “the novel”—or even just “the British novel”—in only nine texts is almost absurd. We made an effort to balance reasonable reading loads with the intellectual demands of the topic, and I believe that we pared the list down as much as we possibly could while maintaining the module’s intellectual integrity. Reading in quantity is a learned skill that all English majors need.

It is, in fact, possible to do the reading for this and other modules, but I agree that it takes focus, effort, and quite a lot of time. For students worried about doing the reading, I recommend doing some self-research: what are your optimal conditions for focused reading? About how long does it take you to read 100 pages of fiction? How long for 30 pages of scholarly nonfiction?

I’m less sympathetic to the complaint about the secondary reading: while it was often challenging, it was always short—between eight and thirty pages. For second-year students, this should have been more than manageable. One student’s claim on this evaluation that “the secondary reading that is required with this module is particularly heavy” is simply factually incorrect.

One student wanted more support from me in office hours and in essay comments, and specifically “more constructive criticism.” Thanks for the feedback; I’ll try to do more of that in the future.

The same student, who appears to have been in one of my discussion groups, did not like “the worksheets or pop quizzes.” There was exactly one (unassessed) pop quiz, during week two. The only “worksheets” were actually group exercises using written out passages. I’m sorry those didn’t feel helpful to you, but I’m also not sure that you understood the exercise. Perhaps clearer instructions or framing are needed for such exercises.

One student was dissatisfied with Evelina and felt that it only existed to provide an example of a typical marriage plot. It does, of course, do that, and it’s one of the reasons we replaced Sterne’s Sentimental Journey with it this year. But we also included it for a number of other reasons: it was a very popular novel; it’s an excellent example of C18 literature of sentiment; it’s an epistolary novel; and it’s a novel of manners with violently comic set-pieces (like the monkey attack near the end) that reveals the fluidity of genre boundaries. Additionally, we wanted to include a popular C18 novel by a woman, because we wanted to convey something very important about the novel form in English: that women were writing successful novels from the very beginning. There are other novels that could have served in Evelina‘s stead, but we chose it for very considered reasons.

I agree that it would have been nice to have another post-45 novel, as the above-mentioned student suggested, but we couldn’t in good conscience do so at the expense of one of our only two C18 novels—a period that’s incredibly important in the history of the novel. Last year there was no post-45 novel at all, and we were glad to be able to add one this year, since we agree that it’s a fascinating period in the development of the novel.

Thanks again to the fourteen of you who provided feedback on the module!

Best wishes,

Natalia Cecire