Random Thoughts on Teaching The Awakening

Last night was the last class discussion on Chopin’s The Awakening.  Next week, I’ll receive their essays on the novel, and I’m so very curious to see what I get. The class has 25 men, and 17 women students. Who tends to speak in class? It’s equally divided between men and women, but for the most part, with this novel particularly, the older students (older than 30) tended to speak more, with men (note: there were  three very articulate exceptions)  more vocal in their condemnation of Edna than the women. 

More next week on that, after I read their essays: after all, not everyone spoke during the full class discussion  (but small group discussions were wonderfully animated). 

 I simply love this class–not just the subject matter but the students: it’s as diverse a group of students one could hope for in a generally un-diverse community (in terms of age, economic class, life experiences, literary background, etc).  As a result, the discussions often go in directions I don’t anticipate, even though I’ve been teaching these works for 20 years.  For example, during the 10 minute in class writing I ask them to do each class, several students asked if I could play the Chopin Impromptu and the Wagner pieces I had played during the last class discussion.  So many more students responded to the musical elements of the novel than in the past.  (Note to self: get a music prof to guest lecture next time.)  And, students in this class were more open to a discussion of economic and social class issues than in the past (i.e. If Edna were working class, would she be more sympathetic?).  The same thing happened during our Huck Finn discussions: there are several students with strong biblical backgrounds, so they were much more conscious of Twain’s biblical allusions and, even better, very willing to discuss the various interpretations of those allusions.  And during every class someone returns to my opening lecture about  “literature”: what is it? who decides what it is? why do we read it? why is the literature we read in a “literature class” often so disturbing?  How exciting to see that framework I set up return so regularly during discussions.

On a related note, I injured my knee. Don’t know how, no doubt it’s running related, but it’s bruised, swollen, and by the end of the day quite painful. Thus I taught my night class with what I assumed was my best theatrical face and demeaner, trying desperately to hide the pain. 

It so didn’t work. One student came up to me after class (a man in his 30s, very engaged in the readings and discussions, and an excellent writer) and asked if I was ok, if there was anything I wanted to talk to him about.

First, I was just a bit discombobulated: I thought I had hid my pain so WELL! But I thanked him for his concern, said all was well, just a little knee pain.  Then I naturally spent most of last night overanalyzing the entire class (and yes, I’m tired now).

The class discussion about the novel was the kind that English profs dream of: multiple interpretations, polite and reasoned disagreements, quoting from the text and the critical reviews as evidence: It was a dream class, but for the many, many students who have not taken a lit class in college, it may have been emotionally draining, or intellectually exhausting, or, if they were seriously angry at Edna, it may have made them feel on edge. Perhaps the student who asked me about my pain was reacting to the discussion by seeing pain on my face instead of his own? Or was I really unable to hide my pain, even though I felt engaged and caught up in the class discussion?

Then I remembered, those damned psychologyand/or interpersonal communication professors. They often ask students to conduct “experiments” like close talking to someone, to get their reaction. I wonder if this was one of those assignments?

More random thoughts in a few weeks, post essay grading. We move on the modern poets next week and then Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  What music goes with that novel, do you think?

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9 responses to “Random Thoughts on Teaching The Awakening

  1. I was a bit surprised about the music: classical music! Wagner! I think they were surprised how much they loved it, too, and best of all, I think that it made Mlle. Reisz’s character so much more real to them. BUT, the essays will confirm or destroy my initial impressions, no doubt;-)

  2. The Awakening has been on my list of “books I won’t teach any more because every student has read them, hates them, and will only plagiarize papers on them” (a list which includes Yellow Wallpaper and Scarlet Letter). But … your post is making me reconsider: maybe I need to give the big A another chance.

    BTW, what’s up with the nosy student? It’s one thing to express concern (“you don’t seem to be feeling well”) and another to invite personal confidences (“is there something you’d like to share with me?”). Weird.

  3. BSG: Believe me, I’d stopped teaching the novel (sticking to Chopin’s stories) for years for the SAME reasons, but since this is probably my last time teaching the Amlit survey for a while, I wanted to return to my roots (and with luck I won’t live to regret my choices!). My writing assignments require students to include reference to class discussion, so that does tend to minimize at least some of the plagiarism, but probably not all…I’ll let you know.

    And about the student: that WAS the weird part: “do you want to talk about it?” So odd….I truly hope it was a psych/interpersonal experiment and that he’ll “out” himself to me next week!

  4. I will be back to comment later (not feeling too good right now and am dragging self to sleep) but wanted to say thanks so much for posting it. Loved reading it.

  5. This post just moves me! **Love** the fact that the discussion was so wonderful. Clearly, your framework made it work. This novel is so important; obviously, you’re helping them to see the richness of it all. Way to go, Annie!!!

    I wish students could see how honestly excited we profs get when they are participating thoughtfully and enthusiastically.

    Hope the essays are fabulous, too.

  6. Hi Ink: did you get some sleep? Midol PM: swear by it.

    I read the students in class writing today (the focus questions were to either compare two views of the end of the novel or to explain how one’s response to the quote “Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life” affects one’s response to Edna and the novel as a whole.

    Although I only gave them enough time to start to think about these prompts, the in class writings were wonderfully thoughtful!! While many of the naysayers did a lot more talking in class, in their writing, most students were able to apply their responses to the quote as a way of seeing the complexity of Edna and the novel–even if ultimately they still disliked the end of the novel (and as Dr. Crazy says, whether they like the novel or not is almost irrelevant;-)

    I suspect many of them will use that last quote as the basis for their formal essays–can’t wait!

  7. this book ruined my life. i am a teenage girl and i read this in my honors literature class. i am going to send a strongly worded letter to my teacher. this book inhibited sexual feelings in me that i should never have at this age. this book showed me that it is okay to give into my sexual needs. but i am only 16. this is not nice to play with my feelings like this and i am so angry at my teacher. she’ll probably think this is funny when she gets my letter. but i cant take this anymore. my life view on life has completely changed. i have become selfish and all i care about is my needs. i have not committed any sin but my thoughts are driving me crazy. i spit on my morals

  8. Teenage girl: thanks for writing. I’m going to read your comment as a true call for help. If it’s not, then consider my sense of humor on vacation today.

    I can think of so many ways of responding to your comments, too many for a busy Sunday, alas. I do hope you talk to your teacher, though, maybe a talk instead of a letter, so that you both can discuss the novel together and perhaps the teacher can give you some ideas about who you can talk to about what are very natural changes and internal conflicts for a 16 year old to go through–even those who have not read Chopin’s novel.

    Take care and stay in touch: feel free to send me an email: annieem at gmail dot com.

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