In addition to Advanced Composition, I’m teaching Intro to American Literature this semester, and enjoying it. We’re into the nineteenth century now, short fiction, and I’m rediscovering pleasures I’d long neglected. “Bartleby the Scrivener,” as fundamental as it is, is one such long-neglected pleasure for a rhetoric and composition specialist.
I’ll confess: the first time I read it, as an undergrad, I didn’t get it. Didn’t understand any aspect of it. Wouldn’t engage it.
The second time, coming back to it, reading it for pleasure, I was delighted. It was in a secondhand book with “Benito Cereno” and “Billy Budd” and I’d been on a Pynchon paranoid fiction kick after Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow and my friend M. said there was more of that weird, freaky paranoid stuff going on in “Benito Cereno” and I ought to check it out, and I did, and then remembered that I’d wondered what the big deal was about “Bartleby,” and re-read it in a sitting, as well. As with Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter, I was perhaps more surprised than I should have been by how much more I got out of it on a second visit. This isn’t a terribly original or interesting observation, I guess: the first time I encountered it, as a student, it was an Important Text; the second time I encountered it, as a reader, it was something else, something different. So it’s nice to be teaching it, and nice to be spending two class days on it.
Today was the first, and I stole the idea for my lesson plan from a colleague, who’d used it to great success. Minor modifications on my part, but it went like this: for homework, I’d asked them to read the story in its entirety, and told them to be prepared to lead discussion in class today, and to come to class with notes on motivation and action in the story to help them do so.
I brought my laptop to class, which I’d never done before. (Each classroom has its own dedicated computer.) I set it up on my desk. In the seconds before class started, I said to them something like this: “You’ve just read a story in which someone, with a screen between him and the other characters, fails to do what they expect of him, and in violating the expectations customary to their relationship, causes disruption and concern.”
And that was All. I. Said.
Not a word more. Not a single word, for the rest of class.
I typed notes, fingers flying to keep up with copying what they said, and yes I sometimes grinned or couldn’t stop myself from nodding. And some of them got mad, or frustrated, and some of them disengaged, but a few of them got into it, and discussion ebbed and flowed without me speaking a single word for the entirety of the class period.
I posted the notes to the course site when class was over, and from the notes — five pages, single-spaced — it was clear that they came to the discussion remarkably well-prepared, and managed to talk out a lot of the tough points of the story. Sure, it was hard to keep quiet: immensely difficult, for them and for me, for one section more than another. Fun, too, though, and productive, once they got what was going on. But I asked them to lead, and they led. And we’ll use those notes as a starting point for the second class session.
I also have the luxury that they’re cadets, though; that they’re motivated and obedient, and I wonder how well that’d fly with Michelle’s students, or Joanna’s, or Collie’s. How does the line between expectation and compulsion shift from classroom to classroom, from one institution to another? Sure, I’m a boundary case, a marker, an outlier: are there other boundary cases? Where would or wouldn’t my Bartleby act fly — and why?