Teaching long novels

Last week we started a two week exploration of Bleak House.   As an undergraduate myself I had the slightly strange experience of only studying Dickens via The Mystery of Edwin Drood and as my own research went on to focus on Victorian poetry I never really got into Dickens.   Since I’ve been on the other side of the desk that has changed, and I now think he’s terrific.  Bleak House, of course, is long, and that can pose its own challenges.  I know of at least one English department where staff have said to me that they just couldn’t teach such a long novel to their students.  I’m not sure what the rationale for that is, and I doggedly refuse to lose the ‘long novel’ experience from both my Victorians course and a level two course I teach on Realism and the Novel, despite the fact that every year, when module evaluation forms come in, there are always a couple of comments exclaiming “Middlemarch is too long”.   The Victorian period is the great period of belief in narrative and its possibilities to describe, create and recreate the world and it thus seems necessary to expose students to that very Victorian way of saying things at length.  A few weeks earlier we considered Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856).  I’ve never previously taught this, although, again, it was the choice of my idiosyncratic undergraduate tutor when I did the Victorians.  “Longer than Paradise Lost“, he said, “but it doesn’t feel like it.”  One of my current students agreed when she said she romped through Aurora Leigh but was struggling to keep up with the intricacies and complexities of the plot in Bleak House and the sheer staying power needed to get through 800+ pages of it.  Another student told me she’d been reading Bleak House on and off since last summer and still hadn’t got to the end.

So are there things that can help?  Teaching such very long texts over more than one week perhaps does, and I had also set a reading week before it as well.  My class have a longish research essay to do as one part of the assessment on this course and depending on the choice of question and texts they choose to focus upon I’m aware that some could just decide to opt out of bothering with a text like Bleak House altogether.  This is where using a VLE can come in very useful.

As I have a series of online VLE activities throughout the entire course (there are 7 sessions in total over the term) there is inevitably one on Bleak House.  As my assessment criteria suggest as a basic participation requirement that the highest grades are likely to go to students who have taken part in all sessions (although it’s ultimately qualitative criteria that decide this) then students who want to do well on the VLE part of the course will take part in all of them.  It’s undoubtedly the case that there’s more engagement with a long novel like Bleak House now that the class know there is an online activity on it, regardless of whether they wish to explore it further for their essay, than there was before I was using the VLE.

And this online session is often one of the best, and different in kind from any of the others thus described in this blog.  I’ll be posting again in a day or two once ‘The Dickens Debate’ is underway to describe what they’re getting up to…