I’m team teaching a class this semester with my colleague Patrick. We had to be a little creative about it because there’s no recent history or administrative mechanism for team teaching here at MU. So what we did is cross-schedule two courses with complementary descriptions, the introductory historiography seminar (which needs a content to go with the procedures anyway) and the European Social/Cultural History class. Then we just folded them together into one room.
Our topic is bad writing. It’s a topic Patrick has wanted to teach around for a long time, prompted by his observation as a historian who works with a lot of literature that bad literature can make good sources. But then, of course, it turns out that what seems bad to us seemed good to the historical audience. So actually the class is a history of judgment. Here’s the syllabus if you’re interested in the particulars.
Today we opened the class with the above explanation and then dived right into short excerpts of bad writing we had selected. Our basic categories of badness are crappy, skanky and evil. For crappy we went with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) – “It was a dark and stormy night,” now famous as the inspiration for the eponymous bad writing competition. For skanky, a scene from John Cleland’s Memoirs of Fanny Hill (1749). And for evil, a concluding section of Arthur comte de Gobineau’s The Inequality of Human Races (1853-55).
In the day section (50 minutes) we only got to Bulwer-Lytton. The students did not know how to handle the multiclausal prolixity of the descriptive narration, nor could they make sense of the vernacular dialogue. We encouraged them to read a second time, and as usual that helped a lot. We were lucky to have several students in the class who know our m.o., and several more who were willing to talk. It might have helped that we authorized their negative first reaction to the unfamiliar by introducing it as possibly the world’s most famous piece of bad writing. But we kept poking at what made it bad, and the students came up with unfamiliarity, disorder, wordiness, ‘trying too hard’. Then we told them that it was considered very good when it was published. What changed? Here is the puzzle. I think quite a few are hooked. We started to talk about audience, but didn’t get very far.
In the evening section (2.5 hours) it took longer to get the concept of the analysis across. The idea of reading literature critically seemed new, and started out for this group as a matter of subjective taste and preference. “It’s not something I would read.” Patrick and I were patient with these first gestures and gradually this group also got into the puzzle of audience and standards. After awhile we thought we saw the energy fading for Bulwer-Lytton and passed around Fanny Hill. As expected, nobody could figure out what was bad about it, and they were baffled when we told them that Cleland had been jailed over it. They tried the ‘well in those days talk of sex was forbidden’ move, the usual progress narrative in which the past is dark and the present enlightened. But no, we told them, lots of writing about sex, and lots of sex, was perfectly alright then – but not this. Why? Eventually we were able to tease out hypotheses about religion, patriarchy, and nebulous audience fractions; again, we have a puzzle and research to be done.
Interestingly, the wordiness that seemed so overdone about Bulwer-Lytton seemed appropriate to them about Fanny Hill – it classed up the sex and made it tasteful, by the students’ standards. They allowed as how big words and lots of them are signs of quality. We’ll see if we can pick that dropped thread up as we go.
So far Patrick and I have shared the lead pretty well – we’re both inclined to take over discussions that interest us, and we both know it about ourselves, so as teachers we’ve learned to ask questions and let them hang for awhile, dropping bits of information or followups when the discussion slows down. We’re both comfortable with the silence of thought. And we’re on board with a recursive process that gets to answers eventually by gradual elaboration, which is what most of our students need because they know so little to start with about this stuff.