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Solitary Confinement

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I ‘m having one of those days where it’s not so much that I don’t have anything to say as that I’ve got a lot to say, but it isn’t coordinated and it isn’t very important.

Part of that is caused, I think, by the fact that I don’t  have anything to read.  I finished something and now I’m finding it hard to go on to something else.

Actually, that started with the book before last, which is how I ended up with the last book, which was disappointing, and now…

I tried reading Dostoyevski’s The Idiot, but for some reason it didn’t take.  It is the only one of Dostoyevski’s great novels I haven’t read, and only one of two of the major nineteenth century Russian novels I haven’t read–well, one of two and a half.

I have a hard time counting my forays into Gogol, who repulses me to an extent that Ihesitate to say I’ve read him.  I managed to plow through Dead Souls on the strength of that thing where I have to finish everything I start.  Otherwise, I’d have given up about a third of the way through.

I’ve got The Idiot in a lovely, easily carted around hardcover edition that cost me less than $10 a few years ago–it’s one of those Barnes and Noble editions. 

And it’s the Constance Garnett translation, which means that if you’re out there and you can really read Russian, you’ll think it’s awful.  But it’s also the case that Garnett writes well in English, so I know the book will be readable as translated, if not completely accurate.

And I wouldn’t be agonizing over this this much, except that I also have a book of literary criticism by George Steiner about Dostoyevski and Tolstoy, and I keep thinking that I’d have a better time with it if I’d read The Idiot.

I’ll admit that, even for Steiner, I’m not willing to take another stab at War and Peace.  At least not yet.

That said, I really need to find a book, because I’m in what I call “no mood.” 

I woke up this morning to find an e-mail on my computer from a student, asking if the homework from the day before was going to “count much towards my English grade,” because if it wasn’t, he wasn’t going to do it, since it involved the library, and he never went to the library.

I am not making this up.

Do all teachers everywhere get this sort of communication these days?  I can’t imagine sending something like this to a teacher. 

I can imagine thinking it.  I can even imagine acting on it–well, the not doing the homework part.  I’m always in the library.

But I can’t imagine saying it, never mind sending it in an e-mail, where it can be preserved forever.

The really frustrating thing about all this, of course, is that if I allow myself to get angry out front, the student will just think I’m being an idiot.

The last thing on my mind has to do with what I was talking about the other day, the isolation of the characters in the novels of P.D. James.

It’s the kind of thing that happens to you when you’re sick.  You know you have something to say, but you can’t think of what it is, and then you just feel so out of it that you’d much rather just go drink tea.

There’s a difference between being alone and being emotionally isolated.

James’s characters are almost never alone. They live in great seas of people, but they’re always in that bubble that blocks them off from everybody else. 

It’s an internal characteristic, not a matter of living out in the boonies away from people or even living with somebody who isn’t particularly talkative.

I was alone a lot in my early life, but I was never emotionally isolated in the way that virtually all James characters are. 

And, reading James, it’s obvious that she doesn’t think this is necessarily a bad thing–with her most admirable characters, it’s even a virtue. 

But James sees the world as an arena of people in these kinds of bubbles, forever and irrevocably isolated from each other even when they are in crowds or with people they are supposed to love.

And I’ll say, again, that I don’t live my life that way, and, what is more, that I don’t think very many people do.

If part of what a novelist gives you is a world to live in, then this world is, for me, more alien than most of the worlds of science fiction.

Which, as should be obvious by now, is not the same thing as saying that it’s a world I don’t like living in, at least for the space of a novel.

I would hate living in it on a day to day, rest of my life basis.

Of course, it probably wouldn’t have students in it who sent e-mails to their teachers saying they didn’t see the point in doing the homework.

I’d better go off and do something sensible. 

Maybe I’ll find something really short to read to tide me over until I can think of something I’d really get into.

Written by janeh

October 19th, 2010 at 5:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Solitary Confinement'

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  1. One of my friends who is still teaching recently had a student who photographed an answer key, and when reproached, said ‘well, it was worth a try’. In another class, there is a small group that continually talks, jokes, texts each other, and lies to administration about whether they turned up at all. One of the other students thanked her privately for trying to stop this behaviour in class, and said that the rest of the teachers just ignore them.

    I think ultimately we do all live in bubbles. We can have greater or lesser degrees of connection with those about us, but ultimately we are all separate and isolate – we’re born alone, will die alone, as people say – and regardless of how many people we have about us, and how much we can share of ourselves with them, ultimately we are separate from these people, and they merely share some comparatively superficial parts of our lives.


    19 Oct 10 at 6:25 am

  2. When I was in graduate school, several of us were doing “satelite” sessions for the History Department’s bread and butter “Western Culture” course. A colleague reported that one of his students had dropped the course as soon as he handed out the reading assignments. She said that in four years in the university she’d never had to read a BOOK for a course before, and wasn’t going to start now.

    Admitedly, she was an Education major. Still, she was a Senior and it was about 35 years ago.

    Read some really short stuff until your morale improves. I know you have some around.


    19 Oct 10 at 3:33 pm

  3. All students fall along a spectrum ranging from “maximum effort leading to full mastery of the subject, or learning for the joy of it” to “failing the class.” It’s a bell curve (hopefully) with few at either end.

    In the middle are the vast majority of students ranging around “doing just enough work to get the grade I want.” This has always been the motivation behind the classic “Will this be on the test?” from the back of the class, seeking not to “waste” effort on nonessential elements of the subject.

    If they want a B, they’ll do a B’s amount of work. If they’re happy with a C or D, then they can slack off a bit more.

    What I find interesting isn’t that the student is thinking that way, most of them do. It’s that he or she comes out and asks YOU to make the judgment for them as to the essential nature of this particular homework. That’s offloading even the decision making process onto you. Usually students can judge for themselves as to how much is enough.

    I suppose your answer to the student is “no, it’s not important, unless passing the class is important to you.” Put the responsibility right back on them, where it belongs, as to how much is enough.

    As for never going to the library, it might be possible with the internet, but I suspect said student never does anything substantive there, either.

    Do students really believe that teachers just make up homework for the hell of it, and that it doesn’t take any work on the teacher’s part to correct it? That’s just astonishing, particularly in an English composition course.


    19 Oct 10 at 5:50 pm

  4. I knew a teacher once who proudly claimed to have not read a book since leaving university, but even he admitted to reading them while he was there!


    19 Oct 10 at 8:11 pm

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