Teaching Bartleby

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?

7 thoughts on “Teaching Bartleby

  1. Michelle

    That’s excellent. I really admire the fact that you managed to keep quiet and transcribe for the entire class. It sounds like a highly successful exercise and one which will help your students to see the value of their own independent work.

    I use the opening paragraph of Bartleby in a dictionary exercise in my developmental class! I try to work in various methods to expose my developmental writing students to what they’ll encounter down the road. This semester, we are reading The Secret Life of Bees during the last month, and their final essay will be in response to an (unformulated) question related on that. On this count, my choice wound up being rather fortuitous for me because they’re making a movie next year starring, among others, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning (as the protagonist). Can’t beat that for a selling point.

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  2. Michelle

    PS that’s cool that you’re teaching the American Lit course. I was so focused on mostly medieval and renaissance works while in school that I, too, often find myself rediscovering American texts, especially those prior to modernism.

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  3. Collie

    Mike! That’s so cool. I agree with Michelle, the discipline you showed with keeping your mouth shut and your fingers flying instead is incredible.

    What’s also cool is that you behaved unexpectedly and they rose to the occasion. They must have trusted you to have a purpose for disrupting your normal classroom roles. You mention obedience and motivation and the peculiarities of your institution. But it also seems like we can only successfully back away from overt leadership under circumstances of pretty deeply cultivated trust. Would this have worked the second week of the semester, even with these motivated, obedient students? Would you have trusted them to step into the authority void (if that’s what it was) before? What signs did you use to judge whether you all were ready to experiment in this way?

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  4. Rob

    Mike,

    I had wondered if you set up guidelines for yourself prior to the class. To be specific, did you know at what point you would have ended your silence if things went wrong or became horribly sidetracked? What if the students decided they wanted to discuss something other than bartleby? At what point would you intercede? You asked the questions about how other students might have handled it, but I am curious to find out how you might have handled other students. I always enjoyed professors who took a different route and tried something new. Good for you, Mike!

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  5. joanna

    I think that trying this out would depend on my class–not necessarily the course. Some groups would get it, others wouldn’t and would either leave or get off track.

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  6. mike Post author

    Rob, one section was perfect, and I knew they would be: they’re the serious section, the smart, engaged, dutiful ones. They went the whole time, and I trusted they would — and I think they trusted me, knowing it had a purpose, as Collie’s pointed out. It went perfectly, and I think we were all pleased that it did.

    The other section, the section that’s a little more enthusiastic, boisterous, playful, they got it to the point of trying to get me to say something rather than talking about Bartleby where I had to break character and do a very brief redirect around minute 35, and I think both they and I were disappointed by that break, even though it was me just saying, “No; focus.” But that disappointment — there were a few seconds of silence — I think itself helped get discussion back on track, and got them into performing some genuinely wild interpretive moves by the end of class.

    I think that connects to what Collie and Joanna are talking about, and what Rob’s asking. I didn’t have a plan B — or, OK, since this is Bartleby, a plan C. I felt bad that I even had to do that brief redirect, but I’m also lucky that I have cadets — and these are plebes — who are conditioned by their position in the Academy’s hierarchy to be very attentive to following instructions.

    Which connects to another reason why I think the lesson was so successful, despite that break in one class. For plebes at the Academy, “Bartleby” is a very alien story, as is the notion of an instructor who breaks his role and refuses to tell them what to do. There was something exhilarating about skating out there on that pedagogical ice, for them and me.

    They were amazed when I showed them the notes — five pages, single-spaced — I’d typed up as they were talking: “We said all that?” And, in fact, yesterday I had them go back to the notes in small groups and use them, along with quotations from the story, to support a reading they constructed for the text. They put their readings (“Bartleby is a martyr for capitalism”; “‘Bartleby’ is a story about individual isolation'”; “‘Bartleby’ is concerned with the responsibility people have for each other”) up on the board, and relevant quotations from the notes of what they’d said and from the story to support those readings, and they came up with some stuff that was just remarkable.

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  7. bradley

    I’ll let you know how it goes in my class. We don’t start until the first week of April, and then it will take a few weeks to get to Bartleby. We also do Billy Budd, which I’ve come to love more and more, even more than I love Bartleby. But my students are like you were, not quite getting it. I’m sure I didn’t get it the first time, and maybe I still don’t, but I’ve always loved both those stories. I hope I remember to come back and read what others have written when it gets to be Bartleby time.

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