I just concluded the third and final week of teaching Melville’s Moby-Dick to my early American literature seminar, the first time I’ve taught the novel in my career. Teaching a book like Moby-Dick is dangerous, because it both threatens to whelm a syllabus with its scope and bulk (following these three weeks, I can easily imagine a semester- or year-long course on the novel), and it demands of students a kind of sustained attention that feels particularly difficult to muster in the age of distraction. I wrote about this earlier, I’m not immune to these forces either, and I’m disinclined toward kids-these-days, technophobic arguments. But when I asked my students in an aside at the beginning of one of our discussions whether there were any analogues in their own intellectual lives to the kind of encyclopedic intellectual work of the novel, they could only read it as a figure for other literary or literary critical enterprises like the seminar itself. And of course the novel is exemplarily metafictional. But I find myself wishing my students had experiences akin to Ishmael’s, to dive deeper than they are accustomed, in the English classroom of course, but outside of it as well. Such forms of concentrated attention feel as though they’re becoming vanishingly rare in my own intellectual life, even in leave semesters with only one class where you’re devoting three weeks to a single novel. Perhaps this isn’t achievable for most, as even some of what one would expect are the most invested readers in Melville admit to frustration, incapacity, and futility when countenancing the white whale.
I don’t know if everyone in the class made it through the book. I doubt it. I am convinced, however, that a solid majority emerged intact on the other side. One or two may even carry the novel with them after the semester has ended, what is probably the best measure of whether I should teach it again in the context of a similar survey (I will). There will be a take-home exam at semester’s end to reward those who have read. I briefly considered reading quizzes along the way to test whether or not my hunches were correct, and I get how these can be valuable pedagogical tools, but education at the college level has always felt to me like it should be an elective process. And the lesson—one of the lessons—the novel teaches about the thoroughness, investment, and whimsy of impassioned intellection seems anathema to the very idea of a pop quiz.
Unless someone developed a truly Melvillean pop quiz. So without further ado… scholars, feel free to adapt this to your own ends.
Moby-Dick pop quiz™:
1) In what respects does a late consumptive usher to a grammar school resemble a sub-sub-librarian? How do they differ?
2) Who aint a slave? Tell me that.
3) Delight is it to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self?
4) True or False: You cannot hide the soul.
5) And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
Extra credit: What like a bullet can undeceive?
For a brief moment I thought about handing this out on the last day of class discussion, but I chickened out, fearing that the joke might seem cruel (or, simply illegible). Maybe next time.
PS—Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.