A Digression on Three Digressive Assignments

A Digression on Three Digressive Assignments

Laurence Sterne writes in the first part of Tristram Shandy that “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; — they are the life, the soul of reading; —take them out of this book for instance, —you might as well take the book along with them.” And in speaking of “this book,” he notes, “my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,–and at the same time" (I, xxii, 58). Digression is central to the intellectual and humanistic foundations that inform that narrative of Tristram Shandy as well as the organizational principle, if one may call it that, of the Shandian narrative itself. What are hobby-horses, after all, but little lines of sportive digression run wild?  These highly personal associations of ideas along the train of thought emerge more-or-less without our willing them, prompting embarrassed apologies after our speech has diverged from the expected conversational track, reining in our expostulatory revelry with the halting blush of “but I digress…”   Sterne illustrates throughout this text that while digression may prove momentarily pleasant for the speaker, thinker, writer, or rider, it is often a source of frustration to the dispositionally linear or teleological, listener or reader.  Part of his task in the text is, therefore, to generate appreciation for the natural and unexpected pleasures of digressive associations as part of the humanistic and, for him, Christian project of sociability and fraternity.

For readers new to Tristram Shandy, especially those undergraduates not yet baptized in the rollicking waters of eighteenth-century narrative possibility, the digressive practice can be challenging to navigate, let alone appreciate and enjoy.  This may be especially true of those teleological readers whose readerly end-goal is no more and no less than completing a requirement of their major.  Because digressive narrative might seem, in the words of the good doctor, “odd”— and that might be the most polite thing a student laboring with the competing pressures of other coursework, to say nothing of social demands, might call it—my decision to include this novel in all of its unabridged splendor on my undergraduate syllabus was not undertaken lightly. My chief worry was that my good intention of trying to introduce students to one of the wittiest and ultimately compassionate novels ever written might benightedly plant the seeds of aversion and resentment, ensuring that my students would neither understand nor embrace the Shandying way and, further, hate what they did not understand. Thither the death of the humanities. And then, of course, I had the possible overflow of these feelings towards me, the class, and the English major to consider. There is a lot at stake in attempting to teach this novel to undergraduates, particularly for the untenured subjected to the semesterly scourge of student evaluations. 

To vouchsafe against such infelicitous ends, I created three assignments to help students ease into the novel's digressive humanism. Here, I attempted to honor the difficulty of engaging with Sterne's work while aligning that difficulty with a central preoccupation of the novel: the challenges, frustrations, and ultimately, joys of trying to read other people. I describe these assignments, The Digressive Journal, Plotting the Digressive Interview, and A Pageant of Digressions:—or, Adding Something to this Fragment of a Page, below. As a progressive as well as digressive pedagogical plan, these assignments advance from the personal and reflective, to the conversational and sympathetic, to the collective and comical, and I hope either individually or in sequence, these small projects will aid we happy few who teach Sterne’s novel in the undergraduate classroom.


Assignment 1: The Digression Journal

As you read through Volume 1 of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, I want you to note any associations that you make to words, scenes, or allusions made by the narrator.

One’s mind often wanders when reading a book, especially when we have not yet yielded to the suspension of disbelief and may be struggling with the prose before us. It is all normal, natural, and nothing to be embarrassed about. Rather, it is to be expected.


When you note that your attention has fled from the written word or the blank, black, or marbled page to something else, I want you to stop and investigate. What were you thinking about when you realized you were no longer paying attention to the reading? At what moment in the text did your attention drift away? What happened in between? Why did it depart at that moment, that sentence, scene, or word, to its involuntary destination? 

I want you to discover what it was and how it was that the writing called something seemingly unrelated to mind.  Write down where your mind-wandering had taken you and the page number and prose from which your attention unmoored. Then, when done, go back and pair the associations with the passages. Given the length of the reading, there should be several spontaneous moments of this. Limit your work to a catalog of the top 5 and be prepared to share at least one in class.


Conceptually, The Digression Journal was meant to naturalize and embrace frustrations that students might feel in their first interactions with the text. I had assigned the students in my course Volume 1 to read for the week. I hypothesized that for many, this reading would not go smoothly, and often, students would drift into daydreams, fancies, or other concerns. Rather than make this seem a reason to abandon reading or feel ashamed about reading skills, my hope was that we could study the phenomenon of departure as an illustration of the narrative method and prose that occasioned it for each student. And indeed, casting away any feel shame or inferiority, when asked to do so in class, students quite happily shared their digressive moments as well as hypotheses for how they went from A to B. In some cases, their ideas sounded like extreme parodies of Freudian Fehlleistungen analysis, but in the best possible way. After having shared these adventures in associationist introspection, we read through some excerpts from John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to formally introduce the associationist model as one way to think about the structure of both the novel and their responses to it.  The sequencing of activity before supplemental reading provided an organic student-centered experience of the narrative technique and gave a contextual referent for the reading of Locke. While this is not the only way to think about Sterne's work, students really enjoyed their brief object lesson in associationist principles and gained a pleasurable momentum for further reading.


Assignment Two: Plotting the Digressive Interview

When Tristram reflects on the progress of his narrative in Book Six, Chapter 10, he takes a rather notorious cartographic or perhaps Cartesian approach. For this writing assignment, I want to you to contact an older relative, neighbor, professor, or one of the Jesuit brothers, and ask them to tell you the story of a significant event in his or her life and ask if you may record it on your phone or tablet.

Explain it is for your English class.

Secure their permission and assure them that you will destroy the evidence once the assignment concludes.

Now, after you have nicely thanked him or her, study that recording and find moments where the narrative line takes a turn, and construct a map like Tristram's that notes key nodes and digressions in their telling of the tale. Be prepared to present this map in a discussion group next class.


The Digressive Interview follows upon The Digression Journal to expand thinking from the self to the other, as a way of considering the Uncle Toby in all of us.  Students were respectful in their interviews and elaborate in their presentations, creating complex and technologically sophisticated maps on Power-Point slideshows and poster board. In general, students came away from this exercise with fascination, sympathy, and even fondness for the digressions their interviewees had taken. Furthermore, many claimed that they had learned more or at least as much about their subject from studying the digressions of the story than from the story itself. The truth lies in the telling as much as what was told. Or, as I encouraged them to consider, as with the Tristram narrative, we are given two truths, the truth of the tale and the truth of the person telling the tale, versions of what Michael McKeon called in his Origins of the English Novel solutions of how to tell the truth (as well as represent virtue) in narrative.


Assignment Three: A Pageant of Digressions:—or, Adding Something to this Fragment of a Page.

I am persuaded that every time a man smiles,

but much more so when he laughs,

it adds something to this fragment of a life

My Digital Shandians! This is something of a novelty—but novelty, as I hope our journey together has impressed, can be the source of infinite pleasure, and pleasure, in turn, can be the source of infinite novelty (pace Adorno, Horkheimer, and de Sade).

We are all now familiar with the convention of "the page"; however, one way of re-conceiving the opportunity of a page is as an attempt to share the history of a small fragment of your life—your time spent absent from English 3335—as well as the opinions, antecedents, and accidents that determined your adventure in a manner that both surprises and delights. One happy volunteer will both begin and end the exercise (thus writing two pages) while the rest of you will provide one link in a chain of responses. You will pick up where the last writer has left off in his or her attempt to explain the circumstances—"written up on high," as Jacques would say—that conspired to make him or her miss my class.

Any form of narrative, witticism, digression, theoretical excursus, importation of legal documents, sublime poësis, bathetic sinking, quotation/allusion, or invocation to muses or deities of best fit are most welcome. This project takes us into the digital sphere, so links to iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, Vimeo, external webpages, and the OED, among others, are possible and encouraged, as is the embedding of images and gifs.

This digital project makes use of Blackboard forums and Tumblr.

As soon as the first page is uploaded, it will be sent to your email, as will all succeeding pages.

During your interval of authorship, you will find an option under forums entitled, “Adding Something to this Fragment of a Page.”

Read through previous posts to ensure you are up to date on the adventure, then sally forth! Segue in one way or another from the last pages: perhaps you will explain or elaborate some point of it or transition to something antecedent, external, informative, or otherwise. Or don't. It's your fragment.

Write your contribution first on Word and test your links, if any. Then paste it into the forum and email it to me.

You will do this once in the next two weeks (between April 13th and April 26th).

Each contribution should be, of course, at least a page.

If you have any technical problems, IM or email me and I will get on it.

Via email, I will assign small groups of you spots of time in which to accomplish this assignment, as a way of avoiding Blackboard congestion on the first and last nights, and to maintain order. For example, perhaps everyone whose last names begin with letters A-F will have from the 13th to the 17th.  Check your inbox for your dates.

 We will enjoy the final product of your labors on the day of the final (“Time wastes too fast!”), and each of you will read aloud your final page.


The Pageant of Digressions serves to bring together and expand the experiences of the previous assignments with a dual focus on sociability and parodic narrative experimentation. As the assignment description relates, this was the final, capstone short paper of the class. Before exploring the theory motivating this assignment, it will be useful to understand the perverse attendance policy of my literature classes from which this assignment draws. Below is the standard articulation:

Attendance: Attendance is essential. Class is where the action happens, where you can test and refine your ideas and where you benefit from conversation with others. Missing class will limit your ability to engage with the course texts and hinder your progress as a critical writer and reader.

You are allowed four absences by university policy. 

Late work will only be accepted for excused absences; —or, with a penalty of a page (see below) to be read aloud for the class’s delectation at the next meeting.  

Pages: The page is a 1-page creative and wholly fictional and entertaining narrative of what happened that prevented you from coming to class. It is helpful to conceive of the page as an exercise in the genre of "I was on my way to class and…" To receive credit for the page, you must read it in front of the class at the beginning of the class meeting following your absence. As you will directly benefit from the experience of your classmates who were in class during your absence, you owe them a debt, one that you will repay with comic pleasure. N.B. Pages may also be assigned for particularly egregious behavior.


By the end of the semester and the final pages of Tristram Shandy, the class fully acculturated to the discipline of the page, and it had become an enjoyable opening ritual of our course meetings that encouraged increasingly daring experiments in fictional narrative. This final project harnessed this enthusiasm alongside the increasing attention paid in previous classes to the other narrative methods, innovations, and novelties in Sterne’s novel, from the marbled page and allusion to plagiarism and allegory. The assignment's objective was two-fold. First, it was meant for students to practice employing a variety of narrative techniques and forms in their contribution. Second, as a version of the “Round Robin” creative writing assignment, it was meant to encourage students to see the different directions that other students would take their contributions—which is to say, the associations they would make.  Movement from the previous page from the next created a prose version of the association of ideas distributed across multiple psychologies, suggesting something like the witty rencounters of different subjectivities in the text.  Students wrote one page after the other, creating a thirty-six page document written by thirty-five authors, with the first and final pages authored by the same student, who began the piece with a Catcher and the Rye parody:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. I desire to tell you something else, the truest tale of the unrelenting Justice of the Punctual. I knew Justice: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he had borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it.

Students read their pages in sequence while making use of linked multi-media technology, such as the iTunes-generated “Menelaus’ playlist for Helen”—which was crucial to one part of the tale—to parallel expand upon Sterne’s print novelties with modern technology.  The event was a great success as both a learning tool and a celebration of Sterne.  It produced mirth in the surprise and delight of what others had done when they picked up the thread, as well as some genuine admiration for the inventiveness and resourcefulness of narrative techniques and parodies of classmates.

Teaching Tristram Shandy—an unconventional novel that has a great deal of fun with conventions—to undergrads, I feel, requires or at least benefits from the incorporation of pedagogical approaches that matches its complex narrative structure. I hope that these examples will be of help and inspire other brave eighteenth-centuryists to turn the page and generate ever more playful ways in which we help our students ride with Sterne along the king’s highway.


Melanie Holm, Indiana University of Pennsylvania


Edited by:

Joel P. Sodano, University at Albany, SUNY

Michael Brown, University of Aberdeen


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Thursday, 06/02/2022 - 17:06

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