When, at the height of her career, Edith Wharton consented to an interview with a reporter, this is the only picture of herself she wanted to have published.
In the quaintness of this pose, we can see the challenge of teaching Wharton's novels. She was a product of her period. In fact, she resented the "progress" she witnessed over the course of her life.
Our students are equally products of their own, very different time.
If we want them to regard Wharton as something more than a cartoon, and her novels as more than a peculiar kind of literary costume-ball (full of colors but without anymeaning) we need to recreate her world by putting her texts into context. What follows is my own approach to fulfilling that goal.
1. I design a syllabus that develops the students' understanding of context through the selection of related texts, the design of class activities and assignments, and the collection of useful supplementary resources.
2. I provide students with the opportunity to pursue, individually or in groups, brief, clearly focused preliminary "research" projects that will provide a foundation for their further explorations of the novel.
3. I provide students with topics for research projects that are clearly defined and yet sufficiently open to allow for independent work. Provide students with a set of resources that can serve as an effective starting-point for their investigations.