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Horizontal divider Heather Sellers

Grading Vows

posted: 11.25.14 by Heather Sellers

I have many writing students, and I assign each one of them writing—a lot of writing, both critical and creative pieces—for each class. So, I read a lot of student work.  And this time of the semester all my vows are tested. My vow to keep my daily writing practice going. My vow to sleep and eat well and exercise daily—that’s pretty much over now that it’s late November. My vow to be present for my students, to be a good colleague. My vow to live a life centered around kindness, awareness, and meaning.

I have three strategies—which may or may not work for you—to keep from feeling overly stressed about reading so much student work, especially towards the end of the term, when getting behind, getting off track with other projects and neglecting the fun and fulfilling parts of life is most likely.

Strategy 1

I read 1/3 of the papers that come in the day they come in.  I stay in my office after each class period and spend at least an hour reading for each class. I get home late, but I get home free. I don’t carry student work around with me. I feel like a pile of student writing, left untended, mushrooms into something larger. [Full disclosure: I am teaching creative writing. I feel very, very lucky to have the job I have. I get to choose the assignments, their length, and schedule the due dates. Most people aren’t in that position, so I want to be careful here.  However, I taught comp for many, many years and always I try to associate, deeply, reading student work with pleasurable things.] I read in my office, and I have made that space beautiful by making sure I always have in my space

  1. Fresh flowers
  2. A diffuser spewing lavender oil molecules into the air
  3. Soft light
  4. Soft music.
  5. Access to hot tea.

Strategy 2

I schedule, in my calendar, blocks of time for doing the rest of the reading and then I don’t talk about grading papers before, during, or after those scheduled blocks of time. Ever. Not one word. Not ever. I simply refuse to talk about this part of my life.  I talk about what my students are up to that’s surprising to me. I talk about what we are reading in class, and what I am learning as a writer from the readings, or from my students. If I talk about grading, I feel like I’m complaining and then I also feel like I am spending time in a negative place—like I’m stretching out the task to be a huge part of my life.  It’s time consuming, and important, but it’s not the center of my life. I like to hear other people’s creative strategies for improving teaching so I try to steer conversations about the tedious parts of teaching toward interesting elements, creative solutions, and, hopefully, humor.

Strategy 3

I made friends outside of academia and I hang out with them during my social time. People outside of academia have great strategies for managing workload, increasing efficiency, and approaching the parts of the job that are most challenging and I love to listen to how they talk about work. They are so not interested in my grading woes that, once again, I’m not spending my time in that slough.  I learned a different way of relating to work conversations by listening to those in other fields and it gave me a fresh perspective that I really needed.

At first, when I made my vow to not talk about grading papers, I felt a little weird and lonely. I worried my colleagues would think I was lazy or unfocused. When there’d be a gripe session in the halls  and I didn’t join in, at first I felt like I wasn’t really being part of the team.

It seems like it would be super annoying to enter the conversation, rubrics in hand, smiling, papers all graded and scores neatly entered in the gradebook.  So, I restrain myself.  But if you want to talk about teaching, and response strategies to creative writing, and what we’re learning from researchers about what happens in peer response groups, my door is open. Please come in. Even during this busy time of year, I’d love to talk!

My office is pretty. I did yoga this morning.  End of the semester, and hanging in!  Do come by.

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Categories: Avoiding Burnout, Classroom Challenges and Solutions
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Making Comics

posted: 11.11.14 by Emily Isaacson

I’m a big fan of multi-modal approaches to reading comprehension — I’ve written before about having students draw a poem, and I’ve adapted Barclay Barrios’s idea about IKEA directions for my freshman orientation group. Most recently, I borrowed an idea from my colleague — a Germanist who teaches a course on fairy tales — for my day on Charles Dickens in my survey course: create a comic highlighting the main points of the story.

On this particular day, my students read “The Story of Little Dombey” and “Sikes and Nancy,” which are Dickens’ own adaptations of his work for his public speaking tour — essentially, they are selections from two novels that he performed for his audience, giving only the central parts of these two particular episodes.

So, to prep my students, I showed them a few examples from Hark, a vagrant. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the artist takes literature and history as a subject matter for 6 or 9 paneled comics.  They’re funny, they’re spot on, and they can show students how it’s important — even in making jokes — that we have something to hang on to from the literature. (My favorite is “Dude Watching With the Brontes”.)  For me it established a tone for the class — we’re serious here in our study of literature, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This is supposed to be fun — but reflective of the text in front of us.

From here, I provided groups of three a sheet with six panels on it, and had students select one of the two stories. The directions from this point on were to pick the 6 most important moments, and illustrate them as best as they could. This work got students talking about the plots, and particularly identifying the plots that didn’t quite work out of the context of their respective novels. But they also talked a great deal about the central themes of the stories.

What the students came up with was amazing. In general, students approached the topic differently. We had lol-speak. We had serious attempts at illustrating the important moments. We had references to contemporary pop-culture — and one group even explained that the last moment of “Sikes and Nancy” would be saved for the post-credit sequence.

After students worked on their comics, I had the groups explain their choices, which allowed us to look at what they saw as not only central moments in the stories, but also the themes of the stories. What was remarkable about the effort was that students gravitated towards similar moments in the two stories. For example, the groups that chose “Little Dombey” all focused on the little boy’s complaint that money (his father’s highest concern) could not bring back his dead mother.

Student Cartoon Panel

In all, the students were able to sort out the plot, the characters, the themes without my intervention — and that goal is certainly a huge part of working on their ability to read literature.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Critical Thinking, Emily Isaacson, In-Class Activity, Popular Culture
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Horizontal divider David Eshelman

Audio Theatre: A New Writing Platform

posted: 11.4.14 by David Eshelman

It had long been my contention that playwriting is more practical than screenwriting because it leads more directly to a finished product.  In other words, whereas an ambitious playwright could organize his or her friends and stage a piece on a weekend, the screenwriter was dependent on the whims of Hollywood producers to obtain the resources to get their films made.  This assessment of practicality, though, seems to apply less and less to today’s world in which there are so many opportunities through the internet.  If a screenwriter uses the production and distribution means available through the web—for example, if a writer creates scripts for short Youtube films—then screenwriting can be every bit as practical as playwriting.

Besides screenwriting, the internet has enhanced the practicality of another field—radio drama.  The format, which dwindled in the U.S. with the rise of television, is now reemerging under the aegis of podcasting and audiobooks.  Teachers of dramatic writing are wise to embrace audio theatre for the following reasons:

  1. It stands to become more and more important in our Internet Age.
  2. It provides easy production opportunities for emerging writers—requiring no sets, costumes, or even line memorization, as required by film and the stage.
  3. Digital recordings, the product of audio theatre endeavors, are easy to disseminate to a wide audience.

My university, Arkansas Tech, has been leading the way in audio theatre ventures for seven years now.  Through an organization called the Arkansas Radio Theatre, we have created more than forty broadcasts which play on the local radio station, are made available to the visually impaired throughout the state, and are available on-line  (click Public, then Radio Theatre).  The Arkansas Radio Theatre is dedicated to new plays and adaptations of classic literature.  An audio theatre company like the Arkansas Radio Theatre is easy to establish because free recording software is easily available.  An interested instructor simply needs some microphones in order to record voices.  Apart from that, an audio theatre company simply requires a means for broadcast—or some server space, which is readily available at most universities.

However, just because a production opportunity exists, that does not mean that student writers are prepared to take advantage of it.  Because audio theatre is a unique form, writers must be trained with relevant coursework.  In order to build the Radio Theatre into the curricular structures of my university, I am teaching (in Fall 2014) an upper-division topics course focusing on Radio Theatre Writing.  Some of the assignments explore audio theatre as a genre:  for example, listening to broadcasts from the Golden Age of Radio and comparing them to the audio drama available today.  Students will eventually work toward hour-long original scripts.  Hopefully, the insights learned in teaching this class will help others who attempt to engage in audio theatre projects.  I will report on the progress of the course in later posts.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Teaching with Technology
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Horizontal divider Paul Menzer

Teaching Shakespeare’s Contemporaries

posted: 10.21.14 by Paul Menzer

Every other year I teach a course called “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries.” And therefore every other year I end up thinking that it’s the worst possible name for the course. For starters, when you consider that Great Britain boasted a population of 4,811,718 in 1600, the title alone would obligate me to entertain 4,811,717 thousand individuals, and though my strength is as the strength of ten, I am but one man. More seriously, if we were even to entertain only the dramatic entertainments of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, that still leaves an enormous number of plays.

Consider this: with enough time on his hands or money in her pocket, an industrious young man or woman of 21 in 1584 could have seen the premier of the plays of John Lyly, as well as plays by Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Robert Greene before she or he hit 30.  In the next decade, my imaginary – though aging – playgoer could see plays by all of the Thomases (Heywood, Dekker, Middleton), the Johns (Marston, Webster, Fletcher), Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, Cyril Tourneur before he or she had passed his or her 40th.  Won’t they be tired?  Oh yeah, by the way, they could have also seen all the plays of Shakespeare, and about 1200 more for which we have records in the period.

But we don’t have world or time enough – in fact we only have fifteen weeks.  So I end up selected about 25 plays and, by selecting, doom each play to the status of sample.  Each play must be a sample of something about all of the other plays in the period not written by William Shakespeare, and there’s a surprisingly large number of them. This in turn seems to doom the class to an exercise in which whoever wrote the play they’re reading, they’re always reading a play not-by-Shakespeare, whereas when they’re reading a play by Shakespeare, they’re never reading a play, for instance, not-by-Marston. A former student in the course put it crudely but effectively when she said, there’s Shakespeare and there’s early modern drama. She’s right.

I’m not really complaining, and I’m certainly not diagnosing. At this point I’m merely describing the case that is the case. After all, what else would we want to call the class?

  • Tudor, Jacobean, and Carolinian Drama
  • Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Century Plays in English
  • Plays in English: 1580-1642
  • Non-Shakespearean Early Modern Entertainments
  • Early English Drama
  • Medieval and Renaissance Drama

I could write several hundred words, at least, on the problems of each title, but I’ll spare you for now. Suffice to say that all these course names are variously misleading.  For now, at least, “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries” will serve. Not least because it seems, of all the titles auditioned here, to be the most provocatively bad.  “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries” is the worst possible name for the course, except for all the others.

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Categories: Cultural Mythologies, Genre, Literature
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Horizontal divider Ayşe Papatya Bucak

The Originality Scale

posted: 10.14.14 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Last year I traumatized my MFA students by inventing this thing I called the Originality Scale.  At the bottom were stories we’d heard before told in familiar ways, and at the top—well, there was no top, because whatever would go at the top is so original we can’t even imagine it (yet).  The middle, however, was filled with variations—old stories told in a new way, new stories told in an old way, new forms, new technology, history told with a new perspective, etc.  For the rest of the semester, the students seemed troubled, taunted, tortured by where their writing would fit on the Originality Scale.  I became so alarmed that I presented to the class the notion that human beings need to learn the same things over and over again, and that is perhaps why the same stories work over and over again.  And could they please forget the Originality Scale.

Except I don’t really think they should forget the Originality Scale.  The problem was not the Scale, the problem was the fear and paralysis induced by the Scale.

I think what my graduate students were really afraid of was that I might be telling them they shouldn’t be writers; that they weren’t original enough.  But what I was really trying to say was they needed to work harder at it.  To be conscious of it.

Originality matters.

So how can we teach it?

For me, quite simply, originality often boils down to the sensation that I haven’t read a piece before—but I’ve read a lot, too much. Beginning writers often have no idea what is unoriginal because they have not read enough. They struggle to recognize clichés and often seek out writing that is comfortable and familiar.  And yet because they are often young, they are frequently early adopters of using new technology in writing.  Texting, Facebook, 3D-printing all turned up in my students’ work long before I ever saw them in published pieces, and this is one of the things my students are better about bringing to their work than I am my own.  And it is one way to encourage originality. Technology, after all, is the one thing that has changed writing time and time again.

Beginning writers can also be very brave about breaking the rules (they don’t know the rules!).  And so it can be important to not “correct” them and bully them into a standard Freytag’s pyramid formation, but rather to talk about a writer’s intentions versus a reader’s response, and what readers look for when they don’t get what they expect.  Surprising is not the same thing as original and neither is weird.  What is original must still make the reader feel or think or see.  But it doesn’t have to follow the exact format of inciting incident, obstacles, climax, resolution.

During workshops, students can be encouraged to choose more unusual or unexpected points of view, to set a story in a less predictable location, to embrace…drum roll, please…what they know (which in my (students’) experience has included the secret tunnels of Disneyland, roller derby, cattle ranching, and the behind-the-scenes life of pretty much any low-wage job you can imagine).

And, of course, they can be asked to read…to read and read and read until they know what is out there.

The final irony is the thing that makes a piece of writing original may not actually be the thing that makes it great, and yet if a piece doesn’t have some unexpected, previously unseen something, it probably won’t be great. Good maybe, but not great.  And sometimes students just need to know that.

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Categories: Ayse Papatya Bucak, Creative Writing, Plagiarism, Self-Assessment and Evaluation
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Performing as Professor

posted: 10.7.14 by Emily Isaacson

When I talk to my students about writing papers, I discuss the idea of audience — most often, we discuss how things are different when speaking to our friends at another college about our weekend and speaking to our parents about it. From there I have the students think about what they’d tell the Dean of Students. That’s the one that typically gets students thinking about what they’d leave out of a discussion, and the different tone that they’d likely use.

What we’re really talking about, ultimately, is the aspect of performance for our audience. And that performative aspect is something that I’ve been thinking about in terms of my presence in the classroom: I perform differently on Twitter than I do in person; I perform differently around my friends than I do in the classroom; in fact, I perform differently in front of my colleagues than I do in front of my students.

This is not to say that the shifts in my personality are huge — the same basic “me” is there — but rather that I’ve recently become very conscious of that performance aspect of my teaching. In the classroom, my goal is to be approachable, but authoritative. I want my classroom to be a fairly laid-back space, where students are comfortable grappling with the complexities of the texts in front of them. I also want them to have fun with the literature, and this is where I’m most conscious of the way that I become performative — and, in fact, have become so increasingly over my years of experience.

What I’ve noticed in teaching over the past several years is that I’ve become much more conscious of the space that I take up in the classroom — particularly the way that I take up that space.  I’ve always been one to pace across the front of the room, or even move into the rows of students.  While this has the potential drawback of being distracting for some students, I also think it’s important for keeping students engaged and showing that I’m paying attention to them.

But that’s not quite what I’m talking about either.

What I’m really talking about is becoming, in some ways, much bigger, more physically expressive than I normally am in day-to-day conversation.

Perhaps the easiest way for me to explain this is to talk about what happens when I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Students — particularly Intro to Lit students — don’t always quite visualize how very terrifying it is when the narrator is creeping about the smooch above the mopboard in that final section. What’s particularly frightening in that scene is when she looks over her shoulder at John and he faints. It always strikes me as a little bit like some scenes from The Grudge (a movie I’ve only seen trailers for, by the way), but I think that even just suggesting that to the students doesn’t quite do it. So, I show them where the mopboard would be, then I lean over — almost getting down on the ground — and begin creeping, turning my head abruptly back in to explain how terrifying this might be.

It’s very physical, and it’s something that I find that I do more and more as I teach. The performance usually doesn’t wind up being quite this undignified (it is probably a sight when I’m wearing high heels and doing this), but as I continue to teach I’ve found much more hand waving, much more exaggerated movement on my part. It’s not really the sage on the stage — most of the courses I teach are almost entirely discussion-driven — but it is an acknowledgement that we’re onstage when we’re teaching, no matter what.

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Emily Isaacson, Teaching Advice
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Horizontal divider Heather Sellers

First Day – How to Establish a Meaningful Beginning

posted: 9.23.14 by Heather Sellers

Tomorrow is the first day of the new semester.

My syllabi are printed on bright shiny goldenrod paper. Stapled. Neatly stacked. Books are by the door, and my water bottle, glasses, glasses lanyard, and power bars are in my satchel.  My nerves are jangly, in a good way. I’ve got new periwinkle blue notebooks for my classes. I’ve examined the rosters, and am happy to see names that are familiar to me. Qaadir. Renee. Sarah D.

Faces pop up now in our online course management tool but their faces will never be familiar: I suffer from profound prosopagnosia or face blindness.  And I’ll open class with that news, asking my students to help me identify them each time we encounter each other.

The first time I did this in front of a class of puzzled undergraduates, years ago, I was shaking so hard, I wasn’t sure I’d make it through my spiel.  But I saw the looks on the students’ faces that day: awe, curiosity, kindness, compassion.  I was stunned.  They leaned in—literally. Before leaning in was a metaphor, they physically leaned in, and peppered me with questions for 45 minutes. It was one of the most moving, meaningful hours I spent in a classroom.

And I quickly learned how to boundary that conversation so the first hour wasn’t “Heather’s Medical Mystery Hour.”  But I start every single class with this request: will you help me? And they do. I allow ten minutes for questions (what do you see? can you recognize your own face? how will you know if someone slips in and takes our place?) (what you see, no, and I won’t.)  And then it’s their turn to tell me who they are.

I’ve found that this necessary but deeply personal intimate disclosure on my part engenders an authenticity in our introductory conversation.  I always hated those dry, canned “Tell us a little about yourself, where you are from, what you are majoring in” openers. I hated them because they’re all surface and no news, no depth. And, worse, students unconsciously match their answers to fit what’s come before. It’s an exercise in conformity, not creativity.  Since I’m teaching creative writing, and asking my students to learn how to go in deep to find valuable, complex, interesting stories to tell, I want to set up a first-day introductory activity that pre-figures the work we will do during the course of the semester.  I don’t want un-boundaried self-disclosure—“tell us something no one knows about you.” That may or may not be the best route to a good introduction or a good piece of writing.

Tomorrow I’m going to try a new prompt for the introductions.  Tell us your name, what you want to be called, and what you are fired up about.  I got the prompt from a friend’s luncheon this past summer; she got it from a life coach who runs “Women on Fire.” I will have them write down their response so they have a better shot at staying true to their own internal wisdom.

I will use the introduction process as a way to launch my first lecture: how to engage the reader.

I’ll let you know how it goes.  Meanwhile, I ‘d love to hear how you structure introductions—what works for you, what doesn’t, and why.

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions
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Horizontal divider Samuel Cohen

It Says Here

posted: 9.11.14 by Samuel Cohen

The world these days is full of competing stories. I can’t turn on my computer without being inundated by them (unless I don’t look at any social media, but then what’s a computer for? Writing?). Everything that is happening, it seems, is represented by not one but at least two differing narratives. The recent retraction of a hiring offer at a major Midwestern university over a controversial Twitter feed is either an affront to faculty governance and intellectual freedom or it is a reasonable decision based on the evidence. Relatedly, (since this is what the tweets were about), recent events in Gaza are reason to condemn the Israeli government for war crimes or are reason to support it in defending itself. Unrelatedly, publicly airing a video of a football player assaulting his then-girlfriend, now-wife, in an elevator was the right move as it led to his suspension from professional football or it was a violation of the couple’s privacy.

I bring these examples up not to talk about them in themselves but to make the point that the controversies over these events can be seen not as made up entirely of logical argument (or, for that matter, unreflecting passion), but as consisting largely of competing narratives. That is, the positions people hold on these things may come from aspects of their identities—national origin, gender, some kind of identification with a relevant group—but even if they do, they are informed and supported by a story. The stories may be about the past that led to the current state of affairs or about assumptions regarding human nature or the nature of the relationship between states and citizens or employers and employees.

I’m thinking today about the importance of stories to the way we see the world (not a new insight, I know) in part because the anniversary of 9/11 is two days from the moment I am writing this. In this morning’s online reading I saw an article about still-classified portions of documents pertaining to the events of that day, documents that might or might not change our understanding of what happened. One congressman is quoted as saying these pages “tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report.” The 9/11 Report is the official account of what happened, but it is one story among many, and it is a story informed by other stories about American history, global history, and the nature of armed conflict, just as competing accounts are informed by other, larger stories and smaller personal ones.

This got me thinking about other stories we tell ourselves about those events, stories that are as much about ourselves as anything else. A scheduled event on my campus, an email from my chancellor informs me, will celebrate “Patriot Day,” the term some are using for the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. There is a wealth of narrative behind that labeling choice.

I am also thinking about stories now because I am always thinking about stories. It is one of the chief job hazards of teaching and studying fiction. This job has taught me to see narrative everywhere. As Hayden White has argued even history, which at first glance seems about the facts of past events, is shaped by the same tropes and story-forms that shape novels.  It has taught me that the arguments we have about the world around us are at bottom just stories, and that, as Billy Bragg sings in “It Says Here,” “…there are two sides to every story.” Maybe most importantly, it has taught me that there actually more than two sides—that is, that we too often fall into the trap of thinking there are only two choices, two ways to understand a particular event or phenomenon, while the best fiction can show us that the options are never-ending.  It can do this, as Bakhtin argued in his reading of Dostoevsky when a writer embodies opposing viewpoints in different characters and doesn’t pick a winner. It can also do this when it shows how difficult it is to understand the world at all, when it presents characters or narrators with points of view that do not seem to be endorsed by the author but to which the author seems to oppose no “correct” view (which Lukacs claimed is the definition of the modern novel).

My ultimate point here could be seen as another answer to the question answered in a previous entry, “Why I Teach Literature.” Another reason I teach fiction is to offer my students the opportunity to see the competing narratives in the books I assign and in the world around them, to see how these stories are built on other stories, and to see how there are more than two sides to every story. There are ways to teach that encourage these lessons, which any teacher can easily enough apply in their classroom, methods that highlight the opposition, nuance, and ambiguity in fiction and in the stories we tell outside of the pages in books. Helping students to look at things in this way can, in a hoary old humanist formulation I still believe in, help them to better appreciate and understand not only literature but also life, which, to borrow an old concept, is stories all the way down.

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Categories: Cultural Mythologies, Samuel Cohen, Uncategorized
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Preparing the British Literature Survey: Or, There’s Never Enough Time

posted: 9.2.14 by Emily Isaacson

Recently, I got into a conversation on Twitter with a number of other early modernists about survey courses, a discussion that stemmed from another English professor’s frustration with her anthology’s options for The Faerie Queene. While we discussed different anthology choices that we make for our surveys, we ultimately wound up in conversation about what we include in our British Literature surveys, and what we’re forced to leave out. Some of it simply has to do with what our anthologies give us; some of it has to do with our philosophy towards the course; and a lot of it has to do with the other options our departments provide for our students.

 

My friend with the initial complaint admitted that she tends not to teach much Chaucer in the survey, because she’s at an institution with a great course on Chaucer — and as an early modernist rather than a medievalist, she feels she can’t do The Canterbury Tales the justice it deserves. Instead she teaches other Middle English texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and sometimes excerpts of Piers Plowman.  Other people in the conversation admitted to leaving out The Faerie Queene altogether, giving them more time to focus on 17th century works. And others admitted — like most of us — that one of the eras covered by our surveys always gets short shrift. For many of us, it winds up being late 18th century work.

 

What I found most interesting was the conversation about how people chose the texts that they did, with many opting for relatively thematic courses (focusing, for example, on gender or the construction of the English national identity or on a particular literary pattern). Others — myself included — tend towards a more traditional style of survey course, which means trying to teach students a sense of literary history through the survey.

 

I’m in an odd position in that I teach both parts of the British Literature survey.  While different schools divide the course differently, I’ve generally taught in places that use 1798 as the dividing line — so I run into the problem of trying to teach everything pre-1798 in 15 weeks, then everything post-1798 in the next 15.  Oddly (or not) it’s really difficult to pick literature for both of them. Because of my department’s size, I’m also the only person currently in the department to teach all of the British Literature courses (we simply run a course called “Studies in British Literature,” which I will develop each time to cover a different era or topic; I’m also making my “Studies in the Novel” course a British novels course). So basically: I’m responsible for making sure my students have some sense of British Literature from Old English up to contemporary works.

 

This feels like a lot of pressure some days and my instinct is to look at lesser known writers, to focus on interesting issues of labor and gender through the time periods. But I also feel a responsibility to introduce my students to the traditionally canonical authors. I’m grateful that most anthologies include a wide variety of materials to work with — and I particularly like anthologies that include sections giving context, whether it’s the context of poetic traditions in the 16th century or the context of the laboring classes in the 19th century. Still it’s a tough balancing act, particularly given the span of time and the number of authors I always feel like we ought to be covering.

 

For me, I think that it boils down to the idea that these are called “surveys” rather than “studies in.” The purpose behind this really is to give the overview of how the literary landscape is shaped.  And the choices that I make are certainly informed by that.

 

But those choices — and my choice to include a lot of cultural context as well as less canonical authors — is also related to this idea of surveying everything. Alexander Pope (who I teach, most certainly) may have had major influence over the formation of the canon, but I cannot teach him without acknowledging — and having my students read — Mary Wortley Montagu’s work as well. They’re both part of the same landscape.

 

As I prepared my list of readings for my post-1798 class for the fall, I was reminded of how much I rely on poetry to get me through these courses. We can read multiple authors on these occasions, if the goal is primarily one of exposure to the names and the major movements.  It does lead to some weird mash-up days (we’re reading Derek Wolcott and Seamus Heaney on the same day), but it also allows for students to get a sense of the entire field. For additional coverage, I have students give presentations on texts we’re not reading in class, but which are represented in the textbook — and the explicit goal there is simply to have the exposure to the names.

 

Perhaps, most importantly, my course outcomes — beyond the sort of standard language about exposure to major figures of major movements — focus on the idea of students being able to articulate the relationship between the author, the text, and the world. I especially want them to do this through working on close reading and analysis.  And perhaps that is why, when it comes down to the moment of guilt about not including this author or that text, I am able to assuage some of my concern.  The real goal, then, is to teach students about the way we can read the work. Once they’re capable of that, they can go out and explore beyond our courses on their own.

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Categories: Emily Isaacson, Organization, Uncategorized
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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Stretching the Field of Knowledge

posted: 8.19.14 by Emily Isaacson

Throughout the last decade-plus of college teaching, I’ve been called upon to do a lot of teaching outside my immediate area of expertise. A great deal of this began when I working off the tenure track at Florida Atlantic University, where I began teaching a course called “Interpretation of Fiction.” This is a course that primarily covers short stories (though we also read a novel) – and the short story was the one form that I felt, as a student of early modern drama, that I was unqualified to teach. Of course I’d studied short stories in classes – I’ve got three English degrees, after all – but I still felt like I didn’t understand the form, or know the types of stories to bring to the classroom, given that this form simply isn’t something we think about much when we read Shakespeare or Spenser or Milton.

So it was a crash course in the short story, provided by Ann Charters’ The Story and its Writer. But because of that experience, I began reading much more world literature in earnest. I’d studied some Kafka as an undergrad; I’d read some Chekhov in my teen years, but never really thought much of it; and certainly I was aware of the weirdness of Borges’ works. But much of what I was doing in the first semester of teaching that course was learning alongside my students.

Because of that initial experience after graduate school, and because I’ve since worked exclusively at small liberal arts colleges with fewer than 1500 students (and with very small English departments), I’ve spent a lot of time teaching outside of my immediate specialties. And this will continue for the foreseeable future.

In my current position, I’m teaching the courses of a woman who taught at the school for more than 40 years (I am not replacing her. She is an institution unto herself, and I certainly am not trying to fill those shoes. I’ve got my own.). The courses I teach range from Shakespeare and the British Literature survey courses to the survey of modern world literature and the novels course. I’m also in the process of creating a 100-level course on literature about nature, because we’re an institution with a large number of environmental science majors – and this seems like a topic that will interest a large portion of our student population. On top of this, I’m already carving out a niche for directing honors projects that cover, in essence, nerd culture.

Some days, it’s overwhelming. And I miss the comfort of being able to speak extensively on a topic without a whole lot of preparation when students have particular questions. But at the same time, there’s something extraordinary to me about being, ultimately, a generalist. I’m pushed to learn more and more every time I teach, and I’m pushed to expand my own literary experiences.

And that probably explains why I don’t feel bad that my summer reading has been classical Japanese literature, and not the scholarly articles about non-Shakespearean dramatists that I know I should be reading instead. At the same time, I have these moments of guilt about relying primarily on my Twitter feed for news of what’s happening in my primary field (there are lots of great early modernists on Twitter, incidentally). I wonder if I’m doing this wrong.

But those moments are ultimately pretty fleeting, because I’m coming to accept that I can still do my research in the field, and then turn my attention to the Tale of Genji the rest of the time.

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Categories: Emily Isaacson, Literature, Organization, Professional Development, The Academic Scene, Uncategorized
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