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.