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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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Gearing Up For Fall

posted: 8.12.14 by smooney

After a brief pause for the summer, LitBits is gearing up for the fall term with an invitation to all literature instructors.  If you want to share your thoughts about literature and the classroom, we would love to welcome you to our esteemed gathering of LitBits bloggers.  Please contact me at if you would like to become a contributor.

Next week, veteran blogger and literature maven Emily Isaacson will kick off the 2014-2015 school year with a post about teaching outside of your primary field.

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Horizontal divider Joanne Diaz

Teaching Active Listening with the Woodberry Poetry Room

posted: 4.23.14 by Joanne Diaz

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a freelance editor and adjunct instructor in the Boston area, piecing together paychecks from one job to the next. As any freelancer knows, there’s always a point in the late afternoon when you lose your steam and wonder what to do with yourself in the hours before everyone else gets home from their office jobs. [read more]

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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

The Value of Silence

posted: 4.16.14 by Emily Isaacson

Lately, I’ve noticed that my tolerance for wait time—those moments of silence during a classroom discussion– is getting bad.  Really bad.  And perhaps, more importantly, my conviction that class is going horribly if my students aren’t talking nonstop has gotten stronger.  I want my students to be talking, and I want them talking now. [read more]

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Horizontal divider Ayşe Papatya Bucak

When is a Mistake Truly a Mistake?

posted: 3.31.14 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Sometimes, as a creative writing professor you just want to put your foot down.  My colleague, Kate Schmitt, told one workshop if any of them used the word flow again, they’d have to go stand in the corner.  One of my beloved professors, Ron Carlson, told us we weren’t allowed to put clowns in our stories. [read more]

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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

When Organization Fails

posted: 3.25.14 by Emily Isaacson

I am both very organized and a complete organizational nightmare.  I am thankful that computers can easily and quickly search documents for key words.  I would never find old teaching material otherwise, because I am both a hoarder of the old stuff and a person who dallies with organizing systems, then tosses them aside.  (I did finally purge a large portion of my paper files last year, but I’ve still got a box of teaching files that I want to keep on hand.) [read more]

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Why Teach or Study Literature?

posted: 3.19.14 by William Bradley

I was a little nervous to tell my father my plans to major in English with a creative writing emphasis.  Though my parents had always emphasized the importance of literature—my mom was a high school English teacher, and my dad would read us Mark Twain and John Steinbeck when we were kids—I felt like my choice would strike him as being completely impractical. [read more]

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Horizontal divider Emily Isaacson

Categorizing the Things in Tim Obrien’s “The Things They Carried”

posted: 3.13.14 by Emily Isaacson

When I teach introduction to literature, I almost always teach Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  And when I teach that I have traditionally begun the class period by writing a list of objects from the story as students call them out.  We then talk about what the objects mean and what they say about the characters, and we’ve generally attempted some work at categorizing them. [read more]

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Why I Teach Literature

posted: 3.4.14 by Samuel Cohen

For the epigraph to the preface of the latest edition of Literature: The Human Experience, I chose a few sentences from an interview given by David Foster Wallace: “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. [read more]

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Teaching Writing and Analysis in the Literature Classroom

posted: 2.25.14 by Emily Isaacson

One of the great challenges in teaching a survey course full of non-majors is making sure everyone knows how to write about literature.  This past semester, I faced that challenge in my world literature course – I had a room full of students, ranging from high school students taking college-level courses to senior English majors working on their capstone papers. [read more]

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