So I spent this evening bouncing around the apartment to the CD that used to come with the Norton Anthology. Yes, I am a dork, but there is really so much good stuff on there -- Seamus Heaney reading from Beowulf, and Marie Boroff doing her best Wife of Bath impression, and my favorite song ever from Shakespeare, and To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time (can you tell I have a thing for carpe diem poetry?), and Since Laws Were Made For Every Degree.
I'm almost excited about this class again. Almost. And dreading it, too. I have two sections this semester -- both jammed full, sixty students in all, and one of them is at eight o'clock in the morning. And I have made a Virtuous Resolution to do individual conferences before both of the papers are due, plus quickie five-minute meetings for them to practice their Middle English pronunciation before our read-through of the Nun's Priest's Tale. That sort of thing worked well last semester in Brit Lit II, but I had fourteen students then. I think I just might be insane.
But the trouble with this course, really, is that it tries to be all things to all people -- and conferencing is the one way I know to reach the stragglers and teach the best students something useful. English majors are required to take a year-long sequence -- either Brit Lit I&II, American Lit I&II, or World Lit I&II -- so it has to be rigorous enough to work as a foundations course for the major. But only 4% of the students at Misnomer University are English majors. The other 96% need to take at least one literature survey to fulfill their gen ed requirements, and because Brit Lit I has the lowest number and that pesky "I" in the title, many of them mistakenly think it's the easiest. So they all get thrown head-first into Chaucer and Shakespeare; some of them read at about a sixth-grade level, and some of them are budding majors who are palpably, understandably frustrated with the level of discourse among their classmates.
I feel like I didn't handle this mix well last year. There were days when it felt like I was trying to discuss literature with a field of cows, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from yelling at them -- For God's sake, you're reading works that have touched and amused and infuriated twenty generations of people! Have an opinion about them! Express it! Is that so very hard? I didn't, of course, both because I am pretty sure it would have made things worse and because I lack courage.
I've been rethinking the class, this time around. There will be less reading (goodbye, Marlowe and Webster and Swift), more explicit instruction about the basics (here's how you take notes; here's how you prepare for a discussion class; here's a list of appropriate paper topics, and if you have a different one you'd like to pursue, make sure you run it by me). And, as I said, individual conferences. We will also be taking a couple of days to watch the film version of Wit, partly because it offers some provocative answers to the inevitable "Why do I have to know about John Donne when I'm a health sciences major?" question, but mostly (oh hell, let's be honest) because I'm going to need some down time after prepping for all those conferences. And I put in for a smart classroom, so there will be more music and video clips and images of period art, more of anything that might help medieval and early modern people seem a little more real and more human.
I have no idea if any of this will help. I worry that some of it is overly ambitious, and some of it may be counterproductive (do we really need all those technological bells and whistles? What happens if we forget to, you know, talk about books?) But at least it will be new, and I think I need new; I need to throw some things at the wall and see which ones stick.
And I do love just about everything we're reading, because I cut almost everything that didn't speak to me from the syllabus; life is just too short. Gather ye rosebuds. Perhaps, where there is love, nothing else can go so very wrong.