Friday, September 18, 2009

Early Courseblogging, Series 4: Two Textbook Questions

Well, it is almost time to order books for my second semester lit survey, so some early courseblogging:

1) Has anybody ever used the deal Norton advertises where they package the Norton Critical Edition of your choice with one of the anthologies at no extra cost? How does it work, exactly? Does it make it impossible for students to buy used books, and / or is the bookstore likely to screw the order up?

2) Let's say you're teaching a survey course, pitched at about the sophomore level, for a mixed population that ranges from really bright budding English majors to students who will probably never read another serious work of literature in their lives. Let's also say that you've decided you want the students to read one mid-length novel in addition to the works in the anthology.

Do you pick:

A) a work by a really hyper-canonical author, someone you think everyone with a college education should at least have heard of, and ideally read? (There is a chance students will have already read it in high school and will have a been-there-done-that attitude. It may also not be a totally "representative" work, in terms of being typical of the period when it was written.)

B) a work by a somewhat less well-known author which feels more "representative," in that it hits a whole bunch of themes and concerns that feel pretty typical for the period, and it represents certain historical conditions and trends that you want students to know about. (The author is not super-obscure -- I'd expect most English majors to run across this writer at some point -- but I wouldn't be surprised if a well-educated person in a different field had never heard of him / her.)

(I'm being deliberately vague about the specific authors / books involved, partly because I'm contemplating multiple works in each category, and partly because I'm more interested in how my readers think texts for surveys should be selected in general than how they feel about the individual novels in question.)


Renaissance Girl said...

I choose B. I hate to retread high school reading, even to expand their sense of how, say, Hamlet might communicate a whole range of ideas they didn't touch on in 11th grade. And B also allows you to talk about how text and culture interact without a lot of the baggage and prejudice and preconception that attaches to something like, say, Hamlet. They might not believe they already know all there is to know about, say, Edward II, and the conversation can therefore be more expansive. That's my 2 cents.

Sisyphus said...

Originally I was going to say anything by Jane Austen so I could tie in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but having read Renaissance Girl's point I change my mind and say something that doesn't get taught in high school because it's dirty. Bring in those foul foul foul 18th Century texts. Yeah! :)

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sisyphus -- Alas, all of the contenders are very proper 19th-century texts (though one of the contenders in Category A is indeed Austen -- in fact, Austen is far and away the best choice if I want to do the compromise option of a not-as-famous book by a famous author, since Northanger Abbey is about the right length and hilarious to boot. But on the other hand, for reasons of course balance, I'd prefer a Victorian novel to an earlier one.)

RG - Yeah, I'm leaning that way myself, especially since I've recently discovered that I hate teaching Hamlet.

Bardiac said...

Northanger Abbey is pure genius. Alas, I think sometimes students don't get it without a lot of other novels under their belts.

But I'd tend to vote for B.

I find it really, really difficult to teach Hamlet. Students think they know it, they know the Oedipus complex, and they're rarely willing to work as hard as the play demands. R&J presents similar problems in terms of what students think they know.

Titus, on the other hand, totally shocks them. :)

Anonymous said...

At least at our local high schools, they are NOT reading anything by Jane Austen (unless they are reading it on their own as part of the summer reading list)--I'd go with anything by her over Hamlet.

And about the bundled texts: I haven't tried it but it does mean students can't buy the Norton "used" since only new versions are bundled with the novel, fyi.

Great questions and good luck. My winter book orders aren't due yet, but I'm going through the same decision making process for the American Lit survey...

Fretful Porpentine said...

Anniem -- Thanks for the info about the bundled texts; I suspected this might be the case, so I'm thinking used Norton + cheaper Penguin Classics edition of the novel would probably be the best deal for students. (Also, just to clarify, the choice is not between Austen and Hamlet -- this is the Romantic era-and-later half of the lit survey, so all of the texts I'm weighing are nineteenth-century novels.)

Bardiac -- Yeah, I've had much the same experience with Really Famous Shakespeare (though at least none of the works I'm considering has quite the level of Cultural Monument status as either Hamlet or R&J).

Renaissance Girl said...


I LOVE to teach Titus!

hck said...

and if it's by Wilkie Collins: definitely B. [:-)]

Unknown said...

Austen. Austen. Austen. (You have to imagine that in stadium chant.)

No, seriously, I was actually just about to recommend the compromise option: something less often read by a canonical author. I think if the survey were only pitched toward English majors, I might go with a less-known author, but if it's meant for a broader audience, I'd pick something relatively canonical. I think it's hard enough to provide answers for the "why do I have to read this?" question when it's an author who already has a certain amount of cultural capital. This would work with Victorian novels as well as Austen; while I wouldn't necessarily inflict Bleak House on a bunch of sophomores (and I actually do love Bleak House), the fact that many of the more famous authors wrote so much is a real help.

Unknown said...

Also, if Austen is a choice, what about Persuasion? It doesn't seem to be one that's *that* frequently read in high school (we read it, but we also read NA--which I *totally* didn't get, although I adore it now; I think maybe Bardiac is right), and it really works well in concert with the issues and concerns of Romanticism.

Fretful Porpentine said...

R -- Unfortunately, I tried Persuasion last year (thinking pretty much along the same lines as you are), and it went over like a lead balloon. I'd like to try it again someday, since it's entirely possible that last year's group was a fluke, but I'm not sure I feel like tackling it right away.

I thought about some of the less-well-known Dickens as well, but unfortunately, the only ones in the right length range are Oliver Twist and Hard Times, and I'm not really taken with either.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

For what it's worth, I love teaching Hamlet. I loved teaching Titus too. I'm going to be using Measure for Measure for the first time this year. I'm interested to see what the students think of it.

Anyway-- option B sounds good. Give them a little shake up.

Christopher Vilmar said...

I am doing the early British survey right now, and even bundled with Pilgrim's Progress (oh yeah, you heard me right)--it's still less than $70, which I consider very do-able for the books for a single course.

Let's just let that sink in for a while: Pilgrim's Progress. I have no idea whether it'll fly or not, but since I'm also doing Everyman and The Faerie Queene, I can only assume they'll have the conceptual equipment to go there by the end of the semester when we do it.