Sunday, January 24, 2010

Courseblogging: If this is Monday, it must be Shelley

Byron last Friday, Shelley (Percy) tomorrow. Keats on Wednesday. Shelley again (Mary, this time) on Friday. Yikes. This is whistle-stop English literature with a vengeance.

I'm already starting to second-guess this part of the course; maybe it would have been better to use thematic clusters, the way I do when I teach seventeenth-century poetry. You know, poems about Death one day, and then ones about Oliver Cromwell, or whatever. (Not that the Romantics are writing huge numbers of poems about Cromwell; obviously, the specific themes would have to be different. Landscape. Childhood. The Common Man. That sort of thing.)

I guess how one organizes a syllabus says a lot about what one thinks the students really need to learn in the survey: do I want them to remember the authors' names and associate particular works or ideas with those names? Or do I care more about presenting a certain set of themes and concerns as typical of the period? Or do I want to problematize the whole idea of periodization and show them all the stuff that doesn't fit our stereotypes of the Romantics or Victorians? Or maybe I shouldn't be worrying about factual knowledge at all; isn't this essentially a skills course? (And so, Shelley Day becomes How To Read A Sonnet Day before I know it.) Honestly, I think my answer to those questions is "all of the above," and there just isn't time.

Anyway, it's too late to second-guess the syllabus, so I guess I'll have them do some in-class writing, put on some music, and somehow muddle through.


Horace said...

I feel your pain: I'm actually devoting a whole week to Wordsworth, which feels downright irresponsible given the authors I had to cut to do it (this semester, Wollstonecraft).

I wonder how we ever learned about reading in these sorts of classes.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I wonder how we ever learned about reading in these sorts of classes.

Part of the reason why I find the survey so challenging to structure, actually, is that I never took these sorts of classes. The Beloved Alma Mater offered freshman-level courses on Shakespeare and contemporary lit, both of which sounded way more interesting than the surveys when I was a freshman, and by the time I was a sophomore, I had plunged straight into the 300- and 400-level courses. I don't think I ever missed taking the survey until now, just as I never felt the need for a freshman comp course until I had to teach it.

And I don't think I could take a whole week of Wordsworth, although I do kind of wish we could spend a week on Keats...

Ink said...

"whistle-stop English" is such a great description.

Definitely relate to all of your questions! I always try to calm my panic about How Much There Is To Know by reminding myself that this is essentially and necessarily pretty much an overview, that I'm trying to give them the scaffolding upon which to hang their future forays into more focused topics in the jr/sr classes...still, it's so difficult to feel that I'm doing anything justice.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sophomore lit is a core curriculum requirement at Misnomer U., so most of my survey students are not going to take any junior / senior English classes. I think that's one reason why I feel like I have to cram everything in -- there's a certain element of "OMG, what if someone graduates from college without ever hearing of Donne or Keats?" which I am powerless to resist.

heu mihi said...

I spent almost two full days on Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." That's an hour and forty minutes on FIVE pages.

(And of course I did this after the drop deadline.)

I don't have the slightest idea how these classes are supposed to work; we charge through some things and linger on others. But when we charge all the time, we never SAY anything! I do struggle with teaching lyric poetry, too, since so often they simply don't understand it on their own, and we need to belabor and belabor and belabor for it to be of any value. --This, anyway, is how I justify my belabored and belabored Wordsworth business.

Horace said...

Since I'm in the middle of Wordsworth week, I'll report that we spent 75 minutes today unpacking the preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

I think Heu Mihi has it right, that we do have to linger on some of these things, even if just to remind our students that the survey is just a preface to the kinds of lingering over texts and ideas and words and lines that makes up the "real" business of reading. Thursday: 75 more minutes on Tintern Abbey, and I'll be moving quickly just to do that.

I do like the idea of the survey as a scaffolding on which to hang deeper investigations though. A Useful image, that.

Lucky Jane said...

I did a VAP stint at a place where the survey was supposed to cover no more than six "major authors" (yuck, I know). It helps that the Brit survey was on a three-course sequence (the US took up only two), and the students were well prepared and exceptionally motivated.

Still, as unusual as that situation was, it taught me that all courses are really synecdochic, if that's a word. A lot of syllabi elaborate a narrative, and having severe limitations forces the syllabusmaker to make each author stand for multiple themes while maintaining the distinctness of that author's work. One of my colleagues there was practically apoplectic when a new hire chose six women for her survey, however.

At my shop, "we" abolished surveys when "we" overhauled the curriculum. I'll let you know how that goes. Hrumph.