Thursday, January 26, 2006

Introduction to Literature, Part I

I never took an Introduction to Literature class as an undergraduate. I AP'd myself out of such a thing, and from all of the reports that I heard from my friends, I was incredibly lucky to have done so. Intro to lit was the sort of course that was taught by inexperienced grad students (this not meant to diss grad students, as I was one, but rather to give an indication of what the attitude about them was at my undergrad institution) or overworked adjuncts (although of course I and my peers didn't have a great deal of understanding about issues with contingent labor and university hiring practices - we just knew that those instructors tended to be "easier," or at least that was the prevailing notion, based on what I'm not entirely sure), in which one "didn't learn a thing." At my undergrad institution, intro to lit was not required for English literature majors, and it is similarly not required for English literature majors at the university at which I am currently employed. It fulfills a general education requirement, and a lot of second-semester freshman take the course to get that out of the way, but it's kind of a ghettoized course, at least in my department and it's my sense that it's the same at many other departments across the country. Students aren't dying to take it, and instructors aren't dying to teach it. At least as a rule.

So, first things first: what is this "introduction to literature" about which I speak? It takes various forms depending on the university, but at my university it's a very traditional introduction to the genres course. (I think it's interesting that we think majors don't need this, even though they all call everything a "novel" or a "story," but whatever.) It is often taught by adjunct or non-t-t renewable contract faculty, though people who have been around a long time have tended to gravitate away from intro and into a theme-based "ideas in literature" course that has a different number or into just spending time doing the survey courses. In other words, I'm one of a very few t-t faculty members in my department who actually teaches this course. I should also note that because of its traditional focus, this course is most often taught from an anthology, which means that students are unlikely to read a novel (but rather are likely to read all of those short stories that are in every anthology), and that many times the course is structured just as anthologies are structured - 6 weeks on fiction, 6 weeks on poetry, and 3 weeks on drama, with little cross-pollenation between the genres. (Is "pollenation" spelled correctly? I think that's right, but it looks funny....)

So, as you might have gathered, my "intro to lit" looks nothing like what most sections of it at my university look like. If it had to look that way? Yes, I wouldn't teach it. I'd pretty much do anything else. So what is my introduction to literature course like? Well, here is what I thought about as I designed it:

1. I wanted a course that plays to my strengths and my areas of expertise.
2. I wanted a course that would give me the opportunity to teach things that I love that I wouldn't have the opportunity to teach regularly otherwise.
3. I wanted a course that really gave students a sense of all of the different kinds of literature out there - to introduce them to experimental stuff and stuff that challenges their ideas about what "counts" as literature (including film).
4. I wanted a course that teaches students how to read critically and to think about why genre is significant to how we read.
5. I wanted a course that creates conversations between genres rather than isolating them from one another.

My verdict? I could not have this kind of an introduction to literature course with a reader. I had to find my own texts and make my own way.

In the next installment, I'll talk about what I did in terms of designing the course and why I chose the texts that I did and all that jazz.


Dr. Virago said...

Huh, no one has commented yet. That's weird. OK then, I'll be the first. When I used to teach this kind of course at my grad school institution -- where it was also the "genres" type course -- I did much of what you did. I mixed up time periods and genres (including film) and made them "talk" to each other through common themes, but I also asked students to think about how the genres shaped those themes differently.

All of which leads me to questions for you: do you build the syllabus around a theme or subject matter (e.g., the body, identity, monsters, or what have you) to give the course coherence? And do you range across time periods or not (especially given you say you want a course that plays to your strengths -- for some people that might mean a specific period or periods of literature)?

Looking forward to Part II, especially as I'm on the committee here that's rethinking our own Intro to Lit course.

Tree of Knowledge said...

I have yet to teach an intro to Lit class. At both the college where I teach now and the college where I did my grad work, t-t people teach all of the Lit classes and non t-t teach almost all of the writing classes. But I do have a secret one-day-when-I-get-to-teach-lit plan. I didn't enjoy my intro to Lit class, which was a pretty standard anthology based course. So I'm very excited to hear part 2.