Friday, January 27, 2006

Introduction to Literature, Part II

Ok, I'm not sure if anybody's really interested in this - well, a couple of people are, who commented on part I, but I feel like I'm writing this more for myself than for anybody else somehow, which makes me feel like I'm not taking care of my audience. That said, I do know that you tagged me, Clare, and I will do the meme in a bit, and I also have another fun thing that I saw over at Charlie Amra's blog that I think people will enjoy (And yes, Charlie, I plan on responding over there, too, but I'm trying to think up a good "memory"), so even if you're not interested in this post I am not abandoning you. But anyway, back to intro to lit.

When we left off, I had promised that I would continue by talking about how I design my intro to lit course. In comments, Dr. Virago left me some helpful questions that I'll use to guide this part II.

I. Do I build the syllabus around a "theme" or subject matter.
Well, if by theme you mean a unified and clearly concentrated topic, like "monsters" or "memory" or something, then no, I don't. The reason that I don't is that I really like the idea that in intro to lit we're teaching our students to find those themes or organizing ideas on their own. This is not to say, however, that there is no linkage between the texts that I choose.

That, I think, is where the anthologies get it wrong. They focus on quantity rather than relationship between texts, which doesn't really make sense since there's no way to cover that kind of quantity in the course of one semester in any sort of meaningful way. (My dream textbook for an intro-to-lit course would be organized more like a comp/rhet reader, and it would have, say, five sections, each including a set of readings that would work as a potential syllabus for a semester-long course but also that would be able to be used across the units, if that makes sense. Of course, for the kind of works I'd want to pick the permissions would probably be a bitch, but I think that would be a much more usable kind of anthology than the ones that are currently the norm. But I digress.

Instead of organizing the course around a specific and clearly localized theme, I instead organize it around the following questions: "What counts as literature? Who decides what counts as literature? How does reading literary texts allow us greater understanding of our culture or of other texts that we encounter?"

I've just tweaked the course a bit this year to eliminate one of the texts that I used to teach (The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde), so what it looks like now is basically this:

First Unit: What is literature? I have them read some poems, two short stories, and we watched Krapp's Last Tape (which I asked them to glance at ahead of time, but which we didn't go over in any sort of systematic literary critical way - my point was really more the exposure of them to it, that they be "introduced" as it were). In the first three weeks we do a lot of work with figuring out how to analyze texts and with the distinct characteristics of each genre.

Unit II: Literature Capital L. We read two sonnets - one by Sidney and one by Shakespeare - Hamlet and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Reading Hamlet definitely helps students with getting what Joyce does with Stephen Dedalus (I also bring in the Scylla and Charybdis episode of Ulysses and read sections of Stephen's Shakespeare theory). But yes, this is the unit where we really interrogate why certain writers are put above others as more important or more worth reading than others and where we interrogate the relationship between enjoyment or pleasure in reading and literary status.

Unit III: Women Writers. We read a couple of poems, Jane Eyre, and Cloud Nine. It's a really interesting unit because it allows us to think about what sorts of experiences or identities "count" in literature and to ask whether something that we enjoy can/should count as literature. Also, it's a nice little estrogen break after Unit II. Also, I think that Cloud Nine more than any of the plays that I teach really allows them to see why drama is particularly interesting because of the way that the doubling of the roles adds layers of meaning.

Unit IV: Kind of the "not just for the literature classroom" unit - we read Pope's Eloisa to Abelard and then watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A. This means that the students aren't burdened with a lot of reading at the end of the semester. B. It allows us to consider whether film should be included as a literary genre and also the way that more "popular" texts engage the canon.

At any rate, I suppose it would be possible for me to call the course one that centers on memory, or identity, or love, or whatever. What's interesting for me, though, is to see what students come up with as the organizing thematic principles of the course.

II. Does the course range across time periods?
As the above shows, it does. However, you will also notice from the above that it does so in somewhat limited ways. I tend to go out of my time period only for texts that I really love or for texts that are easily accessible and demonstrate something that I think students should know. So, for example, it makes sense for me to use early modern poems to demonstrate what a sonnet is, even though that's not my area of specialty. Similarly, I'm not a Victorianist but I've always loved Jane Eyre and students tend to respond really well to it, and so I teach it. The point for me, I suppose, is that going across time periods is necessary in order for me to challenge the first-day-of-class axiom that somebody always comes out with when I ask them to define literature, which is, as you might guess, that "literature stands the test of time." That said, I don't spend a lot of time on the construction of literary periods in the course because we have a required survey sequence and I think that's what the survey sequence is for.

III. So, My Theory of Intro to Lit in a Nutshell
I guess what I look for in this course is a lot. First, I look to be passionate about the texts that I teach in there. In some ways, intro to lit is a luxury course for me because it allows me to go out of my specific area of specialty without worry that the course doesn't do what it's supposed to do (as I would have to with any other course I teach, pretty much). Second, I look to include some very, very canonical texts (for example, Hamlet) for two reasons: 1) my students tend to respect the canon and to have a strong desire for cultural capital, and so including those sorts of texts allows me indicate that they'll have some cultural capital when they're done; 2) I really do believe in the canon, at the end of the day, and I think that texts like that are the foundation that students need to figure out what comes after it.

I'm not sure if this will require a part III or not, but I suspect I'll be writing about my intro to lit course throughout this semester. It is my only literature course, after all, and so I'm partial to it.


La Lecturess said...

I really like this structure, especially units 1-2 and 4 (I'm not dissing on the women, and I think it's extremely important to have the "whose experiences count" conversation, but I always resist separating out women in a way that might unintentially reinforce the message that women's literature in fact belongs in a separate category).

I haven't yet taught this kind of intro course, but I think your structure is smart, and much more helpful in introducing students to what literature IS than just throwing at them a bunch of works in different genres--loosely organized under a particular topic or not.

Dr. Crazy said...

La Lecturess,
Point taken on the separating women out thing. I suppose that the reason that I do it in the context of this course is because it allows us to think about why/whether that's useful. In my other courses, I tend to do a kind of equal representation within units sort of thing because I myself resist the idea of a women's literature ghetto. One of the things that I find most interesting is that often students will say that Charlotte Bronte belongs in the canon more than Joyce does after doing units two and three. Not what the literary critics would say much of the time, is it?

Cats & Dogma said...

Dr. C. I'm in love. Anyone who outs both Krapp and Cloud 9 in their syllabus is a winner in my book. And your organizational and "thematic" (if that's what it's called) feel really compelling.

We don't have quite the comparable Intro to Lit course here at WVU, but I have a friend whose approach I brainstormed with her, and which I really like. It's something like a twice told tales approach, looking at how a few major tales change over time and genre: Ulysses (which includes the Odyssey, something else, and Louise Gluck's Meadowlands), Arthur (Malory, Tennyson, and Monty Python), and Hamlet (with R&G). THere might be a novel in there soemwhere, too. Anyway, it's another idea that works for the class.

Dr. Virago said...

Dr. Crazy, thanks for answering my specific questions. I really dig your "what is literature" organizing principle and the reasons why you don't want to do a theme a la monsters, or whatever. As we reinvent our own intro to lit. class (which, btw, is supposed to introduce them to the discipline as well as to the literature)I'm going to keep your ideas in mind.

And Cats and Dogma -- I like your idea, too! Beowulf with the novel Grendel and Jane Eyre with Wide Sargasso Sea would also fit. Oh, and also The Tempest with A Tempest.

Bardiac said...

Gosh, can I come take your class?

I really like the way you pair up or group works, too.

I get so uncomfortable trying to teach novels, though. I love reading them, but they're so hard for me to teach in classes.

CharlieAmra said...

Been really enjoying your "Introduction to" series, even though I been more of a lurker than active partipant of late. You are definitely hitting your stride with the re-designed blog.

And thanks for the great memory! I laughed out loud.