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.
5 years ago