Saturday, January 30, 2010

Crazy's Dream High School English Curriculum

First things first. I have no business writing this post. Very little that I teach would ever be taught in a high school classroom, and the little that would be would not be taught in the way that I teach it. I am no authority on these things, and I really have no business pontificating about them. However, I'm inspired.

Frau Tech commented the following to my previous post, and asked the following, and I want to respond:

"What would be your criteria to determine whether a book should be part of the repertoire? For instance, my school never read Jane Austen. Later when I read some, no literature from that era (no Bronte sister, no George Elliot) seems pretty lacking, as was my exposure to female authors. But how do you determine what makes the cut? If something is not as well written as other stuff, but adds a particular historical perspective or cultural perspective that the students aren't exposed to normally, does it make it worth it?"

So, what would be my criteria? What is worthy of making it to a syllabus?

Before I get to my actual choices of texts, I want to talk a little bit about what goes into making a syllabus for a literature course, just in general. (I know a lot of people in English read over here, but many of the people who read this blog do not teach English, and so I feel like this is useful.) The things that I consider when I put a syllabus together for, say, my Intro to Lit course (which is closest in kind to high school English classes) are the following:

  1. I think about what students "should" read, if this is the only literature course they'll ever take. What that means is that I try to offer them historical breadth, a coverage of genres (poetry, fiction, drama - and film, for it is the 21st century after all), terms for discussing the literature that we cover, and techniques for analyzing literature across genres and historical periods, with the hope being that they will use these techniques if they ever again decide to read some literature. The thing is, reading literature is hard work and one does actually need instruction in order to do it well and to get all of the nuances in a book that one picks up. The point of a literature course is to teach students those skills so that they can use them in their lives after the class is over. It's not just to have a book club, contrary to what a lot of people (not you guys, just in general) seem to think.
  2. I think about how the texts that I choose will fit together. While I don't choose things that neatly fit (sequels, adaptations, rewritings), I do try to choose things that explore similar themes and that have something to say to one another. For example, take Shakespeare's play Hamlet. One of the major issues in the play is the ability, or the inability, to act. This play would work well with a story like "Bartleby, the Scrivener," a poem like Yeats's "September 1913," and a film like Fight Club. Further, if I were going to teach a course using the above texts, I might trace things like the representation of masculinity, how form contributes to our understanding of main themes, etc. The point is, you don't just choose disparate things that don't fit. You try to create a narrative for the course with the texts that you choose, even if it's not stated explicitly.
  3. I think about what I can reasonably expect that my students will actually read and how to make sure that they read everything that I assign. If I assign a 300 page novel in an intro-level class for only two class periods that will meet over the course of a week, I can be pretty sure that most of them won't actually read it. If I assign a difficult poem on the same day that a paper is due, it is almost certain that students won't look at the poem at all before they sit down in their desks for class that day. So, designing a syllabus is both about what I believe they should read and about what I want them to read as well as being about how to get them to read those things, because it's really important that they read the literature for themselves. If they don't, they will do poorly, and they'll really miss the point of the whole course. This is not like assigning a reading from a textbook, where if they don't read they can pick up the highlights from the lecture. Even if I lecture, and if they're there and attentive and take good notes, if they don't read the literature, they're not learning what they're supposed to learn in the class.
I would argue that the above three things are true whether one is teaching literature to undergrads or to high school students. The difference between what I do, however, and what my BFF from high school who teaches high school English does is that I get to pick all of what I teach without any directives from outside. I mean, sure, I can't teach a course in 19th C. American literature and teach all 18th C. British literature, but nobody mandates the books that I'll teach in my courses, and the books that I choose and the way that I teach them don't need to match up with some test a student will take administered from the outside. The reality in high school teaching is that there are certain books that school boards say teachers MUST teach. This is why my list of books below is going to be totally beside the point. Because the bottom line is that high school teachers don't get to pick and choose. There is a board-mandated, and state-mandated, curriculum. Period. Sure, they can add things in here or there (though, typically, it is my understanding that a lot of times all of the teachers of a certain grade get together and choose those "optional" texts, so it's still not totally autonomous), but if they're required to teach The Odyssey, The Inferno, and King Lear, then, dammit, that's what they've GOT to teach.

Seriously. I'm really going to get to my Dream Curriculum. But before I do, I want to respond to the last part of Frau Tech's comment: "But how do you determine what makes the cut? If something is not as well written as other stuff, but adds a particular historical perspective or cultural perspective that the students aren't exposed to normally, does it make it worth it?" I'll tell you how I do this in my courses for students at the undergrad level. First, if something adds important historical or cultural perspective, even if it's not beautifully written, yes, sometimes that is syllabus-worthy. Even if I hate it. But further, I'll say that sometimes I put things on my syllabi that I hate and that don't even necessarily add all that much historical or cultural context from my personal perspective, but they are things that other writers reference, or they are things that the critics will reference, and so students need to be familiar with them. A syllabus is not about "great writing" or even a "great story." Sure, it's cool when those things happen. But a syllabus, in large part, is about what you need to know. It's about cultural capital (cf. John Guillory). And so no, my students don't "need" to read excerpts from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria because of its inherent quality as a piece of writing, or even for historical or cultural context, but they sure as hell should know where the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" comes from and understand why that matters as a reaction against Wordsworth's assertion that poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility." And yes, they need to know how all of that relates to Keats's theory of "negative capability" as well as to Eliot's theory of poetry as intrinsically impersonal. None of this is a) gorgeous prose, b) fun (or even very interesting) to read, or c) providing important historical or cultural context in terms of showing how people lived at the time or thought or whatever. But it nevertheless matters if we're going to understand the aesthetics of literary representation. And yeah, if you're studying literature, sometimes you need to read stuff that you don't believe is well written or terribly interesting, taken in isolation. Such as a book like this, for example.

(Though I'd also argue that "well written" or "interesting" are value judgments that we make based on experience, and so if we are in a context where Jane Austen is presented as the gold standard of "well written" then Charlotte Bronte will always end up being judged a writer who fails in her execution - as Virginia Woolf did judge her, incidentally - just as an example. In other words, what counts as "well written" isn't some objective fact, but rather it is shaped by what we are told counts as "great writing" (cf. Longinus, who was then followed by fancy d00ds such as Burke, Schiller, Kant, etc.) and the people who have most often had the power to do the telling for all but the past 30-40 years have pretty much been white upper-class men who were classically educated. So the fact of the matter is, some things may seem "poorly written" to us because we've interpellated those values. This is a huge issue when we consider the place of women's fiction from the 19th century in the canon, for example, so novels like _Ruth Hall_ and _Lady Audley's Secret_ are completely unfamiliar to a lot of readers because some d00d somewhere along the line basically decided they were "chick lit" and not literature, even though each of the novels does have its merits.)

At any rate, sometimes we need to engage with texts that appear to be of lower quality (however we define that), mainly because if we don't, we can't actually be part of a conversation that means something and that actually investigates what makes something "good writing" or "literature." In fact, I'd say that is a very good reason to put Catcher in the Rye on a syllabus - because whatever you think of Salinger's novel, it presents a voice and narrative that challenges what people historically had considered "literature" or "literary writing." That book can allow students to have a conversation about what makes something "literature," and that's exactly what should be happening in classrooms where people study literature. It's important to note, however, that Catcher isn't the only book that could do this. A book like The Bell Jar could achieve exactly the same thing, as could any number of other books.

So what should make the cut? In my undergrad classes, I determine what makes the cut basically by trying to choose what students need to know (not necessarily what I want to teach), plus what will give them historical/cultural context (not necessarily what I want to teach), plus what I think is most awesome (which ends up being maybe only a quarter of what ends up on a lower-division syllabus for me). But I suppose the short answer is this: how you determine what makes the cut has everything to do with what we call "the canon," and "the canon" does change based on the needs of a particular historical moment, but at the same time it remains quite fixed for long stretches of time, in that it's very difficult to oust a work (or author) from the canon once it's firmly entrenched. So, for example, one of the results of the culture wars was greater inclusion of writers of color on syllabi, but that doesn't mean that we've gotten rid of Salinger. Instead, those "other" writers have been squeezed in (a Gwendolyn Brooks poem here, a Black Boy there) and Catcher in the Rye remains where it's been for the past 30 years. In other words, I highly doubt that Catcher in the Rye will disappear from high schools tomorrow or even next year, whatever the impact of Salinger's death.

But so now, finally, Crazy's Dream High School Curriculum. This is tough as I feel like my high school experience was a gajillion years ago, and I don't really know how high schools typically set things up now, and I also know it varies district by district, state by state. With that being the case, here are things that I think that I would love for students to see at some point in high school, in no particular order, and not divided up by grade. I am clearly leaving things out, and I'm also failing to include a lot of YA stuff that I know gets taught just because I'm not terribly familiar with a lot of it.

  • The Odyssey
  • poems by Sappho
  • Oedipus Rex (or Medea)
  • selections from The Canterbury Tales
  • The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano
  • Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  • poems by Anne Bradstreet
  • The House of the Seven Gables or The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (In high school, I personally preferred The House of the Seven Gables, and I feel like I only really "got" The Scarlet Letter when I read it in my late 20s. I don't think I was ready for it at 16, but I know some people really prefer TSL, so whatever. I suppose the point that I would make regarding this is that just because something by an author is superior to something else, it still doesn't necessarily mean that one should assign the superior thing. The Waves may be Woolf's best novel, but sticking that on a high school syllabus will likely produce a lot of students who despise Woolf and never read her again, and in fact, who may stop reading altogether. Literature courses are not supposed to produce that result.)
  • Bartleby, the Scrivener by Melville
  • selections from Emerson
  • selections from Thoreau
  • Little Women by Alcott
  • Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew by Henry James.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • poems by the Romantics, but most especially by Keats, for Keats RULES
  • poems by Tennyson, the Brownings, Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins (whom I love with a love that is pure and true)
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens
  • Tess of the D'urbervilles by Hardy
  • Huck Finn by Twain
  • The Coquette by Hannah Foster
  • Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest.
  • Summer or House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (but please NOT Ethan Frome)
  • The Professor's House by Willa Cather
  • The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway (I like it better than A Farewell to Arms and HUGELY better than that stupid story where he chases around the fish. What's it called? Ah yes. The Old Man and the Sea.)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • selections from Joyce's Dubliners
  • selections from Woolf's A Room of One's Own, or, alternatively, some of her short stories (NOT To the Lighthouse or any other of the novels, not because I don't love them but because I really don't think most people under the age of 18 can actually enjoy them)
  • selections from W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • poems by Yeats, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, the WWI poets, Ezra Pound, H.D., W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney.... I could go on, but those would make me happy
  • The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield
  • A Rose for Emily by Faulkner
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin (or, if one couldn't strap that on, her short story "The Story of an Hour" is brilliant, is only like 3 pages long, and does much of the same work)
  • Krapp's Last Tape by Beckett (I think a shorter and in some ways more fun choice than Waiting for Godot, though I did love Godot in high school)
  • The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
  • Stories by Nadine Gordimer
  • Stories by Salman Rushdie
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • The House on Mango Street by Cisneros
  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • The Bluest Eye (or Sula) by Toni Morrison

What occurs to me as I write this list is that I could go on forever. It's already way too long, even though it's also incomplete, and half of what I've put on it would cause huge controversies in many American school districts. The point is, anybody can come up with a list of books they think that people should read. It will vary by personal taste, training, and the outcome that one wants to achieve. I'll note that these are not all things I read in high school, and I'll go further and note that they are not all things I'd ever teach in my classes now, even when teaching classes outside my specialization (which I do regularly). Basically, I made a list comprised of texts I love (a) or texts that I don't love but that have served me well (b). Who the hell knows. But it's a pointless exercise anyway, because teachers don't have a whole heck of a lot of power over high school curricula.


Bardiac said...

What a great list! Alas, I read only a few of those (19th century and canonical, mostly) in HS classes. We didn't do much pre-1800s except for a couple Shakespeare plays.

I think your third point about assigning things that your students can/will actually read is important, as are your reasons for holding back Woolf's novels.

Brian Ulrich said...

Kudos to Cisneros, as I wrote my senior seminar paper (kind of like a mini-thesis, as my ug school didn't have a senior thesis option) on Woman Hollering Creek.

That said, isn't this pretty Eurocentric? I'd definitely place Cisneros below the likes of Garcia Marquez, Li Po, Chinua Achebe, and the Ramayana. Granted you said English, but you are including Greece at the beginning.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, yes, it's totally Eurocentric. Why no Things Fall Apart? Well, because I forgot about it. Why no Garcia Marquez? Also forgot. Li Po I've never read, and same with the Ramayana, so those weren't even on my radar as possible choices.

Re: The Odyssey and Oedipus, though, I would argue that reading those at the beginning as foundational texts, in the context of literature written in English, is necessary precisely because the Greeks are foundational to literature in English that comes after. That's the reason the canon takes so long to change. You can't switch out The Odyssey for the Ramayana, because if you do, all of a sudden 4 other things you might put on a syllabus no longer have context. But at a certain point, you can't squeeze anything else in, right? So what do you do?

I tend to err on the side of a Eurocentrism, and I know this is a weakness of mine.

Brian Ulrich said...

I totally agree ancient Greek stuff is foundational. I'd also add parts of the Bible in that category, and I think you've hit on why things change slowly in both literature and history. Ultimately what changes isn't (or shouldn't be) just addition/subtraction, but the questions and themes pursued.

FrauTech said...

Thanks for posting your list. I know that's very bold because I think of posting my own list, and think of all the great classics I've forgotten and how it would be so totally incomplete. It's such a tough decision to make, maybe why it's so hard to do for high school curriculum people.

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of this stuff in college. High school was more like the red badge of courage and stories like the scarlet ibis with poems by edgar allan poe.

I'm curious about the idea of reading the Bible in a literature class. I think religion should be taught in high schools and not in a bible as literature kind of way. I'm just curious what part of the Bible Brian has in mind.

Bardiac said...

I had a Bible as Lit class that read a fair bit of the OT, and it was great. The teacher did a really good job balancing the discussion, talking about how the text worked as a text, and helping me learn a bunch of stories that are very foundational to English lit (and American lit).

What Now? said...

It's an interesting exercise, isn't it? And, having just been grumping away on my own blog about curriculum debates in my HS department, I will say that we actually teach quite a lot on your dream curriculum.

The biggest challenge I found when I moved from teaching college to teaching HS was that suddenly there were so many other things besides literature that I was also supposed to be teaching: writing, grammar, vocabulary mostly, in a far more deliberate and extensive way that I ever had (and I'm still figuring out how to teach those things well). And so, although the HS year is so much longer that a college semester, one has time for far less reading than one would at first think. Plus, my school has limits on how much homework we can assign -- very reasonable, I think, since we're trying to teach them how to work hard but also protect them from overwork, as befits their age -- and so suddenly a novel like Huck Finn takes *forever* to teach and thus squeezes out any number of other works one might include. So I spend a lot of time making peace with what I can and can't accomplish and trying to prioritize my many goals for my students -- something all teachers do, of course, but I feel it much more now that I'm a HS teacher.

Unknown said...

You could add Derek Walcott's version of The Odyssey, which would certainly offer a cool critical counterpoint to the Eurocentrism. And it's very readable!

Dr. Crazy said...

Re: Bible as Lit, I think that the Bible is extremely useful to read in a literature course (a course I TA'd in read selections from the old and new testament) but I got no Bible (or any other religious text) in high school. Luckily, I caught Biblical references because I'd attended Catholic school from K-8, but my BFF went to public school all the way through, and so her knowledge of the Bible was fairly limited to pop culture re-renderings of Biblical stuff (the movie The Ten Commandments, Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat, Jesus Christ Superstar, for example). I know she ends up spending time just telling her freshmen basic stories from the Bible because they've never encountered them - like, they don't know who Judas is, for example. In that regard, I think assigning parts of the Bible is useful just for catching allusions if for nothing else. This isn't a substitute for a religion course, but often I think the Bible (and other religious texts) get dumped into lit courses in a secular setting, for fear that "teaching religion" somehow violates students' personal beliefs. (Note: I think that fear is totally stupid.) Oh, and I should note that while I was strong in knowing the biblical references, I didn't actually really understand anything about Islam or even really protestant Christianity in any sort of a sophisticated way until I was in college. (I remember in grade school thinking that Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. were the same person, and was shocked to learn that they were in fact two totally different people later on.)

Also, I know that a goodly portion of my list is stuff that I either read on my own in high school and then either later encountered in college, or that I encountered for the first time in college. A lot of my reasoning behind the list is that I wish my students entered my classes with more of a foundation than they do for the stuff that I assign. While I don't necessarily need students to have read everything in the whole world, it would be nice if they'd at least have HEARD of some of the authors/texts that I assign. Things my students this semester have never heard of: Samuel Beckett, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Adrienne Rich, just to name a few. I'd happily get rid of The Red Badge of Courage, for example if it meant that it could be replaced with something that would be more relevant to them later on.

What Now: Thanks for weighing in! And yes, things do take MUCH longer to teach in a high school context, and that does limit one's options hugely, and it's something worth remembering for those of us who teach college.

hylonome said...

Great list. Many, I might even say most, students who end up in my classroom have read Hawthorne in high school--and, as a result, HATE Hawthorne. I wonder every semester why the short stories don't get chosen instead, as more appropriate in all kinds of ways to the kinds of questions that high school students might want to discuss. And wish every semester that I could have The Scarlet Letter back.

heu mihi said...

Interesting list. We read a few of the earlier works in my high school, and, well, I really hated some of them. This may have been in part because of WHEN I was asked to read them. "A Tale of Two Cities" the summer before freshman year? HATED. "The Odyssey" over winter break? HATED. And some authors that I read later--e.g. Hawthorne, Equiano, Behn--I highly doubt that even I, a literature-obsessed high school student, would've dug.

Clearly this is about taste more than the worth of your list. Your list just got me thinking.

So, perhaps extraneously, I'd like to mention those works that I read in high school that I loved (we had an excellent English department--it was an International Baccalaureate school, which surely changed the curricular options). These are, to the best of my recollection, the books that drove me to become an English major:

Poetry by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, "Madame Bovary," "As I Lay Dying," "To the Lighthouse" [LOVED it even at age 17 or whatever], "A Room of One's Own," "Death in Venice" and other stories by Thomas Mann [I became a lifelong Mann fan after that unit], "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and Ngugi's "A River Between."

Oh, and I really liked "Ethan Frome." Heh. I was probably the only one in my class, though.

I'm not sure what my point is, exactly, but I think there is some literature that students aren't prepared to be gripped by in high school, but I have no idea how to judge that (and there's no way to appeal to everyone, obviously). My brother's high school English teacher once told his class that Dostoevsky was his favorite writer, but that he'd never teach him to high school students because he shouldn't be read until one is older. There's something to that, I think (and I may well have actually liked Dickens if I hadn't been exposed to him too early).

But I do get, too, that what you're after isn't the literature that students will love, but a cultural awareness that will help them in later years. If it can do both, so much the better. (And a lot on your list looks excellent to me.)

Unknown said...

This is a great list, but now add to it that we try to teach only four major texts a year, plus a few poets, and now you know part of why these are such tough decisions to make! I sometimes feel like people get outraged at what isn't being taught in high school these days without thinking of this very practical consideration. And like WN says, we're also teaching the basics of composition, grammar and critical reading, plus vocabulary!

I do, however, get to teach the Bible as Literature, and I love it, especially since my ninth graders are also getting a unit on the five major faiths, so they make all kinds of connections with Abraham and the meaning of prophets and it's awesome! We do an allusion project in this unit for precisely the reason you mention--so much richness in Western literature and culture is lost when you do not recognize Biblical allusions.

Susan said...

I may use your high school curriculum as a reading list. I've read chunks of it, but other parts I've skipped. My great joy last fall was to teach with a colleague in 19th c US lit, and so I read Twain & Melville stuff I'd never read before.

The odd thing is that I remember reading relatively little poetry in HS -- we did Chaucer (in translation) and Shakespeare's Sonnets in 12th grade, but I don't think much poetry as poetry. Certainly not the Romantics... I don't think I read Dickinson or Whitman until I was in college.

Anonymous said...

I'm totally in favor of the bible as literature, don't get me wrong. I just think it would make sense to teach the five major world religions in general--and not place that burden on teachers of literature, who may only need to teach a limited amount of sacred text to make the context of allusions clear. But I do get the need to know the bible for reading literature.

I was more interested in actual content because parts of the bible are totally not public high school appropriate. So we're talking the not racy Old Testament stories? The gospels?

Unknown said...

My Bible unit does sections from Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, Psalms, and then we try to do the life, death, resurrection of Jesus. At my school, they get the five faiths in history in 9th grade, but I do enjoy getting to teach what we do- in addition to allusions, it brings up some of the oldest themes and symbols, that we then see repeated throughout the year, and the language is so lovely and figurative that the students enjoy that as well. It's also a good exercise in critical reading as they try to separate what they know from their religious backgrounds and what they see in the actual text.

Brian Ulrich said...

We actually read a lot of the OT in an undergraduate literary origins class, exploring it through the theme of tragedy. I remember gaining a new appreciation for the books of Samuel that way.

Anonymous said...

I love the option of Medea instead of Oedipus Rex. I always found it tragic that my classes ignored Euripides, when I thought he was the most accessible and interesting of the Greek playwrights. I got far more out of Medea than I did from Oedipus, and I thought it had much more to discuss for a modern, high school class. I also thought it was less alienating for the women and minorities in the class, because it actually approaches issues of race and sex, instead of ignoring them (like most of the Eurocentric canon which I was raised on and love anyway).