Monday, October 18, 2010

Survey teaching bleg

Beginning in January, I will be teaching my institution's Early British survey, which begins, you know, somewhere around Caedmon or Beowulf or Genesis B or whatever, and goes up to (but not including) the Romantics. It is the first time I will have taught this class: usually, I teach more advanced undergrad courses and grad classes, but my chair has smartly realized that, with a move toward full professor out there on the horizon, it would behoove me to look like I'm a pitcher-inner as a teacher, engaging in the less sexy service-type courses as well as the ethereal ones.

I taught a survey at my PhD institution, but it was conceived peculiarly: Chaucer, Spenser, Milton. Period. Ambitious folks occasionally threw in a day of Donne, but it was not recommended.

And I was a biology undergrad, so never took such a class.

The point is, I'm now trying to put together a syllabus for this far-reaching, turbo-trawl through the auldies. It the very least unsatisfying and at the most blast through 1000 years of literature, allocating at most two days for any number of major authors. But what's more, I'm having a hard time locating the pedagogical value in it: they don't have time absorb anything beyond the basics, the indefatigable progress of history seems to be the only organizing principle, the only engine to push us forward to a final that could conceivably just skirt regurgitation.


Has anyone out there organized a syllabus according to themes rather than just moving doggedly forward from page 1 to page 2072 of the Norton British Vol. 1? Have you had success finding an alternative structure for a class like this, a reading schedule that allows for one or more strands of thematic development? Have you found a way to let this class tell a STORY? Play out a THESIS?


moria said...

Just to say that I'm oddly impressed that your alma mater cut Shax from the survey. Well-played, well-played indeed.

(Word recognition is "Humes" – as in "Davids"? Intellectual history is demanding its place(s) in your survey, it would seem.)

Renaissance Girl said...

Moria--Only because Shax is its own separate required course.

Renaissance Girl said...

As it is at my current institution, by the way. So no obligation on my part to do Hamlet in 2 days.

Lisa B. said...

I have no really good ideas here, but just wanted to say that my class in this general territory was a much more manageable medieval class, and it was one of my favorites back then. I think we started around the starting point(s) you mention, worked our way up to medieval lyrics and the miracle/mystery plays, with (obviously I have no sense of history whatsoever here) stops at Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain, and I loved every bit of it. I suppose we ended at Chaucer.

One thing I remember was essentially a "story of English" theme--like, how English(es) got to be
ENGLISH. (deconstruct as you like.)

All the way to the Romantics seems like insanity to me.

word verif: muldeat, like this class will be--mull-y but also voracious, literary history wise.

ntbw said...

I used to have to teach a version of this class every semester when I taught at a place not so far from your current institution. I did several iterations of a themed version of the survey. One that worked pretty well was a fairly generic "heroes and villains" theme on which I did many variations. So, for instance, we would do Beowulf and talk about how Grendel's mother in many ways fits the characteristic of the hero, but she's a villain because females aren't "supposed" to be heroes in A-S warrior culture. Then we would do "Dream of the Rood" and talk about Christ as hero (something we could circle back to again later doing Middle English passion lyrics; I would also bring in supplementary reading from the Wooing Group to allow us to consider how Christ as hero figures into that religious, didactic lit). That would lead nicely into hagiography and romance and the overlap of the two; Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale would always show up somewhere in that section. Margery Kempe--saint? hero? villain? Julian of Norwich--anchoress as spiritual hero? The Second Shepherd's Play is always a great hit, and Mak is a fantastic "villain"; we would often do performances in class. I would generally also bring in another play not in the Norton, often the Croxton Play of the Sacrament. I'm sure you get the idea, and I imagine you could fill in the early modern stuff better than I did. I almost always included Sidney's Defense of Poetry, though, to talk about poets as heroes and villains. I would always end with Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which was also a fabulous hit.

Renaissance Girl said...

NTBW: Thank you for these thoughts. That's a really useful way of thinking about this course--the idea of setting up binaries that can then be complicated. The hero/villain binary seems to suggest good/evil, but totally doesn't, and such a setup seems like it would generate much more subtlety than historical lockstep could. I worry, though, that it will rivet students' attentions on the plot of a text--what it's "about" rather than how it works. Did you run into that problem?

Also, I can't identify you, and I'm curious to know whether my own pseudonymity is so flimsy that you can tell who I am and at what institution I teach!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

It has been many years since I taught such a course, but I think NTBW's idea has considerable merit. Based on my own experience with similar courses, I recommend moving in chronological order even with a theme, because the students expect it and they get confused if you move around. Shoot, they get confused even you don't (Chaucer is 18th c, right?).

Flavia said...

My alma mater has a required survey similar to yours: Chaucer, Spenser, Ren lyric (usually Donne) in the fall, and Milton, Wordsworth, and a single 20th C. poet in the spring.

I don't teach the Brit Lit I survey topically, but I do teach it selectively, which I've found is pretty common--instructors spend more time on the things that float their particular boats.

Based on my own survey experience (see above), I think it's more valuable to spend more time with a smaller number of authors (and/or genres) than to pretend that I'm being comprehensive. So I usually do Gawain, 2-3 weeks on Chaucer, maybe a couple days on medieval devotion and then the Reformation, 2-3 weeks on Spenser, 2-3 weeks on lyric, a Jonson play, a day or two on Cavalier verse and the civil war, 2-3 weeks on Milton (PL 1-4, 9-10, and the conclusion of 12), and if I'm lucky a Restoration drama. The end. I'm supposed to go up through the 18th C., but I don't.

ntbw said...

Hi Renaissance Girl,

Sorry--I hope you're not freaked out that I know who you are in real life, though we've never met in person so far as I can recall. Learning your identity actually happened by bizarre accident. I live in the same state where Neruda works. While I don't know Neruda at all, I know some of his colleagues fairly well. A while back, a visit to the website of his institution to look up something about somebody I do know caused me to see some information that in turn caused me, by a strange coincidence of timing, to make a connection with your blog, which I had been reading for a while already at that point. Because I had formerly taught just up the road from you, I was intrigued by the convergence of places involved as well.

Anyway, the plot issue you raised did on occasion come up, though not that often. When it did, it was generally pretty easy to redirect. Having a theme that is fairly simple but open to much complication, variation and the like helps make connections and highlight differences while moving through a ridiculous span of time.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I teach my institution's survey course like this pretty frequently, and I'd like to play devil's advocate here for a second. I don't believe in focusing the survey content. I believe in incoherence as a positive value. I believe in crowded, boisterous, road-to-Canterbury anarchy.

I think the key to making a survey course useful is thinking about the specific intellectual skills that you want the students to come away with, rather than thinking about ways to limit and shape the content. Think of it as a course in literary reading strategies and critical writing, think of the techniques you want the students to learn over the semester, and structure the sequence of assignments around teaching them those techniques. Then you can use that structure to give the course a shape and focus that the content itself doesn't give you. The focus of individual lessons can be less on what the students are reading that week than on the question of how to read.

(I used to believe that I had developed this strategy independently, but in retrospect it was the approach used to teach me the same survey material. My Brit Lit survey was really Close Reading of Poetry with Professor V., using the whole English canon as a chronological series of convenient examples.)

Sure, doing a semester survey of British literature before 1798 is like doing a one-day museum tour of the Met. Everything seems rushed and superficial, and that's especially frustrating to us as the tour guides. What we would really like to do is spend the whole day showing the group one room or two, and really getting into the Impressionists or the sarcophagi. They'd learn more, from our viewpoint, with more focus. But the point of the tour is to let them know what's in the museum, so they can choose what to visit later on their own. The survey's more fun for them than for us. The point of the survey isn't to help them master the texts they're studying, but to let them know that those texts exist. Students can't decide to do further coursework on Marvell or Eliza Haywood or medieval mystery plays until they have heard of them.

Renaissance Girl said...

As usual, very nice advocating, Dr. C. You articulate well why this course IS set for the students at the outset of their undergrad careers. And taking them to a sort of literary Golden Corral, as opposed to that place in my PhD town that made 2 mindblowingly fabulous items per day, is a really important springboard for getting them excited to explore further. (Terrible mixed metaphor there.)

Lexy and Jared said...

Um, can I just say HOORAY that you are teaching this class? Because we've had a discussion about my experience taking this course and it had negative pedagogical value. It is currently the worst course on campus. You will change that. You will find a way to cover 2000 pages in a graceful, compelling manner.

the rebel lettriste said...

Um, this course is my bread and butter. I go chronologically, from Caedmon -- Milton. But I have gone as deep as the Romantics. And I seem to be one of two fucking people in my department who is actually trained in the literature of this period, so I have to teach this fucker several times a semester, every semester.

Anyhoo. I organize it generally around gender: who has power, who doesn't, how do conceptions of authority and gender collide, what and how and to whom does a body mean, how do representations of women change when women are actually doing the representing, WTF is up with Julian of Norwich anyway, OMG Wyatt is so SEXAY, &c. There's a lot of genre theory thrown in there too, and they read Aristotle's Poetics and write their big papers about it.

If you want the syllabus, it is yours!