Hacking Non-Romanticism Teaching Assignments

It’s almost March. The time of year (at least in my department) that we get our teaching assignments for the fall semester. Many of us greatly look forward to this, especially if it’s our first time teaching our own courses: there’s something intoxicating about finally getting to design your own class. The possibilities are endless.

Until you read the course description of the class you’ve been assigned.

Here’s the teaching situation for graduate students at my university: we teach non-major literature classes (1000-level or 3000-level usually) in which we can design our own syllabi according to a vague course description associated with that class number. One of the slight problems of being a Romanticist in this situation is that few of the course options actually allow you to teach texts from your own time period—and so in many cases, course preparation becomes a completely distinct thing from your dissertation research.

As a fun thought experiment (and as preparation for when I inevitably get my own assignment in a few weeks), I thought I’d post my university’s options for graduate-student-taught courses and try to come up with a way to make the most of that class as a Romanticist. You may or may not have similar choices for classes at your university—or, you might see some classes like this when you start teaching full-time.

The information below is taken from our Syllabus Course Requirements sheet. I am not responsible for any of the wording in the italicized descriptions of these courses.

ENGL 1260: Introduction to Women’s Literature

Introduces literature by women in England and America. Covers both poetry and fiction, and various historical periods. Must include significant attention to pre-20th-century works, as well as works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Women’s writing from other geographical areas besides England and the Americas may be included.

Jackpot. The time period fits perfectly. As long as what you’re doing has something to do with women, you can even pull from your exam or dissertation reading lists. A handful of graduate students have chosen to teach this as a long nineteenth century class, and it’s worked wonderfully. Possible Romantic texts to teach: Anything Ann Radcliffe or Mary Shelley; conversations about the French Revolution (especially Mary Wollstonecraft and Edmund Burke); Charlotte Smith’s sonnets. (Although, seriously, the possibilities are endless here.)

ENGL 1500: Masterpieces of British Literature

Introduces students to a range of major works of British literature, including at least one play by Shakespeare, a pre-20th century English novel, and works by Chaucer and/or Milton. Should cover literature from the Middle Ages through at least the first half of the 20th century. Should range widely across genres including prose, poetry, and drama.

Phew. This is a bit of an ambitious class. (800 years in a semester. Go.) But, it certainly leaves a decent amount of freedom for what exactly you teach. I do know graduate instructors who have simply taught from a British Literature anthology, but it’s possible to tweak your choices to fit Romanticism with this kind of a class. Although the course likely suggests sticking to the “canon” (interpret that how you will), it could also be fun to teach this as an anti-canon. (Or, as my partner and I have joked, as a “B-side” class. B-sides the Canon. Get it?) Possible Romantic texts to study: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto; Wordsworth’s Two-Part Prelude.

ENGL 1600: Masterpieces of American Literature

Enhances student understanding of the American literary and artistic heritage through an intensive study of a few centrally significant texts, emphasizing works written before the 20th century. Must include significant attention to pre-20th century works, as well as works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Should cover literature from the early nineteenth century (if not earlier) through at least the first half of the 20th century. Should range widely across genres including prose, poetry, and drama.

So, this is a little trickier. But a little Transatlanticism never hurt anyone. In fact, if your project is Transatlantic, this could be a great class to get. And certainly, some of the political writing in the U.S. had an impact on writers in Britain. For texts with later dates, it could also be useful to think about how Modernism/High modernism rethink Romantic values. Possible Romantic (ish) texts: Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography; Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; Thoreau’s Walden.

ENGL 1800: American Ethnic Literatures

Introduces significant fiction by ethnic Americans. Explores both the literary and the cultural elements that distinguish work by these writers. Emphasizes materials from Native American, African American, and Chicano traditions. Must include significant attention to pre-20th century works, as well as works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Other ethnic American traditions (e.g. Asian American, Arab American, etc.) may be included.

I’ll admit, I had to tap my partner for help on this one. (He focuses in 20th-century American minority literature.) Here’s his advice: You can use this class to think through questions inherent in the Romantic period—like those in the abolitionist movement or in discourses of human rights as seen in the many revolutions—in terms of a wider range of voices and experiences. Or, another approach could be to think about the consequences of decisions made and political actions taken during the Romantic period (like abolishing slavery). Some of his suggestions for possible texts: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; Sherman Alexi’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven; Philip Roth’s Human Stain; John Okada’s No-No Boy.

ENGL 3000: Shakespeare for Non-Majors

Introduces students to Shakespeare’s major works: the histories, comedies, and tragedies. May include the nondramatic poetry as well. Should cover at least seven plays, among them two history plays, including at least one from the second tetralogy (Richard II, 1 and 2, Henry IV, Henry V); one early and one late comedy; two of the major tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and Anthony and Cleopatra); and one romance.

That’s probably our course that has the least amount of wiggle room. Thankfully, as one of my lovely colleagues has said multiple times, Shakespeare is very important to the Romantics and he shows up everywhere. If you get assigned a Shakespeare course that is a little more flexible than this one, then I would suggest picking plays that more closely align with concerns the Romantics had. If yours is as rigidly structured as this one, then take it as an opportunity to bulk up your background in what was likely every-day knowledge for many of our dearest Romantic writers.

And finally. . .

ENGL 3060: Modern and Contemporary Literature

Close study of significant 20th-century poetry, drama, and prose works. Readings range from 1920s to the present. Must include significant attention to early- and mid-20th century works, as well as contemporary works. Precursors to modernism (e.g. Wilde, Ibsen, Hopkins) may also be included as appropriate. Should range widely across genres including prose, poetry, and drama; film may also be included as appropriate.

That little line—“precursors to modernism may also be included”—is your lifeline here. One graduate student regularly assigns Frankenstein in this class, partially because of the subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus.” In general, this would be a good course to think through theoretical, generic, or thematic interests in your project, with maybe one as-late-as-possible Romantic text at the start of the course so that you can trace a trajectory of this idea. Adaptations of Romantic-era works might be interesting as well. Possible texts: Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves; Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea; the film Bright Star.

If you like, feel free to take advantage of the comments section to share how you’ve taught non-Romantic-focused classes in the past. Maybe we can create a small resource here for other graduate students and budding instructors to pull from. For those of you lucky enough to be able to write your own course descriptions, I point you to Max Cassity’s thoughts on using some of the foundations in Zen Buddhism to help you do so.