Organizing 2,350 Minutes

For every single 3-credit course I teach each semester I spend approximately 2,350 minutes in front of the classroom. Like most of you, before I even step foot in the classroom or meet a single student,  I sit down with an assortment of desk copies—anthologies, novels and the like—and try to decide on the content of those 2,350 minutes. Before I meet my students, learn anything about their interests or goals, I must guess at what materials will interest them and help maintain active thinking and discussion throughout the 16-week semester. As the end of the spring semester approaches and I prepare for my fall course assignment, I find myself once again asking, “What does it take to plan a course? What principles guide the choices we make? How do we, as educators and students, decide what to include and what must be forsaken in the interest of time, depth and focus?”

When I received my Spring 2011 course assignment in November 2010, I was utterly elated; my assignment was English 262: British Literature II (1789-present), the latter portion of two British literature surveys taught at West Virginia University. I was wrapping up the last few weeks of English 261 (beginnings-1789), which had gone better than I expected: the texts I selected were of interest to my students and a narrative about performance and “Englishness” emerged through the texts creating thought-provoking, intellectually invigorating discussions for my students and me. (My students claimed to love the metaphysical poets…I was shocked!) The text selections for 261 successfully produced a dialogue amongst my students in ways that I could not have anticipated. (I can’t take credit for this; I had a group of students who were willing to challenge one another’s ideas in the interest of a deeper, more detailed understanding of the texts. If not for this attitude in my students, the course might have been an entirely different experience for all of us.) Because of the successes (and lessons learned) in 261, I felt confident in my ability to plan a successful version of 262; plus, I had an organizing principle: selfhood! I could not wait for the calm of winter break to organize a syllabus bursting with texts in which my soon-to-be students and I could trace the construction of the self (a national self, a Seigelian self, etc.) in Romantic, Victorian, and Modern British literatures.

As I flipped through the pages of various anthologies in mid-December, I realized I had an unexpected problem (a desirable problem, I’d say): teaching 262 meant that I was more familiar with the vast selection of texts. I hadn’t felt this way when planning most of English 261, particularly the Middle Ages unit which began the course (as the Romantic unit would in 262). I was less connected to the texts in 261, unlike the texts for 262 which are on my mind regularly. Wollstonecraft, Hemans, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge (to name just a few) all have a place in what makes me passionate about Romantic literature. I glanced through the list of names and works in the anthology’s table of contents and wondered how I could possibly give my students everything they’d need to be “good” English scholars in a single semester. Could I, in good conscience, skip Lord Byron in favor of Joanna Baillie? The part of me which reacts against the traditional canon screamed, “Yes! Of course!” while undergraduate me, who ached for knowledge of “the classics” and sought out courses which prepared for me the GREs (since I had hopes for graduate school) urged me to keep Byron. All of a sudden, the weight of literary history was on my shoulders; I felt like it was my responsibility to show my students why the Romantic, Victorian and Modern periods were worthy of their attention and reflection. I created one reading list and then another but found myself asking the same question each time: How can I select (and ignore) particular texts for a course which claims to survey the Romantic, Victorian, and Modern periods? What makes for a “good” survey course? I began to question selfhood as my course theme and considered abandoning the project.

I learned the hard way (while teaching 261) that many of the undergraduate students find British literature un-relatable and prefer the offerings focused on American literature. I was baffled by this division—how could students write-off an entire literary canon? Then, I realized: American literature is more popular because students are better able to connect with it! They view American literature as part of their selfhood—whether they articulate it in such a way or not, reading the literary history of their nation means something to them. It helps them understand who they are (as Americans, as future fiction/poetry/nonfiction writers, as American literary scholars). I had to find a way to make British literature relevant in the same ways without devaluing the separate (yet connected) British identity it helps to articulate. It seemed that “selfhood” might be a way in after all– a way to make the connections I was so desperately seeking.  I returned to the anthology’s table of contents and selected a list of texts I thought would help place American and British literatures in dialogue with one another–hoping to show my students that understanding one aids your understanding of the other. I then narrowed that list with “selfhood” in mind. As I stared at that list I again began to question my choices: Are these the texts that students want to read? Am I selecting texts that I am comfortable and familiar with because I am comfortable and familiar with them? Does this reading list prepare my classroom of English and English education majors for the exams many of them will take to continue on their career paths (PRAXIS, GRE)?

As teachers (and lovers of literature) we want to give our students all we can but sometimes doing so is just overwhelming (for them and us). If I forced Coleridge and Wordsworth into the same 50 minute class meeting, students would be introduced to both authors but would likely miss the depth each author’s works have to offer. In organizing our courses each semester we are forced to decide whose interests will shape the course. If we choose our own interests and the texts we prefer, then our students are likely to learn more about those particular authors and texts; our familiarity with the texts means we bring a deeper understanding to the classroom (as we will 10 years from now with a vast selection of texts [after we’ve taught a few surveys]). If we select texts that are only of interest to students then it is likely that we’ll overlook cornerstones of English literature; for example, few of my students would choose Felicia Hemans (if they’ve even heard of her). Most of us seem to find a middle ground; we teach the authors we love alongside the authors we wish we could skip right over in order to provide exposure to the various voices which compose the British literary canon and to allow our students to form their own opinions about the value(s) of such voices (politically, historically, aesthetically, etc.).

By using selfhood as an organizing theme for English 262, I made a decision about the focus of the course; there is a plethora of other themes (or lack of themes) which I could have selected. However, this particular theme fit my goals for the semester (which included showing students that British and American literatures are connected and can offer them insight into understanding themselves). Not only do we have to select which texts we’ll teach, but we must also decide which themes (or theoretical framing devices) will shape the way we teach those texts. No matter what we wish we could do, it is impossible to do it all; in a single semester we can’t offer all there is to know about genre, psychoanalysis, feminism, queerness, narrative, form, etc. in relation to the texts we finally decide to include in a syllabus. Oftentimes, class discussion in English 262 ignores selfhood entirely in favor of debate about how much we trust a narrative voice or what a particular lines or phrase “means.” More often, my students begin discussion with their ideas about the role of class, nationality, race, religion, gender, and so on in a text and by the end of said discussion, they’ve linked those ideas to selfhood. Theming English 262 has not limited how my students read literature; instead, it has enabled them to connect the various ideas their peers have about a text to a concept they are all comfortable with. It has allowed them to see literature as multi-faceted and empowered them to bring their own readings to the classroom. Our best hope as educators, as course planners, is to spend 2,350 minutes inciting our students’ desire to know more, to read closer, to take risks, and to learn to love various literatures and voices!

2 thoughts on “Organizing 2,350 Minutes”

  1. Teresa, I absolutely loved reading this piece and definitely think it’s really helpful for those of us who’ve just reached the beginning of our paths as graduate teachers.

    I found it fascinating that the way designing the survey in such a way that weaves together your interests, the “canonical knowledge” students are expected to know (and reject once they reach a certain level), and what resonates most with students in terms of broader connections and familiarities seems to really help engender the type of classroom discussion that–I imagine for most of us–is one of the main reasons we’ve gravitated towards this profession, in the first place.

    I can’t wait to have the opportunity to teach a survey-type course on my own and attempt a similar thematically based syllabus experiment. I’m thinking it’d be equally effective in different and interesting ways in an Art History setting.

  2. Jacob, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I think course organization is one of the greatest challenges we face as teachers. It sets the tone for the semester before the semester even begins. There are so many wonderful resources about course planning that I’ve found useful including Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (Blackwell, 2003) and James Engell and David Perkins’ Teaching Literature: What is Needed Now (Harvard UP, 1988). (Showalter’s text is also useful in finding related texts; the depth of her research is amazing.)

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