Planning My First Brit Lit Survey

At my university, the opportunities to teach an upper-level course are present but few. After passing comprehensive exams, you can apply to teach a survey course corresponding to your area of specialty. The second-half of British literature is particularly hard to come by, and typically a PhD candidate gets to teach it once before graduating. This is my semester, and I am thrilled!

I have been teaching general education classes for six years. I can count the number of English majors I have taught on one hand. But now, I have two full classes of English majors or minors, who ask me questions like, “Percy Shelley? Any relation to Mary Shelley?” (Isn’t it crazy to remember a time when we didn’t know every intimate detail of the Shelleys’ marriage?).

I am two days in. And here’s what I can report so far: I love my job.

Preparing for the course, I dug out my own Brit Lit II survey syllabus from 20– (I won’t name the year, and you can’t make me!) Then I dug out my relevant grad school syllabi and my comps lists and compared texts. I weighed what I wanted to teach because the texts shaped my research and/or my worldview against what I needed to teach because they would likely see it on the Literature Subject Test of the GRE.

I selected only the “important” passages of Preface to Lyrical Ballads and Defence of Poetry (or rather, the Norton Anthology did). Thomas Carlyle squeaked in there. After all, I am a desperate fan girl of Sartor Resartus.  I bit my lip and added Kipling to the list of late Victorians. Then I rewarded myself by adding “The Fire Sermon” section of The Wasteland to the Modernists. I was (and am!) so excited to teach literature, to teach MY material, to teach MY people. I had to show significant restraint to keep from overloading the poor students!

At what angle to approach the survey course was another quandary. I have taught general education poetry courses chronologically, thematically, and with a genre focus. The second half of Brit Lit at KU is officially titled, “Major British Writers after 1800,” so I veered away from a thematic approach, though I have long dreamed of teaching a Victorian class with subtitles like “Victorian Work Ethic,” “Science, Faith, and Doubt,” and “The Woman Question.” Knowing that I needed to keep “Major Writers” as my official angle, I opted to organize texts chronologically and somewhat generically. My weeks  are titled things like,  “Romantic Prose Writers” or “WWI Poets.”

With this emphasis on genre and the writers themselves, one of our major objectives for the semester will be to interrogate the ways in which genres get hierarchized in an increasingly competitive literary marketplace. In my own research, I examine the ways writers define their work to ensure its status as high art, or “big L” Literature. This approach lends itself nicely to discussions of literary movements, literary coteries, and the juicy writer rivalries we all long to pass on as if they are bits of gossip overheard.

But this semester isn’t about me…entirely. Excited as I am, this isn’t about an opportunity for me to teach students who are somewhat interested in the subject at hand. It isn’t about me getting experience teaching upper division classes before going on the job market. And it isn’t about me reliving encounters with Major British Writers after 1800. This is about giving students of English a comprehensive survey of two centuries and some change. My hope is they will challenge the ways I define modernity, ask why I assign Barbauld’s Eighteen-hundred and Eleven, present readings of Philip Larkin that I hadn’t considered, and all of that mushy teacher stuff that got us into the profession in the first place. But most of all, I hope they find one of these Major Writers to love almost as much as I love ALL of them (except Kipling).

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2 thoughts on “Planning My First Brit Lit Survey”

  1. Is this a lecture course or a class because I wonder how the student size affects your decision making on material? At Temple, our Brit Lit 2 survey is 1660-1900. When I first came here this was a 150 person lecture in which I was a TA, but now it is a 33 person class. From my own experience, I find two things most difficult to teach to undergraduates: 1) a sense of what it means to be modern, i.e. the experience of modernity as it evolves and 2) genre, everything is a novel right? I’ve always felt learning the former is something more important than latter. One cannot conceive of the evolution of genres, or literature, or history in the proper sense, without beginning to work through some notion of the modern… conceived in multifarious ways. Anyways, that has been my biggest challenge, especially this semester as I teach a class on Austen and attempt to have the students at the very least see the foreignness of her culture and also a class on the American Renaissance. Anyways, thanks for the post. Should make for a nice end of the semester recap on the outcomes of your strategies.

    1. This is a class. Unfortunately, our program does not offer assistantships for lecture courses. We have the full-class from day one! I have 2 sections of 25 students, and they are a fabulous group! Certainly, with a smaller class I am able to incorporate discussion quite easily, so that factors into the number of readings we cover a day and the way I approach contextualizing those readings. For instance, I like to pair prose with the poetry, allowing them to deduce historical or literary trends like sensibility versus sentimentalism in our selections without me becoming a so-called, “sage-on-the-stage.”

      Since I must start at 1800 (I cheat and begin a little bit before), I offer a definition of modernity that adopts the eighteenth century as a crucial paradigm shift. Of course, I am careful to explain that there is no definitive year, decade, or even century where scholars say, “yes! this is where modernity begins.” But I talk about mobility in particular as a marker of our modern understanding of a global world. We discuss movement of bodies, movement of information, movement of classes, etc. , and the necessary worldview adjustments that these require. I especially like to teach London poems like Blake’s “London,” WW’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,” and Robinson’s “London’s Summer Morning” on these days. We also talk about empiricism and modern scientific methods alongside Blake (“The Is No Natural Religion” esp) for another facet of modernity. All the while, I call their attention to the form of these texts and ask how the chosen poetic form or prose form contributes to the poet’s point about modernity, etc.

      Of course, I will happily report back with my successes and failures as I continue this sally forth into Brit Lit pedagogy!

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