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).