When an undergraduate professor assigned Roland Barthes and told me, “The Author Is Dead,”1 I heard with elation the clarion cry of burgeoning self-importance. I was no longer a measly high school student who naively derived literature’s meaning from the author’s personal psychology. No, no, I was a college student now and could refer to The Text as Ding an sich. In fact, by interpreting it, I was basically writing the darn thing! Reborn as a liberated reader, I ultimately heeded the call to become a literary critic myself.
As we march ahead, perhaps forebodingly, into a new epoch in America’s political climate, one might wonder exactly what can be the value of teaching Romantic poetry and prose. In the weeks immediately following the recent historic election (however one chooses to define “historic”), we must consider whether undergraduate students really want to spend their time reading Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal” or Keats’s “To Autumn” or Austen’s Emma. When these students are otherwise preoccupied with what Twitter and Snapchat have to tell them about the current state of the world, why would they choose to bow their heads over texts that, while they may have something to say about the early nineteenth century in Britain, seem to be so distant and disjointed from our own time and place? This was a question I set out to explore this fall…and then November 8th happened.
Students in survey poetry courses often encounter poems in anthologies. Poetry anthologies are comparatively inexpensive and well edited, and they offer an eclectic mix of brilliant work from a diverse set of authors. Much like the poems they contain, though, anthologies themselves can become sites of deep critical inquiry and fantastic resources for instructors wishing to train students on matters of book history and editorial practices. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy’s The Norton Anthology of Poetry (2005) offers a case in point: the decisions that the editors made when presenting John Keats’s famous ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” reveal some of the difficult choices that editors must make when compiling an anthology, and become an occasion for exploring the competing versions of Keats’s poem and the ways in which historical and contemporary editors have shaped its meaning.
Reflections, questions, & forum for response.
The dawn of another academic year always comes with a slew of first year Teaching Assistants. Graduate students must now stand up in front of the classroom and, if any of them are like me, spend more time reflecting on their own learning processes than ever before in their academic life. Like so many gradate TAs I don’t have the option to choose which courses or syllabus to teach, but rather am assigned courses that vary between English Composition 100 and Intro to Literature. I’m not complaining as each opportunity provides the space to learn a new topic that otherwise might have slipped my academic history.
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.
Like many who have read Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, I began the novel with the knowledge—one could even say the predisposition—that I would find in it the moments that Jane Austen parodies in Northanger Abbey. In Northanger, Catherine Morland finds a scrap of paper that she is certain will prove to be the last testament of General Tilney’s late wife—only to find that the memento is actually a laundry bill. This scene is one of many in which Austen communicates how Catherine’s excessive engagement with gothic novels has prejudiced her ability to interpret her immediate surroundings and experiences. I’ve read Northanger a handful of times and have always been a big fan, so I approached Radcliffe’s work anxiously, waiting for her heroine, Adeline, to find some damning piece of paper, which would fulfill my own expectations of gothic horror conventions.
Sure enough, a little over 100 pages in, Adeline stumbles upon the manuscript of a man who had years before been captured and killed in the abbey where she and her guardians, the La Mottes, are hiding from the French authorities. The “MS” horrifies yet captivates her, and for the next few chapters, she continually rushes back and forth between the room where she keeps the manuscript and the other rooms of the abbey, where she finds herself having to fight against the Marquis de Montalt’s sexual and marital advances. Her attention is torn between the written fragment of the past—much of which has been obscured by the erosion of ink on the page—and the immediate dangers of her present.
Did it fulfill my desires for cliché yet disturbing gothic goodness? Absolutely. But when I got to that part of the novel, I didn’t think of Northanger Abbey. Instead, a completely unexpected picture flashed through my mind:
Last semester I got my first taste of teaching an “Introduction to Women’s Literature” course at CU Boulder. As winter break now comes to a close, I’ve been pondering the revisions I’ve made to my syllabus this month – revisions that have prompted me to analyze familiar questions: What is women’s literature? How does one teach a survey of women’s literature as a Romanticist? What are the desired outcomes of such a course? Continue reading Teaching “Intro to Women’s Literature” as a Romanticist
It’s nearing the end of the year, finals are over, papers are due, but we’re literature majors here, so of course the only thing that matters is the symbolism of winter. The year is dying and ready to sleep forevermore — bringing in its death a spark of new life, new possibilities, and the mass cultural/capitalistic orgy that is the Christmas season. Parting with the cynicism, however, I decided that rather than construct coherent argument, I would instead remember a moment from one of my Romanticism courses and muse on the experience. Continue reading A Bird’s Song, and Two Men Divided by Death, United by Age
This fall, I’ve been assigned to instruct a class called ‘Introduction to Writing about Literature.’ While the course is designed to transmit a specialized skill-set (textual analysis), it’s not organized around a historical period, event, or philosophical discourse. As an instructor, I’m required to jump around—across periods, genres and continents—in an effort to give students the most comprehensive possible familiarity with literature in English. The only thing that holds the course together is a persistent focus on form and figuration. This is both liberating—it’s great to get close to some of my favorite texts in the classroom–and a little terrifying—unmoored from thematic, historical and philosophical contexts, I’ve found myself wondering if I know anything about how literary language works. In this post, I’ll outline some of the theoretical and pedagogical dilemmas I’ve bumped up against teaching close reading and then explain how I’ve decided to talk about metaphor and figuration in my requirement-level lit course. Though the post turns on my own experiences, I’m hoping that the problems and solutions that I address here may be relevant to readers working out their own ideas about how to teach and test close reading skills.
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.
Continue reading Planning My First Brit Lit Survey