At CUNY, a New York state public university where I teach an introductory course in literature and writing, undergraduates like thinking about power. Their material disadvantages make social critique come naturally. Knowing this and wanting to get them hooked, I present Romantic literature as an early expression of dissatisfaction with social processes and conventions, a perspective to be developed later by Marx. This semester, I threw Jane Austen into the mix, and oriented reading and discussions of Persuasion around questions of social class. We spent a lot of time discussing the historical attributes of Austen’s class system that seem strange to modern sensibilities: the phenomenon of rank, the marriage between cash and land, the ambiguous category of the “gentleman” and the expanding mercantile economy.
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.
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
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.
I’ve been musing for a while about how much fun it would be to organize a class for undergraduates centered around the theme of creative writing by youthful authors. Perhaps because of the Romantic association between individuality, genius, and youth (an idea that persists in present-day cultures of information technology), 18th- and 19th-century literature is wonderfully full of examples of juvenile authorship. In this post, I’ll just name a few examples of texts that might pair well together in a class on juvenilia in the 18th and 19th centuries, with special focus on the Romantic period. I’d welcome the additional suggestions of readers! Continue reading Juvenilia: The Syllabus!
I submitted final grades on Friday, and after granting myself a long weekend to relax (i.e. clean my house and sleep a full 8 hours each night), I am settling into my summer. I am on fellowship for the next year, and without teaching responsibilities, I am writing full time. But, I do have travel plans to punctuate the summer slog and give me much needed inspiration and respite. Like many of you, I have NASSR in Winnipeg this August, where I get to see friends, colleagues, and scholar-idols. But what’s foremost on my radar is the History of Distributed Cognition Workshop in Edinburgh next month.
As I have mentioned before, I have the pleasure of participating in this workshop at the University of Edinburgh to discuss and refine my chapter on Keats’s and Wordsworth’s contrasting visions of embodied reading. The workshop is only three days, but I’ve decided to stay abroad for a week. Initially, I toyed with the idea of traveling south after the workshop. My heart is and always will be in London, and I’m very comfortable traveling around England. I’ve been there often enough to feel a pseudo-mastery of navigating the country, and by now, I feel it’s my second home. Continue reading A Summer Scotland Tour
It seems pointless to argue that graphic novels have an important place in literature at this point. Personally, I took two classes during my undergraduate career that incorporated such texts (including Satrapi’s Persepolis and Bechdel’s Fun Home), but more often than not this is a rare occurrence and something I did not encounter in my graduate coursework. Graphic novels often do not get the attention they deserve, in part because many deem them déclassé due to their graphic nature and/or subject material, but also because they are hard to teach. While graphic novels can be analyzed through literary theory (and should be), the format itself, and most notably, the visual element of such narratives, are in a scholarly discipline all their own. One cannot teach, or even fully enjoy a graphic novel, without at least a bare minimum knowledge of art theory and visual composition. (Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods are good places to start.) But then again, neither of these things occupies some alien universe detached from what we as literary scholars already tackle. Continue reading Graphic Learning: Examples of Well-Researched Comics