Refreshing My Reading Lists III: Brit Lit Survey

babl-volumebThe third course I plan to spend time rethinking during this sabbatical is British Literature After 1800, one of a suite of 2nd-year survey classes we originally established to orient students in the big picture (nationally and historically) as context and preparation for our more specialized upper-level courses. These curricular intentions are compromised (some might say, rendered inoperable) by the way our program actually works now: the surveys are no longer specific program requirements but are simply part of suites of classes from which students make their own selections. We do not have the option, either, to make specific surveys prerequisites for specific upper-level courses. I wish it were otherwise, and we did at one time have a more structured (and thus, IMHO, more coherent) curriculum. But here we are, and here these courses still are, and in Winter 2020, for the first time since 2010, I will be teaching this particular one again.

mla-handbook

In 2010, not only was it clearer how this course fit into our overall offerings but it also was supposed to do specific kinds of work for our majors and honours students, focusing not just on literary content but also on research and writing skills at a a step up from what we typically cover in our first-year classes. Now that the surveys are no longer program requirements at all, much less part of a deliberate skills-based sequence, that is no longer (as far as I know!) a necessary part of them, any more than it is in any of our other 2000-level offerings. This alone would mean reconsidering the structure and assignments I set up for it when I offered it before, when students did (among other things) an elaborate annotated bibliography. Even if the place of the course in our program had not changed, however, I would want to rethink the reading list.

When I drew up the syllabus in 2010, I followed a very conventional — by which I mean, quite canonical —  model. This was not (or not just) a failure of imagination on my part: given the very wide range of our other course offerings, it seemed like a priority to address the “standard” classics that (in my experience) students have often had surprisingly little chance to read at the outset of an English major, ones that are often touchstones or pushing-off points for later authors or movements or specific texts. While in some ways this might seem like a conservative approach, in other ways I consider it essential for understanding our field: it is hard, for instance, to discuss the significance of challenges to the canon, or exclusions from the canon, or problems with the whole notion of canonicity to begin with, without some sense of the traditional canon as a starting point. Or so I thought, anyway: this course, as I conceived of it, set out a preliminary version of literary history that would be complicated (as I repeatedly discussed in class) by other approaches and other courses.

norton-vol-2So I assigned the “major authors” edition of the Norton Anthology and we read Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, Tennyson and Browning and Hopkins, Wilde and Joyce and Woolf, Yeats and T. S. Eliot and Auden, Heaney and Rushdie. A bit less predictably, we also read Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, and Katherine Mansfield, and while the first time around I assigned Great Expectations as our representative Victorian novel, the second time we read Mary Barton. Both times, our 20th-century novel was Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which worked really well because it directly–metafictionally and thematically–addresses changing ideas about fiction from Modernism to modernity. The course was a lot of work for me, both because I had to teach a lot of material outside my usual area and because of the challenge of conceptualizing it so that there was some coherence–some patterns and themes to follow across the term–while still doing my best to keep the whole problem of canonicity in view. As part of this effort, I set up one of the most elaborate course requirements I’ve ever done: a collaborative wiki-building project for which the students (working in teams) built study guides for the course based on the lectures and readings as well as their own research and also incorporated some information about readings not included in our syllabus.

atonement_(novel)Looking over my notes, I actually think it was quite a good course of its kind. (You can read some blow-by-blow accounts of it while it was in progress if you’re interested; just scroll down this page until you get to 2010!) Now that this course is not specifically meant as a prelude to other courses, however, I am rethinking the kind of course it should be on its own terms. I would still like to provide something of a canonical overview–because, again, I think some sense of what that looks like is really helpful for other critical, even subversive, conversations–but I would also like to build more of the critiques and revisions and alternatives into the course itself, rather than assuming they will come up later. This assumption just doesn’t seem reasonable any more given the extreme flexibility of our current program (which is a response to scarce resources more than a principled shift away from requirements or sequences), and I also think we will have more interesting conversations in the moment if I shape the reading list to include more contestation and urgency.

How to do that, though, without losing the basic chronological survey structure that distinguishes this course from ones organized by genre, theme, or just narrower parameters? I have been thinking about organizing the readings into clusters, such as gender or nation and identity, but I don’t like to abstract topics or themes as if it doesn’t matter when they took on a particular literary form or voice or what IRL they might have been responding to.  In every course I teach, in fact, including introductory classes, the mystery class, and the 19th-century novel classes, I tend to teach things in chronological order because it makes the most sense to me pedagogically: it allows us to work through any relevant historical contexts in order, and to talk about ways writers respond to each other. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to compare earlier and later treatments of related ideas or forms; it just means that this possibility gets more robust as the course progresses. (This is one reason I often focus the first assignment(s) on a single text and then make later assignments comparative.)

marybarton

One thing I could do, as a compromise, is choose all of the texts for the course with an overarching theme in mind. This is probably quite feasible, especially if that theme is itself somewhat flexible. In fact, having some reason to choose one thing over another is going to be essential, as canon (re)formation in the past couple of decades has been almost entirely additive: anthologies have only gotten bigger, and some of them, vast already in print, also have associated websites with still more potential material! The thing about letting go of the “old standards” approach is that it leaves you quite overwhelmed with possibilities. Thinking in terms of “how to have the best conversation about X” rather than about coverage (which was impossible, of course, even in the old model) will be not just helpful but essential. I just (just!) need to settle, in that case, on which conversation(s) I want the course to highlight and then figure out how best to include a variety of voices–which is something that I should have done better at in the previous versions.

small-islandI actually already have one specific idea, which is to substitute Andrea Levy’s Small Island for Atonement. It too is a book that crosses literary generations and that tells a story about telling stories, but it starts from a very different place and has very different concerns. I think it’s a very readable book, less subtle, perhaps, than Atonement but also less insular. Atonement is very much a novel about novels, which is one reason I admire it and enjoyed teaching it; this time around, though, for this course, I think I want less literary self-consciousness and more social and political engagement in the reading list. That might make Mary Barton still a good option, but I’m also wondering about Kipling’s Kim, which is one of the 19th-century novels I’ll be getting to know this term–because like Small Island, it’s (as I understand it, anyway) about how we think about who we are in relation to where we come from and where we live. Is that the overarching theme I want to go with? I don’t know yet, but at least it’s a place to start thinking about how to conceptualize this survey course in a new (for me) and possibly more relevant way.

I’d be very interested in knowing how other people approach survey courses of this kind. I have always thought that they are, or should be, the backbone of a good English curriculum. Obviously that view no longer prevails, in practice, in my own department, where we once had a mandatory survey (“Literary Landmarks”) for all majors and honours students. I am sensitive to the objection that we don’t want to perpetuate narrow ideas about the canon or literary history. Within the scope of any such course, though, these issues can always be confronted directly–as I know they were by my colleagues who taught “Literary Landmarks” back in the day. If you have taught — or taken — a survey course, what principles organized it? How did you approach the impossible task of coverage and the essential task of subverting your own generalizations as you went along? What readings worked really well? And, not incidentally, if you assigned an anthology, which one? (At the moment, I am inclined towards making up a custom anthology using Broadview’s excellent tool for this.)

2 thoughts on “Refreshing My Reading Lists III: Brit Lit Survey

  1. Melissa Beck January 6, 2019 / 3:49 pm

    This looks like such a wonderful course! It was a Brit. Lit survey in high school that I credit with making me the reader I am today! Students are so lucky to take your course!

    • Rohan Maitzen January 6, 2019 / 4:59 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement, Melissa! One reason I believe strongly in required classes, including ones like this, is that precisely they expose students to things they don’t even know they like. The current system of pick-as-you-go can perpetuate misguided assumptions about what’s interesting because we can’t coerce students into discovering new fun things.

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