Sunday, June 22, 2008

introducing literary studies

I've a decent amount of trepidation about the "Intro to Lit Studies" course I mentioned in the last post. It's a fairly new course, so there's not a particularly deep history within the department of how to teach it, what to do & what its aims are. The course description in the catalogue is a committee-composed camel: all it specifies is that we're to introduce 'em to the 3 genres (which of course leaves out the whole range of nonfiction – including its crown jewel, biography – tho one of my colleagues, bless her heart, is doing nonfiction anyway) & throw at least 2 or 3 "critical methods" at them.

Well, my goodness, as Archie Ammons used to say. That's more than just a little to cover, & of course there's massive overlap with what other courses in our major are doing. I don't think – though I'm not sure of this – that it's possible to get thru our English major without doing at least two of the big three genres; & our students are already required to take a "critical theory" course in which they get a guided tour of postwar literary theories. I'd rather not give them another potted summary of theory (tho there's no harm in getting them used to at least the names of various critical approaches), especially when what's most sorely needed, so far as I can tell, is an acquaintance with the expectations of various genres, a knowledge of the "textual condition" of literature in general, & the beginnings of the ability to historically contextualize texts from other eras.

So – with no small degree of fear & trembling – I've opted for the minimal approach: three "primary" texts, & three texts only. Wuthering Heights, Macbeth, & Lyrical Ballads. Ultracanonical works; nice, heavily annotated, massively contextualized editions (Norton, Bedford, New Riverside); probably some sort of secondary text giving an overview of critical approaches (Bennett & Royle's Introduction to Literature, Criticism & Theory on my desk at the moment, tho I welcome other suggestions); & a slow dogged, recursive working-thru of each book, letting the critical / textual / historical issues emerge more or less "organically."

We'll see what happens come the fall. This space may become a regular arena for anguished howls of frustration.

6 comments:

Sisyphus said...

I get to take over a summer course that's mostly the same format as yours, so I'm sure I'll be checking in about all that stuff. I decided not to even cover theory or theoretical approaches since so many non-majors can take it to escape a class in the writing program, and it takes so much time to even get them to use quotes. I figure I've got enough work on that side anyway.

Good luck!

And how would you teach the "big weird poems" like Zukosfsky, or The Waste Land, or, as my friend is doing, "The Bridge," to a bunch of clueless undergraduates who don't know what to do with a poem?

tyrone said...

Mark,

Are you on quarters or semesters? I am obviously asking because, if semesters, the selections seem a bit too minimalist (several of us in my dept. are known for piling it on...) for my pedagogical taste. Still, it sounds like a great course, and I;m a firm believer in hitting them hard--and often--with the canon...

Tyrone

Su said...

My Intro to Literary Studies course was HARDcore. I think it would have been more appropriately titled Introduction to Literary Sadism. In addition to exploring texts in many genres (the instructor included memoir and the short story) through 8 or 9 texts, we learned the history of the novel, serials, and major theoretical movements. We had a nine-page final exam that was B-rutal. I swear the college used this course as a strainer. We were on the quarter system and this course had enough material for three quarters. If I can find the syllabus in my mess of an office, I'll send it to you.

Gary Weissman said...

When are you going to be covering literary theory if you're assigning so many literary texts? I have two theory texts to suggest: Tyson's Critical Theory Today, which applies various theoretical approaches to The Great Gatsby, and Parker's How to Interpret Literature. I believe that your primary readings should be theoretical essays more so than literary works. Focus on texts about STUDYING literature rather than texts that ARE literature in a course called "Intro to Lit Studies"?! Yes. Why not teach any 20th c. literary texts?

Vance Maverick said...

You probably saw Bernstein's letter to the LRB about the infamous review of your book. I like how they altered "A" to 'A', as if purposely to mock Bernstein's scruple.

Craig said...

Sometimes I wonder, just for a control, what if you threw something like a Harry Potter or a John Grisham novel into the mix? Or had the class watch an episode of Law and Order, and then reach for all the critical lenses and dissecting gear?