I'm all for survey courses, not least because that's pretty much most of what I teach. ("Our students don't go for single author courses," advised a former chair during my first year of teaching. "They're pragmatic.") However, there are times when survey courses meet, not the road, but the program requirements. In days of yore, students could use multiple 200-level courses to meet distribution reqs. In days more recent, students are limited to using two 200-level courses toward the major. And when it comes to British vs. American literature, the cries of USA! USA! USA! are louder than they are at the World Cup. (That is, I assume that they're loud at the World Cup. My television pulls in exactly one channel.) Once the program change-over happened, suddenly--as in fall-off-a-cliff, wait-there's-a-hole-in-front-of-me suddenly--enrollments in British Literature II plummeted from the 40s to the single digits. In the space of one year. It would appear that whatever we may feel about the survey, our undergraduates would prefer to hone their literary skills in other courses. And yet, surveys are essential, not just because they ought to enroll in the 40s (many students, so FTE, much wow), but also because...they're introductory surveys. They're intended to give students a grasp of basic material that they can build on over the course of the program. Victorian Gothic, which students like a lot, is not so helpful for introducing British Romantic poetry.
In the fall, I'm teaching a new course on (mostly) Victorian fictions of childhood (and what we would now call young adulthood, for that matter). It's not a children's literature course, although there are certainly plenty of examples of Victorian children's literature on the list. I'm still playing around with the various electronic readings, although some of the books are set (thanks to the rule that we need to order books months in advance...). The syllabus is more thematic than chronological. I suspect that I'll move Little Henry and His Bearer down to the end with Kim.
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Frances Trollope, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong
Mary Martha Sherwood, Little Henry and His Bearer
Mrs. Molesworth, Ministering Children (excerpts)
Hesba Stretton, Jessica's First Prayer
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family (excerpts)
Frederic W. Farrar, Eric; Or, Little by Little (excerpts)
Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's School Days
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Selections from Auerbach and Knoepflmacher, Forbidden Journeys
Brown University's push to get everyone up and out in five years touches on a subject of abiding interest to me. Now, I did finish my doctorate at the U of Chicago in five years, much to the surprise of my committee (although not to me). This is how I did it:
I was in one of the final cohorts of the five-year Mellon Fellowships. (Which, on a large scale, didn't do a particularly good job of accelerating time-to-degree.)
I also received summer travel funding for dissertation research.
My committee was always efficient in commenting on my work, and provided strong mentorship throughout the process.
Although my dissertation was long, it was on a relatively unusual topic.
I didn't do any teaching, beyond two once-a-week discussion sections. (Which is why I was unemployable when I finished. So much for the market value of a fast Ph.D.)
Neither I nor my parents had medical issues.
I had no mental health crises. (I...um...rather enjoyed graduate school. Er, sorry?)
I had no spouse or children.
I read very, very quickly.
In other words: I did my traditional doctorate under pretty much ideal conditions. Privileged, as many might say. (In fact, I could probably add "second-generation academic" to the list, as my parents were able to provide me with a lot of concrete advice about negotiating seminars, finding a chair, etc.) Most graduate students do not have these ideal conditions. The funding runs out. Their dissertation chair goes AWOL or needs to be blackmailed into returning work. The topic turns out to be unmanageable as is and requires a do-over. The pressures of teaching, sometimes multiple sections, interfere with coursework, research, and writing. Someone develops a serious chronic condition. The graduate student sinks into depression. The spouse suddenly needs to relocate for work. The children become ill or need special attention at school. And so on. And so on. Institutional inflexibility is of no use here. Moreover, as bullet point #5 suggests, the push for fast doctorates may come at the expense of a graduate student's viability on the market, especially at schools like mine (where being able to hit the ground at the proverbial fast speed is crucial). There's not much point in pushing a student out if there's only an abyss.
Faculty are very, very fond of studies insisting that we work over forty hours per week. And...some of us do! (Especially my colleagues over in the STEM fields.) But, I rather suspect, most of us do not work over forty hours per week on a consistent basis. The workload differs drastically according to, among other things, the phase of one's career; local service expectations (and the availability of faculty to do service); professional service expectations (which increase as one becomes more visible--more peer reviewing, organizational work, and so on); teaching load; course preparations; number of students; research expectations; and discipline. Plus one's personal life (spouse? children? ailing parents?). My own hours logged vary drastically semester-by-semester and week-by-week. Are there fifty papers to grade, or are all the students doing research presentations? Am I teaching a new course with umpteen equally new novels, or Brit Lit II for the 1000th time? Am I on three different committees and chairing one (all extremely busy), or am I on a single committee which has little to do? Am I in the writing phase on a new article or book, or am I in the "walk around the village and think about my argument" phase? I'm comfortable saying that, yes, at a minimum, I work a standard forty-hour work week, counting all contact hours, course preparation, service, and research activities. There have absolutely been weeks this semester when I've done much more than that (see under: all those committees), but all the time? No. But, then again, the work doesn't stop, even when I'm on "vacation." This summer, I'm committed to writing an article, as well as presenting at a major conference, and I've also got an idea for another article kicking around; my next winter break will involve my doing something that I Cannot Yet Reveal on this Blog (because I'm waiting for official notification--I hope I'm not hallucinating the email confirmation I've already received...), but it will definitely involve a few weeks of being in a library from 9-5 or so, not "vacationing." So might my work hours average out to more than forty hours per week if the entire year were taken into account, even though I'm officially "not working" during those months that, um, I'm working? Possibly.
Due to one of those unbloggable crises that departments have from time to time, I have been spending most of my time thinking about things other than this blog. (The crisis is of the "help, I'm chairing the relevant committee" variety, not the "help, an asteroid is coming directly at me" variety. Although, come to think of it...) Also, I have an slightly overdue article--or, at least, I'm prettysure it's overdue--which is staring at me with soulful eyes, even though it's Just. About. Finished! (Cue my father: "You've been saying this article is just about finished for several weeks now." But it is! Really!) Thanks to those soulful eyes ("Mommy, why don't you clean up my footnotes?"), I feel horribly guilty every time I even look at this blog. (You cannot imagine the guilt I feel at this very second. Trust me. Or don't.) And I have to apply for gen ed credit for a new course I'm teaching next year.
(Which is another way of saying: more regular posting to resume next week. Because I have to write other stuff.)
I'm finishing up the next section of the imaginary reading list (see below), but in the meantime...
1. At Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse asks about disclosure policies: when you are discussing provocative/loaded/ideologically potent/etc. material, what do you say about your own positions? This really is one of those questions, as some of the commenters point out, for which the answer depends on any number of contingent factors--course level, topics, pedagogical method, student demographics, and so forth. My courses usually don't skew to the intensely political (OK, they pretty much don't skew that way at all, unless the text calls for it), but I do spend a lot of time a) talking about Christianity and b) expecting the students to take Christianity, and religion in general, seriously. To that end, I do disclose that I'm Jewish, for two reasons: 1) to assure students that I'm not proselytizing and 2) to model how to be serious about a belief system that isn't yours. (Before you say, "Um, you've got the most Jewish name, like, ever, so surely they've already guessed," I will point out that quite a few people in this region have never met a Jew that they're aware of--although there's a big Jewish community in the closest city of any size--and couldn't recognize a classically Ashkenazic name if they saw it dancing the hora while noshing on latkes. My Jewishness is absolutely not obvious to all of my students, or even the staff.)
2. Help, thetriggerwarningsdebate. The comments sections at various sites seem to be collapsing "triggering" material and "offensive" material, which may be the nature of the beast--material we often understand to be triggering is offensive or upsetting, but someone offended or upset is not necessarily triggered. Any university policy would have to disentangle the two. (The Oberlin policy, in the first link, does in fact try to define "trigger" so as to exclude "offended.") However, when I taught Pan's Labyrinth, I gave advance warning about a couple of specific scenes for students who might not be able to handle extremely graphic violence or gore (which is something I have a problem with myself--let's just say I'm not in the market to teach a course on horror films any time soon), and that pretty much was a trigger warning without the word "trigger" attached. Reading through the various posts, I find myself mostly coming down on the side of those who hold that it's not paternalistic to allowstudentsto make an informed decision about how they want to handle material that is not difficult, challenging, or offensive, but that instead genuinely causes them serious mental harm. It would be paternalistic to design a syllabus that had nothing that might be triggering on it (not so thrilled with Oberlin's direction there...), or to insist that there is only one way to experience and process trauma, or to force a student to accept what to them appears to be an inappropriate or relatively useless form of assistance. These issues are certainly something to be mindful of, whether or not there's a call for an official policy.
That being said, Tressie McMillan Cottom raises an important caveat:
Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.
That is an odd business for higher education to be in…unless the business of higher education is now officially business.
Dr. Cottom's point, if I understand her correctly, is at least twofold: first, the trigger warning in social media contexts provides some semblance of an opt-out mechanism in an explicitly corporatized environment (no, thanks, I don't want to buy this horrific thing you're selling) that depends on material being disseminated as widely as possible by the user base. (Tumblr would be another good example.) Retweeting, reblogging, and favoriting can be performed critically (a favorite that is designed to mark a place rather than show approval, a retweet intended ironically, and so on), but they are often simple "thumbs up" votes--a moment of applause intended to spread opportunities for further applause. Which is, as she says, part of the business platform. But, second, we assume that the college student has opted in to exposure to potentially disturbing material--the purpose of an education is not to applaud, nor to favorite, nor to please, but, in large part, to challenge. The trigger warning is a "business" warning because it assumes that students can and should opt out when faced with distressing texts or other media; it prioritizes, as she says earlier, "the student-customer." Not least because "no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins." The spaces, that is, where there is no opt-out.
Here's the reading list for this year's upper-division Victorian poetry seminar. The course emphasizes narrative verse and dramatic monologues, although some sonnets sneak in (and, of course, a sonnet sequence). Before you say, "wait, why isn't X there," bear in mind that in the second half of the course, small groups of students will be contributing their own assignments to the syllabus; moreover, the course assignments encourage and/or require students to work with poems off the syllabus, so that they apply skills learned in class to works "uncontaminated" by yours truly. (I often use that last option on exams--asking them to read Assigned Text X against Related but Not Assigned Text Y.) I'm experimenting with a new assignment this semester: asking students to annotate a poem as if for classroom use (e.g., headnote, footnotes, glosses, links to useful stuff on the 'net...).
As you can see, the class starts with some basic scansion, beginning with "hey, you're an English major, this is iambic pentameter" before moving on. (Luckily, the students who have taken Shakespeare are ahead of the game.) We did one session of just reading aloud, which I encourage students to do as a matter of course.
I'm trying out Francis O'Gorman's anthology this semester. Normally, I use the big Broadview, but I haven't always been happy with the footnotes.
1/27: Introduction and administrivia
1/29: Reading aloud: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Dying Swan”; Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “A Musical Instrument”; Christina Rossetti, “Winter: My Secret”
1/31: Introduction to scansion: iambic pentameter (handout)
2/3: Introduction to scansion: got trochaics? (handout)
2/5: Yet more scansion: dactyls and anapests (handout; Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”)
2/7: Emily Jane Brontë: “High waving heather,” “The Night-Wind,” “To Imagination,” “Remembrance,” “No Coward Soul is Mine”
One of my Facebook friends sparked a discussion about teaching really, really terrible texts: how do you frame them for the students? What can you do with them? Do you offer your own opinion, or wait for the students to say "bleeaarrgggh"? As my long-standing (and -suffering) readers know, much of my time is spent reading books that are, shall we say, of problematic aesthetic value. But do I teach them?
I'm not a fan of over-arching generalizations (who is?), so let's just say that "it depends." More specifically: it depends on the level and subject matter of the course. My usual mantra is that students in introductory courses should be exposed to major works in the relevant literary tradition; that students in upper-division courses should have the opportunity to explore less familiar works (the "canon-busting," if you like); and that graduate students should be offered a cross-section of all the works necessary to understand the topic at hand, no matter how aesthetically pleasing or displeasing they are. Thus, British Literature II tends to be about the Romantic Big Six, the major Victorian poets, and so on, whereas more advanced Gothic courses will inflict feature Eliza Parsons or James Malcolm Rymer in addition to the more palatable Mary Shelley or J. S. Le Fanu.
In this semester's Judaism & the 19th c. British Novel graduate seminar, I taught two pretty awful works, Osborn W. Trenery Heighway's Leila Ada and Mrs. E. A. Germains' Left to Starve, and No One Wants the Blame--the former as an example of the conversion narrative, the latter as a Jewish reworking of Daniel Deronda (alongside Amy Levy's more sophisticated, but also more ambivalent, Reuben Sachs). I did warn students that some folks still take Leila Ada seriously, despite Heighway's unfortunate track record (his Royal Literary Fund application reveals that he was sued by a former publisher--successfully--for faking a different, Christian "life"), and the ones who Googled were left...agog...by the results. In any event, with Leila Ada, once I got the "ack, this is bad" out of the way--and I'm usually upfront about the "ack, this is bad" factor--I had them itemize all the genres and modes at work in the narrative. One (of many...) of the bizarre things about the narrative is just how many different genres/modes it cycles through, from the Gothic to travelogue to (obviously) conversion narrative to sentimentalism to...you name it. Once we had something productive to say about how the book worked, we could have a serious discussion about how it used different strategies to narrate the conversion experience. Similarly, with Left to Starve, the students and I charted all the Daniel Deronda parallels and ripostes, which opened up a route, again, for us to think about what the book was doing (positive) as opposed to how bad it was (negative). In general, I try to get students to turn "this is bad/this is boring" responses around--OK, what is the book doing that doesn't work for me? Is it trying and failing to engage with a problem, either content- or form-wise? Do I and the author have radically different priorities, and if so, what?
Over at IHE, Jeanne Zaino asks if "[i]t may be time to re-think our outright rejection of appropriation and at least begin a broader discussion about (a) whether there are real differences between plagiarism and appropriation? (b) if so, what are they? (c) under what circumstances may the later be used properly? and most importantly (d) how can we begin to begin to address these issues pedagogically?" At this point, there is actually a considerable body of work about a-d, thanks to appropriation's close relationship to adaptation--itself rather extensively theorized by now (see, e.g., Linda Hutcheon). For most instructors, the sticking point in letting appropriation and plagiarism slide into one another will derive from the assumed self-reflexivity of the former term. Besides "affect[ing] a more decisive journey away from the informing source into a wholly new cultural product and domain," as Julie Sanders argues, appropriations may "highlight troubling gaps, absences, and silences within the canonical texts to which they refer" (26, 98). Appropriations, that is, call attention to how they radically rewrite their source materials, as when Jane Smiley makes King Lear's "villainous" daughters into the protagonists of A Thousand Acres. Young Jean Lee takes this process a step further in her Lear, which not only jettisons Lear himself, but also intercuts her own characters' reflections on loss and mortality with excerpts from King Lear and material lifted directly from Sesame Street's famous episode about the death of Mr. Hooper--an act that asks us to think about, among other things, our understanding of Shakespeare's "originality."
Appropriation, then, normally does not say "all this material is mine," whereas plagiarism asserts its originality in the act of theft. When Scott G. F. Bailey rewrites Hamlet in his clever The Astrologer, he expects the reader to notice both the parallels (hey, that Vibeke character sounds awfully like Ophelia!) and the subversions (the Hamlet-figure is, shall we say, somewhat less admirable than his model). By contrast, the student who hands in a paper cobbled together from multiple websites may indeed be reworking arguments, if only by accident, but the paper's success demands that the instructor not notice and/or not know how to use Google. Moreover, the plagiarist, when quizzed, may often be unable to explain "their" argument, whereas the appropriator self-consciously puts his or her work into conversation with another. In appropriation, the argument emerges from one creator's engagement with another; in plagiarism, the "creator" does an end-run around the engagement, and hopes that the audience will do likewise.
Now, does appropriation work in, say, a literary-critical context? Both Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey are famous and much-discussed1 acts of theoretical appropriation, making Harold Bloom go where he had never gone before (and significantly revising his work in the process). Granted, Gilbert, Gubar, and Gates appropriate using the forms of academic scholarship--the footnotes, the explicit discussions of the source material, and so forth. But they're still appropriating Bloom, not simply applying him. In theory, students could be asked to do an equivalent exercise, although it requires a lot more knowledge and theoretical savvy to carry it off than they likely possess. But nobody would call such appropriation "plagiarism."
1 For the former, see Holly A. Laird, Women Coauthors (Urbana: U of Ilinois Press, 2000), 40-42; and the latter, Kenneth Warren, rev. of The Signifying Monkey, Modern Philology 88.2 (Nov. 1990): 225.
This essay on common final examinations as a means of teacher evaluation sounds good...up to a point. The point being when the subject under examination is not in mathematics or many of the science fields. In practice, most humanities courses have considerably more leeway in terms of content than a course in developmental algebra; to use an example from a recent discussion in my own department, a student who has taken intro to lit analysis with me should be able to tell the difference between a Shakespearean and a Petrarchan sonnet, but not every instructor builds basic poetic genres into the course. For that matter, not every instructor requires exams for this course (some prefer to use papers). And because this is the only course which could plausibly use a common exam to evaluate instructional quality--except for composition courses and the capstone seminar, we rarely run multiple sections of anything--we would have to standardize readings and technical content first. Or, I suppose, do essay exams (no objective section or short answers) asking students to close-read texts that they had never seen before. That's perfectly doable--I often ask students to demonstrate that they can transfer skills by giving them something new to work on--but again, if you haven't standardized the technical content, some students will still be more or less disadvantaged. The real pushback in the humanities would likely come from faculty who don't feel like having the contents of their courses dictated from on high (and certainly everything I've heard from instructors in such situations suggests that it's not much fun, to say the least!), not necessarily from faculty objecting to "evaluation."