MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

January 15, 2014: Spring 2014 Previews: A New Awakening

[As my spring semester gets underway, a series on courses and other events to which I’m looking forward. Share your spring previews for a forward-thinking crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On one of the toughest challenges I face in my teaching, and how it’s reflected in a small but significant syllabus adjustment.
I love the students at Fitchburg State—they’re hard-working (literally—most of them work jobs alongside their studies, and most of those works at least 30 hours a week at those jobs), committed to their education, with interesting and meaningful perspectives and voices to share. But because of all the demands on their time and energy, as well as other factors not limited to this institution (many connected to this digital and multimedia era of ours), I have found one paramount challenge in teaching English to this community of students: I can’t count on most of them doing the reading. Not for a given class, not consistently, sometimes not at all. Since I’m more or less committed to never giving quizzes (a subject for another post), I’ve found various ways to respond to this challenge: assigning weekly emails or Blackboard posts, to get student engaged with at least some aspect of a reading; balancing shorter works with longer ones; mixing in discussion prompts that can get multiple voices involved even if they haven’t had a chance to do that day’s reading; and so on.
There’s another layer to this challenge, however, and this semester I’ve belatedly faced a personally unpleasant example of it. As you would expect, some texts are more readable and engaging than others, and so I can count on more students to read them; that goes not only for shorter ones (like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby [1925]) but also longer books (like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake [2003]). Both of those novels are on the syllabus for my American Literature II course, which I’ve taught every year and will again this spring; I created that syllabus in my first year at FSU, 2005-2006, and haven’t changed it much in the eight years since. Mostly that stability has been due to a sense of success, that the different works and units work well; but in one case, it’s been due far more to my stubborn desire to teach a particular novel, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901). Marrow is my favorite American novel, and it highlights histories that I think all Americans should better remember; but the unhappy truth is that each time I’ve taught Am Lit II, by my educated estimation about 4-5 of the course’s 28-30 students have finished the novel.
Even old dogs can learn new tricks (if they’re beaten enough? I kid, sort of), and so for this semester’s Am Lit II I’ve begrudgingly removed Marrow from the syllabus (although we will still read Chesnutt’s short story “The Wife of His Youth” [1898] as one of our short supplemental texts). In its place is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), one of the most complex and rich American novels and one that I’ve found, in other courses, to be engaging and controversial (and short!) enough to keep students reading through to its stunning conclusion. Besides the simple and significant value of teaching this novel, I’ll also admit—again, begrudgingly—that it’ll be good for me to break out of the rhythms I’ve gotten into in my more than a dozen sections of Am Lit II, to see how the semester and student responses and writing unfold with this new text and set of conversations. Whether it’ll lead to an Edna-like epiphany remains to be seen—but at the very least, it will keep the course fresh, as well as hopefully making it more responsive to my students’ realities and needs. I think Chesnutt would understand.
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What’s on your spring calendar?

4 comments:

  1. Noooo, I loved *The Marrow of Tradition* (granted I read it in your grad class...I find myself curious what you think the ration is in that setting).

    There wasn't some other book that you could have removed to allow more time for Marrow?

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  2. Thanks for the comment! Believe me, I love *Marrow* too, But I would say a couple things in response:

    1) The issue on which this post focused is entirely not an issue in my FSU grad classes, where I can always count on folks having done all the reading and then some. So kind of apples and oranges when it comes to assigning texts--from that same grad class, we do *Absalom*, which I definitely wouldn't assign in a grad class.

    2) The way my Am Lit II syllabus works, we have two weeks per longer reading, with shorter readings added in during the second week. So it's really pretty set in terms of how much time per book, and so pulling others wouldn't change that dynamic for any one text.

    Thanks,
    Ben

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  3. Engaging readership is tricky, practically impossible at the high school level as sparknotes pretty much beats me to the punch daily. I will ask the students to find a section they find interesting and write about it, we call it "commonplace book" entries. They have to read a section, analyze it and write about it looking at text, structure of sentences and paragraphs, but most importantly how it reflects the book as a whole. Granted, they can randomly choose from the book using the inny-minny-miney-moe method (and probably do) but at least I know they had to look at a section and read deliberately. Another trick up my rapidly diminishing sleeve is to make them responsible for teaching a specific motif to the others. They have to track it through the book like in Lahiri they track names and trains. Then they have to examine the use, the lead in and exit from the use of it, and what she's trying to communicate through it's use. But my fav is asking them to redesign the book into a new form of media. So Frankenstein becomes a child's story, Dracula is a folktale. They have to go beyond plot to retell the story in a new form of media.
    Sorry this was probably NOT what you wanted. But I love talking curriculum and teaching. This is all good for high school, not sure if it's any good for uni students.

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  4. Great stuff, thanks! I think all strategies and tools are valuable at all levels, at least as part of the equation.

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