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 ) but also longer books (like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake ). 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”  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,
PS. What’s on your spring calendar?