Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January 13, 2015: Spring 2015 Previews: The Romantic Movement and Era

[With the start of a new semester comes all the new opportunities and possibilities provided by a fresh group of courses. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a few of those semester plans, among a couple other things on my Spring 2015 radar. I’d love to hear about your spring plans and goals in comments!]
On two layers to a course I’ll be teaching for the first time, and how I hope they’ll work together.
This spring I get to teach one of our department’s 4000 (Senior)-level literature seminars, The Romantic Movement in US Literature; I’ve taught many other 4000-level courses over the years, but haven’t had the chance to teach this one before. Per both the title and the catalog description, the course focuses on different strains of American Romanticism: from creative literature such as Hawthorne’s stories and Bryant’s poems to the writings and philosophies of the Transcendentalists, from the visual and musical arts to, yes, a great deal of Edgar Allan Poe. And I think I’ve created a syllabus that does justice to those Romantic goals, with our first five weeks featuring extended work with Poe and Hawthorne complemented by briefer engagements with Brockden Brown, Irving, Bryant, Melville, Cooper, Sedgwick, Emerson, and selections from The Dial.
I’m far too much of an AmericanStudier to teach any particular movement or literature in a vacuum, however, and so I made an important change in my version of the course: retitling it The Romantic Era in U.S. Literature, and with that shift from “Movement” to “Era” giving myself the freedom to include a number of other authors and texts, genres and contexts, from across the first half of the 19th century. So in the second half of the course we’ll have a couple weeks focusing on Fanny Fern and many other journalists and non-fiction writers (such as William Apess and David Walker), a couple focusing on Harriet Jacobs and other autobiographers (slave and non-slave), and a couple on Elizabeth Stoddard and other mid-century literary innovators (such as Rebecca Harding Davis and Bret Harte). In their own ways all of these authors and genres could certainly be connected to Romanticism, but there’s no question that they also represent a far broader spectrum than that promised by the original course title and description.
If I were asked to defend why I’ve changed that existing course into my version, I might boil my answer down to the specific example of Poe. Many of Poe’s works, including virtually all of his best-known stories and poems, don’t seem to have any specific connection to the American setting and world in which he was writing them; indeed, as I’ve written here before, the Gothic mansion of “The Fall of the House of Usher” (for example) seems far more likely a part of Europe than the United States. Certainly we can and should read and analyze such works on their own terms, and I hope my course will give us a chance to do just that. But on the other hand, every work and every author are influenced by and likewise influence the world around them in any number of ways, and we can understand neither an individual work nor a cultural and historical moment without engaging with those multi-layered and multi-directional relationships. Which is to say, I very much hope that students in this course will feel as if they have learned about both the Romantic Movement and the Romantic Era—and, most importantly, that they have learned about their interconnections.
Next preview tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d share?

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