Tuesday, August 30, 2016

August 30, 2016: Fall 2016 Previews: Honors Seminar on the Gilded Age

[The Fall semester is just around the corner, so this week I’ll preview some of the courses and plans for which I’m excited as a new semester gets underway. I’d love to hear your own upcoming courses, plans, work, or whatever else has you excited for Fall 2016!]
Two changes I’m making in my second iteration of a course—both of which could use your input!
It’s rare, in my experiences at Fitchburg State at least, to create a new course and then have the chance to teach it again a year later, learning from that first version and then getting to apply those lessons immediately; but that will be the case this fall with my Honors Literature Seminar on America in the Gilded Age. As I wrote in the semester recap post, the class went really well and yielded some striking and significant collective conversations and insights along with the impressive individual work you’d expect from our Honors Program’s exemplary students. As a result, I haven’t changed the course’s units and readings—either the multi-week long texts or the complementary shorter ones in a variety of genres/disciplines—much at all, other than the usual tweaks with those couple texts that just didn’t quite connect with enough students to yield meaningful discussion. Yet as always there were elements of the course that didn’t work as well, and in response to two of them I’ve made changes that remain in development and on which I’d love to hear your thoughts.
One change involves the course’s student presentations. I use various types of individual presentations in almost every class I teach, but in keeping with the rigor of an Honors seminar, I opted last fall for Discussion Leading, a form I use in senior-level courses where each presenter takes over as the professor for an extended period of both presentation and discussion. The presenters all did great jobs, but the readings and material were just too dense and demanding to make for easily vibrant conversations, and these periods of class consistently felt very quiet and low energy. I’m certainly not going to abandon the individual presentation component, though, so this fall I’m trying a form I’ve never used before: panel presentations, where 3-4 students present on the same text/materials and engage each other in conversation before opening it up to the class as a whole. I’m sure this form will feel intimidating to many students, but I’m hoping to make clear both that it’s not group work (ie, they don’t have to meet to prepare ahead of time in order for a panel to be successful) and that it’s excellent preparation for a variety of educational and professional settings (from conferences to meetings). But as I say, I’ve never used this model in a class before, so I’m very open to any and all thoughts, tips, concerns, or other takes you’d like to share!
My second change is far less clear-cut, but one to which I’m also committed. As I wrote in the semester preview post for last fall’s first version, I have no problem with asking students to work with the kinds of historically distant and formally demanding readings and materials on which this course focuses; but as I’ve noted many times in this space, I also believe there’s a good deal to be said for finding ways to engage students sufficiently that they can get to the more challenging analyses and ideas. For this course, one way I’ve decided to provide that engagement is through pop cultural texts that portray some of the same periods and issues—with exhibit A being an episode or two from the first season of Deadwood, a ridiculously entertaining TV show that deals with many of the themes (not just the West, but also gender and identity, class and work, Chinese American communities, and more) at the heart of the class. Yet at the same time, I know it’s not enough just to screen an episode—we’ll have to find ways both to analyze this cultural text and to put it in conversation with other class texts and materials. I’ve done that with multimedia texts in other interdisciplinary courses (such as my team-taught Intro to American Studies class focused on the 1980s), but never in a literature seminar like this one. Which means, once again, that I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this course? Other previews or plans you’d share?


  1. I've managed to completely miss out on Deadwood - I have many friends who rave about it, but I never got around to it. Maybe I'll give it a shot.

    I sadly will never be able to use it in class - HBO shows are tough for high school, for obvious reasons, though I did manage to use an episode of the recent miniseries Show Me A Hero in my senior Race in America seminar.

  2. First season is really really great, Andrew.

    Loved that show as I do all of Simon's work. How did you frame and discuss the ep, if you don't mind telling me more? Thanks!

    1. We'd been examining redlining and de facto housing segregation, and how African Americans were forced, through semi-legal means, into substandard housing and therefore segregated schooling. The episode we watched was the third, which did a good job of demonstrating the northern version of massive resistance to desegregation orders. With some scaffolding, it helped clarify the idea of structural racism for kids who often think that racism is defined solely as 'people being mean to each other'.