Thursday, January 25, 2018
January 25, 2018: Spring Semester Previews: American Lit Online
[As another semester begins, so too does my annual Spring previews series, this time focused on individual texts I’ll be teaching in spring courses. I’d love to hear what your spring looks like and holds!]
On substituting shorter works for novels in an online literature course.
In the brief Spring preview post with which I concluded December’s Fall semester recaps, I wrote about one of the challenges I’ve faced in planning my first online literature survey, the section of American Literature II I’m teaching online this Spring: how to present historical information and contexts in a manner that will allow students to engage with, digest, and make use of those materials. That remains a work in progress as of this writing, but I’m generally planning to create brief informational sheets, distribute them at the start of each course unit/time period, and ask students to engage with them in quick and focused ways; I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes in my May semester recaps series (ah, the dream of May in January in Massachusetts). Here I wanted to engage with another challenge that this online survey has presented, especially compared with my first online literature course on The Short Story: the presence of novels on my existing Am Lit II syllabus.
Those seven novels—Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Marrow of Tradition, Quicksand & Passing, The Great Gatsby, Ceremony, and The Namesake—form the core of my American Lit II syllabus, not only because of their own complexity and importance (although alert blog readers might note that they include some of my very favorite books and authors) but also as pairings that help guide us through our class units/time periods: Twain and Chesnutt in the late 19th century, Larsen and Fitzgerald in the early 20th century, and Silko and Lahiri in the late 20th/early 21st century. Yet from a pretty early moment in thinking about this online version of the course, I knew that it I didn’t want to ask students to read novels or longer works, and decided to substitute multiple shorter ones in place of those books (to which we dedicate two weeks each in my standard syllabus). That includes short works by these authors themselves, sometimes excerpted from the novels (we’re reading the opening few chapters of Huck Finn, for example) and sometimes distinct from them (we’re reading Charles Chesnutt’s 1898 short story “The Wife of His Youth” in place of Marrow).
I’m certainly not wedded to the need for long works in a literature survey—we only read shorter works in my American Literature I class, and likewise will only be reading shorter ones in my 19th Century African American Literature survey this semester. So part of the challenge here is simply about adjusting my perspective and expectations for this particular course, in every prior version of which I have used longer works in that anchoring role. But at the same time, I used them in that role because I believed that otherwise the incredible breadth and range of American literature from 1865 to 2018 could be simply overwhelming, not only on its own terms but also as a way to think about American culture and history across that century and a half (which is to my mind an important goal for a literature survey). So without them, and multi-day conversations about them, to help in that structuring way, I will have to figure out how to use the aforementioned information sheets, as well as unit-opening emails to the students, to help provide some frames that can help guide us through our units and the many authors and texts that now populate them. You know I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!
Last preview tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post? Spring previews of your own to share?