My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, August 31, 2015

August 31, 2015: Fall 2015 Previews: American Lit I

[As another Fall semester kicks off, a series of preview posts—this time focusing on new things I’ll be trying this semester. Leading up to a special pedagogy post this weekend!]
On how getting creative can help both students and professor keep things fresh.
The first-half American literature survey was one of the classes I taught in my first semester at Fitchburg State University, and while I’ve significantly revised my syllabi for the other ones—First-Year Writing I (on which more in Wednesday’s post) and Ethnic American Literature (about which I’ve written many times)—in the decade since, I’ve kept the American Lit I syllabus almost identical since that initial Fall 2005 iteration. I promise that that’s due not to laziness but rather to success: I have found that American Lit I is consistently one of the courses in which I feel that my students do the best work, develop their voices and ideas most successfully, respond most positively to the readings and conversations, and so I’ve never wanted to reinvent a wheel that seems to be rolling very smoothly just for the sake of reinvention.
At the same time, there’s a danger in keeping any syllabus too static, especially one with which I’ve taught for ten years (and at least 15 sections). And while that danger is partly for the students—who, I firmly believe, can sense when a professor is not engaging with the material as much in the present moment as we ask them to do, and who understandably might respond by giving less of themselves to that course as well—it’s even more there, I would argue, for the professor. We’ve likely all had that teacher who seemed to be lecturing from the same yellowed notes he or she had used many times before, for whom this particular section and semester was literally no different from many others that had come before. Since my classes are capped at 30 students and thus operate almost entirely as discussions (rather than lectures), and since I do all my own reading and grading of student work, it’d be impossible for me not to engage with this new group of students—but nonetheless, it’s just as important for me to engage anew with the material in front of us, rather than relying on my prior experiences or perspectives.
More and more, I’ve come to believe that offering creative options for student assignments and writing represents one vital way to keep things fresh. Again, that’s partly for my own sake: reading 30 compare and contrast essays is far more compelling when even a portion of those essays take the creative option and create (and then analyze) a dialogue between their two authors (to name one example of a creative option I’m considering for this semester’s Am Lit I). But it’s most definitely for the students’ sakes as well: my most successful Am Lit paper has always been the first, in which I ask the students first to imitate a chosen passage and then to use that imitation to develop their close reading of that passage; and I’ve come to realize that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t offer similarly creative options for the course’s later two assignments, and lots of reasons why I should. I don’t think I’ll require the creative work in papers 2 and 3—not everyone benefits from or prefers that option—but I plan to offer it as an option in each case, and hope and believe a number of students will take me up on that offer. I’ll keep you posted on the results!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Things you’re hoping to try or do this fall?


  1. Hi Ben, Great post. I'm actually curious what you mean by "imitate a chosen passage". I'd love to learn more.

  2. Thanks Agnes! The imitation is a way to get students close reading--so they have to imitate as many choices in a 15-20 line passage as possible (grammar, punctuation, word choices, tone, perspective, up through content and themes) and then choose a few elements to analyze in the second part of the paper.

  3. Thanks, Ben! I just looked up more information about imitation and it looks like a really effective assignment. For some reason I have never encountered it in Canadian teaching. Will have to remember it for the future.