[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 the challenge and excitement of bringing an old favorite to a new audience.
As I mentioned in my fall preview post back in May, this semester I get to teach a couple new courses: the Interdisciplinary Studies Capstone (on which more in Thursday’s post); and the Honors Literature Seminar. I’ve had the chance over the years to teach and advise a number of wonderful students from our FSU Honors Program (formerly known as the Leadership Academy), and because I sat for a year on the Honors Curriculum Committee and my colleague and friend Joe Moser is the program’s new director, I’ve certainly also heard and thought a lot about its curriculum, goals, and identity. But this will be my first chance to teach our department’s contribution to the Honors Curriculum, the required Literature Seminar that Honors students take as part of their general education courses; and I’ve decided for this first Honors Seminar to go with one of my oldest academic friends and the subject of my dissertation and first book: America in the Gilded Age.
Make no mistake, I’m well aware that this topic and time period won’t be easy to sell and connect to a community of students born in the mid to late 1990s (a century after the Gilded Age’s conclusion, that is). Moreover, because this is a literature seminar and one geared for Honors students to boot, I’ve gone ahead and chosen five demanding and challenging texts as our main reads: Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Story of Avis, Stephen Crane’s Maggie, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, and Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance. I love all five of these books and believe they are well worth our time and energy; but none of them are particularly accessible for modern audiences, and four of the five (all but Crane’s novella) are in the 400+ page range. For a community of students that quite frankly doesn’t always have the time to do the reading (and those issues of jobs, families, obligations, busy lives won’t go away with Honors students), I know that this group of texts is going to present a semester-long challenge.
While such challenges can be their own reward, that’s not why I’ve made these text and course decisions. One reason, ironically but definitely, is timeliness: the issues covered by these texts and the units they’ll help introduce (Mexican and Native American histories, women’s rights and experiences, poverty and work, race and oppression, and immigration, respectively) remain just as central to our own era as they were in the Gilded Age; whether you believe we’re in a new Gilded Age or not, there’s no doubt that the earlier period and ours have a great deal in common. At the same time, reading such texts and analyzing the Gilded Age isn’t just about referencing our contemporary moment—it’s also, and most importantly, about understanding this complex, crucial historical and cultural and literary moment on its own terms. Indeed, we can’t possibly consider what the Gilded Age has to offer for 21st century America unless and until we do the work to analyze that era—and I’m very excited to spend a semester doing that work with some of FSU’s best students!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Things you’re hoping to try or do this fall?
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