Monday, September 4, 2017
September 4, 2017: Fall 2017 Previews: Mark Twain!
[As the Fall semester of my 13th year at Fitchburg State commences, a series previewing some of my courses and other plans for the fall. I’d love to hear about your fall classes and plans in comments!]
On two goals for a Special Authors course I’m beyond excited to be teaching.
For my third version of our departmental Special Authors course—after classes focused on Henry James and W.E.B. Du Bois—I decided to go with perhaps the most well-known American author, Mark Twain (the pen name and persona of Sam Clemens). I’m particularly excited for this class for a couple of contextual reasons. For one thing, Twain has been one of my Dad’s lifelong subjects, and I can’t wait to use resources like his Mark Twain in His Times website and edited edition of Huck Finn as part of our classwork. For another thing, as I’ll discuss more in tomorrow’s post on my Gilded Age Honors Seminar, both the late 19th century period of Twain’s principal publishing career and many of his most common topics and themes across that career could not feel more timely and salient than they do in the fall of 2017. Which is to say, for both personal and political/public reasons this is likely to be one of the most complex and compelling classes I’ve had the chance to teach—and that’s a great way to keep things fresh as I start year thirteen at FSU.
In constructing the syllabus and assignments for the course, I’ve tried to achieve a couple of goals. For one thing, I wanted to balance the rightly famous sides to Twain with genres and works of his that are less well known. For the former, the exact middle of the class schedule will be two weeks with Huck Finn (and the many resources my Dad has assembled in that Broadview edition), and around it we’ll also read excerpts from other famous novels like Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (among others). But we’ll both begin and end the semester with less well-known genres and texts, many of them contained in these two great Library of America collections: beginning with weeks on humorous and satirical sketches, local color, and travel writing; and ending with weeks on political writing, allegorical and philosophical texts, and the very complex works with which Twain concluded his career in the early 20th century. My hope is that this dual approach will both deepen our understanding of Twain’s claims to fame and broaden our take on his life and career overall.
My other goal has to go with the student assignments across the semester. For the Du Bois class, I used three creative assignments, asking the students to write their own texts within a few key genres and then use them to help analyze how Du Bois worked within those forms. That creative assignment sequence went really well, and so I’m going to do the same this time around: having the students write a local color/travel sketch (whether humorous or serious) for Short Paper 1, rewrite a scene from one of our works of fiction from a different character’s perspective for Short Paper 2, and write a political or allegorical piece dealing with a current issue or topic for Short Paper 3. Our Special Authors class is a 4000-level literature seminar, meaning that it will largely be full of junior and senior English Majors, folks whose writing and voices are already well-honed and who should have lots to say as they navigate these creative assignments. As always, I’ll make sure to let you know how it all goes in the end of semester reflection series. And oh yeah, one more thing: if we don’t have a higher quota of laughs per class period than any prior course I’ve taught, I’ll eat my white suit!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall courses or plans you’d highlight?