[It was delayed by a week (leading to the cancellation of Spring Break), and its format may well change by the time this series airs (as of this writing my four regular classes will be hybrid, as they were in the Fall), but a new semester starts this week nonetheless. So this week I’ll preview some of what’s different and what will be the same in my Spring 2021 courses!]
On the definite drawbacks and potential benefits of radically reworking a survey’s chronology.
One thing I know I’m going to do with my Spring semester section of American Lit II (to be clear, I’m drafting these posts in late December, so my Spring plans are still very much unfolding) is what I highlighted in this Fall reflection post: use only shorter readings (and more of them), rather than the six longer works around which I have organized every American Lit II syllabus since I first taught the class in Spring 2006. That’s a significant change, but it’s one that will be even more prominent for the course I’ll write about tomorrow, so I’ll save those thoughts for that post. So in this post, I’ll write instead about a potential change I’m considering for Am Lit II in particular, one that would respond to the contemporary realities and needs I highlighted in this Fall reflection post but would represent an even more striking shift from my normal pedagogical practices: breaking the course’s usual, entirely linear chronology (with four main Units/time periods, from the mid-19th century to the late 19th century to the early 20th century to the turn of the 21st century) in favor of a back and forth between interconnected historical and contemporary texts and authors.
The main drawback to this reworking is likely obvious, but deserves a paragraph of consideration nonetheless: it will make it much more difficult for students to learn and engage with American history between 1865 and 2021. Let me be very clear: I’m not one of those who suggest that today’s students know less history than their predecessors did; quite the opposite, I think college students are always still learning such histories, from classes like this one. And while a literature survey isn’t a history one, I have always believed (good AmericanStudier that I am, natch) that the former does offer a chance to think historically, to move across time period Units and then consider what different literary texts and authors help us see in those respective eras (and in their literary and cultural trends, of course). If I do replace that straightforward linear chronology with pairs or groups of readings that cut across different time periods (and especially that put aspects of our own moment in conversation with those from distinct historical eras), I would certainly still try to frame historical contexts for the students—but I have no doubt that it would be far more difficult for the students to keep them in mind than it is when we have one time period and its particular contexts in front of us at a time.
So that’s the main drawback, and it’s not one I take at all lightly. But I think there are significant potential benefits to this strategy, including a compelling historical one: the opportunity to think about the relationship between historical periods (and works and authors) and our own moment (and its works and authors). To name just one example: I’d be very excited to have students read Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free” (1912) in conversation with Cristina Henriquez’s “Everywhere Is Far from Here” (2017) to think about immigration laws and restrictions, detentions and family separations, American ideals and realities, and much more. The two stories aren’t identical by any means, no more so than are their historical contexts, and that’s precisely the point: such pairings wouldn’t be about similarity necessarily, but rather about comparative reading and analysis. As I write this post I’m talking myself into this major syllabus change, but I’d also love to hear your thoughts—on survey classes, on chronology, and on bringing the contemporary into our classes.
Next Spring preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring courses or work you wanna share?