My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

January 27, 2021: Spring 2021 Previews: Major American Writers of the 20th Century

[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 how to achieve depth without longer works, and what I fear will be lost in the process.

My Major American Writers of the 20th Century syllabus has changed a good bit since I first taught the class in Spring 2006 (that was the semester of the very, very ill-fated Portnoy’s Complaint experiment), but one thing has been the same across every section and iteration: I’ve organized it around a series of longer readings (mostly novels and short story cycles, with a couple poetry collections usually thrown in for good measure). For the last few sections I’ve settled into a pretty consistent group: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Langston Hughes’ collected poems (not all of them, but a good number across the two weeks), Sylvia Plath’s collected poems (ditto), Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (which as I wrote in that above post works much, much better with undergrads than Portnoy did), and a rotating 21st century text (most recently Everything I Never Told You, which was our FSU Community Read book at the time).

That syllabus has worked very well, and I don’t imagine I would have changed it this time around (maybe I would have tried a new 21st century novel to keep things fresh). But then came COVID, and my decision—the focus of this Fall semester reflection post—not to use longer works in any of my current classes (and also not to require students to purchase any texts, which similarly limits the possibility of things like collected poems or short story collections). I still very much want this class to focus on reading individual authors at length and in depth (we don’t get a chance to do that in too many courses, and I believe it’s a distinct and valuable skill to practice), so the central question I’ve been grappling with is how to do that without diving into individual longer works. For poets like Hughes and Plath it’s easier to find a ton of poems online and thus mirror what two weeks with a poetry collection might have looked like; but this isn’t a poetry-centered class, nor in my experience do FSU students want to read only poetry for an entire semester. So my plan for the other handful of focal authors will be to choose folks for whom we can read a number of shorter works and/or excerpts of novels, to build that sense of a prose writer’s voice, style, themes, career through that kind of multi-textual deep dive.

I think that plan should help make this section of Major American Authors somewhat equivalent to my prior ones, at least in that funhouse-mirror way that all COVID teaching has been and remains. But I can’t lie, I think there is something distinct about spending two weeks reading a single longer work—and, at the risk of sounding like a truly old fogey, about holding that work in your hands while you do so, although I know that many of my students now read longer works on a device—that can’t be replicated through a collection of shorter ones. I’d say the same about reading through an author’s collected poems, rather than reading a series of individual poems online. Perhaps I’ll just have to resign myself to the fact that this, like many other aspects of teaching and learning and life, will be less present (if not entirely absent) in Spring 2021. But if there are ways to balance these elements and goals differently, as with every topic this week I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Next Spring preview tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Spring courses or work you wanna share?

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