Rethinking English 344

We’ve redesigned the English major.  And I am, accordingly, redesigning English 344, Late 19th Century American Literature, a course I am teaching in the fall.  Below is a quick and dirty rundown of some of the changes and some ideas for how my course will be changing.

The English major used to be based on a national/historical period approach: you took two sophomore British lit surveys and one American lit survey and in the upper-division, two classes of Brit lit before 1700, two after, one American lit before 1900 and one after, and three electives — whatever you want, so long as it is upper division and in the department.  (I should say that “used to” isn’t exactly right — that is the major still for the majority of our students).

The new major, effective for all new majors starting this fall, still maintains the surveys, but adds in an introduction to English studies course at the end of the sophomore year, breaks up the upper-division coursework into new categories, and adds a seminar in the senior year.  The upper-division categories are now:

  • Literature in History, pre-1700
  • Literature in History, 1700-1900
  • Literature in History, 1900-Present
  • Difference in Literary Tradition
  • Film & Cultural Studies
  • Creative Writing
  • Writing, Rhetoric, and Language
  • Theme & Genre-Centered Approaches
  • Author-Centered Approaches

Students take courses in all the historical categories and take at least one course from paired categories. See all the details here (PDF).

When we were working up the new categories each faculty member considered which of the new categories the courses she regularly taught would fall into, understanding that any single course will likely bleed into other categories.  I thought English 344, pretty much my course alone right now, should fall into the Lit in History 1700-1900 category.  And this brings up interesting possibilities for how I might teach the course.

I have taught English 344 – Late 19th Century American Literature as an historically-engaged treatment of exemplary texts in central genres — sentimental fiction/poetry, regional/local color fiction, and realist and naturalist fiction.  Now that we have a genre category, I am going to be less focused on generic concerns (although it is inevitable that we will discuss genre a bit).  Instead, I want to group the texts and our inquiry into them into four or five units dealing with central cultural concerns in the period.

Here’s where the fun begins — what should the units be?  Here are some ideas I am working through, forgive the uninspired names for the units right now:

  • Native American experience – we could read Simon Pokagon, George Eastman, Zitkala-Sa and perhaps some periodical accounts of particular events in Native American history and other literary texts.
  • Labor and Capital – I am trying to ramp up research into the ways in which socialism was represented in fiction at the turn of the 20th century, so this is probably a keeper. There’s lots of literary texts that could work in this category.
  • Aesthetics – this might bring together Howells, James, Garland, and other writers’ statements on the role of writing in representing the reality of the late 19th century in America and beyond
  • Technology – this is probably ultimately related to labor and capital, but it could be a separate unit, perhaps.  An ideal text here could be Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.
  • Dialect – this could be a grouping of texts that feature an interest in/exploitation of dialect drawn from regional literature or other dialect writing.
  • “books for the millions” – this could be centered on a group of texts from the dime novel and story paper genres that tries to get at what the masses were into at the end of the century

There are a number of possibilities — if you have any ideas, please share them with me.

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