Over the past three years, I have designed and taught eight courses: first-year offerings in academic writing and FYE that have exposed me to a wide range of incoming students; introductory courses in American literature and English Studies that have encouraged me to think more carefully about how student skills might be scaffolded across the English curriculum; upper-level courses and a seminar on modern poetry and Walt Whitman that reflect my scholarly expertise; and courses on the modern American novel and early American literature that have challenged me to expand my interests into new areas. In all of these courses, I have been guided by three directives: (1) to develop courses that seek to tell compelling and relevant stories about a given figure, period, or genre; (2) to create assignments that are carefully sequenced, developmentally appropriate, and conducive to experimentation and collaboration; and (3) to seek ways to connect meaningfully with students I mentor students through major research projects.
I have found that my most successful courses stories that encourage students to think anew about what might be familiar or assumed about a given subject area. A senior seminar on “Walt Whitman and His Influence” (ENGL 450) that I taught in Spring 2016 generated many such stories. As the scholar Roy Harvey Pearce once argued, “the history of American poetry could be written as the continuing discovery and rediscovery of Whitman, an ongoing affirmation of his crucial relevance to the mission of the American poet.” The very content of this course confirmed Pearce’s claims for the magnitude of Whitman’s influence. But we also worked hard to expand the scope of his suggestion beyond easy affirmation and faith, even as we moved beyond poetry to prose and popular culture, and beyond America to the wider world. And while we certainly followed certain well-worn tracks of Whitman’s influence, we also strayed frequently outside of them. We explored many “Whitmans” in this course, each telling a new story, each pointing in a new direction: one of the roughs, the wound-dresser, the subversive gay lover, the solitary singer, the master, the slave, the prophet, the technophile, the celebrity, the health nut, the prose writer, the comrade, the democrat, the good gray poet. How have American writers felt Whitman’s influence in different historical and cultural contexts, we asked? How did Whitman influence writers in other countries? How is Whitman’s presence felt in the world beyond poetry—in novels, in songs, in ads for Levis and iPads? And how are emerging artists and performers today—from poets and novelists like Juliana Spahr and Ben Lerner to pop-cultural icons like Kanye West and Lana Del Ray—continuing to respond to Whitman’s influence? Whitman famously proclaimed that he contained multitudes and contradictions alike; in telling the story of Whitman’s influence, my students and I took those multitudinous contradictions as a crucial starting point.
Telling multiple, inter-animating stories about Whitman and his influence was, admittedly, not a difficult task. Whitman, after all, bet his literary future on the inevitability of such stories. A course I taught on the American novel from 1900-1965 (ENGL 356) in Spring 2015, however, presented some narrative challenges. Each novel, of course, tells its own story, addresses its own context, and speaks to its own formal concerns, which makes a clear sense of continuity more elusive. The time frame, at least, was stable, with novels written within the designated time range, even if the action they described unfolded in some near past or some alternate, dystopian future. The setting, however, was less stable as individual novels often traced transatlantic flows of both characters and ideas. The novels themselves represented a diverse cast of authorial characters that, over two iterations of the course, has included Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Nathaniel West, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison Ken Kesey, Nella Larsen, James Baldwin, Phillip K. Dick, and Kurt Vonnegut. What drives the story here beyond generic progress from realism to naturalism, or a sense of increasing inclusiveness in the American canon? Having recently read Lawrence Buell’s entrance into the persistent debate surrounding what he calls the “Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel,” I decided to frame the course around questions of representativeness: how are the novels we are reading together, I asked, not simply great, but great for a particular group, at a certain time, and in a distinct sense. Our conversations in class, on the course blog, and in a long-essay question on the final exam led us to pursue an ongoing story about literary value, shifting canons, cultural difference, and national identity.
If at times I have gone out of my way to find a novel way to frame certain spans of literary history, I have also at times found that the simplest story is often the best one to tell. When planning my “Modern Poetry” course (ENGL 335), which I taught for the second time in Spring 2014, I resisted the two stock organizational options: one, favoring the cult of the author where each week or two a major modernist figure would arrive in a neat canonical enclave; the other, dividing major figures and movements into stable categories of gender, race, class and aesthetic affiliation. Unsatisfied with these frameworks, which can seem both exclusive and limiting, I let pure chronology reign. This approach encouraged students to make uncommon connections between authors. In any give week, the poets we addressed often emphatically resisted being read alongside one another, forcing us to ask unlikely questions. In 1915 and 1916, for example, we read Mina Loy, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Wilfred Owen, and Claude McKay, among others. What, we asked distinguishes or constrains Frost’s and McKay’s respective choice to write in traditional meters? How do the dueling love songs of Eliot and Loy speak to or against one another? And in what way can we read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Stevens as a war poem? Following this chronological impulse, we experienced modernism not as a retrospective critical construct, but as a set of competing aesthetics and priorities coming to life before us. In the course, we read over 45 individual poets, many of them multiple times, but never all at once.
Attention to any given course’s story helps keep students focused and directed along a core line of inquiry even as we pursue the kinds of tangents that can lead to so many interesting discoveries. Perhaps just as important, however, are carefully designed assignments that keep students engaged with these various unfolding stories. For example, a series of assignments in a course I taught called in Spring 2015 called “Pre-America: Literatures of Exploration, Contact, and Settlement” (ENGL 361) invited students to become an integral part of the course’s unfolding story by reflecting upon and practicing the editorial and critical choices that shape the literary-historical narratives we inherit. In this course, half of the readings relate to period history, from Alan Taylor’s American Colonies to Peter H. Wood’s Black Majority. With this historical foundation in place, one assignment asked students to examine a range of anthology selections from The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, a book we read in its entirety. After discussing the text over a series of classes, I asked each student to compose a headnote to accompany five excerpts that they would choose to anthologize from the Narrative. In another assignment, I led students to explore Alexander S. Salley’s early twentieth-century, multi-volume Original Narratives of Early American History. I asked them to introduce the class to a chosen narrative by contextualizing it within its relevant history; describing its genre—apologia or tragedy, descriptive or promotional—and how that genre appeals to its intended audience; and outlining how the narrative framed contact with native populations or other aspects of the New World. Extending these sorts of editorial engagements, the course concluded with a collaborative final project using both online archives and materials from the South Carolina Historical Society. Students were asked to curate two texts for an online class anthology—Colonial South Carolina: A Sourcebook—each composing a headnote, transcribing, editing and annotating the documents, and composing a refection on the process. Through this project, the students were themselves laying the groundwork for so many possible stories about American literature before America—as a country or idea—existed. This final project also reflects my interest in developing final-project assignments for many of my courses that invite students to explore and use digital tools, often collaboratively, and think beyond the constraints of a traditional researched term paper.
Many of the preparatory assignments leading up to the major projects in my courses take place on a dedicated course blog. Such blogs have been a consistent feature in my courses. In my “Modern Poetry” course, for example, I divided students into rotating groups, each of which posted in five distinct categories: Critical, Creative, Archival, Close-Reading, and Chronos. While some students would be tasked with drawing on published criticism in the “critical” posts, others would be asked to offer a creative response to the readings. And while some students would offer close-readings exploring the formal textures of a given poem, others would introduce important historical context in their Chronos posts or draw upon archives from Poetry Magazine or the online Modernist Journal Project. Each week, then, students modeled a range of approaches to the texts we read, and their posts often provided the starting point for conversations in class and for their own final projects.
Course blogs, I have found, are especially useful in upper-level courses where students take on stronger identities as writers and thinkers. In introductory courses, however, I place greater emphasis on carefully crafted assignment sequences that prepare students for the rigors and relative independence of upper-level coursework. In these introductory courses, I do my best to present each course as telling a compelling skills-story. I begin my Academic Writing (HONS 110) courses, for example, with a summary assignment in which I ask students to compose two summaries of the same brief article: one summary is perfectly objective; the other, engaged. In the objective summary, which I call “the view from nowhere,” I ask the students to include, as objectively as possible, the major points to which any responsible summary should attend. In the engaged summary, or the “view from here,” they deploy a more motivated language of summary, summarizing from an argumentative position that remains unarticulated, altering diction and organizational strategies accordingly. As we move on to the next assignment—the rhetorical analysis—I note how the objective and engaged summary skills they just practiced will come into play in how they strategically set up both their chosen text and their moments of analysis, and even how they frame quotes, tugging the reader gently towards this or that inclination before an outright argument emerges.
After these two early assignments, which take up the first five or six weeks in the semester, we move on to more complex and compound acts of summary and analysis. Trips to the library, an annotated bibliography, and research progress reports culminate in the third major synthesis assignment, which I call the Texts-in-Conversation (or TIC) essay. Here, students once again return to the key skills from the earlier assignments in summary and analysis, directing them now towards a carefully orchestrated source dialogue around their chosen research topic—a topic that they had begun seeking out already in class on day one, in early conversations with me, and on the course blog. In the TIC essay, I ask students not simply to summarize four sources, but to engage them as well, deploying moments of rhetorical analysis along the way. Beyond reprising key summary and analytical skills, this assignment asks them to make nuanced connections between sources—to view their sources as forming a conversational arc or story. Their role is like that of a moderator at a conference panel or even a talk show, strategically orchestrating a research conversation even as they begin thinking of ways that they might join and extend it, taking a seat on that proverbial panel of experts as they move from the TIC to the final Research-Based Argument (RBA) assignment. This move—joining the conversation—is a very difficult one for first-year students to make; it’s hard for them to see themselves as experts on just about anything at this stage in their academic careers. Over the past few years, I have developed a useful shorthand to help them chart their path from moderator to expert, presenting four broad options: (1) they can make it new, which involves offering a novel research-based solution to problem identified in their conversation; (2) they can make it local, which involves applying their conversation to a local context; (3) they can make it analytical, which becomes something like a research-based rhetorical analysis, as they reflect back on the terms of the debate or select an artifact to analyze in light of that debate; or (4) they can make it personal, using their own experience as a kind of narrative backbone for their engaged exploration of a given topic. Their final papers are naturally combinations of these strategies, but presenting them as options—and using an in-class activity in which each student to devise possible ideas for each strategy—helps them make those first key steps in their own arguments.
The focus on discrete skills and how those skills come together in major assignments informs my work in “Introduction to English Studies” (ENGL 299) as well. Though this course introduces students more fully to theoretical and methodological possibilities for English Studies, it shares with my Academic Writing course an early emphasis on preparatory skills in summary and analysis before focusing more fully on how students perform discrete skills required to compose large-scale research project in English. Each move is discussed, analyzed, and work-shopped, from titles, introductory moves, and what I call dueling thesis statement that signal both the conversation and one’s entry into it, to the source dialog, close-reading capstone, and conclusion.
A similar care for sequencing is evidence in the “American Literature Survey” (ENGL 207) course that I taught for the first time in Spring 2016. In this course, in addition to frequent in-class writing, quizzes, a mid-term and a final exam, students progressed through a carefully orchestrated assignment sequence that moved from an “Exploded Analysis,” to a Rhetorical Analysis, to a Contextual Analysis. The first of these assignments asked students to “show their work,” as our colleagues in Math might say, as they worked deliberately through the processes of paraphrase, observation, contextualization, analysis, and argument formation. The result of this work is an argumentative thesis statement. The next assignment begins where the last left off: with a finely polished thesis statement that assumes all of the careful preparatory work that we practiced in the “exploded” analysis. The final assignment brings students closer to the kind of work they might expect in future English courses at the 300-level as it requires a certain facility with negotiating contexts as students choose one anthology text as a “primary” and another as a “secondary” text. Not only does this help them realize that difference between primary and secondary resides largely in how one uses a text, it also adds a sense of critical dimensionality to their work as they frame one argument in light of another and move beyond simple compare-and-contrast.