KW’s Course in Later Eighteenth Century Literature

[KW, whose comments we’ve been seeing for some time now, asked me to post the following course description, for a course she’ll teach next semester.–DM]

Later Eighteenth-Century Literature: The Northwest Passage to the Intellectual World

The challenge presented by later eighteenth century British literature speaks to our own cultural moment: How do you discern excellence and identify representative works when new media are blurring the boundaries between pop culture and high art? To answer this question as it relates to the literature produced between the 1740s and the 1790s, we will NOT tour a preselected array of greatest hits. Instead, we will map the embattled terrain of late eighteenth-century literature, where the literary elite tried to create and define a national literature at the same time that the growing market for reading matter produced new texts faster than cultural boundaries could evolve to contain them.

With the instructor’s guidance, you and your classmates will determine what aspects of this literary period most warrant your scrutiny, from its preoccupation with pirates to its arguments about slavery, from its explorations of the dark recesses of the human soul to its bawdy sense of humor, from its depictions of the peasant’s hearth to its travels in the outer reaches of British colonialism. No prior knowledge of eighteenth-century literature will be required or presumed.

For the first third of the course, a short course packet of primary readings and recent critical assessments will help you build your skills in reading and comprehending eighteenth-century writing and introduce you to the literary culture of the period. The remaining two-thirds of the syllabus will emerge from your research in the Rare Book Library, full-text online eighteenth-century databases, and the textbooks that have canonized certain authors and texts while neglecting others. Your goal will be to create and master a class anthology of selected readings, which will convey the breadth of this period while addressing the themes that most interest you in greater depth.

By the end of the semester you will be able to read a wide variety of late eighteenth-century texts with comprehension, insight, and enjoyment; you will have a well-grounded critical framework for taking part in the ongoing scholarly debate about how to weave these texts into narratives of British literary development; and you will have first-hand knowledge of how scholarly research creates a teachable order out of the chaos of literary history. An important element of meeting these goals will be determining how your instructor can best guide and evaluate your mastery of the course objectives. You and your classmates will decide whether your learning can best be demonstrated by a series of short interpretive papers, final research projects, exams or some combination thereof.

[KW then asks us:]

Advice? Suggestions? Warnings? Relevant concerns for me: this course (for some reason) always seems to draw a lot of secondary education majors who are eager to connect what they learn to their pre-professional context; I’ve had success in other C18 courses in getting students excited about the course material by researching and writing about primary texts of their own selection.

The omission of particular readings was deliberate: late C18 names either mean nothing to them or alienate them. Plus: I’m not sure what I want to teach. As I see it now, the only primary texts I will assign will be a number of shortshortshort excerpts, presented in a “Learn to Read Late Eighteenth-Century Poetry and Prose” course reader with lots of tear-out worksheets for paraphrase and imitation exercises, with authors selected not so much for the intrinsic value and teachability of their particular works as for how well I can isolate discrete snippets on which students can practice their ability to disentangle latinate heroic couplets, read and interpret personification, recognize and “fill in” elision, identify appeals to the emotions, and the like.

About secondary sources: until very recently it has been an article of faith with me (one I absorbed in my own undergraduate education) NOT to assign secondary reading to undergraduates, but I have come to see the error of my ways. Which means I don’t have much information to go on about which or what kind of articles and book chapters my students would find particularly illuminating and accessible. I’d be grateful for any suggestions.


[Well, any suggestions for KW? And please feel free to swap syllabi or brainstorm upcoming courses on the Long Eighteenth. We’re always interested to hear about the forms taken on by the Long Eighteenth, at every institution and at every level of the curriculum–DM]


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