Guides for instructors?

Wow, it’s been a long time since I showed my face around these parts! I had expected to be able to throw myself into the Long Eighteenth this summer, but found myself stymied on all sides. (Yes, I am finally going to do my orals.) I did want to make a small plug, though, for one of the projects I was working on, mostly because I found it both absurdly rewarding to do and potentially an excellent resource for the English scholarly community.

Broadview Press is currently developing an instructors-only resource on the web to provide a supplement to their British Literature anthology series. As most of us who teach survey classes know all too well, the survey class can be rather stressful when we look back and remember that the last time we read a particular major text was eons ago, if at all. We all have those odd gaps, and organizing a syllabus for a survey can provide a sudden and uncomfortable wake-up call.

Broadview has been asking scholars of particular authors to provide guides on their own authors of expertise, aimed at instructors who may be fully aware of general theoretical problems and interests, but could use some assistance when planning a lesson on a period or author who may not be a part of their own research. In my own classroom, for example, I feel comfortable talking about the critical problems around seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century authors, but when we get to the Romantics, I’m stuck with my own isolated readings of poems and whatever research I can fit into a busy teaching schedule.

The teaching guides will consist of brief introductions to the main critical approaches to each author in their anthology, followed by possible lines of discussion and inquiry for each of the works, suggested questions for discussion, a brief critical history, and a few excerpts from other sources that instructors and their students may find helpful. Of course, it’s far more information than anyone could fit into a survey, and instructors with expertise are likely to quibble with the focus provided, but I can think of several ways in which these guides may help me to encourage students doing research on authors I haven’t personally written about.

As it is, I find it’s difficult to teach my survey course in a way that doesn’t merely reflect my own predilections. If my students want to research Behn, Swift, or Austen, I respond enthusiastically that I know just the article or book to send them to. “What a great idea for a project!” I say. “I don’t think anyone has taken that issue up in quite that way, and here’s a good place to start.” But to the student who wants to write about Carroll or Pater, I end up saying, vaguely, “To the library! Go team!” I love teaching them, but my reading in the field is not exactly thorough.

Do you find your own research interests and limitations getting in the way of helping students to research authors you haven’t personally studied? Is this a ridiculous anxiety to have? If you were to have some kind of guide at your fingertips, what would it provide you with and why?

One response to “Guides for instructors?

  1. dave mazella

    Carrie! Welcome back! Hope orals etc. are going well.

    Teaching the survey course, to my mind, is about learning the moral virtues of Adequacy, a lesson which is closely associated with an acceptance of one’s Limitations, and the Hard Realities of the Circumstances within which you do your Work. Repeat those terms over and over again to yourself, if you want to keep your sanity.

    Of course, the choice of material, and the time devoted to “background” or “context,” has to be done without lowering the level of discussion to the point where the authors or material would be totally unrecognizable. So strategic reductions, yes, travesties, no.

    Time-pressures like these should force you to confront some really difficult but instructive questions, such as: what are students able to learn in such a limited time? What are you able to impart, in a fraction of that limited time? etc. etc. Once you have an idea of how much you can realistically cover, than you can decide how much depth you need in terms of background. Map it out in terms of class- and grading-time.15-16 weeks, X number of meetings, Y authors/readings, Z pages a week of reading. That’s it, that’s your semester.

    As for the Broadview stuff, I think these kinds of resources are fine for those trying do a quick swot-up of an author or era. They are not subtle or comprehensive, but they are not designed for that kind of use. Writing one, or using one extensively, is yet another way to get a feeling for the topography of a particular field.

    Good luck,