Category Archives: KW

Just How Long is the Long Eighteenth?

This semester I’m teaching “Later Eighteenth-Century Literature” an upper-level class, offered by the English department, mostly filled with junior and senior English majors seeking to fulfill their pre-1800 requirement, most of whom has already taken the required Brit. Lit. survey.

On the first day of class this semester, I asked them to write down “everything you know about British literature from the 1740s to the 1790s.” My goal had been to shake loose a certain stereotype of the eighteenth century (reason, decorum, powdered wigs, the suppression of human emotion), which I could then overturn with some smutty bits from Tristram Shandy on the second day of class. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I still can’t decide which), they didn’t seem to have any stereotypes to overturn, or at least none that they felt comfortable revealing to a self-proclaimed expert in the field. Class discussion revealed that they had grasped that the date 1776 fell within the span—but little more.

Then I went home and read what they had written, and came up with plan B: a timeline that I cut-and-pasted from their responses. I posted it on the wiki I have set up for the course and invited the students to go in and (a) edit, change, or amplify their own entries on the list and (b) identify where on the timeline “the later C18” falls. It’s proving to be a useful exercise I think, and more effective in some ways than a big contextual lecture would be.

I’m still trying to process what the original timeline says about collective brain of our students, so I offer it up to the denizens of the Long Eighteenth for their reflections: Course Timeline. Please be kind—I have a link to this blog on the wiki, and as one student plaintively pointed out in writing the exercise ““I’m taking this class because…I don’t know much about it!”

These entries, lifted directly from that first-day exercise, are arranged in roughly (I stress the term “roughly”) chronological order, from earliest to latest—though with a great deal of overlap and (in some cases) indeterminacy. Entries in quotation marks are direct quotations from student responses.

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The Triumph of Grading Hell?

Is the discussion of The Triumph of Augustan Poetics over, or have we just unofficially adjourned until final grades for the fall semester are done? The latter, I hope!

The Fideist Reaction

Like Bill Levine, I come to “my” chapter late and with less of a first-hand engagement with the rest of Parker’s book than I would like. That said, I’ve been finding the conversation deeply absorbing. This is a book that I will be coming back to, and I’m grateful to this blog for getting me engaged with it at a point in the semester when the demands of teaching exert a relentless pull.

Parker concludes the previous chapter (“Four Poles of the Christian Imagination”) with the recognition that the model he uses to describe the domain of pre-Augustan Christian poetry is not “a kind of simplistic nomenclature to round off the ragged edges and complexities of Christian poetics.” As Carrie pointed out in her post, these categories may be more supple and permeable than the model suggests, when applied to individual works and writers. Nevertheless, “fideism” emerges in the next chapter (“The Fideist Reaction”) as the inevitable solution to “acute” crisis in “the Christian poetic imagination.” The abandonment of analogism and the rise of empiricism, Parker argues, limits the religiously expressive power of poetry up to the 1740s. This transitional late-Augustan poetry (my term, not Parker’s) can range anywhere from the “dismally pedestrian” (Pope’s versions of the Psalms), to the “unassuming, pious, and prosaic” (Watts’ hymns), and the “dubious and contrived” (Hill’s nature poetry).

I wondered about this assertion of “the Christian poetic imagination” and the claim that “the period from 1670 to 1740 did not produce one really important Christian poem aside from hymns” (199). There seems to be a narrowing here of what counts as “poetic imagination.” It’s my impression that devotional poetry proliferates during this period (particularly by women writers), along with hymns (over 500 by Watts alone, as Parker notes). Might this sheer quantity (along with the kind of repetition and imitation it entails) suggest that “the Christian poetic imagination” in the period may have turned away from certain kinds of poetic virtuousity yet still be expressing itself in poetic social practices that sneak under the radar of close readings of aesthetically significant poems? But that’s me beating the new historicist drum, and thinking about the book I would write rather than responding the book Parker wrote.

For Parker, Matthew Prior’s Alma marks the transition to something new: Augustan in “tone and design” it nonetheless “repudiates a good deal of Augustan thinking.” Parker identifies that repudiation with his distinction between “Davidic” and “Solomonic” forms of poetic and religious imagination. The Psalms bear “a naturalistic plenitude like that of a good deal of Baroque English poetry.” After 1700, however, poets were drawn away from the Davidic Psalms to a different poetic vision, that of Ecclesiastes and Job, “a wisdom…based on…the testing in experience of the objects of creation and finding them unequal to man’s spiritual thirst” (218). This “Solomonic” way of viewing the relationship between humans and God was particularly amenable to the fideists who identified “neither image nor analogy, neither reason nor perception, in the endless journey to a God who remains distant and unknowable, except as an object of promise and hope” (215).

The chapter ends with a reading of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which Parker describes as “the supreme…emptying out of the Augustan field of natural objects, and also of the tensions inherent in the heroic couplet…done on behalf of a kind of morbid and protracted wisdom literature, the most peculiar in English” (221). One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Parker’s discussion of Night Thoughts was his effort, as in conveying the novelty of the Augustans, to get across just how new and unusual the poetry he’s writing about was to its contemporary audience. The reading of Night Thoughts is riddled with pithy assessments that simultaneously repel and entice—perverse book-jacket blurbs: “a work…of both incomprehensible novelty and proverbial truth,” “Night Thoughts in turn mesmerizes, irritates and stultifies,” “mixture of witty apothegm and ponderous meditation,” “the supreme dalliance in the field of fideist meditation.” I too have been mesmerized and irritated by Night Thoughts–and perplexed by its invisibility. Fairer and Gerrard did not include it in the Blackwell anthology Eighteenth-Century Poetry (as far as I know the only eighteenth-century poetry-only anthology in print at the moment), and the widely taught Longman anthology of restoration and eighteenth-century literature only includes the first third of Night the First.

Although Parker uses Young’s poem to fully flesh out what “the fideist reaction” is and how it appealed to contemporary audiences, it is here that I begin to wonder if a concept that achieves its supreme expression in such a bewildering poem is really a concept that can usefully unite the range of poetry that Young applies it to. Parker repeatedly speaks of Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes as the “companion piece” to Night Thoughts, yet while both poems present a similar theology of God’s inaccessibility and the crucial leap of faith, these themes play out very differently in the two poems. Young’s poem repeatedly reaches for God over a series of nights in a state framed by “sleep and languorous dream” (as Parker puts it) and rings every possible change on that search. In Johnson’s Vanity the possibility of seeking God (as a futile but perhaps psychologically useful last resort) is raised only at the end of a poem that for the most part focuses on thick descriptions of earthly life. Are these two writers united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project—or are they turning that project in new directions (in Young’s case, turning Thomson’s “anxious eye” inward to watch and learn from the fluctuations of the soul)?

The Price of Innovation

Commenting on the “Blogs and Wikis” thread below, Carrie Shanafelt wrote,

Every time I try to introduce innovative methods and texts that my English majors don’t expect, it ends up benefitting those who work hard and are curious and penalizing those who are just trying to get a C. That is, I feel the more pedagogically sound my teaching is, the more my classes’ grades split into As and Fs.

Do others attempting innovative teaching methods encounter this phenomenon? When we try to get students to interact with difficult course material in new ways, does it inevitably punish the students with lackluster academic skills and reward those who come to the class with better preparation for success?

I was struck by Carrie’s comment because her wiki assignment strikes me as an excellent way to meet the learning needs of a certain kind of “C” student: the ones who are willing to make an effort but who (for whatever reason) write poorly and have trouble figuring out how to do the interpretive close reading that gets rewarded in the literature classroom. Asking all students to produce a chunk of information on schedule seems like a great way to use and reward the skills that these “C” students bring to the course. It also seems like an entirely appropriate way to punish the other kind of “C” student—the ones who could do better but choose not to as they run down the clock on their degrees. The expectations and requirements for success are clearly spelled out, as are the consequences for not meeting them. It’s not the instructor’s responsibility to translate students’ willful mediocrity into precisely the mediocre grades they think they deserve. But perhaps in the context of a variety of writing assignments that go against the grain of lit-class practice, weaker students don’t perceive the distinctions between the skills that are being drawn on and just get generally discouraged?

I guess I’m wondering if the A/F bifurcation Carrie is observing just polarizes the range that would be there in a more traditional incarnation of this class, or if innovative methods rearrange the categories of excellence such that talented students who coast get punished more than they would by less innovative methods, and hardworking but intellectually limited students get rewarded more?

My own efforts at innovation in my Enlightenment class seem to have produced a different kind of dynamic. A higher percentage of the class than in the past seems to be engaged with the material and willing to make an effort to understand, interpret, and contextualize it, but the remainder that hasn’t been bought on board (though smaller) seems much more resistant and entrenched than in the past. It’s as if the more I make C18 material accessible and comprehensible to students, the more room I give the ones who dislike it to really hate it, and to assert their inability to shake the assumptions they came in with. It’s gratifying that this semester this hostility seems focused on the material and not me, but otherwise I’m not sure if this phenomenon counts as progress or not.

Anyone else care to take a break from end-of-semester grading to reflect on the price of innovation?

Blogs and Wikis for Undergrads

As some of us prepare for next semester’s teaching, I’d like to propose a variation on Dave’s thread below: using blogs or wikis for undergraduate C18 teaching.

I’ve tried using WebCT to generate online discussions in previous classes, with only limited success. Part of the problem is that WebCT in my institution has a reputation for being slow, cumbersome, and unreliable–and it seems to crash spectacularly at least once a semester–so students tend to regard it with suspicion. The other problem is that I haven’t been able to come up with a way of requiring and evaluating online discussions that doesn’t seem strained and artificial, inadvertently stifling the potential of the medium for provoking original, spontaneous, and risky thought.

Moving away from WebCT to other formats would solve the first problem. I’ve looked at Carrie Shanafelt’s wiki (which I gather takes the form of Wikipedia, but doesn’t actually interact with the “real” Wikipedia that created such problems for Thalia’s Daughters–correct me if I’ve got this wrong). And clearly, I have also perused Miriam Jones’s course blogs. I see a lot in both formats that I would like to emulate, but I’d like to know more about the potential problems and pitfalls of the form. Do students balk at creating the necessary online identity? Do they actually read each other’s posts, comments, and wiki entries? How do you encourage them to respond to each other? Has the public availability of the sites been a problem? Do students find it reasonable to post to both a blog and a wiki among their other course requirements?

I know Carrie and Miriam have both discussed their use of these course elements already on this site, but I would be interested in knowing more about these kinds of nuts-and-bolts issues from them, and from anyone else currently blogging and wiki-ing with success. I would also be interested in hearing the experiences of people who have not found it pedagogically useful to take their students online, or who have been stymied by logistical problems.

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.

KW

[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]