Some readers seemed curious about the British Lit. class I’m teaching, so I thought I’d write a bit about that. We’ve met for two weeks now and things are going pretty well; teaching a new course is difficult, though! It’s been a while since I’ve taught something brand new, and I’m remembering how much reading and prep goes into it. I’m looking forward to getting to Frankenstein, a text I’ve taught before, so I can rely on my old notes.
So far we’ve covered Blake, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, and Coleridge — ridiculous to have done all that in two weeks, right? That’s the hard thing about a survey course — there’s so much to put on the syllabus and so little time. There are so many authors I can’t cover, and even with the ones that do make it on the syllabus, we only cover a laughably small amount of their writing. Some selections from Songs of Innocence and Experience, some selections from Lyrical Ballads, one Charlotte Smith sonnet, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner and that’s it. I was pleased that one of my students was intrigued by Charlotte Smith; she was captivated by her rather tempestuous biography and wanted to know more. Perhaps she’ll go on to read more of her work.
I took a course in college that covered the entire history of British literature in one semester, which seems insane to me now. At least with this class I only have to cover the last two centuries, and mostly we’re focusing on the first 150 years of that time.
My students are doing a good job with the material, and I’m particularly happy with the way one of my assignments is working out, an assignment that asks students to come into class every day with two questions or insights about the reading. I told the students their questions or insights don’t have to be particularly brilliant, just genuine. It’s a very informal assignment; they can write their thoughts by hand on an index card if they want. I like this assignment for a number of reasons — for one, I can start class simply by asking them to share their thoughts and questions and that can be a springboard for discussion. Or they have material in front of them that they can share later in the class if they want to.
And then when I read these over after class, I get a good sense of how well they are understanding the reading — if they are thoroughly confused by the archaic language in the Coleridge poem, for example, or if they loved it and have an idea about, say, why that archaic language is there. I’ve been so pleased with their submissions that I usually read some of them out loud in the next day’s class to follow up on the previous discussion and cover things we missed earlier. And then we’ll move on to the new reading for the day.
I’ve believed for a long time in making the students accountable for doing the reading in some way — having tried to run classes where few people were actually doing the reading and I was ready to tear my hair out at their lack of response. Usually I hold them accountable with brief reading quizzes at the beginning of class. It sounds like an annoying, childish assignment, but I’ve had a lot of students comment that they liked the quizzes because it forced them to stay on top of things. But I’m thinking I like my questions/insights assignment better and may use it more often.
So now we’re on to a Maria Edgeworth short story and the later romantics — Percy Shelley and Keats. And Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of my favorite novels ever.