I’ve arrived at the second week of the spring semester with a considerably-revised syllabus in British literature. After years of feeling dissatisfied with the British survey, especially the second half, my favorite, I’ve completely reinvented it. This has required some reckoning with conventional wisdom about the survey, at least as it’s been handed down to me.
First, there is the anthology, the backbone of survey. I “grew up” with the Norton and still love it for its scholarly and canonical heft. The Longman I also deeply respect for its effort to expand the canon and integrate the role of culture in studying literature. The Longman, however, goes into new editions too often, periodically removing texts I wish the editors had not. In the end, the problem with these anthologies is their size. I can’t assign enough from them to feel that the cost to students is justified, especially when there are so many decent e-texts of poetry.
I’m less inclined this semester to assign a ton of poetry by the “major” poets. Rather, I’m selecting one or two—mainly my favorites—by poets I want students to appreciate. My goal is slow, quality reading of some really wonderful poems. Selecting which poem by Coleridge (“Frost at Midnight”) and which poem by Robert Browning (“Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister”) was rewarding in the end.
This semester I’ve also started at the end of the chronology with The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi, a rich novel I like a lot, and with some of John Agard’s poetry. I wanted students to see up front that right now we’re at a particular moment in literary history, so that we can think about how we arrived here, especially with these two thought-provoking writers. After we finish The Icarus Girl, we’ll step back to the early nineteenth century with Romantic poetry and Mary Braddon’s Aurora Floyd.
Aurora Floyd is a new choice for me, and I’m enjoying it as Victorian fiction. Although I love Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, there are moments when it seems clunky. I haven’t read Aurora Floyd since grad school, and right now I’m seeing it as very deserving of wider classroom readership, especially in the Broadview edition, which helps to illustrate that Braddon worked hard at her craft.
The final, huge change to my survey is dumping the critical analysis paper, a genre, at least in a gen ed class, that no longer seems very functional to me. I’m moving totally to blog-writing, in effort to bring students’ scholarly writing into the twenty-first century. I hope to see better writing as a result. We will know much more about this experiment in a couple of months.