On teaching less


No, this is not a post about how we should do less teaching. It’s true that we should, and maybe I’ll write about that at some point.

More properly, this is about teaching fewer. As in, teaching fewer books per semester.

In one of my first blog posts, I wrote about the course where I slowed everything down and spent most of the semester teaching just one book.* It was one of the most successful classes I have ever taught, and got me thinking about how to change my approach to teaching literature. And then, a couple years later, I started teaching survey courses and forgot every lesson that class taught me.

Survey courses are among the most difficult to prepare for, in my opinion, because the goal of the survey course is coverage. The intent behind these courses is that students will read major works from the major writers, and learn something significant about a pretty big chunk of literary history.** At UConn, I taught American Literature to 1880, which was pretty daunting. Don’t believe me? Check out the Table of Contents for the Norton Anthology of American Literature. I defy anyone to teach this in just one semester.

And of course, nobody does. Nobody comes close. Everyone does the same thing: they pick their version of the best/most appropriate/most representative authors on the list, and recognize that they can’t cover everything. And this means that everyone who teaches survey courses makes cuts. Necessary cuts. We can’t, in other words, teach it all.

For years, this realization has been a major driving force in my course design, for most of the courses I teach.

Next semester I am teaching a section of Native American Literature, based on my current research project.*** And I decided that I’m only teaching 6 books (as well as a couple of scholarly articles). Yup, 6 books. That’s it.

A few of the people I have shared this syllabus with have expressed concern, asking me why I’m teaching so few materials. How can I call this class “representative” of anything with so few works? Well, for starters, discounting the mountains of scholarly works I am also reading, it pretty accurately represents my research. I’m only writing on 4 of the novels, and picked a fifth (in part) to fill out the semester, but also to teach a novel I have not read yet (something I try to do for most of my upper-division courses). But more importantly, I have long since given up the idea that any course can be “representative.”

I’ve been asked these questions before. Last year, I taught a course on Modern American Poetry that covered only 6 poets. And last semester, I taught a course on Poetry of the Beat Movement that covered only 4. Everyone I talked to had ideas on which other poets I could have included. Trust me, I know all about those authors I didn’t include. But once I realized that there’s no such thing as proper coverage – once I realized there will always me huge gaps – it became much easier to make cuts.****

And these have been some of the best courses I have ever taught.

For starters, we get to slow down. Knowing we’re going to spend multiple weeks on each writer, we have time to really dive into these works. Spending one day – one very quick 50-minute class – on a single poem now no longer seems a waste of time, as it did when I was trying to teach hundreds of years’ worth of works in a single semester.^

More importantly, perhaps, is that students learn quite a bit more about the writers they do study. I can’t think of any author who is best captured by reading only one work. So by reading multiple works by these authors, students get a much more nuanced understanding of the works they do read. In other words, Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers without End becomes a much more meaningful book to study for students who have also read Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and Turtle Island.^^

And I have also found that being upfront about what is not included in the course can inspire students to fill in some of those gaps on their own. That is, by clearly noting that the course is in no way representative, the students know that there is much more out there to read and study. By consciously including this in the conversation – such as noting Michael McClure’s poetry while discussing Gary Snyder, or naming some of the other poets and activists who traveled in Di Prima’s circle – students begin to see that the picture is indeed much larger than what the class paints. Think about the language many of us use when teaching survey courses. “This week we are covering Modernism.” As if something so broad and multifaceted could ever be “covered” in one course, or part of one course. I know people who have devoted entire careers to this field. I’m not saying that people who teach survey courses think they are covering it all. But if they are not clearly noting for their students that there are huge gaps in the syllabus, those students may not spend much time thinking about those gaps, and how to fill them in.

In my Poetry of Beat Movement course, more than half of the students used their final papers to study works not on the syllabus. One, moved by Ginsberg’s verse, write a paper analyzing some of his mid-career books (ones that often get left out of anthologies purporting to “represent” the period). Another chose to analyze works by women whose poetry has long been ignored by anthologists and scholars alike. Knowing that there were gaps – and interested in those gaps – students used their time and energy to fill those gaps. Some of those students have come to me after that class ended for reading recommendations. Knowing that there are gaps – and knowing that they may not know what all those gaps are – they wanted to know what was missing and where they could find it.

Granted, not all students will be so eager to do this work. And no pedagogical approach will work for all faculty and all courses. But the next time you find yourself frustrated by the fact that you don’t have enough time in the semester to “cover” everything you want to include – the next time you find yourself agonizing over deciding what gets cut – remember that no matter how much you include, there will always be huge gaps. Consider embracing those gaps.

Consider teaching less.

*For the record, I did teach two books that semester. But we only spent one week on that second book.

**In many places, survey courses are split in half, with “American Literature” and “British Literature” covered in 2-course sequences. I have not taught the British Literature versions, and do not envy anyone tasked with surveying British Literature from the medieval through the early modern periods (as the first half of such surveys is often divided).  It’s crazy and, in my opinion, pedagogically misguided.

***Still loving sabbatical, even though my work has slowed down quite a bit. I’ve started doing some work related to my new role as Director of Graduate Studies for my department, and just finished another exciting round of sending out job applications. But the good news is, now that I am looking at a stretch of time, I’m quite excited about diving into my chapter on Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes and intersectionalist narratology.

****Just taking Beat Poetry, look at what’s available. Even considering the 4 poets I chose – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Dianne Di Prima – there was no way of covering everything. Ginsberg alone has written enough poetry to fill a semester. I chose 2 early works and 1 later work, and still we had to skip over entire decades where he was producing quality poetry. The same is true for Snyder. Di Prima has published more than a dozen books, spanning 60 years. And while Kerouac’s output was neither as prolific nor as powerful as the other poets on the syllabus, we still only read a fraction of his published verse. I barely covered enough material for each poet to represent those poets, let alone an entire movement that covered more than half a century.

^And when you remember that any given survey course is also going to include long prose works, you’re doomed. I can still remember my British Literature II survey course as an undergraduate. We spent one month on the Victorian period. You get one month. Which Victorian novelists do you include? How much of their works can you reasonably teach? How representative can you be?

^^We also spent time reading other works by these authors – essays, reviews, etc. – as well as listening to recordings of them reading their works. I can assure you that the best way to understand Ginsberg’s “Howl” is to spend as much time listening to it read as reading it. And if you can listen to different recordings, to hear how he changed the rhythm, pitch, and pacing of the poem over time, even better.


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  1. Pingback: Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes | creativityinthecollegeclassroom

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