I open many posts with this, but it’s been a while since I last posted. That was not intentional, but it was probably for the best. I spent a fair amount of time last semester rethinking much about my pedagogy, and it was helpful to work it out in my head and in conversation with colleagues before thinking about how to write it all out.
Not that I’m writing it all out here, mind you. But I hope to do so slowly over the course of the semester. For instance, I’ve had a successful run including mindful movement into my graduate classes, so I will start incorporating it into one of my undergraduate classes.* I’ve also started incorporating new kinds of final projects into my upper-division courses, and will add more to my course next semester.*
But today, I’ve been thinking about something I haven’t done for years: I want to teach a book.
Years ago, I spent a semester teaching Moby-Dick in a Freshman Writing class. It was a very successful class, and I learned a great deal from it (lessons that still inform my teaching). I learned to slow down. I learned that complete coverage is impossible. And I learned that we can’t expect students to work through difficult material if we don’t work with it in depth, over time, and come back to it later on.
Over the years, I’ve been toying with single author courses, teaching a very successful one on Walt Whitman and The Walt Whitman Archive. And there are a few other authors I’d like to focus on.** And that kind of course certainly has value: take a major American author, study their major works in depth***, and use that as a snapshot of the larger literary scene.
Can we do that with one book?
I think the answer is yes. And I think there’s so much that can be done with just one book.
As I’m imagining it now, students would not only spend the semester working through one book – giving us all the time we need to work through the difficult, exciting, or just plain interesting passages – but would also have the time to work through a variety of contexts for reading.
It’s astonishing how much research goes into a good historical novel. And one of the benefits of a slow approach to reading would be to allow for students to dig into some of that research. For instance, there’s an entire chapter on the geologic history of what is now Colorado, and students could research that background and present to the class that material in depth and explain the importance of that material to a fuller understanding of the rest of the novel.
Of course, there’s also a great deal of historical research that goes into the novel (which, for those who have not read it, is framed in terms of a historian doing research on the town of Centennial^). Students could take a century, or a decade, and explore the distinction between the historical record and fictional material, which could lead to a discussion of fictional craft and narrative historiography.
Additionally, we could spend some time on literary theory, having students do some readings in various literary theories and exploring how those theories produce different readings by identifying different tensions and exploring different interpretive methods. Students could read Bakhtin‘s “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” as a way to approach historical fiction. Or they could read Jack Halberstam‘s work on masculinity (and maybe his essay on “Brokeback Mountain”) as a way of understanding the ways that the American frontier operated as a space for defining American masculinity, and how that definition became foundational for American society. Obviously, there are many possibilities here.
One benefit of this approach is that it could allow students to select the kind of work they do for the class, especially important for non-majors. The student in the sciences taking the course to a general education credit, for instance, might be more interested in approaching the book through the sciences as a way of using their own background and training as a means to appreciating the arts.^^
But another benefit is that it helps address one of the most persistent problems I face in the classroom: that there is one “right” way to interpret a literary work, and the goal of classes is to tell students what it is. The other most persistent problem I face is when students believe that there are no wrong interpretation, provided students can in some way assert their opinions forcefully enough. A class such as this will allow me to demonstrate to students that while there is no such thing as “the correct” interpretation, there is also a framework for coming to terms with the multiplicity of interpretations.
There are a few ways I could teach such a course in my department, a few existing courses where I could slide this in. Ideally, I would offer it as one of our upper-division courses that do not have any pre-requisites.^^^ That way, I could get non-majors in my class, which I enjoy a great deal.
I’ll admit, I’m a geek who enjoys constructing syllabi. I love designing new courses. And just as much, I love teaching new courses.
This could be fun. Maybe I need to talk to my chair about teaching it next year.
*Fittingly, a class on experimental narratives. I know most of the students in that class, and while some will appreciate the exercise on its own merits, others will be open to trying something new. I love working with students who are willing to try something new, and who accept that the classroom can be a place for experimentation. Honestly, one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a teacher is that learning happens in so many ways.
***Impossible with Oates, by the way. She’s just too prolific and too talented. You could pick a few of the greatest hits, but one could spend an entire semester just on the Wonderland Quartet, or just a course on the books she wrote under other names.
^Another reason why I think this might be a good novel for such a course.
^^Let’s not forget that sometimes, students take courses outside their majors because they want something different. I work with plenty of non-majors who want to study literature because it’s not the same kind of work in their other classes. And by the same token, Literature majors might be interested in approaches that introduce them to new ways of thinking about literature.
^^^These are 300-level courses, which are upper-division, and because they carry a university general education designator (Arts Critical), are open to non-majors. In fact, I actively try to recruit non-majors into my classes, and enjoy having them there. Sometimes, the best discussions come from questions asked by non-majors.