28 May 2008

The Outsider and the Syllabus

One of the courses I'm teaching at Plymouth State University in the fall is called "The Outsider", and I've been struggling with the syllabus for the past few weeks. There are lots of reasons for this struggle, and as struggles go, it's been a fun and productive one. But every time I think I'm almost done with the syllabus, I decide to make a few changes...

One of the challenges is the breadth of possibilities -- the course is supposed to do a few different things, including introduce first- and second-year students to basics of literary study and critical thinking. It's also supposed to be interdisciplinary (which for this course has traditionally meant a mix of literature and film). And it should have some sort of historical component. But it shouldn't be backbreaking because it is, after all, a general education course for first- and second-year students, many of whom have no desire to become English majors.

Oh, and then there's the fact that outsiderdom and otherness are such common elements of literature that you could almost pick a bunch of books randomly and they'd fit the topic.

Naturally, my first attempt at a syllabus had the students reading something in the vicinity of 5,000 pages per month. I began to narrow it down by giving myself permission to exclude things that I know in my heart are essential -- for instance, I stopped trying to fit in something from every era of the last 3,000 years of the world's history. That wasn't enough of a restriction, though, so I allowed myself only a few works from the 19th century (Woyzeck and "Bartleby" were the two pieces that appeared most frequently on my various lists). Then I gave myself permission not to cover all regions of the globe, though I did promise myself that I would include at least one text that did not originate in North America or Europe.

For a little while, I had what I thought was a finished draft of the syllabus. It began with Octavian Nothing (paired with the movie If...), continued with Woyzeck, moved on to some stories by Kafka paired with a documentary about Henry Darger (In the Realms of the Unreal), transitioned to Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K (and the documentary Amandla!), then Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (and Ousmane Sembene's film Black Girl), then Suzan-Lori Parks's play Venus (with The Elephant Man), and finally finished up with Delany's Trouble on Triton and a bunch of movies about crossing and transing gender which, I thought, students would choose 2 of to see (Breakfast on Pluto, Transamerica, Orlando, Beautiful Boxer, Boys Don't Cry, maybe even Some Like It Hot, who knows!).

When I reread this syllabus, I decided it was not only too ambitious, but verging on the insane. First- and second-year students, I kept saying to myself. Not all English majors... I reread some of Trouble on Triton. Oh no. No no no. It would take an entire term to get them through it. I started plotting things day by day. There weren't nearly enough days.

I scaled back. I rearranged. I rethought. What if we started with a month of short stories by Kafka, Camus, and Paul Bowles? Then move on to Coetzee and Dangarembga, which I thought I might pair with something by Kenzaburo Oe, either A Personal Matter or one of the stories in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. Then pair Woyzeck and Venus and finish with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Parable of the Sower, adding Blade Runner as a movie to go along with them and keeping most of the other movies except In the Realms of the Unreal.

This was better, but again when I plotted it out day by day, there just weren't enough days. Too many of the discussions would be rushed, too much would feel crammed in. I loved the idea of doing Kafka, Camus, and Bowles together, but I couldn't entirely justify the amount of time it would take to do it right. (Those three writers together deserve a course unto themselves, maybe with the addition of some native, post-colonial North African writers, depending on the focus.) Do Androids Dream and Blade Runner also felt like they belonged somewhere else, much as I adore them. So I adjusted again.

For a little while, I tried everything I could do to fit in both Woolf's Orlando and Charlie Anders's Choir Boy, but I would need at least another month of classes, and I couldn't bear to cut anything more to fit these two in, alas. Someday...

As of tonight, then, here's the list of texts. It may change a bit, but probably not drastically, unless I suddenly awake with a brilliant idea for how to better meet all the various needs of the course and also teach some stuff I'm qualified and excited to teach.....
  • Kafka short stories
  • Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K.
  • Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions
  • Büchner, Woyzeck
  • Parks, Venus
  • Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
  • Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Films: Amandla!, Black Girl, Herzog's Woyzeck (and maybe János Szász's, but I haven't had a chance yet to see it), and The Elephant Man
The McHugh and Butler are probably the most likely to be changed, if anything changes, partly because the timing is still tight -- I may look for a shorter Butler novel, and I need to reread China Mountain Zhang, since it's been quite a few years since I first read it. But the list feels right, book orders are due very soon, and I need to convince the library to buy the films they don't own. We shall see.

Clearly, though, I am having fun with the opportunity to design classes after a year of teaching a curriculum that I had no hand in designing...


  1. A graphic novel? And if the course is interdisciplinary, maybe a third discipline? I can think of some photography, games etc. which might be appropriate.

  2. You are going to give them a list of "further reading" though, right? Most of them will probably pass on through with maybe just a few ideas implanted, but one or two will want to learn a lot more and will end up as people like us.

  3. Have you looked at Colin Wilson's "The Outsider"? It's a book length meditation on the Outsider problem, albeit from Wilson's rather unique existentialist perspective.

  4. How about some other short stories as a way to have more diversity without a lot of additional reading required--I can't bear to think that you ditched Delany and want some way to reinstate him (Aye and Gomorrah, or almost anything else he has written).--Eric S.

  5. By no means am I recommending Richard Kearney's Strangers, Gods and Monsters for your students to read, but I think you might be interested in it.

  6. Wish I could be a fly on the wall in that class...

  7. I thought first- and second-year uni students should be taking something like a core literature subject. This looks like a lit elective that may be taken by juniors and seniors.

  8. As I understand it (and my understanding is thin), Plymouth got rid of their basic core lit course to help usher in the general education program, which is a pretty substantial and complex series of interdisciplinary critical-thinking courses, many of which are more like elective courses of yore.

  9. Looks like a great class. Have you considered Okada's The No-No Boys? Or Jim Shepard's Project X? They might be good additions -- Shepard's book is especially accessible.

  10. Since you went ahead and mentioned Delany, I can't really get him out of my head! I wish there was some way you could fit him into the syllabus, bc. he would be the type of addition that some students might find vexing, while others would find it to be one of the most exciting parts of the course.

    How about something else by Delany, such as 'Hogg?' Also, since you mention Delany, and looking at your list I thought you might benefit from more female writers, how about including something by Kathy Acker?

  11. I ended up dropping the Butler for lack of time and adding some short stories. Much as I would have liked having some Delany, the stuff I would want to do is all better for upper level courses -- including Hogg, a book that was an important part of my masters thesis, but which I would never do with an introductory level general education class -- people already think I'm nuts for doing what I am doing.

    I actually thought about Kathy Acker, but it's been too long since I've read any of her work, and I never read much or particularly cared for what I did read, though if I keep teaching this class, I'll probably read more and find at least a story to use, since she seems like an obvious writer to include. I'm puzzled why you think the course needs more female representation, though -- it's more than half female as listed there, though my cutting of Butler brings it to just about 50/50 for the books.