This Term's Courses

I haven't done my usual blogging about teaching yet this term, mostly because I spent so much time trying to put a couple of new classes together that the idea of writing about it all wasn't very appealing. But now the classes are up and running, and so I can at least share some syllabi and thoughts with those of you who are curious.

The classes, with links to their syllabi, are:

The only one I've taught before is Writing & the Creative Process, a course I keep fiddling with in the hopes of one day getting it right. The progression and goals have basically been the same every time, but I've changed a lot of the content, and have used a number of different books in an attempt to find stuff that gives the students a wide view of how writers write -- I actually disagree with the title of the class, because I don't think there is "the creative process", just "lots of different creative processes". (At least it's not "the writing process", a label that makes me gag). One term, I used Lynda Barry's marvelous What It Is, but found two problems with it: 1.) I don't know how to teach from it, because really I just wanted the students to read and enjoy it; 2.) all copies of the book seemed to evaporate when I assigned it, so it was impossible for the bookstore to get more than 5 copies (even Amazon had none in stock), and I had to rearrange the entire schedule of the course until more copies could be found when there were only a few weeks left in the term. That was a disaster, and though I expect it wouldn't be repeated, I'm not taking the chance of it happening again, so the book is no longer required.

I've also reduced the amount of formal workshopping we do in the course, because I'm not the world's biggest workshopping fan anyway, and it's especially not my thing with students who are just starting to think about writing as something other than research papers for school. If they like the taste of workshopping that they get at the end of my class, they can take full workshops in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and scriptwriting with other teachers, since we offer them all. I prefer to use the majority of class time to think about ideas, play around with different types of writing, look at a wide array of examples, and generally improvise our way toward something resembling enlightenment. (On a good day.)

Currents in Global Literature was not a class I was expecting to teach, but some sudden personnel changes in the English department dropped it in my lap, and I was excited to take it on, because I don't usually get the opportunity to teach major-specific courses.We don't have a Comparative Literature department at Plymouth, so the majority of our literature courses are focused on American and British lit, which is what the English faculty are mostly trained in. I have at least amateur knowledge of other literatures, so, well, here I am.

Of course, "global literature" is an impossible topic for a single term. Even the course description notes that there will be a particular theme of the instructor's choice. My choice was to use a basic theme of "revolutions". I also knew I wanted to include texts I was pretty certain there was no chance the students would encounter in any of our other classes, no matter what. I was certainly tempted to go for Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Kafka, Borges, Marquez, etc. -- some of my absolute favorites -- but there's at least a chance the students will hear those names in other courses. (And this was confirmed on the first day of class, when I asked students about their experiences with non-American, non-British books; while certainly some had no experience at all with such things, at least half talked about the Russians, Kafka, magical realism, etc.)

I knew I wanted some historical sweep, and wanted to avoid making the class another iteration of our Postcolonial Literature course (taught by a friend of mine, so I got her syllabus the second I knew I was teaching Global Lit, just to make sure I differentiated enough, since all my instincts for global lit are those of a postcolonialist). Tempted as I was to cover 500 years or so of material, I decided it was probably best to stick to about 200.

Thus we have A Sentimental Education as a big, juicy 19th century novel, one that, among other things, stands as a revolution in fictional technique and a representation of people living during the revolutions of 1848.

Additionally, I decided to use Rothenberg & Robinson's Poems for the Millennium 3, which offers a global view of the idea of 19th century Romanticism(s) and post-Romanticism. We'll mostly be looking at this material in class, using it to get a general overview of the century of poetic production, with students following their own interests and curiosities into specific areas.

Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World, though written in the 1940s, is set in Haiti in the 19th century, and so allows us not only to continue thinking about themes of political and aesthetic revolution, but also to look at how the past beyond the author's own lifetime is represented and used. It's a short, rich, stunning book, and I'm very curious to see how the students react to it.

I ended up including more African novels than I planned to, but after making one list after another, this set just wouldn't leave my consciousness: Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer, Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar. Really, those three books should be a course of their own, but I am somewhat insanely going to try to take the class through them all along with the other books. From our first few days, I think the students are up to the challenge, but I've been asked to teach the course again next term, and I expect I'll probably have to drop something, because the schedule is so tightly packed. But we'll see.

If you look at the syllabus, you'll see I'm also including some discussion of the nature of translation and distribution of books from outside the U.S. and U.K. That could be a course unto itself, but I think it's important for the students to think, even briefly, about the forces, assumptions, concessions, and desires that make some books prominent and some not.

Media as Popular Culture is another course that didn't have a whole lot of definition when it was given to me. It used to be "Film as Popular Culture", but the department thought it would be more useful to open it up to other sorts of media as well, which only makes it more difficult to define. But I like a challenge.

I'm not sure my approach to the course is entirely coherent, but it will, I hope, at least be fun and provocative.

We begin with explorations of ways of defining the words in the title -- "media", "popular", "culture", and "popular culture". Though the students are mostly in the last year or two of being Communications & Media Studies majors, they don't seem to have a solid grasp of some of the basic terminology of their field (or they just don't want to share that knowledge with me), and so my instinct to start with definitions turned out to be a good one. They didn't particularly enjoy having to read Dwight Macdonald and Raymond Williams, but it at least gave them some sense of the traditional points of conflict within this area of study, and I think we had a good discussion of the applicability of, especially, some of Williams's concepts to our own era. (I hadn't read Culture & Society for about six years, and until I reread it this summer, I had forgotten how many of the book's insights I had just absorbed and taken for granted.)

On Monday, we'll be discussing the first half of Let's Talk About Love, which should be fun. That will extend our discussions of how we decide things are worthwhile, and especially how we decide what is worth studying, and how we study it. From there, we'll be looking at a variety of items from online and from our big textbook, Gender, Race, and Class in Media, to try to get a sense of some of the various forces and ideologies that create and regulate cultural production.

Then on to Henry Jenkins's Convergence Culture, supplemented with the movie Gamer, which will then lead in to a discussion of media franchises, looking particularly at the Predator franchise via the original movie, Jeff VanderMeer's Predator: South China Sea, and examples from some of the comics. I knew I wanted to include something on franchises, and I settled on Predator because it's somewhat less vast than, for instance, the Star Wars or Star Trek universes, so we could potentially do it in a couple weeks. Also, Jeff might be willing to answer occasional questions about the novel if I ask him nicely and bribe him with chocolate weapons.

But we're not done yet! We'll finish up the course with a different look at franchises, influence, remixes, and popular culture by talking about melodrama -- specifically the films All That Heaven Allows, Fear Eats the Soul, and Far from Heaven. I'm going to resist my urge to gush about these films when it comes time to watch them, and try to tell the students as little as possible, because I'm very curious what their initial reactions will be.

So that's the term. My tendency to cram to much into classes is entirely on display, but I always find it preferable to have a too-full syllabus than one that feels empty, since we can always adjust a little bit as we go along.

Next term, in addition to reprising Intro to Film and Global Lit, I've got a general education Communications & Media class called "Outlaws, Delinquents, and Other 'Deviants' in Film". The possibilities for that one are nearly endless...

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