Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A literary wish list

Last week a student asked me what class I most enjoy teaching, and I wanted to say, "Whichever one I happen to be teaching at the moment," but that's not a satisfying answer. I enjoy many classes for different reasons, but the class that I consistently enjoy teaching year after year is the American Lit Survey, and not just because I've taught it so many times I could do it blindfolded and with both hands tied behind my back. I just get really excited about introducing students to all those wonderful authors.

To help me decide how to update the syllabus next year, I asked my students last week to respond anonymously to three simple prompts:
  • the most important thing I've learned about literature is...
  • the most important thing I've learned about writing is....
  • I wish....
I've found their responses interesting and sometimes surprising. I'm not surprised at the number of students who wished for less poetry ("Poetry isn't all bad, but short stories are better!") or less of certain works (David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross leads the pack in this category), but I was surprised by several specific suggestions for additions to the class. "More Plath, less Whitman," insisted one student, while others requested more Jhumpa Lahiri, more Beat poets, and works by Nikki Giovanni and Dorothy Parker. One student requested "more poems about food" while another requested less realism and more fantasy. I can feed the first student's appetite easily but I'm not so certain about the second.

"We went through the Civil War, two world wars, and Vietnam. I would have liked to read more about those historical events," wrote one student, while another asked for "more uplifting works," objecting to the Holocaust literature and poems responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: "Grief is a part of the world, but literature is about escaping it."

A number of students expressed surprise that American Literature is so darn good. "I had no idea so many American writers had developed and written worthwhile works," wrote one student. Where are they picking up the idea that American Literature is a ragged step-cousin of British Lit?

Several students expressed appreciation for information on literary movements. "I've really enjoyed studying postmodernism," wrote one. "I've never studied it in a class before, so basically everything I know about it is from here! I also enjoyed learning about other literary movements because they helped me connect with works from different time periods."

One student wrote that she learned an important lesson about writing from studying imagist poetry: "Be brief! But also be clear." Other students learned about the value of pre-writing and revision, the need for a solid thesis statement, and the difference between summary and analysis. One student confessed to an epiphany: "The most important thing I learned about both literature and writing came from reading A.R. Ammons and Allen Ginsberg. Their writing stresses the commitment of a writer to their work. They talk about giving away part of oneself in the name of literature and poetry, and this idea really struck me. I’ve always enjoyed literature, but in this class I have come to realize that writing it is a calling. Literature has the power to move people, to lend a voice to tragedy or hope or joy, but it requires the soul of the author to achieve this transcendence."

And that's why this is my favorite class.


Laura said...

I think it would be my favorite class if I got comments like that too. It sounds like they really learned to love it!

Chopped Liver said...

Hello! - What about Creative Non-fiction? Did we not rock your world?

Bev said...

Of course I love creative nonfiction, especially this semester's class...but it comes around in the rotation relatively rarely, so it's a pleasure in which I don't get to indulge very often.