Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A syllabus I can live with

Constructing a syllabus is an exercise in chopping: start with a long list of wonderful readings and then trim to fit the time available. Sometimes this can be quite painful, but lately I've been taking the long view: No room for Henry James this time? I'll teach him next time. No room for Sara Orne Jewett in American Lit Survey? I'll move her to Concepts of Nature.

This represents a profound shift from my early years of teaching literature, when I felt compelled to teach every student everything I knew in every class. The Firehose Approach to teaching--be sure to bring an umbrella!

I'm still packing an outrageous amount of reading and writing into every syllabus, but you wouldn't believe the things I've been cutting out. For example, the new Norton Anthology of African American Literature grew so huge that they broke it into two volumes, which is a good thing because the one-volume version served as a personal weight-training regimen. Each of the two volumes includes over 1400 pages. That's nearly 3000 pages of small print that I could assign in my African-American Lit class, which is too much even for an upper-level class.

And so I'm chopping. Ruthlessly. Sometimes it hurts, but let's not forget the payoffs: trim a little in the slave-narrative part of the syllabus and suddenly I have room for Nella Larsen. Shove a couple of modern poets out the window so Suzan-Lori Parks can walk through the door. Trim a little here, chop a little there, and before you know it I have a syllabus I can live with.

For now. But just wait until next time!   

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