Tuesday, February 22, 2011

To Challenge or Not to Challenge?

So, I am preparing for a new 200 level English class to be offered next Fall. And I am finding myself in a bit of a quandary. See, I have long dreamed of teaching this particular class. I loved this genre in grad school. I have gathered my old notes, done some new research, chosen four representative novels.

Four representative novels.

See, when I was an undergrad, we would have studied that many novels in a single class, maybe even five. Sure we would have. But I teach at Inner City Community College. Oh I know that some of them can do that kind of work. (Wince----'that kind of work' ???) And I know they deserve to get a top quality college education.


I know I am in for a horrible time if I do it the way I would have when I was a young, idealistic professor. One of my colleagues recently noticed I was doing this class and told me there were lots of anthologies available. Anthologies, with excerpts, short stories, pat "Literature for Students" background information right at my snowflakes' fingertips. And mine. Wow. I had a minor epiphany and I could not believe I had not thought of it before. That would certainly make things easier for everyone.

I had so longed, at one point, to teach this genre to hungry for knowledge undergrads. The problem is, I have not met very many hungry for knowledge undergrads. I have a lot to offer on this subject. I would not have even considered the anthology route at one point in my life, but I am considering it now, and have even ordered the samples (and am now being inundated).

So, what do my fellow CMers think?


  1. Make them read "Finnigans Wake", even if it's a class on American lit.

  2. You ask a serious question, and I hope to provide a serious answer.

    At the community college level, your own retention often depends on high student evaluations. The amount of work and thinking you'll be asking your students to do in your proposed class will likely outstrip what they are asked to do elsewhere at the college, and that often can lead to lower evaluations.

    But, of course, to challenge them is always good. Some will surprise you; some will disappoint you. But you will likely feel as though you're finally doing the right thing.

    Good luck.

  3. 4 novels? 4 novels?!? In my day we would have read 8-10, while walking backwards uphill both ways in 2 feet of snow to the seminar room. Okay, not quite, but seriously, it was pretty standard to read a Victorian triple-decker a week, with maybe two weeks for Moby Dick, and I wasn't an undergraduate *that* long ago (maybe you are/were on quarters?)

    Assuming you're on semesters, 4 novels seems pretty reasonable to me even for fairly slow readers, and close to the bare minimum you need to give any sense of variety within a (sub)genre. I'd probably supplement with some shorter works that are related in some way toward the end of the discussion of each novel (depending on the time period, such things may be in the public domain, or you could supplement with a custom reader, put together either by your local copy shop or by one of the publishers currently soliciting your business. Most of them have such readers, and frequently even have canned introductory content available as well -- Pearson Custom Readers is one, but only one, example of this kind of product). But I'd stick with the novels for the backbone of the course, and assign them as individual books (which are a lot easier to carry around, and to annotate, and may well be cheaper to boot; the anthology experience just isn't the same). If working through four (or even three) freestanding novels is what you can manage, I'd still do that; it's a worthwhile experience for the students. The books will probably have critical introductions (which maybe you can get them to examine critically, not just for the "right" answer), and it sounds like you'll have plenty to say in short lectures (and they can practice learning that way, and taking notes).

    Fair warning: I don't teach at a community college, and I've had plenty of 200-level students complain about the length of relatively short novels I've taught. But if the idea of the course is to learn something about a particular kind of novel, then they really do need to read novels, and not just one or two.

    P.S. You will also need to teach them that "novel" =/= any longish book. Even the well-prepared ones frequently don't know that the word refers to an extended fiction, and tend to call any book other than a textbook (and sometimes those, too) a "novel."

  4. P.P.S. I guess another option would be to center the class around one really meaty novel -- something along the lines of Moby Dick or Ulysses or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or something by Faulkner or a later work by Toni Morrison -- and do supplementary reading from other works on the side. Really mastering a single quite complex and sophisticated example of the genre, and learning something *about* other works from the same time period, tradition, etc. could be a good, solid experience. Sort of a masterwork-in-cultural-and-literary-context approach. The anthology might come into play for this approach, but I'd still make the novel a freestanding volume.

  5. One question is whether this is a course on the novel, or on fiction, or on literature. If the first, then you're bound to teach the novel. If not, then you're free to teach other things, things that might be more generally accessible to and appropriate for this particular group of students. Yes, it's good to challenge students, but it's also good to give them material they're capable of digesting, in the hopes that this lower-level course will equip them for more challenging courses (perhaps courses on the novel) later on.

    If the students have fewer pages to read, they have to do more with what they have. This invites closer reading, more attention to the finer details. Walk them through a series of shorter texts, showing them how literature works, and you'll help them develop the skills they need to tackle a longer novel (which you might use to close out the semester). The point is that you can be brilliant, and inspire your students to brilliance, even with shorter texts and a tidy anthology. Give them fewer pages to read, but teach them how to read the hell out of those pages, and you'll have taught them something truly valuable.

  6. @CC: I would have supplemented the four novels with short stories and poetry. Just to clarify.

    When I went to undergraduate school, we read five novels for a 200 level course. I remember several courses, similar in scope to the one I am gong to create, set up like that. It was a pretty prestigious place, too.

    Go figure.

    I am still not sure what I am going to do. Four novels with some supplementation is as much as I would dare, however.

  7. Lex, I am thinking you are correct. And the answer is the course is on a certain genre of literature. So I have a lot of latitude.

    I appreciate the feedback I have received so far! Thanks so much! This is the kind of thing I do not like to discuss with my English department colleagues, for reasons I would rather skip.

  8. Bella,

    You're not alone. My colleagues and I encounter this problem whenever we teach a new class.

    Here's what I tell faculty whom I mentor:
    1. Most of these students are not like you. They will not all become college faculty, for instance.
    2. You probably remember youself as a better, more hard working student than you actually were. That's just human nature. Our memories are selective and self-flattering.
    3. You have no idea how your fellow students handled the assignments when you were taking the class in college. You might have thought the workload was reasonable but you're probably smarter than most of them (see #1).
    4. You may be teaching at a school which is less rigorous than the school you attended. You must calibrate the quantity of information you teach to the quality of the students.

    I don't see this as dumbing down the class, it's just being realistic.

  9. Beaker Ben's No. 3 is precisely what came to mind on reading this...you might not have known what your fellow students were doing. In my case, over half of the people I hung out with regularly went to grad school (PhD, MFA, MD) and I suspect that even among my circle of friends, we were doing more reading than our peers.

    I get really frustrated when I have to cut back on readings that I remember covering in college. (In a moment of massive geekery, I actually saved all of the syllabi in my discipline, so I actually KNOW what we were assigned in, say, Intro to Bean Counting.)

    I've coped with my frustration by...
    1. Providing reading questions to guide students through large amounts of text.
    2. Talking with students about "how to read." This varies by discipline, but there are some pretty simple tricks in my field to make it go more quickly. I also got some input from our local Teaching Help Center.
    3. Trying, wherever possible, to find the most important portions of text to share. This isn't really possible with novels, but it might work in terms of using short stories.

    ARRGGGHHH it makes me mad, though.

  10. Beaker Ben's No. 4 is on-the-mark. Calibration by student body is important.

    Right now, Kal Jr is taking an English Lit class and he has a LOT of readings (novels) to do (i.e., the 8-10 range). However, the expectations for the kids that go to that school are extremely high and they go with the ability to handle this.

    I'm not an Eng Lit person, but I would select novels of some(?) interest to the crop of students that you have (just as I would textbooks or readings for my field).

  11. Although all of the above is true, one other observation fellow teaches have given me is that the more challenging you make a course, the more the students will respond.

    One option you might consider is giving them lots of reading but reduced evaluations. For instance, shorten the assignments, or remove the final exam. Tell them this going in: "We've got a lot of reading to do, but in exchange, I'll make these other things easier." I've struck this deal with students with some success.

  12. Not all anthologies are dreadful. There's an Oxford one I use all the time called "Elements of Fiction" that just has a ton of really great short stories in it. No stupid discussion questions, none of that awful spoon-feedy stuff, just really great content.

    Of course, if it is a novel class, then 4 novels is ridiculous. ONE a WEEK. Sure, do some short ones like Gatsby, but ONE a WEEK.

  13. My experience is that no matter what I assign, students end up reading HALF of it unless I keep them accountable (with quizzes, reader responses, reflections, etc. that actually require engagement with the text). So if you're only selecting FOUR books to represent a whole genre, that's, first of all, wonderful to narrow it down so well. Secondly, I'd supplement the actual novels with other reading (maybe from an anthology) to show how concepts and ideas are represented in the anthologies (unless, you are teaching "the novel," for example, in which case, you'd show how the novel differs from a short story or a textbook).

    Sounds like a fun endeavor. I've struggled, too, with how to make things more accessible b/c ultimately, I DO want them to enjoy what you're reading and find value in it. But I know what I value is often esoteric and irrelevant to them.

    I went to school at a school that was on the quarter system and we read 8 books per quarter. In fact, that was what the dept. had adopted as a reasonable amount of reading (one book per week of classes, minus one week for midterm and final and maybe a movie day). This was for ANY level (200 and up).

  14. As an undergrad I took "Shakespeare" as a summer course to fulfill an English requirement. We covered 15 plays in five weeks, plus some sonnets thrown in for good measure. Were they covered "in depth?" Not necessarily. But we were tested over all of them, as well as Elizabethan theater history and tradition.

    Yes, I read them all- no Cliffs Notes or BBC/Royal Shakespearean Company productions. And it wasn't my only class during that summer session, either.

  15. I come from outside the English major realm. For undergrad, I went to a SLAC and majored in a science field. I also have dyslexia so I'm a fairly poor reader and could never seem to keep up with all reading in all classes. But I took some 300-level history classes that seemed interesting. I remember those generally assigning 5 books: a novel, a single-topic history book or two, and a couple reference books or essay collections.

    I didn't do all the readings since I was focusing on my major classes but I got through probably 60-70% of the material for history. It really helped to have study questions which accompanied the reading and the occasional pop quiz in class so I knew which content to focus on and what the take-home point of each reading was. For things that were confusing or that I didn't have time to read I generally talked to classmates and used shorter resources. Overall, I wound up doing well in history even if I couldn't read everything myself.

    If you're sending students home with reading questions or terms to look out for, that will help them a bunch. This will especially help people that aren't English majors or who have reading deficiencies. But overall, I think the level of reading is reasonable (assuming these novels average 200-350 pages in length).

  16. I was once given a formula for calibrating reading: average undergrads can read 20-25 pp. hour, multiplied by the 2-3 hours homework per classrooom hour (3 hrs a week =6-9 hours of homework per week). That ends up being about 60-75 pp. per class if it's a 2-day turnaround, and quite a bit more if it's over a weekend. It seems unimaginably slow to me, but it's a formula I use as my baseline. What do people think?

  17. Four? The only class in which I use novels or trade paperbacks is a sophomore humanities course which incorporates interdisciplinary elements. My students read six in addition to the required textbook on humanistic inquiry and also watch three films about which they have to write. We do all this in eight weeks. When I first approach them with it, they usually either go into shock or give me some smartass comment about having "real lives." But by the end of the eight weeks, they usually tell me the reading was not as hard as they thought it would be once they got into the habit of doing it, and they were really able to make better sense of the works due to what they learned from the class and the regular textbook.

    These are all CC students, by the way. I believe that in many cases, if you present it to them as mandatory and manageable, they will rise to the challenge. Far too many of them have been in Professor Namby-Pamby's class and think that college level work means reading one chapter in a text a week (if that) and being given a PowerPoint with everything they need to know. Give them what you consider real college-level work, show them you have the confidence they can do it, and guide them as best you can to help them get to where you want them to go.

  18. jesus h, this is depressing.

    Why not just tell them they must read the wikipedia entries for four novels? That's all they're going to do, anyway.

  19. That's where the pop quizzes come in, Southern Bubba. And they're on the obscure bits that aren't in the Cliff Notes/Deadasspedia summaries. My God, you could drive a class to madness if you used that method while teaching Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain"; maybe worse if you were teaching "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace.

  20. One thing you can do is calibrate the reading to be challenging but manageable for the lower end of the class, and then put in a whole heap of optional extras for those few smart and hardworking ones who want more of a challenge. If you can find some relevant reading questions and relatively easy critical papers to go with, you can assign a couple of extra novels as "extra credit", or even just say you are happy to discuss those in your office hours with anyone who wants to read them. Then throw in a few interesting but unessential remarks here and there in your lectures comparing those optional works to the required reading, to whet their appetites.

    I've done something like this a couple of times, and there's always two or three keen students (out of a class of 150) who take me up on it. If it's just a matter of making question prompts and criticism available (online or whatever), it's not that much extra work for you.

  21. My undergraduate institution had a weird numbering system, so I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect the novel-a-week classes were probably closer to 300/400-level (classes in the major) than 200 (but we also declared majors at the end of the first year, and began taking those courses-in-the-major as sophomores). I think our intro/gen ed literature classes tended to be surveys, with mostly shorter selections, but there were definitely weeks that focused on a novel (or, say, all of Walden plus a few other Thoreau bits and pieces, or, at the end of the first semester of the American lit survey, those two weeks on Moby Dick, which probably assumed we might finish reading over winter break, since we still had after-Christmas exams). That was a very selective college, though (albeit at one of its less-selective moments due to the end-of-baby-boom population dip), the great majority of students worked no more than 10 hours a week for pay, and spending substantial amounts of time studying/reading was definitely part of the culture.

    I spent a couple of full-time semesters teaching at a fairly-selective public liberal arts college (they exist, mostly in the guise of former state teacher's or women's colleges), and, when I taught a 300/400-level nation/time period-delineated novel class, covered one novel every other week, which was in keeping with my colleagues' syllabi, and seemed to work pretty well (I did feel a bit discouraged by the difference from my own experience, but that feeling has gradually receded as I focus on what works for the students I actually have, which is, as several people above pointed out, really the only sensible way to go).

    In a 200-level gen ed lit class at my present institution (a class which is supposed to cover several genres), I did one relatively short 19th-century novel, one contemporary memoir, and one hard-to-classify multi-genre single-author work (okay, DuBois' _Souls of Black Folk_; that alone won't give me away, though the whole list might), plus a bunch of shorter stuff, mostly poems (for anyone who's interested, juxtaposing Ben Jonson's and Anne Bradstreet's poems on the loss of children/grandchildren with DuBois' "The Passing of the First-Born" works pretty well). They liked the memoir, thought _Souls_ was hard (which it is) but wrote pretty well about it, and liked the novel because it told a story (but took quite a bit of prodding to consider cultural context). Most of them appeared (from quizzes and in-class writings and the like) to have done the reading in some way, shape, or form, though two of them plagiarized the portion of the take-home exam that covered the last major work we read (the novel). I probably should have done a traditional in-a-classroom exam, but, since it was also a writing class, was trying to do a revise-your-informal-writing portfolio-type thing. We're fairly selective, but many of our students work far too many hours to earn their tuition, and prioritize their social lives at least as highly as homework when they do have free time (but the two who plagiarized did not strike me as being among our less-privileged students).

  22. So, maybe pick three of the novels and offer the other as extra credit, as RachelH suggested, or do all four but keep the supplementary reading quite short -- maybe mostly short poems or other things that can actually be read in class? Especially at a time when there may be more students heading to community college because that's all they can afford, it seems important to offer the challenge to those who can take advantage of it, while not completely overwhelming those who are starting at a lower level. Structuring some papers and/or test questions so that they could be answered either with reference to a short story or to a novel (or testing students' analytical abilities on new passages similar to those discussed in class) might allow those who are ready to become fully familiar with the novels, while those who find them a harder slog pick up more of a Hirschian familiarity, mostly from class discussion (and, yes, Wikipedia/Sparks/whatever), plus some close-reading skills. That wouldn't be a bad outcome in my book, but designing assignments and class activities with that sort of dual-audience focus would be more work for you.

  23. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all.

    I am overwhelmed by your collective generosity in giving me so much of your time and the wisdom of your experience.

    This has been extremely helpful.

    Thanks again, comrades!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.