Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Thirsty

This thirsty is related to Academic Monkey's post about the works our students should be familiar with by the time they're getting ready to graduate. Some people have already sort of answered this question (I'm looking at you, Contingent Cassandra and Dr. Colossus).

I was going to comment, too, something along the lines of being utterly dumbfounded by the fact that most of my students had not read The Scarlet Letter in high school. I teach early American lit, and before finding out that my students hadn't read the Hawthorne, I taught Billy Budd, Sailor. I felt like I had to decide which work was more important for a student coming out of an American college/uni literature survey course, and I chose The Scarlet Letter. [NB: It also fits in better with my course as a whole, since I also teach Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, along with Winthrop's A Model of Christian Charity.]

This leads to my question:

Q. What works do you consider foundational for your discipline (i.e. any major should have read at least X)? If you teach general survey courses, is there anything you include that's not quite "canon" and if so, why?

A. Comments below.


  1. Physics: Nothing.

    Historians of science might like to read Newton, but in general, the orginal work on a subject tends to be the most inscrutable. I would hope that many of our grads read "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynmann", or other works of similar ilk, but these are more for flavor than for discipline.

  2. For freshmen, I assume they've read nothing. For majors, then they need a solid foundation in what my college teaches in intro courses. I never assume anything beyond that. It saves the remaining hairs on my head.

  3. I'm with Dr. Nathaniel (chemistry has no canon, either), though I do insist that my general-education students be able to do simple algebra and basic four-function arithmetic. I don't ask them to read Dalton; what's the point? Pauling's The Nature of the Chemical Bond is still a good text, but it's not really where they are as beginners.

    I'd really like my organic students, especially in the advanced course, to have worked through Cotton's Chemical Applications of Group Theory. I can dream, can't I?

    Even in biology, where the cutting edge is at least somewhat comprehensible to an intelligent layman, On the Origin of Species is not likely to be as valuable a biology text as, say, anything by Aldo Leopold (for field biologists) or The Double Helix (for molecular biologists).

  4. I assume they've read nothing beyond the alphabet. Generally, I am correct.

  5. I was going to make the same thristy!!!

    I think that any entering freshman who plans to take any math courses should have a firm grasp of Algebra. He or she should be capable of quickly generating correct solutions which require a 1/2 page solution. If a student intends to do anything with math (i.e. major in math, stat, physics, engineering, etc) then the student should have a firm grasp of pre-calculus and trig.

    I actually think it is better for all but the top .5% to have had no calculus in high school. High school/AP Calc is very watered down when compared to a college level calculus. The big problem I'm having this term is that many of my freshman calc students think that since they've had calculus before that they "know" calculus. They aren't following directions on exams because "I know the shortcut" and they aren't studying for the exams because "I've had all this before." The result is that 60% of my class is headed for a D or lower. The problems they are actually capable of doing are the equivalent of the 3rd grade reading level when they need to read Keats or Thoreau.

    I honestly think that the students without a background in calculus have a better chance of success than their 1-4 score AP calc counterparts.

  6. Wait, this isn't a question about what you think they have read. It's a question about what you think are the foundational works of your discipline, that any MAJOR should have read, I thought, by the time they graduate. Or did I misread it?

    Anyway, foundational to my discipline: Beowulf. The Canterbury Tales. At least one play in each of Shakespeare's major genres. Emma or Pride and Prejudice. Some Wordsworth. Frankenstein. David Copperfield. Wuthering Heights. The Scarlet Letter. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Some Dickinson and some Whitman. Absalom, Absalom! or another major Faulkner novel. Beloved. At least one postcolonial Anglophone novel, though I don't feel qualified to say which one.

    Oh boy. What a white male list, and too long already.

  7. I teach a HS western civ course that earns college creds in my state uni--MOST of the kids come to me through advanced English from 9th on and have read well--two Shakespeares a year, decent modern novels and nonfiction. In this class, they read selections from Old and New Testaments, Oedipus, Lysistrata, Metamophoses, selections from the Decameron, Chaucer's Knight's, Miller's, Wife's and Pardoner's tales, Candide, Pride and Prejudice, Huck OR Scarlet (depending on which Eng 11 teacher each had), Beyond Good and Evil, a choice of Post WW II/Angry Young Man novel and Drawers and Booths (a cool piece of metafiction by Ara 13 that so nicely knots my threads of fate-fortune-free will and nobility/integrity as human pursuits). In addition, each preps and teaches a Shakespeare they've not done in earlier grades. Two things: students go to college the following year with a much broader sense of mankind's storying impulse AND the kids who come to me from the TRADITIONAL (non-advanced) track far outstrip their "advanced" peers in risk-taking and rhetoric-wrangling. They, obvs, didn't come to me already knowing everything I could possibly hope to teach them, you know?

  8. Ooh, I wanna take Mrs. C's class. I've missed a few of the works on her list, and wouldn't mind re-reading the others.

    I answered as a lit prof (which I'm really not, at least not in practice), below. As a comp teacher, I simply need them to have read a reasonable amount of well-written prose, so they have some idea of how a complex sentence is put together. Most of them haven't. Most of them can, however, with a little prodding/encouragement, learn to read a scholarly journal article with a decent level of comprehension (and the realization that not understanding every word doesn't mean they can't get something out of it). Of course, scholarly journal articles often contain rather clunky prose anyway, and students who can't already handle complex prose get pretty tangled up when they have to work a citation and/or quotation into a sentence, but we soldier on.


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