WAYS TO THINK ABOUT CANON-FORMATION IN LITERATURE SURVEY COURSES

Some exercises and assignments I've used as I teach Auburn's British Literature "survey" courses.

FIRST DAY: SYLLABI AS CANON

Goal: to destabilize the idea that the selected readings for a particular semester are somehow representative of an eternal canon.


I begin by handing out copies of reading schedules from prior iterations of the course, as taught by my many colleagues over the past decade.  No identifiable details about year or instructor are present -- just the schedule of readings.  If I were at a smaller institution, or adapting this for a different course, I might crowdsource syllabi from other universities, possibly using OpenSyllabus.

I then ask students (individually or in pairs) to spend a few minutes typing into a Mentimeter word cloud every author name they see. You can see Spring 2020's word cloud here, on the third slide. You can also see that I "warm up" by asking more "getting to know you" questions before this task.

The goal is to show even at our campus, different faculty at different times have selected very different texts for inclusion.

THROUGHOUT: USING PUBLISHING HISTORY TO SHOW CANON FORMATION OVER TIME

Practices of contextualization, citation, and reaching beyond the assigned readings.


Every lecture contextualizes the texts we read, including composition and publication context, and the author's nationality identity, educational background, class position, and gender.  I name other works we could’ve read in that particular "slot" (sometimes a "more canonical" author, sometimes "less”).  I describe the history of the text's survival and reception from its publication to the present. I am continually reflecting on how canons are built through publishing, teaching, & pop culture.


I cite scholars (and where possible, show photos of their books and faces) whose research has impacted how we understand a literary text, movement, or period. Closer to home, I also point to my colleagues who teach related upper-division courses, in the hopes that my course can be a true "gateway" to the talents and expertise that abounds in my department and college.

FINAL PROJECT: PROPOSE A NEW READING SCHEDULE

By way of explanation, I include the full assignment language below. I will note that this language, used in Spring 2020, was unaltered during the COVID-19 remote teaching period. If anything, it became a more meaningful assignment by the end of this course. What's important here is not that the students read a whole bunch of additional material, but are able to argue for a coherent vision of what the course is, and how their choices might support or transform that meaning.


This course began with an in-class examination of the many different ways this course has been taught over the past decade.  Now, it's your turn. For your final project and writing assignment, you are asked to create your own reading schedule for an imagined version of this class.  

You will submit the following:​

  • A schedule of readings, including page numbers (if using the Broadview Anthology) and/or links to online materials.

  • A 1,500-2,000 word (6-8 double-spaced page) explanation of your choices. This will include:

    • An introduction explaining what you hope students will take away from the course

    • The controlling questions and themes you wish to explore across the course

    • Textual evidence from your chosen readings to support your introduction.

Some guidelines:

  • Official Course Goals and Objectives

    • To strengthen your interpretive and analytical skills through close reading and discussion of literary texts.

    • To improve writing skills, verbal skills, and research methods.

    • To continue to develop critical thinking skills, including the ability to form opinions and a discerning attitude toward the relative merits and/or weaknesses of literary works.

    • To acquire a general knowledge of major authors and works, movements and period archetypes in British literature sine 1789, and the historical contexts in which the works were produced.

  • Auburn Semester structure:

    • A semester is 15 weeks, but as you know there's a variety of holidays and breaks. You can take this semester as a template, for simplicity's sake. 

    • You'll also want to make sure there is a day set aside for a midterm exam before Week 8!

  • Readings:

    • In this course, new readings are only assigned on Mondays and Wednesdays, never Fridays.

    • You may choose to spend an entire week, or more, on a longer work.

    • Readings must come from between 1789 and the present.  

    • Readings must fall under the definition of "British" (however you define it)

    • Most courses attempt to cover the major literary genres (poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction)

  • Workload:

    • Like all Auburn courses, this course assumes that students will spend 2-2.5 hours preparing per 50 minute course session [link to university policy].  For MW, that will mean new reading -- Fridays are for rereading.

    • I find consulting Rice University's Course Workload Estimator is very useful for making sure you're not assigning too much reading -- it helps you assess number of pages. The Estimator allows you to change the Difficulty and Purpose -- when in doubt, assume "many new concepts" are involved.  

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