Things that Work

Go home, 2020, you’re an apocalyptic cascade of oppressive systems freshly exposed (again) by a global pandemic, worldwide #BLM protests, and a corresponding surge in public conversations about Racial Justice and Disability Justice.

In other news, I haven’t been blogging in awhile. I have been active on Twitter (@nrhelms), and I’ve been quite busy with the turn to #PandemicPedagogy. Also, after eight long years, I am finally off the academic job market! I have luckily landed at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire as a Assistant Professor of British Literature. I cannot emphasize the luck of it all enough. The current state of employment in higher education is toxic, and collective action is needed now to avoid an apocalypse of higher ed. Or, as my new colleague Matthew Cheney put it recently:

What can we do? How might we reshape our feelings of powerlessness into a sense of possibility? How might some ideals survive?

In this space today I want to quickly count my academic blessings, the bits of work and conversation that are bearing fruit during this trying year.

First, thanks to support from PSU English and from the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at PSU, I’ve launched Intersectionality Talks, a new digital speaker series at PSU.

I’ll also be on the Saul O Sidore Lecture Series committee at PSU, where I especially hope to bring to bear my contacts in Racial and Disability Justice. There’s so much exciting, powerful work being done right now in #ShakeRace and #RaceB4Race, for instance!

I’ve restarted the official PSU English Blog, now called The Ellen Reeder (after the Ellen Reed House on PSU’s campus, home of English faculty offices).

I’m also active in the Disabled Academics Collective, a blog and mutual aid network for everyone in higher ed from undergraduates to faculty & staff to independent scholars. We run a Discord server that’s proving to be a great space for building community and swapping strategies. I’m also on the editorial and social media teams, so if you’re looking to publish something short on disability and higher ed, hit me up.

Finally, I’m working on OER materials for all of my courses at PSU on an ongoing basis. For the Fall of 2020, that means my Rethinking Medieval and Renaissance Literature and Currents in Global Literature courses are all online (including syllabi, assignments, most readings, and all student work). These are explicitly anti-racist and anti-ableist courses, and it’s ongoing work at the level of pedagogy, primary and secondary texts, and student assignments. Collaborative advice welcome, as always!

My goals in all this are straightforward: I want to channel my own rage into collective action; I want to showcase the excellent work of students and scholars in my orbit; and I want to focus on possibility.

Notes on *Sir Thomas More*

My classes begin Thursday, and with them my attempts to better infuse my teaching with intersectional thinking. I’ll have thoughts about successful forays and failed experiments as the semester goes along, but today I only have anticipation. As such, I’m taking the opportunity to post some program notes I wrote for a Resurgens Theatre production of Sir Thomas More in April. These are adapted from the epilogue of my book, Cognition, Mindreading, and Shakespeare’s Characters.

(If you need a refresher on Sir Thomas More, check out Sir Ian McKellen’s performance.)

“Scaling the Mountain of Inhumanity”

Augille du Midi, Summer, by Martin Janner
Augille du Midi, Summer, by Martin Janner:


Shakespeare’s “The Strangers’ Case” from Munday and Chettle’s Sir Thomas More illustrates the profound and surprising changes perspective-taking can make to spectators. Sir Thomas More is a collaborative text, originally written by Munday and Chettle, censored by Master of Revels Edmund Tilney, and then revised in pieces by Chettle, Dekker, Heywood, and Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare’s tasks in these revisions was to rewrite scene six, More’s success in quelling the 1517 riots. In this scene, More works from the broad, inferential knowledge he has: this crowd is made up of Londoners who are frightened by foreigners and incapable of ruling their own passions. Pitying their disorder, he concludes, “Alas, poor things! What is it you have got / Although we grant you get the thing you seek?” One of the citizens, Betts, takes the question at face value and answers More: “Marry, the removing of the strangers, which cannot choose but much advantage the poor [working men] of the City.” Betts and the other citizens do not follow More’s analogy between their current riot and a hypothetical destructive past. More underestimates the tenacity and single-mindedness of their self-interest. He thought their fears of a disordered world could balance their fears of strangers. Fortunately, Betts’s response gives More the chance to revise his reading of the citizens and, in turn, to encourage them to take on the perspectives of the strangers.

It would be easy for the citizens to brush off More’s description of the strangers’ plight, instead reveling in the image of a London emptied of foreigners. The bulk of More’s monologue in fact deals with the future the citizens will themselves experience if they exile the strangers. Their actions today will reinforce “insolence and strong hand,” and they themselves will become prey to “other ruffians…With selfsame hand, self reasons, and self right.” The imagery of sharks and “ravenous fishes” instills terror in the crowd, reminding them that their actions have ripple effects in the larger world and that self-interested violence creates a violent world: voicing the imaginative transport of the crowd, the citizen Doll replies, “Before God, that’s as true as the gospel.” There are no divisions of city or country in the future More envisions, only the sea of voracious humanity. More takes on Betts’s desire as a hypothetical and conjures up a future where “self right” rules the day. He reads the citizens’ desire, imagines its fruition, and invites the crowd to imagine that horror.

More continues to anticipate the citizens’ future, predicting that they may be mercifully exiled by the King. He is preparing his hearers for a juxtaposition of perspectives by conjuring up a horrible experience: the exile, wandering from shore to shore, victim of the “barbarous temper” and “hideous violence” of unknown others. More employs the citizens’ xenophobia against them. Since they seem incapable of imagining Europeans as friends to the English, More thrusts their future selves into an exile unmitigated by any hospitality. They will be denied their humanity—“spurn you like dogs”—denied their dignity as living creatures—“as if that God / Owed not nor made not you”—and even denied the comforts of physical bodies, of sunshine or a cool breeze—“nor that the elements / Were not all appropriate to your comforts / But chartered unto them?” More holds a mirror up to the citizens of their future: “What would you think / To be thus used?” Indignant? Victimized? Powerless? More spends the bulk of his lines asking the citizens to read themselves and what they might become, playing on their fears of exclusion and the unknown.

More then reverses his strategy in mid-line, shifting from imagination to inference: “This is the strangers’ case, / And this your mountanish inhumanity.” More does not encourage the citizens to imagine the strangers’ case as he did briefly at the start. Perhaps More judges a forthright call for sympathy to be a losing rhetorical move during a riot. Instead, More reframes the imaginative transport he has just taken the citizens through. “This”—this future, this horror, this feeling of abandonment and injustice—“is the strangers’ case.” More creates a perspective for the citizens to inhabit and then repackages it as an inference that the citizens can apply to others. “This” is what it is like to be an outsider. And “this” is the result of the citizens’ own behavior, their “mountanish inhumanity.”

More effects a conversion upon the rioting Londoners. As one the citizens say, “Faith, ’a says true. Let’s do as we may be done by.” A crowd that scenes earlier was threatening at their own peril to burn down strangers’ houses in London is now affirming the Golden Rule, implicitly recognizing the shared humanity of the strangers. More has changed their minds by engaging them as spectators: reading their present state of mind, guiding them on an imaginative transport, and then applying that transport to their present situation. He helps them craft a new (to them) inferential theory of human thought: if we desire hospitality and fair treatment, others desire those as well, even if those others do not share our class, race, religion, or nationality. If all humans are human, then my experience can be linked to yours. Not equated with, not substituted for, but connected in our shared experience of life.

Brit Lit I: the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries

As the start of the fall semester looms closer, my attention has been drawn away from syllabus construction and blogging and toward a lot of the nitty gritty details of teaching: course schedules, Blackboard shells, writing assignments, and of course scheduling service commitments. In the midst of all that, here’s what I currently have for my Brit Lit I syllabus (you’ll want to scroll down to the “Outline of Topics”:

Illustration credit:

I am not entirely happy with the course readings, though I am excited about a great deal of the new material I’ve been able to include. The middle third of the class, the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, features Elizabeth I, Sidney, Pembroke, Shakespeare, Wroth, Donne, Cavendish, and Milton. I’m also including “The Wider World” topic cluster from the Norton, which features selections of travel writing on Africa, the Arctic, the Americas, and the Ottoman Empire. The last third of the class features Bunyan, Behn, and Equiano, and Norton clusters on “Travel, Trade, and the Expansion of Empire,” “Debating Women: Arguments in Verse,” “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain,” and “Liberty.” The clusters on travel and slavery were only available online in Norton’s Instructor Resources, not in the anthology itself, but I can easily share the pdfs with my students.

I would love to be able to devote more full weeks to minoritized voices in Brit Lit I, as I’m doing with Equiano in our last week of class discussions. (I could certainly grant Cavendish a full week, courtesy of Liza Blake’s excellent online edition.) However, as I’ve mentioned before, the standard canonical anthology doesn’t allow for such an approach. Most of the full-length works in the Norton, for instance, are the soundly canonical ones. I could jettison the use of an anthology altogether, but then I’m tight-rope walking without the safety net of the historical period introductions and the special topics clusters.

For now, I’ll be sticking to the roadmap I’ve laid out above. Things may change drastically for Fall 2020, but that’s the point of these revisions. Decolonizing a syllabus isn’t a one and done affair, it’s an ongoing commitment to challenging social norms. As we move into the fall semester, I’ll continue blogging about my experiences teaching this new (to me) material.

Brit Lit I: The Middle Ages

As I select texts for the Middle Ages portion of my Brit Lit I syllabus, I’ve drawn inspiration from Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s site and from episodes 51 and 52 of The Endless Knot. I find myself continually humbled by how much I need to learn and grateful for the work that others have done. My research thus far has shown me large gaps in my own historical background for the Brit Lit survey, gaps I’ve started filling with The History of RomeWith my usual fall commute, I have a lot of podcasting time built into my schedule.

“The Dream of the Rood,” Vercelli Book

Here are the “suggested texts and authors” from my department’s EN 205 course recommendations:

Early Middle Ages: Beowulf, “Judith,”; “Cædmon’s Hymn,” “The Dream of the Rood,” “The Wanderer,” “The Wife’s Lament”; Early Irish Lyrics

Late Middle Ages: “Ancrene Wisse,” Geoffrey Chaucer, Everyman, Marie de France, Margery Kempe, Thomas Malory, Julian of Norwich, The Second Shepherd’s Play, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

All of these suggestions are of course represented in the Norton Anthology, which is simultaneously a fantastic tool and perhaps the most visible symbol of obstacles to diversifying the syllabus. The introduction to “The Middle Ages” volume shatters any preconceived notions readers might have about monolithic English identity in the period, making it clear that England is a stage for multicultural encounters, linguistic fusion and friction, and imperial ambitions before the Angles, Saxons, or Normans arrived. That said, the Norton’s selections are still almost entirely traditional and canonical: Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Norman writers mostly, with nods to Early Irish Literature and to women writers. And despite the wide-ranging travels of Chaucer’s characters or of Margery Kempe and her pilgrimages, none of the literature connects England to the Middle East or to North Africa, nor to the Byzantine or Ottoman Empires. The Anthologized England remains very much an island.

(The Longman Anthology seems to be a bit more diverse, but only just. The Broadview Anthology, however, seems to put both the Norton and the Longman to shame! I may be switching texts next semester.)

Without further ado, here are my selections week by week:

Week 1: Syllabus; Early Irish Lyrics, 134-5 (handout).

My classes start on a Thursday, so squeezing in a few Irish poems after the syllabus discussion salvages an otherwise wholly procedural week and introduces my students to close reading. I’m also shorting the Middle Ages a day, as each other unit will take eight days of class rather than seven.

Week 2: “The Middle Ages to ca. 1485,” 1-20, 27-9; “Cædmon’s Hymn,” and “The Dream of the Rood,” 30-7; “Judith,” “The Wanderer,” “Wulf and Eadwacer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” and “The Ruin,” 110-26.

The historical introduction to the period does an excellent job of pointing out the multicultural and multilingual nature of the era. These Anglo-Saxon selections hit the canonical “warrior culture” high-notes of Beowulf (which I’ve found is frequently assigned in high schools) while introducing more women’s perspectives, including Judith as warrior woman. If I had another two to three days in this week, I’d gladly add Beowulf back in.

Week 3: Marie de France’s “Milun,” “Lanval,” and “Chevrefoil,” 158-88; Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Cantebury Tales “General Prologue,” 256-82.

I’ll take Marie de France’s representations of gender and sexuality over the Pearl Poet’s any day of the week. Marie de France also enables a discussion of the construction of whiteness and white beauty in the period. Chaucer’s “General Prologue,” of course, does an excellent job of introducing class in the late Middle Ages, and his character sketches are great demos of close reading.

Week 4: “Ancrene Wisse,” 154-7; Thomas Hoccleve’s “My Complaint,” 377-87; Julian of Norwich’s A Book of Showings, 430-442,  Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe, 442-56.

This week is entirely new material for me, and matter that I’m quite excited about. As a unit, Hoccleve, Julian, and Kempe bring together ability, gender, and religion in exciting ways. Each of these writers present outsider critiques on the Middle Ages that weigh in on the canonical texts from week three. (Thank you to #AcademicTwitter and The International Hoccleve Society for putting Hoccleve on my radar!)

I have mixed feelings about these selections. On the one hand, they hit hard on the topics of ability, class, gender, religion, and sexuality. On the other hand, race goes largely undiscussed. Right now, I expect I’ll be pointing frequently to the lack of coherent “whiteness” or “Englishness” in these texts, emphasizing the multicultural and multilingual tapestry of the Middle Ages whenever possible. I’ll likely supplement class discussion with images from the MedievalPOC Tumblr.

I’m definitely still looking for writers of color for my syllabus. Hadrian, perhaps?


Minmaxing the Syllabus

Before I continue with my Brit Lit I syllabus recreation, I want to quickly import a concept from my hobby, gaming: minmaxing. Simply put, to min-max is to take a game, system, or scenario, lay out all the possible options, and to assemble the most streamlined set of options for your particular goals. In role-playing games, min-maxing often results in player characters that do one or two things extremely well and other things not at all. The typical Minmax character is a Conan the Barbarian type: absurdly strong yet illiterate, unstoppable on the battlefield yet inept in any social situation, and other such extremes. So, basically Beowulf.



Today I’d like to minmax my syllabus! If this sort of nitty gritty examination of sprockets and springes annoys you, feel free to skip this post and wait for my examination of Anglo-Saxon literature on Wednesday. Rather than affirming the type of absurd hyper-masculinity typical of minmaxing, however, I’d like to use the technique to aim at a more diverse Brit Lit I course. If anything, the traditional Brit Lit I course is already minmaxed in favor of white, male, imperialist voices. I aim to skew hard away from that tradition in hopes of reaching some small amount of parity.

Here are my particular constraints and goals for Brit Lit I this fall, each followed by a bit of rationale. Some of these goals are self-imposed, others are more systemic. Most if not all are up for debate, but they are the ground rules for how I’ll create and then minmax my syllabus.


1) 29 days of Tues/Thurs, 75 minute classes.

29 is the absolute maximum number of days I can fit into the school calendar. That number may be chipped away at by class exams, student conferences, and so forth.

2) 35 sophomore to senior level students, mostly non-English majors.

My expected class informs my teaching decisions. For example, for this general education course I’m less likely to assign Spenser’s Faerie Queen or essays requiring research into literary criticism than I would be if this was an honors section or a junior to senior level course.

3) I commute from Atlanta, GA to Tuscaloosa, AL every week.

This is a long story for another post, but my wife works a 9-5 job as an archivist at Kennesaw State University. The job market being what it is, my best employment option is to keep working at UA and to commute down for three days and two nights each week of the semester. My department’s assistant chair, David Ainsworth, is himself an inveterate minmaxer and a lovely human being. He’s set me up with a Tues/Thurs teaching schedule that allows such a commute.

4) My department’s Two Hundred Level Literature Survey Assignment Guidelines

UA English requires a minimum of 4-6 pages of analytical writing in survey courses and strongly recommends two exams. They also recommend that that 4-6 pages be split up among multiple assignments.

5) Opinion: Multiple essays are better!

I’m a vocal advocate for multiple writing assignments: constant feedback is the best way to let students know what you expect out of their writing and to nurture their growth as writers and thinkers. One set of comments on one term paper simply doesn’t cut it, at least not for my style of teaching.

6) Opinion: Exams are ableist, a waste of class time, and an inefficient measure of learning.

This, too, is a rant for another time, but I have grown to dislike exams and quizzes more and more during my time as a teacher. I’ll be leaning hard on the “recommended” nature of my department’s advice to hold two exams.


1) To Decolonize and Diversify my syllabus!

The language I like best for how to “balance” my syllabus is that of dominance and resistance. The traditional literary canon is the dominant tradition, the one that has been reified by anthologies, archives, and syllabi. Any voices outside that dominant tradition can be read as resistance. “Literature” or “history” is the sum total of dominance and resistance. I’ll provide enough of the dominant tradition for the resistance to have context, no more. The canon doesn’t need my help propping it up, and I don’t think my students will be any better off if they receive a heavy dose of the dominant tradition from my hands. Far from it. In promoting resistance, I want whenever possible to highlight diverse voices on (in no particular order of priority) race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and religion. This list is not exclusive and is a work in progress.

2) To teach close reading, critical thinking, and perspective taking.

To those ends, I’m more interested in discussion and writing (in and out of class) than comprehensive coverage. I’d much rather have a focused class discussion on ten pages of reading than a wide-sweeping lecture on sixty pages. Reading assignments will be shorter, writing assignments will be frequent, and class engagement will be measured by online discussion posts in preparation for each week of class.

And finally, some Minmax Conclusions

1) Teach no more than one writer per day of class.

If I want everyone’s voice to be distinct, I need to devote class time to each individual voice.

2) Teach no more than one day of class per writer.

Giving an inordinate amount of time to single writers, especially to dominant voices, costs time I could be spending elsewhere. I don’t want to systemically raise some voices over others: the traditional canon has done enough of that.

3) Take time out of class to meet one-on-one with students.

I’m best able to teach writing in a one-on-one setting. It’s amazing what you can accomplish in a ten minute meeting with a student that might otherwise get lost in a normal class period. If I’m committed to giving frequent feedback on student writing, that feedback is most effective in person. If I’m committed to having any semblance of work/life balance, I need to devote work hours to those meetings. That means canceling classes for conferences.

4) Divide the class into six units.

My department recommends six units for Brit Lit I, the standard three volume anthology with each volume split in half: the Early Middle Ages; the Late Middle Ages; the Sixteenth Century; the Seventeenth Century; the Restoration; and the Eighteenth Century.

5) Assign three essays rather than one to two essays and two exams.

Rather than hold a traditional midterm and final exam, I’ll instead assign three 3-5 page essays, one after each “volume” of two units.

6) Take a week at the end of each “volume” to discuss essay drafts with students.

This is a practice from my First-Year Writing courses I want to adapt to Brit Lit I. With less pressure to meet minimum coverage requirements, I can devote more time to meeting one-on-one with students. Right now I plan on canceling a full week late in September (two class sessions), a Tuesday late in October (the week of UA’s Fall Break, which already cancels classes on Thurs and Fri), and the Tuesday of Thanksgiving Week (which students routinely “cancel” themselves). To ease scheduling and my own commute, I’ll be holding these meetings via Blackboard Collaborate, my institution’s preferred version of Skype.

7) Take the last week of class for students to work on creative projects.

As an additional way to resist the dominant tradition and to give students a voice, I’ll end the semester with a creative project: scenes, recordings, artwork, etc. I’m still thinking through the project parameters, but I’m slating “Dead Week” (the week after Thanksgiving and our last week of classes) for creativity.

That leaves 23 class days of a possible 29, including the first day of class.

8) Schedule four days of class for each of the six units. The Early Middle Ages only gets three days, including the first day of class.

Apologies, Middle Ages! I’ll bring in handouts of Early Irish Lyrics for the first day of class so we can hit the ground running.

Now that I’ve laid this groundwork, I believe I can begin to actually construct my syllabus. I need to select 23 writers to represent the diverse range of British Literature from its origins to 1800. In coming posts, I’ll handle that process unit by unit. First up: the Early Middle Ages!


New Recommendations for EN/Brit Lit I

As my title suggests, the biggest change for the EN Lit I survey this year at UA English is the shift from “requirements” to “recommendations.” Here are the new recommendations I promised to talk about in my last post:

British Literature Survey (EN 205, 206) Recommended Guidelines

The first thing I’d like to close read here is the document title. According to the UA Undergraduate Catalog, the name of the courses in question are English Literature I and II. It’s rather difficult to change the official name of a general education course in an undergraduate catalog (paperwork reasons, I’m sure), but there are really compelling reasons to title these courses Brit Lit rather than English Lit. First and least important, Brit Lit rolls off the tongue more delightfully. Second, based upon its title a course in “English” Lit should either be divided up by language (world Anglophone literature, including translations into English) or should be narrowly focused upon the “English,” a cultural term that erases the long imperial history of Britain. “British” Lit owns that history from the start and is more honest about the contents of the course.

These guidelines recognize the survey as “British” rather than “English” from the start, and they also name themselves recommendations rather than requirements. The two clearest changes from the old recommendations are the lack of required authors and of required minimum coverage for said authors. I cannot overstate how much freedom this gives instructors! It’s probably the cornerstone of independent course design, one of the great creative freedoms of our profession.

“EN 205 is a chronological, historical survey that consists of three primary components: 1) It covers the British literary tradition from its beginnings in the Middle Ages through the end of the eighteenth century; 2) It introduces students to a range of texts in different sub-genres of poetry, drama, and prose prevalent in this literary tradition; 3) It offers a balance of major canonical and significant, less canonical works within the different time periods. Students should learn to read contextually and should be exposed to the significant historical, political, economic, intellectual, and social events and movements that characterized this period. Students should be exposed to the diversity of the English literary tradition in terms of genre, gender, and subject matter.”

The emphasis on “chronological” and “historical” might be a bit stifling, but my own experience with the course tells me these are necessary elements of the survey. So much of Brit Lit I can be deeply weird to our students, and a historical backdrop can be the raft that keeps them afloat. Without some chronology, the pieces don’t cohere into a larger whole. Without history, Brit Lit can masquerade as English Lit, or, worse yet, Literature writ large. One should, however, strive to keep all historical frames from becoming hegemonic ones — a constant struggle in any survey course.

The first two components of Brit Lit read rather like descriptions of the standard anthology! I dare say that until we reach the promised paradise of an open access future, anthologies like the Norton will remain the necessary backbone of survey courses. (More on the Norton anon). The third component is more interesting: “3) It offers a balance of major canonical and significant, less canonical works within the different time periods.” What exactly does balance mean or look like in a diversified syllabus? 50% “major” canon and 50% lesser canon? I’m inclined to somewhat agree with the math but not with the framing. Assuming a class of non-English-majors (my target audience at UA), I can’t presume that my students will already know Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and others. These writers are the elephants in the room that everyone is talking about, and much of the value from “less canonical works” can come from the way those works resist those dominating conversations. Rather than a language of “major” and “lesser,” I want to reach for a language that better articulates the power struggles at hand. Perhaps “hegemonic” and “resistant”? “Majority” and “minority” voices, with a heavy dose of the value of minority and dissenting voices? (I’m currently reading Tobin Siebers’ Disability Theory, so this articulation is on my mind.)  Much more thought is required of me.

The next to last sentence in the above quotation I take to be evocative rather than prescriptive. The last sentence, however, is quite the powder keg: “Students should be exposed to the diversity of the English literary tradition in terms of genre, gender, and subject matter.” The term “diversity” brings with it connotations of human identity: diversity along the lines of race, gender, sex, class, ability, religion, and so forth. “Gender” invokes that frame while “genre” does not. “Subject matter” could go either way. It could be a soft way of suggesting that instructors incorporate diverse identities into their syllabi, and a soft suggestion might be prudent on a university campus with an active Turning Point USA chapter and that continues its struggle with desegregation; there are real fears among instructors at UA that flagging a course as progressive risks alienating conservative students and thus foreclosing any chance of reaching those students. (I have less and less patience with these fears, in myself and in others.) However, “diversity” of “subject matter” sounds dangerously close to “diversity of opinion,” an innocuous sounding concept that has become in recent years a far-right dog whistle for the protection of anti-diverse hate speech (RationalWiki.Org entry on “Social Justice War,” “Real Diversity” section; I need stronger citations on this trend, but my research is coming up short this morning. Please advise!)

In any case, these recommendations do not explicitly encourage diversity in terms of race, sex, class, ability, or religion. One might blame the Norton Anthology for this lacuna: in practice, the Norton has long been the benchmark anthology at UA, a standard reinforced by the new and used textbook markets. As is clear from Greenblatt’s introduction to the 10th edition, the Norton has done a lot of work in recent years to include more women in its selections. It has not done as good of a job in other areas of diversity. But between the Norton and departmental course recommendations, which is the cart and which the horse? In any case, I have zero power to change what does or does not get included in the Norton. Thanks to the difference between “requirements” and “recommendations,” however, I have a lot of power over what gets included in my courses, and I aim to use it.

It seems I have more to say on this subject than I realized, so I’m going to post more frequently, lest I run out of summer before I’ve finalized my syllabus. Tomorrow I’m going to lay out my own ground rules for syllabus construction, and on Wednesday I’ll begin assembling texts period by period. Thanks again for reading!


Old RollTide Requirements: Teaching English Lit I at The University of Alabama

As I promised earlier this week, today I’d like to talk about the old requirements for teaching English Literature I at The University of Alabama.

Morgan Hall, home of UA English
Morgan Hall, home of UA English

I taught my first English Literature I survey (EN 205) in Morgan Hall the fall of my first year as a Ph.D. student back in 2009. I had taught four sections of First-Year Writing the previous year (two per semester), and the UA Dept. of English offered a ton of support and guidance for those courses. For EN Lit I, I was only offered an earlier version of the following document:

OLD 200LevelGuidelines-Nov2012

Given the state of the profession, particularly the growing need for full-time teaching faculty, It’s telling that I never had the opportunity during my MA or Ph.D. to take a class on teaching the literature survey. For example, during 2018-19 at UA, English instructors (full-time and part-time) taught 467 courses for a total enrollment of 10,058. To my knowledge, this is the present state of English departments nation-wide: the majority of teaching is being done at the 100 and 200 level as part of general education requirements, and this teaching is done by instructors (and by graduate students, though they are not included in the above numbers). That’s a post for another time, however!

The UA Dept of English guidelines have recently (and thankfully) been revised, but I want to point out some highlights from the old document as a baseline for the majority of my experience teaching English Literature:

“Purpose: EN 205 is intended to present a historical overview of the British literary tradition from roughly its beginnings to the late eighteenth century.”

Systemically, the historical component of English Lit is ensconced pretty soundly. In the Core Curriculum, all UA College of Arts and Sciences students are required to take either six hours of Literature and three hours of History or six of History and three of literature: “Each student must complete a six-semester-hour sequence in either literature or history” (bulletpoint 4, bold in original). The “sequence” is supposed to be a historical one: English Literature I and II, for instance, or American History I and II. Thus, the Core Curriculum values the historical framing of literature surveys. In practice, this requirement is largely ignored for students, but the old syllabus requirements strongly reflect this historical bent.

[W]e ask that you comply with the minimal coverage requirements outlined below. Please note that the department expects “substantial” coverage of required authors and texts and that “substantial” should generally be construed as a week.”

Required authors rather reeks of the traditional canon. Here’s the required list for English Lit I:

Chaucer, one additional recommended text, Shakespeare (one play), 16th century lyrics, Donne, selections, Milton, selections (“Lycidas,” Paradise Lost, Areopagitica); Swift, selections, Pope, selections, S. Johnson, selections

For a fifteen week course (31 class days for a Tues/Thurs schedule), that’s nine weeks dominated by required authors. Aside from the mystery medieval week and the as-yet-anonymous 16th century lyrics, the list is comprised of seven white men. One might trouble the WASPiness of this list by pointing out the intersection of identities: Milton as disabled, Swift as Anglo-Irish, Pope as Catholic and disabled. However, these men’s long canonicity likely outweighs any claim to being minority voices.

The recommended list includes four women — Marie deFrance, Margery Kempe, Mary Wroth, and Aphra Behn — and zero writers of color. It’s a traditional set of guidelines, a difficult starting point for any teacher desiring a diversified syllabus.

But HUZZAH! those guidelines have been heavily revised. Here are the new recommendations:

British Literature Survey (EN 205, 206) Recommended Guidelines

On Monday, I’ll talk through these new guidelines at length!


Decolonizing MY Syllabus

It’s summer! Or rather, it’s four days until the summer solstice and about smack dab in the middle of the awkward, anxious pause between spring and fall semesters. For those outside of academia, the summer is often seen as a perk of teaching, a pure vacation from the stress of classes and students. As a way of introducing my summer project, allow me to debunk that notion.

Yes, it’s true, as a full-time instructor at the University of Alabama’s Dept. of English, I don’t have to show up to teach classes from about May 15th through August 15th. If I’m careful, I can do my grading and my syllabi preparation remotely and push those dates out a bit on either side. However, at least three things prevent those three months from being a vacation:

1) Burnout: There are very real differences between taking time off to read a good book for pleasure and taking time off to not worry about grading another 86,000 words of student writing. I teach four classes each semester (the standard workload for teaching faculty), and I get about five or six batches of grading like that each semester. This summer I also signed up to grade essays for a standardized test and it almost broke me.

2) The Academic Job Market: I started preparing my job materials and hunting for open jobs that begin in August 2019 back in August 2018. That work didn’t end for me until about a week ago, when I received a rejection from a position I’d had a campus interview for. I’ll start that work all over again in about two months (though really I’ve already started revising my materials). 2019-2020 will be my eighth year on the job market. My situation is more and more the norm for academics.

3) Course Prep: Any meaningful, sustained revision or reinvention of the eight courses I teach each year has to occur during the summer. The pace of each semester only allows for tiny course corrections, and should I want to try a new course arc or to begin to remedy a systemic flaw in a survey class, that work takes time, thought, and energy that I don’t have to give to it the other nine months of the year. (Or perhaps ten. May is for Burnout.)

Which brings me to this post and to this project: between now and August 15th, I need to break the syllabus of my core survey class apart with a hammer and rebuild it from the ground up. That course is English Literature I, a survey that purports to cover all of English literature from about 800 to 1800 C.E. This is the course that props up notions of English literature’s exceptionalism — Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton — and, more importantly, undergirds claims to English national and imperial exceptionalism, claims that in turn have nourished American exceptionalism. In particular, American far right nationalism–the newest brand of white supremacy–relies in part on the way our European and English past has been archived and taught.

Yvette DeChavez, "Decolonize Your Syllabus"
Yvette DeChavez, “Decolonize Your Syllabus”

Smarter and harder working people than I are already tackling this systemic problem. Some highlights: Yvette DeChavez has been campaigning on social media for the better part of a year now for teachers to decolonize their syllabi, cracking the foundations of white supremacy and colonialism “to teach resistance, one book at a time.” The Remixing the Humanities podcast interviewed DeChavez earlier this year as part of their “Remixing Teaching” series. At the 2019 Shakespeare Association of America conference in Washington, D.C., Holly E. Dugan, Dorothy Kim, and Reginald Alfred Wilburn led a workshop on “Teaching the Premodern in a Time of White Supremacy.” I had the privilege of listening in on their workshop discussion, one my colleague Austin Whitver participated in and has since written about for the Teaching Hub at UA.

I have only begun to absorb this conversation and to reimagine my own teaching, but two common refrains from DeChavez and from the SAA workshop have already stuck with me, refrains one can hear in DeChavez’s call to “Decolonize Your Syllabus”:

1) The work of resisting racism and colonialism isn’t new, and such work has been disproportionately imposed upon underrepresented faculty members.

And 2) The work has to be renewed for every syllabus and every course.

While there are excellent examples of decolonized and diversified syllabi out there (many were passed around and discussed at SAA), that work doesn’t replace the individual work each teacher must do to diversify their own courses. Decolonization has to be performed over and over, both because it is ongoing resistance and because that resistance is particular to each institution, each teacher, each semester, and each group of students.

So, on this blog and in this summer, that’s the work I hope to begin to do: to Decolonize MY Syllabus. Let me be clear that I’m documenting this work on my blog not because I hope I can be an example to others. (If you want good examples, scroll up and follow the links.) Instead, I want to make my pedagogy public so that I will be held accountable by others, to be rigorous and to be thoughtful. Anyone who reads these posts is invited to engage with me, to make suggestions, to challenge my preconceptions, and to question my methods. You can reach me at nrhelms at and @nrhelms on Twitter.

Later this week I hope to post about the givens of teaching at the University of Alabama, including the core curriculum and the survey guidelines for the Department of English. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!



To knit the knot: embodied mind in John Donne’s “The Ecstasy”

My essay on cognition and John Donne is available now from The Seventeenth Century: “To knit the knot: embodied mind in John Donne’s ‘The Ecstasy.'”

If you’re interested in reading my work, I’ve got a limited number of free eprints I can distribute. Email me and I’ll send you the link (

Here’s the abstract:

For John Donne’s “The Ecstasy”, cognitive ecology offers a new approach to the divide between Platonism and Aristotelianism in the poem, presenting a continuum between body and soul rather than an opposition or equivalence. In this essay, I argue that Donne charts a continuum of body and soul through a chain of metaphors, knitting together an ecstasy that is both outside and beside the self. One can neither conceive of nor experience such an ecstasy without employing embodied metaphors, metaphors that enable the conceptual movement within the poem. Strictly speaking, souls cannot move, speak, mix, or descend: all these actions are embodied concepts that use human motor-schema to map out abstract notions. The soul’s movement occurs in a conceptual space carved out through this chaotic change and exchange of embodied metaphors. This movement of the soul through the body, via the body, knits the “knot, which makes us man”.

Cry Havoc!

If you get a spare 30 minutes (during a drive or run, perhaps), listen to the most recent Folger Shakespeare Library podcast:

Stephan Wolfert’s work with veterans and Shakespeare is worth talking about for many reasons, but one stands out as relevant to my own work on Shakespeare and mindreading. Wolfert notes that in decades of work with Shakespeare’s plays, he’s never heard a veteran question why Othello would believe the things Iago says about Desdemona. Iago and Othello served together in combat, and for former soldiers that bond serves as the ultimate foundation for trust. Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio are in a very similar situation (if we can assume they all fought together before the start of Much Ado). So much language in the play talks about the transition from war to home life! I’ll have to keep military service in mind as I continue to work through misread minds in Shakespeare..