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.

arnie-920x584
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conan_the_Barbarian_(1982_film)

 

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.

Constraints

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.

Goals

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.

https://teespring.com/archives-are-not-neutral-remix#pid=46&cid=2756&sid=front

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!

~nrhelms

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.

https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:x633f896s
https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:x633f896s

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!)

https://thespannreport.com/
https://thespannreport.com/

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!

~nrhelms

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:

http://gunshowcomic.com/comics/20130109.png
http://gunshowcomic.com/comics/20130109.png

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 ua.edu 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!

~nrhelms