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!