I’ve seen an uptick in “survival-mode” tweets lately. How can we, as educators, as disabled people, as Americans, survive to Nov 3, to winter break, to 2021? And as a white man, how can I leverage my privilege to make survival possible for others, particularly for Queer, Trans, and BIPOC folks?
Today, one of my answers to these questions is “doing and celebrating the work with my students.” I’m linking out to my Twitter and to PSU’s The Ellen Reeder, where I’ve shared recent Essays and Unessays my students from my Rethinking Brit Lit and Global Lit classes have created. The photos, essays, poems, maps, and podcasts all grapple with oppression in some way, pushing back against the social structures that continue to oppose human survival in many ways.
My students’ work is one thing in 2020 that gives me hope for 2021. Many things, actually!
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.
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!