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?


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!


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!