Sunday, May 20, 2012

“Around the World in 30 Days" --In which I quote George R. R. Martin for my spring 2012 intro to lit syllabus

Description of the course theme in the overview:

“Around the World in 30 Days,” the theme of this course, focuses on texts from all over the world. However, rather than an in-depth cultural studies treatment, we will approach these texts as travelers hoping to gain a little more knowledge of the world through the lives of others. Jojen Reed in George R. R. Martin’s novel A Dance with Dragons says, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.” This course will examine how the literature of various countries can help us not only to visit places of the world vicariously, but also to make sense of reality. Therefore, instead of simply holiday travelling, world literature may help us to better understand our own lives through the lives of others—fictional or not. ...

This introduction to literature course theme is one which I do believe succeeded (although I have not seen official student evaluations, yet). Focusing on world literature in a general education course in the way described above was the most productive method I have discovered. I think it worked for several reasons:

1. I updated the novel (for the novel unit, since the course is designed around the categories of short stories, drama, poetry, and the novel in fairly equal units) to a much more contemporary one dealing with current world events--Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. I find this novel to be the more subtle, better written of Hosseini's bestsellers. (The issue of teaching popular literature or literature perceived to belong to a certain age category was a fight in and of itself--but, again, I think this issue warrants its own post at some point, and I will be sure to address the disagreement on teaching The Hobbit, as well.) Despite Hosseini's popularity, marketability, and mass readability, his novel still contains some very heavy issues which allows even a primarily freshman class to work through intricate issues. Secondarily, the students also saw another view of the situation (present and historical) in Afghanistan. In private reflections on the effects of the novel, many students expressed a much better understanding of the Afghan people--even if the novel was written by an American.

Similarly, I added fairly contemporary short stories and poems from a diverse range of authors, which represented as many different topics as nationalities. I did go back to the Restoration for the drama unit in assigning Moliere's Tartuffe, but as a ridiculous, rhyming comedy (I only use Richard Wilbur's translation), the students warmed up to it.

The reading selections ranged right around the difficulty threshold to various degrees, providing enough material to keep the less-interested students included in the course while making sure each student was still challenged at some point.

2. All students could find relevance in this theme and the texts it occasioned. One area was for students learning more about other areas and peoples of the world (often in that vicarious way mentioned in Martin's novel by seemingly experiencing situations through the characters viewpoints the students read), the other was for international students who could relate to characters feeling displacement or learning to adapt. Consequently, many of my students were introduced to literature they could actually admit enjoying as well as thinking critically about.

3. The course also lent itself to outside research which the students completed for short "background" presentations to the class, in which they could delve into an aspect of cultural or contextual information of their choice for the reading assignment. This helped to make the sections I taught which both consisted of completely non-majors more perceptively interdisciplinary since students could stay within their own interest/career areas for their presentations.

4. The theme very directly focused on the larger issues of humanity addressed by literature classes. One aspect we consistently addressed was the nature of people across time, space, and cultures. The final exam essay question was answered in ways that showed nearly all of the students capable of making this broader connection to the world and their own lives that the syllabus's course overview originally set out for them.

5. Perhaps most importantly, this theme made students question. Of their own accord, they began wondering about things--ethics, morality, people, politics, power... I may have prepared them for this (I do not quite want to use the word "groomed," although it may actually be appropriate) by assigning one online discussion board question and one response to another student's question for each reading assignment to be completed before coming to class, but if that assignment was the origin, the thoughts still came from the students.

6. I, personally, was able to bring in many alternate art forms displaying similar themes, subjects, or styles to supplement discussion and student comprehension of the texts. For the drama unit, I showed corresponding production photos to the scenes we were reading in Tartuffe. Since Bethany (hats off to my undergrad theatre department) produced the play in period costume (if exaggerated for comedy's sake), my students had a chance to enter more visually into Moliere's otherwise quite foreign world. (I even introduced the play by having my students view Bethany's opening "puppet dance" scene to whet their interests.) Of course, I also made them test out the action of the play themselves by turning the remaining student audience into directors for their peer acting volunteers for a few key scenes. Paintings and music are the obvious choices to add to the poetry unit, but these, too, offered other more nuanced interpretations of the poems while simultaneously creating access points with which to begin poetry analysis.

Of course, the chemistry of the grouping of students, later time of the classes, and my better preparation and experience for teaching literature also most definitely factored into the success of this year's course over last year's. Yet, this experience also led me to try this theme instead of sticking with the first, which still gained a lot more student enthusiasm and support.

I do greatly hope that I will get the opportunity to develop these ideas through experience (just as my students could develop their ideas and understanding of the world vicariously through the course readings) again instead of only theoretically...

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