Against Chronology

The survey course or anthology course is a staple of beginning literary studies. At many institutions, these courses are based on national canons and periods. However, I maintain the period/nation course is better suited to English majors, and general students need a completely different set-up.

When I taught my first literature course, I was a PhD student at the University of Houston. We had a few different options for how a student could fulfil their lit requirement. These were all 2000-level courses (meaning second year, or sophomore-level courses), and they were all genre based: Introduction to Fiction, Introduction to Drama, Introduction to Poetry, and the rare section of Literature and Film. Over the course of my time at UH, I taught all of those courses except Intro to Poetry.

Before I started teaching, though, I was resistant to this approach. I thought the genre-based approach was watered-down–that the real pedagogy would come in teaching on the period and nation model. I had been dream-building such courses even as an undergrad.

Of course, a lot of this was because those were the sorts of classes I had as an undergrad, so I didn’t see them as a manifestation of a pedagogical choice or even of an institutional value. I saw them as… class.

So for four years, I taught genre-based courses, and it is only in my third year at Houston Community College, that I got a chance to teach the period-based courses I had previously longed for.

I have to say–I’m not a fan.

Don’t get me wrong–I think the period/nation course has its place, I’m just not convinced that that place is with non-major students. The problem with the historically-themed literature course is that in many circumstances, it is necessarily a literature course and a history course. When this model is the norm for so many institutions of higher learning, it suggests to me (in my more cynical moods, at least) an institutional assumption that literary studies doesn’t have enough substance to fill a course on its own, but must also do the work of a “more real” discipline. Talking about human expression is frippery, unless you also remind people what Columbus did in 1492–then it’s teaching.1

Now, I have ever been a big believer in the liberal-arts model of education–the idea that all the disciplines connect eventually, and that it is to a student’s detriment to focus on one while cultivating ignorance in all the others. I believe these connections should be encouraged. However (and this may be the New Criticism I was raised with showing its head) being able to put literary observations in conversation with historical knowledge first requires the ability to make literary observations. And in the gen-ed English classroom, that framework isn’t always already there. Once it is there reliably, then we can look to adding in layers of historicism. But the fundamentals–including the confidence that the student can make claims instead of regurgitating truisms from the teacher’s edition–must be in place first.

It is needful, I believe, for English majors not only to have command of a broad range of analytical models, but that they also have a baseline familiarity with literary history. I think it’s incredibly useful for an English major to have a general idea of who was contemporaneous with whom and what world events were current when the literature we’re discussing was being produced, and the general progression of literary movements (indefinite though they are). And while I also see those things are useful for the gen-ed student, I don’t think they should be the priority. For the most part, people choose English as a major because they love reading, and have been avid readers for quite some time. They are a population pre-selected to take their hobby-reading to the next level.

But there is usually no such pre-selection among gen-ed students.

Please note that I’m not saying that these students are not suited to the work of literary studies. I only say they’re not used to it, having no experience with it for a variety of reasons:

  • Perhaps their high school English teachers were tyrants who found fault in the student’s every act, and consequently they’ve internalized the idea that they’re just “not good” at this.
  • Perhaps they were from homes in which there were no books, or (more commonly) raised in situations of such unremitting urgency that they never had the leisure to read.
  • Perhaps they were raised to believe that only one form of success was valid (athletic accomplishment, STEM-mastery, business acumen, etc.) and anything that approached artistic expression or humanistic inquiry was roundly discouraged as frivolous. (This is the Thomas Gradgrind approach in Hard Times, the first Dickens novel I loved. I have had many students who were either taught or raised by Gradgrinds.)
  • Perhaps the only books they’d ever been given (by family, by teachers, by whomever) were the “right” books–well-regarded tomes in antiquated language which gave the burgeoning reader no handholds. Yet they have been told that these works–Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, etc.–constitute the only “real” literature. So if they derive no enjoyment from these works, they reason that reading for pleasure will always be a “somebody else” thing.
  • They’ve been raised in an educational model where “reading class” and the “reading grade” were always about a mechanical aptitude, and there was no conversation about what that reading communicates, how it communicates, and why it might communicate things in that way. (This, I suspect, is what lies beneath a lot of the repeated cries that audiobooks aren’t real reading–even though the literature still communicates and still has its themes and problems, it doesn’t demand an exercise of the mechanical act so it cannot be of value.)

It’s a lot like the idea of “talent.” A lot of times, when we say that a young person has a talent for something, what we’re really indicating is that the young person enjoys that act–and so it isn’t drudgery as they make the awkward kludges and trials that are necessary to gain skill. Maybe the kid with a talent for music has a good ear, but maybe also they enjoy plunking out on the piano despite being terrible, and so they keep on plunking until they can plunk artistically. But even a budding musician without a preternatural ear can still be trained if they have a desire and the means of manifesting that desire are made accessible to them.

So it is with literary studies. The young voracious reader needs no extrinsic motivator to read–they were already going to be reading. And the more they read, the more they internalize the ideas of their reading, and put those ideas into conversation with other ideas and other readings. Also, as they continue to read, they tend to read a broader and broader selection of texts, gaining an ability to understand a greater variety of modes of communication. The youth who loves knights in shining armor will figure out how to make sense of Thomas Malory.2 The one who dreams of the frontier will somehow make it through James Fenimoore Cooper.3 This means when they get to college, they’re primed to read historical texts, and prepped to discuss the ideas in those texts. They have a level of expertise (albeit untrained) with literary understanding, and are ready to add other things (such as historicism) to it.

But the youth for whom reading has never been a pleasure–the youth for whom it has only ever been a chore or, perhaps worse, a frivolity–has no such practice. It’s not necessarily that they need to be taught how to think about literature as much as needing to learn that their thoughts and reactions are valid insights. Also, perhaps they do need to learn how to talk about literature and their literary thoughts.4

What does this look like in practice? In my fiction class, we start with basic ideas. Students usually already understand plot, which is to say they can summarize, so we start by breaking plot down into a useful anatomy. We might spend some time with Freytag’s Pyramid.

A sketch of Freytag's pyramid, a theoretical construction in which all plots are broken down into a predictable series of exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Yes, this mammajamma right here. I’ll give you a moment to unclench your teeth.

Most of my students will recognize it, not as Freytag’s Pyramid, but as “plot.” I teach it, not to lift it up as an omnipotent system, but to make sure people know this is Freytag’s Pyramid. Some dude came up with this. It can be a useful construct, but has its limitations, and can be abandoned when it no longer serves. Same thing with the elements from Aristotle’s Poetics (Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Music and Spectacle). They’re useful until they’re not, and although they have some cultural sway, they have their limitations (Where is setting? Where is temporality?) Each week or two, I’ll add another wrinkle, so by the end of the course, students have a basic anatomy of fiction and can discuss their findings more confidently, as well as know some new places to seek those findings.

Similarly, with drama, I’ll begin by teaching students how to read a play, which has complete different needs than any other form of writing. We’ll explore the elements, the impact of performance, the room for “play” when it comes to readerly choice, and so on.

That’s the work of an entire course. It’s the work of an entire career, but let’s start with the course. I want my students to enjoy literature. I want my students to be able to discuss it competently. I don’t want them to feel these things are out of their reach forever because they’re not good at decoding “secret meanings” that depend on authorial intent and historical moment. I don’t want them thinking that literature is forever “not for them” because they already have difficulty in history class, and don’t need the additional difficulty of history class junior.

  1. Not the genocide, of course. Only the sea voyage. Why would you think it’s acceptable to talk about the genocide? 
  2. (Me.) 
  3. (Not me.) 
  4. This is not just true of the gen-ed student, of course. Many a young English major has signed up from a love of reading and quickly found that they don’t know how to talk about a piece of literature, other than by rehearsing details of the plot. This is why when I taught my Intro to Fiction course, I subtitled it “Narrative beyond Plot,” and built it around equipping students with means for talking about what else is going on in a work. Sometimes this helped them with things they could already see but didn’t know how to talk about. Sometimes this helped them to see new things entirely. 

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