Emily Isaacson

Preparing the British Literature Survey: Or, There’s Never Enough Time

Blog Post created by Emily Isaacson Expert on Sep 14, 2015

This blog was originally posted on September 2, 2014.

 

Recently, I got into a conversation on Twitter with a number of other early modernists about survey courses, a discussion that stemmed from another English professor’s frustration with her anthology’s options for The Faerie Queene. While we discussed different anthology choices that we make for our surveys, we ultimately wound up in conversation about what we include in our British Literature surveys, and what we’re forced to leave out. Some of it simply has to do with what our anthologies give us; some of it has to do with our philosophy towards the course; and a lot of it has to do with the other options our departments provide for our students.

 

My friend with the initial complaint admitted that she tends not to teach much Chaucer in the survey, because she’s at an institution with a great course on Chaucer — and as an early modernist rather than a medievalist, she feels she can’t do The Canterbury Tales the justice it deserves. Instead she teaches other Middle English texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and sometimes excerpts of Piers Plowman.  Other people in the conversation admitted to leaving out The Faerie Queene altogether, giving them more time to focus on 17th century works. And others admitted — like most of us — that one of the eras covered by our surveys always gets short shrift. For many of us, it winds up being late 18th century work.

 

What I found most interesting was the conversation about how people chose the texts that they did, with many opting for relatively thematic courses (focusing, for example, on gender or the construction of the English national identity or on a particular literary pattern). Others — myself included — tend towards a more traditional style of survey course, which means trying to teach students a sense of literary history through the survey.

 

I’m in an odd position in that I teach both parts of the British Literature survey.  While different schools divide the course differently, I’ve generally taught in places that use 1798 as the dividing line — so I run into the problem of trying to teach everything pre-1798 in 15 weeks, then everything post-1798 in the next 15.  Oddly (or not) it’s really difficult to pick literature for both of them. Because of my department’s size, I’m also the only person currently in the department to teach all of the British Literature courses (we simply run a course called “Studies in British Literature,” which I will develop each time to cover a different era or topic; I’m also making my “Studies in the Novel” course a British novels course). So basically: I’m responsible for making sure my students have some sense of British Literature from Old English up to contemporary works.

 

This feels like a lot of pressure some days and my instinct is to look at lesser known writers, to focus on interesting issues of labor and gender through the time periods. But I also feel a responsibility to introduce my students to the traditionally canonical authors. I’m grateful that most anthologies include a wide variety of materials to work with — and I particularly like anthologies that include sections giving context, whether it’s the context of poetic traditions in the 16th century or the context of the laboring classes in the 19th century. Still it’s a tough balancing act, particularly given the span of time and the number of authors I always feel like we ought to be covering.

 

For me, I think that it boils down to the idea that these are called “surveys” rather than “studies in.” The purpose behind this really is to give the overview of how the literary landscape is shaped.  And the choices that I make are certainly informed by that.

 

But those choices — and my choice to include a lot of cultural context as well as less canonical authors — is also related to this idea of surveying everything. Alexander Pope (who I teach, most certainly) may have had major influence over the formation of the canon, but I cannot teach him without acknowledging — and having my students read — Mary Wortley Montagu’s work as well. They’re both part of the same landscape.

 

As I prepared my list of readings for my post-1798 class for the fall, I was reminded of how much I rely on poetry to get me through these courses. We can read multiple authors on these occasions, if the goal is primarily one of exposure to the names and the major movements.  It does lead to some weird mash-up days (we’re reading Derek Wolcott and Seamus Heaney on the same day), but it also allows for students to get a sense of the entire field. For additional coverage, I have students give presentations on texts we’re not reading in class, but which are represented in the textbook — and the explicit goal there is simply to have the exposure to the names.

 

Perhaps, most importantly, my course outcomes — beyond the sort of standard language about exposure to major figures of major movements — focus on the idea of students being able to articulate the relationship between the author, the text, and the world. I especially want them to do this through working on close reading and analysis.  And perhaps that is why, when it comes down to the moment of guilt about not including this author or that text, I am able to assuage some of my concern.  The real goal, then, is to teach students about the way we can read the work. Once they’re capable of that, they can go out and explore beyond our courses on their own.

Outcomes