This post first appeared on March 24, 2015.
In preparation for our university’s re-accreditation process, my department has been reviewing the goals and objectives for our majors. One of the things that we want to make sure our literature majors understand is the distinction between the major eras of British and American literature. Our upper division courses are broadly defined — Students in British Literature, Studies in American Literature, Studies in the Novel, and so on — which allows us to break out of the periodization paradigm. However, we run four survey courses that all literature majors, and most writing majors, take: the standard issue Brit Lit before and after 1798, and American Lit before and after 1860.
Thus, our goal is for students at the freshman/sophomore levels to form an idea of what constitutes each major era of literature — in their junior and senior year, they may engage in a more intensive study of a single time period (I’ve taught early modern drama) or a study of a theme across time (in the fall, we’re exploring concepts of trauma and disability through an examination of monsters and monstrosity in British Literature).
But how to get students to remember the differences between the eras in order to help them gain a sense of literary history? At this point, my own understanding of literary history is intuitive — and sometimes I forget that it’s not as obvious to students why Tennyson is a Victorian or why Swift is clearly a product of the eighteenth century. I may lecture at the beginning of each new era on what the essential components and hallmarks are (and I’ve written previously about using fashion as a way into each era), but that doesn’t mean students are putting the pieces together as we read through the literature.
To deal with this, I tried something new when finishing up my last survey course. To help students review for the final exam and to help them get a sense of the shifts from Romanticism to Victorianism to Modernism/Postmodernism, I decided to have them work out analogies from pop culture to explain the differences. My example was from Friends: Phoebe is Romanticism, Monica is Victorianism, and Ross, with all his overwhelming anxieties about the world, is Modernism. And then I set students to the task of coming up with their own analogies and explanations of their choices.
When students shared their ideas, we had a range of things — Twilight, zombies, superheroes — that made sense to them, and looking over the comprehensive essays on their final exams, I think that the exercise helped students delineate the time periods. I plan to try this again in the fall with the pre-1798 course, and I’m looking forward to whatever weird analogies my students determine.