What are you teaching? (Alan Richardson)
Our thanks to Laura Mandell, who solicited this interesting response from Alan Richardson to the question, “What are you teaching?”
This semester I’m teaching an entirely new version of my course, “Romantic Writing.” I’ve offered various incarnations of this course over the past 15 years, with anything from 15 to 40 students involved. When the class size is small enough (under 25), I ask for a good deal of journal writing instead of exams, and writing back to the Romantic-era texts becomes part of the “writing” promised by the course title. More centrally, though, I wanted “writing” to displace traditional associations between Romanticism and poetry and (to a lesser extent) between Romanticism and the novel (roman). So, all versions of the course involve a fairly democratic treatment of many different kinds of Romantic-era writing, including borderline “literary” cases (e.g. private letters, journals, polemical writing) as well as poetry, fiction, familiar essays, and autobiography. We explore how different genres involve different stakes, positions, aims, but also how certain discursive strategies or moves can cut across genres, often in unexpected ways.
This semester I was asked to give the course as an undergrad seminar, limited to 15 students and meeting once a week for 2 hours. The weekly meeting format inspired me to think of the course in an entirely new way, as a set of loosely interlinked modules (13 weeks, 12 modules) organized by topic. The web of connections among the various topics has proliferated so much, however, that I’m tempted to withdraw the “loosely” qualifier from the previous sentence. The topics include slavery and abolition, the French Revolution and British reaction, the rights of woman and changing notions of femininity, Romantic and un- or anti-Romantic representations of childhood, changing modes of self-representation, Orientalism, the Americas, nationalism(s) and British identity, incest and the crisis of the family, new versions of pastoral, and two modules on “avant-garde poetics.” I added these two because I felt it important to stress the literary-cultural innovation of the times directly, “poetics” including iconoclastic discussions of the novel, of drama, and of women’s poetry as well as expected literary-critical documents like the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads and the Defence of Poetry. I found most everything I wanted in the Mellor/Matlak anthology British Literature 1780-1830, except in relation to Orientalism. There, however, I found just the texts I wanted (The Giaour and “Murad the Unlucky”) in a New Riverside volume, Three Oriental Tales, not surprisingly because I edited it myself! One of the pleasures of the course has involved taking more full advantage of Mellor/Matlak than I have in the past, drawing on the “Historical and Cultural Context” sections and referring students to these for additional reading.