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Teaching non-majors

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As a full-time graduate student and part-time instructor, I typically teach lower-division survey courses with nebulous titles like "Masterpieces of British Literature" and "Introduction to Women's Literature."  My sections are populated by students with majors such as psychology, integrated physiology, molecular and cellular developmental biology, etc.  Since the majority of my students will never take another English course, I feel a great deal of pressure to inspire them with a lasting passion for poetry, drama, and novels--or, perhaps more realistically in the Hippocratic spirit of first do no harm, to make it so that they don't hate Shakespeare or Austen or Tennyson.  Accomplishing these worthy objectives requires me to play a variety of roles in the classroom.  At times I am a salesman.  I need to convince them that their precious time would be better served by struggling through Hamlet than watching "The Jersey Shore"--though ideally one would be able to do both.  Several recent Business Management books have emphasized the superiority of internal motivation over external motivation.  I think that it's incredibly valuable to tell students why I think that the work is important--why I put this work on the syllabus rather than something else.  Whether those reasons call attentions to the work's aesthetic, technical, innovative, or controversial elements, even the most skeptical non-majors will give the work a fair hearing.

At other times I am a tour guide.  From Samuel Johnson's trademark antithesis to Austen's irony to Byron's digressions, I have found that many students enjoy discovering the distinctive stylistic features of the various texts and authors that we encounter.  This can also serve as a great launching point for more creative class activities in the spirit of what Rob Pope calls "textual interventions."  I have asked students to adopt the narrator's voice from Northanger Abbey by writing a paragraph that introduces themselves.  Hearing a few of these read aloud while discussing the recurring features allows us to move to examining Austen's famous character introductions.  Although some traditionalists may dismiss these sort of exercises as frivolous time wasters, I would argue that the interpretive skills needed to produce a parody or to mimic another's style reveals a deep level of engagement and understanding.

Teaching non-majors also requires the skills of a translator.  Even the most basic tools of our discipline--like "close reading," for example--can seem rather alien to the non-major.  Like my previous example, I find that the most learning occurs when a student is asked to perform a task without being fully aware of all of the implications of the skill that is being practiced.  In the case of close reading, I have tried to get the students to do close reading without realizing that that's what they're doing.  Call it a bottom-up rather than top-down approach.  Beginning with a more familiar context--the #1 selling song on iTunes, which for the Fall semester was Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream"--allows the students to jump right into the activity without having to address the impediments that come with 200+ year-old texts.  I had typed up the lyrics and asked the students to circle everything they felt was "poetic" about the song.  People had circled examples of metaphor, synecdoche, alliteration, anaphora and were performing "readings" of the song that could be called psychoanalytic, ideological, new historical, and structuralist.  As they realized that whatever it was that they were doing was some form of "close reading," it was much easier to then apply those same practices to an unfamiliar context, in this case Shakespeare's sonnets.  I feel that the movement from the familiar to the unfamiliar provides an excellent way to organize class discussion, writing assignments, journal topics, and other key aspects of the non-major English class.

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Why Teach Romanticism? Reflections on Course Objectives

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Diedre, Eric and Crystal have all given compelling reasons for a contemporary "in" to Romantic literature. Diedre's stunning example of a student connecting "The Negro's Complaint" to poets in Singapore was complemented by her admission that she is "(still) a historicist critic." Crystal's argument that we should not let contemporary texts replace the focus of the course on "primary sources themselves," is an important rejoinder to keep historicism at the core of what teachers of the Romantic period do.

How do we, though, justify a Romantics course when we aren't primarily teaching survey or period courses? Is there, in other words, a purpose to teaching Romanticism that isn't contained within a historical survey?

Here's my reasoning.

At Georgia Tech, we are tasked to teach topical courses as what our program director calls a "vehicle" for introducing multimodal composition. We don't just teach writing at Georgia Tech, we also teach other modalities: oral, visual, electronic and non-verbal. Part of my interest in collaboration is the way that social media applications can provide exciting challenges to the traditional image of the English student isolated at a desk, reading poems and writing alone. I am convinced that teaching multimodality can open up new ways of approaching Romantic texts that are collaborative and creative.

As I prepare my Spring sections of "Blake 2.0: William Blake and Digital Culture," I am struck by the different projects that Blake helps to inspire in Twentieth-Century culture both within and without digital culture. In the collection I edited for the journal ImageTexT on "William Blake and Visual Culture," I found a comic artist named Joel Priddy who wanted to create a short comic on both the visionary travels of William and the relative sense of isolation Catherine felt during his reveries. He called his short "Mr. Blakes Company."

Similarly, the do it yourself (DIY) magazine Make recently published an article where Gareth Branwyn researched Joseph Viscomi's work to conduct a series of "Relief-Etching Experiments" designed to allow people to make prints using a close approximation of Blake's method. I find each project refreshing alternatives to the standard academic essay. Furthermore, I feel that each provides innovative ways to discuss the conjunction of participatory culture and collaboration, and the individualism embodied in both the myth of the Romantic genius and the DIY movement.

But I also feel that, should I engage in projects like these, I need to conceptualize the purpose of such projects. Do I really feel that the technical projects offered by Branwyn and Viscomi get me closer to Blake's technique and, thus, to Romantic-era printing? And if so, to what end? I'm not a commercial printer or a graphic designer. Do I have my students read Priddy's comic to get a better sense of how comic artists envision his domestic life? Why?

Obviously, I have many questions here. I do feel that the organization of my department, and its emphasis on creating multimodal forms of response to literary texts provides new opportunities for understanding just what we do when we teach Romanticism. I also like my students to feel that they are not simply critically analyzing a work, but that they are also actively engaging in a constructive response to the work. On some level, I like my students to get the sense that Romantic authors can give a set of practical guidelines for students' own work. At the same time, I'm not an MFA teacher.

I feel that Blake, along with many other artists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, can provide an interesting case for a practical or a pragmatic pedagogy for the Romantic period. In my pragmatic model, the history of the period is only one part of Romantic education. Another part is finding a way to understand the reason why Blake inspires creative responses, and to engage in such responses in a thoughtful and critical way. I want my students to do something with William Blake, or other Romantic visual and literary artists.

Despite my attempt at a definition, I don't really have my pedagogy fully worked out. I would welcome any suggestions for improvement, either by making my project more historical or by making my project more "practical."

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Why Teach Romanticism? Reflections on Course Objectives

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Diedre, Eric and Crystal have all given compelling reasons for a contemporary "in" to Romantic literature. Diedre's stunning example of a student connecting "The Negro's Complaint" to poets in Singapore was complemented by her admission that she is "(still) a historicist critic." Crystal's argument that we should not let contemporary texts replace the focus of the course on "primary sources themselves," is an important rejoinder to keep historicism at the core of what teachers of the Romantic period do.

How do we, though, justify a Romantics course when we aren't primarily teaching survey or period courses? Is there, in other words, a purpose to teaching Romanticism that isn't contained within a historical survey?

Here's my reasoning.

At Georgia Tech, we are tasked to teach topical courses as what our program director calls a "vehicle" for introducing multimodal composition. We don't just teach writing at Georgia Tech, we also teach other modalities: oral, visual, electronic and non-verbal. Part of my interest in collaboration is the way that social media applications can provide exciting challenges to the traditional image of the English student isolated at a desk, reading poems and writing alone. I am convinced that teaching multimodality can open up new ways of approaching Romantic texts that are collaborative and creative.

As I prepare my Spring sections of "Blake 2.0: William Blake and Digital Culture," I am struck by the different projects that Blake helps to inspire in Twentieth-Century culture both within and without digital culture. In the collection I edited for the journal ImageTexT on "William Blake and Visual Culture," I found a comic artist named Joel Priddy who wanted to create a short comic on both the visionary travels of William and the relative sense of isolation Catherine felt during his reveries. He called his short "Mr. Blakes Company."

Similarly, the do it yourself (DIY) magazine Make recently published an article where Gareth Branwyn researched Joseph Viscomi's work to conduct a series of "Relief-Etching Experiments" designed to allow people to make prints using a close approximation of Blake's method. I find each project refreshing alternatives to the standard academic essay. Furthermore, I feel that each provides innovative ways to discuss the conjunction of participatory culture and collaboration, and the individualism embodied in both the myth of the Romantic genius and the DIY movement.

But I also feel that, should I engage in projects like these, I need to conceptualize the purpose of such projects. Do I really feel that the technical projects offered by Branwyn and Viscomi get me closer to Blake's technique and, thus, to Romantic-era printing? And if so, to what end? I'm not a commercial printer or a graphic designer. Do I have my students read Priddy's comic to get a better sense of how comic artists envision his domestic life? Why?

Obviously, I have many questions here. I do feel that the organization of my department, and its emphasis on creating multimodal forms of response to literary texts provides new opportunities for understanding just what we do when we teach Romanticism. I also like my students to feel that they are not simply critically analyzing a work, but that they are also actively engaging in a constructive response to the work. On some level, I like my students to get the sense that Romantic authors can give a set of practical guidelines for students' own work. At the same time, I'm not an MFA teacher.

I feel that Blake, along with many other artists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, can provide an interesting case for a practical or a pragmatic pedagogy for the Romantic period. In my pragmatic model, the history of the period is only one part of Romantic education. Another part is finding a way to understand the reason why Blake inspires creative responses, and to engage in such responses in a thoughtful and critical way. I want my students to do something with William Blake, or other Romantic visual and literary artists.

Despite my attempt at a definition, I don't really have my pedagogy fully worked out. I would welcome any suggestions for improvement, either by making my project more historical or by making my project more "practical."

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More Contemporary Connections (Keats and Contemporary Poetry)

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Deidre’s great post on “contemporaneity” sets things up nicely for me to introduce the class I’m teaching this semester, a new grad seminar on “Keats and Contemporary [as in contemporary to us] Poetry.” In my department, we have an excellent creative writing MFA program alongside our MA programs in Literature and in the Teaching of Writing and Literature (we don’t have a doctoral program in literature). I designed this course in part to get a mix of poetry MFA students and MA students into my seminar—I’ll confess that I even focus-grouped the topic with the creative writing faculty to find out what would most attract practicing poets to the course (for what it’s worth, the word was that Keats, Blake and Wordsworth would be the likeliest draws). I’ve loved it in the past when MFA students have shown up in my grad seminars—they’re amazingly perceptive readers and they help shape the conversation in provocative ways—but it's been hard sometimes to get the MA and the MFA students into classes together, as the MFA students tend to fill up their schedules with courses taught by the creative writers. This seminar starts out from the observation that contemporary poets turn with perhaps surprising frequency back to Romantic poets, and perhaps in special ways (not more or less but maybe different) to Keats (territory explored by Jeffrey Robinson in his wonderful book, and a point recently exemplified by Stanley Plumly’s “personal biography” of Keats, among many other instances). We’ve been spending the first half of the semester reading widely in Keats (the poetry and the letters), and we’re gradually moving on to consider modern and contemporary poetry that in some way addresses, reworks, reimagines, recalls or challenges “Keats” (the poet or the poems). So far, the course has been a real joy to teach.

It’s only recently struck me that in a way this seminar could be an answer to a question I was asked in a job interview when I was first on the market some years ago. This was a job (I didn’t get) at a very good and fairly arty liberal arts college, and the interviewer described the undergraduates there as quite interested in contemporary poetry but rather reluctant to try anything older. How, he wanted to know, would I get them into my Romanticism courses? My flustered answer at the time had to do with the on-going relevance of key Romantic concerns (e.g., modern ideas of selfhood, democracy, community, the ecological imagination—I forget which I talked about, but you get the drift) and the modernity of the Romantic movement as a self-consciously experimental avant-garde. After the interview, I began to suspect I had misread the question (are there really undergraduates adventurous enough to take in contemporary poetry but still skittish about Romanticism?); it dawned on me that I had been asked to justify Romanticism not to the undergraduates, but to the interviewer himself (who worked on contemporary literature). In my next interview, I tried a different tactic, and had ready a whole speech about the excitement of the historical moment in itself (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” etc.) that I delivered to nice effect when I got a different version of the “why teach Romanticism at all?” question. But what I realize now is that the interviewer’s question about Romanticism’s contemporary interest is one that contemporary poets, at least, do not in fact need to ask. For the most part, that is, their question is not whether they have a relationship to Romanticism—it goes without saying they do—but rather, just what the relation is.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I teach Keats and contemporary poetry to a group of bright, curious students, some of whom are themselves "contemporary poets" and some of whom have precious little experience with contemporary poetry. Over the semester, I’ll be posting reports on how all this going, including how we adjust to the varying expectations and expertise different groups of students bring to the course. For now, just a few observations on the difference it makes teaching Keats in this context— “Keats for poets” in more than one sense. If in my undergraduate Romanticism courses I do often try to sell Romantic poetry by using both the contemporary relevance and historical difference arguments I mentioned above, here, because these are grad students and because Romanticism and the contemporary is in fact the topic of the seminar, I’ve been holding back on the sales pitch to let the students themselves arrive at a position on Romanticism’s “contemporaneity.” So far, that’s been working well. We’ve had some great comparative discussions of poems, such as James Schuyler’s marvelous “Verge” paired with “To Autumn,” or Rachel Hadas’s “Sappho, Keats” paired with the “Nightingale” ode it riffs on. Both the MFA and MA students have been making telling connections not just between Keats’s poetry and contemporary poetics but also between Keats’s experience as a poet making a career for himself and that of the contemporary poets we’re studying. The poets in the class—who are very alive to matters of form, meter, and style—have also nudged the discussions in the direction of Keats’s technique and his habits of composition in rewarding ways. In this regard, the MFA students can be both much less reverential and, at the same time, much more awed by Keats than my undergraduate English majors: the MFA students have a “how did he do that?” response to Keats’s various fluencies that feels to me a lot like a young basketball player watching film of some NBA legend pulling off spectacular shots or incredible mid-air moves. And when we were talking about Keats and coterie production, both the MFA and the MA students had fun doing some timed sonnets on set subjects, though they reported it a very challenging exercise—and a couple of the sonnets I got from the MFA students were simply jaw-droppingly good: poems I thought I should be teaching rather than grading. If I can get permission I’ll try to post some here.

I'm wondering about the experiences of others who have taught courses stressing connections (and disjunctions) between Romanticism and contemporary writing—the ideas Roger, Crystal, and Deidre have already tossed out are intriguing. What’s worked and what hasn’t worked? If anyone’s taught a “Keats & Contemporary Poetry” course in particular, I’d love to compare notes!

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Rare Books in the Classroom

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In a couple of weeks I’m going to take a group of students from Deidre Lynch’s Romantic Poetry and Prose course to the E.J. Pratt Library to show them some rare material in the Library’s collection.  Pratt has a particularly strong Romanticism collection, including such gems as the holograph of Christabel, many of Coleridge’s notebooks, numerous Blake prints, and a diverse collection of color prints by George Baxter.  Indeed, there is so much interesting material that it is proving difficult for me to select what to show students.  Yet in considering what specific items I will show the class, a more fundamental issue has arisen.  In the end it may matter much more how I show them things rather than what I show them.

I think it is fair to say that the majority of students in the class have not worked with, handled, or even seen rare books and manuscripts, and I hope that their first experience will be an exciting and memorable one.  I realize that there is a danger of making a trip to the rare book library seem like a demonstration about neat curiosities rather than a scholarly exercise.  However, it would be silly to deny the fact that rare materials do have a certain “wow” factor.  I remember fondly my own first experience working with manuscripts while researching Lady Caroline Lamb’s correspondence.  Sitting in the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Office just north of London, I could not believe that the librarian gave me a box (an entire box!) of letters (her letters!) to read.  It was a good half hour before I could actually compose myself enough to do any real work.  I do not think my experience is unique, and one of the exciting things about our field is the chance to work with materials that sometimes take our breath away.

As Walter Benjamin’s work reminds us, certain objects, whether they are works of art, letters, or rare 200-year-old books, have a powerful aura.  It seems only sensible, then, to acknowledge to our students that, at a very basic level, a lot of the manuscripts, letters, and books that we study are not only of scholarly interest but are also downright cool.  Indeed, the curiosity so central to bibliophilic impulses has been the foundation of countless libraries and collections that are now valued for their scholarly import but were once privately collected.  I think that to downplay these aspects of research would be doing students a disservice.  Acknowledging the thrill of certain rare materials can be helpful in making both us as scholars and the material we study more accessible to students.

My own research is book historical in its approach and focus, so to me it seems self-evident that one may wish to consult the actual edition readers may have been reading.  Similarly, it seems obviously useful to trace a reader’s engagement with a book through his or her marginalia or to compare two different editions of the same work that were sold at different price points.  I think the key to making the library excursion interesting and valuable for my students will be to get them to infer the scholarly ways the materials I will show them could be used.  Rather than show them Coleridge’s marginal notes and tell them how and why I find them useful, it seems best to let them tell me.  A letter or a book is not a single purpose academic tool.  Like the modern edited texts of the Romantic works that we teach, there is more than one reading and more than one way of using primary resources.  Getting students interested in and engaging with rare materials through early exposure is the first step towards getting students to recognize them as valuable resources rather than simply cool old things.

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Contemporary Connections (Blake in the Guardian, Cowper in Singapore)

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I very much enjoyed the conversation about William Blake’s contemporaneity that Roger and Crystal commenced in the “comments” section that follows her posting “Wordsworth in a Math Bubble.” Further evidence supporting Crystal’s remarks on Blake’s power to inspire the present is offered in this rather charming series of interviews with contemporary musicians that the Guardian newspaper has put together to celebrate National Poetry Day in the U.K (today). (Yes, “Bard Reputation” is a terrible title. And I admit that “contemporary” is not quite the right word, given that the interviews include one with Neil Peart from Rush, who is even older than I am!) Anyhow, Blake, Coleridge, and Percy Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy all get a shout-out.

I think of myself (still) as a historicist critic, and I consistently bring that historicism into the classroom: in part as a context for reading Blake (he’s on all our minds right now!) and reading the Songs, my students have learned in the last week about late eighteenth-century chimney-sweeping, about the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, about the Sunday School movement, etc. But I agree strongly with what Crystal and Roger say about how contemporary writing can provide students with openings onto Romantic poetry, and it has seemed increasingly important to me to make time amidst the contextualization for that writing. I have been seeking to make room in particular for poetry from later eras, our own included. (I’m prompted by my sense that traditional English department curricula like my Department’s own sometimes seem to present poetry as though it were something that faded from the scene along with horse-drawn carriages.) In the past Marianne Moore (“Poetry”) has helped me introduce some of the Lyrical Ballads; Wallace Stevens (“Anecdote of the Jar”) has given them, or at least me, a way into “Mont Blanc,” and I am looking forward to seeing what happens a couple weeks from now when I bring in Robert Pinsky’s amazing, troubling “Last Robot Song” as a contemporary analogue to “The Eolian Harp.”

The contemporaneity of Romantic poetry has been on my mind, as well, thanks to a student in my survey class who last week educated me on how the issues that had been raised in our discussion of William Cowper’s abolitionist ballad “The Negro’s Complaint” are also at stake in (astonishingly) the poetry that poets in Singapore have written to protest the lot of the workers on Malay oil palm plantations. (She is just back from an exchange semester at the National University of Singapore--and she has promised me a reading list.) There’s something depressing about hearing this--hearing that the global idiom of feeling-at-a-distance developed in the age of Britain’s Second Empire retains its relevance. But also something exhilarating about the moments when our students make those connections.

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Teaching Collaboration around Romantic Individualism

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As a scholar and a teacher, I enjoy experimenting with both individual and collaborative projects. I tend to feel that the humanities are unique in their ambivalence about collaboration. On the one hand, the web is offering humanities scholars many opportunities for collaboration; on the other hand, I always find myself wondering how much a collaborative article, project, or book will "count" when it comes to hiring or tenure.

The topic is especially interesting for someone who teaches the Romantic period, since Romanticism is often associated with individualism. And yet, Romantic authors also expressed collectivist sentiments. As Beth Lau points out, even famously individualistic male Romantic writers struggled with individualism:

In a number of poems, Wordsworth describes his initial penchant for solitary nature worship giving way to love of other human beings. [...] Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the most powerful works ever written on the horrors of solitude and the problems inherent in overwheening individualism, and Shelley's Alastor is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of solopsism. John Keats increasingly wished to do 'some good in this world' instead of merely writing lush, escapist poetry. Even Byron, whose early poems featured such gloomy, misanthropic, solitary heroes as Childe Harold, the Giaour, and Manfred, ended his career with the comic satire Don Juan, which is very much concerned with people in society. (224)

I feel that a similar argument could be made about William Blake. While he frequently celebrated his individual vision and the originality of his work, Blake also stressed the importance of "self-annihilation," elaborating in his poem Milton that "We are not Individuals but States: Combinations of Individuals" (32.10; E131). And we must not forget the frequent, though often unmentioned, participation of Catherine Blake in the production of William Blake's illuminated books.

The problem with emphasizing collaboration and collectivity in Romantic courses is not only the historical association of Romanticism with individualism, but also the institutional makeup of the humanities. Most humanities courses still overwhelmingly favor individual success and failure. As David Parry recently noted on the blog AcademHack, collaborative projects are extremely difficult to assess but enormously important to teach. "I want to encourage and evaluate students for who they are," Parry explains, "but on the other hand I see as part of my job to teach students how to work in groups."

Parry's proposed solution to this delimma is to give each group the ability to fire one of their members. The rejected member is then required to complete the group assignment alone. While I feel that Parry's plan could work quite well for his course, I would like to move in a different direction that I feel is more conducive to the ambivalence many writers had with individualism during the Romantic period.

I'd like to use this blog to plan a course around digital culture and Romantic Individualism. My central focus in this course will be William Blake, since I am primarily interested in the artists and critics who have transmitted Blake's work from the Romantic period to the present and their impact on the image of Blake as an individualist writer. I would also like to use the course to experiment with collective subjectivities: in the content of the course, in the course's exploration of the William Blake's subjectivity, and in the makeup of the assignments and their assessment. Future posts will chart possible assignments, readings, ideas for discussion and class projects. I would also like to hear suggestions and criticisms from teachers, scholars, or anyone who visits this site. What are your thoughts about the usefulness of collaborative projects? Do you have any successes or failures to share?

Reference
Lau, Beth. "Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice." A Companion to Romanticism. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 219-26.

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Starting the semester and naming names

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How to begin?  According to scary statistics that are always quoted by my university’s Centre for Teaching, students are frighteningly quick to make up their minds about a course --and make their first impressions of the first quarter-hour of the first class bear heavy evidentiary weight.  That is not the only reason to steer clear of the defeatism that Arthur Lovejoy models in one passage in his "The Discriminations of Romanticism" essay (1924): "When a man [sic!] is asked, as I have had the honor of being asked, to discuss Romanticism, it is impossible to know what ideas or tendencies, he is to talk about, when they are supposed to have flourished, or in whom they are supposed to be chiefly exemplified."   Competing definitions of the “Romantic” are arcane material with which to begin the academic year, but doing a Lovejoy, so to speak, and throwing up our hands in despair isn’t an attractive option either.  So we have to say *something* about why (as in my case this past week) the course we are embarking on is entitled, e.g. “Romantic Poetry and Prose.”

It is embarrassing to admit this--but it took me years of teaching before I began remembering in my inaugural comments to take into account what it is that  "romantic" (in the lowercase) connotes in everyday contexts.  It turns out, I’ve learned, that it's generally worth saying outright in the opening class that, whereas Romantic poetry and prose might include love poetry and love stories (though it doesn’t very often), it is not limited to love poetry and love stories.  It’s also worth acknowledging how easy it is for this nomenclature for a literary period and/or movement to mislead (if not the students who’ve actually signed up for that class--no one in that group has ever actually admitted to me to ever having been misled-- then the “friends” or the “parents” who have taken an interest in their course selections). Even the Wikipedia entry on Romanticism doesn’t engage the relation between what is upper-case Romantic and what is lower-case romantic!  Still, I think that acknowledgment can provide a really great starting off point for a course.

One way to begin might be with this wonderfully suggestive comment by Elizabeth Fay, introducing an edition of Romantic Circles:  “Romantic poets, at least those of the canon, do not make love to women in their passionate pleas, but instead make love to nature and natural objects.”  (Fay was introducing here a collection of essays that, as subsequent events showed, managed to put passion back on the scholarly agenda of Romanticists.)  I’ve been taking a different tack lately and have often begun my Romantics courses by having the students think with me about how the Victorians’ retroactive identification of an earlier period as “Romantic” built upon the meanings that had previously been attached to “romance” in that prior era of romance revival.  Keats’s apostrophizing of romance as “Queen of far away” in the sonnet on reading King Lear speaks volumes as well as speaking for and to volumes--and I’ve often made this little phrase serve as a kind of notional epigraph for the semester.  Or there’s this fabulous moment from Wordsworth’s Prelude that I’m gearing up to discuss on Wednesday--introduced onto the syllabus as a bit of necessary leavening of our discussion of Burke, Paine, Wollstonecraft, and the Revolution Controversy:

                                                O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute took at once
The attraction of a Country in Romance

This is a long way of directing the scary question with which I began at YOU. How do other teachers of the romantic-period survey BEGIN?

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Starting the semester and naming names

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How to begin?  According to scary statistics that are always quoted by my university’s Centre for Teaching, students are frighteningly quick to make up their minds about a course --and make their first impressions of the first quarter-hour of the first class bear heavy evidentiary weight.  That is not the only reason to steer clear of the defeatism that Arthur Lovejoy models in one passage in his "The Discriminations of Romanticism" essay (1924): "When a man [sic!] is asked, as I have had the honor of being asked, to discuss Romanticism, it is impossible to know what ideas or tendencies, he is to talk about, when they are supposed to have flourished, or in whom they are supposed to be chiefly exemplified."   Competing definitions of the “Romantic” are arcane material with which to begin the academic year, but doing a Lovejoy, so to speak, and throwing up our hands in despair isn’t an attractive option either.  So we have to say *something* about why (as in my case this past week) the course we are embarking on is entitled, e.g. “Romantic Poetry and Prose.”

It is embarrassing to admit this--but it took me years of teaching before I began remembering in my inaugural comments to take into account what it is that  "romantic" (in the lowercase) connotes in everyday contexts.  It turns out, I’ve learned, that it's generally worth saying outright in the opening class that, whereas Romantic poetry and prose might include love poetry and love stories (though it doesn’t very often), it is not limited to love poetry and love stories.  It’s also worth acknowledging how easy it is for this nomenclature for a literary period and/or movement to mislead (if not the students who’ve actually signed up for that class--no one in that group has ever actually admitted to me to ever having been misled-- then the “friends” or the “parents” who have taken an interest in their course selections). Even the Wikipedia entry on Romanticism doesn’t engage the relation between what is upper-case Romantic and what is lower-case romantic!  Still, I think that acknowledgment can provide a really great starting off point for a course.

One way to begin might be with this wonderfully suggestive comment by Elizabeth Fay, introducing an edition of Romantic Circles:  “Romantic poets, at least those of the canon, do not make love to women in their passionate pleas, but instead make love to nature and natural objects.”  (Fay was introducing here a collection of essays that, as subsequent events showed, managed to put passion back on the scholarly agenda of Romanticists.)  I’ve been taking a different tack lately and have often begun my Romantics courses by having the students think with me about how the Victorians’ retroactive identification of an earlier period as “Romantic” built upon the meanings that had previously been attached to “romance” in that prior era of romance revival.  Keats’s apostrophizing of romance as “Queen of far away” in the sonnet on reading King Lear speaks volumes as well as speaking for and to volumes--and I’ve often made this little phrase serve as a kind of notional epigraph for the semester.  Or there’s this fabulous moment from Wordsworth’s Prelude that I’m gearing up to discuss on Wednesday--introduced onto the syllabus as a bit of necessary leavening of our discussion of Burke, Paine, Wollstonecraft, and the Revolution Controversy:

                                                O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute took at once
The attraction of a Country in Romance

This is a long way of directing the scary question with which I began at YOU. How do other teachers of the romantic-period survey BEGIN?

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Wordsworth in a Math Bubble

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This semester I’m teaching a course entitled, “Poetry, Art, and Science in the Age of Wonder” at Georgia Tech. At Tech, there’s no such thing as an English major, and so teaching a humanities course poses some unique challenges. How to make literature compelling for science and engineering majors is one of the questions I frequently ask myself when designing courses. Richard Holmes’s recent The Age of Wonder presented me with an excellent opportunity to combine my students’ interests with Romantic literature. So far this semester, we’ve been reading Holmes’s book and the experience has been, well, wonderful. The text has proven enticing for my students; it’s also a great example – as a notable and bestselling book – of the contemporary interest in and relevance of the Romantics.

One of the concerns I’ve had, however, is that the book is long and detailed, and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing Holmes but less time than I would like discussing Romantic poetry. I tried to rectify that this week by bringing to class a copy of William Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned.” I handed out the poem after we had discussed Holmes’s chapter on “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul.” This chapter, more than any of the others, considers why the Romantic poets have frequently been seen as anti-science. I felt that “The Tables Turned” would allow students to dig into those assumptions and see first-hand how complicated Wordsworth’s response to science was in the poem.

In discussion, students targeted the famous line, “We murder to dissect.” Students also started to ask questions, such as, “if the poem is so anti-science, why does Wordsworth use ‘we’ in that line? Shouldn't he say you?” Then students noticed the grouping of “science and art” in the last stanza, realizing quickly that much like science, poems also dissect objects of beauty for analysis in their own way. I was pleased with this discussion, but I also wanted to see how far we could take our analysis of the poem. I asked students to indulge in a creative thought experiment: if they could represent the poem as a work of visual art, any kind of work of art (a painting, a digital project, a comic book), how would they do so?

Students were quiet at first, but then they started to get excited. Really excited. I couldn’t keep up with the hands in the air. Lots of students proposed depicting a dreary lab with a window out on nature; others started to get more complex. One student said she imagined Wordsworth trapped in a bubble made out of math equations floating over a sublime landscape. As the students tossed ideas around about what the poem would look like, they engaged in compelling analyses of the poem: one student, for example, said he worried that representing the lab as dreary and nature as wonderful recreated a dichotomy between science and art that perhaps Wordsworth hadn’t quite meant to create; perhaps we could combine them by making the lab instruments double as natural objects. A tree could be a beaker, a leaf a sheet of lab notes.

All in all, it was a great discussion, and students got to get excited not only about the poem but about their creative capacity for analyzing and representing it. This kind of excitement is important in my course not least because throughout the semester, students are working in groups to develop technologically innovative online exhibitions of Romantic poetry, creating just the sorts of images they imagined in class this week. But I will save those details for another blog post. In the meantime, I’m wondering what other kinds of creative strategies folks have used to get students engaged in discussion, and I’m especially interested in considering the benefits (and perhaps also the drawbacks) of asking students to perform this kind of synaesthesiac experiment   – would this experiment be possible to try with music, for example?  Or film? Or other mediums?

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