This special issue explores the notion that many of the forms, ideas, and practices inaugurated or exemplified in the Romantic period continue to shape and drive our contemporary discourses. Literary critics, cultural and political theorists, and, indeed, our students continue to encounter new permutations—if not the continued presence—of something that might be called the romantic. But how is the (neo-)romantic expressed in contemporary culture? And how might we best prepare students to listen for and hear its repetitions? How might we teach the romantic alongside the contemporary without either reducing one to the other or eliding important historical, cultural, and social contexts? In response to these questions, the nine essays and three interviews that comprise this volume address the repetitions and reverberations of the romantic as it recurs across genre, period, and media boundaries in popular culture, contemporary political situations, changing classroom dynamics, and the constantly shifting domains of literary and pedagogical practice and production.
D.B. Ruderman and Rachel Feder
Ohio State University, Newark and the University of Denver
1. The impetus for this volume came from the 2013 NASSR/Romantic Circles New Course Development Prize, for which we were both finalists. Along with fellow finalists Sara Guyer and Samantha Harvey, we convened a panel to discuss our recent pedagogical experiments, moderated by Kate Singer, without whom this project would not have been possible. Throughout the ensuing conversation, one trend emerged: an interest in and focus on teaching the Romantic alongside the art, media, and social and political phenomena contemporary with our own lives and with our students’ lives.
2. At one point in the panel conversation, an attendee asked whether we taught the Romantic with the contemporary despite the potential anti-historicist implications of that move—in other words, did we teach in this way because it worked, or because it was engaging, despite the fact that we somehow knew better as literary historians? As committed historicist readers from a shared intellectual lineage, we countered that, in the classroom as in our research, sometimes one must think trans-historically in order to produce a historicist understanding. In our undergraduate classrooms, the juxtaposition of the Romantic and the contemporary reveals work from both historical periods in the contexts of popular culture, social shifts, and artistic experiments. Put another way, it is possible to wield the contemporary to peel back the cloak of canonicity that sometimes obscures Romantic literary experiments, all the while making students better readers—indeed, Romanticist readers—of their own literary, cultural, and historical moments.
3. Beyond its startling implications for our pedagogy, historicizing the neo-Romantic in our own culture has the potential to enrich our thinking as scholars attuned to the Romantic, to its repetitions, and to the ways in which it encodes its own repetitions. While the essays enclosed herein focus on pedagogical approaches, we thus also highlight the extent to which such teaching exercises are also thought experiments with the potential to open up news ways of thinking about the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts at the heart of our teaching.
4. Being so convinced we put out a call for papers. We also invited Marjorie Levinson, Forest Pyle, and Brian McGrath to be interviewed on the topic, and, wonderfully, they all agreed. Specifically, we asked contributors to write or talk about their day-to-day experiences of teaching the romantic with the contemporary, broadly—and diversely—conceived. Since we can only teach and write from within our own current situations, we each find ourselves enveloped in our lived contemporaneity, whether we like it or not. The question then is not how to close the gap between now and then, nor even how to keep from repeating the trauma of history, but rather, for us as it was for Shelley or Keats, how to situate these temporal gaps or “moments” so as to allow us to repeat differently, with more awareness and attention.
5. The writers of the following essays address this question from various creative, pedagogical, and theoretical perspectives. Each identifies and develops in the classroom some aspect of the Romantic—then and now—that reveals productive connections and disconnections, discrete moments, breaks, and continuities. For Daniel Block, whose essay begins our volume, reading our current war on terror through the lens of British Romanticism provides an opportunity for students to “tap into the affective registers of historical consciousness.” Block shows how working creatively with Romantic affect in the classroom can address issues of trauma at multiple levels at once. Sandra Dinter and Stefanie John follow with a meditation on teaching post-Romantic constructions of childhood in contemporary Irish and British fiction. Dinter and John reflect on their experience in teaching the class as well as on the disconnect between the role of British literature in inaugurating the image of the Romantic child and the vulnerable economic/social/political status of so many children living in the U.K. The course, originally taught at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, traces the afterlives of the Romantic child, specifically as refigured in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
6. Next we offer “Fundamental Tensions,” a recorded interview with Marjorie Levinson. Levinson shares her experience of teaching the Romantic with the contemporary as a way to renew our “critical purchase” on the literatures of the Romantic period. In a wide-ranging interview, in which she discusses Stevens, Spinoza, Sartre, and Althusser, Levinson traces the ways in which connected strands of Romantic and post-Romantic thinking continue to motivate and inform her teaching and research. D.B. Ruderman’s essay, “Repetitions of the Romantic,” follows. Ruderman recounts his experience of teaching Romanticism at a regional campus of a large research university in the Midwest. He shows how “working backward toward a structure of feeling,” that is, beginning with contemporary and resonant so-called post-Romantic genres and media (hip-hop, film, essays, etc.) allows for a revitalized understanding of canonical Romanticism. This revitalization is essential for Ruderman insofar as a) he refuses “sealed-off” iterations of the Romantic; and b) he believes that effective teaching in the humanities must involve sensitive attunement to the many micro-cultures of the classroom and its surround. Olivera Jokic’s “Pedagogy of the Depressed: Romanticism and the Long Revolution” takes up this challenge, triangulating optimism, depression, and revolution in a discussion of a class that asks students to bring Romantic works to bear on contemporary questions of political hope. Jokic situates this pedagogical project in the context of teaching “a constituency of mostly first-generation college students, children of the working poor and first-generation immigrants,” thereby asking broader questions regarding whether or how, while teaching Romantic literature, we should teach or temper optimism.
7. Next follows an interview with Brian McGrath, who talks with colleague Walt Hunter about teaching contemporary American experimental poets in his Romanticism classes. He does so, he says, in order to complicate students’ received and “easy” ideas about Romanticism: its expressivity, for example, or its focus on the individual subject. He also brings together Romantic and contemporary rhetorics and tropes in the classroom, comparing, for example, cloud computing and Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” From here, McGrath and Hunter, Romantic and contemporary poetry scholars respectively, trade insights on the deep and reciprocal relationship between contemporary and Romantic poetics. They arrive at an intimation of the Romantic as continuously revitalized and reactivated, especially through what they term the “ambition” of contemporary experimental poetry. Following this enlightening interview and broadening the context for understanding the Romantic literature classroom, Paul Keen’s “Against Utilitarianism: Two Hundred Years of ‘Useful Knowledge’” takes on the crisis in the humanities. Keen finds in Romantic-era defenses of and debates about the value of the arts important precedents for current conversations, and perspectives that might complicate our understanding of knowledge’s ability to “impact.” Taking another macro-context into consideration, Laura Haigwood’s “Romantic Continuities and Feminist Contemporaries” offers a thoughtful blueprint for introducing students to feminism’s roots in Romantic-era human rights discourse and demonstrates how careful discussion of texts such as Sense and Sensibility and The Victim of Prejudice alongside writing assignments ranging from personal reflections to feminist polemics, can help students understand the persistence of and tensions within feminist movements.
8. In our final interview, Forest “Tres” Pyle chats with Chet Lisiecki about the emergence of images in Romantic and post-Romantic texts. Pyle discusses using Patti Smith and John Coltrane in the classroom, not only as a way of evoking for the students an aural Kantian sublime, but also as a prelude to asking the students to find their own “constellations or connections” between Romantic-era and contemporary texts. It is clear from this expansive interview that Pyle’s erudition and curiosity inform his teaching and research equally, offering us all a model for an engaged and radical aesthetic.
9. The volume concludes with two pieces on praxis. Rachel Feder’s “Zonkey Romanticism” offers four theses on the effects of using creative writing exercises in courses on Romantic literature, and Stephanie Insley Hershinow’s “Romantic Selfhood and the Selfie: Relating to the Novel” offers a nuanced defense of “relatability” in the classroom. By way of example, Hershinow shows how a cultural analysis of YouTube reaction videos can “disrupt students’ assumptions about their emotional and psychological distance from Romantic-era fiction.”
10. It is our hope that the essays and interviews collected herein will provide food for thought regarding how we define the contours and potentials of the Romanticist classroom circa 2017—a question that has become even more pressing while this volume has been in production. Whether you come to this volume to theorize the pedagogical implications of including artifacts and phenomena from the current (or recent) historical moment(s) in your courses, or whether you come in search of a useful pedagogical tool, assignment, or idea to help you bring the Romantic to bear on a discussion of the contemporary, it is our hope that the work of our contributors will provide frameworks and strategies for thinking through your own Romantic literature classroom—a classroom that is, of course, always already contemporary.