My Survey of British Literature from 1800-Present Course
I just read their second papers for me. (Let’s note: not everybody who teaches surveys in my department actually assigns formal essays.) This second paper assignment involved them choosing a primary text from the syllabus from after midterm – so a text from 1900 onward – and they had to offer an interpretation of the text and they had to incorporate two journal article secondary sources to provide context for their claims. Now, we have no requirement for writing in these courses (which is something I want to change down the road, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I think they need reinforcement in between composition courses, the intro to the major course, and their upper-level courses) but I am a Mean Lady. I was so proud reading those essays, on two counts: 1) overall they did very, very well – better than on their first papers, which were less challenging and that counted for less in terms of the final grade, and 2) they wrote about so many things! and had so many amazing ideas!
People talk about how students refuse to do challenging work or how they aren’t willing to be independent critical thinkers. In a class of 23, I had papers on (in no particular order):
- Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”
- Wilfred Owen’s “Dolce Et Decorum Est”
- W.B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”
- T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
- James Joyce’s “Araby”
- D.H. Lawrence’s “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter”
- Virginia Woolf’s “A Mark on the Wall”
- W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”
- Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning”
- Stevie Smith’s “The Person from Porlock”
- Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”
- Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa”
Clearly, there was no “easy option” with that sort of representation of texts. They wrote about what they cared about! And they did some research and provided context for their claims! And I didn’t provide assigned topics, and there was no plagiarism (though, to be fair, there were some difficulties with citation, but no out and out moments of stealing other people’s ideas). I couldn’t be more proud of them, and I couldn’t, frankly, be more proud of myself for getting them there. Yes, I had a GREAT GROUP this semester. I can’t take credit for that. But I CAN and DO take credit for inspiring the work that they completed. And with just a handful of exceptions, they earned Cs or better. They rose to the occasion.
A Bullshit Department Story
This isn’t really a story. It’s really just an “issue.” See, we have problems right now (and a problem that frankly isn’t new and that I and others have brought up prior to this) with recruitment and retention of majors, and, going along with that, there is a contingent within the faculty who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are disenfranchised because their courses are not attracting students. I’m not going to get into the specifics, for what I think should be obvious reasons, but “people” (people) who are very disconnected and disengaged like to blame a lot of different things for the issues with enrollments (for that the issue really is, although there are various pretexts offered that seem disconnected from that on the surface)- from the chair, to other colleagues, to students, to the curriculum, to the institution overall. Hell, maybe it’s all about how the humanities are degraded in the current cultural conversation. All of this connects back to my Survey Says post.
How the Two Connect
Recruitment and retention of majors (and attracting non-majors to courses as well) depends not upon sacrificing rigor nor does it depend upon instituting more and more requirements – whether at the level of the course, as in Student Learning Outcomes (which let’s note, the Disgruntled in My World would not be encouraging), or at the level of curriculum, in terms of making requirements more stringent in terms of what students must complete (which The Disgruntled do seem to advocate). You know what it depends on? INVESTING. INNOVATING. INSPIRING. And also, less abstractly, advertising, advocating, and admitting that some of this shit might be our own (my own) goddamned responsibility.
So it’s finals week and I am buried beneath the grading. But you know what? My students are rising. And my courses for the fall don’t appear to be in danger of being under-enrolled. And maybe those two facts aren’t totally disconnected from one another.