I posted briefly a few days ago about the Intro the the Major course I’m teaching, and then I sort of dropped the ball on continuing the conversation or talking about how the course I’m teaching is structured and why. Part of the reason that I didn’t is because I knew it would require a lengthy-ish post, since in order to explain how the course works it requires some background about how our major is structured. And, well, I’ve been really busy. But Wednesday mornings are fairly relaxed for me, and I actually want to reflect on this course and the major this morning, so here we go.
Before I can really post about the course, and about how it’s going so far, I need to post about the major itself so you can get why the course is the way it is. When I arrived in my department in 2003, discussions were underway about revamping our major to enter the 21st century. A committee had done a study of the current major, and we held two retreats about changing the major. And nothing happened. Well, or not nothing. A handful of piecemeal changes passed, from the renumbering of courses to the adding of requirements. Those changes were band-aids over a big bloody gaping wound, though. They made the major more complicated, and they weren’t at all transparent to students.
Now, you might ask why that was the situation in my department, and the best I can tell you is that it had to do with the make-up of the faculty, an overall level of institutional inertia, and a failure to really acknowledge disciplinary shifts that had occurred in the 25 or so years since the basic format of the major came into being. And it wasn’t like I could be a big mouth about how ridiculous it all was because I didn’t have tenure.
But so, five years passed, and I submitted my tenure package, and I was charged with chairing a committee to “revise the major.” Revise here is an interesting word, and I think it tells you about the level of will people had to change. I think “revision” to a lot of people sounds like small changes. But they put me in charge. And since they did, I chose to think about “revision” the way I tell my students to think about it: as a project of “re-seeing” and invention.
Anyway, I won’t go into all of the battles that I fought throughout that process, but the result was that we ended up with a new version of the major that got pushed through the curricular process last year. And that “new and improved” major is, I think, more transparent, more flexible for students, and more attuned to issues in our discipline today.
The basic structure is this: All majors take a lower-division core that includes 15 credit hours of required courses and a 3-hour lower-division elective. Only one course is required of all majors, an Introduction to the Discipline course. More on that in a bit. Students are then required to select 2 survey sequences (two options are the traditional surveys of British or American literature, but also our writing faculty developed a writing survey sequence to assure that the writing fields were not marginalized in the core of the major, and so yes, it is entirely possible that students could complete the English major without having had a survey of British literature, and no, I don’t think that the world will come to an end if that happens). The reason for the lower-division elective is that we wanted to make sure that every course a student might take with an ENG designator could potentially count toward the degree. (One of the bizarre facts of the old major was that certain courses that students often took before declaring counted for absolutely nothing toward the major. But also, this means that a student could take an additional survey course beyond the two required sequences and it could be used for major credit.) From this core, students then can choose one of three concentrations for their upper-level requirements: literature, writing (professional/rhetoric/composition), or creative writing. The requirements for each concentration were designed by faculty within each of those general areas (the idea being that the creative writing faculty knew what was best for creative writing, etc.), and then the department voted as a whole on what was put before them. (As you might expect, the only knock-down, drag-out conflicts were among lit faculty, because the old major privileged a group of them and they didn’t like the idea of that changing.) Each of the options also has 6 hours of upper-division elective credit, which means that even if a student does creative writing they can take an editing and a lit class and have both of those count; alternatively, a lit major can take technical writing and grammar and have those count. So although there are “concentrations” within the major, those options don’t lock students into a rigid curricular path – they can still take courses across the range of fields in “English” generally.
The Course that Introduces the Discipline
So: why have an “intro” course that is common to all majors, across options that diverge pretty widely from one another? I would say that the following reasons underwrote the will to have such a thing:
- Because we are primarily a commuter campus, it is often the case that our majors don’t really get to make friends with one another until they are very close to graduation. A core course would build community for our students, ideally before their final semester, and it would provide a context within which all majors think of themselves as English majors. (Note: we chose not to make the course a pre-req for other courses since students don’t typically declare English as a major until they’ve been through a few majors, and we didn’t want to discourage students from minoring or majoring in English because the only way in was through a gateway course.)
- We wanted to have a course responsible for giving students foundational instruction that would assist them in upper-level courses (how to do advanced research in the discipline, constructing arguments about literary texts, what to expect in a work-shopping situation, the foundations of rhetorical analysis, etc.).
- We wanted the course to give students a general overview of the various branches of our discipline, both to assist students in choosing their option within the major and, more specifically, the courses that they might take, and to assist students in understanding the connections between the skills that certain sorts of courses offer and future career paths.
- We wanted our students to be able to articulate an answer – to administrators, to people in the community, to family, to themselves – of the utility of choosing to major in English. (Even if their answer is “it is a major that teaches critical thinking skills” or “it is a major that teaches compassion and preserves our humanity,” I believe students should actually be able to explain what those things mean when somebody follows up with “what the hell are you talking about?”)
- Such a course offers a natural entry point for program assessment. (Ok, I’m probably the only person who cared about that, but whatever. I’m right that it does, and it was a big reason that I used what leverage I had to convince people that such a course was absolutely necessary and not just a nice idea.)
But so, given the structure of the major and the above reasoning, you can see that our intro course is a bit of a strange bird. It is not an introduction to literary studies, and as my colleagues and I came together to arrive at learning outcomes and to think about how to teach the course, we wanted to build in various checks and balances to assure that no one could turn the course into that (or into an introduction to rhetoric and composition, or an introduction to creative writing). The course is also not a theory survey: we already have one of those on the books, and our thinking was actually that it might improve students’ experience of that course if they had a clue what the broader issues and debates in the discipline were before they got into the nitty gritty of reading actual theory. Because you know what? Most students who choose to major in English do so because a) they enjoy reading or b) they enjoy writing or c) they enjoy reading and writing: they don’t know jack about “English” as a discipline, the discipline has nothing to do with their choice of major, and they are not immediately thrilled with the idea that we use theories to guide our reading and writing and interpretation because that gets in the way of the much more pleasurable activities of “losing oneself” in books or “expressing oneself” in writing or “appreciating” in one’s critical efforts.
With that being the case, I’m not teaching much literature in the course at all, nor is CF (a medievalist), who’s teaching another section. Both of us are doing a handful of poems (if that), maybe a short story, maybe a film, and a novel. That’s it. Other than that, we are teaching from the only book that does what we need it to do (which is not perfect, but as it’s the only option given our agenda for the course, it’s what we’re using for now) and using a supplementary readings and handouts (many provided by our colleagues in the various specializations with which we, as lit people, don’t have much contact).
Teaching the Course
And so, as you might imagine now that you know a bit more about what our course aims to do and about how it’s all set up, whatever my colleagues’ level of interest in this course in its inception, the course now seems like a huge amount of work and they have no interest in teaching it. Because here’s the thing: the course is uncomfortable to teach, or, well, to prepare to teach. It forces you out of your field of specialization and to consider branches of the discipline that you likely avoided for very good personal reasons. It forces you to think about the big picture of the discipline rather than to zero in on your own very narrow interests. It puts a lot of weight on your shoulders to paint a picture for students and to provide them with foundations, all the while keeping students engaged in material that has great potential to bore them to tears. And so my colleagues are wimps who don’t want to deal with all of that.
But the pleasures of this course, in just the second week of the semester, make me wonder at my wimpy colleagues. Because this is like the Best. Course. Ever. I absolutely adore it, and I adore my students, and I adore everything about introducing my students to the discipline of English (and “disciplining” them through that introduction).
On the one hand, the pleasures of this course are not unlike the pleasures of teaching first semester freshmen comp (which I also enjoy, even though there are some negatives). The students are excited and students at my institution respond well to a course that they think is going to teach them skills and foundational concepts that they need to succeed in the future. On the other, though, it is awesome in all of the ways that teaching comp is horrible: the students are naturally talented writers, they appreciate the “fun” of reading, writing, and thinking, and they seem positively tickled to be in a room with a bunch of other people who are like them.
We’ve spent the first two weeks thinking about the history of the discipline and the value of the humanities generally and of the discipline of English specifically. We’ve talked about the intersection of higher education with economic forces, the devaluation of humanistic inquiry in contemporary culture, the role of technology in shifting the sorts of communication and thinking that we do on a daily basis, what the heck “critical thinking” actually means, why defining a discipline and disciplinary coherence matter, and the sad repetition of the “what are you going to do with that?” question from the people in their lives. All of them have volunteered in class discussion; all of them are more into it than I possibly could have hoped that they would be, more into it as a whole than any group of students I’ve ever taught – and I’ve had some great classes in my day. It’s like… well, it’s like initiating them into a secret society, sort of – a society where everybody has read every single book in the Harry Potter series and has immediate recall of details that normal people ignore (as I learned yesterday, which was really the coolest thing ever). It’s a class where I get to assume a level of engagement that in all of my other classes I have to bust my ass to get. It’s a class where I feel like I’m doing really important work that might help students to see options that are better than going on to graduate school in a field where there are almost no jobs, where I can show them the whole range of possibilities of ideas our discipline allows one to have and skills our discipline allows us to learn and practice.
And aside from all of that, there is the added bonus that I have a captive audience each semester that I can encourage to enroll in my more specialized courses, which is a big deal with the flexibility of the major as it now stands. How things are going to play out as the major settles in will be that instructors who are highly visible, who teach those core courses that many of my colleagues shun and who really care about engaging with our students, are going to be the instructors who have no trouble getting their upper-level specialized courses to fill. Those who don’t do that are going to be shoved into teaching a load of all service courses, courses much worse than the intro to the major course or the other courses in the core of the major. The writing’s on the wall. It’s not a secret. So it’s bizarre to me that people, if only out of base self-interest, aren’t chomping at the bit to teach the one and only course that each and every major is required to take. I mean, it just seems like common sense to me.
But so anyway, I’m wicked excited about how teaching this course will unfold as the weeks of the semester go on.