Can I REALLY get a bunch of 18-year-olds to dig The Odyssey?
February 9, 2010 1:03 PM   Subscribe

I"m looking for good hints on teaching a literature survey course to (mostly) college freshmen. This will be my second year of this course, and I really need to make some changes from the way I approached it last year. Any hints from current/former teachers or students would be more than welcome!

The course is a 10-week survey (we have trimesters at this school) in which we are supposed to be covering from roughly Homer to TS Eliot. The main problem I had last year, I think, was that I was treating them like grad students and focusing too much on minutiae, unaware till roughly 4 weeks in that they were thus completely missing main themes. In addition, I'm a composition/rhetoric/persuasion theory junkie, and I had a really hard time making the switch from teaching that to teaching literary analysis and discussion. My specific questions, I suppose, would be:

*From the perspective of either a teacher or a student, what were some teaching styles/approaches that really, really worked for you? By this I mean, what got you or the students interested in something that has no immediate practical application? What got you or them to become skilled in understanding major themes, and applying them to your/their own life?
*How can I incorporate rhetoric/persuasion into a literature course? Does it translate well? I feel like this is kind of a dumb question, but for some reason I can't help compartmentalizing the two.
*What are some creative assignments that you've either designed or completed that will help with the two above goals?

I have a few weeks before this begins, so I have time to sort through and ponder all sorts of answers. It's also not that I personally do not understand literary criticism and analysis - I just don't feel all that confident with communicating it. FWIW, I already know a lot of the students I have, and they are so bright and motivated! I really don't want to let them down. Thanks so much!
posted by lucky25 to Education (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Come over here and post your question and they will take care of you.

Also, I applaud your attitude towards your students!
posted by LarryC at 1:14 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

My most successful intro into more advanced lit analysis was to distribute shorter creative and contemporary pieces, which most students will feel comfortable engaging with, and then to ask them to look for themes, literary techniques, etc. Follow this with a discussion. This will work best, probably, if you select a piece with themes or whatever that relate somehow to the larger project you want to discuss in the next session.

Another thing you can do, especially with some of these more canonical pieces, is to examine how some of the underlying concerns/ideas/etc. play out in other forms, in either classical or modern instances. You might also approach this from your rhetorical background, asking how Homer (or whoever) builds these themes into his story in ways that are engaging and persuasive, and compare those to other writers' attempts to convey the same or similar ideas.

The goal of both of these approaches is to make students realize that they have some literacy in these sorts of examinations even if they're unaware of it.
posted by dervish at 1:31 PM on February 9, 2010

A serious suggestion - start with the contemporary and work backwards chronologically - we do it that way in ENG LIT 101 at my university and it works, honestly.
posted by A189Nut at 3:07 PM on February 9, 2010 has resources for these exact topics. I presented the same kind of unit for a few years, we called it "From the Mediterranean to the Moon." Memail me if you would like copies of my resources.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:30 PM on February 9, 2010

LarryC is right that the Chronicle boards have a lot of good insight--also a lot of chaff, but you seem to have plenty of critical ability to sort it out.

Is this a lecture-only class? Lecture-plus-discussion? Discussion based?

I don't really get rhetoric/persuasion, but surely any text can be analyzed in terms of what it's trying to do with/to/for its readers, no? Obviously it's not the only question to ask, but...

One thing that I've found is that even if students need some basic help with interpretation, they can still really get interested in critical debates if presented a) dramatically, and b) with themselves (students) as the subjects. I was just teaching a 16c text by a woman writer today, and got a little nerdy about how much of the literature on her was focused on teaching her texts to undergrads; I did a little recap on the "recovery" of this writer and how an earlier focus on expanding the canon had grown into a revision of thinking about her genre. Not sure they got everything, but the idea that old texts are still shaped by present circumstances had an interesting resonance, I hope, with the way I was sitting there with pedagogy articles in my lap, and my students were the center of a debate on how to deal with the text.

Also, think about developing a habit of a lot of reading aloud in class--doesn't always work, but shared reading aloud sometimes brings the text alive for me.
posted by Mngo at 4:03 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you so much for all this stuff so far. In answer to Mngo, it is set up to be a mixture of the two. These sections are 2 hours long, so too much of one or the other leads to some serious pointlessness after awhile. Also, Dervish, I was thinking of that exact thing. Thanks for the confirmation and keep it coming!
posted by lucky25 at 4:19 PM on February 9, 2010

I'm not sure if this is too "young" for your students, or useful enough for you as a jumping-off point for ideas, but here's Shmoop's study guide to The Odyssey (complete with a "Why Should I Care?" section). (As I said, I'm not sure this is exactly what you're looking for, but I think the site does a good job of generating enthusiasm for its topics.)
posted by mothershock at 4:40 PM on February 9, 2010

My favorite literature class I've ever taken (African-American Lit) was structured as such:

First half of class, prof discusses what we read for homework, giving lots of historical context. Explains the author's background, and what was going on politically/socially during the time it was written. This obviously has a bigger place in a class like Af.American Lit. but I really enjoyed it and felt like it added a depth to the work that made it more interesting.

Five minute break.

Discussion. Prof would ask specific thematic questions that weren't exactly leading but still gave the class some idea of where to go. People would take turns discussing the themes and when someone said something that really hit a nail, the prof would jump in and ask another interesting question along that train of thought. He really gave us the benefit of the doubt that we could pick up on things on our own, given enough discussion and thought, despite the fact that few of us had a background in English or Literature.

Hope this helps. I've never been a teacher but I've been a student for longer than I care to admit.
posted by a.steele at 5:52 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

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