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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1 Comment

Hi Scott, Your Katy Perry

Hi Scott,

Your Katy Perry assignment sounds like a great way to get non-majors interested in close reading. I've taught mostly non-majors a good part of my career as a teacher, and it isn't always easy to get them interested in literature let alone British Romanticism.

Towards the middle of your post, you said "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."

I wonder if you could give an example of a Romantic writer (say Austen). Why is it important to study Austen for non-majors? I think this is an important question because it strikes at the heart of why we, as instructors, believe Romanticism is worthy of being taught at a University.

Is it because Austen has the best example of irony? Could it be because she uniquely represents the perils of marriage during the Romantic period?

While the latter assertion might be compelling for majors who might be interested in historicizing literature and Romanticism, it might not be as compelling for non-majors who just need enough of an overview of literature to either satisfy a requirement or (ideally) cultivate a general appreciation of literary history.