Monday, June 15, 2015

Call for Papers : Teaching the Literature Surveys

Like many experienced teachers, I have come to believe that the more I attempt to cover in my classes, the less the students learn.  The impulse to cover lots of material in a course inevitably leads to me standing in front of the room and speaking as much as possible (and/or assigning tons of reading), robbing my students of the opportunity to pause and really engage with any one piece of the syllabus.  That impulse can be difficult to resist, but I've gotten better at it over the years.  These days I'm content to cover much less that I used to, but work much harder to ensure that students are actively engaged with the selected course material.

This basic philosophy, which I have observed in almost every experienced and successful teacher I have encountered, works fine in all of my classes except the literature survey, the one course in my department--and in most English departments--that explicitly privileges coverage over depth.  The literature survey requires instructors and students to range over a large field of material, and almost by definition encourages us to take brief and superficial views of the texts we include.  Its intentions are good: it aims to provide a literary and historical framework within which future majors or teachers, or students in general, can contextualize the literature they will read in their more focused upper-level courses.  It also aims to introduce students to the most widely read authors of the past, and that can have multiple benefits: giving them a broad liberal arts education, piquing their interest in writers or issues that might draw them into future reading study, or providing them with the recognition that literary and cultural forms (and our evaluation of those forms) evolve and transform over time. All good.

But we have increasing evidence from the learning sciences that students need repeated, active engagements with course material in order to learn it deeply.  However we attempt to cover all of the material that the survey demands we include, whether that means lectures or readings or some other model, we are working against the model of deep and sustained engagement that students need in order to focus their attention, process the readings deeply, and retain our course material.

From this dilemma emerges a new project, to be published by West Virginia University Press, designed to draw the attention of the discipline to the challenges we face in teaching literature survey courses, gather new ideas and approaches, and stimulate a conversation about lit survey courses and how we can teach them most effectively--and even, perhaps, whether we should teach them all.  This volume will be co-edited by James M. Lang, Gwynn Dujardin, and John Staunton, and will appear in the new Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series from WVUP.

Although we are open to any possible essays on this topic, we are especially interested in essays that explore the following topics: histories and theories of the literature survey courses; traditional and alternative models of design, what makes them work and what doesn't; specific in-class practices, assignments, and other practical approaches to survey pedagogy that authors have experimented with, both successes and failures; institutional challenges and opportunities to revising or re-thinking the surveys; avenues for opening up the survey through the digital humanities or through innovative pedagogies such as Reacting to the Past, service learning, or inquiry-based learning.

If you are interested in submitting an essay for the book, please e-mail a 1-2 page overview of your projected topic and a bio paragraph or CV to Gwynn Dujardin.  Inquiries will be accepted until November 1st; final manuscripts will be due April 1, 2016.  Please join the conversation and spread the word to colleagues who might be interested.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Proud Little Brother

I've never been much for ceremonies and rituals, academic or otherwise, but last week I had the pleasure of witnessing the inaugural lecture and university vote of thanks for my older brother Tony Lang at St. Andrews University, and what a treat it was.  Tony was promoted to the equivalent of full professor at St. Andrews this year, and as a part of that process he was invited to give a public lecture on his research, followed by a brief speech in which a colleague describes the importance of his research and his value to the university.

Tony created and directs the Centre for Global Constitutionalism at St. Andrews, and this has been the subject of his recent research.  His lecture was entitled "Is There a Global Constitution?"  The lecture began by noting a difference between a "constitution," or written document tied to a specific political entity, and "constitutionalism," which is more of a theoretical description of what constitutions should do: namely, they both allow people to exercise power through rules and laws that they create, but also ensure that people are limited by the institutions and laws they create.

Of course most nations have written constitutions (he noted that the UK was an interesting exception to this rule); the question of the lecture was whether or not we have any global constitution, or even a shared understanding of constitutionalism at the global level. Tony pointed out that we have a number of organizations which have features of a global constitution: the UN, NATO, the EU, for example.  But all of these constitutions, he argued, are not good examples of global constitutionalism.  They lack certain essential features of written constitutions, or do not reach to the global level.

In the conclusion to his lecture, Tony argued that we should push toward a global constitutionalism by attempting to seek shared understandings and agreements between nations in some key areas, such as the rule of law, the separation of powers, and human rights.  He suggested that global constitutionalism can challenge domestic political institutions to continue to evolve in positive directions, and that it can build successfully upon existing global constitutions such as the UN, even if it ultimately must move beyond any currently existing organization.

Following the lecture, a colleague of Tony's stood and read a wonderful tribute to him and his research, describing him as her "ideal professor," as someone who was doing incredibly important research and yet also making valuable contributions to the education of his doctoral and undergraduate students at St. Andrews University. It was a proud and happy speech for this little brother to hear, as well as my father and oldest brother who had joined me for the trip to Scotland.  (And in case you were wondering, we did indeed celebrate the next day with a round of golf on the Eden course at St. Andrews.)

So congratulations to Tony Lang for his promotion to full professor at St. Andrews University!