Thursday, January 5, 2012

MLA 2013: New Approaches to Literature Surveys

In my most recent (and forthcoming) articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education, I have been interviewing cognitive psychologists on the subject of learning and memory. Those experts have stressed the importance of framing our subject matter in ways that are relevant and meaningful to our students if we want them to learn and remember what we have to teach. Although students may be able to memorize disconnected facts and material they don't much care about, they'll have a hard time remembering it beyond the test.

And as I have been conducting those interviews, and thinking about this issue, I have been preparing to teach the British Literature Survey course, which requires students to learn about the great British authors and major literary trends from 1800 to the present. And one part of me keeps wanting to ask the other part of me: Why should my students care about the major British authors and literary trends from 1800 to the present? I can almost see their eyes glazing over as they open up their big survey anthologies and begin working to memorize the lists of dates and timelines, the introductions to authors they've never heard of, and the poems they have to work to understand, much less interpret.

And I wonder why we're still teaching the surveys like this. How much longer can we convince our students--or our selves--that they should learn about these authors because they're important, and part of our literary heritage, and necessary to live a full life, and so on. Is that the best we can do?

If you have ever wondered the same thing, or if you are teaching a British or American literature survey course in a way that moves beyond the conventional approach--Monday it's James Joyce, Wednesday it's Virginia Woolf, Friday a quiz on the Modernists--then consider submitting an abstract for a panel I hope to organize with my colleague John Staunton for MLA 2013 in Boston. We are looking especially for papers from faculty who have taught the surveys multiple times, and who have tried out alternative and innovative approaches to the survey, and who can share their ideas with the rest of us.

Check out the Call for Papers on the MLA website or feel free to post comments or ideas below.

I will be testing out a completely new approach to the British Literature Survey this spring semester, and hope to use what I learn from the experience as the starting point for a textbook proposal for a brand new kind of literary anthology. I am hoping this MLA panel will help me to connect with other faculty who might be interested in becoming involved in that (much longer-term) process.

Stay tuned . . .

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