Monday, December 17, 2012

MLA Panel on Re-Thinking the Surveys

On January 4th, from 10:15 to 11:30 in the Back Bay D room of the Boston Sheraton Hotel, I will be chairing a roundtable for the Modern Language Association Convention on re-thinking the literature survey courses that are a staple of many English department required curricula.  The original impetus for this panel came from a column that I published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the spring.  If you are interested in learning about the genesis of this panel, start by reading that column here.

In order to allow attendees at our panel to see examples of the kinds of experimentation with survey pedagogy that we will discuss at the roundtable, I asked the participants to send me syllabi or other supporting materials from the courses they are developing or will be discussing.  In this Dropbox folder, you will find the following materials:

1) The syllabus from a team-taught British literature survey at Oregon State University by Rebecca Olson and Tara Williams.
2) The syllabus from a one-semester British literature survey taught by Timothy Rosendale at Southern Methodist University.
3) A Masterworks of American Literature survey syllabus from Evan Carton at the University of Texas at Austin.
4) Some sample course materials from a team of faculty at the University of Texas at Austin who have been working on a large grant project to re-think their large required survey courses.

I would encourage attendees of the panel to take a look at these materials in advance of our session on the 4th.  But more importantly than that, I would encourage attendees to please come and contribute to our discussion.  I have felt for several years now that the conventional ways in which we teach survey courses do not match up very well with what we know about how human beings learn and remember complex information and ideas.  I don't have a magic solution to this problem, and I don't expect anyone else has one either, but if we can put our heads together as a discipline we can perhaps come up with some new ways to approach the surveys that will inspire deeper learning in our students.

Ultimately I believe this problem has to be solved not just by individual faculty members, or by whole departments, or by the MLA--or by textbook publishers, who exert an important (and perhaps undue) influence on how we teach the surveys.  I believe all of those constituents must ultimately work together to think hard about why we teach literary surveys, how we design those courses, and what we expect of students who have taken them.  The end result of this process should be new kinds of survey textbooks, new forms of the survey course, and perhaps new and better learning feats from our students.

We have the information we need about how learning works in order to do this job better; we need collective will and collective action.  I hope that this panel can serve as a catalyst to jump start the process of re-thinking the literature surveys, and I hope you will join me and my roundtable participants in this conversation.