British Lit.

Some readers seemed curious about the British Lit. class I’m teaching, so I thought I’d write a bit about that. We’ve met for two weeks now and things are going pretty well; teaching a new course is difficult, though! It’s been a while since I’ve taught something brand new, and I’m remembering how much reading and prep goes into it. I’m looking forward to getting to Frankenstein, a text I’ve taught before, so I can rely on my old notes.

So far we’ve covered Blake, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, and Coleridge — ridiculous to have done all that in two weeks, right? That’s the hard thing about a survey course — there’s so much to put on the syllabus and so little time. There are so many authors I can’t cover, and even with the ones that do make it on the syllabus, we only cover a laughably small amount of their writing. Some selections from Songs of Innocence and Experience, some selections from Lyrical Ballads, one Charlotte Smith sonnet, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner and that’s it. I was pleased that one of my students was intrigued by Charlotte Smith; she was captivated by her rather tempestuous biography and wanted to know more. Perhaps she’ll go on to read more of her work.

I took a course in college that covered the entire history of British literature in one semester, which seems insane to me now. At least with this class I only have to cover the last two centuries, and mostly we’re focusing on the first 150 years of that time.

My students are doing a good job with the material, and I’m particularly happy with the way one of my assignments is working out, an assignment that asks students to come into class every day with two questions or insights about the reading. I told the students their questions or insights don’t have to be particularly brilliant, just genuine. It’s a very informal assignment; they can write their thoughts by hand on an index card if they want. I like this assignment for a number of reasons — for one, I can start class simply by asking them to share their thoughts and questions and that can be a springboard for discussion. Or they have material in front of them that they can share later in the class if they want to.

And then when I read these over after class, I get a good sense of how well they are understanding the reading — if they are thoroughly confused by the archaic language in the Coleridge poem, for example, or if they loved it and have an idea about, say, why that archaic language is there. I’ve been so pleased with their submissions that I usually read some of them out loud in the next day’s class to follow up on the previous discussion and cover things we missed earlier. And then we’ll move on to the new reading for the day.

I’ve believed for a long time in making the students accountable for doing the reading in some way — having tried to run classes where few people were actually doing the reading and I was ready to tear my hair out at their lack of response. Usually I hold them accountable with brief reading quizzes at the beginning of class. It sounds like an annoying, childish assignment, but I’ve had a lot of students comment that they liked the quizzes because it forced them to stay on top of things. But I’m thinking I like my questions/insights assignment better and may use it more often.

So now we’re on to a Maria Edgeworth short story and the later romantics — Percy Shelley and Keats. And Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of my favorite novels ever.


Filed under Books

10 responses to “British Lit.

  1. zhiv

    That’s a great post–you write with such a warm spirit and fresh, immediate style. You’re really good at “the blogging thing,” and manage to hit the right notes just about every time. I don’t think it’s in any way as easy as you make it seem.

    You have a great handle on the rather complex anonymity thing, and there’s such a nice, calmly measured “self” in your posts. I know you don’t want this to be an academic blog because you don’t want to get into petty politics, oneupsmanship, and other pitfalls, and I love your consistent, pleasant tone (which is matched by the friendly, urbane blogtitle). You get a great benefit out of staying almost entirely in the present and sticking the past into small asides and references. But this post raises some questions about your literary passions and background that might be interesting to address. And then there’s teaching, about which it would seem you must have a fair amount to say, even if it’s in the abstract and you choose to avoid harping on frustrations. Long comment less long, in looking at your categories to try to find other posts like this one, “books” is pretty vague. “Teaching” maybe? “Lit backgrounds”? Maybe your specialty/general dissertation area and other pathways aren’t very “Dorothy,” but I trust that you’d find a way to write engagingly about them. Lovely stuff.


  2. It sounds like your class is going very well. But then I figured it would. What a brilliant idea to have the students bring in two questions or insights for each class and then making them turn them in. I’ve taken painfully silent classes before. They are no good for anyone involved.


  3. Having gone through one of those “painfully silent” English classes before I’m reading your account with drooling envy. That sort of assignment really would have forced me to stay on top of things (especially when it’s to read 5 plays and assorted sonnets in 3 months).


  4. booksplease

    I’d have liked a teacher like you and I know what it’s like to be a silent pupil!

    I hope you’ll do this meme – 10 signs a book has been written by me. Please see


  5. I hope you can feel the fellow feelings winging their way across the Atlantic. I’m also teaching a new course this semester and like you it’s the first time I’ve done so for some years. You do forget just how much work is involved. Have you come across the work that Aidan Chambers did on getting children to talk about books? He has four basic questions: Tell me about something you liked; Tell me about something you didn’t like; Tell me about any patterns that you noticed; Tell me about anything that puzzled you. Once the children become more confident you ditch the first two because it is three and four that really get to the heart of what the book is about and get the conversation swinging across the classroom. You can use these with children from as young as four, but I’ve always found them as good a way as any for getting undergrads to talk about books, especially those who would normally be quiet. His work then goes on to start to draw the children’s attention to more stylistic issues, but those starting questions never loose their force.


  6. It sounds like a wonderful course, Dorothy, and I just wish I were able to take it! I’m very good about doing my assignments and I like sound of the quizzes and the questions!


  7. Well, Zhiv — where is your blog, so I can write incredibly nice comments on it? Thank you, and that comment will keep me going for quite a while. It’s funny you should talk about a calmly measured self on the blog, because that’s how I am in real life, I think, at least generally I am, and while I don’t consciously try to create that here, it’s bound to come out. I guess I can’t be otherwise. You inspired me to do some searching and create a new category for teaching posts, and you also made me think about the things I acknowledge and the things I don’t on this blog — the fact that I have no category for academics is very telling. Maybe I’ll write about this someday — not about academia or my research, I mean, but about the fact that I don’t write about it much. Generally, though, if you read my posts on the 18C you’ll get a sense of my academic interests. But anyway — I plan on returning to this comment now and then for encouragement!

    Stefanie — no, those silent classes are awful, and I’m willing to work hard to make sure they don’t happen!

    Imani — I think it’s nice to feel rewarded for staying on top of the work, or even just feeling that it’s acknowledged. And by rewarded, I don’t necessarily mean by a grade, but maybe just by the feeling that having done the reading was worthwhile. I’ve been in classes where the reading had nothing to do with the discussion, and it’s easy to stop doing it in that case.

    Booksplease — thanks for tagging me! I’ll have to give it some thought.

    Ann — that’s great! Thanks for posting those questions; I can see that they would work for all age levels, and while the questions are simple, the resulting conversation doesn’t have to be. And best of luck with your new course!

    Litlove — thanks! I’m very good at doing my work too, and always got annoyed at those who weren’t … it’s nice to have one’s hard work acknowledged.


  8. This sounds like a wonderful class–and the perfect one for you to teach. It must be incredibly hard for a teacher to stand in front of a class that doesn’t want to talk and share their thoughts (whenever I’ve thought about teaching–that would always be my greatest fear), but it sounds like they are responding well. I like the question/insight assignment–it gives them something to focus on. Do you get to choose which texts you cover? It’s impossible to do it all in one semester, isn’t it.


  9. verbivore

    Does sound like a good course but also so much material! I remember taking similar courses in college that covered immense topics in only three or four months (like all of Asian history for example) – I am sometimes amazed I even retained anything. But survey courses are good to find out what you’re interested in.


  10. I loved my Brit. Lit. I class. Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare *swoon.* I desperately wanted to take Brit. Lit. II as it was full of E.M. Forster and the like. Alas, I had to take Grammar and Stylistics instead *yawn.* I’m jealous of your students!


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