Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reading with my students

So I'm in grading jail, and what I'm grading at the moment are essays on the state of scholarship in the last 15 years on selected texts from our MA exam. And while I can assess the effectiveness of these essays pretty well without myself knowing the criticism of, say, Louise Erdrich's Tracks (it's all about the student convincing me s/he knows it), I realized that there are a number of texts on our MA exam that I either haven't read at all, or have only read excerpts of, or that I haven't read since I was an undergraduate. And yet, when it's my turn to write an exam, I'm supposed to write questions with these texts in mind. Hm. Maybe I should read them! Ya think?

So, I'm going to make a resolution -- not exactly a New Year's resolution -- to have read all the works on the MA exam list by the time the current 1st year class is graduated in 2008. Below is our rather odd list (seriously, isn't it bizarre?!), dominated by the 19th century and doing poor service to everything from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. (We're currently in discussions about that, but I've got a very stubborn colleague on the grad committee who thinks the list should be *shorter* and should just be a kind of exercise in "practical criticism" to show they can read a few things deeply. In that case, why not just give them random passages on the exam -- like the actual Practical Criticism Tripos exam at Cambridge -- and forget the list? Honestly, I have no idea what this list is suppose to be or do.)

Anyway, I've crossed off the texts I've read recently and know well. What's left is what I think I need to read or reread (so this isn't exactly a game of humiliation -- I have read Paradise Lost, for instance, but not since I was an undergrad).

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Shakespeare, King Lear
Shakespeare, Hamlet
John Donne, Poems

Milton, Paradise Lost
Swift, Gulliver's Travels
Pope, Poems
Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Shelley, Frankenstein

Wordsworth, Poems
Keats, Poems
Brontë, Jane Eyre
Dickens, Great Expectations
Tennyson, Poems
Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Yeats, Poems

Joyce, Dubliners
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Franklin, Autobiography
Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself
Melville, Moby-Dick
Thoreau, Walden
Dickinson, Poems
Whitman, Poems
James, Portrait of a Lady
Eliot, Poems
Williams, Poems

Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Ellison, Invisible Man
O'Neill, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Rich, Poems
Morrison, Beloved
Erdrich, Tracks

And for discussion purposes: what do you think of this list? How would you change it if you could and why?


Dr. Crazy said...

I think the list is both bizarre and bad. It reads like a list made up by three or four professors, and each of those professors chose 5-10 texts from their general subfield and, voila!, here is an exam list. The problem with that is that a huge amount is left off the list, and the list is pretty heavily weighted toward dead white male sorts of texts, with a few tokens thrown in. (Why Tracks is on this list, I truly have no clue. That's not a knock against Erdrich, but it just doesn't make sense in the context of the other texts chosen.)

If I were making such a list, I think I would try to keep about the same number of texts, but that I would try to eliminate some that are currently on the list in order to give more even historical coverage. (There should be about an equal # of texts for each period, I think, and when applicable, probably an equal # of texts from American/multicultural and British/Commonwealth traditions.) Next, i think I'd like to see a bit more drama on the list.

Finally, a question: Maybe I'm dumb, but I don't entirely see the purpose of putting King Lear and Hamlet on this list. Aren't all English majors in the whole world required to take a Shakespeare course and likely to have read one if not both of these at least once? If there's to be Shakespeare on the list, why not something important but not cliff notes-ed to death?

(Oh, and I think my problem with the list is that there doesn't seem to be an apparent connection between the texts that are on it - there don't seem to be historical links or links by genre. I really don't get it.)

Dr. Virago said...

I *heart* you Dr. Crazy. What you've said is *exactly* what I think of the list, right down to the lack of drama and the weirdness with Erdrich (why not one of her better works? Why not another Native American author?). And I think you've hit upon how it was created, too.

Here's what I'm going to do in the new year -- ask our grad faculty what *they* think the purpose of the exam is ideally and whether or not the exam (the list and the kinds of questions) as currently constituted meets that ideal or even comes close (which was actually suggested in our meeting about it when some of us couldn't agree if it should be longer or shorter). And then, if I can convince Mr. Stubborn that he's an outlier, the only one who thinks it should be shorter, maybe we can do something about it. And I'm going to make all the suggestions you've made, because they're exactly what I was thinking already. For example, if we want a healthy representative of autobiographical narratives, enough to write a decent exam question on them, then let's get The Book of Margery Kempe on there. And if Beowulf, Malory's Morte Darthur, and The Faerie Queene were there, someone could write a decent romance and epic question. And so on.

Karl Steel said...

Jeez, how much of the CTales do they have to read?

Dr Crazy: strikes me if the point is to demonstate competence for teaching high school--which is likely the purpose of most of the MAs at DV's school, yes?--then it should probably be MacBeth and Romeo and Juliet instead of Hamlet and Lear.

And if it's High School, you don't need anything from the MA except Chaucer.

That said, I wonder where DeFoe (Defoe?) is. Robinson Crusoe doesn't get a spot?

And why not Maxine Hong Kingston? Or James Weldon Johnson? There's no reason we can't bump off a few DWM in favor of them.

Or, if we want to do American high postmodernism, why not Pynchon or Delillo or Auster or (if we want to be fun about it) Lydia Davis (unlikely, more's the pity...). The only really contemporary work on there is Morrison: seems we need more.

But none of my suggestions get at the fundamental problems, ably identified by DV and DC, with expanding or decreasing the size of the list.

Dr. Virago said...

Usually only about 3-4 of our students (less than 10%) are high school teachers. The rest are a mixed bunch, but most are at least thinking about PhD programs, though in rhet/comp as well as lit -- and some are thinking of MFAs. In that case, if the list is supposed to be a generalist base for specialization later (at the PhD level), then it really doesn't work.

But the faculty member who thinks it should be shorter argues that they write superficially about these texts now and would do so even more with a longer list. He does have a point, I guess, but if they had more texts they could make reasonable connections between, maybe they'd study better as well. And as it is, it's impossible to write decent questions about historical periods and historical shifts -- also an important element of a generalist list, imho.

Karl Steel said...

Can you come up with field-specific lists? if the students are applying to PhD programs, they'll have to specialize anyway. And if they're doing field-specific lists, the reading can help them en route to their MA thesis. I'm not suggesting, by the way, a medieval only list: but perhaps the medievalists and early modernists can come up with one list, the 18th-19th century people can do another one, and then perhaps a 19th-20th century list, and so on, perhaps even with themes (gender, ethnicity, &c.). You could split the reading of the exams among the various faculty who specialize in these things: you and your early modernists could read the essays of the students who do that and so forth, although this suggestion would be a problem if 70% of your students elected to do the 'American lit' list. The big downside, apart from decreasing the coverage, would be an increased atomization of your grad students. When I studied for my MA exam for my first MA (at WWU, and probably not much different from the one you supervise, DV), I studied with my whole cohort. If I'd been doing the 'medieval list' (if such a thing existed), I would have been alone.

No idea how this would work for MFA's (unless you want lists that specialize in certain things: the novel, drama, lyric verse, epic verse, &c.). Can't think of how it would work for comp/rhetoric PhDs, but, given that there's a lot of jobs of there in those fields, my idea would have to work here or be junked altogether.

JM said...

Hell, if I had y'all's MA reading list, I wouldn't have had so much stress about my comps. :)

1) it's relatively short [compare]
2) it's specific
3) did I mention it's short?

But I think it's a noble gesture to cross off some of those as-yet-unread things. At least read ch12 of Walden. :)

Karl Steel said...

...another objection to my approach: it obviates any identification of the exam as a comprehensive exam (unless we mean comprehensive in a sub-field)

I suppose it all depends on what we identify as the purpose of the examination:

a) I like my idea, where it would function as a kind of orals list to focus the student's attention on his or her thesis project;
b) then there's the 'demonstrate ability' approach that your other faculty member wants
c) then there's the comprehensive approach, which, it strikes me, can't please anyone: it's always going to leave something off and students will find it hard to read everything well, which means faculty members irritated both because their pet authors have been left off and because they have to read shallow exams. Also, since none of us--right?--train as generalists anymore, a comprehensive exam seems like an atavism.

Dr. Virago said...

JM -- I actually used your exams as an example of a "peer institution" with a much more rigorous list. Then again, yours is *crazy*. They might as well say, "Read the entire Norton Anthology of British Lit, the entire Norton Anthology of American Lit, and Columbia's entire Core Curriculum syllabi in Literature and Western Civilization."

Karl -- OK, first off, FYI we don't have a thesis, we have a shorter "master's paper" (30 pages, usually an expansion of a previously written work), which only requires one supervisor and not a committee. And I don't think our small faculty could handle the field exams, especially since, as you guessed, most students would probably pick American lit, or perhaps Brit lit of the 19th or 20th century. I can see it now: poor Victoria would end up burdened with a lot of it.

And a lot of our faculty are very invested in the comprehensive/generalist exam. Rhet/Comp PhD programs do take a lot of folks with generalist lit MAs and seem to like that that's what they've done, and our creative writers swear by the breadth of a comprehensive exam for the students who want to go on to MFAs. I think in those cases it strengthens their chances of getting teaching jobs without the PhD. Same with those who want to get CC jobs with just the MA -- though as discussed, this is getting to be a slimmer chance in today's market. And one of our lit people who used to be the grad director a number of years back says that the PhD programs who have accepted our graduates like that we have an exam that requires breadth -- they'll get the depth in their PhD programs. I think this is especially true for those students switching fields (we get a lot of former English-Ed people, creative writers looking to do lit. PhDs, etc., etc.). In other words, the exam gives them a chance to fill in gaps.

But as is, I don't think it does a good job at that. It has too many gaps itself!

And you're right about the potential of a field exam to be too isolating. Any potential med-ren person would feel very isolated!

JM said...

cool! and, um, that's exactly what they say...

I'll tell you what, though: I feel really good about having to take an exam like this again one day.

I was actually having the same sort of conversation with our grad coordinator that you're having on your blog. It was all about having to serve different masters, what's the point of the exam for all those folks (90%+) who have no intention of getting a PhD, etc. It seems to be a common issue for schools of this type.

History Geek said...

Whoa, now that is a random list. (And some of those shouldn't most people have read them in Highschool at the least?)

Dr. Virago said...

History Geek -- depends on the high school and the student. Much is optional in my state's public high schools, including, among other things: British literature and foreign language.

History Geek said...

That was me.

Dr. Virago said...

History Geek -- I figured it out, and I'm also cleaning up the freaky multi-posting thing Blogger has done to you!

Anniina said...

Wow. I'm troubled by this list. It's missing some things that should be on it, if lists like this absolutely must be made at all, and then it's got a few that, frankly, shouldn't be on the list, if the list is only 30-some long. I would think Nabokov's Lolita deserves a spot on it much more than, say, Erdrich (sorry Erdrich), and am I crazt, but Beowulf isn't there? Also, no short stories whatsoever? And I would probably also add Richard Wright's "Native Son" there. One author for the Middle Ages? Three authors for all of English Renaissance & 17th Century? But 5 million poems by the Romantics? And the ONLY dramatic writing on the list are Shakespeare and O'Neill. Shouldn't they have at least thrown in some Tennessee Williams, Becket's Godot or Arthur Miller in there, just for contrast? That list in my opinion is a) too short and b) too "unrepresentative" of, frankly, anything (except for Romantic poets). It might make sense to have an "overview list" à la "books everyone ought to have read" - but perhaps in addition, like UPenn used to have (now I can't find it) a few "Master Lists" of given periods or 'schools' of writing, for more focused study.

Anniina said...

Oops, just noticed I typed "crazt" instead of "crazy", heh. I also just noticed that Ellison's "Invis.Man" is there, so that covers the "niche" of Wright, I'm guessing, in the minds of the listmakers. And "Dubliners" covers short story. *sigh* I should not post comments when tired!

Karl Steel said...

I don't think adding Beowulf would fix much. It certainly fits the Beowulf to Malory 'Medieval English Literature' Course, but given that such a selection gives a (common) false sense of the literary history of Britain as English literary history, I'm more inclined to put Marie de France or the Song of Roland or even the History of the Kings of Britain in instead of Beowulf. At least Marie and Roland and Geoffrey were widely read and belonged or even inaugurated genres that were of enormous importance in the literary cultures of the high and late Middle Ages, in Britain and elsewhere. By contrast, Beowulf was a stillbirth, at worst, and even at best the end of the line for works of its sort, at least in Britain. And pretty much no one, so far as we know, read it in the Middle Ages. *prepares to duck from the slings and arrows of AS scholars*

But, again, all my objectin' has to do with my imagined purposes for this list: a list that represents a literary history of English (thinking here of DV's point about 'making connections' between works). If I want something representative of this literary history, then I want to include works on the basis of influence. As woolly-brained and subjective as are my notions of "influence," aesthetic criteria are even more subjective. As great as Beowulf is, Beowulf doesn't have a place in the context of works that had the most influence for the literary history and England and other largely, eventually anglophone literatures, since it had no significant medieval literary influence and even has had very little post-medieval literary influence, pace John Gardner and Tolkien. So, Beowulf serves only a HEL purpose. And since the students won't be reading Beowulf in the original, they won't get the HEL use from it. So it doesn't belong. *ducks*

But The Woman Warrior absolutely belongs.

Maybe. What's the purpose of this list apart from the 'this is what you gotta do to get an MA' purpose?

What Now? said...

Just to throw in another model to this interesting conversation: When I took my M.A., my program covered "what everyone should have read" by saying that all students needed to have had three classes that concentrated on Shakespeare, on Milton, and on Chaucer; students who hadn't had those as an undergrad thus needed to take them in the M.A. And each student needed to choose a specialty in the M.A., at least five or six classes (if I remember correctly) in a particular field or genre or theoretical approach or whatever. (We were on the quarter system.)

And then our exam was all depth and no breadth at all. The exam was given twice a year, and each student had to pass it at some point before getting the degree. It was a two-book exam -- one "literary" and one more "theoretical," although these categories were defined very broadly. The books were announced each term, and students could decide they were going to tackle that pair of books or wait for the next pair (but obviously you couldn't be too choosy, because the M.A. program was only a couple of years). The exam itself was then three essay questions (one on one text, one on the other text, and one on the two texts together), handed out at the exam itself, to be written in four hours.

When I took the exam, the two texts were More's Utopia and DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk, and that was pretty typical in the apparent bizarreness of the pairing. The previous term it had been Gates's The Signifying Monkey and some gothic novel.

Such a two-book exam does little for breadth, obviously (which I then got in my Ph.D. program), but it was actually quite a fabulous experience; in many ways, it introduced me to the practice of knowing a book inside and out, of carrying it around in my head all the time so that new insights pop up even when I'm going about other business. Up until then, I'd read books right before they were due in class and then moved on to the next assignment; even for papers, I never spent more than a few days on them (and usually less!) and then moved on to the next thing. So even though I didn't pick up much breadth in studying for my M.A. exam, I picked up a lot of skills that were really helpful in my later graduate work.

Dr. Virago said...

Woah, WN, those are *totally* bizarre pairings, but thanks to you I'm starting to see the value of Mr. Stubborn's call for fewer texts. (Partly it's the source. I trust your opinion a little more! :) ) Hmmm...food for thought.

And Karl. Boy. OK. There's a whole 'nother post in your last comment. And I'm running short of time at the mo'. But I do want to say that I like the suggestion of Marie de France very much, cuz she's a three-fer: a woman, writing in a language other than English (*very* important for the development of "English" literature, imho), and writing in an influential genre that's not served by our current list. But stop picking on Beowulf! :) If we got rid of every work that didn't have a continuous influence from its inception to the present, there'd be very little of the Middle Ages left to talk about. Besides, Beowulf in influential in the history of the formation of English as a subject of study. And if the Heaney translation is made a set text, then it's a two-fer: a medieval and postmodern text simultaneously, so that the "Beowulf to Virginia Woolf" survey becomes the "Beowulf to Beowulf" survery! So ha! :) Seriously, I think "literary history" doesn't have to be a linear model. And actually, when I was thinking of conversations, I was thinking more of ways you can get the texts to talk to each other -- not necessarily how they *did* talk.

But yeah, given many of our students and how they study, they'd probably assume a linear influence. Hm. OK, you and WN have given me much to think about.

And Aniina -- I like the Lolita suggestion very much! And there's definitely a hideous lack of drama.

Dr. Virago said...

Oops, I mean Anniina. Sorry to misspell your name!

George Justice said...

From your department's page, I see that you offer a four-hour written examination. My own view is that a reading list is always going to be either too long (comprehensive but impossible) or too short (too many gaps, but manageable for the students). My view is that a move to a portfolio format for the MA examination (with a revised research paper of "publishable" quality; sample bibliographies; and student-generated reading lists that respond to particular interests: all followed by an oral examination) would get us all out of the impossible situation of defining the field of literature in a short list of books. It's impossible! And intellectually suspect, anyway.

Dr. Virago said...

George -- Well I guess my identity is easily googlable from that list! (Either that or your last name isn't really Justice and you're one of a number of Georges I actually know.) Shh...don't out me. :)

I like your idea for a "portfolio" exam. I think that's what our "master's paper" is partly meant to do, but perhaps we should follow that through better.

Dr. Virago said...

No, I guess your name really is George Justice! (I just googled you, of course.) Between you and Karl Steel, this is a blog conversation full of very cool, almost allegorical names!

Karl Steel said...

so that the "Beowulf to Virginia Woolf" survey becomes the "Beowulf to Beowulf" survey

Ha! I love that. Setting up connections is a good skill.

Apart from the probable atomization of MA students, I like the George Justice suggestion.

(for the name, I think you can blame Ellis Island, who (which?) either misspelled my Grandpa's last name, Stål, or translated it into English: I think).

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I love this list.

Heo said...

**Gives Karl the 'Rage of Modthryth' eye**

I'm with Anniina. This appears to be an "all the other English departments will make fun of us if our students haven't read this stuff" list.

I'm not sure what should be added from the modern period, but I definitely miss Marlowe, Sterne and, really, anything that will prove that Britain didn't emerge out of the mists the day Chaucer was born.

Anniina said...

I like the Chanson de Roland idea, and I think it's a text that opens pretty easily to the average lit student. I think Gottfried's Tristan would be an excellent candidate as well. Or, to through some Celtic in the mix, an item that would not be too long a read, how about Bricriu's Feast? That would then tie to the Malory, and later to Yeats' poems on Irish heroes. I realized another thing that bothered me about the list... the late 20th being so sparse: just Rich, Morrison, and Erdrich. Could maybe have added Chinua Achebe? or August Wilson? Pynchon at least should be on that list. And, I might get some flack here, but I do think it's a bit of a crime not to include at least one Sci-Fi title there... *ducks*

Anniina said...

Hah, again spelling and tired -> through=throw. Lol. Note to self. "Pay attention to previous notes to self (no posting when tired). I'm thinking Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness would be a good one on that list.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, now my head's spinning with ideas. But I think it's clear that our faculty has to have a discussion about what this exam is *for*, whether it meets its goal, and/or whether there's a better way to give the MA a capstone experience (but not a traditional thesis -- they tend not to finish or to take too long when there's a thesis).

And Anon -- if you come back, please do tell why you like the list! I promise my commenters and I will be nice!

Karl Steel said...

I'd go with Beroul rather than Gottfried for Tristan: keeps with the 'written in Britain' theme. For 'Celtic' material, Marie will serve just fine, I think.... *ducks*