Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A weird syllabus?

I'm way behind on book orders for next semester, in part because I'm doing the intro lit class for the first time in a number of years, and I wanted to change up my old syllabus in a major way, in part to fit the revised expectations and goals of the course, and in part because, well, things get boring if you don't change things up.

I always think such courses make a little more sense to students and have less of that "cafeteria curriculum" feel if you stick to a theme, even a loose one. (Though too narrow a theme and it gets boring.) So this time around I'm going with "Death and Desire." (Past themes include "Home Schooled" and "Freaks and Monsters.") It's going to be kind of a dark syllabus.

My choices for the lyric poetry and short fiction sections are pretty darn unsurprising, traditional, and canonical, and many of the works were ones that I read in high school. The students might have read some of them in high school, as well; however, these days high school have very different curricula and even if my students have had these works before, I've always been good at showing students new ways of reading and even enjoying the tried and true -- new to them, anyway. Plus, learning that there are many ways to skin a cat, er, interpret a poem, is a basic but important lesson in literary studies. But when it comes to the narrative works on my syllabus, I got a little weird. Here's what I'm doing:

Narrative poetry:
Marie de France, Yonec
Anon., Sir Orfeo

Twelfth Night
A Streetcar Named Desire (not in itself a weird choice, but paired with Twelfth Night? Maybe others do it -- maybe it's not as weird as I think)

The novel (here's where I think I'm getting really weird):
Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Ellroy, L. A. Confidential

What do you all think? Too dark? Will my students revolt after having to read Hardy and Ellroy back to back?

Also, I'm going to end with short stories -- does anyone have any suggestions for a short story with some relation to the theme that has an upbeat ending with which I can end the course? I don't want the students to be completely bummed out just as they're doing evals!!


Anonymous said...

Ok, I guess The Lottery doesn't have the upbeat ending you are looking for. But it fits the theme.

Bardiac said...

Nor does Kafka's "Metamorphosis."

How about Atwood's "Rape Fantasies"? You could talk about the place of the narrator (talking to someone in a bar), her desires to a relationship without rape, threats to her life that all end without her dying, and there's the GREAT bit about her being the new St. Anne!

Dr. Virago said...

Hmmm...I'm starting to think I should just end the course with Yonec and Sir Orfeo!!

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

You could always do Brokeback Mountain. Okay, not cheerful, but with people bouncing around the room declaiming "I WISH I KNEW HOW TO QUIT YOU" it could be fun!

... or, yes, maybe end on Orfeo.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ooh! Ooh! Ok, short stories that could work:

"The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin

"Happy Endings" by Margaret Atwood (which isn't quite a short story in some ways, but I feel like any short story that includes "John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die" belongs on this syllabus.

Both of these are heavy on irony, so they could work as a good end for the course because although they are somewhat serious, they are also funny in a way that makes students uncomfortable(esp. the Atwood one can work well at the end, as it brings them back to the beginning for the last day).

"What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" by Raymond Carver has stood me well in all intro to lit courses, and it could work with the theme.

Suggestion for a poem: Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess."

With the novels, I think that I might have a hard time doing Hardy and then Ellroy, if they were back to back. This may be in part because I think that Hardy can be a tough sell to undergrads sometimes. I'm wondering whether something like Jane Eyre might work instead? (I've taught Jane Eyre in a variety of courses, and most students really end up loving it. And there is death (Helen, Bertha, Jane's aunt and cousin) and desire....) And the whole gothic/mystery aspect of it might be a neat counterpoint to L.A. Confidential. I also suggest it because from what you've posted, the only lady writer (explicitly, though of course "anon" according to Woolf is always a woman) you're featuring in the lengthy works is Marie de France, so it might be nice, if you're going to choose a 19th c. novel, to choose one by a woman writer. Just a thought.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and just a note: while I don't have an explicitly stated theme for my intro to lit course (although I suppose one could say the theme is "memory and forgetting" or "jealousy and treachery" if one wanted to supply one that basically fits all of the texts), the two novels that I do in there are Lolita and What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal. Thus, at least one sub-theme in my intro to lit class is pedophilia. So death and desire seems completely reasonable (and cool!) to me, as themes go. Not weird at all, but rather, engaging!

Dr. Virago said...

Ooh, I'd forgotten about the Chopin and Carver pieces. Those are possibilities. I'll look into that Atwood story, too.

I often do teach Jane Eyre in such a class. And I think maybe you're right that I should do it again. I was completely *obsessed* with Hardy in high school, so I didn't know that he's a hard sell for undergrads, but I know they they like JE, and maybe paired with LA Confidential (which does have a "happy" ending, at least) maybe they won't sentimentalized the J & R relationship so much. (OK, so Jane is no Lynn the whore, but Rochester is more Bud White than they're usually willing to admit. They often want to make him into Darcy from P & P.) And both books often alternative models of masculinity to talk about (St John vs. Rochester, the Guy Pierce character vs. Bud White).

OK, you've convinced me.

Dr. Virago said...

Ceirseach -- I was planning on doing Brokeback Mountain! Yay! Great mind think alike!

Anonymous said...

It's probably not what you're looking for -- among other things, it's a novella -- But H.G. Wells's The Time Machine is quite teachable, has wonderfully perverse desires (an Edenic garden with a sphinx in the middle offering a knowledge of good and evil that leads back directly to one's self, a twisted, patronizing "love" story, and a sense of the death of the world changing the understanding of human death) might make it fit, maybe.

Anonymous said...

I'm delurking to add a suggestion, albeit slightly late. What about "Rappaccini's Daughter" for a short story? Death and desire intermingled...and if students come to it knowing only "The Scarlet Letter," as I did, they'll get to see Hawthorne in a whole new light.

What Now? said...

I think Twelfth Night and Streetcar could work well together, in part because I usually teach the latter in terms of performance and story-telling. Sounds like a fun class!

Anonymous said...

I taught a "Heroes Medieval and Modern" class with an Americanist once and we stuck Beowulf (in trans, natch) and Garner's Grendel together.

Don't teach Hardy. Just don't. I shudder. When I do intro to lit I end up with Life of Pi, which is very hopeful and sweet but gives you the option of cynical nastiness if you are so inclined (In fact that is the point). Good luck with this; sounds like fun.