Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Kingdom for a Theme

There's an emphasis here on doing themes. No more, we're told, can you just teach first year writing; nope, you need a theme. Preferably, this theme should be exciting to students! Pop culture! Vampires! I don't feel much connection with pop culture; I've never been hip, even when I was in my 20s. I'm less hip as a 50 year old.

I teach two such courses a year, every semester, pretty much year in, year out. I rotate some essay topics in and out, change up some things, but mostly, I do slow changes, rather than big ones. That means I don't have to redo the whole syllabus every year.

So this year, I chose my theme as something to do with education and the individual. I added some essays to the reading, dropped other things, switched out an essay topic, and so forth.

They want us to come up with new themes every year. I'm sure that sounds good to the folks who teach the same intro to chemistry course every semester, but if you really prepare seriously, it's hard to come up with new themes all the time.


We do senior seminars for our majors; each major has to take a number of these seminars, depending on the program. And they're great. They give our lit folks, especially, an opportunity to be in a small class (the other lit courses tend to run 30-35, while the writing folks' courses are capped at 15). It's also their real opportunity to be in class with people who aren't GE students, but have taken theory and other lit courses. The quality of discussion is just wonderful, especially compared to the GE courses. (It's not that our GE students are bad, but they don't know how to talk about lit in the same way that people who've practiced talking about lit do.) (It's hard to quantify for assessment, but our students really do learn a lot of critical skills through our majors, especially in terms of reading lit and talking about stuff.)

Our seminar situation is, in short, a grad student's wet dream. It's that ideal interview question: if you were to teach a senior seminar in your field, what would you teach? Now imagine answering that question for the next 15 years without constantly repeating yourself. It gets more difficult, doesn't it.

This year, my seminar focuses on the Other in early modern drama. I've taught the same basic course a couple years ago, and it was good, but this one is going even better. I've read a lot more recent work in the area, and there's a lot of work being done on the Ottoman empire and early modern Europe and such, and I'm grateful for the historians and lit crit and po-co folks who are leading the way.

Last year, I did death in early modern culture, and it wasn't as good as I wished it were. Previously, I've done a sort of staging history (history plays, mostly), and I did a Marlowe course.

Now it's time to think of next year. I really like the Other course, but I want to give it a year's rest, because students who are fairly advanced might want to take two seminars in early Brit, and I want them to be able to if they'd like. (This mostly happens with linguistics folks.)

Our undergrad programs give majors and minors a fair bit of breadth, but relatively little depth, canon-wise, so almost anything, even if it seems "old" in a grad program, will still feel pretty fresh around here. And our area is pretty conservative, so doing a queer Renaissance sort of course would seem scary to a fair number of our students (and perfectly normal to others).

I'm mostly a drama person, but I could do a poetry oriented seminar. I don't think I could do a Milton seminar without being miserable (because I don't keep up on Milton criticism, so I'd have a lot of catching up to do).

Who's got a great idea? I have the summer to work it up, along with the three courses I'll be teaching in England, and the other two courses I'll be teaching when I get back (a new theme for writing will probably be necessary, for example; the other course is likely to be Shakespeare GE). (Isn't it great to have summers "off"?)


  1. If I had to choose a new theme every year, I'd probably use the same texts over again and try to make them conform to a different theme. But that's because I'm lazy, have two kids, and am an adjunct - so I have no incentive (apart from pride) for getting terribly creative with a course.

    That said, the first thing that came to mind when you said you were looking for a theme was the darkness of family in Ren lit. There's tons to mine there. Lear, for instance, would serve as a family tragedy, to me. And there are TONS of plays with incestuous overtones, as well as downright incest. (Tis Pity She's a Whore, A King and No King, Pericles, Duchess of Malfi for overtones, and I'm sure I could come up with others if I thought for a moment, but I'm guessing so could you.)

    But I think it would be an interesting question to explore: what is a family in the Renaissance? We connote "family" with warmth, acceptance, and safety, but family isn't such a safe thing in the literature we read -- now OR in the Renaissance. I think it would be really fascinating to explore that darkness since family is something we tend to take for granted. But there is more depth and darkness there, more often than not, than we care to discuss.

    Word verfication: exesses. You could do that, too! Excess in the Renaissance! Very Falstaffian.

  2. Excess! I like it. Or "Seven deadly sins."

  3. Themes! Ok, how 'bout:

    -unruly women: gender in early modern lit
    -explorers and the new world in the early modern imagination
    - beasts, brutes and wild men: the human and the animal in medieval and renaissance lit
    - early modern madness (my all time favorite)
    - The lady's not for burning: Witchcraft and the occult in the early modern period
    - doubt and heresy in the renaissance
    - early modern economies (both mercantilism and symbolic economies, I'd say)
    - science before the enlightenment
    -history and the early modern nation (could focus on all those history plays)
    -related, I took a class on adapting Shakespeare --- half on shakespeare's sources, half on how later people have adapted shakespeare
    - the king's two bodies: representing sovereignty on the early modern stage
    -book and printmaking history
    -Inquisitions: legality and torture in the early modern period (think of all those trial scenes!)
    -Vagrants, beggars, and wastrels: exploring class and poverty in early modern England.
    - Here be monsters: How the Renaissance understood disability

    There you go! Took about 10 minutes. And I'm not even a Shakespeare scholar! This was fun.

  4. Do you know EBBA (English Broadside Ballads?) It's a really cool site, and free. You could use that as the center of a popular literature senior seminar.

    You could kind of adapt the "other" and do exploration -- think Raleigh, all the shipwrecks in Shakespeare, etc.

    I like the disorderly woman idea, because that's part of what I'm working on right now.

    Or murderous families: think all those Jacobean revenge tragedies, plus Hamlet, Lear...

  5. The Devil and Evil Early Modern?

  6. Ooh, how about a metatheater seminar! You could read The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and pretty much any Shakespeare play ever written, and some of those revenge tragedies that involve fancy performative methods of revenge, and Bartholomew Fair...

  7. Oh, and you could finish off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead! How much fun would that be?

    If I were teaching such a class, I'd also be tempted to do something with servants and service in early modern lit, with King Lear as a centerpiece, only I'm not really sure where else I would go with it.