Saturday, November 21, 2009

Teaching a New Text, Part the First

I started teaching a new text yesterday; it went pretty well. But it got me thinking about how I approach teaching new texts. I'm sure most lit folks teach new texts periodically. And by "new" I don't only mean "written within recent history," but also "not yet part of the teaching canon."

At the end of my grad school teaching, I had the opportunity to teach a seminar for English majors, so I chose to teach something on early modern women or something. One of the texts I tried to teach was Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Miriam. Let's just say, I did a miserable job of it.

First, I hadn't been taught at all to read early modern texts by women. I hadn't had any classroom experience with closet dramas, even. And as a very inexperienced teacher, I didn't have a lot of strategies for dealing with such texts; I mostly had the example of what I'd been taught, with a lot of dissertation research on the side.

(I'm sort of ashamed to say that I've never had the guts to go back and try to teach Miriam again.)

When I check my sitemeter thing, I regularly see someone hit my blog searching how to teach [some text], so I know other people struggle with how to teach new to them texts, too.

I'd like to start thinking about how we're taught to teach, and what that means when we teach new texts, and also articulate some strategies for teaching new texts. I hope you folks will tell me about your experiences and talk about the strategies you use, too.


  1. I recently found myself teaching a couple of new philosophical pieces -- which can be similar, I suspect...

    I found it kind of interesting to back off a bit and let the students do more of the talking, then see where they take the discussion. I tend to use PowerPoint, so I developed pairs of questions -- printed the questions and then answered the questions from my point of view in the powerpoint. I distributed the printed questions to students and gave them 10 minutes in small groups to answer them -- and it worked! We had some interesting discussions and the students saw things I didn't -- and better, made connections I hadn't.

    This works better later in the semester, since the class knows the material better and knows one another better, so forming groups isn't so hard.

    I've also had students debate a question concerning a new text -- which is generally fun and sometimes gets competitive.

  2. Anonymous11:01 AM

    Last year I taught a new course with a handful of texts that I had never taught before: I did lots of prep (looking to see how others had taught them was part of it, but they are relatively contemporary texts, so not as much was available), but like Philosophy, I let the students do a the initial responses each class, thus guiding the discussion. And if that didn't work, I started with a few leading questions or raised a somewhat controversial critical opinion of the book and encouraged debate.

    One idea that also worked for me (and will help for this year's course) is that students had to select one of the texts and create a sort of literary Cliff Notes booklet about it (again, these are contemporary novels, so they haven't been Cliff Noted yet). So now I have a bunch of those that added to my store of information about the books.

    I find it challenging, but fun, to teach new works.

  3. I don't have any advice, but I just want to say I think what you're doing is really valuable. Teaching more early modern texts by women is the only way to break the grip of the dead white men on the canon. I like annieem's idea for the Cliff Notes booklet - that sounds like a fun assignment to do.

  4. I'm teaching an entire course soon on an author whose work has very little research and none of which I've taught before. Now that I see it in print, it looks like a crazy idea . . . but it actually should be a fun class if I can deal with the "teaching a new text" issues.
    Thanks for the fabulous ideas, annieem!