As I have most fall semesters since arriving at Trinity, I am currently teaching English 205, “Introduction to American Literature II,” which covers literature written in and about the United States from 1865 to the present. Survey courses such as these—standard features of English and History departments, among others—are famously plagued by the dilemma of coverage. How can you fit everything into a one-semester syllabus? And how can you give anything more than superficial attention? For me, the coverage problem is crystallized by the occasional indignant student who marvels that I could dare claim to be introducing post-Civil War American literature without assigning something by Ernest Hemingway. (This year, I didn’t leave out Hemingway. I left out Fitzgerald.)
Two things I’ve read in the past year have sparked me to think anew about the possibilities for the seemingly hidebound survey course. One is a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jim Lang (who’s speaking during the Common Hour on Sept. 13!). Another is an essay in a collection our own Jack Dougherty c0-edited, Writing History in the Digital Age.
In the essay, Thomas Harbison and Luke Waltzer (both historians) describe the common phenomenon of a survey-course instructor “plagued with guilt about oversimplification.” I didn’t experience a lot of that guilt until the time I heard a distinguished scholar in my field stand up at a professional conference and relate an anecdote about sitting in on a fellow distinguished scholar’s undergraduate survey course. Distinguished scholar #1 claimed to have been flabbergasted that distinguished scholar #2, who of course was aware of all the nuances of all the key debates in her field, nevertheless provided her students with a rather tidy, uncomplicated narrative of the period covered in the course. Ever since then, whenever I find myself making sweeping generalizations about American literary history in my survey courses, an image pops into my head of distinguished scholar #1 mocking me for it.
But I try not to let that imagined mockery, or its attendant flash of guilt, stop me from doing it, because to cater to D.S. #1 would be a disservice to my students. What Lang’s column and Harbison and Waltzer’s essay enabled me to do was begin to discern a middle path—a way to bring into my survey courses some of the complex questions that motivate my own scholarly interest in my subject, without depriving my students of a coherent and accessible “big picture.” Put simply, they suggested ways in which, rather than dispensing those complexities to my students in place of a usable narrative of American literary history, I could engage students in wrestling with those complexities on their own, in the context of a broader narrative I provide them.
As the semester goes on, I may reflect from time to time on how well I’m managing to walk that middle path, in specific instances. Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts about the challenges of teaching at the introductory level, spin them out in the comments.