Teaching the Teaching of Literature

Teaching the Teaching of Literature

Farris, Christine

Ten years ago, in an effort to improve our job placement program, the English department at Indiana University-Bloomington invited the chairs of English departments at small Indiana colleges to read and critique job letters and vitae prepared by our job seekers. These chairs then spent an aiternoon explaining to all interested graduate students how they made hiring decisions. The encounter was revelatory. Over and over these chairs told students what even one year at a research institution had begun to obscure lor them: to be hired you need to be smart about your teaching; and what you will teach, if hired, will probably be both literature and writing. These seasoned members of the profession challenged our students with questions that, to our dismay, they were not prepared to answer: How do you plan to teach? What do you plan to teach? Where has your research positioned you as a teacher?

Sparked by this job forum, students began to ask themselves and us how they could better prepare to be college teachers. With support from the Association of American Colleges and Universities s and the Council of Graduate Schools s Preparing Future Faculty initiative and our graduate school, we introduced an experimental reform. Rather than tinkering with the job placement program, which shapes the end of a students career, we sought to restructure their teaching experience, an earlier and more integral part of graduate training. This is not to say that our job seekers had not been trained to teach; but teacher training had been tied almost exclusively to composition courses.

Teaching literature to undergraduates is what brought most students to graduate school, yet we had no systematic training in how to teach a literature course. Graduate students could be assigned as section leaders lor large; literature classes starting in the second year of their contracts, but there was no specific preparation for this job. Teaching literature, the structure seemed to say, was part luck, part osmosis: having been an undergraduate, having taken graduate seminars and taught composition, you should be able just to figure it out. Trained to teach in general at the same time they were trained to teach composition, many students assumed pedagogy was a concern only in writing courses. They could assume, unless they specialized in composition and literacy studies, that pedagogy stood remote from their chosen area of research, from their pleasure in the profession. Students came to believe that their capital on the job market depended only on their scholarship, and despite our protests to the contrary, the structure of the program justified this belief. If our PhDs are to meet the challenges of a variety of types of English departments into the twenty-first century, their education will have to forge a stronger connection between scholarly work and teaching, and a greater number of faculty will need to become involved in teacher preparation.

Proseminar in Teaching

We developed a semester-long proseminar in the teaching of literature and culture. Second- and third-year graduate instructors now have the option of enrolling in this course, which prepares them for teaching the following semester a section of the freshman-level “Introduction to the Study of Literature and Writing.” This latter course is typically organized by a topic and taught by a member of the faculty as a large lecture, with six discussion sections led by associate instructors. In the proseminar, the graduate students produce, in collaboration with a faculty member, a common syllabus for the upcoming freshman course, which they will kill teach together. Each proseminar thus is designed in anticipation of an actual, not hypothetical, undergraduate course; the ideas and reflection that begin in the proseminar extend in the following semester into the day-to-day realities of the classroom.

So far about ten different versions of this proseminar have been offered. The reading lists have included possible texts for the undergraduate syllabus, relevant critical and theoretical essays, as well as pedagogical materials related to reading and writing about the given topic. While investigating the intellectual and pedagogical issues related to their topic, instructor and students also design a syllabus, course readings, and a structure of progressive writing assignments. The most generative collaborations have emerged from topics that not only attract graduate students from a range of sub-specialties, but also pose a real teaching problem: For instance, how do we responsibly teach texts that celebrate violence? Why ask freshmen to focus on such a topic? In the best cases, participants in these courses on the teaching of literature are expected to develop a two-way understanding of the pedagogical implications of a particular area of literary and cultural study, as well as the theoretical challenges of teaching undergraduate English.

In addition, the proseminar requires graduate students to produce written work related to but independent of their part of the course preparation. So far, some students have produced papers on pedagogy, some on the political or moral issues presented by the texts they have decided to teach, others on the challenges of incorporating writing assignments. Still others have used the materials taught and discussed in the proseminar as a way of interrogating theory or of re-envisioning their own research. In a few cases, students have taken what they learned and developed independent new courses, which they have taught elsewhere in the curriculum.

These ten collaborations over six years have succeeded on many fronts: we have exposed doctoral students to new ways of thinking about language, texts, and culture as they design and teach a freshman course with a seasoned scholar/teacher; we have enabled them to enact and test critical theory in the classroom; and we have put both traditional and new inquiry in English studies in dialogue with undergraduate reading and writing practices. Students who have taken the graduate course are now able to express forcefully how they approach the teaching of literature and culture. Faculty admit that they discovered a new energy in teaching both freshmen and graduate students by designing these collaborative courses. And crucially, we have begun to redress the unbalanced division oflabor in the department, which left writing program administrators responsible tor pedagogy. No longer can graduate students assume to be inoculated for all time in matters pedagogical by teaching freshman comp.

Extending the Reform

Ten experimental courses in six years have touched only a fraction of our doctoral students. During our ongoing partnership with the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, we intend to extend the reform, making it available to all doctoral students. Before we can adequately prepare all degree candidates to teach literature, we have to link this program to other undergraduate courses that are taught regularly and have ample enrollments. We’d like to see a version of this proseminar on the teaching of literature coordinated with the four survey courses the department oilers in world literature in English, from the middle ages to the present day. Such collaboration would have the benelits of the current version, but it would also expand the graduate student’s expertise in helpful ways, breaking down the British/American/world distinctions and stretching the historical frame to accommodate more than a century’s worth ol literature-a common range (or a graduate exam in the modern periods. The surveys themselves, we believe, would only improve. Such a change in the curriculum should benefit both the graduate and the undergraduate programs.

Yet even this addition would not give adequate room to all our graduate teachers. We would luive to alter our undeniraduate curriculum considerably to make room for such teaching assignments. And lurcher change raises further questions. To what degree should the demands of the graduate program influence the structure of our undergraduate offerings? In the past, we have had only faculty or our own PhD recipients teaching courses to majors. Are we willing to change that? In our desire to open up more occasions for faculty-graduate collaboration in the classroom, and more opportunities for graduate students to learn the art of teaching literature, we open up a host of problems, logistical as well as ethical. Given the number of requirements a PhD candidate has to fulfill, what incentive will he or she have for taking another course on pedagogy? If we require such a course, where in the curriculum do they get to teach, and who will teach them? Can we spare the faculty for these proseniinars? So far we have recruited the best teacher-scholars in the department; they have been very eager. But will we always be able to staff the course so selectively? And who will teach those composition courses while all our graduate students are busy teaching literature courses? Up to now, our department has fought hard to resist hiring on temporary, non-tenure-track lines. Do we sacrifice this stance to provide more and better teaching opportunities for our graduates, while exploiting someone clse’s graduates?

Some tricky questions have already reared up in the current experiment: Which topics work best-for attracting both graduate students and undergraduates? Will the collaboration result in a better or even a good undergraduate learning experience (from the evidence we have, the results have varied significantly)? There is evidence of strong bonds forming between graduate students and faculty in these proseminars, but does that occur at the expense of undergraduates? In the freshman course especially, there is also the danger that faculty and graduate students, in their excitement, will overload new undergraduates with the collective weight of their scholarship. Whose education is this, in the end?

We sot out on this reform aware of some of these potential problems; over the last six years, we learned about a few more. But we feel strongly that those are precisely the issues to share with graduate students hoping to enter the profession of teaching English. They are the sort of questions we need to pose to ourselves, again and again. The future of’our profession demands that we give the highest priority to thoughtful teaching and that we enlist graduate students in that task.

The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching believes that it is timely to return to first principles and ask, “What is the purpose of doctoral education?” Taken broadly, we believe the answer is to educate and prepare those to whom we can entrust the vigor, quality, and integrity of the field. These people are scholars lirst and foremost, in the fullest sense of the term. Such leaders have developed the habits of mind and the ability to do three things well: creatively generate new knowledge, critically conserve valuable and useful ideas, and responsibly transform those understandings through writing, teaching, and application. We call such people “stewards of the discipline.”

The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) is a multi-year research and action project to support departments’ efforts to more purposefully structure their doctoral programs to prepare stewards of the discipline. We have selected eightyfour participating departments in six fields of study: chemistry, education, English, history, mathematics, and neurosciences. The participating departments are critically examining their programs, implementing design experiments to improve their programs, and assessing the impact of the changes they are making.

Details of the initiative, including a list of participating departments and commissioned essays about the future of doctoral education in the six fields, are available online.


By Christine Farris, associate professor of English, and Mary Favret, associate professor of English, both at Indiana University-Bloomington

Copyright Association of American Colleges and Universities Spring 2004

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