Thursday, October 25, 2012

"The Nature and Culture of Love" (Syllabus Musings)

I’m going to be teaching another ENG 390 senior capstone next term.  The official title is "The Nature and Culture of Love," but I neglected to turn in a course description for the catalog, so that students would know what the course is about.  Oops!  Oh, well.  The course filled up anyway, with 25 students (8 men, 17 women), which puts me in an interesting position:  a full course for me to play with, in terms of content and structure.  So--what to do?

My original plan for the course was to reframe my work on popular romance fiction as work about the "culture of love," so that I'd have leeway to bring in films or TV shows, advice books or pop songs, really the whole panoply of love-work out there, now and in the past.  The structure I'd planned was to start with an assortment of readings about love and romance (and marriage, perhaps) from various disciplinary perspectives, followed by an in-depth inquiry into one or two primary texts, from whatever medium caught my eye.

As my current courses stagger to the finish line, however, I'm remembering something that I seem to forget whenever I put together a syllabus:  that course teaches best which teaches least, or assigns least, anyway.  The more I try to "cover," the less satisfied I usually am.  And, conversely, the smaller the assigned reading list, the more interesting I tend to find each individual class day.

What does that mean for my seminar?  Well, there are several options I’m considering, and I’m trying to figure out which would be better for me, on the theory that each of them has plusses and minuses for the students, and it's hard to know what's the best fit, in advance.

The first model is to do what I originally planned:  choose a bunch of secondary readings and then focus on one or two objects of inquiry.  I'd have to pick the secondary readings now, and keep myself from assigning too many, as I have with poets in the Love Poetry class.

The second is to do what I did with Laura Kinsale's novel Flowers from the Storm a couple of years ago, but do it with Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.  We'd spend 10 weeks on the novel:  the first four or five reading it on its own, discussing the various topics and issues that it raises, and the second half of the quarter having students do independent research projects based on those discussions, culminating in papers about the book from any number of perspectives. 

There are some obvious advantages to this approach, for me.  I’m going to be writing about this novel for the book I'm doing on Romance Fiction and American Culture--that will be my essay in the anthology--so I'll get a lot out of sustained focus on the book; likewise, I won't have to do much class prep, week by week, which will free up time for writing.  The problems I anticipate are that some students might not like the book, which can shut down class discussion, that I might have a bunch of LGBT students and / or students of color, and our only love story is a straight white one, which feels a bit sad and limiting, and that students might strike out in some pretty odd directions for their research (as they did for the Kinsale), which means less added value for me.

The third model is to choose four or five secondary sources about love or romance or marriage—books and essays that I’ve liked in the past, or am curious about now, which might give me some ideas to think with—and then spend the quarter reading them, one by one, without a specific "object of inquiry" in mind.  Students would then fan out and find a bunch of those objects, “primary texts” of their own choosing, from songs to films to TV shows to ad campaigns, and write final projects that use ideas from the secondary sources to write about the things that interest themThe advantage of this second model is that it forces me to put the time into doing some of the secondary reading that I’d like to do anyway, like Simon May’s book about the history of love or Eva Illouz’s new book.  The disadvantage is, I’d then be reading those books, plus the books for my other class, a popular romance survey, and that’s a lot of reading—harder to find the time to edit and write.

Option four?  Choose one thinker with a couple of relevant books (say, Eva Illouz), rather than one object of inquiry. Spend half the class getting to know that person's ideas, and then do the fanning-out bit, using them to study whatever catches our eye.  I mention Illouz because I think she's relevant to the Phillips novel, but also because she's someone new in my mind--and I'm learning in the Love Poetry class that going back to someone I've taught for years (like Anne Carson) doesn't seem to be as exciting or interesting for me as reading someone new.  I had a "Kristeva seminar" in grad school that looked like this:  10 weeks on several books by Julia Kristeva, with us students doing the application of the ideas to readings we chose, in conjunction with the professor.  

Thoughts, friends?  From a professorial or student perspective--or just as folks who know me, at least through the blog?


Laura Vivanco said...

Could you combine 2 and 3? I.e. you start out with one text but find "four or five secondary sources" that tie in with different themes/elements of that source. And then, once you've discussed those things, send the students off to do independent research projects.

It strikes me that Crusie's Bet Me would be a very good primary text from which to branch out because it's actually about competing views and experiences of love. In addition to the science vs. fairytale explanations of love (which could encourage some of the students to look at other scientific views of love, such as Sternberg's, and/or other "fairytale" versions, such as fate/soul mates), there's

* popular music (I have a feeling there's quite a bit of this, including the music played by Cal's friend when she's going through a break-up). Would that tie in with the research being done by John Storey? RemittanceGirl wrote that he'd discussed "the use of pop songs as emblems of heartbreak and revisiting romance in memory"

* film (I think - certainly there's at least one Disney couple in a snow-globe)

* body image and how that relates to attraction/love

* wedding planning (I think that would tie in well with the Illouz because she has something to say about consumerism and romance, hasn't she? Maybe I'm thinking of White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture by Chrys Ingraham, which certainly critiques the white and heterosexual and consumerist nature of depictions of "white" weddings.

* you've got some LGBT characters

* you've got some characters who choose not to include children in their HEA.

* the novel also brings up the issue of working at marriage (i.e. what happens during the "happy ever after")

Since you mention your worry that "I anticipate [...] that some students might not like the book, which can shut down class discussion," I'll admit that my suggestion sort of addresses this, because I was thinking about what I would/would not like were I a student:

(1) I've tried reading Illouz, and I found the first chapter of one of her books such hard going I stopped. I didn't have that problem with the Ingraham. It just strikes me that if someone takes the course without advance warning that it's going to be all about one thinker, and they don't click with that thinker/get much out of their work, it's going to be a really tough course for them to get through.

(2) I much prefer the relationship dynamics in Crusie's novels to those in the SEPs I've read (though admittedly I haven't read Natural Born Charmer. I also think that the range of characters and relationships in Bet Me is quite wide, since it depicts relationships in a variety of different stages, and with a variety of different outcomes, and that would seem to fit well with a course that wants to explore a variety of ideas about, and experiences of, love.

I also have the feeling that you've taught Bet Me before, so maybe you could build on some of the stuff you've already taught?

E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks, Laura, for the thoughtful reply! You're quite right about the dangers in pegging the whole class to a single thinker; I hadn't thought of that.

I hadn't thought about Bet Me, but you're right--it's a natural fit for a class that looks at love from multiple perspectives. Students haven't all loved the novel, the last few times that I've taught it. (The issue of weight in it rubs some the wrong way, although that can turn into a useful class discussion.) But if they had the opportunity to choose a text of their own for the final project, that might be a way to sidestep the problem.

Of course, this doesn't have me focused on the novel I'm writing about (the Phillips), but since I know Bet Me quite well, the investment of time wouldn't be all that great, and I could put the Phillips into my survey. Hm.

In the past, I've done a course model that involved reading a novel, then revisiting it through secondary sources I selected. That's worked well enough, although hasn't been quite as fun as reading the novel without having anything ordered or on reserve, but coming up with the reading list "on the fly," so to speak, as the discussion proceeds.

Perhaps my next step is to brainstorm a list or two of relevant secondary sources, and then go from there. If I do, I'll post it over at TMT, since a list of sources relevant to Bet Me would probably be of interest to other romance scholars.

Thanks again!

Laura Kinsale said...

I probably shouldn't ask, but I can't help but wonder what sort of "pretty odd" directions your students took in that earlier class. ;)

helenajust said...

I've just come over from LiveJournal and skimmed a few of your earlier posts. I noted that you have too much to do (how rare!) and also that you spend a minimum of four hours a week driving to school in term time. It just occurred to me that you could use that time time to get some of your reading done, by listening to audio books. Obviously you won't be able to take notes, but if (for example) you find you have several romances to read then this is a good way to do a first "read". In fact I find I pay more attention listening to books, because you can't really skim and you "read" every word.

Just a thought! (Although it would be a shame to cut back on your music education, especially as you seem to be getting into some good British bands!)

E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks for the comment, Helena! My latest listening pleasure (again thanks to my son) is Mavis Staples' latest CD, "You Are Not Alone," which is something of a collaboration with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. It's wonderful; highly recommended!

Laura, An liked your suggestion about "Bet Me," but suggested that I add a second Crusie novel for contrast and context. This idea is starting to grow on me, since I've had very good experiences recently teaching "Fast Women," and it's a sharp contrast (in tone, structure, and theme) with "Bet Me."

The other model I'm now toying with, based on some syllabi I found online, is one based on readings about love, but with no "final project" involved. We'd work through a series of topics or questions, with an assortment of articles or chapters or other short readings for each. I'm going to post about that model over at TMT, linking to and talking about a course at Brown University that has a very interesting set of topics and readings listed. (They get a semester to work with, not a quarter, which makes me very jealous suddenly!)

E. M. Selinger said...

Oh! I forgot--one thing that I might do if I go with the two novels is to put together a bibliography of suggested supplementary materials, and maybe a reserve shelf, but not require the purchase of those particular books about myth or marriage or divorce or what have you. That way we wouldn't be locked in to a particular set of readings, but students wouldn't have to start from scratch--after all, I already know both books, and have a sense of some of the supplementary materials that might work.

If I go this route, I'll certainly post those lists as well!