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 them. The 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?