Syllabus #2

American Literature I and II
Spring/Fall 1991

Professor Laura Damon
Niagara County Community College

About the structure of her course, Professor Damon writes:

Thank you for your request for a copy of the syllabus for the American Literature I and II courses I teach using the Heath Anthology. Frankly, the syllabus changes with each semester because it is student - driven. I use the three-part structure of the text and divide each semester into thirds. Within each section, the students (who work in groups of five to six) choose authors whose works they wish to read. I supplement their choices, adding authors I want them to read. From these selections, the calendar/syllabus is developed. By asking students to make decisions, it has been my experience that they thus invest more in the whole course and are more willing to do a thorough job on papers and the oral presentations which I require. This method also "shifts the chalk;" students are frequently in charge of class discussions. Their own assessment is that they know they cannot bluff and so are thorough with their research and presentation. When a student is making a presentation, I simply highlight salient points.

At the conclusion of each of the three sections, I ask the students to create the examination for that period. As groups, they collaborate and write the exam question(s) for the authors on whom they have focused. In order to avoid picayune questions, I ask them to consider what they hope their classmates will remember about "their" author ten years from now. The results to date have been fair, tough, thoughtful exams (which we refer to as "opportunities"). I enclose a few samples.

The only drawback to this method is that the instructor should be familiar with the entire text in order to fill in the gaps that inevitably occur. The advantages are far greater; the instructor does not get "stale," and the students assume an extraordinary degree of responsibility for their own learning.


SELECT TWO FROM THIS SECTION: Do NOT write on an author about whom you have written a paper.


1. American Indian culture was (and is) different in many ways. Their stories were the frame of their ways. Demonstrate how their stories explained their understanding of life and their "differentness."

2. "The Mayflower Compact" was written by Bradford and represented a new way of thinking about human relationships that has profoundly affected political writing and thinking ever since its composition. Support this statement.

3. John Winthrop referred frequently to his sense of the importance of the early settlers establishing a "City on the Hill." Though the source of the idea was Biblical, the implications were political, and ultimately, had impact on writers of this and later periods. Cite and explain at least three other authors (from any period) who might subscribe to the "missionary" sense of Americans as a special people.

4. Michael Wigglesworth's "The Day of Doom" is a long poem written with a keen awareness of poetic "rules." What was his purpose in writing this way?

5. The women whose writing is represented in our text from this period (Bradstreet, Rowlandson, Knight) had particular purposes for their writing, but did you find them "small" voices or predicters of the increasing importance of the female voice in American Literature?

6. One American trait evident in much of the early literature is a sense of guilt. Ministers exploited this sense in their sometimes passionate sermons and journal writing. Public figures were sometimes "driven" to confess or to leave the community. Discuss this statement with reference to at least two authors.



1. Phillis Wheatley's writing was significant for several reasons. What were (at least) three of these reasons?

2. Benjamin Franklin's publications from Poor Richard's Almanac to his articles in The Courant gained widespread popularity. What factors contributed to his success?

3. Crevecour and Paine wrote of the terrible, wrenching dilemma that the impending American Revolution might mean for the individual and for the country. How convincingly did they (both should be discussed) present their cases?

4. Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence because he was one of the greatest writers of his day. Support this statement.

5. The optimism of the Revolutionary period affected many. Among them were Abigail Adams and Judith Sargent Murray, who addressed the issue of equality for women. What were some of the techniques each used to convince their readers?

6. During this period of American Literary history, a wider variety of (minority) voices was being heard. Why did this happen and what were the issues raised by at least two of the "lesser-known" authors?



1. In Cooper's novels a great attitudinal change about the American wilderness occurred. What was the attitude (specific citation of an author would be convincing), and what was the change represented by Cooper?

2. Poe carefully explained how he constructed a particular poem. Do you find evidence that all of his works were constructed in a similar manner? Explain thoroughly.

3. In his essay "Self-Reliance" Emerson said "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (1516) . What did he mean by that? What was he encouraging in this essay? Of what value might this essay have been at the time he wrote it?

4 . What Frederick Douglass wrote (and spoke) about was powerful and profoundly affecting on the political arena of his time. As this is a literature course, assess the power of HOW he wrote with specific reference(s) from the text.

5. Henry David Thoreau was not only a writer of great skill, but also a man with excellent perceptions of the human problems of his time. Many of the problems he wrote about still exist in 1991. What are at least two of those problems, and what did Thoreau have to say about them that struck you as insightful?

6 . Clear in his writing is Hawthorne's thesis that the imposition of standards (another individual's or the community's) was destructive (figuratively and literally) to the individual. Discuss with specific reference to two samples.

7. Although her characters were "shallow" and many of the situations "contrived," the impact of Stowe's novels was profound. How do you account for the power of her writing?

8. In Billy Budd, Sailor Melville frequently announces that he is going to deviate from the path of the narrative. Frustrating as this may be to 1991 readers, what purpose was served by these deviations?

9. How do you identify the author of this poem:

A Coffin - is a small Domain -

Yet able to contain

A Citizen of Paradise

In its diminished Plane

10. Independent thinking is something most of us admire. Whitman certainly encouraged this in the subjects and the style of his poetry as he made the style suit the subject rather than the more traditional approach of forcing the subject into a rigid form. Support this statement and explain how it affected your reading of Whitman's poetry .

Bonus: For what would you be willing to go to jail? Not a careless question; since many of the authors we've read this semester were risk-takers who carefully thought about principles and action based on those principles, one would hope that you have also made some careful decisions.



Choose one of the following and prepare your answer. In all cases, choose three authors from the Modern period as examples, excluding the one on whom you have written a paper.

1. The authors you selected to read in the Modern section of the book are among the most famous, most widely read American authors in history. Recently, there has been a debate among teachers of literature that such authors (who form part of that is called the "canon") have caused less widely read authors to be cast in the shadows. Many teachers now advocate abandoning the canon in favor of giving the "unknowns" their place in literary history. Make a case for including these lesser known authors in American literature textbooks.

2. I see many similar issues that are shared by our authors. Among them:

* the generation gap, the treatment of women, the individual versus society

* perceived or real social custom(s), old values versus a search for (or abandonment of) new values

* animosity between the sexes

3. The introduction to the Modern Section of our text states, "Modernism asks us to reconsider what we understand ... [as] the center of culture" (934), that "new styles of writing were necessary to express new ideas and values" (935); "what society often treasured as its central beliefs - in decency, in the necessity for hard work, in the desirability of order and respect was what Modern art called into question" (937).

Given this spirit of alienation in most of the authors we have read, we, the readers, should feel uncomfortable. Select three authors and point out what made you (or might have made readers of 1910-1945) feel uncomfortable; why this is so, and what the author seemed to be questioning, reconsidering, and/or valuing.

Contents, No. VII