Asking Canonical Questions in Undergraduate Courses

by Martha A. Bartter
Northeast Missouri State University

For some time, I have been experimenting with ways to offer students the opportunity to make choices in their selection of course materials. This experiment stems from several sources: the incentive to create "active learning" situations in our classes (a major emphasis at NMSU); a desire to raise questions about authority in canon formation at a fundamental level; and the sheer necessity of cutting down the wonderful, intimidating richness of readings in an American literature course.

(At Northeast we offer two core courses and six majors courses in American Literature. Core courses consist of the two expected surveys; majors courses include Literature of American Minorities; Early American Literature; American Romanticism; American Naturalism/Realism; Modern American Literature, and Contemporary American Literature. None of these can be taught without making hard choices about readings.)

I began my experiment in the fall of 1992 by creating a syllabus for Modern American Literature and asking each student to sign up to present two readings. I made a list of the writers we were going to cover (both from the anthology and from other assigned texts) and gave the list to students tosign up, a tactic which had two intrinsic problems: the people who got to sign up first naturally got their first choices, while those who happened to sit farther down the line did not; and presenting groups were created arbitrarily rather than by choice. After consulting with me, the groups did the necessary background research, created the opening lecture which they submitted in the form of a paper, and led the discussion for the day. Despite the problems that seemed inherent in this method, I was pleased with the students' efforts and the success they had in presenting their assignments. Both the group papers and individual term papers showed that a good deal of leaming had taken place.

During the summer of 1993, I attended a NCTE workshop on Nineteenth Century American Women Writers, where much of the discussion centered around problems involved in prying open the syllabus to fit them in: did they belong there? what (favorite text) would have to go? how (as several men kept repeating) could we justify spending our valuable class time on them? Following this, I heard Paul Lauter discussing the same problem, from his very different standpoint: this was our opportunity to create something wholly new, not just to "fix" the old canon. I had already decided to use The Heath Anthology of American Literature for my Early American Literature class in the fall; now I was inspired to try more ways to open literature for my classes. Paul mentioned a paper he had seen on exactly this question, written by Anne Bower, with whom I had worked at Ohio State University at Marion. At my request, Anne sent me a pre-publication copy (it should now be available in The Canon in the Classroom, edited by John Alberti, from Garland Press). She had tried, and succeeded, in having the survey course play a major role in selecting the readings. She wants, as she says, "to introduce the concept that American literature is something we create" so she has chosen "methodology in which the students "do" American literature."

Her reasoning fit my own concerns about pedagogy, hierarchy, and authority structures. I redesigned the fall course: for the first two weeks we would work on one of the three novels I had chosen; during the semester, we would read the other assigned novels (though students could volunteer to present them); and each student would choose one reading to "do," by presenting a justification for the inclusion of that author. I would then sort out the readings and create a complete syllabus. A series of problems immediately presented themselves: since I had not asked them to form groups, each student chose a writer and resisted teaming up with another student; no one chose to present one of the novels, which meant that I had thirty-four different authors presented by thirty four students to fit into fifteen weeks, two class meetings a week, with two weeks already gone and two more dedicated to the novels. The students didn't mind sharing the class period; in fact, they seemed relieved. The rest of the class, trying to keep up with the reading, was not. (And often the presenters ran over their allotted time, so that the waiting classmate got shortchanged. Worse yet, in discussing the role of the canon and the opportunity they had to restructure it, I had not sufficiently stressed the limits of the period involved; why couldn't they present Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in Early American Literature? The logistics were formidable. Worst of all, creating a sensible concatenation of texts seemed impossible. I opted for the simplest expedient, and followed the Anthology sequence.

Then I heard about the forthcoming Syllabus Builder software. I leaned on my Division to supply me with a computer capable of running Windows 3.1; I (politely) blackmailed Heath into sending me a pre-publication copy of the program, by promising to write this report. This fall, I made my first foray into computer- enhanced canon-construction in my Modern American Literature class. From the index, I listed all the writers in the Modern period, grouping them loosely into categories rather than chronologically. I wanted at least one author from each category to be represented. Those writers I considered indispensable, I listed in capital letters-students could choose them or not, but they would be included. Those groupings which had many very short items (poetry, sayings, etc.), I clustered students who chose them would select the readings for their classmates from the cluster. And I encouraged the formation of groups no more than three to a group, but still reducing the number of presentations, so that each presenter would have a full class period.

After receiving the lists of authors, with justifications, chosen by the groups, I used the Syllabus Builder to sort them into what I hoped would be a useful sequence: writers who had significant influence on one another could go together, while those who stood in lonely magnificence could do so on the syllabus as well. Furthermore, I printed out the helpful discussion of each selected writer from the Instructor's Guide (included in the Syllabus Builder) and gave each group their relevant section. I felt this to be a risk-would the students simply follow those teaching prompts as gospel, rather than feeling their own way into their chosen topic? I worried. They were pleased and grateful to be entrusted with such professional material, and (so far) have gone far beyond these suggestions.

The responsibility of each group includes: meeting with me the week before they present, to discuss tactics and appropriate readings; announcing to their classmates the texts to be covered; explaining any preparatory homework they have devised; presenting the work and any background material they feel is relevant; and leading the Discussion. Our campus has a computer network accessible to all students; I created a private on-line conference for the class. They also enter their assignments on the on-line conference, to inform those who were absent (or absent-minded.) I make sure that their supplementary materials get copied and distributed; that a video unit is available if requested; and cope with questions that exceed the presenters' expertise. So far, this has not been much of a problem. I feel very much like a participant rather than "the authority" who must lead it.

To exert a kind of quality control, I have asked each student to prepare either a question that has come up while doing the preparatory reading, or a comment on the author or work to hand in at the end of each class period. This gives me some idea of how well they are dealing with the literature. I expect soon to ask that they also evaluate their own learning process; I expect to find that they will consider it to be quite as high as if I had created the lectures and led the discussions, if not higher. Certainly the midterm exams are encouraging.

This is the handout from which the class chose the works to present:

Works listed in CAPS will be read. If they are not already scheduled, you may choose to present them. Sections listed as {Connected} should be considered as a unit. Presenters may choose which and how many works from the section they wish the class to read and discuss.

A. Preface:

1. HENRY ADAMS (883)
2. Textual discussion: "THE MODERN PERIOD" (950-980)

B. Drama:

1. Eugene O'Neill (1330)
3. Clifford Odets (1786)

C. The Black Experience: {Connected}

1. Booker T. Washington (982)
2. W.E.B. Du Bois (1009)
3. James Weldon Johnson (1033)

D. Women (experiments in realism)

1. Ellen Glasgow (1065)
2. Edith Wharton (1077)
3. Willa Cather (1131)
4. Susan Glaspell (1168)
5. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1246)
6. Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1369)
7. Louise Bogan (1517)

E. New Directions:

1. Edwin Arlington Robinson(1055)
2. Edgar Lee Masters (1125)
3. Robinson Jeffers (1180)
4. ROBERT FROST (1191)
5. Sherwood Anderson (1211)
6. Theodore Dreiser (1219)
7. William Carlos Williams (1310)
8. Hart Crane (1565)

F. "Alienation and Literary Experimentation" (1256)

1. Ezra Pound (1257)
2. Amy Lowell (1282)
4. Djuna Bames (1363)
5. H.D. (1380)
6. e.e. cummings (1421)
7. T. S. ELIOT (1435)
8. Marianne Moore (1506)
10. Wallace Stevens (1530)

G. Political Poetry: {Connected}

1. Joseph Kalar (1392)
2. Kenneth Fearing (1393)
3. Alfred Hayes (1394)
4. Tillie Lemer Olsen (I396)
5. Kay Boyle (1398)
6. Langston Hughes (1402)
7. Lola Ridge (1407)
8. Edwin Rolfe (1408)
9. Genevieve Taggard (1414)

H. "The 'New Negro' Renaissance (1579)

1. Alain Locke (1583)
2. Jean Toomer (1593)
4. Countee Cullen (1644)
5. Assorted (Short) Poetry: {Connected) a)Gwendolyn B. Bennett(1651), b)Arna Bontemps (1655), c) Sterling A. Brown (1656), d) Claude McKay (1689), e) Anne Spencer (1696), f) Blues Lyrics (1722)
7. Nella Larsen (1699)
8. George Samuel Schuyler (1714)

I. "Issues and Visions in Modern America" (1729)

2. Political Writings: {connected} a) Meridel LeSueur (1805), b) John Dos Passos (1743)
3. Black Issues: {Connected} a) Richard Wright (1886), b) Saunders Redding (1911)
4. Immigrant Issues: {connected} a) Michael Gold (1755), b) Albert Maltz (1765), c) Anzia Yezierska (1863), d) Pietro Di Donato (1919), e) Younghill Kang, (1948), f) Carved on the Walls: Poetry by Early Chinese Immigrants (1956)
5. Native American Issues: {Connected} a) Thomas S. Whitecloud (1819), b) D'Arcy McNickle (1824), c) Mourning Dove (1929), d) John Joseph Matthews (1937),
6. Agrarian/Fugitive Writing & Criticism:{Connected} a) Robert Penn Warren (1832), b) John Crowe Ransom (1844), c) Allen Tate (1851)
7. John Steinbeck (1872)

This is the original syllabus:

Modern American Literature
Required Texts:

The Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. 2
Thornton Wilder, Our Town
Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Course Objectives:

1.) To study the works of a selection of the American authors who wrote and published between 1900 and 1947.

2.) To consider some of the ways that these writers defined themselves, their culture, and "America," and to disclose some of the problems with which they engaged.

3.) To discuss canon formation, narrative strategies, and the rise of social fiction.

4.) To introduce the concept of modernism especially as applied to language acts and other expressive forms.

5.) To distinguish the conventions of genre: drama, fiction, prose criticism, and poetry, and ways they have changed during this period; to better understand the meaning(s) of the term "literary period."

Course Format:

This course will consist largely of discussion, much of which will be led by you and your classmates. Your attendance and attention will set the dynamics of the course. Each of you will select a work to present, by yourself or (preferably) with a small group; this presentation will require research and thought on your part, for the presentation and for the work you will devise for your classmates as preparation for the discussion.

Before class, read the headnotes (if any) and works carefully, marking passages which seem significant to you, looking up words you don't know, and thinking of questions to ask presenters about the work. Bring your questions to class in writing; you will be asked to submit them at the end of the class. They may conceivably appear on the next quiz and/or exam. Sign your question sheets. Your questions will count as part of your participation grade.

An e-mail conference will be available for this class. Each student should activate his or her log-on ID. I hope this conference will constitute a forum for preliminary discussion and postmortem assessment of the various writers and works we shall study. Any changes in class schedule or assignments will also be posted on this conference. I will monitor the discussion. Participation in the conference is voluntary; it will not take the place of class attendance.

Each student has five important responsibilities in this course; without the active participation of each of you, this course cannot succeed.
(A) You will select and lead discussion of one of our readings;
(B) You will be present and participate in the discussions;
(C) You will have read the assigned selection before coming to class, and have completed any note-taking, or thinking assignment as well;
(D) As we develop the term papers or projects, you will critique other students' work and receive commentary from them;
(E) Whenever things aren't clear, you are expected to speak up.

By Thursday, 8 September, you will create a committee of no more than three people; jointly choose a work on which you will lead the discussion, either from the anthology or one of the assigned works; and turn in a short declaration of purpose: why you chose that work, and how you plan to present it. The week before you present, you will confer with me about assignments, tactics, etc.

Attendance at all classes is strongly encouraged. Many quiz and exam questions will come from material discussed during class, as will specific requirements for papers and presentations.

Format: All papers should be word processed or typed and formatted in MLA style. You should submit your notes and drafts when you turn in your paper.

a.) Mini-papers should not exceed 3-4 pages in length. In a mini-paper, you should state a question or problem that has come up for you in one or more of the texts we have read, and explore it thoughtfully. You do not have to solve, answer, or research it beyond careful reading of your texts. b.) Major paper or project must present evidence of careful research. Your bibliography should be carefully selected but reasonably thorough, and properly presented.

Full credit for this class requires two activities: 1.) Choosing, planning, researching, drafting, and presenting your chosen author/work, which will require

a.) independent and group time
b.) a conference with me the week before you present, in which to i.) explain your plans and procedures ii.) develop your class assignments iii.) request necessary support services (video, copying, etc.)

2.) The final project or paper, which should derive (in some way, not necessarily obvious) from the topics and questions you explored in your mini-papers. It should represent:

a.) the development of a valid (answerable or at least researchable) question on some aspect of Modern American Literature and/or its connection to other forms of art that sincerely interests you;
b.) careful reading among several authors, and critical thinking about that aspect of Modern American Literature;
c.) and properly documented research which illuminates your chosen aspect of Modern American Literature,
d.) all is pulled together in a paper or project that demonstrates your skills in logic, analysis, composition, documentation etc. This paper should be long enough to deal competently with a (focused and limited) subject you have deemed sufficiently interesting to say useful things about, and no longer.

And this is my completed worksheet, with the students' selections entered, and showing ideas and cross-references I took from the Syllabus Builder. (Naturally, I didn't give the students all my working notes.)

369 Syllabus

Week 1:
30 August: "Modernism" - an introductory discussion.
1 September: Discuss "The Dynamo and the Virgin" (Heath 883) and "Toward the Modern Age" (Heath 981)

Week 2:
6 September: Discuss "Issues and Visions in Modem America" (Heath 1729)
8 September: Discuss "Trans-National America" (Heath 1730) Submit your choice(s) of author/work to present

Week 3:
13 September: "Our Town"
15 September: "Our Town"

Week 4:
20 September: Robert Frost (contrast with Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot; compare with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Edward Arlington Robinson)
22 September: Edith Wharton (contrast with Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; Mark Twain; Upton Sinclair; Henry James)

Week 5:
27 September: Sherwood Anderson
29 September: Robinson Jeffers (compare with Euripedes, Lucretius, Shelley, Nietzsche, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Roethke)
First Mini-paper due

Week 6:
4 October: Edna St. Vincent Millay (compare with Keats for sonnet; Pre-Raphaelite and other Victorians for lyric; Robinson, MacLeish, Frost, Masters for contemporary American poets)
6 October: Theodore Dreiser (although Faulkner wasn't yet on the scene, this reflects stream-of-consciousness like his & Joyce)

Week 7:
11 October: Ezra Pound (compare with Eliot, Hemingway, H.D. His personal voice anticipates Ginsberg, Lowell, Plath)
13 October: Gertrude Stein (self-consciously American: compare with Dickinson, Whitman, James, Wharton, Dreiser, Norris; also Hemingway. Cluster Eliot, Pound, Stein.)

(14 October: Mid-term, no classes)

Week 8:
18 October: T. S. Eliot (compare Pound, Frost, Williams, Stevens)
20 October: T. S. Eliot (Williams and Stevens criticize him)
Second Mini-paper due

Week 9:
25 October: Booker T. Washington (compare Douglass, Chesnutt)
27 October: Langston Hughes (compare, contrast Sandburg, Whitman, McKay)

Week 10:
1 November: Assorted Short Poetry
3 November: Zora Neale Hurston (Langston Hughes, Alice Walker)

Week 11:
8 November: "Hills Like White Elephants" (1524); In Our Time (Eliot, The Waste Land)
10 November: In Our Time

Week 12:
15 November: John Steinbeck (Hemmingway, Faulkner)
17 November: William Faulkner (Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Wright, Wharton, Garland; Twain, Morrison, Oates; American Gothic tradition: Charles Brockden Brown, Poe, Hawthome, O'Connor; Gilman, Dickinson, Plath)
Third Mini-paper due

Week 13:
22 November: Tillie Lerner Olsen (or Political Group-the students chose Olsen, but she has only a very small entry under "Modernism" - if the students wanted to do her alone, they would have to assign the short story also. It's their choice.)

(23 November: begin Thanksgiving Holiday)

Week 14:
29 November: Native American Issues (Copway, Apess, Eastman, Bonnin; Welch, Erdrich)
1 December: Peer edit final papers/ projects. Bring all materials, drafts, notes, sketches, etc.

Week 15:
6 December: Invisible Man
Graduating Seniors must have all work in.
8 December: Invisible Man and wrap. Final paper/project due.
12 December: Final Exam 1:30-3:20 p.m.

We haven't finished the semester yet, but the feedback I've had so far is very positive. Moreover, using the Syllabus Builder, the job has been far less onerous than it was before.

Contents, No. XII