The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning

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The texts for my honors, learning community, and writing courses.

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall. Yes, I was part of the decision making process. Yes, I advocated for many of the books on the menu.

“Memory and Revision” is the loosely conceived theme of the fall honors course. The last time that I taught the course I imagined it as “History and Revision.” I tossed in Hamilton and The Female Review to augment the books I selected from the menu curated by the committee. (You can read more on teaching The Female Review with contemporary texts here.) These texts would still fit the theme. This time I wanted to use more contemporary texts.

My last honors class was a weird class. The students knew it was a weird class. We spent a lot of time on the things I knew best, but flew through things I wasn’t all that familiar with as a teacher or a scholar. It wasn’t a bad class, but it was off. I’m not saying the day-to-day functioning of the class was off. The texts fit together because of the theme. It was just weird. The students were troopers and helped the class work, too. Once we were all comfortable with each other we talked about the seemingly weird choices. I should have done that the first week of the semester.

This semester might be a weird mix, too. The texts themselves aren’t weird in the sense that Brie Jaquette wrote about here, but the pairings are weird. So, what is on the docket and why? Join me on a journey through this semester’s Field of Reads.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This is the summer reading. Students are asked to read this book over the summer, which I guess they will do. This text is common to all the honors classes. I advocated for the book during our meetings. Why? It was the shortest book; it was contemporary; it also seemed like the best option for students to read without any guidance. I was told it was a book that young folks often enjoyed reading. Other instructors pointed out that it worked well in class, too. I listened to an Audible version and absolutely loathed it. We’ll spend a week or two on the book at the semester’s start.

Fences and Radio Golf by August Wilson

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Book Ends: A desk copy and a personal copy

I read Fences a long time ago. I saw a production of Fences a long time ago, too. I’ve never seen or read Radio Golf. These two texts are from the menu of common texts. I advocated for the inclusion of these texts. My last three years in Pittsburgh have shown me that students don’t really know much about Pittsburgh. Many of them aren’t from Pittsburgh. Many of them claim to be from Pittsburgh, but are from suburbs or communities a good distance away.

In today’s Pittsburgh many students don’t know the history. The Pittsburgh of today hides its old self, and its long-standing problems, behind its new, glossy image as a forward-moving tech-driven city. It’s a lie. The problems Wilson addresses in his plays remain for many of Pittsburgh’s citizens. You can stand on the campus where I teach and see the legacy of Urban Renewal. You can see the interstates cutting through the downtown. You can see the luxury apartments. The food deserts. It’s all there. I advocated for Wilson’s work because the problems he details are still here in this city, even if they’re masked to many college students behind a sleek office buildings and the glossy university ad campaigns extolling the virtues of going to school downtown.

The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser

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Books of the Dead

This book isn’t part of the menu of books selected by the committee. The inclusion of this book is all on me. Rukeyser’s long poem details the story of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster and its aftermath. I’m including this book for many of the same reasons I advocated the selection of works by Wilson. Pittsburgh, of course, isn’t far from West Virginia, but West Virginia seems worlds away from Pittsburgh. I selected this text because it highlights the relationships between workers’ rights, the environment, issues of class, and issues of race. Rukeyser’s approach in The Book of the Dead fits the theme of history and memory—or memory and revision. Rukeyser’s poem is about many things, but I think justice, or more accurately injustice—or justice denied, is one of the important themes. I’m excited about including this text. I’m drawn to Rukeyser’s work because I love the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Book of the Dead
Book of the Dead of Hori, about 1969-945 BC; Cleveland Museum of Art

Rukeyser riffs off of  the ancient Egyptian text throughout her poem. I’ll be using the recently published edition of The Book of the Dead from West Virginia University Press. This new edition includes an excellent introductory essay by Catherine Venable Moore. (Read more about this landmark publication here.) As part of the unit on Rukeyser’s poem, we’ll take a look at some applicable passages from the ancient text that inspired her. Still, like the works by Wilson, it is an odd pairing with Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth and Before the Throne by Naguib Mahfouz

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This novel rates Aten out of Aten

These novels by Naguid Mahfous aren’t from the menu of committee options. I selected these texts based on the history/memory/revision theme. I also selected these works because they are contemporary texts. Plus, I thought these texts would be a nice pairing with the Egyptian themes in Rukeyser’s poem. There was also that stray email I received announcing that the Middle East as a theme this year for my university. Akhenaten tells the story of the heretic pharaoh of the same name through the perspectives of individuals that knew him. It certainly is a text that fits the theme of revision since each of the characters recount the reign of Akhenaten from their own perspective. It is also one of the few texts that I’ve actually read. I read this years ago when I was seriously considering becoming an Egyptologist. It was the summer going into my sophomore year of college. If you can’t tell I still like Ancient Egypt.

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A journey of 5000 years: From Narmer to Sadat.

The other book by Mahfouz, Before the Throne, covering nearly 5,000 years of Egyptian history, plays out through a tribunal before the court of Osiris as he and other gods of the Egyptian pantheon examine Egypt’s leaders. I hadn’t read the book until this summer, but I figured the book would fit the theme. I also see Before the Throne, with its invocation of a courtroom drama, as a fitting pairing with Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, especially because of the testimonial intertextuality of the poem. With these last three pairings we loop back to the theme of justice, too.

Let’s Get Weird
On the first day of the semester I’m planning on doing Abigail Burnham Bloom’s “First Paragraphs” activity from The Pocket Instructor: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom. (Read Shelli Homer’s review of The Pocket Instructor here.) In this exercise, students are presented a handout with all of the first paragraphs from the novels assigned for the semester. The activity serves as a way for introducing the texts and course to students. Plus, it is an activity that gets students (and the instructor) away from the standard go-over-the-syllabus-day. The activity provides an opportunity for students to meet the texts, ask questions, make connections, and start thinking about close reading.

Not Feeling So Weird
I’m about to email the book list to the students enrolled in the honors course. That soon-to-come email is the occasion for thinking about my weird class. I started writing this post because I wanted to explain my weird class, I guess, to myself. The summer is a long break between placing a book order and writing a syllabus. One can forget a lot about the solid choices that inform a book order.

Weigh In
Anubis says: Be sure to weigh in with your thoughts! Detail of a coffin at the Cleveland Museum of Art

A thousand words later and I feel a lot better about my weird class. Does your class feel weird because it needs to fulfill programmatic expectations or include texts from a menu curated from a committee? How much do you share with students about course planning and the choices that you make? We’d love to hear from you! Weigh in with a comment below or give us a shout on Twitter or Facebook!

All photos by the author.

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