Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”

BIG BOOKS 3

A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?

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Teaching Failure: Aunt Phillis’s Cabin

PALS blog contributors highlight their best teaching experiences and most successful lesson plans as a means to inspire other educators in the field of American literary studies. Yet all of us have had experiences when we were not at our best, we let our students down, or something just did not work in the classroom. Acknowledging our teaching failures, along with our successes, is part of a reflective pedagogical practice that ultimately enhances our own teaching and our students’ learning.

Looking back on it, I can now see that assigning Aunt Phillis’s Cabin (1852) by Mary H. Eastman, a pro-slavery response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was a bad idea. A very, very bad idea. Yet even this teaching failure was an opportunity for pedagogical reflection that has helped me rethink what I am trying to do in my classroom when I ask my students to consider the legacies of slavery and racism in American literature.

In fall 2015, I taught a freshman seminar entitled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An American Classic on Trial.” The purpose of the course was to familiarize first-year students with Stowe’s novel, its popularity, its problematic racial politics, and its cultural longevity. While we studied its success as an abolitionist novel, we also considered Stowe’s use of pernicious racist stereotypes. We read both glowing and critical nineteenth-century reviews of the novel along with James Baldwin’s scathing critique, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” At the end of the semester, students read Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987), another portrayal of nineteenth-century slavery, escape, and redemption. I wanted students to see all perspectives on Stowe’s novel—positive, negative, historical, contemporary—in order to think about the power of literature to change the world.

Because this seminar was also a general education requirement connected to the teaching of writing and critical thinking skills, we examined how the novel used specific characters to make anti-slavery or rebut pro-slavery arguments. To that end, the class learned about “anti-Tom novels” by southern authors, a plethora of which appeared soon after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These responses to Stowe’s successful novel were written with the aims of “defending the plantation as a good place… [and] depicting blacks as either happy in slavery or racially aunt phillis cabinunfit for freedom.” Aunt Phillis’s Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is was the most popular of these novels, selling 20,000-30,000 copies.

I assigned Aunt Phillis’s Cabin as an example of the pro-slavery arguments Stowe had to address so that my students could better appreciate the milieu in which her work was originally written and received. Since the novel responded to specific scenes and characters from Stowe’s work, reading it would engender discussions of intertextuality and deepen students’ thinking about the success, popularity, and effectiveness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an abolitionist novel. The students had already researched the various pro-slavery and anti-slavery debates in the nineteenth-century, including nineteenth-century theories of racial difference, but as I found, they were not prepared to read Eastman’s novel.

They hated everything about the book. First, it is an overtly racist novel and many students were distressed and upset by that. Some of the students thought I was presenting Eastman’s pro-slavery novel as a literary and moral equal to Stowe’s abolitionist novel—just another “equally good” perspective. Second, it is poorly written and very bad literature. I had planned for us to discuss its cultural significance, not its literary merit. But that did not matter.

After reading Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, the students came to class outraged. They did not want to discuss the questions about intertextuality and argumentation I had carefully prepared for class discussion. They just kept asking, “Why did you make us read this?” For these first-year students, the fact that a college professor had assigned this book and placed it on a syllabus signaled the book’s legitimacy. I soon realized that whatever pedagogical point I was trying to make by teaching the novel was lost.

I clarified the reasons why I had assigned the novel, and then admitted that my reasons were no longer relevant based on the class’s unified reaction. I told the students that their response was so strong that I would never teach Eastman’s novel again in that course. (If I ever need to explain “anti-Tom literature” in upper-division American literature classes, I will provide an excerpt.) I apologized to the students, specifically to those who were upset by the racism expressed in Aunt Phillis’s Cabin. I encouraged students to come to my office hours if they wanted to discuss their concerns with me more.

I had built enough rapport with the students over the semester to assure them that I was not trying to provide a platform for Eastman’s racist worldview. I cut the novel from the syllabus altogether and gave students the option to write about something else for the response paper I had assigned on Aunt Phillis’s Cabin. To be sure, many students wrote on the novel anyway and had a great time tearing it to shreds.

The next week we moved on to reading Beloved which is a challenging, explicit, and controversial novel, but one written to expose the racist legacies of slavery, not to perpetuate that racism. Today those students—who will graduate in May— tell me that Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved are among the best books they read in college. I query them hopefully, “I bet you don’t even remember that one book that everyone in the class hated. What was it called again? Aunt Phillis’s Cabin or something like that?” Nope. They still remember.

I realize now that even if I had sound pedagogical reasons for teaching a pro-slavery novel that the effect it had on my students and my classroom was not worth it. Indeed, racist and white supremacist discourse has received so much renewed legitimacy in recent years that I would rather use precious class time and syllabus space to amplify unequivocally anti-racist voices—to the extent that I no longer even teach Stowe. The seminar on Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a useful pedagogical exercise to help students think through the complicated racist politics of Stowe’s day and our own. But I now believe it is more pedagogically responsible to teach inspiring examples of social justice and anti-racist activism through the work of writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, William Wells Brown, Pauline Hopkins, and Charles Chesnutt.

To my students from that 2015 seminar who had to suffer through Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, I’ll say it again: I am so, so sorry! As you go into the world and make it a better place, I know that each of you will follow Harriet Beecher Stowe’s commandment to “feel right.” But I also know you will do more than that as you live your values of equality of justice. You are going to follow the spirit of Sojourner Truth and make this nation “rock like a cradle.”