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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Food and Material Culture in the Classroom

Today, we’ll explore an easy way of incorporating food and material culture in the classroom. I’ll be using a specific case study from my recent What the Founders Read course. Blending food and material culture together provides students a way of considering the global economy during the eighteenth century. Thinking about food and material culture together provides a way of demonstrating how slavery touched many of life’s aspects. This approach is especially useful when the pieces we read don’t specifically mention slavery.

The inspiration for this post comes from a chocolate-drinking Snake.

Sheridan
Portrait of Sheridan at The Frick Pittsburgh

When first entering the world of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, readers meet Lady Sneerwell and Snake. Snake is a dubious character that supplies periodicals with scandalous rumor-mongering “paragraphs.” At the start of the play, Sheridan provides a rather curious stage direction: Lady Sneerwell at the dressing-table, Snake drinking chocolate. It is an oddly specific detail in a play that includes few details about its staging. When I reread the line describing Snake as drinking chocolate, I recognized a moment in the text where students could think beyond what is happening on stage. They could use this space in the text to engage with the economy of the Atlantic World and slavery. Additionally, considering this brief line would invite students to think about how plays might be staged. What sorts of decisions might a director make in order to capture the world of the play?

In a previous post I wrote about the problems of my What the Founders Read course. In my original post I detailed how I made choices driven by ensuring that the class would make and that the class would receive approval as a cross-listed course. Over the long-term, I wanted to introduce students to complex issues regarding Founders Chic, marginalized voices in the history of the United States, and the topic of slavery. I could not jump into all these topics right away because I needed to build an incremental narrative. However, surveying students early in the semester revealed that there was dissatisfaction with how the course was progressing and telling some of these narratives. As the creator of the class I had the benefit of knowing what I was thinking and I could see the long game I was planning. Still, I needed ways to foreground aspects of the class that touched on slavery. The opening anecdote of Snake drinking chocolate provided a way of thinking about the ramifications of a global economy and slavery.

book cover.jpg

I wanted to use the opening of The School for Scandal to invite students to consider drinking chocolate and the accoutrements one would need in a play— or in real life— to enjoy their chocolate. I asked students to think about drinking chocolate and its ingredients. I explained what this particular chocolate drink was like, and then I asked them to think about the possible ingredients. Once they came up with ideas I shared with them the drinking chocolate recipe from Walter Staib’s A Sweet Taste of History. I shared with students the ingredients from Staib’s modernized version of eighteenth-century drinking chocolate. I drew their attention to chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Next, I asked students to take some class time to research each of those ingredients and identify where they were sourced, specifically especially in the 18th century.

ingreds

Next, I drew a (very bad) map on the board. I marked ingredient sources on the map as students revealed them. The map provided a way for students to see the economy of the eighteenth century. As the map began to fill up, I identified how these ingredients were obtained, produced, sourced, and sold within this economy. It provided a way to draw attention to the fact that many of these ingredients were not possible without the systems of slavery.

table
Tea Table, The Met

Once we had a sense of what actually went into the recipe for drinking chocolate, I invited students to consider all of the objects that one would need in order to drink chocolate. We would need a cup one student said. Another added a pitcher. It was harder to tease out a table and chairs, but we did. By considering the objects needed to enjoy drinking chocolate students had a way to consider the role of material culture in the period we were studying and the play itself. I’d already defined material culture in a previous class as part of a quick introduction to book history. I spent some time explaining the role of mahogany in the production of furniture, along with its connections to slavery. To further illustrate these objects I shared with students images of silverware and furniture from the digital collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

my cookies

This unit sounds like I did a lot of leading. There was some leading with what I did. However, I did interject an element of excitement into the classroom because I served chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. In a perfect world, we’d have made drinking chocolate. Instead, we settled for cookies. The cookies allowed me to highlight similar ingredients found in drinking chocolate such as chocolate, sugar, and vanilla. I’m including the recipe I used here.

This is a very low stakes way of approaching the use of food and material culture in the classroom. I have not done a lot with food and recipes in my own classroom. In part, my approach was one of these responses of: what am I going to do in tomorrow’s class? And it was surprisingly easy for me to implement. The important thing is that our day with chocolate bore fruit for many students. It opened up new avenues of discussion. It provided students a way of thinking about the texts we read differently.

I’m not an expert on using food in the classroom. As I wrote and revised this post I decided to go with the language of teaching with food instead of recipes. The students in my class thought about ingredients, not necessarily the recipe itself. In closing, I’d like to direct your attention to resources on teaching with recipes in the classroom. On these sites you’ll find a lot of background, history, delicious recipes, and excellent resources for incorporating recipes and food in the classroom.

The Recipes Project

Cooking in the Archives