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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Comminglings of Law and Literature: Thoughts from the Yukon Territory

I am presently on a Fulbright in Whitehorse, Yukon (northwestern Canada) to write essays. Politics-wise, this year gives me a little window through which to watch Indigenous land claims unfold in the Yukon, and pedagogy-wise it gives me time to observe the special relationship that Yukon College (the future Yukon University) maintains with the territory’s fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Though I’m researching/writing full time, I’ve also been thinking about the pedagogy of Indigenous literature. I’m wrestling with this question: in what ways can and should an Indigenous literature course engage local Indigenous politics?

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“Never Give Up – You Will Find Your Way” (2012, by Vernon J.M. Asp) alongside the flags outside Yukon College’s main entrance.

This question fits into a much larger one, of course. I.e., what are the special pressures—and the special opportunities—that local histories, local memories, and local politics present to instruction in the humanities? Particularly in a community-based, post-secondary teaching context?

I’d be interested in hearing more voices weigh in to that larger question. But this post stays local. First, some lightning-speed historic context. Then, a teaching example that combines a Yukon College English course, a long and ponderous political document, and a pink moose.

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Context Part One: The Yukon’s Entire Colonial History in Three Sentences

Colonial in-migration #1: Russian and British fur traders could be seen here and there during the nineteenth century, but it was less them and more their stuff (firearms, tea, cloth…and epidemics) that circulated among the Indigenous people of the Yukon’s boreal forests. Later, the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders on the trail of 1898-1899 made up the area’s major settler-colonial in-migration #2; it was an uproarious one, yes, but Indigenous groups who did not live directly in the path of the stampede did not yet have to contend with newcomers directly. It was during the 1940s post-war construction of the Alaska Highway that the third (#3)—and probably most devastating—wave of settler-colonial in-migration entered the Yukon, where it has been highly visible and active ever since (a mere how many generations ago? …not quite three?).

A bit of the Alaska Highway crossing…the Liard River, I believe.

Context Part Two: The Yukon’s Contemporary Political Landscape

The Yukon is home to fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Kwanlin Dün settled their land claims in 2005. This is their welcome sign (and reminder of ownership) at the Fish Lake trailhead; the trail crosses their land and leads hikers into stunning alpine terrain just a minute north of Whitehorse, Yukon.

The Yukon’s First Nations, like Indigenous peoples just about everywhere are invested in a long-term legal battle to gain recognized control over their traditional lands. The process is called “land claims.” The Yukon’s 1990 solution to its First Nations’ land claims is a roughly 300-page legal document called the Umbrella Final Agreement. Once a First Nation signs on to the UFA, it can negotiate the terms of its self-government.

At present: eleven First Nations have signed the UFA and negotiated self-government agreements. Three remain in limbo.

The big picture: the Yukon is basically transitioning from three layers of governments to… seventeen interlocking governments. (My neighbor and I recently counted it out. Eleven self-governing First Nations is eleven, plus four municipal governments equals fifteen, plus the territorial government equals sixteen, plus the federal government makes: seventeen. And seventeen governments plus three more First Nations still in negotiations will eventually equal twenty governments in total.)

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How can and should Indigenous literature be taught at a place like Yukon College (which serves a student body of primarily Yukoners including: First Nations, the settler community, recent immigrants, and international students) at this particular historic moment (in which First Nations are negotiating land claims—read: their communities’ entire futures—and in which everyone and everyone’s projects are enmeshed in questions of how these seventeen governments can/should work together, including who’s eligible for what, which responsibilities lie in whose hands, which funding streams go into whose coffers, etc.)?

So the Yukon is a cutting-edge place for political scientists. And at the nexus of political science and the literary arts, I’ve encountered this: a hot pink, life-sized, papier-mâché moose.

Photo credit: Daren Gallo.

Artist Lianne Charlie (also an instructor of political science(!) at Yukon College) built a life-sized moose and papered it with torn sections of the UFA, that roughly 300-page document from 1990 that provides a legal framework for the territory’s First Nations land claims agreements. The UFA is, of course, a government document: it’s long and boring and hard to read. What Lianne has done as an artist is to build a sculpture that embodies the text as tactile, visual, philosophic, both funny and sobering in its layers of metaphoric play.

Only one page of the document is intact in this sculpture: page fifteen, the UFA’s “cede, release, and surrender” clause. According to this clause, First Nations signing on to the UFA agree to “cede, release, and surrender” their land—in order to get formal rights in return (to some of that land). Sound dicey to you? It sure does to Lianne. She used the cede, release, and surrender clause to paper the moose’s left shoulder, where three arrows protrude from it: this moose has been shot. The cede, release, and surrender clause is the site of its wound.

Artist Lianne Charlie discusses the moose with Drew Lyness’ First Nations Literature in the English Language class. Photo credit: Daren Gallo.

Drew Lyness, an instructor of English at Yukon College, currently teaches a course called “First Nations Literature in the English Language.” He brought his students to the art gallery and taught the moose as literature.

For Drew, the moose’s importance hinges on community involvement—on linking students’ literary study back to those students’ actual human communities, to the public events those communities support, and to the physical site of those communities’ public dialogues. For me, the importance of the moose hinges on a fascination with text.

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One thing a literature course can do is to read the major documents by which people in a society try to coexist and cohabit. I’m thinking of two main categories, here: societies’ sacred texts, for one. And two, societies’ government documents. Its laws.

Think about reading the bible as literature. What it means, roughly, to read the bible as literature, is to read it as a “questions book” rather than as an “answers book.”

The same might hold for a literary reading of the law. Along these lines, I’ve started thinking about reading government documents as literature. A society’s laws certainly raise questions—for starters, questions about the heart of that society, and questions about where it’s going.

Moose meat! Wild foods – hunted and harvested from the land – feed more than our bodies: many layers of spirit and history and tradition and philosophy converge in and around meals connected to the land. (“…who we are…”)

Yes, attorneys also read government documents for questions, and courts have to settle them. That is practical. Still, a complex and powerful text is likely to raise questions that outlive its answers. The pink moose is constructed to suggest exactly this—it suggests the document guiding the Yukon’s First Nations’ land claims raises more questions than it answers about who we are and where we’re going.

The Canada flag. The Yukon Territory flag. And a big box store. Democracy and capitalism are recent arrivals – and for now at least, they seem to be inevitable institutions of the Yukon’s future. (“…and where we’re going…”)

And so when a government is in the midst of a sea change, adopting and testing new flagship documents, new seminal texts—ones according to which we and our children will live ostensibly differently than we ever have in the past—citizens may well want to read those texts beyond their prescriptive/material dimensions. Citizens may well want to consider the questions their new legal texts raise about who they are and who they are becoming.

And so it occurs to me that one thing a literature course can do is to support students in developing a living relationship with legal documents.

The Carcross Learning Centre in Carcross, Yukon.

More specifically, as an observer of Yukon College’s programs and faculty and students, as an observer of its territory-wide partnerships, its relationship with the fourteen First Nations of the Yukon, its historic emphasis on trades instruction and its future transition to university status… As an observer of these dynamics, it occurs to me that in this time and place—and perhaps also at the time and in the place from which you are reading this post—an Indigenous literature course may be uniquely positioned to support students in developing relationships with the legal documents designed to fundamentally alter the futures and possibilities for their community’s Indigenous peoples.