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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Becoming an Archival Expert

When I teach nineteenth century American literature, I always want students to delve into the archives, and so I demonstrate a few digital searches in class and make it a requirement to include at least one archival source in the final research paper. But I wanted more investment, and not just for their papers. I felt that despite my commitment to bringing archival elements into the classroom, students were not getting totally immersed in the time period in the way that I wanted—in a way that would help them understand how nineteenth century readers might’ve approached the works we were studying, rather than reading everything through a twenty-first century lens.

With a class on nineteenth century American poets coming up (a class I hadn’t taught for four years), I had a great opportunity to make a change in this direction. So I thought, well, what’s one way to get a feel for daily life in the nineteenth century? I hit upon the idea of having students read nineteenth century newspapers. (I’ve written elsewhere about using digital archives in teaching nineteenth century African American writers. The archival expert assignment grew out of things I was noticing about working with newspapers in that class.)

What does poetry have to do with news? For one thing, in the nineteenth century, most newspapers had a poetry section, unlike newspapers today. But that wasn’t even the initial reason I wanted students to try this assignment. I wanted them to see if they saw any connections between the issues making headlines in the newspapers and the issues that poets like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Walt Whitman, and Paul Laurence Dunbar (among others) addressed in their poems. We read the news today to get a sense of what is going on in the world, what is deemed important; conversely, if something doesn’t make the news, we feel that it may not be as important, or we may feel frustrated because the media seems to dismiss something that feels important to us. (In our own era of “fake news,” of course, all of these issues feel very fraught, and I think students were aware of that as they did this assignment.)

What we did: the assignment sheet

What follows is the text of the assignment sheet I gave the students. If you like it, please feel free to use as-is or to adapt.

This term, you will be in charge of leading one class as the “archival expert.” Your assignment is simple: I want you to read the newspaper. Using three of the library’s electronic databases—America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, and/or Accessible Archives—you will make use of digital archives to provide historical context for the day’s poetic selections.

Here’s what to do for prep work, step by step:

  1. On the date you’re signed up to be the archival expert, look at when the poet published his or her book of poems. (So, for example: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1855.) If there’s no publication date, as for Schoolcraft and Dickinson, then try as best you can to determine a year when these poets would’ve been writing poems.
  2. Determine a location that is relevant to the poet, if possible. For Harper, this could be Baltimore (where she grew up), Philadelphia (where she lived and worked as an adult), or Boston (where she frequently lectured).
  3. Now choose a newspaper that is relevant to the date and the location of the poet. If you want to get even more specific, you can (for example, you could look at an abolitionist newspaper for Harper or a Civil War newspaper for Melville; you could even look at some of the newspapers for which Whittier served as editor). If you can find one, you can also choose a newspaper where the poet published.
  4. Select an issue of the newspaper and read the whole thing: news, editorials, poetry, even the advertisements. (Be forewarned, the print is tiny and there’s a lot of text.) As you read, make note of anything at all—newspaper poems, news items, even weather—that you feel gives interesting context to the poems the class will be discussing.

From here, you have the tools to give the class some interesting historical contexts. During class, be prepared to give us around 20 minutes of historical context, drawn from what you read. Feel free to read us excerpts from articles or poems. Don’t feel like you have to cover everything in the newspaper—two or three things will be enough. Make a Powerpoint, Prezi, or handout to share a few images with us. Give us your reading of both the culture that produced this poet (particularly how the poet fits, or doesn’t fit, into the historical context) and anything you notice about how historical context informs one of the poet’s poems, or a section of the poem. (Don’t feel like you have to force the poet to neatly fit into the contexts the newspapers provide. Even the absence of the poet’s concerns from the newspaper will tell you something about the poet and their poems.) To facilitate a good discussion on what you’ve found, be prepared to ask the class a few discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Written component

You don’t have to write anything formally for this assignment, but I would like a works cited page (in MLA style) and a copy of your notes / outline / Powerpoint / handouts. Emailing all of this to me is fine.

Archival expert assignments will be graded according to how well they:

  • Thoroughly they give us historical context to the poet and their poems (50 points)
  • Demonstrate archival research skills (30 points)
  • Engage the class in discussion (20 points)

How it worked: connections students made

I’ll use three examples from three different presentations to give you a sense of what students did with this assignment. (Other poets we covered in this ten-week class were Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.) Wherever possible, we read complete books, or book-length poems, by these poets, rather than reading selections from anthologies. Schoolcraft and Dickinson were the exceptions, since they did not publish collections in their lifetimes.

The Boston Evening Standard and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

Overall, my students hated The Song of Hiawatha, as I figured they might; although they admitted they found the trochaic meter fun to read (and to imitate), they were angered by what they saw as Longfellow’s clueless paternalism with respect to the Ojibwe characters he creates (adapting them, of course, from tales from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches [1839] that were themselves adapted from oral stories from Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Henry’s wife, and those of her mother). An archival expert presentation on Longfellow, then, was an opportunity to understand the context in which this poem was written.

The student who presented on Longfellow chose the November 10, 1855 edition of the Boston Evening Standard, since Hiawatha was published on that date and since Longfellow lived in Boston. There is a notice (unfortunately rather illegible, as you will see below) titled “Longfellow’s New Poem!” in the paper, so we could see that Longfellow was famous enough that the publication of a new book was a newsworthy event.

longfellowpoem

The student also noticed, with irony, an article entitled “The Landing of the Pilgrims,” a romanticized historical piece that makes no mention of Native peoples. Speaking of the pilgrims, the article’s anonymous author says, “Their landing; the history of their future toils, dangers; their struggles and privations; their heroic self-denial and unconquerable trust in God, are among the proudest recollections of our history.”

Transitioning from this article, the student brought up the fact that the Yakama Indian War, a three-year dispute about land rights between the U.S. Government and the Yakama and allied tribal groups in central Washington state, had just begun the month before, in October, 1855. There’s no mention in the newspaper about the progress of this war. Even more glaring was the fact that the Battle of Union Gap, between the Yakama and the U.S. army, had begun the day before and was not mentioned at all. The charitable interpretation is that news had not had time to travel across the country yet; however, we went in another interpretive direction. The student thought about the fact that Longfellow’s poem was so immediately popular, and we wondered if the American public generally preferred to read about mythologized Native Americans, like Hiawatha, rather than real ones, like Kamiakin, chief of the Yakama tribe at the start of the war, pictured in this sketch, below.

kamiakin
Kamiakin, chief of Yakama Tribe, 1855
by Gustavus Sohon, courtesy Washington State Historical Society 

In this issue of the newspaper, Native peoples are ignored or not included. Longfellow’s poem seems to be their only presence in the issue. Twenty-five years earlier, there would have been articles about Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, but in 1855, Native issues are not at the forefront of the general public’s consciousness, if this newspaper is any indication.

The Salem Register and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound (1866)

Sometimes, the students looked at the poems in the newspapers and made connections and comparisons with the poems we were reading in class. Here’s a poem printed in the Salem Register for February 15, 1866:

littlefeet

(Yes, the date on that says November 12, 1866, which can’t be right, but it is what is printed in the Feb. 15 issue of the Register—I double-checked!)

 We had been talking about sentimentality in Whittier’s poem Snow-Bound the class before, with some of the students coming down pretty hard on what they saw as Whittier’s overly nostalgic view of the rural New England places and people of his childhood. However, reading the poem “Little Feet” put that into perspective. We discussed the different ways Whittier guards against this kind of too-easy feeling and ideas in his poem (particularly focusing on the complexity of the way he elegizes his younger sister, Elizabeth). We also spent a long time talking about the rhyme scheme and meter of both poems, since they are both written in iambic tetrameter and are largely in rhyming couplets. We discussed how Whittier’s diction and his use of enjambment create a complex rhythm and more lofty tone than “Little Feet” is able to achieve. And we also discussed how smart Whittier was to stay away from refrains like “Patter, patter, little feet” in his elegy, which would’ve wrecked the gravitas of his poem.

The Cincinnati Gazette and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt’s That New World (1877)

Because we had begun the term discussing the child elegy genre in the poetry of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, then revisited it when we read Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Emily Dickinson, students had the analytical tools to approach Piatt’s elegies for her two children in the searing book That New World, but they were still shocked by the grim, direct nature of this poetry, which sometimes feels like a wrestling match between a grieving Piatt and a detached God who doesn’t care how mothers feel about the children he takes.

Since we had been talking so much about death, the student who presented on the November 6, 1877 issue of The Cincinnati Gazette started there, showing us articles about some gruesome deaths by murder (which included the dead body then being put in a church and the church set on fire to destroy the evidence), falling from a wagon, being run over by a train, and fire again. The student asked us to compare how the deaths were reported on in the newspaper with how Piatt talks about death in her poems, particularly “No Help” and “To a Dead Bird.” One thing we immediately wondered was if the death of children from disease or accident was so common that it simply wouldn’t make the news. The only “report” of a child’s death might come through poetry. We thought about what poetry does that news doesn’t, and vice versa.

This class occurred on Election Day, so the student also had us think a little bit about Piatt and politics. After pulling out a few articles and headlines about local politics, the student asked us to think about how Piatt feels about monarchy in her poems “If I Had Made the World” and “A Queen at Home.” (The answer is—she doesn’t like it!) We had a great discussion about Piatt and democracy, even looking back to Whitman to compare how Piatt expresses democratic views in some of these poems versus how Whitman does the same.

 Assessment

Overall, this assignment worked very well. It accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish: the students got more invested in (even excited about) the time period. I liked how the assignment was specific, but also allowed them to go in pretty much any direction they wanted with both the newspaper and the poems. Students had fun with it, often pointing out humorous ads or articles and sharing them with the class. The only times the assignment failed were when students did not follow the instructions or when they made wild surmises about connections between the poet and what was in the newspaper (the latter of which could be gently corrected in class). Overall I would rate this assignment as a success, and I plan to do it again.

“But I don’t have access to these subscription-only archives,” I hear you saying. Never fear, this assignment will also work with open-access archives, like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, which has thousands of digitized newspapers to read for free. If you try this assignment, or some version of it, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!