Designing Courses: . . . American Literature?

One of the jobs I’m interviewing for is a generalist sort of position, and I would need to teach American literature if I got the job (at least, it looks that way, though the job description is not 100% clear). American literature is not my area of expertise, and at first I was pretty nervous about designing a syllabus for something so far out of my area.  However, when I sat down and started going through American literature anthologies, I was surprised at how much American literature I have actually read and am even prepared to teach.  The MA exam helped a lot here, filling a number of gaps (I read all of Moby Dick, as well as Ellison’s Invisible Man, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and several important poets I had missed as an undergrad).  My own interest in seventeenth-century religion and literature also meant I knew a lot of the early American writers, such as Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Cotton Mather, etc.

But the other thing that helped was teaching and administrating UConn’s Freshman English Program. I had already taught Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl because it was included in Ways of Reading, the “standard” textbook for our “Seminar in Academic Writing” course (“standard” because everyone had to use it their first semester of teaching, but no one has to use it after that). Then, a few years later, I expanded my exposure to American literature in the process of working with Mary Isbell, my co-Assistant Director for the FE program for a time, and the rest of the editorial board to create our in-house textbook, Writing through Literature.*  Most of us who teach the “Writing through Literature” seminar center our courses around particular themes, and we cross all sorts of chronological, national, and continental boundaries when we choose our texts. The textbook we designed had to reflect that, and I spent a lot of time reading texts that were suggested by my colleagues for the textbook.  I read Susan Glaspell’s Trifles at the suggestion of Andy Maines, and a few Junot Díaz short stories at the suggestion of one of our adjuncts, and lots of Edgar Allen Poe because Jeanette Zissell pointed out that “The Raven” was not representative, and really, I would love “The Purloined Letter” and his other short stories. (She was right, of course.)  And after we whittled down the list of texts to what we could reasonably afford to include in the textbook, we had create assignments to go with them.  I ended up writing assignments for Mary Rowlandson and Sherman Alexie (among others), who I had read as an undergrad, but hadn’t thought about how to teach before.

So I’m feeling quite a bit better about the prospects of teaching American literature now! It’s always wonderful to think about teaching new things. I get a little giddy at the prospect, actually. I haven’t gotten to the point where I feel I can go do creative things with the course yet–I’d want to teach a “standard” version once or twice first. So, for now my syllabus is a basic survey, and I won’t bore anyone here with the details.

*After the 3rd internal edition, Mary Isbell–who did the heavy-lifting for refining this project, writing the introduction, and all the the little things that make such a massive endeavor come together–actually went and got a publisher for it, so it’s not just an in-house textbook anymore.


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