15 August 2012

Fall Classes


I've just about finished drafting syllabi for my fall classes, and so it's time once again for my semi-annual post about how I'm planning the coursework.

I'll be teaching three classes at the university, two for the English department and one for the department of Communication & Media Studies. The English classes are "Advanced Prose Workshop" and a general education intro to lit class, "The Outsider". The Com/Media class is "Media as Popular Culture". I've taught The Outsider a bunch of time, Media as Pop Cult once before, and have never taught Advanced Prose Workshop, which I'm doing only because our writer-in-residence is in Ireland this term.

Advanced Prose Workshop
Plenty of people don't assign books in workshops, but I assign books in everything, because books are good. For this class, I'm requiring Architectures of Possibility by Lance Olsen and Starve Better by Nick Mamatas. Here's the syllabus, which is still evolving.

When I was younger (back when we walked up a hill going to school and back!), I enrolled in various writing workshops, and was, in fact, a Dramatic Writing major at NYU for three years, so I had at least one playwrighting or screenwriting workshop a term back then. But I've kept away from workshops for the most part in last 10 years, and have rarely taught any, because I often just find them depressing, shallow, and boring. The best workshop I ever participated in was one run by Barry Lopez at the Breadloaf Writers' Conference. He annoyed everybody on the first day by saying, "We're not going to share your stories. Please share them with each other, and you and I will have an hour together to discuss them, but I'd rather we spend our time together discussing what it is that makes writing worth doing, and how our lives and art intersect. We'll do some exercises around those ideas, too." (I'm paraphrasing very liberally ... this was 12 years ago, after all.) Some of the workshop members were furious, because they'd all been through numerous traditional workshops and they knew what they wanted. What we got was far better, and the insights from it are ones that I still fall back on.

I thought about turning down the offer to teach this class, but then decided it would be a good challenge. "Okay, Doofus," I said to myself, "if you think workshops are so numbing and potentially destructive, let's see what you'd do." So I said yes to the offer, and then didn't think about it for months, because denial is an excellent tool for coping with insurmountable challenges one foists on oneself.

Choosing the books was relatively easy. Most writing books are garbage. They posit prejudices as facts, clichés as wisdom, and one-size-fits-all solutions to infinite possibilities. What's great about these two books is that they're rather the opposite of that. Architectures of Possibility offers a more open, playful, and creative approach to writing than most other such books, it's full of interesting exercises, and it contains numerous short interviews with an eclectic bunch of writers and editors (Brian Evenson, Kate Bernheimer, David Shields, Curtis White, Lucy Corin, Kathy Acker, Lydia Davis, Samuel Delany, Scott McCloud, etc.). Starve Better collects various essays and blog posts by Nick Mamatas, which should be all the description you need. It's acerbic, amusing, honest, and full of strong opinions supported by Nick's years of experience as a writer, editor, and gadfly (egads! he flies!).

In addition to their open approaches to writing, both books also include good information about the world of publishing and the life of writers. I don't think such information is necessary for lower-level classes, but Advanced Prose is for students who have chosen the "writing option" in the English major, and it is the highest level workshop course for prose writers. At that point, many and perhaps even most of the students are wondering what it means to be a writer out in the world, and how they might get some extra coffee money from this marvelous skill they've been polishing. We won't spend a ton of time talking about this in class, but I've scheduled the last day to be a "Where do you go from here?" discussion, and though we won't focus too much on the chapters about publishing, I'll point them out and occasionally read words of wisdom from them (Starve Better: "If you want to write for a living, as opposed to simply writing to perform an identity for coffee baristas and bus boys, you're going to need to learn to write at home, with screaming kids and household chores to be done ... and the ever-present television with its many siren songs. Writing for a living involves deadlines, and making deadlines without a manager breathing down your neck involves the discipline and mental focus to work in an imperfect environment. You'll be working when you're ill (no insurance, remember) and when it's 3:00 am on the morning of Thanksgiving (after you pick up some toilet paper) just life every other working stiff in the U.S. Plus, given your likely income, you have better things to spend your money on than a seven-dollar brownie.")

Interestingly, because we're a small school, we don't have separate fiction and nonfiction advanced workshops. Thus, Advanced Prose. I just wrote in the syllabus:
This course is not called “Advanced Fiction Workshop” or “Advanced Creative Nonfiction Workshop” or “Advanced Memorandum-Writing for Business Majors Who are Vaguely Literate”. It’s “Advanced Prose Workshop”. Not even “Advanced Creative Prose Workshop”. What is prose? In my definition: Anything that is not obviously poetry, though it might be prose poetry.
I'll be curious to see how this works out. I'm not planning on spending much time discerning fiction from nonfiction. Our two textbooks are focused primarily on fiction writing, but not exclusively. Most of the exercises we'll do are applicable to both fiction and nonfiction. From a writerly point of view, the factuality of the writing doesn't interest me (from a journalistic point of view, it very much does, but this is not a journalism class).

I plan to ask a lot of questions on the first day about the students' expectations and desires for the class, and will plan the later work around at least some of that. Thus, my semi-annual "Looking back on the past term's classes" post will probably be more informative than this one is about the workshops. We shall see...


The Outsider
This is a course I've been teaching ever since I started at Plymouth State, and it's changed a lot during that time, as I've gained more knowledge and understanding of the sorts of students we have.

This term will be along the lines of the last version of the class I taught, though with fewer texts because there were far too many last time. (The syllabus is here.) The texts will be:

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Edition, 4th edition) by Joseph Conrad
Things Fall Apart (Norton Critical Edition) by Chinua Achebe
Migritude by Shailja Patel
One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir by Binyavanga Wainaina
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor 
The first three are ones I used before, the last three are new to the course.

It was clear after I last taught the class that I needed to rein in my passion for African history and historiography and focus more on the general education area the course covers, "Self and Society". The new books should address that, and also, I hope, lead to some new writing assignments — there's no need for boring old research papers in a class like this one, though I do want the students to hone their research skills and broaden their knowledge. But I think the second half of the class can have more expressive projects than I've done in this course in the past. I've got a bunch of ideas for those that I now need to choose from, or come up with a way to give the students some choice while also being able to grade them under the same criteria.

Tarzan, Heart of Darkness, and Things Fall Apart work brilliantly together, and the Norton Critical Editions of the latter two are especially excellent as a pair. I have all four Norton editions of Heart of Darkness, and they make for fascinating comparison in the ways that the novella has been contextualized over the last fifty years. Each edition has gotten fatter, and there's a big shift between the second and third, caused primarily, it seems, by Achebe's criticisms and the arrival of Apocalypse Now, which gets rather inordinate attention in the third edition, though I suppose it was (and still is) a popular move of teachers to pair the book and movie. I think the fourth edition (most recent) is especially strong and well balanced in its materials, and could easily be a course unto itself.

Migritude and One Day I Will Write About This Place will, I hope, show the students various ways of thinking about place, home, and migration. It's often a powerful theme for young college students, most of whom (at our school, at least) are living away from home for the first time. I'm fond of both books because they not only offer vivid views of their authors' worlds, but they are innovative in their styles and structures. My hope is that this innovation will spur the students on to their own creative work and reflection.

Who Fears Death then brings us back to fiction — indeed, science fiction — but it, too, is innovative in its structure and offers an awful lot for the students to consider. In many ways, it should bring some unity to the disparate ideas the we'll be exploring throughout the term about identity, history, place, violence, representation... More, in fact, than we'll have time to discuss. But that's true for all of the books. I like a syllabus to be bursting with possibilities and far more ideas than we would ever have time to cover in full.


Media as Popular Culture
I've taught this course once before, and I've almost completely redesigned it. It didn't go badly last year, especially for my first try, but I seriously misjudged how prepared the students would be for the course and how capable they would be with the reading. I've lost a lot that I really liked from the previous iteration, but I think the new version will be vastly more coherent and comprehensible for the sorts of students we have. (The syllabus is here.)

The texts will be:

Popular Culture & High Culture (2nd edition) by Herbert Gans
Feminism & Pop Culture by Andi Zeisler
Globalization & American Popular Culture (2nd Edition) by Lane Crothers
Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins
Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence by Chuck Tryon
In addition to those books are a bunch of TV shows and movies, most of them discussed in the textbooks:

The West Wing Season 1, episodes 12 & 13 (“He Shall, From Time to Time” and “Take Out the Trash Day”)
The PatriotAcross the UniverseChungking ExpressThe MatrixDark CityBlade Runner
I'm especially sad to lose Gamer from the movies we watch (and the melodrama unit of All That Heaven Allows, Fear Eats the Soul, and Far From Heaven), but this group of movies is much better integrated with the textbooks. I very reluctantly decided to cut Let's Talk About Love because the students just didn't have enough background knowledge in taste and culture for them to be able to access the book's most important arguments, and talking about music confused things a bit, too. I would love to use the book again in a course, but I think I would have to structure more of the course around it rather than try to use it to illustrate other ideas. (This is really a testament to the book's richness and efficiency.) The first three books above cover the ground I tried to cover last time with Let's Talk About Love alone, and will, I hope, lead more naturally into the last section of the course.

Convergence Culture I used last time, and it worked pretty well. By adding Chuck Tryon's excellent (and pretty concise) book about how cinema specifically fits into ideas of convergence culture, the students should be able to grasp the concepts more fully than they did last time. Before, I really tried to cram too many ideas into the course and didn't structure it well enough for the ideas to flow into each other. That often happens the first time I teach a class, because it's hard to tell without going through it once what is going to be most effective. (Of course, individual classes can be vastly different even with exactly the same material, but I still find it easier in general to find coherence after teaching a class once or twice.)

I added Across the Universe and Chungking Express, the two films not discussed in our textbooks, because they fit well with the ideas in general and add a bit more aesthetic and cultural diversity to the bunch. Also, I find both movies utterly delightful, and they will be a nice palate cleanser after The Patriot.


So that's the plan for the term. Plans inevitably change, reality intrudes, practicalities slaughter ideals ... but nonetheless, I'm looking forward to these classes quite a bit.


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