The first meeting of "Beneath the Canon" is over. I am not sure what students will make of my wandering explanation and expectations. This first week will be given to a (somewhat) theoretical discussion of how canons are formed and what their function is (or should be) within a culture -- or more rightly a classroom. Our six-week discussion will begin in earnest later this week with Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches and Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick.
What we read after that is, right now, anybody's guess. I have asked the students to spend some time over the coming days to take a look at the other texts that form the potential reading list (see my previous post). By the end of this week, we will talk about their possible choices for our reading. I am still not sure what they think of having the responsibility for choosing texts. I often begin my classes asking students what they would like to discuss from the day's reading (I always have an idea of where I would like to end up with the discussion, but I am always willing to allow students to start the discussion). Just as often they find it difficult to respond even to that level of freedom in the discussion. I wonder now how they will respond to the very idea of setting the agenda for the class' reading. (As an aside, this would not be possible in a class using conventional print editions; book orders would be required and that would demand planning months ahead -- especially with new federal rules for providing text information earlier -- and any kind of improvisation would be an extreme challenge. E-texts make this flexibility possible.)
I have also told students that how much we read will likely depend on what they choose to read. Of course, they don't really have a sense of how long some of the novels are (because of the electronic format). And I have said that we would very likely be reading at least one but maybe two novels each week (for the next 5 weeks). This will change HOW we read. I will not be pushing them with reading quizzes; instead, we will concentrate on reading the whole novel before we begin our discussion. I have told them that this might allow us to adjust the schedule for the class so that we meet less often during each week. Ironically, meeting less often might indicate reading more. An interesting trade-off. We will see how they adapt. And how I adapt since I will be reading along with them and, quite honestly, have not read many of the texts that are part of our potential reading list.
So. The first week will be about finding our way into a structure that allows for a meaningful discussion while at the same time challenging the way they have often had to read for a literature course. I can only hope that the novelty will be attractive and will perhaps seduce them into a more rigorous reading schedule.