Monday, May 2, 2011

Beneath the Canon and Student Driven Reading

When I introduced the course on reading out-of-print 19th century American novels to my students, I gave them a list of 27 titles, written by 20 authors (see my earlier post for a full listing).  I set two titles for our reading (Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott, and Ragged Dick, by Horatio Alger).  I told my students that they would help set the rest of the reading list.  This past Friday, we did just that.

There is a good deal of cynicism expressed about getting students to read.  Last week's Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, featured an essay whose writer hooted that he told students that reading would help them get laid and that this only would prompt them to read.  He then listed a host of intellectual and cultural reasons to read that he said he could not share with students.  The whole essay in an insult both to students and teachers:  the writer seems caught up in his own sense of self-importance and intellectual blindness.  His has not been my experience.

Anyway.  As we discussed possible readings, my students fully engaged and were animated in their discussion of what to read.  To be honest, there was some worry on their part about the length of some of the readings; however, in the end we created a full and complicated list.  Over 6 weeks, we will read 9 novels.  Here is the list:  Hospital Sketches, Ragged Dick, At Fault, The Gates Ajar, Pink and White Tyranny, Giles Corey, The House Behind the Cedars, The Clansman, and Is Shakespeare Dead?  Writers include Louisa May Alcott, Horatio Alger, Kate Chopin, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary E Wilkins Freeman, Charles Chesnutt, Thomas Dixon, and Mark Twain.  Students chose the Chopin and Twain works because they wanted to see what else the writers had written besides their canonized novels (and works other than those most often taught).  It's an ambitious list.

In the end, the intention here is to introduce students to a range of writers and writing.  And the student have shown a genuine willingness to spend the time needed to understand the reading.  The electronic nature of the texts has allowed us a good deal of flexibility.  I have only one concern:  reading Dixon's The Clansman will offer a real challenge.  Not because of the style.  Because of the racist language and ideology.  But I have warned students about that, and we will talk about the implications as we get close to that text.  We will see.