A Semester Rundown

My apologies for the unplanned hiatus. Unlike one of my colleagues (if you’re into American Studies, I recommend his blog – Ben Railton) who is an active and experienced blogger, I am still getting into the groove – which means I let little things like the beginning of the semester interrupt my posting.

On that note, if you will indulge me, I thought I would ruminate on the subject uppermost in my mind the last few weeks – my current classes.

British Literature I – Beowulf to Milton

This is the fourth semester I have taught an incarnation of this course. First observation – it’s one of my favorites. Second observation – it’s one of the most frustrating. I love it because it allows me to do a crash course in the history and culture as well as the literature of early Britain while, at the same time, pushing me forward in time to the Early Modern period. My complaint is, naturally, the same that any instructor of this course has: the scope. 800-1600 in fifteen weeks. Go. I believe that translates to roughly fifteen minutes per half century. Or maybe not. Math isn’t my thing.

Fall 2011 is shaping up well for Brit Lit I. Usually, as this is a General Education option (or Liberal Arts and Sciences as we label it), it is a hodge-podge of majors from across the university. Somehow, this time, I ended up with mostly English majors and/or minors. As I said on the first day of class, at least I know they like to read. So far, they are proving to be delightful. There is barely a question that goes by that doesn’t see several hands in the air. It’s occasionally disconcerting, but I am learning to live with it.

A new-ish feature to my course is the Blackboard wiki. I have been using wikis for a while and have become something of the wiki point person on campus. What is new is that FSU just acquired the wiki tool within our Blackboard system. It’s proven to be, in the first few weeks, decidedly successful in all my classes and I have high hopes for the semester. In the past, I have used Wikispaces, but the cons have been a) it’s an outside site and b) it requires the students to log in. Basically, it means “out of sight, out of mind.” The best part of Blackboard is that it is right there and hard to miss. They are automatically members and able to update and edit. As with any wiki, it has its cons, particularly in its simplicity, but, so far, they are issues that can be tolerated. Given it is now integrated into Blackboard, I was able to increase its overall weight in their grades.

The highlight so far: one of my students created a page on the wiki of “Dr. Tracy’s Rules of Medieval Literature” – now I’ll know what number I am on at any given point. At the moment, it’s five.

World Literature I

The same issues apply to this course as with British Literature I, but now there is the entire sphere of ancient to Early Modern world literature from which to draw. I have always “solved” this problem by setting up my syllabus in thematic units. We don’t read chronologically or geographically – we read based on themes of human experience. Origins, war, epics, love, death, etc. The big ones. It seems to help students to have something to hold on to, particularly in small chunks of material. We are still on the origins and creation myths section, having just read excerpts from Genesis, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš, and the Egyptian Hymn to Aten.

Traditionally, World Literature I is a bit difficult in that students in the course seem to have a certain resistance to the subject as well as an aversion to reading in general. It’s a truth I need to mull over more. I am in luck, however, that one section this semester is talkative, which allows us to have some fun. The jury is still out on the other section. I am always fascinated by the dynamics of classes and how the personalities of the students affects the material I am trying to present. Now that I teach multiple sections of the same course back-to-back, I can really observe this phenomenon at work. Same text(s), same lesson plans – different outcome.

Highlight so far: while my students were working on a short group analysis comparing the Hymn to Aten with Psalm 104, I played them the “Hymn to Aten” from the opera Akhnaten by Philip Glass. Halfway through, one of them asked, “Do you listen to this kind of stuff, you know, for fun?” I’ll let you interpret that.

Bible as Literature

I posted a description of this course prior to the semester, when I was developing it (“Teaching the Bible”). I know I am going to sound like a broken record here, but the students are fantastic. Talkative and interested. Even the ones who are feeling a bit overwhelmed are willing to speak up in class and ask questions. They represent a diverse group of belief systems, but all of them have been willing to be open-minded and accept the goals of the course, respecting each other. (I suppose I should knock on wood now that this continues for the next few months.) And they like to have fun – or, at the very least, they indulge me and laugh at my jokes.

So far, we have made it through the history, culture, and timeline unit. It has been a while since I have studied ancient Hebrew history. I find it fascinating. The ability of these people to maintain faith in the face of being exiled and the prevailing political belief that you can’t have a religion without a state to support it is unprecedented. It’s been a few weeks of reminders and new discoveries as I prepare for each class.

I have been using a new (to me) technology: Prezi. While I have always been a fan of PowerPoint, I am being won over by the ability in Prezi to think and present in more circular and dynamic patterns. There are not a lot of bells and whistles as far as fonts and such (at least in the free version), but I recommend it. If you’re interested in taking a look, here’s one of mine: Bible as Literature: Ancient Near Eastern Literature and Social World.

Highlight: I happened to mention at a department get-together that I had taught the Protestant Reformation that day as context for a discussion of English Bible translations. Before I could finish my sentence, one of my colleagues laughed and explained how he had brought up Martin Luther in class. When he forgot the date, one of my Bible students quickly filled it in. It’s nice to know someone is listening.

All in all, while I know that the newness hasn’t quite worn off and there is plenty of time left for inevitable frustrations, the semester is shaping up well classroom-wise. I continue to be impressed with the type of students I have at Fitchburg.

I wish you all successful semesters!


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