A survey survey

I’m preparing (once again) to teach the omnipresent British Literature I survey. No matter how many times I set up the reading schedule, there’s always a moment when I’m stuck, looking at the remaining blocks of time and thinking, “Why don’t I have room for Marie de France (or Spenser, or the Battle of Maldon, or medieval drama, or whatever that semester’s victim might be)? How’d that happen?”

There are reasons for this, of course, mostly having to do with my insistence on spending more time in the Anglo-Saxon period than most of my colleagues. My current iteration of the course breaks the material into three units: Anglo-Saxon (four weeks), Medieval (five weeks), and Early Modern (five weeks), the last of which ends up with a couple of late texts awkwardly tacked on post-Milton. I realize that not everyone makes time for Dream of the Rood, The Battle of Maldon, or Judith in the early going of a survey, but for the life of me I can’t understand why…

So, okay, I’m a medievalist and I want to know that people are reading the stuff I love. But the problem isn’t (exclusively) due to my prejudices–there’s a real problem with the survey’s mandate. As is the case at many institutions, Brit Lit I at Bridgewater was established with an arbitrary end-date–in our case, the course ends at 1800.
I know this is a fairly common point at which to break the survey, but it’s a terrible stopping point–not only does it mean that the course is designed to cover over a millennium’s worth of literature (not to mention going from Anglo-Latin through the various historical periods of English), it forces a terribly awkward coda to the course with one of three results:

1. The final texts of the course are chosen to avoid the novel-length elephant in the 18th-century room (and therefore do not accurately inform the students of the literary developments of the period)

2. The course must grapple with early novels at the very end of a whirlwind semester that has already introduced virtually everything else (because someone, somewhere, decided that Pamela or Tom Jones is a logical text to end a course that began with Bede).

3. The course, by design, ignores the final century or so of its mandated coverage, with the result that 18th century literature undeservedly falls through the cracks of student perception and understanding.

A logical alternative would be to end the course before the rise of the novel, with the second half of the survey picking up the thread and introducing the novel as it debuts in English letters. I’d grudgingly accept 1700 as an arbitrary endpoint, or 1688 (for Oroonoko) or 1678 ( for Pilgrim’s Progress) as a slightly less arbitrary one. Given my druthers, I’d probably end the course at either 1649 or 1674, depending on whether I’ve got my historian or literary hat on. Given tyrannical overlordship of the course catalog, I’d probably end it at 1485 for both historical and literary reasons and let the second half of the survey deal with all that postmedieval stuff…

So I propose a topic of conversation for those who teach (or have taken) the Brit Lit I survey at their respective institutions. What’s the logical endpoint for the survey, and why?

4 Comments

Filed under Teaching

4 responses to “A survey survey

  1. I’m not sure I have an argument for a valid end point (my institution simply says ‘neoclassical period’), but I’m teaching Brit Lit I this fall and given my History of the English Language course last semester, I’m stopping mine at Johnson and focusing on language as a tangential topic to the literature. So, Johnson is at least less arbitrary than an 18th-century shorter piece.

    • jpsexton

      Johnson’s an interesting choice–and, incidentally, is a prime example of the sort of author who gets shafted by the “to 1800” survey unofficially grinding to a halt in the late 17th century. Like you, I spend a fair amount of time on him in HEL, but because I tend to stop the course somewhere around Dryden, I don’t get to him in Brit Lit I.
      I have a colleague who’s a Johnson scholar and whose recent syllabi I should really look up to see how a Johnsonian incorporates him into the survey…what are you using of his in your version of the course?

  2. Anonymous

    I’m partially boxed in with my Johnson selections by my choice of anthology (though his works are easily accessible outside an anthology), so I’ll likely work through the Broadview’s selections, with emphasis on the Dictionary. I admittedly haven’t fully planned the course, but when I do, I can post my final text choices.

  3. I’m partially boxed in with my Johnson selections by my choice of anthology (though his works are easily accessible outside an anthology), so I’ll likely work through the Broadview’s selections, with emphasis on the Dictionary. I admittedly haven’t fully planned the course, but when I do, I can post my final text choices.

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