Tuesday, December 07, 2010


by J J Cohen

I blog more about my "Myths of Britain" class than any other I teach, but I can't help it. "Myths" is my favorite course. Each iteration (we're finishing #4 right now) is so different from what precedes that I am far from feeling bored, or even in control: part of the course's attraction is an inbuilt openness to what the ninety students bring, so that in most lectures I discard my notes halfway through and simply run with what is emerging.

We anchor ourselves in slow, deep readings of texts, but attempt an experimental vibe. This year, for example, the students sang "Full Fathom Five" in an exquisite three part melody. Hearing their voices resound was haunting. Some of them are capable of beautiful vocals; all sang with an enthusiasm that quickly overshadowed their embarrassment. The exercise gave a feeling of community, and was therefore the perfect way to begin a last lecture for the course. I'm fortunate that one of my TAs this year has the singing experience and the pedagogical fearlessness to lead us in something so unusual for a literature course.

We end the year with a review session led by the three TAs. My favorite part: the students are asked to list the themes of the course for us. The photo above illustrates this year's yield. I was surprised -- and happy -- to see feminism as the second term offered. Death and adultery were a bit surprising, but then again we did look at a fair number of Arthurian tales.

I changed the format of the final exam this year as well, and have some trepidation about what I've required, considering "Myths" is an entry-level course. I've asked my students to read the last chapter of my colleague Gil Harris's excellent new book Shakespeare and Literary Theory ("Postcolonial Theory: Wole Soyinka, Edward Said, Sara Ahmed"). The last section of this chapter is especially appropriate since it focuses upon The Tempest, the ultimate text on our syllabus, and most of the students attended a lecture by Sara Ahmed when she came to GW last month. During the review session, we handed out a possible essay question for the exam and answered it as a group. Towards the end of the exercise, a young woman raised her hand to ask why the essay question invokes postcolonial theory when it is answerable by reference to the themes of the course as we outlined them on the board. The TAs and I smiled, because she had just made explicit what the course had quietly been about: "Myths of Britain" is meant to be a postcolonial reinvention of a traditional survey of English literature course. We waited until the course's close to bring theory explicitly into conversation because we are now ready, by way of summary and retrospection, to speak about how the aims of the course fit into movements within literary studies more generally. I think -- or at least hope -- that this contextualization as way of summation is eye opening for the students, and will inspire them to keep thinking about how literature makes and unmakes nations.

I am fortunate that for the fourth year in a row I've collaborated with superbly talented graduate students to create a course of which we can all be proud. I was sorry to say my good-bye to our students at that last lecture ... and feel privileged to have been, for four months, a part of their lives. Teaching is a lifetime of always saying good-bye.


Julie Orlemanski said...

This was so nice to read. I've recently been speculating about teaching within the anxious context of mock-interviews. So, this post reminded me (thank goodness!) of both the pleasures of teaching and the pleasures of thinking and writing about teaching. Sounds like a great class!

Tom Delfs, Newark, NY said...

It sounds like a wonderful course. I envy you & your TA's & students, and wish I could sit in on it.

Thank you very much for your last remark about teaching being a farewell. I taught high school English to juniors for about 35 years before retiring. It always saddened me o approach he end of the year, as every year my students from the previous year left school for the last time.

I thought that I'd be happy to leave teaching when I retired, but today, while not missing the drama of high school, I indeed miss teaching so much that I teach "medieval studies" and Old Norse studies" whenever possible a weekend scholas. Your discussions of "the other" are what lead me to your blog.

Thank you for the blog and for your dedication & imagination in teaching.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Like Julie, I'm also speculating about teaching in that ever-so-stressful job market context, and this post really demonstrates the best part of teaching: the long game, the moment where through the remark of a well-informed class the fundamentals of a course come to the fore.

Thanks so much for sharing this course with all of us.