I’m wrapping up my fifteenth year here at Mondoville, and I had my annual progress report/chat with my department chair this afternoon. It occurs to me that I’m nearly at the halfway point of the career I planned on. I started here when I was 37, and have always targeted 70 as a nice age to retire, assuming I live that long and remain pretty good at what I do. So technically, I’m three semesters from the halfway mark.
I also happened to run across an article from Emory prof Mark Bauerlein at the Chronicle today. He mentions a topic I’ve mentioned in the past, a gargantuan syllabus for a course that W.H. Auden taught at the U of Michigan in 1941. The one-semester course had something like a 6,000-page reading load (not an exaggeration), and is a fair contender for Western Canon Boot Camp honors. It included nine operas, for heaven’s sake.
Bauerlein notes that a three-person team of faculty at the U of Oklahoma have adapted Auden’s syllabus for a two-semester sequence. He notes:
[…T]hey’ve excised a few books (Dante’s Paradiso, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka). But they added The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Paradise Lost, Robinson Crusoe, Pride and Prejudice, Nietzsche, Invisible Man, and other 20th-century masterpieces such as Derek Walcott’s neo-Homeric epic Omeros. They dropped most of the operas but kept Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. They speak frankly in the course description of taking “delight in the Western canon” and hold fast to themes of little currency in the research world: destiny, God and “the gods,” a meaningful life, authority.
But that isn’t the cool part. The cool part, as Bauerlein reports, is that “the class filled up within minutes” — indeed, they had to raise the cap from 22 to 30. This was after the instructors had explicitly warned potential students that this would be the most difficult class they would ever take. Bauerlein reports that the students taking the course are being crushed by the reading load — and are exulting in that. Like Marines talking about “the Island”, these students are finding an identity while enduring this academic crucible.
A look at the comments (I know, I know) reveals at least one reader who sees the course as something of a publicity stunt, and another who notes that 30 kids at Oklahoma is a little less than 0.1% of the student population. (The equivalent at Mondoville would be one student and a severed head.) And Bauerlein himself admits that the course seems to fly in the face of the zeitgeist:
[A]s humanities enrollments have slipped, in some places precipitously, instructors have felt pressure to make their courses more relevant and less rigorous. The typical student searching for a course of study won’t be attracted by syllabi filled with old plays and 400 pages of reading each week. Contemporary and multicultural materials, more media, less reading and fewer writing assignments, and definitely no poetry — that’s the prescription for building enrollments.
But it made me think a little about some of the classes I’ve created here at Mondoville. Last semester I debuted a course on theodicy in literature, and this fall, I’ll be dusting off my Seven Deadly Sins course for another go. While neither offers an Audenesque reading list, they aren’t exactly Dr. Seuss, either. And I’ve noticed that I draw my share of repeat customers, and I hear from alumni who tell me how much they enjoyed taking the 7 Deadlies course — or how they regret missing it.
And in turn, it brings me back to an idea that has bounced around in my head for years: I wonder if I could put together a 2-semester “Great Books” course for Mondoville? And if I could, I wonder if I could draw enough kids for it to make. I suspect that the idea might catch some flak from fans of the cafeteria-style core we now offer, but why couldn’t this be another dish in that cafeteria? And while some folks might argue that our students (not all of whom rank among the academically motivated) wouldn’t even want to think about such a course, I wonder if there might not be an element of “Build it and they will come” as well. After all, I never expected folks to look back fondly on a course that draws heavily upon Aquinas and everyone’s least favorite Canterbury Tale. Why not something, well — Audenesque? Sell the challenge not only for its intrinsic values, but as a challenge.
And finally, I think the kids I get deserve those works as much as the kids who go to elite schools. My parents knew I deserved them — these kids do too.
Maybe I can give it a try as I move toward my second half.