Mid-Career Thoughts

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 OdysseyThe AeneidBeowulfSir Gawain and the Green KnightParadise LostRobinson CrusoePride 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.

Harvard Classics

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.



About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Medievalia, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mid-Career Thoughts

  1. I think this sounds like a great idea. There are many students who want these challenges. Dr. Schaub’s Southern Lit class, Dr. Johnson’s Short Story class, and your Shakespeare class tested me beyond what I was used to and I think that’s why I still remember them now. I am glad you are keeping the rigor high in Newberry’s English department. The exposure to these texts can awaken something inside students that can change the way they look at the world. I was introduced to Post Colonial writers in those classrooms and suddenly a kid from a town of 500 way outside of Charleston started to care about minority poets in the Caribbean and what it means when those who have forced cultural values on you suddenly leave. It was a small section in our anthology but it fascinated me then and it still fascinates me (no doubt it also has affected my worldview. Although much farther to the left that you would deem prudent). I am not a lover of medieval lit and I probably would have begged off the deadly sins class for modernism but for someone it may open a door.

    Ps. The 15 years made me think. I believe I was in your first English 111 class that you taught at newberry in 2003. Mwf 9 am. Still the only two guys in the department sans neck.

  2. nightfly says:

    The best professor I ever had at Rutgers (the late Dick Wasson) was similarly motivated by making sure his students never sold themselves short and could actually handle the workload he assigned. He also had a low tolerance for weaselly excuses… and a generous heart for anyone who was trying to learn and get what they could out of the class. It was the greatest B I ever earned.

    You go right ahead with this idea, Prof.

  3. My Franciscan college offered a “great books” program as the “honors” track. No other options. I declined to even apply because it sounded, honestly, terrible. That aside, there were people who genuinely liked it and enjoyed the study.

    Go for it. Perhaps consider a modern lit class with the same heavy reading load for those who are, well, like me 😉

  4. My favorite ENG classes (not my major) were The Jazz Age and a course whose title escapes me that introduced me to Walker Percy, Flannery O’C, and Faulkner.

  5. Pingback: Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: | Professor Mondo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s