From The Didactic Edge

So we're almost a month into the semester here at UAF, and this time around I'm teaching Honors World Literature to 1650. Ideally, this means I get a batch of students who are "smarter" than regular students; whether it actually means that I'm not sure. I will say that discussions have been better than usual, as have papers. I'll get to the latter in a minute, but first, here's what I'm doing this term.

I've decided that, in addition to the university-defined goals of this course (reading, understanding, and writing about literature), my students will also discuss the utopian content of world literature. To that end, we started off with two theoretical essays--Lyman Tower Sargent's "The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited" and Ernst Bloch's "The Wishful Landscape Perspective in Aesthetics"--which established not only some of the generic utopian conventions, but also that what I'm looking for is not the utopian form so much as the utopian spirit, Bloch's "Not-Yet-Conscious" or "Anticipatory Illumination." They seemed to take to this pretty well, I think, and our recent discussions of Gilgamesh, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, and Callimachus have borne this out, not in the least because the theory has allowed them to approach the material they know (Gilgamesh, the Apology of Socrates) as fresh.

I've also included a writing component instead of quizzes this term. The writing assignment is due every three weeks, and students are asked to write 2-3 pages over one of the works we've discussed over that three-week period. I've also provided them with three ways that they can respond to that literature:
  1. Explain the utopian function in the work you have chosen. Identify the structural and/or narrative features of the text evoke hope, and propose ways we can use that hope content today.
  2. Take two non-consecutive passages of a larger work (or two shorter poems by the same author) and discuss what these passages have in common and why that common theme is important to our understanding of the work as a whole.
  3. Other than the approach I took in class, what critical perspective might also be useful for the work you’ve chosen (historical, feminist, postcolonial, etc.—see the “Critical Perspectives” handout on Blackboard)? Explain why this approach will be useful and provide a brief example of that reading.
Astute readers may recognize option two as a variant of Dr. Virago's "Crux Buster," which I tried to good effect last Spring in the English Lit Survey course.

I got their first response papers on Thursday, and have graded 14 of them (about 34% of the total [NB: I love my spreadsheet gradebook, because it lets me engage my bourgeois love for facts and figures!]) so far. A number of them responded to Gilgamesh, and of those, what they've said has ranged from expected mediocrity (vague thesis statements, insufficient evidence, etc.) to moments of blinding clarity. I've had well-written considerations of the value of Gilgamesh as a utopian figure, as well as a meditation on the Apology of Socrates that led into civic engagement and global unity. They haven't all been perfect, either—some of them have had trouble with the theory component—but it's a work in progress on both sides of the pedagogical divide.

So that's my teaching semester so far. I'm looking forward to the rest of it, honestly, and I'm hoping that the exercise will not only help my students become better (dialectically engaged, philosophically complex, socially aware) human beings, but--in the best academic tradition--will help me get a further handle on what I mean by utopianism.

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