ACTIVELY READING THE AGE OF ELIZABETH
A Teaching Portfolio for English 322: Fall 1997
Course Goal and Organization
The main goal of this course was to enable students to become more active readers of English Renaissance texts. Most of the undergraduates I teach find Renaissance texts very difficult, and they thus begin the course as relatively passive readers, looking to me to tell them about the works we read. My aim is to change that focus, to foster in them a concern with what they, not I, think about our texts. This is not a revolutionary goal, but in the past students have found it difficult to achieve.
I introduce active reading by defining it as a two-step process. The first asks students to understand better how texts function in non-literal ways--what I call paying figurative (as opposed to literal) attention. The second (since seeing texts as ways to figure something other than the literal requires a sense of what that "something other" might be) asks students to become familiar with a series of common cultural topoi that professional readers of these texts tend to use in their readings. In this connection I suggest that students think of literature as one of the ways members of a given culture have that allow them to talk to each other about issues of culture-wide importance. Some of these issues are topical and historically fixed ("Should Queen Elizabeth marry?"); others are of a more abiding interest ("What constitutes the abuse of power, and what can we do about it?").
I normally organize a course around one or two dominant conversations; in this course I focussed on cultural notions of "discipline" because through that topic I could link the thematics of sixteenth-century educational discipline together with those of such other disciplines as love, politics, and personality. We began the quarter with educational discipline in Utopia and Dr. Faustus; then, starting with Faustus and continuing through 3 weeks of sonnets, we explored how Marlowe, Sidney, Shakespeare, Spenser, Greene and Heywood each weave versions of these disciplinary strands together to explore their interrelations.
The course syllabus below both sets out a short version of the course goal I describe above and also advertises two things about the course that may cause students trouble: daily writing and group work. I make an issue of each here in order than students will know exactly what they will be getting. For I depend heavily upon both; indeed, I assign writing topics for every class session, and use groups just about once a week. I refer to their daily writing as "response papers," and I declare that a good response paper is one which shows a mind actively engaged with the material. I assign topics for each day's writing (rather than asking for a reading journal), and I do this because I expect the writing to prepare students for particular discussion subjects in succeeding classes. Writing on a topic given in advance obviously improves class discussion: people are ready to talk as soon as class begins, and we can more quickly get to sophisticated conversation. Moreover, daily writing improves group work as well. If group work can start from writing students have already done, more students take active roles than otherwise might, and we can move from group discussion to general, full-class discussion much more quickly. Group sessions often begin with student summaries of their response papers, followed by an establishing of consensus on whatever question may be at stake.
Finally, in my "Truth in Advertising" section I explain what students have sometimes complained of in my classes. With this advance warning, I invite students who expect to be uncomfortable with my methods either to drop my class altogether, or at the very least to take upon themselves the responsibility for talking with me about any problem that may arise.
English 322 Course Syllabus: The Elizabethan Age
The goal of this class is to make you more informed, confident and, especially, active readers of a range of literary and cultural texts of the English sixteenth century. We will approach this goal in three ways. First, we will be reading and discussing a number of texts closely in order both that you become skilled readers of Renaissance literary language, and that you leave the class familiar with a few of the period's major works. Some of our work will be in full-class settings; some in small groups.
Second, because poetry as well as drama best comes to life when read aloud, I will ask you to prepare oral presentations at least twice during the quarter--one a reading, one a sonnet spoken from memory. We will also be doing organized readings of the plays we read.
Third, I am a great believer in the value of writing as a means of learning. It is one thing to read a poem or a play; it is quite another to write about it coherently. Writing requires that you engage actively with your reading, and ensures that you--and everyone else in the class--come ready to contribute to the general class thinking. Accordingly, you'll be writing something for every class meeting--usually something informal, a "response" paper of no more than two pages. Further, you will be submitting all of your writing in your "Elizabethan Age Portfolio"--a collection of all the writing you do for the quarter, along with a Self-reflective Essay describing your experience in this class.
Structured writing for the course will include three midterms. One of them will be a take-home. Midterm due dates are noted on the reading schedule.
So much for the work you'll be doing. Now for a word of caution and of reassurance. Although this is an upper division class, I know that some of you will not have read much sixteenth-century literature. Not to worry. Renaissance literature isn't hard so much as it is distant in time and language. Once you've grown used to Renaissance English, and provided you do the reading and writing carefully and on time, you should be able to keep up with the work (see paragraph 2 below in Truth in Advertising). If, however, for some reason you expect to be missing class, or to be unable to keep up with the assigned work, then I very strongly urge you to find something else to take!!!
Course Grading: 400 Points Possible, apportioned in the following way:
Midterm 1 100
Midterm 2 100
Midterm 3 (Final) 100
The actual relation between total points accumulated and final grade is not entirely fixed; rather, I adjust to allow for the highest achieved total. Last Fall, 380+ was a 4.0; 320+ was a 3.0. The class GPA was 3.23.
Truth in packaging disclosure:
1. In past quarters, most students have rated this class as useful and relevant. But when students haven't liked it, their complaint has been that they did not understand what I was asking them to do. I take that concern seriously; in class I try hard both to explain and to demonstrate what I want, and the Course Packet has many pages devoted to similar explanations. But many of you will find active reading very difficult. I encourage you to ask questions, to visit me in my office hours or to talk with my graduate assistant (if I have one). In the end, however, it is your responsibility to get help. Most students in the class will indeed finally "get it," but if you find that you are one who is not getting it, then you must take an active role in getting extra help.
2. Because they are writing for every class session, students report working more hours for this class than they generally do for other classes. Students report an average time spent of between 10 and 12 hours per week, but many say they worked as much as 15-16 hours (still within the average of 3 hours per credit which the University sets as its standard for 5 credit classes, but more hours than you may have to spend).
3. The median grade (50% above, 50% below) in my upper division classes runs anywhere from 3.1 to 3.3. That is NOT the bottom grade, it is the median grade. That means that a number of you will indeed get a 2.5 or a 2.7 or a 3.0, even though you may have done better than that elsewhere. If that is going to make you an unhappy camper, then, again, you should get into a different class.
4. Attendance and Participation are required: they presuppose engaged and timely completion of writing assignments. I take role randomly during the quarter; I also use my review of your portfolio work to evaluate your class participation.
5. Part of learning to write well is learning to read and critique your own work. From time to time I will xerox copies of papers written by people in this class for workshopping exercises--with the writer's name deleted. I'm sorry that I cannot use everyone's papers.
Texts: Fraser and Rabkin: Drama of the English Renaissance, Vol 1., Rice and Grafton, Foundations of Early Modern Europe 2nd ed., Sir Thomas More, Utopia, Shakespeare, Sonnets, Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Xerox Packet.