academy · PhD · syllabus · teaching

Syllabus Matters

Holy moley, has this semester snuck up on me. Since I administered a final exam for my Fall Composition course on Dec. 23, I was grading until the 24th (yep, I whipped through those suckers), and then I had a precious 2.5 weeks before diving back into teaching my new course. I mostly stayed in New York with the exception of a brief, cherished getaway to Philadelphia with my partner for a weekend, and because I did not have the relief (?) of family members being around, it was difficult for me to disengage in continually pressing dissertation and syllabus matters. Ohh, The Trap of Perpetual Productivity. (hence, love Aimee’s post on Down Time from last week!)

But it was a nice break nonetheless, and tbh, I tend to maintain a generally higher personal morale during the constantly moving and demanding semester; add that to the fact that I seem to have a mild form of reverse seasonal affective disorder (otherwise known as Summer-SAD), and I’d say I’m doing pretty okay, besides feeling the regular senses of apprehension and nervousness about the impending term.

This semester, I’m teaching a transhistorical course on Dreaming in Literature, which is actually the first Literature Proper course I have ever taught (after having taught five different Composition–or mandatory first-year writing–courses, ubiquitous in the American higher education system though perhaps some Canadian institutions have them as well?). My syllabus took a very long time to generate since I was building it entirely from scratch, and although I’m writing my dissertation on medieval dream visions and I’m excited about the broader temporal context this class will give me, I spent a lot of time seeking out dreamy things in other eras in a way that would offer the course both coherence and variety. Turns out there are a lot of texts that deal with dreams in some capacity! In this post, I’d like to A) sample a few points from my syllabus in order to share ideas and solicit feedback from more experienced professors; B) discuss a couple problems with the course that I can already anticipate; and C) crowd-source for more texts on dreaming, should you worthy readers have suggestions. While my reading list is pretty much set, I’m planning to build an additional Google Drive doc of other possible texts that students can sample from for their final papers and supplementary presentations. So if you can think of something major I’ve missed, toss it in the comments!

A) My course is split into broad (in one case very broad…) chronological units, and its main texts are:

  • Medieval Dreaming: “Caedmon’s Hymn,” “Dream of the Rood,” Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and the Anonymous Pearl poem
  • Romantic Dreaming (Renaissance to nineteenth-century): Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel, selections from John Keats and William Blake
  • Modernist Dreaming: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Hitchcock’s Spellbound (film), and selections from Freud and Jung
  • Postmodern/Contemporary Dreaming: Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), selections from Rosalind Krauss’s Optical Unconscious 

Of my various assignments (you can peruse the rest through the course website if you’d like), I’m perhaps most excited about the “Slow Looking” Museum Assignment, which I discovered through my medievalist Facebook friend Julie Orlemanski: in brief, this assignment requires students to visit a museum, gallery, or other public space, observe a piece of art relating to the themes of our course for at least 45 minutes (key), and then write a response in which they reflect upon their experience of “slow looking.” The idea comes from an article by Harvard Professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who observes that we professors should be thinking more about teaching pace and tempo alongside material and content, about encouraging practices of “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention,” especially as our current world constantly pushes students towards “immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity.” I LOVE THIS! My students are going to HATE it (many of them), but I LOVE it! One of my most transformative experiences as an undergrad was when my art class took a trip to a Rodin exhibit at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and I ended up sitting in front of a fallen caryatid statue for about an hour after other students had left, watching it shift and evolve and emerge in different meaningful ways the longer I chose to allow it. I hope my students derive some similarly surprising insights from this exercise. 

B) A couple problems/concerns:

  • One: you may have noticed, oh feminists. I only have two female authors: Virginia Woolf and contemporary psychoanalytical theorist Rosalind Krauss. I’m basically as bad as David Gilmour! (though, who knows, maybe Pearl was written by a woman…??)  I think a lot of this is the nature of the material, the male-driven canon of course but also the question of who is licensed to have access and agency over their own dreams (oh, Freud…), and I plan to make this problem a recurrent talking-point. But nevertheless I could have found more women authors, especially in the modern/contemporary periods, so I am ESPECIALLY eager for some suggestions in that arena in the comments below (women of color or LGBT writers esp. welcome). I have a little bit of leeway with juggling things around near the end of the term.  
  • Two: An introductory writing exercise yesterday during my first class has led me to believe that most of my students chose this course because they want to learn to interpret their own dreams. While I there is a creative/personal component to the syllabus, and self-exploration is one of the themes of the course, I need to figure out how to cultivate such eager, engaged attitudes while keeping the focus of the class on literature, sometimes literature that won’t initially seem very exciting or, cough, relatable
  •  Three: I’m worried I haven’t assigned enough reading. So many people cautioned me that I need to assign less than I deem possible that I may have overcompensated…hence, tomorrow, we’re examining a mere 15 pages of texts. We’ll see how things go, I guess. I really have no idea!

Lastly, as I think about my own syllabus and the endless tinkering that went on before I distributed it yesterday, I can’t sign off without boosting this article by Rebecca Schuman in Slate, on the question of why syllabi have sprouted in length to something akin to “exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality.” Yes, it’s the corporatization of the university system, the sense that students are now consumers who by following as many systematic guidelines possible can purchase rather than earn their grades. I love Schuman’s suggestion at the end that we should relegate all the “admin boilerplate” to the end of our documents, emphasizing through form and physical presentation which issues actually matter. 




Any suggestions or grains of wisdom from your own syllabi, readers? How are you approaching your syllabi this term?
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5 thoughts on “Syllabus Matters

  1. My students love The Women of Brewster Place, which is by a black woman and has lots to do with dreams (both literal and figurative) — in particular, the second-to-last story, “The Block Party,” ties all the women's stories together through their dreams in an interesting way. Jill Matus wrote a good article about this chapter that may give you some idea: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2904065
    It's a good book and often a favorite among my students.

    Also, Olive Schreiner's novel The Story of an African Farm has a whole lot on dreams — and Schreiner also has a shorter work titled Dreams, which I haven't read. Her work is really good. Chris GoGwilt knows lots about her.

    Also, what about Jane Eyre? And/or Wide Sargasso Sea? I seem to remember lots of dreams in both.

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  2. Thanks, Liz! Awesome possum. I would definitely definitely love to incorporate The Women of Brewster Place; do you think “The Block Party” could stand on its own, or are the stories closely linked? Unfortunately I don't have a *ton* of room in my syllabus; definitely no room for Jane Eyre / Jean Rhys, though great to think about for the future–I had considered other stories by Rhys, since she seems to deal frequently with various forms of dream states and sleeplessness, etc. I'll look into Olive Schreiner as well!

    Great suggestions—ohh, I've been hanging out too long in the Middle Ages…

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  3. The stories in Women of Brewster Place are all interconnected (each one tends to focus on a different woman), so I'd keep that in mind. If you do “The Block Party,” I'd also try to incorporate “The Two” (previous chapter) as it provides necessary exposition and begins to introduce some of the characters.

    Yeah I seem to remember Rhys having dream-y stuff elsewhere too…

    Schreiner is great; I really enjoy her.

    Awesome possum.

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