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Monday, May 22, 2006

Big-Time English Lectures

Congratulations to Truewit for making it through a semester of lecturing on Shakespeare before an audience of over one hundred undegraduate students. Quite the daunting task, and not something I've yet had the opportunity to do, though one at which I'm sure Professor Wit excelled (he's as entertaining and amusing in real life as he is here when talking about Gascoigne and "fewmets").

I was away for much of the past week--hence the nonexistent posting and the light commenting--but I also enjoyed reading about everyone's experiences teaching non-Shakespearean drama, which again is something I've yet to do but it's a course I'm dying to teach. It seems to be almost impossible to teach a straight-up Tudor-Stuart drama course at my school, which is unfortunate and may soon be getting harder.

Why is that? Because enrollments in English courses are not what they could be and so my department is currently focusing on developing more courses that will attract large numbers of students. I won't go into too much detail here (both to save you from boredom and to preserve my pseudonymity, such as it is), but suffice to say the university has hit upon an incentive structure that rewards large courses and not small seminars--sort of the inverse of the criteria used by U.S. News and World Reports. And as much as I love Marlowe, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ford, I don't see Tudor-Stuart drama pulling in over 100 students per semester.

Our shrinking enrollments have understandly caused a certain amount of hand-wringing in my department as well as some much needed thinking about the purpose and benefits of an English major, a discussion we had here not long ago. We needn't go into those issues again, though I'd be delighted if people had more thoughts they'd like to share; instead, I'm curious about the more practical issue of courses that draw large numbers of students, as in over 80 per semester. Various colleagues have been suggesting courses they think will prove a hit with students, but I figured I'd ask people here about big-time lecture courses at their schools:
  • Do your schools offer large Shakespeare lectures?

  • What are the big lecture courses that your students seem to like?

I have some general ideas on what might work, but that's all they are, ideas. What are your experiences with and/or ideas for popular courses? Thanks in advance.

  • At 5/22/2006 02:34:00 PM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    As of this year at my institution, we're down to one Renaissance specialist and one medievalist in the faculty. Consequently the number of different courses for either period on offer at the undergraduate level is quite limited. *I* think the units we offer are well-attended, but whether this is because the units are genuinely popular or simply because it was the only one on offer is up for debate.

    On Shakespeare exclusively there are two courses, each a semester long (2 semesters per year): "Shakespeare at the Movies" and "Shakespeare's Tragedies and Romances". I've included links to the unit descriptions for each.

    The movies course was a mixed bag of students, since it appealed to a wider range (e.g. cultural studies, film/performance studies, etc). I was fortunate to get hold of a preview copy of Radford's The Merchant of Venice to show the students, since it wasn't released theatrically in Australia (!).

    The tragedies and romances covered a selection of texts (King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest) and included film adaptations. There were 2 lectures per text: one introductory, the other thematic/topical. For example, the first Macbeth lecture covered the broad literary and political background of the play, followed by a detailed lecture on witchcraft. Students were encouraged to read widely and were assessed on 2 written assignments: a close reading and a thematic essay.

    The only other course to have substantial Shakespeare content is "Love and Death in the Renaissance". Since the course is only a semester long we had discussed the possibility of having to shorten it to "Love and Serious Illness in the Renaissance". That usually gets a chuckle. This course is essentially a free-for-all in terms of available texts, since students are welcome to write on anything from the period. The textbook is the Norton Anthology volume on 16th and early 17th century literature. Lectures are devoted to courtly poetry (Wyatt, Marlowe, Ralegh), Spenser's Faerie Queene, Donne, Webster's Duchess of Malfi (this was my guest lecture - I talked about early modern attitudes to widowhood and marriage and looked at some contemporary ballads), women poets (Wroth, Philips, Lanyer, Sidney, and Whitney), Shakespeare's Sonnets, Milton's Paradise Lost and Lycidas, finishing off with Browne and Burton on the physiology of love/death.

    Not many pursue the option to venture outside of the set texts and tend to stick to those covered in class. That said, I've had two excellent essays so far on texts outside of the list, including More's Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream).

    Sorry for babbling on, but you question DID lend itself to it! I'm happy to forward you any of the unit materials (outlines, timetables) if you're interested. We'll be offering a new undergraduate major in medieval and early modern studies as of next year, so there will be more on offer, but this will be mostly inter-disciplinary 'core' units that follow a particular theme (proposed units include "Melancholy, Madness, and Mysticism", and "Identity and Travel"). There are also graduate level courses that are offered according to the availability of the lecturers and the demand. This semester there's a unit on King Lear exclusively. Previously there have been units devoted to Shakespeare's narrative poems, and another on 17th century pastoral and 'country house' poetry.


  • At 5/22/2006 02:58:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    bdh--thanks for the detailed descriptions and links. A couple of quick questions: how large are these courses (typically)? And, assuming they're large, did you find they "worked" pretty well as lectures (as compared to discussion-based seminars)? Thanks.


  • At 5/23/2006 07:28:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    The courses are typically well-attended, with around 85 students in each. Enrolments for the movie course are typically higher at first, but often students drop out when they realise it isn't going to be a breeze.

    The courses are structured as a single 1-hour lecture with a 2-hour tutorial each week. Tutorials are compulsory and are usually full, with between 10-15 in each. Attendance at the lectures is usually dictated by the topic and external factors like the weather (e.g. today it was thunderin' and raining, so the turnout wasn't so great at 10am). All of the lectures are recorded (audio and visual) and made available online, so the lack of 'physical' presence at the lectures is perhaps misleading.

    I think the lectures are important, in that they provide fodder for tutorial discussion. On the whole, the tutorials are far more beneficial, since they allow for individual contribution and lively discussion. I always end up learning something from my students, and I get a real sense of accomplishment when I can see them engaging with the texts and the wider social/political/historical issues. You can't expect that from a lecture. : )


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