This week, an alum invited me to come speak to the English Club at Jefferson County Community and Technical College in Louisville, KY. The students were particularly interested in superheroes and fantasy. I gave a talk and read some of my work, particularly the superhero poems. They were a great crowd and audience not to mention incredibly hospitable. I was invited for pizza and chat afterward. It was a great day and I am very glad I went.
Also this week, I announced that I will be teaching a class on writing Young Adult fiction in the Fall. Many students were excited, many wished it had been offered before they graduated, and one student was appalled. I gathered from his comments that he thinks this class and the Harry Potter class I teach are demeaning to the program. This brings me to a discussion of what goes on in a English curriculum.
Certainly one idea about English programs is that they should introduce students to great works of literature, the “canon.” That’s fine. However, one must also understand that the canon is a construct. Today’s literature books look a lot different than they did 20, 40, 50, or however many years ago. When I took an American lit class in college, the professor who taught the 1850 to present day included only three women authors. That would (or at least should) not be the case today. When I taught Intro to Lit and The Short Story lit class, I tried to introduce students to new authors as well as “canonical” authors.
Another aspect of English programs is to teach students methods of inquiry and analytical skills and how to use these skill to approach texts. In this case, it really doesn’t matter what the text is. Harry Potter is a great tool for this since students want to talk about the series and can see it in new ways.
Ideally, I think an English Program should incorporate both ideas. We have two courses that deal with Harry Potter (three counting study abroad). Students obviously have to take other classes about writing and literature.
Writing for Young Adults is hardly a new item in curriculum either. I took a writing for adolescents course 25 years ago at Emerson College (the home of the highly regarded literary magazine Ploughshares). This winter I took a workshop in writing YA at Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise workshop. I will use what I learned to create the class for the fall.
The student who is upset about the offering stated that math has moved beyond 2+2 and so should we. This is a ridiculous and faulty analogy. 2+2 is basic math but writing a novel, or even a short story, is hardly comparable to solving that math problem. You have to incorporate all the aspects of fiction writing as well as the aspects of the genre. It’s hardly something first graders can do or even most high school student or for that matter most college students.
Okay, I’ve gone on enough. I’ll wrap it up by saying that I am happy to be at a school and department that lets us create classes that students want to take and incorporate them into the department’s mission.