The English department offers graduate students the opportunity to teach and design their own courses—an experience that is extremely valuable on the job market. Graduate students teach a range of courses, from first-year writing to introduction to Creative Writing and literature surveys. But they look forward to teaching sophomore literature because they have the freedom to design a course around topics that interest them. This invaluable experience furthers their professional development, makes them more competitive on the job market, and allows them to hone their teaching abilities, stance on pedagogy, and critical knowledge of a particular field.
Sophomore literature courses vary in content and approach, but they all focus on literature and critical analysis and teach students to describe, analyze, and evaluate aspects of genre, literary movements, and works of art. Each semester, graduate students may propose, design, and teach one English 210, 211, or 212 course:
- English 210, Literary Genres: Explores a specified genre or subgenre of writing. Recent courses examined horror stories, love stories, poetry, and westerns.
- English 211, Thematic Approaches: Explores a specific theme that recurs in literature across the ages. Recent examples include the themes of magical creatures, evil, funeral rituals, food and dining, marriage, and war.
- English 212, Literature and Other Media: Explores the relationship of literature to other arts, such as painting, film, video games, or architecture. Examples include science in film and fiction, humanity and machines in film and literature, and monsters in literature, film, and games.
Graduate Student Spotlight: Ali Ünal and Clinton Craig
Graduate students Ali Ünal and Clintn Craig taught Sophomore Literature courses in the Fall of 2018. While Ali instructed English 211, Grief Through Literature, Clinton taught English 210, Fantasy and Science Fiction. Though their courses focused around their personal interests, both Clinton and Ali created dynamic learning environments through a variety of teaching methods that encouraged students to challenge themselves and taught them how to develop as thinkers.
How did you arrive at the focus and theme of your sophomore literature course?
- Ali: As a fiction writer, I've always been fascinated by how people get over their grief by reading and writing about it. I've been exploring it through my own writings, so I wanted to design a course that explores how others have done that in literature. I'm also going to take my major comprehensive exam in Special Topics around Grief, so I thought this course would be a great starting point for me in terms of warming up to the subject and beginning to compile a list of texts.
- Clinton: I have always loved science fiction and fantasy, especially when I was in high school and early in college. When I was thinking about this class, I took an audience-based approach: what class would I have wanted when I was a sophomore? I decided that a class that took a serious look at these genres was what I would have wanted. In teaching the class, my enthusiasm about sci-fi and fantasy has only increased, so much so that I’ve decided to take the speculative fiction comprehensive exam. This is a subject that I want to continue teaching, and I designed another course on post-apocalyptic fiction that I will teach in the Fall of 2019.
How did you go about designing your course?
- Ali: First I asked people their suggestions and then made some research about the books writing on or around grief. Then I came up with a preliminary list of possible texts that included the books I've already read and loved. My main criterion was that either the author must have written the book to help their grieving process as in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, or the characters in the book must be grieving over some loss in their lives. I tried to diversify that 'grief over death' as much as possible by not only focusing on loss of a loved one, but the loss of identity, of past, of history, or of future.
- Clinton: In designing the reading list, I wanted to mostly talk about books that I had guessed students haven’t encountered yet (so no Harry Potter and no Hunger Games). We started by looking at the origins of the genres (or at least an attempt at locating origins) with 19th century texts like Frankenstein and Alice in Wonderland. We then moved on to a unit about world-building by focusing on Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Finally, I wanted a unit that challenged genre distinction by reading texts that resist classification like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
What are some interesting assignments or projects in your course?
- Ali:I asked them to bring an origami that symbolizes their grief to the class. And then I asked them to name their animals and write a short dialogue between them. We were reading Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, which is a magical realist book, so I was trying to teach them how supernatural elements in fiction can speak to real events in life through literature. I also wanted them to feel connected with their own grief, small or big, by writing about it. I will also ask each student to bring in a story, a poem, a Social Media post, or any published piece of writing around the theme of our class.
- Clinton: An ongoing project in the course is to keep a “living document” of our genre chart. This chart lists the elements of genre for sci-fi and fantasy and how they overlap. At several points in the semester, I rewrite this chart on the board and we re-evaluate it, move things around, add things, and move things into categories. The chart has gotten more sophisticated over time, and I also encourage students to keep track of their own personal chart.
What do you want your students to walk away with?
- Ali:I've been teaching my students the distinction between casual reading and active reading. I want them to be able to question and investigate what they are reading rather than reading for only joy or entertainment. That's why I've been giving them the necessary tools with which they can broaden their perspectives and improve their reading abilities for a better understanding of literature, of life and of their own grieving processes. I also want them to be able to reverse this process so as to write critically about a text they have read. I've designed short 500-word essays in order to give them a chance, before their final essay, to hone their writing and reading skills.
- Clinton: I want students to recognize what they expect out of a fantasy or sci-fi novel and be able to challenge these notions—where they come from and how they can be altered by continuing to read more and more texts. Also, I emphasize how works respond to literary tradition, so we look at how Frankenstein reacts to Romanticism and the Enlightenment and analyze the elements of the Medieval Romance and classic tragedy in The Silmarillion. Finally, I want students to understand that these texts are not written in isolation but, rather, respond to anxieties of society. A text like The Left Hand of Darkness very much responds to gender dynamics in our world, just as Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety” responds to Cold War tensions and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
For more information on current sophomore literature course offering, click here.