How To Achieve Syllabus Efficiency
Higher education is all about “efficiencies” these days in budgets, class sizes, faculty-student ratio, etc. So I’ve been thinking about how I could be more efficient in my work. On a typical day, I prepare to teach three different texts for the three courses I’m currently teaching: Shakespeare, Early British Literature, and introductory creative writing. This seems inefficient, don’t you think? What if I could prepare only one reading for all three courses? This would save me time and perhaps save students money on textbooks, too. We could get bulk discounts.
Of course, my plan requires rejiggering the texts I teach. I don’t want to eliminate great works of literature entirely, because, after all, I am responsible for helping students furnish their imaginations with the best that has been thought and said, usually in poetic meter. So I’ve decided to create “great literature mash-ups.” I’ll start with my three actual syllabi from this semester, combining texts I’ve taught in the same week. Here we go.
Anne Lamott, “Sh***y First Drafts”
Dream of the Rood
In a recently discovered, much shorter early draft of the famous Anglo-Saxon epic, the Geatish warrior hero Beowulf parties a little too hard in King Hrothgar’s mead-hall, passes out, and entirely misses his chance to defeat the monster Grendel. Instead, Beowulf has a strange dream in which a sparkly/bloody cross talks to him. It’s a lousy story, but not to worry. The author later revised.
Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”
Aldo Leopold, “April” from Sand County Almanac
After all the shenanigans—hiding behind potted plants, pretending Hero is dead, forcing Claudio to marry a mysterious “cousin” etc.—Beatrice and Benedick are fed up. They leave Messina right after their Act 5 wedding and honeymoon in New York City, which they decide they don’t like. Then they settle down on a farm in Wisconsin to spend their days quarreling wittily about bur oaks and woodcocks.
Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue
Sir Gawain and Green Knight
Travel and humor writer Bill Bryson encounters a quirky band of fellow travelers who decide to walk the Appalachian Trail together and tell stories along the way. At the beginning and end of their travels, a magical green man on a green horse—terrifying but oddly cheerful—points out their tiniest sins and harasses them about pride.
Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
Welcome to violence-against-women week. Wouldn’t it be nice if that nutty old Wife of Bath sent the villainous Iago on a year-long quest to find out what women want? (Answer: “sovereignty.” Although let’s change that to: “an end to all harassment and violence against women.”) Then the Wife of Bath could marry Othello herself and nag him silly for the rest of their lives. This would free Desdemona to pack her bags and light out with Emilia for a girls’ weekend in Vegas. (Unfortunately, this is not what happens in these texts. Instead, there’s rape, domestic violence, women who are not believed, and the murder of an innocent wife. Kavanagh hearings were happening during the week my students and I were reading this stuff. It was rough.)
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Spenser, The Faerie Queene Book 1
Fairies, flowers, and galloping steeds! Four lovers, a hapless knight, a woman who represents capital-T truth, two fairy queens, a long-suffering dwarf, a mischievous imp, a lady who is supposed to be the Whore of Babylon, and some hilarious tradespeople all run around in a magical woods. One guy turns into a donkey and there’s a harrowing dragon battle at the end. It’s all very confusing, but somewhere in there is a profound allegory of the Christian life.
Shakespeare, Henry IV part 1
Steve Almond, “Donkey Greedy”
In Almond’s tense, character-driven short story, poker becomes a metaphor for an interpersonal power struggle. Combine it with the Shakespeare play and we have Prince Hal and Falstaff starting a poker tournament at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. Rather than the rebels and loyalists tramping their armies to Shrewsbury, hot-headed Hotspur and his team of rebels settle their quarrel with King Henry IV on the felt. At a crucial moment, Hal hands his father the king some sweet cards under the table, assuring that the rebels are defeated by a straight flush. The audience is pleased, though lingering ambiguities remain about the legitimacy of the monarchy.
Shakespeare, As You Like It
Marlowe, Dr. Faustus
Richard Powers, “Douglas Pavlicek” from The Overstory
This is a tough one. Hmmm. How about this? An accomplished German scholar, ambitious for knowledge and power, dabbles in occult practices. He summons the devil Mephistophilis and offers to sell his soul for fame, wealth, and pointless pranks. But right then, a lively young lass named Rosalind appears and Faustus immediately falls for her. They all run off into the forest, where Rosalind chatters ceaselessly (which spares us listening to Faustus) and Mephistophilis disguises himself as a girl and then pretends to be a boy pretending to be a girl. They soon discover a band of forest ecologists and learn that trees form an organic community. Amid the witty banter and gender confusion, the humans all become eco-activists. Eventually, Mephistophilis leaves off deviling and joins a monastery.
Well! This is going well so far, but I have several weeks’ worth of readings to mash together yet. Next week I’m planning to teach Hamlet, Macbeth, and a George Saunders short story. In weeks 11 and 12, it’s King Lear in one class and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir Between the World and Me in another. Wish me luck mashing those together.
I can imagine my colleagues in other disciplines finding similar efficiencies in their teaching endeavors. Come to think of it, though, I do love all these texts in their original form. Maybe instead I’ll find other ways to achieve efficiencies. Maybe I can figure out how to attend all committee and department meetings simultaneously while also responding meaningfully to student writing and doing assessment.