‘Teaching the Literature Survey Course’

Editors discuss the way a key teaching role has evolved -- and should evolve.

January 3, 2018
 

The literature survey course is taught at most colleges and universities. Its content and pedagogy are debated frequently at disciplinary meetings and in faculty lounges.

A new collection of essays considers how the survey has changed, and how it should change. Many of the issues discussed may also apply to survey courses on other subjects. Teaching the Literature Survey Course: New Strategies for College Faculty (West Virginia University Press) has three co-editors: Gwynn Dujardin, assistant professor of English at Queen’s University, in Ontario, Canada; James M. Lang, professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College; and John A. Staunton, professor of English education and American literature at Eastern Michigan University. Together, they responded via email to questions about their new book.

Q: Is the purpose of the literature survey different now from what it was a generation ago?

A: Our discipline has certainly changed from what it was a generation ago, but one constant in the face of those changes has been that the survey course remains a staple in most literature programs. In spite of the ever-increasing specialization of individual faculty members, most departments still seem to believe that their students benefit from having an overview of the discipline before they move on to more focused work. At the same time, we see increasingly from the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education that courses which operate primarily on a coverage model -- skating over the surface of large bodies of knowledge -- don’t produce much long-term learning in students.

That research would cast some pretty serious doubt on the survey’s admirable intentions, which have typically been to provide an overview of the literary and historical contexts that students will need for later, more focused study. All of this prompted us to question whether surveys accomplish the purpose departments set out for them, and to gather ideas on new ways for instructors to conceive and approach the course.

Q: Several of the essays in the collection focus on mixing up the survey with various activities that go beyond the lecture. Yet the survey is associated with the lecture. How much has that changed? How much should it change?

A: The lecture mode defined survey instruction when pedagogy was conceived in terms of a simple delivery model and the purpose of the course was to give students a long view of the field -- hitting briefly on the major authors, themes and historical contexts. We now understand disciplinary knowledge in more diverse and complex terms, and -- just as urgently -- have grasped the critical role students play in generating their own learning.

We think the survey is behind other types of courses, however, in reaping the windfall of this pedagogical awakening. Departments often still pack large numbers of students into survey courses, and instructors approaching large courses for the first time will typically rely on lecture in the classroom and exams for assessment. Given its outsized role in the literature curriculum, we believe no other course warrants pedagogical innovation more than the survey course. Whether faculty are teaching at small colleges or large universities, our hope is that instructors come away from our book with new ideas about ways to involve their students in their own learning in the course.

Q: Depth versus breadth on individual works of literature comes up in several essays. The traditional survey moved quickly from work to work to get as many classics in as possible. Do you see movement away from this idea? How can depth be achieved without sacrificing breadth?

A: We know that students learn best when 1) they make connections to the course material and 2) can extend/transfer those connections to other texts and contexts. We open the book by asking whether it is possible for students to achieve these kinds of learning objectives in a coverage-model course. One contributor pointedly responds by organizing a modern literature survey around a single text, encouraging students to see and create their own connections between a canonical text and a wide range of literary (and even nonliterary) texts. Another uses an open-syllabus model in which he provides opportunities for students to mine their anthologies and propose the works that they believe should appear on the survey syllabus. The range of essays in the volume, while they take very different approaches to the challenge we posed to our contributors, suggest that prioritizing breadth before all else may do a disservice to our students, and that new teaching strategies are warranted to accomplish the learning objectives of the course.

Q: Many faculty members complain about teaching surveys, and seem to prefer to teach the works that are the focus of their research. Will the kinds of shifts and approaches discussed in this volume make more faculty members want to teach the literature survey?

A: We certainly hope so. We have observed the reluctance of our peers to teach survey courses either for fear of exposing their perceived weakness in areas outside of their strict specialties or out of a reluctance to devote their ever-limited time to mastering areas outside their own field. These concerns are certainly understandable; an expert in Victorian literature might not feel comfortable teaching a survey course that ends in the 21st century, or a specialist in contemporary American literature might feel unqualified to begin a survey course with the Puritans.

But we see such concerns as borne from a traditional model of the survey course that we would like our book to disrupt. In this respect, we hope instructors discover new approaches which, if they don’t inspire direct imitation, at least motivate instructors to translate what does inspire them in their own work to the survey classroom. The other thing to observe about these concerns is that they assume the wall-to-wall authority of the survey course instructor. This, too, is an outdated model our book strives to get beyond in favor of more student-centered learning. In this respect, we hope instructors pick up strategies that allow them to enjoy learning along with the students even as they bear responsibility for the operation of the course. In our experience, reinventing our survey courses has led us to new discoveries about literature that fed critically into our own work.

Q: Much public discussion of the survey (but not your volume) focuses on the demographics of survey authors. Some see too many dead white men. Others charge that key authors who are dead white men are being discarded in the name of political correctness. What do you make of these debates? Why were they not the focus of your volume?

A: The survey is a playing field on which important debates about our discipline have been played out for a long time now. We believe those kinds of discussions -- including the one about the diversity of authors who appear on a survey syllabus -- are essential for the ongoing vitality of our discipline, and we have all engaged in them with our students and peers in other contexts.

But we have yet to see a robust discussion arise about the how of teaching a literature survey course, which we found surprising in light of the explosion of new ideas about teaching and learning in recent decades. So this volume really is designed to start another conversation about the survey, one that we hope will join the already important discussions we have been having about the content we are teaching in these courses. But it’s worth noting that content and pedagogy go hand in hand, of course. When we put student learning at the center of the survey, and move beyond a traditional view of the course as designed to cover the great authors and literary movements of the field, we might just find that the conversations we have been having about content shift into productive new territories.

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