Saying More with Less: A Survey of the Shorter Forms of American Literature (Syllabus and Rationale)
Syllabus and Rationale
As I prepared to begin my graduate portfolio (for the University of New Orleans) and looked through each of the necessary components, the one piece that excited me most was the syllabus. Because I have a desire to further my education with doctoral studies and eventually teach literature, the exercise felt like an opportunity to expand my capacities and demonstrate the passion that I possess for education. With this in mind, I did initially find it hard to narrow down my topic. I was advised by a mentor to make a list first that consisted of what I wanted to accomplish with a course, and then turn my attention to what I wanted the course to be about. It was an interesting technique that proved to be rather beneficial. My goals from this session of brainstorming featured three components that had been valuable in shaping me as a student of literature. The first is that I wanted to encourage diversity in reading, introducing women writers and writers of color to students new to the field. Secondly, I wanted to promote an appreciation for various types of literature, not focusing too much on one specific form or genre in hopes that students would instead understand that there are advantages with every expression of writing. Lastly, I wanted to ensure that students learned the importance of context, spending ample time researching the events or situations of the time that influenced writers, which I believe not only helps with interpretation of a text, but also with being able to fully see the literary techniques the author used. With these goals clearly stated, I then began to look for a way to narrow the course down into a specific topic, which I eventually did.
The course chosen is based off of the English 2041 course shell (Major American Writers), mainly because I liked the flexibility of being able to showcase works from different time periods. The main change in this though was that I decided to focus solely on the shorter forms of literature. As a result, my course, Saying More with Less: A Survey of the Shorter Forms of American Literature, was born.
The idea to focus on short literature came quite naturally after devising my goals. During Dr. Anne Boyd Rioux’s course on forgotten books last semester, my final project—which focused on the succinct work of author Kate Jennings—led me to consider the value of shorter forms of literature to a greater degree. Her novel Snake was both lauded and criticized for its brevity, prompting me to form an understanding of both the risk and reward of working in shorter mediums. Throughout my research, though, one thing became abundantly clear: saying more with less is harder than it seems. In fact, I‘m convinced now that filling pages of a long novel is in certain ways, somewhat easier than finding a beautifully evocative way to get a point across in fewer words. I’m reminded of the quote from Blaise Pascal: “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.” Pascal’s statement is a comical yet truthful way to look at the craftsmanship and precision that goes into writing something in a short form. Many students may consider, as I did early on, that the novel is the primary source (or at the very least, the preferred source) of literature. Because this course is for students who are relatively new to literature, starting them out with an understanding that there is value in shorter forms of literature, and that volume for the sake of volume is not always better, could be pivotal for them as they move forward in other literature courses.
This inspiration naturally led to an early outline of a course that highlights the merits of the short novel, while keeping the goals for what I wanted to accomplish in the class intact. I found, through the recommendation of Dr. Rioux, another author, Jenny Offill, whose 2014 novel, Dept. of Speculation was praised for its economy of words—and pages. Reading reviews for Offill’s book highlighted the strength of such books, affirming to me that I was on the right path in creating an interesting course study. From this starting point, I looked outside of just short novels toward other forms of short literature. Resources that I glanced through mentioned poetry as an option, but, considering that the course schedule was limited to only 16 weeks, I decided to push aside the temptation to include poets I loved, and instead focus solely on prose. Eventually I decided on two other forms of prose literature and decided to break the semester up into three units based on those: short story, essay, and short novel.
For the first unit of study, I chose to start with the short story. I took the time to look back at my old course work from undergraduate studies and noticed that short stories were one of the first introductions that I had as student to literature. Because of this, and a large number of quality stories out there—also seeing that many well-known writers began with short stories— it felt like a logical starting point that might also help ease new students into the analysis of literature. From here I devised the reading schedule for the unit with two essential things in mind: literary quality, and diversity. Of all of the things that I’ve taken away from my time at UNO, seeing the value in diversity is certainly one of the most important ones. Because of this, I decided to focus in this section (and for the majority of class, outside of one essay) on the work of female writers and writers of color. The likes of Hemingway and Twain were tempting to include here, but considering that many other courses that these students have taken and will eventual take cover them, it seemed like an opportune time to expose young students who may have little experience in literature to voices that are just as masterful, but without the recognition that they deserve.
I begin the unit with a lecture on the craft of the short story itself. In this lecture I will discuss the style, characteristics, and typical length of short stories, then offer examples outside of the works that we will study, reading excerpts to the class. The following class period will follow up the lecture by dividing the class into groups and assigning each group a set of discussion prompts. The class will end with everyone coming back together to summarize the best points from their group discussion. This format will be the same for the essay and short novel units, and functions as both solid foundational information to aid in discussion of future readings, as well as setting a standard for the type of in-class participation that the course will require. The assigned readings for the short story unit will begin the following week, by looking at the work of Katherine Anne Porter.
Porter’s life and work exemplifies excellence in the craft. Her stories deal with relevant themes in interesting and often unsettling ways. The stories that students will read include “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” and “A Downward Path to Wisdom”. Students will be challenged to analyze Porter’s themes and look for areas in which her personal life may have influenced them. Following Porter’s works, the class will look at select short stories of Eudora Welty. Welty’s narration of events within southern culture should appeal to students at the University of New Orleans, hopefully creating an appreciation for her work that extends beyond the class. The stories students will read by Welty will be “A Worn Path” and “No Place for You My Love”. Next, students will spend two class periods looking at the contrasting styles of Jamaica Kincaid’s story “Girl” and Shirley Jackson’s dystopian story, “The Lottery”. The reasoning here is to provide examples of how approaches to short literature differ according to genre. By comparing such different stories, perhaps students can walk away with an appreciation for form, even if they do not like the genre selection.
Finishing out the short story unit readings will be the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Kay Boyle. While both authors come from much different backgrounds, and write about very different topics, it’s hard to ignore the value that they each bring to the short story. During these two sections, discussions will explore the impact of the cultural and historical context that inspired the authors. Hurston’s works will include “Sweat” and “The Fire and the Cloud,” while Boyle’s stories will include “White Horses of Vienna” and “The Astronomer’s Wife”.
The second unit will focus on essays. This will force students to shift their focus from fiction to nonfiction, highlighting once again the benefits of brevity across all categories of literature. Like the section above, I intentionally wanted to showcase diversity of thought, ensuring that there was representation included. I also wanted to choose authors and works that challenged students to think for themselves, potentially reconsidering their worldview. To help keep readings somewhat centralized, I decided to work from a collection of American essays, The Best American Essays of the Century, because the collection included works I had already thought of adding to the reading schedule. Outside of two essays that can be found online, all essays in this unit will be from this collection.
Readings will start with James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son” and W.E.B. Du Bois’ work, “Of the Coming of John”. Each of these essays tackle the issue of race in a way that is as inspiring as it is convincing. Students will be encouraged in discussions of these readings to push outside of their own comfort zones to have respectful yet challenging conversations about the themes presented by Baldwin and DuBois. After this, the course will somewhat shift, and look at essays that depict very different subject matter. David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” may seem an odd choice for literature students to read through, but the content itself is not what is important here (although debating the moral dilemma Wallace presents is interesting for an in-class discussion). Instead, the main focus will be on analyzing the literary devices Wallace uses to tell a compelling story about a subject that might not seem all that intriguing at first glance. After this, students will read Jo Ann Beard’s essay on shooting violence, ”The Fourth State of Matter,” addressing the tone in which Beard composes her story, as well as what larger statement she is trying to make. From here students will return to the essay collection and read Alice Walker’s “Looking for Zora” which will be quite a treat for students who enjoyed the short stories of Hurston covered in week 5. Completing the unit will be a close exploration of Joyce Carol Oates’ essay, “They All Just Went Away”. In the essay Oates depicts an emotionally rich true story about her childhood. Students will look at the way that Joyce deals with her challenging biographical elements, assessing whether or not she has elicited an emotional response from the audience, and if so, how she did it.
The final unit will look at the short novel. I paid special attention in this section to not only look at the length of the novel in terms of page numbers, but to also choose texts that exemplified theme of saying more with less. As a result the reading list for the unit is comprised of authors that understand portraying a wealth of meaning within very few words. I begin the section with Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing. I was introduced to Larsen in Dr. Rioux’s Exile Literature class where I read her novel Quicksand. I was immediately attracted to not only her style of writing, but also her background. Larsen is able to address difficult themes in a way that compels one to act, something that I think is very important for early literature students to understand. Passing, which I read in my spare time recently, depicts concepts and themes of race and privilege that many students may have never considered and will prove important for in-class discussions. After this look at Larsen’s novel, students will read the book that started my fascination with short forms of literature, Snake, by Australian writer and feminist, Kate Jennings. Jennings’ work is experimental, to say the least. She writes in a straightforward, yet poetic style, leaving more out than she puts in. While her book does manage to reach 157 pages, most chapters are barely a page long. This style of brief flashes of narrative makes for an intriguing read, especially considering that it is beautifully strung together into a fully formed and cohesive story. Students will be encouraged to pick out motifs and themes hidden within the work, as well as explore what parts of the story might mirror Jennings’ personal history. In a similar fashion, Jenny Offill’s novel, Dept. of Speculation, seems to take a note out of Jennings’ experimental playbook, weaving together an equally fascinating story that is divided into quick vignettes. Students will be tasked with comparing the approaches of the two authors, seeking similarities as well as key differences, and discussing why Offill’s work has maintained critical success, while Jennings’ has since fallen out of publication. The unit will end with Glenway Wescott’s unusual love story, The Pilgrim Hawk. At just over 136 pages, Wescott’s short novel manages to explore complex themes of love and jealousy in a brief but elegant story that can demonstrate to students the effectiveness of short forms of literature. Discussions will focus on the cultural contexts at play in the novel, the motifs mentioned, and a speculative analysis of the book’s titular figure—the pilgrim hawk.
My hope for the class is that by the end of the semester they will have increased their appreciation for the less is more approach by better understanding the literary techniques used in short literature, as well, feeling more comfortable analyzing and discussing short stories, essays, and short novels in an academic setting. While academic success is an overall goal, my personal goal, as mentioned in the introduction, is to see students increase their appreciation for the authors presented, harnessing a more complete understanding of why diversity in literature is so valuable. To think that a student might be introduced to an author or work that positively alters their worldview forever is quite a rewarding possibility.
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Saying More with Less: A Survey of the Shorter Forms of American Literature.
The course will cover various American authors (both well-known and lesser-known) who are noted for creating masterful work in the medium of short story, essay, and short novel. The course will discuss the benefits and disadvantages of these three forms for the purpose of creating a clearer understanding of each within the larger scope of literature as a whole.
By the end of the semester, students will be able to:
· Recognize the three forms of short literature discussed in the class: short story, essay, and short novel
· Understand the advantages and disadvantages of shorter forms of literature
· Analyze literary techniques that authors utilized in their respective works
· Demonstrate an ability to intelligently discuss concepts and themes from the literature presented
Oates, Joyce Carol. The Best American Essays of the Century ISBN: 978-0-61812-767-2
Larsen, Nella. Passing ISBN: 978-1-42095-613-9
Jennings, Kate. Snake ISBN: 978-0-88001-538-7
Offill, Jenny. Dept. of Speculation ISBN: 978-8-41621-364-1
Wescott, Glenway. The Pilgrim Hawk. ISBN: 978-8-48346-254-6
All other texts will be available in an electronic format and will be provided by professor.
Course Requirements: in-class discussion, oral presentation, three quizzes, two essays, a midterm exam, and a final exam
Essays: For the first essay students will choose 1 of 5 given essay prompts and will compose a 3-5-page essay that sufficiently covers the topic chosen. Students should ensure that they include a clear thesis within the body of the paper, as well as a work cited page that includes a minimum of two outside scholarly sources. The paper should follow MLA 8th Edition formatting, written in 12pt. font, double spaced. For the final essay, students will choose two of the 3 forms of short literature, comparing the two, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, OR students can choose to compare all 3 short forms with that of the full length novel, attempting to either prove or disprove that shorter forms can be as (or more so) effective than a full novel. The paper should be 5-7 pages and should include 3-5 scholarly sources. The same formatting guidelines apply. Note: Professor will speak about finding acceptable sources, as well as give advice on successful essay writing in the introduction to the class.
Quizzes: Quizzes are intended to ensure that students are keeping up with assigned reading, participating in discussions, and paying attention during peer presentations. While there are only three for the entire semester, each quiz will appear randomly, so it is essential that students remain diligent in their class preparation.
Exams: In-class exams will include two sections. The first will feature quotations from the assigned readings and will require students to explain the surrounding context and elaborate on why the quote is important to the story/ essay/ novel as a whole. The second section will feature a short essay, testing students on how well they can critically think about and respond to the themes of the readings. A small part of the class period before each exam will be devoted to exam review.
Presentation: Each student will choose an author from the course schedule and will prepare a 10-minute oral presentation that covers that author’s biography, personal history, relevant works, and impact on literature. This presentation will introduce peers to the author, giving valuable context which will aid in class discussion. Presentation must include a bibliography and at least 3 scholarly sources.
Discussion/ Participation: Because this course is discussion based, it is imperative that each student participate in a lively manner, contributing when able to the discussion at hand with relative and intelligent comments. In class discussion will be evaluated to form the student’s participation grade for the course.
Academic Integrity: Academic Integrity is fundamental to the process of learning and to the evaluating of academic performance. Academic dishonesty (cheating on tests, claiming the work of others as your own) will not be tolerated. Refer to UNO Judicial Code for further definitions of academic dishonesty and the penalties for dishonesty.
Accommodations for Students with Disabilities: Students who qualify for services will receive the academic modifications for which they are legally entitled. It is the responsibility of the student to register with the Office of Disability Services each semester and follow their procedures for obtaining assistance.
Attendance: Attendance is mandatory. The course involves extensive discussion, which requires that students are in class and actively participating. Because students are not able to replicate in-class discussion solely by reading course materials or by borrowing a classmate’s notes, missing class discussions are strongly discouraged. Attendance and participation will count for 5% of the course grade.
Assignments & Grades:
Paper 1 15%
Midterm Exam 20%
Paper 2 20%
Final Exam 20%
Participation & Attendance 5%
Tu: Course Introduction & Short Story Lecture
Th: Short Story Discussion
Tu: Katherine Anne Porter “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”
Th: Katherine Anne Porter “Downward Path to Wisdom”
Tu: Eudora Welty “A Worn Path”
Th: Eudora Welty “No Place for You My Love.”
Tu: Jamaica Kincaid “Girl”
Th: Shirley Jackson “The Lottery”
Tu: Zora Neale Hurston “Sweat”
Th: Zora Neale Hurston “The Fire and the Cloud”
Tu: Kay Boyle “The White Horses of Vienna”
Th: Kay Boyle “Astronomer’s Wife”
First Paper Due
Tu: Essay Lecture
Th: Essay Discussion
Tu: James Baldwin “Notes of a Native Son”
Th: W.E.B. Du Bois “Of the Coming of John”
Tu: David Foster Wallace “Consider the Lobster”
Th: Jo Ann Beard “The Fourth State of Matter”
Tu: Midterm Exam
Tu: Alice Walker “Looking for Zora”
Th: Joyce Carol Oates “They All Just Went Away”
Tu: Short Novel Lecture
Th: Short Novel Discussion
Tu: Nella Larsen “Passing”
Th: Nella Larsen “Passing”
Tu: Kate Jennings Snake
Th: Kate Jennings Snake
Tu: Jenny Offill Dept. of Speculation
Th: Jenny Offill Dept. of Speculation
Final Paper Due
Tu: Glenway Wescott The Pilgrim Hawk
Th: Glenway Wescott The Pilgrim Hawk
Final Exam: TBD