Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
This is the course description from the ENG 385 syllabus:
A survey of classic texts written for children from the past 200 years in (primarily) England and America. We will examine the development and range of the genre from early alphabet books to recent young adult fiction. We will try to put ourselves in the position of young readers while also studying the works as adult interpreters, asking such questions as: How do stories written for children reflect and shape the lives of their readers? What can children’s literature tell us about the history of reading, or of growing up, or of the imagination itself? In the process we will consider psychological and social questions as well as literary ones.
This course description is one of the more honest ones of Princeton’s course offerings. As the syllabus suggests, the course’s goals really are to examine children’s literature from a variety of perspectives: social, literary, historical, and psychological. This makes the class a great pick for people from different academic backgrounds.
The course books also vary in genre and length, ranging from picture books to large chapter books. The course is organized both historically and thematically, which still provides an easy-to-follow track between the different books. Additionally, the secondary readings come from the same major authors, which provides even more of a connection between the different class texts.
The course assignments (3 papers and 1 final exam) all build off of each other. The papers start small and become gradually larger, and the final exam is comprehensive. ENG 385 lends itself to following patterns and making connections throughout the semester.
No prior background knowledge is needed for the class, but it emphasizes close-reading and analysis of fictional texts and images. This makes it easier for English or other humanities majors; However, the professor and precepts provide guidance and practice with close-reading, and the class’s focus on social, historical, and psychological perspectives makes it compatible with students of all academic backgrounds.
The hardest part about this course is not the professor’s hidden expectations, but other students’ assumptions about the course. Children’s Literature is generally called “Kiddie Lit,” and is known as a class that seniors take senior spring. This perpetuates a false idea that the course is easy to fake your way through. This is not the case. During the class, many seniors who entered with these assumptions begin to complain that they actually have to read the books to be able to write the papers, or that they actually have to study for the final exam.
The course is “easy” because the books are interesting and the professor is lively. Also, the course structure makes it easy to follow. The professor even provides a lesson later in the course on how to study for the final exam.
The professor and syllabus are very straightforward about the course expectations, which are to read the primary course books and pay attention in lecture. The professor pretty much hands his students the tools necessary to succeed in this class.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
The most helpful part of this course is the lectures. Lecture slides are generally posted right after class on Blackboard, but this does not mean that lecture attendance is not important. The purpose of the lectures is for students to engage and question the material; this is not too difficult, considering that the topics are normally interesting and the professor is very energetic and humorous.
The lectures synthesize all of the information. The professor typically begins the class by reminding students of upcoming assignments, resources, and events. He then breaks down the outline for that particular lecture. For the rest of the class, he presents some historical background, and then connects that unit’s primary texts by emphasizing important themes between them.
He also highlights important ideas and questions from that unit’s secondary readings, using those readings to examine the primary text. In this way, the lectures serve as mini examples on how to close read, analyze, and make an argument about a book. This is especially helpful to those who are not comfortable with close reading. For everyone, this is a good time to brainstorm paper topics.
The best way to take notes in these lectures is not to write down everything you see on the powerpoint, because that will be posted on Blackboard anyway. Also, the final exam does not test your memorization of facts, but your ability to engage with and analyze material. If you take this class and the lecture slides are posted before the class, print them out and take notes on them in class. If they are not posted until after class, use your notes as a time to brainstorm questions and themes. For each section of the lecture outline, write down the patterns you or the professor notes between different texts. Write down some arguments you may want to explore for your papers. Lectures are a time to make connections, build knowledge, and ask questions (really! The professor truly encourages students to talk back to him, ask questions, and answer out loud in class).
This class also has precepts each week. As any precept component for any class, each preceptor can vary. However, the key to succeeding in Kiddie Lit precepts is to read the books. Come to precept with at least one passage or one question to point out. It really is as simple as that.
Because there are many different perspectives through which to view each book, read the books in any way you feel most comfortable with. If you prefer to use sticky notes to take notes, do so. If you prefer to simply read a book without taking notes because it’s more enjoyable to do so, then do it. The point is just to read. If you fall behind on the secondary readings, don’t fret. The professor gives great summaries of them in lectures.
If you are a senior in the throws of thesising and come to the point in the semester where you inevitably have to sacrifice something, sacrifice a precept before you sacrifice a lecture. If you haven’t read a book and >need to sacrifice a class, skip a precept. If you haven’t read a book, go to that lecture anyway. The lectures are so informational that you’ll get a pretty thorough breakdown of the book, which can at least help you to read it faster later. Do keep in mind precept absences. The course policy is that three unexcused precept absences will result in a failing precept participation grade. Depending on whether you’re PDFing the course or not, plan your absences accordingly.
Learning For and From Assignments
The most important thing to note about the course assignments is that they build off of each other. There are three papers and one final exam.
The first paper is a short 2-3 page one on alphabet books, in which students are asked to close read and analyze picture books using a secondary argument essay. The short length makes it easy to put off, but try not to put it on the backburner—it’s a good example of what the rest of the assignments will require. View this paper as practice for what is to come.
When you get your graded paper back, use the feedback to inform what you do in your next paper, for Paper #2 is just a 5-7 page version of Paper #1. The second paper asks students to close read a book of their choice from the first half of the semester and write on one of the many given prompts.
If you’re not comfortable with close reading yet, then you have options for this second paper. These options vary from year to year, but there’s an opportunity to complete a technology assignment instead of the traditional paper.
The third paper is also a somewhat traditional 5-7 page close reading and analysis, similar to Paper #2. If you read the feedback from each paper, the assignments will get easier over time.
The final exam is a closed-notes closed-book comprehensive, but it does not assess your memorization of facts. If you have been paying attention in lectures, stayed on top of the readings, and kept up with connections and patterns, your final exam study sessions will be a little smoother. If not, you can still catch up before exam day. The first part of the final is an identification section, which asks you to state which book and author the given passages come from. The second section asks students to define key terms that come from the course’s secondary readings. Next, there is a section where students show their ability to annotate, close-read, and analyze a passage. This is just a smaller version of the papers. Finally, there is an essay question, and students are given a list of prompts ahead of time to look over before the exam.
Paying attention in lecture and keeping up with the readings are the best ways for students to prepare for the final ahead of time, even before the professor gives his lesson on how to study for it.
Don’t be discouraged about the amount of assignments for this class. Instead, see them as opportunities to gain more knowledge, practice for the final, and get more points (if you’re taking the class for a letter grade).
External ResourcesUTILIZE AUDIOBOOKS.
Many students—seniors especially—get very busy and sacrifice the readings first, but this isn’t recommended. Most of the course books have free audiobooks on YouTube. Listen to them at the gym, on your walk to class, or while eating your meals. If you have the hard copy of a book but are having a hard time getting through it, follow along with an audiobook.
You can find many of the books free online as well. Check this out before you buy all of the books prior to the start of the semester. Even if you have the books in hard copy, consider downloading the e-books anyway. That way, you can get reading done wherever you are.
There are so many students in the class that it does not necessarily matter in what form you read, just as long as you read.
In short, just read the books. Even if you haven’t read the books, go to lecture.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
This class is great for seniors who need a lighter course load, and freshmen who need an easier course. ENG 385’s emphasis on close-reading various kinds of texts makes it extremely valuable for students of all academic departments, as this type of analysis and learning to pay attention to detail is necessary in every discipline and every type of independent work. If you are an English major, don’t be turned off by students’ assumptions about it. It is a particularly exciting challenge even for those who are used to close reading. This class is as essential as a Milton or Shakespeare class.
It isn’t necessary to PDF the course even if it is outside of your major, for it is still fairly easy to succeed in this class. ENG 385 does require more time than students like to believe given its subject matter, but it is time well spent. Most of the books are exciting, and the lectures are enjoyable. There is never really a wrong time to take this course; if it is offered, you are interested, and you can get in, then you’ll be safe taking it.