Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
a. Professor Dolven and Kelly Swartz wanted students to learn how to both effectively analyze texts through close-reading techniques, and create clear papers with well-supported theses describing their observations, all while getting an introduction to foundational literature in the Western world. This course is a mandatory prerequisite for the English department.
b. The course was organized chronologically, from the 14th to the 18th century with each unit (lasting 1-4 weeks) focusing on a piece of British literature. The course studies five works in 12 weeks.
c. The course is not incredibly comparative. Each unit is mainly studied closely in and of itself, however a portion of time is spent connecting works to their predecessors in the course, and identifying connecting themes throughout all of the works.
d. If one’s precept is early on in the week, it can be very challenging to read the chapters assigned and analyze important moments or themes in Blackboard posts if one is unfamiliar with Old English or these older texts, and has not yet had Professor Dolven’s lectures on the text that week to help guide one’s focus when reading. To feel more comfortable with the week’s reading and subsequent Blackboard posts, it can be useful to email one’s preceptors with questions, or take a look at precept/lecture notes or previous week’s Blackboard posts for hints as to what topics might be of interest. Also, for the six 2-page exercises that are due over the course of the semester, a good strategy would be to wait until the 2nd or 3rd week of a unit to write an exercise so that one is more familiar with the important themes of a text before approaching the assignment.
e. One hidden expectation in the course is that students were familiar with stories from the Bible. Many of the pieces of literature either directly referenced or contained allusions to Biblical stories, and students were questioned on them and their significance in precept and in Blackboard posts. A background skill that would be helpful for learning in this course would be an ability to read/a prior familiarity with Old English and/or Shakespearean English, as the first three pieces of literature were written in a very different style than modern English, with the last two works being only slightly easier to read and comprehend.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
i. Lectures are often in-depth analyses of a few passages from that week’s reading, with a bit of time at the end spent discussing the text in general. Students are expected to learn analysis techniques from Professor Dolven’s passage analyses and pay attention to important moments of allusion and influence, genre and form, metaphor and allegory, rhetoric, sexual politics, and narrative.
ii. The lectures are meant to identify important themes for discussion in precept and give students an example of how to study a text in close-detail for more complex analysis, an essential part of the structure of the two five-page papers (a midterm and a final) that are required in the course. Because lecture slides are made up of mainly excerpts of important passages, it is useful to take notes on which passages are used to provide good study material for the final exam, which contains an identification and analysis section made up of significant quotes from the texts.
iii. Lectures are set up in essentially the same way every day: a brief discussion of plot, 40 minutes of Professor Dolven’s analysis specific passages from the text that are displayed on slides, and then five minutes of wrap-up/larger picture discussion.
iv. The passages discussed in lecture are often not in chronological order from the text, so it is not always easy to get a larger picture of the themes or importance of the text for that week. Or, the themes addressed in lecture are (seemingly) separate from the prompts for the weekly Blackboard posts, so it can be challenging to understand or approach the Blackboard post assignments without any grounding from themes in lecture.
v. To practice the identification of important passages in texts, students can try highlighting excerpts from the week’s reading that they think will be discussed in lecture. In lecture, they can then mark what excerpts Professor Dolven chooses to discuss and write down why they are important. Students can then look over their notes from lecture and their notes on the text to see what topics could be brought up in precept discussion.
i. Precept allows students to more thoroughly discuss ideas Professor Dolven mentioned in lecture, and address parts of the reading he didn’t have time to get to. Students are expected to learn from each other’s reading and analysis strategies by listening to what they have to say in precept and reading each other’s Blackboard posts.
ii. In addition to thoroughly analyzing themes from lecture, precept gives students more time to ask questions about the reading or the writing assignments, as questions are not especially encouraged in lecture.
iii. There were not common organizational patterns in precept. The preceptor made a consistent effort to keep the section interesting by introducing new group/partner activities each week to approach the text in different ways. A consistent element of precept was the opportunity to ask questions of the preceptor for any problems of understanding.
iv. Precept can be challenging if students feel they don’t fully understand the text, or if they don’t feel they have grasped important themes or topics, but feel pressure to bring up new ideas in precept.
v. Doing the reading is obviously an important part of having something to contribute and being able to understand others’ contributions in precept. Writing down questions that arise in lecture allows students to refer back to their notes and ask questions in precept. If students are struggling with Blackboard posts, they can take notes on methods of analysis that their peers are using for ideas, and take notes on what important topics are brought up in precept that were left out of lecture. Precept is also more of a time of comparison of texts than lecture, and it is important to take note of overarching themes throughout the course, as these observations can help one with completing exercises, Blackboard posts, papers, and studying for the final exam.
c. Assigned readings/texts
i. By reading the texts each week, students are expected to develop skills to better read and understand older texts and analyze literature.
ii. The assigned readings are the core of the course, from which analysis in lecture, precept, papers, Blackboard posts, exercises, and the final exam extend.
iii. Each text is divided into sections in the form of chapters, acts, tales, etc., making it easier to follow and analyze.
iv. The texts are not written in modern English, making it more difficult to read and understand. It can be challenging to not get discouraged or frustrated by the added time it takes to complete the readings due to this aspect.
v. Attending and note taking during lecture can help students understand main themes in a text that will inform the next week’s reading. Precepts allow students to clarify aspects of the text they do not understand, give them an opportunity to expand preliminary ideas they have had while reading, and give them a basis on which to continue their reading.
Learning For and From Assignments
a. Blackboard posts (due at 5pm the day before precept)
i. Purpose: to ensure students finished weekly reading, and to give a weekly opportunity to practice in-depth analysis of a passage/excerpt from the text.
ii. Challenges: Depending on the prompt, it could be difficult to write a post if one has not understood all of the reading for that week and has not yet had lecture to help identify important themes to guide their analysis.
iii. Strategic approaches: Ways to address difficulties in creating Blackboard posts is asking the preceptor for clarification on the prompt, looking over previous lecture/precept notes concerning the text to identify relations to this week’s reading and expand on those ideas in the context of more recent chapters.
b. Exercises (6 due throughout the semester, 2 pgs. each, turned in at precept)
i. Purpose: to give students practice at writing concisely when analyzing a specific passage from a text.
ii. Challenges: It can be difficult to dive deeply into the analysis of a passage when one only has two pages of space. In addition, it is not ideal to write exercises twice in two weeks, as one will not receive his/her first exercise back before turning in the second, so there is no opportunity to learn from past mistakes. Also, the prompts change weekly and are only released a week before, so it can be challenging to choose which prompt to address if one wants to take the chance and wait another week for a more palatable prompt.
iii. Strategic approaches: As stated previously, it can be quite useful to wait a week or two into a unit before writing a exercise, so that one has time to better understand the themes of the text from several lectures and precepts before taking a stab at analysis him/herself. This is preferable to writing an exercise that is due during the first week of a unit when students have received little to no direction of what to focus on in the text. Also, take a look at previously written and graded exercises to get an understanding of what your preceptor is looking for and what your strengths and weaknesses are in your writing. These steps will help guide you when writing papers for the course, and will give you an opportunity to ask your preceptor clarifying questions for how to improve your reading and writing abilities.
i. Helpful Strategies for Preparing to Write
1. Professor Dolven provides model papers that are graded with comments for students to refer to for structure and writing style when crafting their midterm and final papers.
ii. Identifying and Choosing Paper Topics
1. Although students can suggest their own prompts (with the approval of their preceptor and Professor Dolven), Professor Dolven provides a list of essay questions for each assignment, and encourages students to pick one to address for their paper.
2. One should choose a topic that they are interested in thinking more about, or discusses an aspect of the text that the student feels most confident in being able to analyze based on their own choices for Blackboard posts, exercises, or discussion topics in precept. Picking a familiar topic allows one to review already-written material and develop more ideas instead of having to start from scratch.
iii. Gathering and Organizing Materials
1. The papers are analyses of one passage in relation to the whole of the text, so there is no outside research necessary. It is helpful to use notes from lecture and precept that relate to the paper prompt one has chosen in order to spark ideas for further analysis in one’s paper.
2. It can be useful to print out the passage that one is going to analyze for the prompt, and read through it multiple times for different parts: important aspects to the language and word choice, images evoked, references to other works or other parts of the text from which the passage came, etc. After several read-throughs one will have a wealth of different ideas, and can then pick and choose which themes to address in the paper. It is important to keep referring back to the prompt to make sure one’s ideas stay on track to write a concise and focused paper.
i. Kinds of Problems and Thinking Required:
1. There is the potential of pop quizzes that are made up of one short answer question about an aspect of the current unit. There are between one and five pop quizzes throughout the semester. They require the ability to recall important themes from that week’s reading and/or lectures.
2. The final exam has a quote identification section that asks students to say where the quote is from, who is speaking, and the significance of the quote in the text. This section is mainly straightforward recall of plot structures from books and important quotes addressed in precept and lecture.
3. The essay section of the final exam requires students to respond to essay questions that ask about larger themes in the units and what themes are universal across the different texts. This section requires students to apply themes from the course to familiar questions, using examples from the text as support for their arguments.
4. The literary keywords identification section of the exam is the smallest part. Students must define and give an example of the keyword in one of the texts studied during the semester. This is a straightforward recall of the definition of phrases and an instance of that idea in the text. Students should study for this part of the test using flashcards with the definitions of words and examples from the text on each card.
ii. Organizing and Synthesizing Materials to Prepare for Exam
1. Although exercises and papers are not the most useful to help one’s studying, the quotes one has amassed from lecture and precept notes are incredibly important, as they are likely to be picked for quote identification and analysis on the final exam. Reviewing important quotes in each unit that define important themes or plot points in the text allows one to become familiar with not only the quotes that would be used for one part of the exam, but are also review for the second portion of the exam in which questions of larger themes are discussed.
2. Reviewing quotes and their importance from all of the pieces of literature read in the course allow one to see overarching themes contained within individual quotes. It can be useful to make a chart of overarching and individual themes on one axis and the names of each text on the other axis. One can then mark off which texts contain which themes, and identify common topics addressed among the literature, as well as what each text discusses uniquely. For further studying, one can find quotes from their notes to attach to each topic and/or text to support/back up their observations.
iii. How Course Assignments Help to Prepare for Exam
1. The essay portion will ask for application to familiar questions from the course. No topic or theme on the exam should be unfamiliar to a student who has completed the readings and assignments. Students may be asked to weave together multiple ideas from different units that have been discussed in precept and lecture. This type of synthesis would be new, but all with familiar elements.
a. Professor Dolven encourages students to use the Oxford English Dictionary to look up unfamiliar words when reading the older texts. He also provides a link to a modern English translation of The Canterbury Tales through Blackboard.
b. Informally, it can be quite helpful to review a summary of a chapter or text before beginning a week’s reading, so that one spends less time trying to understand what is going on plot-wise, and can devote more energy to reading between the lines and identifying allusions and symbols in the text.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
a. Students can expect to develop their ability to read non-modern English, an ability that will serve them in future English courses. If people thoroughly enjoyed the texts in the course, they may be interested in taking a Medieval Studies course to explore other Old English texts.
b. Students should understand that even if reading requirements don’t exceed 150 or 200 pages a week (normally much less), the reading is much more difficult than a modern novel. It can be a frustrating struggle, even for fast and experienced readers, or people certain of their future concentration in English.
c. The most valuable benefit I took away from the course was more practice (and learning by example) of how to analyze a piece of literature, and as well as practice in writing clear yet complex English papers.
d. Miscellaneous: One should not take the course just to fulfill an LA distribution requirement if one is not considering being an English major, unless one likes older texts and British literature. This is a large lecture course due to it being the only mandatory course for all English majors. Personally I prefer English seminars because literary analysis can be very subjective, and having a three hour slot weekly to discuss literature with no more than 15 other people allows you to have time to analyze the text more in depth versus hearing someone else’s interpretation and then recapping it in precept. No one assignment makes up more than 20% of one’s grade, which can be comforting to students because no one assignment will kill the final grade. However, this also means one must be thorough and consistent in one’s work throughout the semester.