FAQ: Teaching American Literature Thematically

american books photo
Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry

Over two years ago, I wrote a post about my approach to teaching American literature thematically. I close comments on posts once they are a year old, but this post continues to generate some questions, so I thought I would post an update in answer to the questions people most frequently ask me about teaching American literature thematically.

Can I use your essential questions for my own unit?

Feel free. I hope they are useful. If you are using them somewhere online, however, I request that you give me credit. If you want to learn more about creating essential questions, I can recommend no source more highly than Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design. They also have one focused just on essential questions called Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.

Are you still teaching thematically?

Yes, right up through the school year that just ended. I would continue to do it next year, too, if I were going to be teaching the course, but my schedule does not allow for me to teach it next year. I would never go back to approaching any literature class I teach chronologically anymore.  The only way I could see teaching chronologically is if the chronology was an important underpinning of a course, such as the development of a particular genre or theme over the course of a given period of time. Even our American history teachers have begun to take a thematic approach to teaching American history. One unit, for instance, covered the black experience from the abolition of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But what about understanding the literary movements?

When I taught American literature (and for that matter, British literature) chronologically, I thought this point was important, too. Seeing how writers collectively influence movements and how movements influence and push back against one another is important… to English majors mostly. To most of our students who are critically in danger of not developing the reading and writing skills or engaging with literature, chronology can sometimes kill their interest by putting the material they are least likely to enjoy reading—in the case of American literature, it’s Puritan writers—at the beginning of the year when we are trying to “hook” the kids.*

Early British literature has the advantage of being a bit more exciting, but nonetheless, it is interesting see how writers across eras are in discussion, too. For instance, if I were teaching chronologically, I might teach “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman around the time I am teaching Romanticism or perhaps a transition to Realism. Then I would teach Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” during the Harlem Renaissance/Modernism. Why? Hughes’s poem is directly talking back to Whitman’s. They should go together. Likewise “Civil Disobedience” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Likewise Crèvecoeur’s discussion of “What is the American?” and voices of immigrants from the 20th and 21st centuries. I care that students make connections and see the relevance of what they read far more than that they grasp that literature periodically shifts around into what we call movements. Controversial, maybe, but I stand by it. I think movements are mostly constructs anyway. No one was looking around and saying, “Well, enough of this Romanticism. Let’s start Realism now.” We can’t agree on whether we’re still in Postmodernism right now or not, and there are plenty of writers who are still writing what we define as Postmodern literature and probably even more who are not. Movements are convenient for organizing literature later, and I would not disagree with people who think English majors should know literary movements, but I disagree that everyone needs to know them (or even cares about them). Writers don’t even necessarily find themselves influenced by what is happening around them. They might hearken back to an earlier writer for inspiration. Or they might be so radically different from everyone else writing around them that it’s difficult to classify them (which is why Whitman and Dickinson are often thrown into a unit unto themselves in literature textbooks).

Can students really get a complete overview of American literature if we don’t teach it chronologically?

That’s sort of up to you. One might accuse thematic teachers of picking and choosing, but chronological teachers do the same thing, only they do it in chronological order. What I have seen typically happen when teachers approach literature chronologically is that students don’t study anything remotely contemporary until the end of the year… if then. I know when I taught chronologically, I often finished the year some time in the 1940’s, if I got fairly far. That’s completely cutting out a good chunk of some of the best American literature there is. If you are building a thematic curriculum, you should choose wisely. I tweak each year when I realize something I really liked doesn’t fit very well and takes up time from other works that will be both engaging and more representative. One freeing aspect of teaching where I do is that we don’t have a textbook. We have novels the students purchase, but we don’t have an anthology because they are expensive, and we found we didn’t make good enough use of them to justify their expense. If you have an anthology, you can still use this approach. You will just need to survey your book and determine what themes jump out to you as important. Then you can move around the book. In fact, you might find you do a better job with the overview if you approach teaching the literature thematically than you would have if you stuck to a strict chronology.

Can you give me your syllabus?

I actually think it’s much better for you to create your own syllabus (and essential questions). You know your students. You know your school. You may have required texts that must somehow fit into the framework. You would know best which contemporary poems and short stories might pair with longer texts. I realize it’s a lot of work to create a syllabus from scratch, having done it, but I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t because I created my own syllabus and tweaked it each year. Taking someone else’s syllabus and using it like some kind of script won’t work for you. I’m not trying to be stingy. In my way, I’m trying to be helpful. Handing you a syllabus that reflects what works for me might result in failure for you.

What questions do you have that I missed? Leave them in the comments, and I will update this post with answers.

*I had a student tell me in a course evaluation this year that he/she learned so much about him/herself this year. I was really proud my course enabled that student to learn more about him/herself. Do students see themselves in predominantly white, male writers of European extraction? I’m not saying they can’t relate to those writers. I’m saying if we approach literature chronologically, that’s pretty much all they will read for the first few months. I don’t think that’s right in our diverse society.

Related posts: