In this post, Dr. Jones reflects on teaching English 250: Introduction to Literature. At FMU, Dr. Jones frequently teaches Introduction to Literature as well as English 348: African American Literature and English 200: Writing in the Disciplines.
The Joys of Teaching English 250: Introduction to Literature
A few years ago I read that the average American reads one book a year. Changing that frightening statistic is my motivation for teaching. One of the most challenging courses to teach can be English 250 Introduction to Literature. The first day of any class can be anxiety producing, but the first day of English 250 seems to elicit boredom in most students. Ah, those first 15 minutes of “I have to take this course so let’s get on with it so that I can tweet.” English 250 is my favorite course to teach because it gives me an opportunity to pass on a priceless gift: the love of reading. I know that most students don’t read for pleasure but, as President Carter said at graduation a few years ago, we aren’t doing our jobs very well if we don’t create lifelong readers. Producing not only readers, but informed and passionate readers is my goal for English 250.
I like teaching English 250 because reading together is a great way of forming community. We share our likes, dislikes, hopes, and dealbreakers for relationships. I know that my students are sometimes surprised that they reveal some of their deepest thoughts and desires about life and love as we discuss works such as Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. We form an emotional bond by sharing our reading experiences. I respect the demonstration of faith and trust they create by being engaged in the readings. With that said, I must admit that many of my students have lost their dating privileges. Perhaps my protective parental instincts took over, but I just had forbid them from dating to protect them from themselves. It all started when an offspring of a faculty member enrolled in my section of Introduction to Literature. Now I’ve known this person grow from a talented artist in high school into an amazing young man. So, when I heard his hopeful yet totally inaccurate description of a character in our novel, I had to immediately rescind the student’s dating privileges for his own benefit. It turned out that the way that he responded to the character reflected his actual romantic history. He wanted to save her when she clearly was incapable of saving herself. What started as a joke became serious when other students, out of concern, agreed with the loss of dating privileges for other students. I would hear “You know, Dr. Jones, Mr. or Ms. really shouldn’t date.” It has been funny and touching to see the protectiveness of the students develop for each other.
I also enjoy helping students, who openly admit to not liking literature, turn into combative sonnet lovers. Seriously, each semester discussions of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed And Where And Why” are downright heated. I don’t know why Millay provokes such strong responses, but it is beautiful to listen to the differing interpretations of the poem’s speaker. Let’s just say that there aren’t many budding feminists among my students.
After a few weeks of reading works by Edith Wharton, Shakespeare, Lorraine Hansberry, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, these young people form passionate opinions about literature. They begin to welcome the challenge of tackling a new literary work. I am always so proud of all of my students for being emotionally and intellectually present when they read literature. The fiery disagreements also reveal who has not done the reading. That number decreases to about 1 by the third week. If they haven’t read, they can’t participate. I’ve seen students sneakily try to read in class to find out what has everyone so excited.
Lastly, my goal in English 250 is to introduce the students to works of literature that every college graduate should know. Because I want to inspire confidence in their abilities to understand canonical literature, my students come to class without knowing the text of that day’s class. Everyone encounters the work at the same time. Being able to understand a sonnet by William Shakespeare makes my students feel confident in themselves. They start to banish that voice in their heads that has labeled them as bad English students . Sometimes they even read works that I haven’t assigned.
My ultimate goal is to help them to make more informed life choices. At least I feel certain that my students will forever remember at least one lesson from William Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”. Students have come back to tell me that they keep a copy of the sonnet with them to remind them of their own romantic goals while others keep the sonnet with them as a talisman. They tell me that they can still hear me saying over and over “Love’s not Time’s Fool” and now understand the motivation behind my constant refrain. Then my work is done. The class is over. Let the dating begin.