Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Depth vs. Breadth Debate

I'm in the process of creating mock syllabi to take with me to job talks and prep school interviews and have run into the (neverending!) argument with myself over who and what to include in the reading list! In my last post I talked a little bit about my discomfort with the practice of one-of-eachism prevalent in Western approaches to Global Literature, but (as I discover EVERY year) this issue of text discrimination goes far beyond the boundaries of so-called "Multicultural Lit." There are just so many wonderful, thought-provoking, challenging books out there... how can I possibly winnow them down to a manageable list for my students? I feel guilty leaving texts out-- like I'm saying "Well this one just isn't important enough for y'all to read..." But at the same time, trying to cram too many things into one year, or worse, one semester, essentially guarantees that my students will only come to the most cursory and superficial appreciation of the themes and complexity of the works. An over-stuffed syllabus forces me and my class to merely "cover" a text-- and that term grates on me painfully because it implies a shutting down, closing off, "covering up" of exploration, questioning, and challenging. Reading to cover suggests that you're only reading the cover and ignoring all the messy details within.

The anxiety that I always face with this tension was spelled out wonderfully in Mark Sample's post to ProfHacker today. In the post he teases out his argument for a pedagogy of "uncoverage" rather than "coverage"-- one that supports a process of conscious "unearthing" and exploration instead of surveying and sampling.  I'm not sure that I buy Sample's assertion 100%; a sense of the broad, longitudinal "survey" course is necessary, afterall, in order to give a particular work or author appropriate context (also, I find his last name ironically amusing given the drive of his argument away from one-of-eachism and causal "sampling"...). But, at the same time, I can't help agreeing with his statement (paraphrased from Wiggins and McTighe’s book Understanding by Design) that " in the race to cover more ground—more history, more literature, more formulas, more physics—we can end up actually covering or hiding the underlying principles that make those subjects important in the first place". In an ironic way, I think literature classes-- particularly at the advanced high school and undergraduate levels-- are particularly guilty of this blind consumerist approach. It makes me wonder, Do I dislike Renaissance and Victorian lit because I actually find it dry and too distanced from contemporary life? Or do I dislike it because the survey courses I suffered through in college did not allow me the time to reflect, build connections and find a personal relationship with the texts? I was asked to consume large amounts of material and to build a capacity for spitting back quotes and theoretical frames to form cogent critical arguments, but I don't feel as though I was ever asked to really live with the texts and get to know them on their own terms. 

Wiggen and McTigue offer a 5 Step program for reading/learning that might have helped me "dig deeper" into the literature that I merely "covered": 
  1. Unearth it
  2. Analyze it
  3. Question it
  4. Prove it
  5. Generalize it
I like this deep dig philosophy towards understanding and I've used a similar model to teach argumentation and critical thinking skills in the past, but I can't help dwelling on the practical implications here... it's so time consuming! Think of all the stories and experiences I'd have to leave out if I asked students to "live" with each piece we read? Couldn't the unearthing process go on ad finitum? And how do I balance the needs for breadth and coverage demanded by departmental, institutional or national standards (especially in a NCLB era?) with a desire to give students the opportunity to find their own paths through the course materials (or beyond them if a particular student's unearthing process leads them in directions I may not have anticipated?).

Long story short-- Syllabi construction= STRESS! 


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