Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A New Year, A New Semester

First week of class

The other day I was telling a colleague that I had only been at Rutgers-Newark since the fall of 2012, and he expressed surprise, because, he told me, it seemed to him that I'd been on the faculty for much longer. But it really has only been a year and a half, and I now enter my fourth full teaching semester, summers and the winter breaks not included, which is to say, my second year. Since arriving I have not taught the same course twice; I have taught undergraduate and graduate literature and creative writing courses; I have taught courses geared primarily towards English, African American and African Studies, and creative writing students; and I have taught courses that bridged these various disciplines. Each of these classes has included its share of challenges, some intellectual, some pedagogical, but all have turned out to be quite enjoyable, and one of the greatest benefits of each one has been the students I have had the good fortune to work with. Thus far I have not supervised or work with teaching assistant, and my smallest classes have totaled 12 students (graduate) and 15 or so (undergraduate), while my largest class, last spring, had 40 students (which was, nevertheless, a manageable number).

This spring my courses are Writers at Newark II and History and Myth in Contemporary African Diasporic Fiction. The former is a graduate course that entails reading, discussing and writing about the work of writers who will be visiting and reading in Rutgers-Newark's MFA annual literary series. This spring semester's visitors include two program colleagues, Rachel Hadas (poet, nonfiction writer and scholar) and Jim Goodman (historian and nonfiction writer), as well as Richard Blanco (the inaugural poet), Andew Solomon (the nonfiction writer), Natasha Trethewey (US Poet Laureate), Edward P. Jones (the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer), Matthea Harvey (poet), and George Saunders (fiction writer). I have taught the work of several of these writers before, and appreciate the mix of genres, which mirrors the mix of interests the MFA students bring to the program. We just finished lively discussions of Rachel's The Golden Road: Poems (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2012) and Jim's But Where Is the Lamb?: Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac (Schocken, 2013). Next we will be discussing Richard Blanco's Looking for the Gulf Motel (Pittsburgh, 2012) and Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Scribner, 2013). Both writers will be on campus later this month, and I'm looking forward to meeting and hearing both of them.

My second course is a new version of an undergraduate English course I taught several times at Northwestern, though I have updated it with different texts, trimmed away a lot of what I realized was somewhat unwieldy theoretical material, and recalibrated it so that it better meets the needs of my current students. It officially falls under the rubric of Studies in African and Caribbean Literatures, and is crosslisted both in English and AAAS, though it is more than any thing a Comparative Literature class. Whereas in the past I would sometimes shoehorn as many as 10 books into a term's reading, along with a bookshelf's worth of background and theoretical articles (on the quarter system, no less!--what was I thinking?--my former students in that course and others all certainly deserved medals for endurance and fortitude), I have pared that number down to 7 novels, with a number of short stories mixed in. The writers we're reading include: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Edwidge Danticat, Nalo Hopkinson, Ana Maurine Lara, Alain Mabanckou, Zakes Mda, ZZ PackerIshmael Reed, Yvonne Denis Rosario, and Jean Wyllys, as well as one of my own brief stories, with short theoretical articles by Natalie Zemon Davis, Robin D. G. Kelley, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Colin Palmer. So far the course is going well, and several new students have signed in, so it should be an intellectually enriching experience for them (I hope) and me.

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