Thursday, January 20, 2011

College English Classes: Post 1-Intro to English.

I was talking with Eva the other night on Twitter (I believe it was Tuesday) when we got on the subject of the classes I took in college for my English degree and what books I read. It got me all excited, remembering when I discovered some of my favorite authors and the wonderful books I got to read.

Since I was double majoring, I did a lot of reading in college, for two reading intensive degrees (English and history). Both majors required TONS of reading, which I was all too happy to comply with. Granted, some things were more interesting than others. And since I was going into teaching, I also got to take some specialized classes in both majors that were a blast (like my young adult lit class).

So, I started thinking back to these old classes, the books I read, and the wonders I learned about. I felt it would make for interesting reflections now (7 years away from that freshman year in college). Perhaps you will get some suggestions from my old reading lists, or can give me more titles and writers to investigate in the future.

The first class I wanted to talk about in this first post was the Introduction to English course that every English major at Michigan State had to take. There was one course that was a prerequisite before this English class (it was a writing intensive class), but I tested out of it. So, the sole English course I took as a freshman in college was Intro to English.

I can remember buying the books before the semester started. We only had two texts, whereas all the other sections of this class had at least 6 or 7. A very big part of me was sad that I wasn't going to read more, and I was stuck with a measly two books. It was a sad beginning for an English major who loved to read.

The two texts we had for class were Homer's The Odyssey (translation by Robert Fagles) and the Norton Guide to Classical Literature. I still own both books and they are sitting on my shelves right this minute. :) My professor also gave us packets with other pieces and translations I'll mention in a minute.

The professor had the lowest ratings of any professor on MSU's teacher rating site. I was not impressed. He had this habit of clenching his teeth together at the end of every sentence and sucking in air through the corners of his mouth to make this loud "swishing-swooshing" sound as the air hit the spit in his mouth. It drove me absolutely insane.

But this professor knew his material. We started the semester discussing The Odyssey. We spent two class periods (4 hours), just talking about the opening stanza. We read at least five other translations before reading the one from our edition (Fagles);

“Sing to me man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will-Sing for our time too.”

I fell a little bit in love with Homer after reading that intro-a love affair which has yet to stop. As we progressed forward through The Odyssey, we would spend so much time diving into the details of Homer's work-the imagery, the message, and the power of what he wrote. Never in any of my English classes had I felt that kind of passion and respect for a piece of writing. I loved it.

When we finally finished The Odyssey, we spent the rest of the semester reading other Greek pieces. From Norton, we read Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and bits of Sappho's poetry. I was so enthralled by Sappho that I purchased an edition of her poems and devoured it on my own time. He brought us other translations of these works to compare, as well as other bits and pieces from Greek tragedies. We also spent a "fun" class period discussing Greek myths and legends, which my professor waved off as "rubbish."

I should also note there was one class period that we read a bunch of Emily Dickinson poems. You see, my professor was related to her (he told us nearly every class period that he was), so this was a necessity. It had nothing to do with the rest of the class focus.

Where the other classes were reading about the beginnings of the novel, we were discussing the history of the oral tradition and where we had once been. It was an eye-opening class. At the time, I don't think I fully understood what he was trying to do. More than anything else, he was showing us the beginning, and where many things stemmed form. Those nights spent huddled over my copy of The Odyssey (which is battered and highlighted as a result of those nights) were to teach me how our stories were originally remembered. We didn't always write them down, but passed them along by word of mouth.

It was a powerful class and one I am glad to remember. Besides The Odyssey, the only other work I have revisited since then is that of Sappho. Both Oedipus Rex and Antigone are on my project list, but I haven't gotten to them yet. Soon!

You can also probably tell that The Odyssey is what inspired my own journey here. The name for this was inspired by one of my favorite books. I find so much inspiration in Homer's words,

"Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will-Sing for our time too."

When I started this whole thing, I was launching on my own odyssey with inspiration from the muses around me. In fact, that quote is on a paper I keep by my desk. In the moments when I feel like quitting (at anything), reading those words brings me back to my purpose here. And to think, I owe it all to the English professor who had the lowest ratings of his entire department! I wonder what he would say now if he knew?

So here are some questions for you, dear readers. If you were to teach an Intro to English course, which titles would you require your class to read and why? And if you have taken a course like this, what titles did you read? Dig deep and tell me! :)

If you all like this post, I have many other classes and reading lists to talk about (including a young adult lit class where we read 30 titles in a semester). Perhaps I can post one every other week until I run out? Let me know!


  1. I definately think you should keep posting about it :-) you've made me all nostalgic for my own university days now,and thinking about your question... I've no idea what I'd put on my course, but it's definately a thought provoking question :-)

  2. I agree with Collect Dreams--I like it! Tell us more!

  3. I love this idea for a series of posts! I wish I had something to add, but I didn't take any English classes in college. I didn't have many to take as an accounting major, and I tested out of all of the required ones. I really wish I had taken some though. That is one of my regrets.

  4. You should definitely continue with this series of posts. I had an amazing lecturer for Classics when we did The Odyssey, the imagery is phenomenal. We were all so sad when he retired. The Classics department just wasn't the same.

    If I were to present a class like that I would definitely do the Odyssey but also Longus' Daphnis and Chloe which is one of the earliest examples of the novel. Really amazing stuff considering how early it was written.

  5. I love posts like this! Keep 'em coming. :) Your writing and descriptions of the professor are very fun to read.

  6. Oh, please! Continue with this post... once or twice a week would be awesome!

  7. I have no idea what books I'd teach, since I haven't read enough yet to speak with experience.

    But yes - I do think you should continue this series. Being a lit major, I'm curious about what I can expect in classes to come. :-)

  8. Continue! Continue! It is so interesting to see how Lit. programs at various colleges differ!

  9. That's a tricky question, because sometimes being forced to read a book for a class can ruin it for peopole and I wouldn't want any of my favorite classics viewed that way. I had quite a few classes like this in college, including one that was just on Shakespeare. I really loved that class because it taught me how to read Shakespeare the way it's meant to be read. It also taught me to appreciate the constant flow of double entrendres and witticisms the Bard loved to slip into his work. Great post!

  10. What a terrific post! I hope you will continue. I am so envious of your classes. I loved college and took some wonderful courses, but I wish I could go again and major in literature this time. What a joy!

  11. Yes, please! In retrospect, I wish that I had majored in English, so I want to experience your classes vicariously. :-D

  12. *sigh* I wish that I had kept all of my papers from my lit degree. I'm so jealous of you right now. (I also LOVED my adolescent lit class!)

    Continue on!

    And I hope this was a post dated post and you got plenty of sleep last night!

  13. I *heart* Robert Fagles. I taught selections of the Iliad to my sophomores the last five years, and I used his translation. I'm currently reading the Iliad in its entirety (I only got snatches in college), and this has peaked my interest to read the Odyssey when I have finished ! T
    hanks for the great post (and you should let your professor know how meaningful this class was for you....I'm sure he would appreciate it!)

  14. Intro to the English Major is the absolute worst class offered in the English department at Iowa, and of course you're required to take it. I had 25 friends with me in the class and by the end of the semester 10 of us were still English majors (weed out class much?). We had to read The Tempest (which I actually enjoyed) and we had the same Norton book you mentioned and read several authors from different eras from it. The worst thing about the class was that they tried to cram all of the history of English literature into one semester, which is what you're supposed to come away from your degree with. I think a more focused class would have been a lot better, like just Greeks or something like you talk about here.

  15. oh, please do continue!!! I am living vicariously through your major was psychology...not a lot of English classes but quite reading-intensive too ~ going back I would probably do as you have done and double-major (could i just triple major *wink* *wink*) psychology, history and english....ahhh, just give me the whole social science, history and english departments! if only i could remain a life-long student!

  16. just lost my comment. I'll try again.

    I was an english major too, but I focused in Editing. Too bad, as I worked three or four years before I had my son and stayed home and I"m already tired of it. I wish I'd taken more literature classes. But I"m trying to make up for it now.

  17. I love comparing what you've read for classes to what I've had to read for classes. Very interesting. We did not read The Odyssey but The Iliad instead (which I loved the parts we read). My teenage daughter and I are trying to read together now because we both enjoy Greek lit.

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