Thursday, January 27, 2011

College English Classes: Post 2-Literature from 1660-1800.

Last week, I started a new, short series of posts focusing on the reading lists for my college English classes at Michigan State. This whole idea began with a conversation I had with Eva on Twitter. In my first post, I talked about the first English class I took as an English major when I was in my second semester at school.

Going into my sophomore year, I had to take a few prerequisites as well as a few other "fun" English classes to get to my credit limit. One of the basic requirements was taking 3 of the 5 offered "310" classes. Each one of the 5 classes focused on a certain time limit and would cover a broad span of literature. The first one, 310A, was focused on all literature before 1660. Since my Intro to English class covered a lot of Ancient Greek pieces, I decided that 310A was not for me, and enrolled in 310B.

For some reason when I enrolled, there was only one section. There were multiple sections for the other class options, but one, lowly little time period for this class. But, I thought the time period sounded interesting and since I had to take three of the classes anyway, I figured this was the one for me!


It turns out that like my professor for my Intro class, the professor for this class also had a nasty reputation. He was the second lowest in the ratings on the MSU teacher ranking site...second only to my Intro teacher. I had awesome luck, didn't I? His name was also scary-Professor Arch.

That first day of class, I was absolutely petrified. He was a tall skinny man with a hook-shaped nose. He stalked up and down the classroom while he talked and stared at everyone so intently. I was flipping out. When we went over the book list, he kept listing books he kept off the list since he had read them with his last class. I can remember those titles (they're written on my syllabus).
  • Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
  • Paradise Lost by Milton
  • Tom Jones by Fielding
And I remember him saying, "Not to worry!" since we were going to read "fun" things too.

Buying books for his class also freaked me out. Many were big and heavy. And scary. And while I was an English major and had read a few classics, I hadn't even heard of most of the people we were reading. And at the time, I had no interest in reading them either.

We started off the semester reading Benjamin Franklin's 1726 Journal (focused on his trip to America), followed closely by his autobiography. Professor Arch was in love with Benjamin Franklin and taught both pieces every semester to this class without fail.

He even brought in his Benjamin Franklin action figure and acted out scenes with it.

I am not kidding.

After Franklin, we read through Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal. Both were my first exposure to satire, but I rather liked them.

We moved on to Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man." I honestly don't remember much about it, but I did find the paper I had to write on it. It is awful. No, I won't share any of it.

The longest part of the semester was focused on Samuel Johnson. The book we had of his work was the Oxford edition (still have mine) and contained all of his major works. We read some of his poetry, but focused on the periodicals he wrote, "The Rambler" and "The Idler." We also read Rasselas, his novel.

The only person Professor Arch loved more than Ben Franklin was Samuel Johnson, let me tell you.

After Johnson came Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry. It was the hardest thing I ever read and I still don't think I understand it.

We also read Immanuel Kant's "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" That is another piece that I can hardly remember! Perhaps it is time for a reread!

The last author we read was Eliza Haywood, and she was probably my favorite. We read Fantomina and Love Letters on All Occasions. She was a saucy writer for her day and I absolutely adored the material we read. She is definitely an author I want to return to.

The last couple weeks of class were spent discussing and presenting topics of interest in the time period to the class. My group's topic was archeology and we rocked our presentation (I found my power point on my computer-so glad I have better power point skills now).

At the time I took the class, I thought that Professor Arch was too hard and difficult. I struggled through his class and the readings. He gave pop quizzes and asked what I thought to be stupid and unimportant questions. I remember how the class reacted when the first question on the first quiz was, "What year was this published?" We all sat there thinking, "Can this guy be serious?" I know better now.

Quite honestly, I didn't have any interest in the material we were talking about in that class. I thought it was too much, but I plunged onward and kept trying. Looking back, I can remember some of the things very fondly. I still regard Swift as a favorite, and the things I learned about him this class helped me teach my seniors satire the last month. I also remember loving Eliza Haywood to the point where I read a few of her other pieces in the book we had that were not assigned.

I also remember rather liking Professor Arch through his scary exterior. He was simply a man who was very passionate about what he taught and the material. At times, he was even funny. He liked to pick on himself for being a nerd and always encouraged us to show our true nerdy selves.

But most of all, I owe Professor Arch for teaching me that learning about literature is not just dissecting the piece in front of you. It is about understanding the historical and culture context of each piece of writing. Knowing those things can help you dissect it. And, as you move forward in time, you can understand and appreciate the gains made based on what came before. I wish I would have realized the importance of this back then. I think my experience in that class would have been far better had I known how important that was. It took me a long time on my own to figure that out-and now this time period and some pieces from it are on my own project list, waiting to be loved. I wish I could take his class again, now, and see how much I gain this time. I bet you it is still a lot!

I'll leave you with some wisdom he said in one of our class periods (this is written at the top of one of my pages of notes and starred);

"Benjamin Franklin had high hopes for humanity. Remember, at all times, to make dear Benny proud."


  1. I love these posts - your classes sound amazing! Back in the days when my legal career wasn't going well, I kicked myself a lot for choosing Law as a degree instead of English. Fortunately, I'm happy with my choice now but do still feel a twinge of jealousy when I read about others' experiences with learning about Literature! If it helps, law tutors in the UK are also in large part very scary on the outside but I think it makes for a better tutor sometimes - I am, however, eternally grateful that pop quizzes never transported themselves into English university education - just the sound of them upsets me!

  2. You know Allie, I would love to read how your students see you.

    By the way, Congratulations on the 30% mark.

    Love, Mom

  3. Lucky you for avoiding Clarissa. I had to read it in college and,while it brought up some interesting issues and I liked writing the paper, I had to put myself on a strict reading diet to even finish it on time-- 100 pages a day, ten pages at a time.

  4. I have the greatest admiration for anyone with a Benjamin Franklin action figure.

  5. As a history teacher, I love the part where you say that he taught you to the importance of "the historical and culture context of each piece of writing". :D I think that's one of the things that I always liked about the literature courses I took in college.

    I also love that your professor was a Ben Franklin fan. I read his Autobiography a couple of years ago (and now give it as an optional read to my US History survey students) and it totally surprised me.

  6. What a great post! I'll have to look into Eliza Haywood. I've never heard of her before.

  7. The action figure alone would have made that class worth taking. :) teachers don't do enough of that stuff these days!

    I agree with you, though...I would love to go back to some of my college lit classes, of course knowing then what I know now, and see if I still thought they were boring/irrelevant. I bet I would have a whole new perspective.

  8. I love this series by the way. I don't seem to remember details from my English classes as well as you do, so it's nice to see some reminiscing. There are a few classes that I wish I could have taken a little later in college when I understood them better, like Shakespeare. But I guess I had to get through those to get to where I am now.

  9. Heee. Action figures.

    I had a professor like Professor Arch in college - only he was a film studies professor. He was boring as HELL in class, but a really smart guy. I'd love to take another class with him because I feel like I'd gain more.

    I also remember that I took an English Lit class at a local college after I graduated - mainly to try to raise my GPA if I ever wanted to apply to grad school and OMG I struggled through that class and worked my ass off - we had to read some Benjamin Franklin, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the Last of the Mohecians. I remember how much the reading for that class sucked and how much the papers sucked, but let me tell you how gratifying it was when I got my grades and pulled off an A. :)

  10. I'm picturing Professor Arch as Severus Snape.

  11. I would adore this professor. And I would go out and buy my own figurines so I could help him play. :)

  12. He even brought in his Benjamin Franklin action figure and acted out scenes with it.

    I am not kidding. <--- This part made me laugh.

    Professor Arch reminds me of my current Fiction teacher. We recently read a really boring short story (for me, at least), but he managed to make it seem interesting because he was so passionate about it. He pointed out little "writerly" tricks that made me appreciate the short story.

  13. *It is about understanding the historical and culture context of each piece of writing. Knowing those things can help you dissect it.

    Yes!! This is what I am learning, and never knew before!

    Thanks for sharing this, Allie. I just added a lot of these titles to Goodreads.

    (I love that 'Benny' quote.) :-)

  14. I recall years ago I decided to read Clarrisa-it took me about 6 months reading a few pages at a time here and there when I could-it is a work of genius-I also like Pamela a lot-I found your post very interesting

  15. so cool -- I'm very fascinated by the lists of what you had to read. I do have to say I have not heard Samuel Johnson's novel is very easy reading, so way to go in succeeding through that. Blah. But I too really enjoyed the Swift I read. And I love the idea of learning the context of literature.