Tuesday, March 18, 2008

the uses of "secondary readings"

When I can't focus on dissertation work, I noodle around with the syllabus for my summer course on detective fiction. This afternoon I've been working through the process of matching so-called "primary" and "secondary" readings; that is, figuring out which (if any) critical works to teach with which texts (fiction or film), helped by the convenient online availability of the reading assigments from last year's version of the course.

As you might guess from the quotation marks above, the terms "primary" and "secondary" have been bugging me, especially because as an undergraduate I tended to take them literally. Critical essays weren't pieces of writing in themselves, they were commentaries on the main attraction, and as long as I gleaned the information they contained, I didn't have to read too carefully or actually think about how they were written. Two things changed in graduate school: first, in-class presentations that required attention to detail, synthesis of an argument, and analysis of that argument's presuppositions and construction. Second, teaching composition and learning a bit how to use critical essays as models for student writers.

So one of my goals in putting together this syllabus is to build in ways to help students recognize and negotiate different types of secondary readings, especially because these particular students will likely not have had much guidance in this area (probably not a whole lot of literature majors). I'm mentally categorizing them something like:
  • Background readings that provide historical information I don't want or need to deliver in lecture format. There aren't that many of these, and I'm going to label them as such.
  • Readings that introduce key theoretical terms or conceptual frameworks, usually in the context of close readings of particular texts.
  • Readings that offer one interpretation of a particular text and provide an opportunity to discuss how that interpretation is contextualized, introduced, and supported.

My plan is to have each student present orally on one reading from category 2 or 3. In addition, I'll have some exercises with category 3 readings when we talk about how to construct an analytical argument, and the concepts from category 2 readings will be recurring themes in lectures and discussions.

What productive uses of secondary/critical readings in a literature course am I missing? Suggestions for using them in the classroom? Or experiences of particularly good or bad moments with secondary readings as teacher or student?


JD said...

I think you've covered all the major bases. The only other use/purpose that I would mention is using critical essays (particularly from category 3, but not necessarily limited to it) as a model for a) how to integrate critical viewpoints and b) modeling structure/syntax/rhetoric.

These are sort of sub-category uses from what you've already listed; I mention them mainly because they've actually been really important in the class I just finished teaching, and the students, once they started thinking consciously about using the essays in this way, really seemed to find them helpful.

kermitthefrog said...

Yes, I totally agree. What I've been mulling over the past few days is how much and how explicitly this course should teach those writing skills, when it's not billed as a writing course above and beyond the way that any literature course is a writing course. But I'm still very much working that out... it seems true that course development can take about as much time as you have. :)

JD said...

Oh, yes, I completely understand the time constraints. Really, the only reason that the two uses I suggested are in my mind is that I've been able to teach them this quarter -- but *only* because I'm teaching the writing 5-credit half of a 10-credit course -- and someone else is handling all the lit. stuff. A colleague is conducting interviews of all the TAs for her pedagogical dissertation, and I spent 90 minutes yesterday talking about precisely the fact that what I taught this last quarter is stuff that I *never* have time for when I'm just teaching straightforward 200-level courses.

Belle said...

Oh, I love doing the detective fiction thing. My problem is that the students are so reluctant to put anything within historical context, which is the whole point of my Mystery History class. Sigh.

It's what I get for attempting lit, history and thinking into a single, 3000 level course.