English Renaissance Lit: The 5 Week Edition

This summer was a busy one. There were 2 main highlights: a trip/conference to London ( for details, see last month’s entries), and teaching a major-level English class. This class was a first for me on several levels. Never before have I taught an upper level class, a hybrid class, or an evening class. The kicker was that this class only ran for 5 weeks with 3 meetings per week, each 3 hours long. I have to say, it went so much better than I could have expected. Here’s how:

Much of the credit goes to the students. This was a small group of about 10 students, many of whom knew each other from other classes. This made discussion much easier, and given that they were mostly English majors, everyone was confident enough in their ideas to speak up.

As a class that had a condensed schedule, the thing that I spent the most time on was figuring out to cover the English Renaissance minus Shakespeare in 5 weeks. In the end I am pleased with the decision I made to use daily genres. Each period had one or two representative works in a given genre, unless it was some type of lyric poem (in that case, I used a few representative authors). I think that in addition to building in a focus each class period, this allowed for some surprises. I doubt students were surprised to see sonnets and drama (one day on comedy, and one on revenge tragedy) on the reading calendar, but I don’t think many of them had looked at Renaissance letters or thought about Renaissance prose fiction before. The day we spent on correspondence was a favorite, especially thanks to a letter from Henry VII to Anne Boleyn in which he expresses his wish “my self (specially an Evening) in my Sweethearts Armes whose pritty Duckys I trust shortly to kysse“. The ensuing discussion about “he’s the king; he’s supposed to sound formal” vs “he’s a man; this is about right” was both in-depth consideration of gender as well as entertaining.

This was a class that covered a lot of poetry, and I think what made it more interesting for students was to give them some new techniques to consider. Early on we spent some time with meter and formal components of poetry, and I think that also is an area that doesn’t get taught as much as it should. I think this made it easier to distinguish between some of the different types and schools of lyric poetry that we looked at.

Students also seemed to like looking at some of the technical elements of epic poetry as well. I was surprised at how much the class seemed to enjoy Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and I think part of it was that we’d done enough technical work that they were able to appreciate and understand some of the intricacies of structure. Admittedly, the fantasy element probably helped too, as over half the class were self-proclaimed geeks who got into a discussion the first day of class concerning the benefits of DC versus Marvel.

I was also a little nervous about the 3 hour class meetings and the online component but those went well too. Part of using daily genres meant that we could and did spend at least a half hour looking at definitive features, and identifying them in the texts, which lead into the more expected discussions of theme, style, etc. Add in historical context, and there were quite a few days where we either went slightly over time, or had to cut off to end on time. Again, much credit to the students, but I think I will definitely be using these design techniques again.

I scheduled the online time as one of our three weekly meetings each week. This put the class at 4 online days (5 weeks minus 1 Monday off for Memorial Day). I don’t think this would work as well for a longer or lower level class, but I decided to have each online session include a discussion prompt (you had to present your own ideas and respond to at least one of your classmates) and a brief response essay on a more open assigned prompt. I intentionally tried to make these days things students would have some interest or familiarity with already to make up for the lack of background lecture- info like women’s writings and long prose fiction. Students were largely positive about this set-up on a final class evaluation I asked them to fill out concerning the class. I find creating my own surveys helps me find out more about student responses to the class than the institutional ones which look largely at teaching instead of class structure or content. The one change to the class based on these surveys I think I would make is that for prose fiction, instead of excerpts from 2 texts (Sydney’s Old Arcadia and More’s Utopia) I’d focus on one, probably Arcadia since it’s the lesser known and more focused on fiction, as opposed to the satire driven Utopia based on politics and cultural observation. Alternatively, I might keep both but use a different way of connecting the two, maybe focusing on the fantasy elements.

I think the biggest compliment I got about the class was at one of the last sessions when one student commented, “This old stuff is actually pretty interesting. I might have to look at more of it.”