Read an Excerpt from “The Teaching Archive”

December 3, 2020
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As students and teachers look ahead to another semester of remote instruction, many are also thinking back fondly to gathering in classrooms for lively collaborations and discussions. With The Teaching Archive, Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan turn their attention to the classroom, reminding us that the classroom has long been a site of innovation and that the contributions of students themselves are far more intertwined in the history of literary studies than we might imagine. With their innovative new book, Buurma and Heffernan open up “the teaching archive”—the syllabuses, course descriptions, lecture notes, and class assignments—of notable critics and scholars, showing how students helped write foundational works of literary criticism and how English classes at community colleges and HBCUs pioneered the reading methods and expanded canons that came only belatedly to the Ivy League. The Teaching Archive rewrites what we know about the discipline and will be an invaluable resource as we enter a new decade of instruction and scholarship.

Read on for an excerpt from the introduction of The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study by Rachel Saagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan or click here to read the introduction in full.

A New Syllabus

In this book, you will see a series of major literary scholars in a place they are rarely remembered as inhabiting: the classroom. You will watch T. S. Eliot revise his modern literature syllabus over the course of three years to see how he reimagined early modern drama as everyday literature written by working poets for his working-class students at the University of London’s extension school. You will read about how Caroline Spurgeon, the first female professor in the UK, invited her first-year women’s college students to process and reconfigure the world of letters by compiling their own reading indexes, offering her own research notes as a model. You will read about how I. A. Richards transformed large lecture halls of Cambridge students into experimental laboratories by enlisting them as both subjects and researchers in his poetry experiments. You will see how Edith Rickert and her graduate students at the University of Chicago turned their classroom into a place where together they invented new distant reading methods for teaching and criticism that developed into multiple books and experiments involving both high school and college teachers and students. You will learn how J. Saunders Redding carefully composed his American literature syllabus for his students at Hampton Institute so that the class would devote half of their time to black writers. You will watch Cleanth Brooks’s students ask him questions about the historical contexts of the poems they read, and you will see Edmund Wilson teach James Joyce’s newly available Ulysses alongside Shakespeare and Sterne to audiences of Smith College undergraduates and local community members. You will see how poet Josephine Miles used her freshman writing course at Berkeley to help students think about data rather than merely report it. And you will follow Simon Ortiz as he turned the traditional curricular forms of the historical period course and the introductory survey into tools that helped him invent the Native American Literature course at the College of Marin.

Along with many others who populate this book, these figures measured out their professional lives by the academic year, the length of the term, and the lecture hour. Like countless other teachers and scholars, they worked­—sometimes with students—in special collections archives, in computing laboratories, in private manuscript collections, in major research libraries, and at desks in studies or carrels. But mostly, they worked in classrooms. They worked in classrooms at Bedford College for Women, Southall Grammar School as part of the University of London extension program, the University of Chicago, Elizabeth City Teachers College, Hampton Institute, Smith College, Louisiana State University, George Washington University, Lincoln University, the University of Chicago, Yale University, Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley, the Institute for American Indian Arts, the College of Marin, and the University of New Mexico. They taught classes of all female undergraduates; they taught working class adult students; they taught hybrid courses open to undergraduates and the general public; they taught classrooms of high school English teachers; they taught upper-level English majors; they taught dentistry students, freshman composition students, and graduate students. Their classrooms were various: wood-paneled seminar rooms close by dormitories, decaying former gymnasiums a train ride from students’ homes, Quonset huts erected hastily during wartime, desk-lined rooms borrowed from elementary schools, communications studios, special collections large and small, and computing laboratories in friendly electrical engineering departments.

The true history of English literary study resides in classrooms like these; most of the study of literature that has happened in the university has happened in classrooms. Counted not just in hours and weeks, but in numbers of people, stacks of paper, and intensity of attention, the teaching of English literature has occupied a grand scale. More poems have been close read in classrooms than in published articles, more literary texts have been cited on syllabuses than in scholarship, more scholarship has been read in preparation for teaching than in drafting monographs. Within institutions of secondary education large and small, numberless teachers and students have gathered to read not just an astonishing number but an astonishing range of texts together. If it were possible to assemble the true, impossible teaching archive—all the syllabuses, handouts, reading lists, lecture notes, student papers and exams ever made—it would constitute a much larger and more interesting record than the famous monographs and seminal articles that usually represent the history of literary study.

Despite this, the work of classrooms rarely appears in the stories scholars tell about their past. Histories of the discipline of English almost invariably take the scholarship of professors working at a handful of elite universities as evidence of the main line of the discipline’s theories and practices. To do this, they rely on a mostly-unspoken but pervasive assumption: that literary study’s core methods have been pioneered by scholars at elite universities, only later to “trickle down” to non-elite institutions, students, and teachers. In this kind of account, historicism comes to the American university via Johns Hopkins, as does structuralism. New Criticism, on the other hand, begins at Yale, and deconstruction makes landfall there. Scholars at major universities innovate; their ideas are disseminated “outward” to less elite universities and “downward”—often, it is imagined, in simplified or distorted form—to the classroom.

Here we will begin to make the case that the opposite is true. As we will show, English classrooms at both elite and non-elite institutions have made some of major works of scholarship and criticism in the discipline of English. T.S. Eliot’s major volume of criticism, The Sacred Wood (1920), grew directly out of his three-year course Modern English Literature; the volume centers on works that Eliot read with his students and, more importantly, reflects what he learned from teaching in the format of the Workers’ Educational Association tutorial. Edmund Wilson’s “The Historical Interpretation of Literature” grew out of the Varieties of Nineteenth- Century Criticism course that he taught at the University of Chicago in 1939. The indexing methods Caroline Spurgeon practiced with her Art of Reading students at Bedford College for Women inspired her to create the dataset of all of the metaphoric vehicles in Shakespeare’s plays that she drew on to write her important last work, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us (1935). We can sometimes see the visible knot-ends of these traces of teaching in the many works of scholarship dedicated to classes or students: Wilson’s dedication of “Dickens: the Two Scrooges” to English 354, Summer 1939, at the University of Chicago; Cleanth Brooks’s dedication of The Well-Wrought Urn to the students of his English 300-K class from the summer session of 1942, at the University of Michigan, “who discussed the problems with me and helped me work out some of the analyses”; I.A. Richards’s dedication to Practical Criticism “to my collaborators, whether their work appears in these pages or not”; Edith Rickert’s dedication of New Methods for the Study of Literature “to all students in English 143, 276, and 376, who by their hard work, lively interest in the subject, and active co-operation in the working out of new methods have made the book possible.” The Teaching Archive aims not just to show how classrooms have helped create particular books, but to offer readers a new way of seeing the outcomes of teaching, one that will recognize the presence of classrooms within all kinds of published scholarship.

In classrooms, teachers and students have invented and perfected the core methods and modes of literary study. In classrooms, method grows, twining itself around particular texts and particular people. These methods are more various and more mixed than our current accounts allow. In a single semester— or even a single hour— a class might search out the layered registers in which a Keats poem meditates on its own status as literature, admire a particular inflection of the sonnet form, or attempt to synthesize the spirit of an age from a few weeks of readings. They might also conjure the referential significance of details and historical allusions, index a dozen mentions of a literary reference, make fun of a scholarly edition’s biased footnote, compare three versions of a novel’s first paragraph, and learn to find a failed poem interesting. The downtimes of the class hour also cradle new ways of knowing literature; classes may draw implicit connections to tangentially related current events, dramatize differences between the room’s first impressionistic response to the day’s chosen poem, refer back to an absent student’s claim from last week, offer some chatty preliminary background material, brainstorm deliberately wrong readings of a novel’s first sentence, or playfully apply a strong literary theory to a viral meme. When teachers and students turn their collective attention to texts in classrooms, they decide together upon the interest that texts hold; they experiment with creating and conveying value. Perhaps singularly among the disciplines, literary study is enacted rather than rehearsed in classrooms; the answer to the question “Did I miss anything last week?” is truly “Yes— and you missed it forever.”

Centering the history of critical method on classrooms also transforms our understanding of the literary canon. Classrooms throughout the twentieth century have sometimes housed the canon that we expect to find— the core works in each period of literary history, the New Critical canon of metaphysical poetry (Donne, Marvell) and modernist experimentation (Joyce, Woolf), the novelistic canon of the Great Tradition (Austen, Eliot, James). But more often, classrooms have been home to a much wider array of texts— texts that teachers and students encounter as both literary and unliterary, or in transition between one and the other. Papal indulgences, paper trails leading to unfinished novels, occasional essays by famous playwrights, poets’ notebooks, public frescoes, lives and letters and personal histories, paratextual indexes, and forgotten pornography have all appeared on syllabuses alongside or instead of luminous poems and structurally perfect short stories.

So although we have long seen the classroom as the canon’s fortress and main site of reproduction, the archive reveals that this canon has been at best a very incomplete story, and at worst a figment of our imaginations. This is most visible when we turn away from elite research universities and look into the classrooms of a broader array of secondary educational institutions, for several reasons. First, some of these institutions take different approaches to curriculum. In many extension schools, for instance, there was no set hierarchical curriculum for literary study; reading lists were developed contingently in relation to local histories, recent books of interest, and students’ demands or experiences. Second, universities often shape curricula around the identities of their student populations; at historically Black Hampton, for example, the English Department described their core American Literature course as “a survey of American prose and poetry beginning with the most important present day Negro writers and going back [to] the most effective writers of the Colonial period.” At Hampton, the canon represented the work of Black and white writers in equal measure to accurately reflect their importance to American culture. The class’s presentation of great works also demanded attention to the materiality of canon formation and the politics of literacy itself.

This contingent and historicized canon has, we claim, in fact been the dominant model in literary study, though we only see this clearly when we place teaching at the center of literary history. Far from only presenting contextless, aesthetically valuable texts whose selection has come down from on high, most twentieth- century English literature classrooms have in some way discussed the making of literature itself— from how and what famous writers read in childhood to their first failed attempts at literature to their multiple drafts and revisions to their reception by everyday readers and critics and students. Teachers and students often recover the particular political or social circumstances that writers both responded to and shaped. They recover lost connotations within a familiar word’s meaning; they draw pictures of old newspapers on the chalkboard; they read the legal decisions that controlled access to controversial texts; they track the publishing networks that determined into what hands certain genres came. This all may sound like fodder for an upper- level or graduate seminar, but our research suggests that students at all levels— perhaps particularly beginning students— have worked to understand the meaning of what is before them through an account of how it was made, and by whom, and under what shaping, but not determinative, conditions.

This new model of the canon is the most surprising discovery of our turn to the teaching archive. And this realization opens up a further insight. Once we see that teachers and students in these classrooms regularly gather around texts that are not traditionally canonical, we can see that literature classrooms are in the business of creating literary value, not merely receiving or reproducing it. Studying the historical or material or biographical life of a literary work isn’t ancillary to some more central formal attention to the aesthetic features of a poem or novel, but a core means by which groups of readers have come to take interest in and attach value to texts— to make them, in a sense, literary.8 And, in fact, the classroom’s close attention to the formal features of that poem or novel— the history of classroom- based close reading— turns out to be, from this perspective, yet another way that literary value is made or conveyed. This is to say that literary value seems to emanate from texts, but is actually made by people. And classrooms are the core site where this collective making can be practiced and witnessed.

Classrooms offer us both a truer and a more usable account of what literary study is and does, and of what its value is today. This book argues that the value of literary study inheres in the long history of teaching as it was lived and experienced: in constant conversation with research, partly determined by local institutional histories, unevenly connected with students’ lives, and as part of a longer and wider story that has never been written down. University teaching can often feel isolated; lacking an account of shared practices, it can seem marooned from the research interests that constitute our main historical narratives and standards of professional value. This long- standing sense of disconnection has grown as institutions prize teaching away from research in tenure files, hiring, and budgetary structures. Restoring a full material history to the ephemeral hours we spend in the classroom will not in itself change institutional structures or revolutionize labor practices. But it will bring a usable history back into view, one that better represents the complex, dynamic work our profession has undertaken in the past, is continuing to perform in the present, and must offer in the future.


Rachel Sagner Buurma is associate professor of English literature at Swarthmore College. Laura Heffernan is associate professor of English at the University of North Florida.

The Teaching Archive is available now on our website or from your favorite bookseller.

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