More Than Is Already Familiar: Reflections on Diversifying a Syllabus

8 May 2021
By Seth Peabody

What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book? The experience seems at once utterly mundane yet singularly mysterious. While turning a page I am arrested by a compelling description, a constellation of events, a conversation between characters, an interior monologue. Suddenly and without warning, a flash of connection leaps across the gap between text and reader. . . Indisputably, something has changed; my perspective has shifted. I see something I did not see before.

(Felski 23)

In her recent blog post, Prof. Juliane Schicker describes her efforts to diversify her course German 150: German Music and Culture. One of the strategies she describes is “representing diversity in [her] syllabus” in order to “reach a more diverse student body.” In this post, I will reflect on the motivations and outcomes for such a process of diversifying a syllabus, using literary scholar Rita Felski’s musings on “recogniz[ing] oneself in a book” as a starting point for considering what we hope to achieve with the texts we assign.

What do we, the faculty members in Carleton’s German program, hope to achieve by diversifying a syllabus? The goal is not to offer a set of texts that somehow represent or mirror German-speaking societies in a straightforward manner, nor is it to create a reading list that allows students of diverse backgrounds to “see” themselves in the texts the way a sighted person might briefly look at a specific tree in the arboretum as they walk past. Studying cultural texts involves exploring complex and contradictory textual details as well as the numerous, dynamic, and conflicting frames of reference that contribute to how meaning gets created, but also deferred, through linguistic and visual signs. If students “see themselves” in texts, we must not be fooled into thinking that ways of “seeing” or even the “texts” themselves are simple and unambiguous.

If diversifying a syllabus allows our courses to succeed in reaching a more diverse student body, it is not because of simplistic recognition, understood as a return to the familiar. Instead, it is because such syllabi, when we construct and teach them well, can increase the potential for flashes of recognition that allow all students to grab onto something familiar, and from there, to look, think, and interpret, and create anew.

The process of identification with a text has been theorized not as a simple one-to-one process of seeing oneself in a book or film, but rather as a process of delight in “recognition” that is simultaneously seeing or knowing again and anew. The reader sees something they did not see before and their perspective shifts through the process of connecting with a text, as Felski notes in the quotation at the top of this post. Quoting Hans-Georg Gadamer, she continues: “The joy of recognition” is not about returning to the familiar; rather, it is “the joy of knowing more than is already familiar” (25).

These are some of the thoughts that guided my syllabus design for the course LCST 245: The Critical Toolbox, which I taught during winter 2021. I chose not to follow the traditional, chronological sequence of “schools” of literary and cultural theories, but instead structured my course by grouping diverse texts around shared themes of “interpretation,” “meaning,” “power,” and “place.” In a chronologically structured syllabus that begins with new criticism and continues through various theoretical turns of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, women authors often appear only after the midpoint of the course, and people of color only in the final quarter. One goal of my theme-based structure was to allow more diverse voices throughout the term, so as to increase the chance for the “flash of connection” that Felski describes in order to help each student to find an initial strong point of connection with the course material. (Of course I understand that students connect with many different types of texts and authors; the diversified syllabus simply aims to allow more pathways for this intellectual connection at any given moment.) In class discussions and, especially, in students’ writing, these initial points of connection with single texts were used to develop understanding across multiple texts and theoretical angles.

On each of their four papers, students first developed their ideas in class discussions, then wrote low-stakes drafts and engaged in peer review with classmates, followed by a conference with a Writing Assistant from the Writing Center. When they turned in the final draft, they wrote a short cover letter to me detailing their thoughts about the paper, what they had gained from the writing process, and what I should look for in their essay. I responded with a letter to the student that primarily attempted to engage with their ideas (although it also gave the necessary grade). The goal of this process was that writing would be seen as the product of a rigorous multistep engagement with primary texts, theories, and new creative interpretations. Meanwhile, the course goals regarding content knowledge aimed not only at introducing all students to a range of approaches for interpretation, but also offering each student the chance to find approaches that would inspire them. 

Students’ major analytic writing projects, which examined texts by Audre Lorde and Emily Dickinson, engaged with performances by Johnny Cash and Amanda Gormon, and examined cultural phenomena ranging from the public image of Carleton’s Arb to the business model of TikTok, revealed that the students had connected with the intellectual projects of widely varying theories ranging from Marxism and psychoanalysis to postcolonialism and ecofeminism. The social process of writing allowed these individual flashes of connection to become shared experiences. Together as a class, we learned from each other’s analyses that originated through individual moments of recognition, and that grew into new interpretations. By starting with the “mundane yet mysterious” process of recognition, students created inspired individual analyses that, when shared, helped all of us in the class to shift our perspectives, see things we had not seen before, and experience the joy of knowing more than was already familiar.

Work cited:
Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Blackwell, 2008.

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