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  • Teaching Required CoursesPedagogy under Duress
  • Ruth Kaplan (bio) and Kimberly Neill (bio)

Curriculum revision can be one of the most contentious projects an English department undertakes. In addition to local pedagogical and pragmatic pitfalls, disciplinary specialists confront larger intellectual and ethical questions as they reassess which classes to require, what new media constitute appropriate objects of study, and which methods of interpretation to privilege. Perhaps the most confounding debate of the last thirty years, however, assumes an inherent opposition between the traditional canon and emerging authors and cultural expressions. Since the canon wars, this debate often pits Shakespeare (and the "great literature" for which he stands as an easy synecdoche) against literatures that are cast as emerging from "identity politics."1 The tendency to position multifarious literature and rhetoric courses as players in a zero-sum game results in part from the strictures of college English curricula, which are limited in the number of required courses and electives they can oblige students to take. In this context, departments have had to ask, do we want to require a class on gender and/or race? If so, which requirement must we cut to make room? These questions, and the compromises they spur, can foster a sense of competition among those who teach these courses and believe in their import.

And yet, in most English departments across the country, compromise has been struck.2 Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton generally have their place alongside literature by underrepresented authors. At Quinnipiac University, the small, private university in the Northeast where we are junior [End Page 25] faculty members, we were both hired to teach courses that fulfilled these two requirements of our English department: Shakespeare and "multicultural/women's" literature (note the compromise visible even in the title of the latter).3 As scholars who have come to our subjects in the wake of debates about canon formation and curriculum, we have been surprised by the similar problems and possibilities we experience in teaching these very different texts and contexts.

This essay emphasizes these connections, exploring the conditions that students and instructors encounter in many required courses: histories and texts that are particularly unfamiliar and challenging (and thus can feel unwelcome, irrelevant, or imposed on students). We focus not on the politics of the canon wars but on the psychology of student learning, suggesting that one key problem with requiring either Shakespeare or underrepresented writers is that the requirement itself impedes students' motivation to learn. These courses are particularly difficult even for students who choose them freely, as the multitude of pedagogical essays and books on teaching them testifies.4 When students must take them, however, we have students in class who would not have chosen to be there and may not want to learn what we have to teach.

Yet this essay does not contend that English departments should abolish curricular requirements altogether—for both ideological and practical reasons. In practice, even small changes to curricula have manifold, often unpredictable, consequences and thus demand significant, careful planning within and beyond a department. In many departments, requirements also ensure that faculty will be able to meet minimum enrollments and thus teach in their areas of specialty.

Most important, however, required courses can give students powerful opportunities to discover and study authors and areas they might never pursue on their own. We thus begin by exploring the entwined benefits and challenges of two famous English requirements: courses on Shakespeare and on historically underrepresented writers (among them women, LGBTQ authors, and writers of color). Many professors in our department worry that students are averse to complex or long texts. In addition to these difficulties, both of us teach texts with radically unfamiliar language and cultural contexts. When students are compelled to take classes so inherently difficult, some of them lack the drive to meet and overcome obstacles to their learning. To mitigate this problem, we argue, instructors may use curriculum, course, and classroom strategies to enhance student autonomy, intrinsic motivation, and learning. Although we write from the perspective of junior professors [End Page 26] in two particular fields, the experience of teaching under the auspices of curricular mandate is almost universal. We hope this essay...


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