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Teaching Romanticism I: A Beginner’s Guide

by Daniel Cook

When I moved to Scotland last year to take up a permanent post as a Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee I inherited a popular module entitled Romantic and Gothic Literature, 1760-1830. Of course, I was mightily excited to be teaching such a module, indeed to be teaching anything as a new lecturer. But, as you will see, I had to learn some surprising lessons first. By way of context you’ll need a brief account of my prior experience in teaching Romanticism: this chiefly included the period survey Paper 3 at Cambridge as a graduate student (for two or three years), a similar if more narrowly focused period survey at Bristol as a Leverhulme research fellow (two years), and an upper-level module on British Romantic poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a visiting assistant professor (one year). In all but the latter of these places I was effectively teaching someone else’s module. At Cambridge there weren’t any set texts as such, but my assigned reading needed to follow fairly closely the faculty lectures, which began with works of the 1680s, namely Aphra Behn, and ended just before Dickens reached his pomp. It was an intensive teaching experience, not least of all because I hadn’t by that point read many of the texts. (I vividly remember sometimes being rather overwhelmed by having such a heavy reading load alongside my doctoral research, as well as a handful of very different modules to design and deliver on a week by week basis; in hindsight it was the best, perhaps the only, time to get that bulk of reading done). As my stint at Bristol coincided with a colleague’s research leave I delivered lectures on (inter alia) Keats and Coleridge, two poets that I have always counted among my favourites, and both of whom featured in my doctoral work (increasingly on the margins, alas). The period survey at Bristol itself lops of the Restoration and ends before the Victorians.

James Gillray, Tales of Wonder (1802)

Over a relatively short span of time, then, I acquired two very different senses of teaching Romanticism: the first within an extra-long eighteenth century and the second a more thematically grounded survey of the major Romantics (along with Chatterton and Yearsley to add local texture). I was extremely thankful for the experience, of course, though I do have to confess that the lecture-writing at Bristol stumped me. Graduate students in the UK (in my case, at least) don’t receive any formal training in the difficult art of lecture writing, let alone delivery. (Hopefully the situation is different now, particularly against the backdrop of an apocalyptic job market). Should we write a detailed script or key-notes? What is the optimum number of quotes and how dense should they be? What techniques or terms need to be explained, and in how much detail? How can you gauge the knowledge of the students en masse? How do you keep the students’ attention for fifty minutes? What verbal or visual tricks can you use to vary the delivery? But the largest obstacle for me was motivation, I’ll be frank with you: specifically, overcoming the sense that so much effort goes into writing a lecture (it used to take me four, maybe five solid days for each one) that will only be given once; at which point the tenured colleague would return to take his or her place. It’s hard to justify spending weeks on lecture-writing when an external research body is paying the bulk of your salary (I know, #academicproblems, but I wouldn’t wish to trivialize those sorts of time pressures). I had to keep telling myself that practice is never wasted energy; plus, I really wanted to be an academic, so I reminded myself that I was, in effect, being an academic.

As it turns out, of course, in varying ways I’m recycling bits of those lectures now and will continue to do so. In addition to my upper-level module (or, ‘honours’ in Scotland) Romantic and Gothic Literature, 1760–1830 we have our own period survey: Romantic to Victorian. As at Bristol, I inherited a raft of pre-fab lecture slots, many of which were on topics far removed from my research experiences or interests. Before moving to Dundee I hadn’t even read Dracula; now I deliver two lectures on it annually. Last year, as I hurriedly found my feet and internalized new jargon and procedures (and taught other modules and hit publishing deadlines, and so on), I had little choice but to rush through the novel in a weekend, gather an impressionistic sense of secondary criticism, and hastily glue the lectures together, one on the history of vampiric literature and tropes, I think, and the other on a jumble of themes (social Darwinism, the fear of the foreigner, blood-libel, Ireland, sexuality, the ‘new woman’, and the like). Coming back to the lectures this year, having spent some time thinking through the novel more thoroughly, I can honestly say they’re now pretty darn good; Dracula has quickly become one of my favourite texts to teach. Will I ever publish research on it? No. An aside: the time and energy I’ve spent in recent years plotting ways to marry my teaching and research interests seems wasted now. Indeed, my primary research outputs have been on early to mid-eighteenth century figures such as Jonathan Swift and Thomas Chatterton (I was an AHRC research fellow on the Cambridge Swift project and wrote a PhD thesis on Chatterton), with a few things on the Romantics proper. That said, that effort to bring the twin academic activities into line has brought me an important lesson: teaching and research don’t always go hand in hand. In fact, they often shouldn’t. At Wisconsin-Madison I naively shoehorned many of my favourite writers into my version of the module, including Chatterton, a brilliant but baffling and puckish philological poet. (Students seemed to enjoy those classes but, tellingly, none of them wrote on him in the exam). In the long term I had vague plans to work on Clare and labouring-class poets: so he made the cut. Charlotte Smith, my sonneteer of choice, featured prominently. In the US the semester was sufficiently long enough to justify — indeed, to benefit from – a expanded list of poets. In the back of my mind I did wonder what my own module – should I get to design one more securely, more permanently — would look like. How could I use my teaching experiences to feed my research?

Frankenstein's Creature (Boris Karloff) takes a break (1931)Oh right, we finally come to Romantic and Gothic Literature, 1760–1830. My interest in the Romantics has always been largely compartmentalized: Keats’s Odes and Chatterton-inspired neomedieval verse, Coleridge’s great meditative and Chatterton-inspired poems, Byron’s narrative epics, or Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime. Certainly I had never really thought about them alongside Gothic writers. (Such a claim seems so silly now). Even though I now had free rein over the content, I decided it would be best to stick closely to the previous reading list and then evolve it, substantially or otherwise, over the long term. Said list included major Romantic and Gothic works, such as The Castle of Otranto and The Monk. The module also happened to include other texts that I had taught before, and enjoyed, such as Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and my third-favourite Austen novel, Mansfield Park. As you might have gathered, both “Romantic” and “Gothic” had been interpreted loosely (which is no bad thing) and instead attended to themes common to the works of the period (race, economics, gender). This year (or, rather, 8-9 months ago, when we revise modules and, if necessary, submit ‘module changes’ forms) I could make alterations as I saw fit. We’re encouraged to envisage modules as “student-focused”, which is not as tautological as it might sound. (Again, why should teaching mirror individual research interests?) Out goes Interesting Narrative (a text that always seems to confuse students, as much as I admire and enjoying discussing it) and Mansfield Park. In comes Frankenstein (filched from the core module) and Northanger Abbey (my second-favourite Austen novel). And then I surprise myself: out goes my most cherished passages of Wordsworth’s Prelude in favour of ‘The Thorn’ and ‘The Idiot Boy’ (as parodies of the “horror ballad” craze); gone are Coleridge’s stunning Conversation poems and in come ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’ (again, pinched from the core module); for Keats we now look at ‘Lamia’, ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ and ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (wholly new additions); and so the pattern continues. In short, I’ve gone Gothic. I’ve even added Gottfried August Burger’s faddish ‘Lenore’ and ‘The Lass of Fair Wone’ as they fit nicely with our sessions on Matthew Lewis and Wordsworth (a sort of reluctant admirer of the German balladeer). And it’s funny how things work out: I’ve developed a taste for Gothic ballads, indeed balladry at large as I also teach it on my Scottish Literature before 1900 module. Teaching segues way into research in unexpected ways, I find. Lesson learned.

Dr Daniel Cook is a Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee. Daniel has published widely on eighteenth-century and Romantic-period literature and biography, including his first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760–1830 (Palgrave, 2013).


1 Comment

  1. […] which point we had an examination for the Romantic and Gothic, 1760–1830 module I outlined in my first blog in this series. I was also appointed QA and Exams Officer this academic year, which puts me on the Teaching […]

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