Thursday, November 08, 2012

K.I.S.S.: That "Culture of Love" Seminar

K.I.S.S.:  Keep It Simple, Stupid.

That's the pop-cult acronym that popped into my head last night as I thought (again) about my upcoming senior capstone seminar.

I've been tying myself in knots with ideas and options for the class:  novels to assign, history and theory and books about love to read, etc.  All of them good ideas, and worth pursuing, but all of them coming at the cost of simplicity.

Behind that flurry of options, I think, lies my own itch to read more widely, both in the genre and outside it, in related secondary material.  Fair enough--and a senior seminar isn't a bad place to get that reading done.

On the other hand, I have another, narrower, more immediate goal for the quarter:  to research and write up an essay on Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Natural Born Charmer, much of it drawing on ideas that I encountered a few years back in a book by Eva Illouz, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. (Tip of the hat to An Goris, who suggested I read it!)

The simplest solution--which I thought of weeks ago, then set aside--is to build the course around those two texts, turning it into a sort of scholarly atelier.  I'd balked, on the theory that some students might not like the novel, but whenever I'd tried to decide on another book, I got paralyzed with options; and, frankly, I missed the clarity and sharp focus of a course about a single book.  

So:  one book it is, with some room for students to jump out tangentially into topics of discussion raised by the Illouz book and by the novel (which nods to art history, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, the cultures of sports or therapy, and a bunch of other material).

We'll start with a couple of weeks on the Illouz, then read through the Phillips very slowly, 3-4 chapters a week.  Each class on the novel will feature 1-2 student presentations, with a rhythm that looks like this:

M:  Introduction to the Class and to Each Other.  
W:    Illouz, CRU, Introduction; chapters 1-2

M:  CRU:  chapters 3-5
W:  CRU:  chapters 6-8, plus Conclusion

M:  Phillips, NBC, paratext and chapter 1:  2 presentations
W:  NBC, chapters 2-4  2 presentations

M:  follow-up discussion, chapters 1-4 2 presentations
W:  NBC, 5-7  2 presentations

M:  follow-up discussion   1 presentations
W:  NBC, 8-10  2 presentations

M:  follow-up discussion  1 presentations
W:  NBC, 11-14  2 presentations

M:  follow-up discussion  1 presentations
W:  NBC, 15-18  2 presentation

M:  follow-up discussion  1 presentations
W:  NBC, 19-22  2 presentation

M:  follow-up discussion 1 presentations
W:  NBC, 23-epilogue  2 presentation

M:   follow-up discussion  2 presentations
W:  follow-up discussion  

My thought is to have the presentations stay short--say, 500-750 words, like a blog post--and to give the students instructions that look something like this:

If you’re on a day when we’ve read new chapters (generally a Wednesday), your presentation should do three things:  
1. Briefly summarize the important events in the chapter;
2. Call our attention to 1-3 scenes or passages of interest, raising questions about them or illuminating them using ideas, issues, or topics that seem relevant (from Illouz or elsewhere); and,
3. Suggest new avenues of research or inquiry that you or someone else might pursue, whether in a final paper or in a later presentation.  
If you’re presenting on a “follow-up discussion” day, your presentation should do three slightly different things:
1. Situate your remarks as a response to a previous presentation or discussion, either in terms of something that was said or something that was overlooked or left out.
2. Critique or develop that previous material, for example, by following up on a “research lead” someone suggested, by making connections between points made by several people, or by offering your own, well-supported, contrasting arguments.
3. Suggest new avenues of research or inquiry that you or someone else might pursue, whether in a final paper or in a later presentation.  
At the end of the quarter, everyone turns in a final research paper--not sure of the length yet, but something fairly hefty--which could focus on the novel itself or could branch out into some area of research that came up in our discussions throughout the quarter.

Come to think of it, depending on how my own writing progresses, I could also have the class give me feedback on draft material from my essay.  Not sure how useful that would be, or how much I'd have to re-configure the schedule to accommodate that, but it might be worth trying.

In any case, the books are ordered, so we'll see how it goes!


  1. Will you use any of Eva Illouz's new book?

  2. Maybe--we'll see what comes up in the discussion. My goal is to use the streamlined syllabus to open up time for reading of my own on the side, and when I find something useful or relevant, I can send students that way, too.