Thursday, October 25, 2012

"The Nature and Culture of Love" (Syllabus Brooding)

--Eric Selinger

I’m going to be teaching another ENG 390 senior capstone course next term.  The official title is "The Nature and Culture of Love," but I neglected to turn in a course description for the catalog, so that students would know what the course is about.  Oops!  Oh, well.  The course filled up anyway, with 25 students (8 men, 17 women), which puts me in an interesting position:  a full course for me to play with, in terms of content and structure.  This ought to have me perky and cheerful, and would, if it weren't late in the fall term, a time when I'm always a bit discouraged about how my current courses are going.  Instead of perky, then, I'm brooding over the vast abyss of my future syllabus, wondering how to fill it.

My original plan for the course was to reframe my work on popular romance fiction as work about the "culture of love," so that I'd have leeway to bring in films or TV shows, advice books or pop songs, really the whole panoply of love-work out there, now and in the past.  The structure I'd planned was to start with an assortment of readings about love and romance (and marriage, perhaps) from various disciplinary perspectives, followed by an in-depth inquiry into one or two primary texts, from whatever medium currently caught my eye. 

As my current courses stagger to the finish line, however, I find myself haunted by a thought that I seem to forget whenever I put together a syllabus:  that course teaches best which teaches least, or assigns least, anyway.  The more I try to "cover," the less satisfied I usually am.  And, conversely, the smaller the assigned reading list, the more interesting I tend to find each individual class discussion.

What does that mean for my seminar?  Well, there are several options I’m considering, and I’m trying to figure out which would be best.

The first model is to do what I originally planned:  choose a bunch of secondary readings and then focus on one or two objects of inquiry.  I'd have to pick the secondary readings now, and keep myself from assigning too many, as I have with poets in the Love Poetry class; off the top of my head, I'd pick...oh, dear.  That's a hard one.  Probably Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, since I'll be writing about it for a collection of essays in the early spring, but I'd want something to go with it that strikes out in a different direction:  maybe a contrasting romance novel?  A novel that's not a popular romance?  A TV show?  A film?  

Paralyzed by options, I move on to model two.

Model two is for me to pick a romance novel and do with it what I did with Laura Kinsale's novel Flowers from the Storm a couple of years ago:  that is, spend the whole ten weeks on one book, first  reading it on its own, teasing out the various topics and issues that it raises, and then having students do independent research projects based on those discussions, culminating in papers about the book from any number of perspectives. 

Natural Born Charmer would work here, because it has a lot of interesting things going on:  allusions to pop music, art history, and aesthetics; ekphrastic passages; an interesting focus on money and the market; a nice mix of "progressive" and "conservative" political ideas that we can chew on as well.  (I put these in quotation marks because I'm not sure how well the terms apply, but you get the idea.)  

When I posted about this quandary at one of my other blogs, Say Something Wonderful, Laura suggested that Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me would make an idea object of inquiry.  Characters in it talk about love from a variety of perspectives and in contrasting discourses--scientific (psychological) language and fairy tales most obviously--; the book is rich with allusions to popular culture (pop songs, musical theater); Crusie herself has mentioned one well-known philosopher, Erich Fromm, as being of use to romance authors, so we could bring him into the mix.  The question here would be to decide whether to assign secondary readings myself, assembling a shelf of sources for them at the bookstore or the library, or simply to read the novel and see what topics emerge in discussion, sending students out into the wild to find the material themselves.  (The latter is easier for me, but riskier.)  

The problem with the one-book approach, of course, is that some students might not like the book, and that negativity can shut down the kind of exuberant discussion on which a successful senior seminar more or less depends.  I could do two, and diversify the course in various ways:  say, by adding an LGBT romance, or a text about lovers of color, or a non-Western romance, or a text without a happy ending.  But then I face the anxiety of options again (see above), so I'm not sure that solves my dilemma. 

The third model I'm considering is to choose a handful secondary sources about love or romance or marriage—books and essays that I’ve liked in the past, or am curious about now—and then spend the quarter reading them, one by one, without any specific "object of inquiry" in mind.  Students would then fan out and find a bunch of those objects, “primary texts” of their own choosing, from songs to films to TV shows to ad campaigns, and write final projects that use ideas from the secondary sources to write about the things that interest them.  

The scary things about this model is that I'd be reading those books, plus the novels for my other class, a popular romance survey, and that’s a lot of reading—harder to find the time to edit and write.  The advantage of it, though, is that it forces me to put time and energy into doing some of the secondary reading that I’d like to do anyway, like Simon May’s book about the history of love or Eva Illouz's various books about love, which otherwise might be hard to fit into the quarter.  

I guess the next step would be to brainstorm a list of exactly what books and essays would be good for option three, and see what that looks like.  Any suggestions?  What should be on The Love Bookshelf this winter, everyone?  


  1. "choose a handful secondary sources about love or romance or marriage"

    If, in class, you discuss love and marriage predominantly with reference to "secondary" texts, and the students go off to find "primary" texts to fit the theories/frameworks outlined in the "secondary" texts, rather than theories/frameworks to fit the "primary" texts, is it possible that the texts you want to have as "secondary" texts will de facto have turned into "primary" ones?

  2. More importantly, on the topic of brooding about a syllabus on love/marriage, I offer this.

  3. :) I like to think of that sort of "brooding" when I read Milton, though I know it's not what he had in mind.

    And you're right--that option would make the primary texts secondary, and vice versa. Not necessarily a bad thing, although I'm not sure any of the books about love and marriage are quite as fun as a romance novel, for me, anyway!

  4. I'm teaching theory courses, so those sorts of texts are our "primary" texts. If you do something like this, I had amazing success teaching Hanne Blank's "Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality," which, the more I think about it, is a really ideal text for courses on love, marriage, relations, romance. It troubles so many (old) ideas, and excites new ideas.

  5. Thanks for the tip, Jonathan! I'll take a look at it.