Rethinking the survey course (Peninsular Spanish Literature 1100-1600)

The survey course of literature was originally designed to give students an introduction to the major authors, genres, and works of a given time period. It is a performance of literary history. The idea is for students to have a general familiarity with a national canon before they progress to the higher-level courses that specialize and go in depth into the study of a more specific time period, artistic movement, genre, author, or work.

Don José says read this

This makes sense if you approach the study of literature as literary history. But the recent social science and cultural studies turn in literary studies has created different expectations and habits of thought among students and professors alike. Some are beginning to find the traditional survey course out of step with expectations and current practice.

In a recent discussion with some students in my survey course on Peninsular Spanish literature (1100-1600), I found that very few of them thought that a Spanish major was essentially (as I had always imagined it) an English major, but in Spanish. That is, they did not feel that the purpose of the Spanish major is to learn the literary history of Spain and Latin America, and to learn about the formal aspects and critical approaches to the literary critical study of poetry, fiction, drama, and film. In short, they didn’t care about literary history; they wanted to ‘learn Spanish.’ One stubborn student admitted that he liked to read books and write essays about them. But the rest saw it differently.

I am always tinkering with my survey course. I teach it at least twice a year, so I have lots of opportunities to swap readings out, fine-tune the written assignments, and update my lecture notes and activities. In light of this recent discussion with my students, I decided on a more radical overhaul this time around.

Fond memories of 3rd-year Spanish

Many students in survey courses of Spanish and Latin American literature (in US universities) are language learners who are in their third or perhaps fourth year of study. They are not anywhere near as proficient in Spanish as the average English major is in English. It makes sense that the survey courses they take would not simply be a Spanish-language version of a survey of English literature. Many third-year language textbooks rubricate readings thematically, opening the unit with a general discussion of the theme (migration, women’s rights, pollution, family structure, etc) then progressing to a related reading with activities and written assignments designed to reinforce student’s understanding of the theme and their command of key vocabulary.

I adopted this approach in structuring my survey courses. I maintain a chronological structure that begins in the eleventh century and ends in the seventeenth. The main difference is in the presentation of the texts. The syllabus introduces each reading with a ‘big question,’ designed to point up the broader social, religious, or political significance of the text. In formulating the questions, I asked myself “what is interesting about this text?” (Not “how have literary historians explained the significance of this text” or “why is this text important for the development of Spanish literature?”).

What's interesting about this text?

For example, the unit on Marian miracles (we read one of the miracles in Gonzalo de Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora) asks “Why do we want God to be a woman?” For many of the readings, there is an excerpt of a contemporary essay on a related topic, and an additional primary text from the period on the same subject, and the occasional excerpt of a secondary literary critical essay.

The Question-driven syllabus

The ‘big question’ for each reading sets the agenda for the class meetings, discussion section meetings, and written assignments. For each syllabus entry, there is a question, key terminology or themes, a debate topic, and a creative assignment (práctica). In a given lecture meeting you might begin with an individual writing exercise and/or small group discussion of the question, then segue into coverage of the excerpt of a modern essay on a related topic (for the Catholic Monarchs’ Edict of Expulsion we’ll read an excerpt from an essay on ethnic cleansing) or a related primary text from the same period. Discussion section leaders can choose to assign students to prepare both sides of the debate based on textual evidence from primary and/or secondary texts. Alternatively they can choose to have students prepare the creative assignment, which can in turn form the textual basis for activities conducted during section.

Click here to see the full syllabus

None of these adjustments in approaching classic texts means that literary history is consigned to the dustbin. They still learn about Gonzalo de Berceo’s biography, about the emergence of Castilian as a literary language, about Catholic Mariology and popular Marian practices. It is still a survey course of (mostly) canonical texts; one geared for students who do not necessarily see themselves first and foremost as lit majors.

There will be skeptics. They will accuse me of pandering to students’ obsession with ‘relatability,’ of giving in to the tyranny of present-ism. But I think leading with the question is simply good humanism. It helps remind us of how these texts we love to read and teach speak to the human condition. And if our students, even our Spanish majors, are not necessarily presold on the humanities, I don’t see any harm in reminding them why they should be.

Narratology + Film adaptations = Introduction to Narrative (Spanish 333)

Our undergraduate program in Spanish literature has three courses at the third year level focusing on the study of a given genre: poetry, narrative, drama. This summer I taught “Introduction to Narrative” during summer session. It is a 4-credit course that meets four days weekly for sessions of 1h 50m over four weeks [click here to see syllabus].

In the past when I have taught the course I have had the students read a series of short stories and introduce a critical vocabulary of narratological concepts (plot elements, characterization, point of view, etc.). This time I gave them a selection of classic short stories from canonical Spanish and Latin American authors (Don Juan Manuel, Pardo Bazán, Rulfo, Matute, Borges, etc).

Typically I would assign a series of writing assignments geared to demonstrate an understanding of how the authors make use of the various narratological resources (theme, tone, narration, dialogue, plot, etc) and to what effect. The final assignment was usually a 5-7 page literary critical essay focusing on one or more of the texts.

There are two things I wanted to accomplish in designing this course the way I did:

  • Give the students some models for academic literary criticism
  • Provide an opportunity to produce a literary critical project that went beyond the traditional literary critical essay.

For the first three weeks we read one story per class session from the popular anthology Aproximaciones al estudio de la literatura hispánica (Approaches to the Study of Hispanic Literature). For the first class session, the students were responsible for reading the introductory essay on narratology and familiarizing themselves with key critical terms for the study of narrative. Before each class they took a short online quiz (4 strictly factual true/false questions) to make sure everyone had done the reading. In class we reviewed the stories and relevant critical concepts, and workshopped close readings, applying concepts, selecting textual examples, and explaining their importance for understanding the concepts.

In past classes, when reading students’ literary criticism I have been getting the (unscientific) impression that they do not have a strong sense of what professional literary criticism sounds like. That is, they are unfamiliar with the style, the rhetorical strategies and structural conventions of the genre.

It occurred to me that I have never required my third-year students to read literary criticism. I’d always assumed that assigning them professional literary critical essays would either overwhelm them (if in Spanish) or derail the pedagogical mission (if in English). I myself remember college professors of 300-level survey courses in English literature saying that they preferred we focus on writing our own criticism rather than read what other people thought about the texts.

But it is fair to ask someone to imitate a model they have not seen? Probably not; but in any event, I still thought that assigning long literary critical essays in Spanish might not be productive. So this time around, I compromised. For each short story on the syllabus, I located a published literary critical essay, and included 2-3 short selections in a one-page handout [click here to see one]. These extracts satisfied a number of requirements: they are short enough to be easily digestible for in-class discussion of how to deploy textual examples, they were short enough to satisfy most working definitions of fair use (and so could be included in a course reader without incurring additional copyright fees), and they were mostly in Spanish, the language of instruction for the course.

Because the articles are all about the stories the students read in preparation for the lesson, they help bolster their understanding of the material and give them specific examples for how to approach the texts critically. These models of criticism help to give students an idea as to what they are shooting for. I don’t expect them to start writing immediately like professional critics, but better to aim high.

At the end of weeks 1-3 students handed in a short (min 500 words) critical essay written on one of the week’s four texts explaining the author’s use of at least two of the critical concepts discussed in class.

For the final project, the students (working in groups) produced a film adaptation of one of the stories. Students were assigned randomly in groups of four and were responsible for submitting a script (guión) of their adaptation, then a storyboard (guión gráfico), and then the final cut video in .mp4 or .mov format.

To familiarize ourselves with the new format (video) we watched a series of similar video adaptations produced by AP Spanish students in US high schools. We also read Gerardo Sánchez’s short, self-published Como escribir un guión (How to write a script) and looked at examples of professional screenplays in Spanish. They built their skills in a series of in-class exercises in which they practiced conceiving and scripting short scenes from the readings in formal screenplay format.

The students spent week 4 (the final week) of the course workshopping their project in groups of 4 or 5. They spent the weekend working on their screenplay. On Monday they turned in the screenplay, with the storyboard due the following day. Wednesday they finished shooting and editing their short films. On Thursday, I booked the (very swanky) screening room of the new UO Cinema Studies Lab for a Spanish 333 film festival. Each group gave a short introduction to their film and fielded questions after the screening. The groups decided collectively whether or not they wanted to publish their shorts on YouTube.

It may seem counterintuitive to spend three weeks studying literary critical essays and then not require them to write a substantial literary critical essay. This was an experiment. My hope was that by combining traditional literary criticism with cinematic adaptation, the students would:

  • Reinforce their understanding of narrative and narratological concepts by approaching the material in a creative, productive assignment.
  • Come to a better comparative understanding of literary and cinematic approaches to narrative by having to experience, first-hand, the possibilities and limitations afforded by the film medium.
  • Experience something different in one of their Spanish classes, and maybe even have some fun (is that wrong?)

The adaptations were pretty good overall. I made it clear that I did not want them to spend lots of time mastering the equipment or the editing software. I wanted them to tell a story. A couple of the projects were shot entirely on an iPhone or iPod Touch, with pretty impressive results on both video and audio (the Rulfo adaptation below was shot entirely on an iPhone, including the audio). I’ve embedded two examples in this post, adaptations of story no. 35 from Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (Spain, 14th c.) and Juan Rulfo’s “No oyes ladrar los perros” (Mexico, 20th c.)