Book Orders, How Do They Work?

It’s that time of the semester–time to submit my textbook orders for the impossibly far-seeming Fall semester 2017. The pressure to get them in on time is pretty strong, since each department gets a stipend from the book store that goes in the general account. And who doesn’t want (essentially) free money? (Bookstores do this to ensure faculty get their book orders in on time so that the school is compliant with federal guidelines about such things. But because faculty are notorious procrastinators, they have to bribe us to get it done.) I ordinarily have my book orders in way ahead of the deadline, but I need to shake up a few things in my courses, so I am debating new texts right now instead of just ordering the same texts I’ve used before in these courses. In addition, I have one brand new to me course I’ll be teaching, which requires conceptualizing the course from scratch. So, here’s a brief rundown of my current plans:

Two of my four courses will keep the same textbooks. They are 100-level, online courses for which I use anthologies and the editions haven’t changed, so those will remain the same.

My 20th century American Literature survey might be due for an update. I focus it around themes of “borders and margins,” which has seemed only more and more relevant as time has gone on. I’ve made at least one major change since I started teaching it four years ago, but it might be time for another major update. Unfortunately, I have gotten myself stuck into a few pedagogical habits that I cannot seem to break, which locks up certain portions of the syllabus. For example, I teach postmodernism in building blocks; I have the students read Ginsberg’s Howl as both a classic poem of marginalized voices and an early postmodern American text. From there, we read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is a natural transition, even though the novel has a lot of aspects I don’t particularly care for. However, it’s another good example of a postmodern text and it fits the course themes really well.

The main reason I keep Kesey’s novel, however, is that it allows me to easily illustrate just what postmodernism looks before I transition to our last text, Angels in America. When we’re finished with Cuckoo’s Nest, I typically give a short lecture about the genesis and hallmarks of postmodernism, its highlights and challenges. But nothing gets the point across more efficiently than showing some clips from the “Stark Raving Dad” episode of The Simpsons. In this episode, Homer is sent to an institution “for the insane” and while there, he meets both Michael Jackson and several denizens of the Cuckoo’s Nest hospital. The Simpsons are, clearly, a great example of postmodern culture, but because the students have spent a few weeks with Randall McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, et al, they very quickly understand the clip and it easily moves us into analysis of postmodern style. Thus, I am loathe to give up my well-used and well-loved shorthand to postmodernism, but it only works if I keep Cuckoo’s Nest.

I am pondering making a more significant change to the first half of my syllabus, though. Despite my last two blog posts, I might ditch Native Son from my syllabus, for now. It’s a hard novel to teach sometimes, and while it is a great example of American Naturalism and a touchstone of Black American fiction, it’s also a difficult novel to wrestle with. I am thinking I might replace it with Ann Petry’s The Street, which is a Naturalist novel written by a Black woman from around the same time period. I came to this novel after hearing papers about it in a conference panel I organized, and I believe it could work. I have a brand new copy to read, and I need to get on that, ASAP. (For the book order, I might order both books, and clarify on the syllabus which they should buy…once I’ve decided!)

The final course is a 300-level elective: American Drama. Now, clearly that’s a broad title and could go in any number of fascinating directions. The course blurb says it will cover key playwrights, but that is more of a suggestion than a rule. So I’ve been thinking of possible ways into the course, considering my own expertise and the possibility the course might not fill. What to order for a textbook. given the wide possibilities the course affords? I think I’ve settled on a course about American political drama, which is both in my wheelhouse and, I think, relevant.

The question of what textbook is something I still need to research a bit. However, once I’ve more firmly decided on my texts, I think the Alexander Street databases available to my students through the campus library will be really helpful. (I probably couldn’t have written my dissertation without these tools.) Alexander Street offers dozens of drama databases that cover nearly the entire history of American theatre, which means my students can access titles I assign for FREE. Thus, I may not need to order a giant anthology or  bunch of play scripts, and that is always nice.

Well, here it is Monday morning, which means I have only two days left to get the order in. I wish all my fellow faculty good luck with their orders!

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