Friday, December 30, 2016

Beyond Electives: Rethinking African American literature courses



Since 2010 at SIUE, my colleagues and I have offered 90 African American literature classes. Or put another way, we've offered 15 African American literature courses each year for the past 6 years. During that time period, we devoted more classes to African American literature than most English departments in the country. While I’m proud of that distinction, I’ve recently began thinking about ways to redirect some of our efforts.

For the most part, the courses we offered counted as “electives” for English majors and Black Studies minors. Only our Toni Morrison course fulfills a major requirement for English, and our Introduction to African American literature course fulfills a requirement for the Black Studies minor. We recently completed the paperwork so now our Intro Af-Am lit course fulfills a lower-level requirement for English.

For a couple of decades now, the seven African American literature courses that we offered on a regular were considered only optional. Moving forward, we’re taking steps to have African American literary studies courses count beyond the level of electives. Would it be possible, for instance, to earn a degree in English while taking primarily African American literature courses? Based on the number of classes we offer, such a possibility is within reach at my university.

Elevating African American literature courses in the curriculum will shift the makeup of the English major. Just as important, I’m hoping we can take this opportunity to rethink the content and roles of African American literature classes. What I’ve learned teaching African American literature as elective courses over the last several years is that students prefer to move beyond the conventional holy trinity of literary texts: novels, short stories, and poems.

I’ve recently taught Af-Am lit courses focusing on blog entries and audio recordings. My courses on rap music have gone well, and I’m often looking for ways to include technology in my classes. We might also consider something else: there are far more potential students to pursue African American literary studies than there are jobs. So why not spend class time highlighting and exploring careers beyond typical teaching jobs in literature?

African American literary studies can’t address all the issues our students face, but we can still rethink or reposition our courses in useful ways.

Related:
A notebook reflecting on reading and blogging in 2016
African American Literature @ SIUE

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