Literature Program Outcomes

As I noted in my previous post, I am teaching a section of our capstone course “Senior Symposium” in the fall. One feature of this course is a portfolio that counts as part of the course grade, but is later used to assess the program. Those of you who are high school teachers have been living with Common Core learning outcomes and other top down standards for some time now. In higher education, outcomes assessment has been a topic among administrators for more than a decade, but departmental faculty are still pretty much doing their own thing.

I was on the Learning and Teaching Committee, responsible for developing and assessing Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), for many years. At first it was fun and it seemed important. University faculty tend to think seriously about their own courses without ever thinking about what the whole program adds up to. This was a way to make faculty think about the whole.

I came to think about outcomes assessment in terms of four questions:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • How are we doing it?
  • How do we know we are doing it well?
  • How can we improve?

A discussion of just those four questions can help a department come together and function as a team with a vision of the big picture beyond individual courses.

However, administrators tended to want to make things much more complicated than a discussion of four questions. And teaching literature is not quite the same as teaching engineering or science. The administration kept asking for lists of the knowledge and skills we were teaching and matrices that indicated in which courses those skills were introduced, reinforced, and mastered. We called these “lego matrices” because they appeared to assume that a degree was built up out of a series of small pieces. This never worked very well for an English Department. They kept asking for more and more detail and it became clear that many thought that if you had trouble filling out the matrix, you weren’t teaching anything of real substance.

Another problem was that over the years, we kept changing the outcomes and the assessment procedures. That probably surprises high school teachers, who usually don’t have much control over the SLOs or the assessments. However, because we kept changing them, we don’t have a baseline, so we can’t answer the “How can we improve?” question.

As part of the portfolio for the “Senior Symposium,” my students will have to write a cover letter that argues that they have met the current outcomes and point to evidence in the rest of the portfolio, which contains a critical paper and some other materials, including papers from past courses if they want to include them, to support their argument. I created a worksheet including the current outcomes to help them prepare to write this paper:


We used to have an “Oral Communications” outcome that caused most faculty to require student presentations in their courses. Some students reported in exit interviews that this practice had made them much more confident about speaking in front of people. However, other students complained that they didn’t get enough guidance in creating the presentations or enough feedback afterwards. The presentations were also difficult to evaluate on a program-wide basis. Rather than taking steps to improve, the department decided to eliminate the outcome. Again, I am sure high school teachers are surprised. I was too.

However, I do think the above outcomes represent a reasonable set of goals for the program. I also think that having students connect their own experiences to the SLOs and think about work they have produced that demonstrates that they have met them is a very useful culminating activity. Students are often surprised at how much they have learned.

Teaching Haruki Murakami

As a capstone course for the Language and Literature option, my department offers a “Senior Symposium.” The course is designed to allow students to apply everything they have learned in the program to an array of unfamiliar texts and literary works.

The course is usually designed around a study of multiple works by a single author. When I was asked to teach the course, I chose to assign a selection of novels by Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. Murakami is popular, but controversial, in Japan. He is also very popular world-wide, translated into many languages. Do Murakami’s novels and short stories represent achievements of enduring literary merit? Or are they books of the moment, designed for popular appeal? Even in Japan, critics are unsure. And why, exactly, are they so popular? We will explore these questions, among others.

The Kodansha Edition of  Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami’s first novel, written on a whim and submitted to a contest. The cover shows The Rat sitting and watching a beacon, thinking about the woman he is seeing, like Gatsby watching the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

My late wife was an early fan of Murakami when she was in college in Yokohama and his novels were being serialized in literary magazines in Japan. She gave me English translations of his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, published by Kodansha in Japan before he became internationally famous with the publication in the U.S. of Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase. I also became an early fan.

Along with Wild Sheep Chase, the three early novels are often called “The Rat Trilogy.” They all feature the same nameless narrator, his friend “The Rat,” and J’s bar. Hear the Wind Sing is the novel Murakami wrote on a whim and sent to a contest, which he won. Pinball, 1973 is a sequel, also written while he was still running a jazz bar. In a strange way, the narrator, The Rat, and J of J’s bar, all seem to be versions of Murakami himself. In the course, we will start with Wild Sheep Chase.

Typical Characters

A Murakami novel usually has a first person narrator, often nameless, who calls himself “boku,” an informal first-person pronoun usually used by young boys. The narrator lives a relatively nondescript life on the margins of Japanese society, but often experiences visions of another world through powerful dreams, or through such actions as taking an elevator to the wrong floor, opening the wrong door, or even through climbing down a well. He has often lost his wife or girlfriend and doggedly seeks her, often encountering other versions of her in the process. The boundary between the “real” world and the other world is variously permeable. Characters who are dead in the “real” world often continue to exist in the other world. Some characters, such as the Sheep Man in Wild Sheep Chase, exist primarily in the other world.

The narrator generally lacks affect, and responds to extraordinary and unexplainable events by reverting to daily routines, such as making coffee, drinking a beer, or cooking spaghetti. The only unique characteristic of the narrator is that he loves jazz (sometimes American pop music, sometimes classical) and usually has an encyclopedic knowledge of the recordings.

Though the writing is rather flat emotionally (though often evocative of emotions in the reader), Murakami novels are laden with symbols, portents, historical anecdotes, and odd metaphors. Common themes include friendship, love, marriage, divorce, sexuality, aging, identity, boundaries and borders, sanity, and responsibility. Some later novels deal with aspects of recent Japanese history, including World War II.

Not Quite Japan

The world of the novels has the geography of Japan, but is not quite Japan. The real Japan is full of salarymen in suits and office ladies in fashionable attire hurrying to and from work. If a car is seen parked on the street with a small dent in it, passersby assume that it must belong to a foreigner. Maintaining appearances is an essential aspect of social life. However, Murakami’s characters are more likely to wear blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and drive old, dented cars. They are often in-between jobs. They are odd-balls, just barely getting by. They often favor American products and cultural artifacts, such as beer, music, and films. They don’t seem very Japanese. And yet, they are.

Non-fiction and Other Novels

We will also read sections of Underground, Murakami’s non-fiction account of interviews with the victims and the perpetrators of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. This book is filled with stories from real Japanese people, in their own words, describing their experiences on that fateful day. The ordinary Japanese in these accounts are rather different from the typical Murakami characters in the novels.

For further contrast, this time we will also read a couple of novels by Japanese women, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and Convenience Store Woman by by Sayaka Murata. The Memory Police is a take on 1984 in which the government decrees that certain “useless” things must be forgotten. The police have some sort of mind control that causes most people to forget the forbidden things entirely. Early in the novel, birds disappear. Some people can still remember the forbidden things, but those who can are tracked down and arrested.

Convenience Store Woman is a hilarious, but sad novella about a woman who just likes running a 7-Eleven or a Lawson’s, both of which are ubiquitous in Japan. She doesn’t want a husband or a better job or anything else, but just to work in a little store. It is what brings her joy. Of course, no one in her family approves.

The students will bring everything they know about literary interpretation to these novels. They will demonstrate this knowledge and these skills in writing about these works as a culminating experience. I am looking forward to working with them.

Update (2/25/20): I created a sort of Murakami Bingo Card for students to fill out as they read each novel. It is designed to help them notice commonalities between the novels and see how his technique develops over time.

Teaching Online in Fall 2020

I am teaching English 3150 “Advanced Expository Writing” in the fall. I have taught it several times before, but never in a completely online asynchronous situation. When students enrolled in it, it was listed as face-to-face. It is still three months before classes start, but I wanted to contact the students to make sure that they knew what was in store, so I sent the following email to the class:

Dear English 3150 Students:

You recently got an email informing you that the course you signed up for has been switched to an online format. We had to do this because of decisions made by the Chancellor’s Office and Cal Poly Pomona to protect students, faculty, and staff from Covid-19. It is disappointing, but is probably a wise decision.

I want to tell you a bit about how English 3150 will be designed. During the summer, all faculty will be taking an online course about best practices for teaching online, so this may change a little as I learn new techniques, but here are my plans at the moment.

The course will be designed around the theme “How Life Has Changed.” I have Covid-19 in mind, but the theme could go beyond that. I will produce podcasts and videos on the course content and provide feedback on the submitted projects. We will also have weekly Zoom meetings.

Throughout the course, you will work together in small writing groups. Your group will be able to form their own discussion places on Blackboard and elsewhere to give each other feedback, advice, and encouragement. You will get to know your group very well.

In the first part of the course we will work on style with exercises, experiments, and other activities designed to stretch your stylistic repertoire. This will result in a personal narrative about your own experiences of change in the world and in your life.

In the second part of the course we will focus on rhetorical strategies, argumentation and persuasion. We will explore different organizational patterns and ways of persuading audiences. In this part of the course you will write an op-ed arguing for a particular change or course of action in how we do things. You might be writing about employment, racial disparity, medical issues, social practices, protests, supply chains, scarcity, art, literature, technology, politics etc., anything that is interesting to you.

In the final part of the course you will begin a research project that will look like investigative journalism. You will choose an issue and go on a research expedition to take a deep dive and follow links and connections to discover the truth about the matter. You will do this through online library databases and other online resources.

I have several blog sites that I maintain. I plan to convert one of them into a sort of online magazine. In the final weeks of the course, your group will decide which pieces–the narrative, the op-ed, or the investigative piece, one from each writer–should go up on the public website. At this point you will be functioning as editors, choosing and revising pieces for a new audience.

That’s the plan so far. I look forward to working with you in the fall.

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

I learned a lot in the past three months about teaching online. The first question is whether the course should be synchronous, with the students meeting online with the professor through Zoom or another platform at the designated class times, or asynchronous, with online lectures and online work to be done according to the student’s schedule. In the spring, I kept my graduate seminar in teaching writing synchronous through Zoom and Slack meetings every Tuesday evening, as originally scheduled. This worked well. It was a small class with engaged, well-prepared students. They all finished the work.

My Genre Fiction course became asynchronous. I created podcasts, and at the end a video using Kaltura, a video capture and hosting app. I had blogs and discussion boards. I felt I was losing track of some students so I started doing a weekly voluntary Zoom meeting that attracted pretty much the same seven students every week. A number of students were not participating in the discussion boards, so I created alternative extra credit assignments. I ignored due dates. By the end, I lost only two students. One other student got a D. The rest passed and there were many A’s because of the extra credit and the relaxed due dates.

The upshot? A synchronous course provides structure and can build community. However, student work and family schedules under lockdown or semi-lockdown can vary widely. An asynchronous course provides much more flexibility. My informal surveys of students were inconclusive. Some students prefer synchronous, some asynchronous. What was clear was that they preferred face-to-face meetings.

I am going to go asychronous with voluntary weekly Zoom meetings. In the spring, these turned into group office hour sessions that were as helpful for me as for the students.

Discussion Boards?

The other thing I learned was that students hate discussion boards. In a face-to-face class, there are always five to seven students who are eager to participate, while the majority of the students prefer to sit back and listen to smart people talk. Even in a face-to-face course, I usually have an online discussion board of some kind, but it is usually low stakes. However, the discussion board in the newly online Genre Fiction course was high stakes because it was replacing the class meetings. It became a big part of the grade. I had multiple discussion questions for each week. Many students listened to the podcasts, read my notes, but did not post to the discussion boards. I felt that a major component of my teaching was simply not working.

Story Response Sheets

However, I found that students liked another aspect of the course, something I called the “Story Response Sheet” or SRS. This sheet asks questions about themes, characters, exposition devices, plot, point of view, style, and other aspects of story craft. Then it asks for a rating on the “Read-O-Meter” from 1 (Totally Dreadful) to 10 (Totally Awesome) and a paragraph about why they gave the story that rating. They happily turned these in and reported that filling them out caused them to think about aspects of the stories they would not normally think about.


In fall 2020 I intend to continue to use a discussion board, but I will make it mostly about personal responses–things they noticed, things they liked, things they didn’t like, things that surprised them, etc. I will use something like the SRS assignment for more substantive questions. Those will be submitted to me and will not be available to other students.

Fall 2020 will be an adventure for the students and for me. All faculty will take an online course in teaching online starting in June, so I will have more ideas by the end of the summer. I will report on those too.

The Two Fallacies That Aren’t

When I was an undergraduate English Major at Cal State L.A. in the 1970’s, most of the faculty in the English Department had been trained as New Critics. New Criticism was focused on the text of the literary work itself to the exclusion of historical context, authorial biography, authorial intention, or any kind of reader response. The practitioners of New Criticism called it “objective criticism” because they wanted to exclude factors that were either unknowable or subjective. Their method was a close reading of the text, looking at the topic and theme of the work and such formal elements as ambiguity, irony, metaphor, symbolism, imagery and other devices.

New Criticism dominated English departments from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, so my professors were already having some questions about it. However, the practice of close reading continues and has even been officially revived in the Common Core. Two other concepts remain as well, concepts I consider pernicious. These are what Wimsatt and Beardsley called “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy.” My complaint about these phrases is more about the rhetorical effect of the word “fallacy” than the concepts themselves.

The Intentional Fallacy

Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that “The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (468). They do not want to ask, “What was the author trying to do?” and then “Was he or she successful in accomplishing this intention?” Even if they could ask the author, as they could in the case of T.S. Eliot, they do not wish to because to do so “would not be a critical inquiry.” They make a strong distinction between evidence internal to the text of the work and external evidence that might be found in the author’s biography or journals and letters. We could ask, if Charlotte Bronte writes a novel about a governess, does it matter that she herself was a governess”? For Wimsatt and Beardsley, that fact is irrelevant to the text.

From many other points of view, the fact that the Bronte sisters did indeed work as governesses and were concerned about the existential conditions of such work is indeed relevant and interesting. That is why I object to the word “fallacy.” There is nothing wrong with bracketing authorial intention and other matters external to the text in order to focus more closely on the text itself. But to stigmatize attention to these external matters as a “fallacy” is ideological. It is to brand all such inquiries as illogical from the outset.

The Affective Fallacy

In the introduction to their article on the “Affective Fallacy,” Wimsatt and Beardsley state their definitions:

The Intentional Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its origins,
a special case of what is known to philosophers as the Genetic Fallacy. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and ends in biography and relativism. The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does) . . . It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear. (31)

Note that in both cases what they are concerned about is deriving “the standard of criticism.” A New Critic attempts to provide an indisputable definitive reading of the work. The standard they strive toward is one of scientific certainty. They want to be able to say, “This is what it means.” Of course, in order to do that you have to leave out the squishy uncertain parts, such as what the author was thinking and how unpredictable readers might respond.

A Rhetorical Critic

Of course for a rhetorical critic, the New Critical approach leaves out all of the interesting parts. Such a critic sees the work as a rhetorical act, constructed by an author in order to have particular effects on readers. Author, text and reader are all equally important. Authors write for readers and so readers influence authorial decisions. Authors and readers are situated in contexts that are external to the text. Taken together, the two New Critical fallacies neutralize and render motionless all of this rhetorical interaction.


I rather like reading New Critics. They are attentive readers of literary works. But these two “fallacies” are fallacies only if one completely buys into New Critical dogma. It is unfortunate that we continue to react to them as if they were true. It cuts off so many other interesting approaches.

The most pernicious aspect of this terminology is the effect it has on pedagogy and the enjoyment of literature. For any reader, the first concern is how he or she responds to the work. We want to make connections to our own lives and feelings. We ask questions such as

  • Why do I identify with this character?
  • What does this character tell me about myself?
  • How does this situation relate to my life?
  • What would I do in that situation?
  • How would I feel if that happened to me?

It is questions like this that lead to engagement and the enjoyment of literature. These are starting points for real readers, who might think that a work is “good” because they engage with it. But unfortunately, the “Affective Fallacy” has taught us to be suspicious of engaging the reader’s emotions. It is a great loss.

Works Cited

W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1946), pp. 468-488

W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Affective Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Winter, 1949), pp. 31-55

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer


Rachel, a scavenger in a burned out city in a dystopian world, finds a houseplant-sized piece of glowing biotech tangled in the fur of Mord, a giant flying bear who terrorizes the human inhabitants. She lives in an abandoned, partially-ruined apartment complex called “The Balcony Cliffs,” with Wick, a genius biotech designer. She takes her salvaged biotech home to find that it grows and learns and becomes a sentient being she calls “Borne.”

This science fiction novel has a hint of Frankenstein about it. Mord was created by the “Company,” along with other monsters, but they lost control of him. Is Borne another Frankenstein? Will we have Frankenstein versus Frankenstein?

I used to teach Finch, another Jeff Vandermeer novel in this course. Finch is about a noir Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow-style detective trying to solve a double murder in a city run by “Gray Caps,” fungal alien beings who came up out of the ground. It’s a science fiction detective novel. However, it went out of print and used copies are very expensive. I’ll bring it back if it ever goes back in print. But my students enjoyed Borne.

As with Stranger in Olondria, I made podcasts for each section of the book. However, these podcasts are organized a bit differently. I focused on character development and issues rather than doing a chronological walk through of the reading. I also stopped putting a list of questions at the end because the students felt that they had to answer the questions rather than engaging in their own speculations. The questions are still there, but they are scattered throughout the presentation.

I may be teaching this again a year from now. I imagine that for now the podcasts and questions could also be used for a book club sort of discussion. The podcasts contain spoilers, so it is best to read the section before listening to the podcast or reading the notes. The notes were created to script the podcasts, but the podcasts often contain additional comments that come to me on the fly.

Borne Part 1, 3-56


Borne Part 2, 59-193


Borne Part 3a, 197-264 (Part 3 has been divided in half)


Borne Part 3b, 264-323


A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar


One of the novels my genre fiction class is reading is A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, a Somali-American who has taught in Sudan, Egypt, and California. She has received or been nominated for numerous literary awards. The novel is about Jevick of Tyom, an islander whose father grows pepper. Jevick’s father is a wealthy, respected leader in the community. Once a year, he travels to Bain, the capitol of Olondria, to sell his pepper. After one of these voyages, he brings Jevick a tutor, Lunre, a scholar from Bain. Jevick learns to read and to love books, and dreams of Olondria. His father dies suddenly, and Jevick goes to Bain to sell pepper. On the boat, he briefly encounters Jissavet, a girl with a genetic illness that causes her hair to turn red. This is a fatal encounter that immerses Jevick in a struggle between two religious cults, the cult of Avalei, the goddess of love and death, and the cult of the Stone, supported by the king but not the people.

The novel is rich with beautiful sentences and sensory detail. Because I am teaching online, I made a podcast for each of the six parts of the novel. I am including the podcasts and my notes below. Each podcast has questions for discussion. I highly recommend the novel. The religious and political conflicts are not unlike our own, though the world of the novel is very different and Jevick is a hero of an unusual sort.

I suppose that outside of my course, these materials could be used for a book club discussion, or in a different class. My podcasts may contain spoilers, so it would be best to read the appropriate section of the novel before listening. On the other hand, if you don’t intend to read the novel, or are not sure, the podcasts may be interesting, or may inspire you to want to read it.

Because they were created out of the need for converting to an online format during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are references to this difficult situation.

Book One: The Wind of Miracles


Book Two: The City of Bain


Book Three: The Holy City


Book Four: The Breath of Angels


Book Five: A Garden of Spears


Book Six: Southward


Genre Fiction: Week 11

We are in spring break at the moment, though the concept of spring break seems meaningless under these circumstances. I am continuing to create podcasts and grade assignments. Next week, we will finish up the stories from Peter Beagle’s Secret History of Fantasy. After that, each student will choose one of the two novels I have assigned, A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (who I found out yesterday is an Assistant Professor in English at our sister campus, CSU Channel Islands) or Bourne by Jeff Vandermeer. Because I am letting them choose, I will essentially be teaching two novels simultaneously! The prerecorded podcasts should make that possible, but I hope to finish the podcasts for Stranger during this break so that I can record the podcasts for Bourne next week.

Week 11 Podcasts and Notes

Peter Beagle, “Sleight of Hand”

Peter Beagle is the editor of the collection and the author of this story, “Sleight of Hand.” He is most famous for his fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, about a unicorn trying to find out what happened to the rest of her kind, aided by a powerful but somewhat incompetent wizard, Schmendrick. “Sleight of Hand” is about a woman who makes a fatal decision that accidentally results in the death of her husband and daughter, but is given a chance to remake that decision by a mysterious magician.

Here are the notes.

Robert Holdstock, “Mythago Wood”

This novella was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (to which I have subscribed at various points in my life. The magazine, unlike most in these genres, is still in publication, though I no longer have a subscription). Holdstock later turned it into a novel, and then wrote numerous other pieces in the same universe. The story is set in Ryhope Wood, a three square mile tract of original, primeval oak forest. The Huxley family lives in Oak Lodge, on the edge of the forest. The father believes that the forest contains wild boar and manifestations of ancient heroes. When he dies, one of the sons takes up his explorations. It is a memorable, haunting story, grounded in a theory of Jungian archetypes.

Here are the notes.

Kiji Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

A woman buys a monkey show for $1.00, including 26 monkeys of various types and a tour bus. The monkey act climaxes with the entire troop of monkeys vanishing from a suspended bathtub. They return hours later, in ones and twos. She doesn’t know how they vanish or where they go. The story explores the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life.

Here are the notes.

The students, at least most of them, seem to enjoy the podcasts. The discussions on the discussion boards have been interesting. I think what is key to this is that I am not telling them what the stories mean. I am pointing things out, drawing attention to stylistic features and writerly decisions, and asking questions that could have many possible answers. They seem to feel free to express their opinions, which means they are engaged with the stories.

I read their mini-proposals yesterday. All of them want to write stories rather than a critical paper. More on that later.

Genre Fiction: Week 10

The combination of podcasts plus discussion board seems to be working well for some students, but I have about eight students who have yet to participate. Our students are overwhelmed with all the changes. Some have contacted me to say so. I think most instructors are using Zoom to conduct pretty traditional synchronous classes online. That means that students, who are usually taking five classes, are using a lot of Zoom. My asynchronous podcast and discussion board model give them more flexibility, but is different.

There are always students who are reluctant to express themselves in class. Some are also reluctant to express opinions on a discussion board that other students can see. I think this is part of the problem. I emailed the non-participants today. I will follow up.

Here are this week’s story podcasts. I try to do them in such a way that you could get something out of them even if you have not read the story, but if you want to read the stories, they are in the collection The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter Beagle.

“The Edge of the World” by Michael Swanwick

This story asks the question, “What if the Earth were flat and had an edge?” A group of teenagers climb down the cliff face of the edge of the world.


“Super Goat Man” by Jonathan Lethem

A story about a third-rate failed super hero who is also a college professor.


“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” by Susanna Clarke

A very funny short story set in the same world as Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.


“The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler

If you had god-like power to make humans better, what would you do?



Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 1

My “Genre Fiction” class (click link for syllabus) is designed to be either an ordinary literature course or a creative writing course, depending on how the student wants to approach it. As a final project, students can choose to write a critical paper or a short story. However, most students in the past have written stories.

At this point in the semester, we have completed our exploration of detective fiction, reading Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan-Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Walter Moseley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. We have begun the fantasy section of the course, reading two Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Red Nails,” plus Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We are now reading a collection of short stories, The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by noted fantasy author Peter Beagle.

Throughout the course, students have been doing writing exercises from Ursula K. LeGuin’s wonderful writing book, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. We have been discussing plot, characters, world creation, style, point of view, and other issues in story craft.

Now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take our class online. For Tuesday, March 17, we are discussing two stories. I will post podcasts about them and the outlines I used to create the podcasts below.

Stephen King, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” Notes

Neil Gaiman, “Snow, Glass, Apples”

“Snow, Glass, Apples” Notes

We are also reading Chapter 9 “Indirect Narration, or What Tells” in the Le Guin book. The first exercise in this chapter asks the students to write a page or two of dialogue between two characters without any description so that everything the reader knows about who they are comes from what they say. Students will post the results of this activity to their writing blogs.

Will We Have to Move Online?

As the novel coronavirus Covid-19 spreads throughout the world, festivals, conferences, corporate meetings, and schools, colleges and universities are shutting down. Educational institutions are considering moving all instruction off campus and online for a period of time until the crisis passes. My campus has not decided to close at this point, but we have received numerous emails that imply that it is a possibility in the near future.

Many of my colleagues teach classes in the traditional way, without online tools. I am a bit more prepared. My courses are neither hybrid nor online, but all of them are “web-enabled” in that I use our course management system, Blackboard, to host documents, discussion boards, blogs, and group projects. I also use the online gradebook. I have also been supervising Teaching Associates using the video conferencing app, Zoom, for which the campus has a license. Zoom is very easy to use.

My “Teaching Writing” seminar is small, so if I move it online I can use Zoom to hold synchronous class meetings. Combined with the tools on Blackboard, this should work fine.

My “Genre Fiction” class is probably too big for Zoom. For that course, I plan to use a combination of specialized discussion boards and podcasts. Our undergraduates do not always have internet access at home, so we have to be careful about bandwidth. That is one reason I want to avoid video lectures.

I record a lot of music, so I have good microphones and other equipment. However, I am new to podcasts. I tried an earlier one here on Stasis Theory.  I got some good feedback on that, but it wasn’t entirely successful. Today, as an experiment, I did a short podcast on a story for Genre Fiction, “The Barnum Museum” by Steven Millhauser.

I think my students will find this helpful. I have asked them for feedback.

I hope that we don’t have to close the campus. However, I think that the virus is beyond containment at this point and that we are in the mitigation phase. That means that we have to slow the spread so that our health care system is not overwhelmed. Closing the campus may in fact be helpful in that regard.