Thursday, September 11, 2014

Teaching YA in College: The Assigned Readings

The view from the back of my classroom.
On teaching YA in college and death by slush pile.

It's been a busy summer, and the Fall is shaping up to be blur of reading, storytelling, and caffeine. This semester, I'm co-teaching an undergraduate course on contemporary adolescent literature at Binghamton University. With just shy of 100 students, it's easily the largest class I've ever taught. Here's the reading list: 

J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

John Knowles, A Separate Peace
Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone
Sonya Hartnett, Surrender
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Susanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy
Veronica Roth, Divergent
and Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics

What books would you assign? Which of the above would you replace?

Leave a comment & let me know. 

The idea is to discuss common themes and craft elements in these works, explore what defines adolescent literature, and talk a bit about symbolism in the context of theory. In earlier years, I'd just be a teaching assistant for this one, but Binghamton is experimenting with a new assistantship model that places a significant amount of the actual instructional burden on the TA (hence, "co-teaching"). I've had the good fortune to be paired with Elizabeth Signorotti, a delightful, enthusiastic, and genre-loving lecturer in BU's English department. 

And the parents?
There are no parents.
Who needs parents
when you've got
Turkish Delight?

Of course, teaching with Elizabeth means I also get to learn from her. During the second class, Elizabeth pointed out a typical difference between children's and adolescent literature, one that I hadn't consciously recognized before. In children's literature, the parents are removed. Peter Pan sweeps the Darlings away from their sleeping parents. The heroes of Narnia evacuated London, leaving their parents behind well before the wardrobe sent them to a magical realm. In these stories, the children discover their own agency, and this requires that Mom and Dad be somewhere else and thus unable to solve the protagonist's problems. 

Things tend to be a bit different in adolescent literature. There, parents often play a pivotal role--and they're usually part of the problem the protagonist has to contend with. Katniss has a crazy mom and no father. Holden Caulfield's distracted parents are a constant source of pressure and impending doom. Even Bella Swan has to contend with her irresponsible mother and overwhelmed father. Unlike in children's literature, adolescent literature features characters who have agency. They just aren't sure what to do with it yet. 

And yes, there are a host of works in children's and adolescent literature that deviate from the archetype I've just described, but it helps to illustrate and identify the underlying themes (discovering agency Vs. deciding what to do with it) that allow us to draw a something like a border (even if it is a blurry, dotted line) between these literary genres.

I'm also taking a writing workshop with Alexi Zentner this semester. He's not a huge fan of genre in his workshops, and our first class included a few rounds of the old "genre writers make money and literary writers make art" discussion. Having said that, Alexi doesn't ban genre in his workshop, he cited John Scalzi, and he's open to conflicting opinions. 

Make good choices?

I'm looking forward to a good semester. 

That is, if I survive my other life choices...

Every time a slush reader
clicks the reject button...
As of early September, I've signed on with Urban Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny Magazine as a submissions editor, which is a fancy way of saying "slush reader." At the same time, as part of my PhD program, I'm doing similar duties for the Harpur Palate literary journal. Basically, this means I'll be reading a lot of manuscripts every week and helping to decide which ones will make it through that gauntlet to arrive safely on the publishing editor's desk. Kind of puts "make good choices" in a new light. More on that adventure to follow. 


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