How do you tackle "literature" university classes?

Currently starting a new uni job, and just found out that I’ve got to come up with ideas for 3 classes to teach. The problem is, I was brainstorming many that I thought I could whip up quickly-business English, business writing, applied computer English, tourism English, current trends in American pop psychology. I was aiming for something to increase the students general skills, and to try to make it interesting and/or practical as well.
My boss, who is new as well, keeps pointing out that this is a “literature” department. That is, I think she is wanting more of your high-brow literature classes that you might find in a U.S./Canadian/British literature department, such as 18th Century literature, Shakespeare, 20th Century Feminist literature, etc. But from having some good experience with Taiwanese students, I know that the majority of them simply do not have adequate English skills to be able to read this stuff and process it, let alone be able to discuss it in English. And my Mandarin skills certainly do not approach the level of being able to to do it in Chinese.

Anybody been in this situation? What did you do?

Thanks again!

I’ve done this before and the solution is focus on relatively easy to read texts. That is, most everything non-20th century is out. No Faulkner or Woolf or Joyce (unless it’s something from the Dubliners). The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway - yes. Contemporary fiction written in a Raymond Carver minimalist style - yes. Poetry - Langston Hughes, yes; T.S. Eliot, no.

Don’t try to tackle novels, only short stories. About one short story for discussion a week should be more than enough for the students to handle. Perhaps you can try and teach some works of great literature written for children - a solid book of classical mythology, such as Edith Wharton’s, can be fun. You know your Zeus and Thor, you can keep them entertained explaining the great Western legends to the class - they really eat that kind of thing up.

Seconding mod lang’s recommendation, I would suggest author’s like O. Henry, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jack London. These authors are relatively light, have interesting stories, and are pretty easy to read and understand. They’re the equivalent of the US junior high school reading and should be no problem for TW university level students to read and discuss.

You might want to consider the Norton Anthology of American Literature as a basic text book of short stories for the class.

Mark Twain?

You could try teaching them about literature - give them a basic overview of important themes in American literature, for example. Only give them easy and short pieces to actually read. You can go over one poem in class and explain it well - this is actually more interesting than just reading it at home, and will give them a feeling of accomplishment when they are actually able, with your help, to understand something that at first glance probably looked impenetrable.
Keep it basic. They will probably know much less about literature than you are expecting.
I also think that textbooks and anthologies made for native speakers of English will be far too difficult - I tried to help one of my language exchange partners with his Introduction to Western Culture class last year, and they used a Norton anthology as the textbook. It was hopeless - he couldn’t understand anything, even though his oral English was above-average.

How about modern plays that they teach in Junior high like “The Glass Menagerie” or “Death of a Salesman”

There might be problems in understanding all the colloquialism, but the sentences are shorter and there are much fewer pages.

I have used Hemmingway, and it has been very successful. After intensive reading and discussion of the techniques, I had them write a description of an MRT station in a Hemmingway-esque style. They were all excellent, and more important, the students themselves were really proud of their achievement.

I did a websearch and found the following 4 books for teaching literature to ESL classes:

That last one, Ideas and Issues, is the only title I’ve seen here in Taiwan (Caves Books). The other ones are available through Alta Books mail order.

These books might be a little advanced for your students, but you could have them look up new vocabulary before class.

Try this one for video of people reading their favorite poems:

Favorite Poem Project

And Onestop Magazine has an article on teaching literature:

Using Literature in teaching English as a foreign / second language (1)

Using Literature in teaching English as a foreign / second language (2)

I am handling this semester as a little bit of everything course. I worked alot with myth and the students really enjoy reading basic lit stuff when the explanations are coherent. It’s supposed to be a novel course, so I’ve decided to use Heart of Darkness, Slaughterhouse 5, and one of the great SF novels, The Stars My Destination. I am also using the gospels of Matt and Luke, and the Odyssey, since they are foundational. I am showing two flicks laden with various Christian and other myths, The Truman Show and The Abyss. I am using excerpts from some of Joseph Campbell’s books and other Hero stuff. I’ll let you guys know how it works…

Sounds good… Some more ideas for you:

Conan Doyle - they will be familiar with the character of Holmes and you can use it for a discussion on Victorian England and popular culture (maybe give them some recommended wider reading such as Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde). Pretty short too.

Edward Lear. This could help them be creative with their English and would be pretty fun to teach… Simple and accessible poetry. As someone sugested above, you could ask them to write in Lear’s style… might work, might not…

Children’s literature… something with adult themes but accessible for children… I just enjoyed Peter Pan and they might like Around the World in 80 Days (unless they saw the movie! :unamused: )

More contemporay stuff… Graham Greene, maybe The Quiet American… they can compare the movie and compare British and American and Asian culture.

Something “blockbusting” and pageturning like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code might be interesting to teach.

And the Jopseph Campbell idea is pretty good… don’t forget to show them Star Wars… :sunglasses:

Not sure how well The Odyssey will go down…

You could give them “some” short Old English poetry… Its almost impossible for English speakers to understand, but I’ve shown it to a few Taiwanese and they are facinated at how alien it looks… You’ll need to give them the translation to of course…

You should give them at least one play too. Unless you go for the contemporary “Death of a Salesman” route suggested above, my idea would be to use a farce, maybe George Farquar?

I’ll post any more ideas if I think of any…


My colleague used Death of a Salesman and the kids hated it. They loved The Catcher in the Rye, though. I made them read the Odyssey in Chinese and they enjoyed that too. I found cheap $99 editions.

I’ve found the book “Chapter & Verse” to be pretty good as a core text. You can find it at Caves. It covers examples of literature from A (Asimov) to Y (Yeats).