Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Brit Lit Survey:
A Course Proposal

Elizabeth Child
Assistant Professor of English
Trinity College, Washington, D.C.
Spring 2004

Course rationale and description:
The course I describe below speaks to the challenges of making a space and making a case for eighteenth-century literature in the curriculum of a small English department in a small liberal arts college.

At Trinity College, a Catholic women’s college in Washington, D.C. that serves primarily minority students, undergraduates tend to first encounter eighteenth-century literature via a survey of medieval and early modern British literature. This course, called “Major British Authors I,” in many cases constitutes the only exposure that our students, including some English majors, will have to the eighteenth-century period.

In the past, treatment of eighteenth-century texts has been limited in our survey course for several reasons. First, the eighteenth-century period falls at the end of the chronological span covered by the survey as a whole and thus tends to fall victim to time constraints. Second, texts chosen to represent the eighteenth century in major anthologies can be difficult for non-specialists to teach. Finally, anthologies in general tend to shortchange the novel as a genre, and the eighteenth-century novel in particular can seem like a daunting addition to an already full agenda.

Keeping these challenges in mind, I am currently in the process of revamping the course for our department. The version I am developing of “Major Authors” attempts to rectify the second- class status of eighteenth-century literature in the survey context. In so doing, I hope also to attract new students to the English major, to make a case for the relevance of pre-modern British literature to the lives of students distanced from that material by geography, time, and race, and finally, to spur enrollment in upper- level period courses.

My proposal structures the Brit lit survey into three distinct units, each with its own title: “Knights in Shining Armor,” “A Pack of Scoundrels,” and “The Gentle Reader.” These titles create a mini-narrative around each unit by offering a central organizing conceit that is easily accessible even to the literary novice and that offers an immediate platform for comparisons and contrasts. Each unit includes texts from the medieval, Renaissance, and Restoration/eighteenth century periods. The Longman Anthology of British Literature serves as our primary text, chosen because of its inclusion of non-canonical texts and its excellent editorial materials. A prototype syllabus below details the flow of each unit.

The three-part structure is intended to both promote student success in the course and to recuperate eighteenth-century literature as a vital element of the Brit lit survey. In terms of student success, the tripartite structure is intended to help students cope with the problem of academic stamina. Frequently, Trinity’s women bring energy and insight to the early weeks of class but then begin to flag under the various pressures of less-than-rigorous high school training, heavy reading loads, and many extra-curricular responsibilities such as work and childrearing. This course proposes that students can handle better, in terms of time management and energy, three short, intense, clearly delineated academic units than they can the looser structure of a whole semester. Also, the course-within- a-course approach means that each unit culminates in a Restoration or eighteenth century text, giving that material a position of emphasis rather than the role of denouement to a semester-long course of study.

In designing the course, I was, and am, concerned about the consequences of abandoning a strictly sequential chronological organization, especially since an understanding of periodization is one of the course goals. To address this concern, the course retains chronological organization within each individual unit. My hope is that revisiting a particular literary period at several different moments in the semester (for example, by discussing Gulliver’s Travels in weeks six and seven, The Beggar’s Opera in week 11, and Turkish Embassy Letters in week 14) will actually work to reinforce students’ grasp of literary periods, aided by the effect of multiple, overlapping lectures and discussions aimed at contextualizing specific works.

Course design and requirements:
The course begins with “Knights in Shining Armor,” a unit in which each text presents a nominal “hero,” sometimes on a pedestal, other times fallen from grace. The “Knights” unit in the sample syllabus below comprises Beowulf, Othello, Oroonoko, and excerpts from Gulliver’s Travels. As a point of departure for the course as a whole, the idea of the hero as a paradigmatic mainstay of literature in English is pedagogically useful for numerous reasons, including the concreteness of the hero figure, its currency in popular culture, its ambiguities, and its topicality.

Primarily using close reading as a methodology for discussing and writing about literature, we investigate the codes of conduct revealed by each text. Students are encouraged to examine the qualities (moral and otherwise) embodied by the putative heroes of each text, the relationship of character to action, the phenomenon of the anti-hero, the role of gender in the construction of the heroic persona, and the tension between social and individual mores and beliefs.

By the end of the unit, students should have an understanding of major genres such as epic poetry, Aristotelian tragedy, prose fiction, satire, and the novel, as well as a vocabulary for discussing literary techniques. Assignments for this unit include the first of several “position papers,” which are short, informal essays (one to two pages) in which the student interprets one particular aspect of a text (a character’s action, a particular line of dialogue, a recurring image, and so on). The position papers are intended to help students move away from the summative modes of writing with which they may feel the most comfortable and move instead into a more analytical rhetoric.

Students are also responsible in this section for memorizing and performing a short excerpt (eight to ten lines) from one of the soliloquies in Othello. This assignment, which requires the use of at least one prop as part of the delivery, is designed to increase both students’ skills of close reading, by requiring them to engage with a text at the word and line levels, and their confidence, by offering them an outlet for their sense of drama and personal style. The culminating assignment for this unit builds on the position paper and soliloquy by asking students to prepare a four-page, thesis-driven close reading of an excerpt from one of the unit’s texts.

In the second unit, “A Pack of Scoundrels,” we turn from virtue to vice, investigating voices not from the Hall but rather from the haunts of the underworld. Here, instead of heroes, we encounter the evil, the poor, the mad, the criminal, the desperate. The syllabus below proposes “The Pardoner’s Tale,” Doctor Faustus, The Case of Mary Carleton, The Beggar’s Opera, and A Rake’s Progress for this unit. These texts as a group should prompt discussions of how literature is both static and transformative: that is, how it both mirrors social truths and serves as an agent of change. To that end, we discuss the charisma of the criminal persona and the disorientation of recognizing in the society of outcasts not an inversion but a reflection of our own social structures.

As part of this investigation, we also compare and contrast the role of different genres as vehicles for satire, learn some of the elements of versification, continue to discuss the representation of gender and sexuality in literature, and debate the importance of literary elements such as point of view in creating meaning. Like “Knights in Shining Armor,” this unit speaks directly to Trinity College’s emphasis on social justice and moral action as central concerns in a liberal arts education. The unit culminates in a four-page comparison and contrast paper.

The final segment of the survey, “The Gentle Reader,” shifts our focus from character and theme to questions of authorial self-representation, the fluctuating boundaries between private and public voice, and reader reception. In reading assorted lyric poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries, excerpts from Pepys’ diary, and selections from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Spectator, The Female Spectator, The Tatler and The Rambler, we ask questions about the “I” in literary texts: who is speaking, to whom, and why?

For example, in this unit, students compare and contrast the ways male and female writers construct a language of desire in lyric poetry. This section also introduces to students the topic of print culture and its effect on the circulation of ideas in the Restoration and eighteenth century, including the rise of the periodical press and the effect of middle-class literacy on the evolution of English literature.

The final writing assignment for both unit and course is an “eportfolio.” In an effort to invoke the novelty and ingenuity of the eighteenth-century periodicals with which the course concludes, students are asked to use Photoshop and other campus resources to create a novel form of publication of their own. In this assignment, students form into editorial boards and collaborate to create a CD in which they reflect upon and respond to course materials via several different media.

The eportfolio might include a video of a soliloquy performance by the student, a recording of sonnets set to melodies borrowed from the Blues tradition, a photograph of an original work of art inspired by one of the survey readings, and a written review of a film or stage version of a drama from one of the periods studied during the semester. Students are also encouraged to include revisions of their earlier writing assignments in the eportfolio. Work on the eportfolio begins early in the semester. The syllabus devotes two full class meetings to this project and students are also required to attend at least one extracurricular workshop.

The goals of this assignment are several. First, the eportfolio concludes the course in a very eighteenth-century way, by engaging students in the concept of the circulation of ideas through novel modalities. Second, the project is intended to provide a welcome respite from long end-of-semester papers, while still requiring much thought about the content of the course and much hard work to produce. Finally, the eportfolio will provide many students with new technological skills. Such skills tend to enhance students’ sense of their own competence. The project also offers the English program a potential recruiting tool, given that many Trinity women are likely to perceive technological expertise as more immediately “marketable” than a familiarity with, say, Chaucer.

By the time the survey concludes, students are expected to be able to speak with confidence about the various historical terms used to organize literary study (medieval, the Renaissance, the Restoration, the Enlightenment, etc.), to situate individual works within these periods as well as within their literary genres, to use literary terminology correctly, to identify formal elements of texts, and to write persuasive, thesis-driven analyses of texts based on close readings. The course concludes with a final exam.

The course I describe here does not focus on a specialized eighteenth-century topic. However, I hope that it speaks to both my own professional situation as an eighteenth-centuryist teaching as a generalist in a program weighted heavily towards modern, Americanist literature and also the teaching reality of many of my colleagues in other institutions. I have taught a version of this course once already and found that I lost no students late in the semester and that most of the class performed very well on the final exam. I sometimes miss the luxury of teaching exclusively in the area of my original expertise. On the other hand, I cherish the opportunity to convert students to a sense of curiosity and excitement about literary works that they initially may have found to be deeply forbidding.

Child Trinity College

Required texts:
The Longman Anthology of British Literature, volume I (editors Damrosch, et al.)
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf (Norton)
Shakespeare, William. Othello. (New Folger Library)

Goals and Objectives:
This course is designed as a general introduction to the study of literature, effected through a particular focus on medieval, early modern, and eighteenth-century British literature. Objectives for the course include the following:

a. Students will improve their ability to read critically and thoughtfully.
b. Students will hone their skills of argumentative writing.
c. Students will become proficient in the terminology of literary analysis.
d. Students will be able to recognize and describe various literary genres and their distinguishing characteristics.
e. Students will gain a general understanding of periodization and will be able to describe key features of such literary periods as the Renaissance, the Restoration, and the Enlightenment.
f. Students will be able to situate specific literary works in their historical contexts and will show an understanding of how historical circumstance as well as authorial biography can shape a text.

Major assignments include two four-page papers, an eportfolio project, and a final exam. The course also requires several short, informal essays as well as regular participation in class activities.

Grading: Participation, 20%; position papers, 15%; close reading paper, 15%; comparison and contrast paper, 15%; eportfolio portfolio project, 15%; final exam, 20%.

(Unless otherwise stated, all reading assignments refer to the Longman Anthology. Read texts in their entirety by the first day of discussion unless instructed otherwise.)


Th 4 Introduction to the course.

T 9 Introduction to Old English. Begin discussion of Beowulf (Norton).

Th11 Beowulf.

T 16 Conclude discussion of Beowulf.

Th 18 Introduction to close reading paper. Introduction to Shakespeare; the Renaissance. Begin discussion of Othello (Folger Library).

T 23 Othello

Th 25 Othello. Performance of soliloquies.

T 30 First position paper due. Introduction to Behn, the Restoration, Oroonoko.

Th 2 Oroonoko.

T 7 Introduction to Swift, the eighteenth century, Gulliver’s Travels.

Th 9 Discuss Gulliver, Part 1.

T 14 Discuss Gulliver, Part 4. Briefing for Mac Lab session; prepare dramatic reading from Gulliver.

Th 16 Close reading paper due. Meet in the Mac Lab. Introduction to eportfolio project. Set up editorial boards; discuss editorial “voice.” Make mini-video: Gulliver’s return.


T 21 Introduction to traditions of medieval literature, Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales.

Th 23 Discuss “The Pardoner’s Tale.”

T 28 “The Pardoner’s Tale.”

Th 30 Position paper due. Introduction to Marlowe, Doctor Faustus.

T4 Faustus continued.

Th 6 Introduction to Civil War, Interregnum, the Restoration. Discuss Mary Carleton.

T 11 Introduction to the eighteenth-century stage, John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera.

Th 13 The Beggar’s Opera.

T 18 Comparison and contrast paper due. Meet in Mac Lab. Finding and importing images; discussion of Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress.”

The Gentle Reader

Th 20 Introduction to lyric poetry. Wyatt and Donne.

T 25 Wroth, Philips, Behn.

Th 27 Thanksgiving

T 2 Final position paper due. Excerpts from Pepys’ diary.

Th 4 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, excerpts from Turkish Embassy Letters.

T 9 Eighteenth-century periodicals.

Th 11 Eighteenth-century periodicals.

T 16 Meet in Mac Lab. Presentation of eportfolios. Conclusions and farewells.

Final exam: date and place, TBA