I get it; I feel their pain.
|[b] NY NY RF|
Still, I just can't keep myself from teasing out what the course is really about, even if it drags the discussion onto another page...or three. And here is the reason. Even though I had so many good teachers that I cannot possibly thank them all the way they deserve, I still wish they would have really explained why they did what they did. I would have loved to know why the multiple choice midterm I was taking in Sociology 100 fit the goals of the course and the professor teaching it. I don't mean for that to be, well, mean. Really. Many of my students over the years will happily tell me that they could do without this level of detail. I understand that, but I would have been better off in the long-run to understand that there was a coherent approach to the material that I might have missed by just paying attention to the "rules" of the course. All most of us as students do...is pay attention to the "rules." Whether students like it or not, I insist on explaining the why...even if it takes pages and pages and posts and posts.
This is not always a happy thing, and I get that, too. I still think we're better off with it than without it (you can always skim, after all...but I hope you don't).
Now we're into the homestretch of the explanation. Students will finish their first semester break of eight they will take in their college careers. They will travel back home to Chicago, Andover, and St. Paul, as well as all sorts of places they will explore in a continuing quest to use these one-week interludes (in the middle of every semester) to explore the country (and occasionally beyond—I like to steal away to China for the week if I can possibly work it out).
But now it's late-October, and we'll be back on campus. We will come together like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano or ululating Chinese peasants in Marcel Granet's sociological imagination (c. 650 BCE—give or take a half-millennium). We'll reassemble for the midterm assignment, and it is deceptively straightforward. Students will read a lively little book from the late-1950s, authored by one of the greatest writers (and cartoonists) of the twentieth century. James Thurber was also one of the cornerstones of The New Yorker, almost from its inception. The book is called The Years With Ross, and it recounts (this will be the fourth pass through this territory, and that is the entire point) the editorship of Harold Ross, from 1925 to 1951.
|[c] Opportunity RF|
In other words, the midterm will provide students the "opportunity" to exercise their scholarly pivot moves by engaging the early history of one of the great American magazines. They will be thoroughly experienced in these matters by now. Not only will they have read The New Yorker from 1925 until the early-1960s before the autumn break, but they will have worked through a history of America in the twentieth century and four full books about The New Yorker. They will know their stuff, and a big part of the midterm assignment is the pivot back to the first four decades of the magazine.
That is not all, though. Not even close. The other part of the assignment requires a look forward. How is that possible, you might ask? How could students be ready to incorporate at least a peek into the "future" of our course?
This is not a problem. If you looked carefully at the syllabus, you saw that students began reading the current (August 27, 2012) issue of the magazine on almost the first day of class. They started reading The New Yorker from the very beginning—everything from the cover and cartoons to "Talk of the Town" and various reported pieces. That's a good start on the future, but it is not the only "futuristic" thread of the course. You see, two of our books (totaling four weeks in the first half of the term) extend the narrative to include the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s...and, well, you get the idea.
In other words, the midterm assignment will pivot back and examine the editorship of Harold Ross. That will be the bulk of it, but it will not be all. It will also pivot forward, and engage The New Yorker that Ross could have only envisioned in its faintest outlines. How could he imagine many of the things to come—civil rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate...and 9/11? The midterm assignment will only touch upon these "final stretch" matters, but there will be glimmers of the future throughout the assignment. It is all about the foundations and the connections.
|[d] Stretch RF|
That is only part of it though. Students' profiles of Harold Ross and the first quarter-century of The New Yorker will lay a foundation for the substantial work that they will do in the six weeks that follow, and end the term with work that dovetails with their own interests and the contents of an iconic periodical. Down the road, students interested in athletics might focus upon some of the magazine's great sports writing (from A.J. Liebling and Herbert Warren Wind to Roger Angell), while others interested in, say, environmental issues will study the essays of E.B. White, John McPhee, and a whole bevy of writers in the most recent fifteen years.
In short, the midterm is the pivotal assignment—one that moves us from the dusty but resonant early issues of a beautiful magazine to the very center of relevance for each student's liberal arts education. We finish this long (ten-part) course description, then, with the assignment that makes it all possible. It's the one that looks back to the beginning of the past and the origins of the magazine. It concludes with a pivot toward the end of a course that should—if everything goes according to plan...and it should—frame the first semester of college for sixteen students with as many diverse interests as readers of The New Yorker can find in any sequence of issues to this very day.
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