Orality, Literacy, and Literature: A First-Year Composition Syllabus

So I’m not teaching my debt syllabus this semester, though we all greatly enjoyed it this fall (really!) and I will almost certainly use it again in the near future. I’m teaching 124, which is a composition-through-literature class, so I reused, and reworked, an old syllabus on the epic and turned it into a course that is almost like the first half of a first- or second-year, two-semester world lit survey in terms of the things read, but with an appropriate amount of writing assigned (and without all the passage-identification and reading-quizzing such classes generally entail). I do this because it’s fun, and also because I have an ill-concealed crazy plan to write a book that would serve as a secondary textbook for a world-lit course, i.e. a one-volume, radically selective critical history of world literature. (It sounds so arrogant when I say it out loud.)

First Week:
Kenneth Goldsmith, selections from “Soliloquy“; Michael Robbins, “On Sound and Language“; Tracie Morris, “On Composing Sound Poems” and “From Slave Sho to Video“; Fred Moten, “Here it Is

I am not an across-the-board fan of conceptual poetry. I especially resent the tendency of some conceptual writers to present themselves as the teleological endpoint of literary history, their prescriptive use of prediction (“The-future-will-be-just-like-me-and-so-must-you”), etc. Goldsmith is one of the worst offenders here. But Soliloquy, which is the transcript of everything Goldsmith said for a week in the mid-90s, is an incredibly useful way to make some of the traits specific to spoken language visible to students. I tell them to open the file and click around anywhere for twenty minutes, and jot down some observations about the traits of speech that seem more obvious when they’re written down; this leads into a more general discussion of the kind of information-sharing that are specific to speech—and to writing.

The Robbins piece is there to get students aware that Robbins is a thing, and because it is a good intro to the sonic effects that poetry depends on, but that students are often alienated from. Someday when I have more time I’ll work him into the course more thoroughly, and I’ll get Patricia Lockwood in there along with him. The Morris and Moten pieces are there to further refine our conversation about the expressive possibilities that are lost and gained as one moves back and forth between speech (the Morris poem loses a great deal; the Moten, I think, a little less). Also, hip-hop heads enjoy the Eminem quote in Moten. The brief writing assignment that goes with Morris is as follows: “Attempt to transcribe Morris’s “From Slave Sho to Video.” Do as good a job as you can. In a brief paragraph afterwards, give at least three examples of qualities within the poem that were hard to capture in writing.” Simple, but I think it prompts the discussion I’m trying to prompt.


Two minor notes. One, people who pay way more attention to intra-poet squabbles than such things really merit will chuckle, or goggle, at the idea of Robbins appearing in the same week of a syllabus as Goldsmith. The two of them seem to argue with each other on the Internet a lot. Qua poet, I’d rather read Robbins, and I tend to think his positions in their arguments make more sense. Still, for the specific pedagogical use I have in mind here, Goldsmith is terrific. 

Second, this is one week of my syllabus where I feel less secure in my grasp of the material than usual. I enjoy Morris’s sound poems but I am pretty sure that a lot of what she’s doing slides right past me.

Second Week:
Walter Ong, “Some Psychodynamics of Orality”; Christopher Logue, introduction and first two books of War Music

Yes, of course all that difference-between-speech-and-writing stuff was leading up to Walter Ong. If we had enough time I’d do a whole media-ecology unit; I’d bring in Neil Postman, whom I’ve taught many times over the years, and Nicholas Carr, and Maria Bustillos angrily dismissing Nicholas Carr, and allathat. I found literature that originates in primary oral cultures more or less incomprehensible till I became aware of Ong’s ideas. If I’d been made to read him as a first-year, it would have saved me years of blank staring at those damn Homeric epithets. I think his ideas should be part of a person’s basic literary-cultural armamentarium, right up there with what a sonnet is or which Simpsons seasons are the bad ones (post-eight). At the same time, I would love to have a chance to talk to someone qualified about whether/to what extent Ong’s arguments have been challenged, superseded, actually refuted, modified, sanded down, etc.

As for Christopher Logue, his is the most involving Iliad I have read. He achieves some of that effect through typographic means that aren’t compatible at all with the poem’s oral roots. Which only gives students more to work with in their first paper (see below).

Third Week:
Christopher Logue, War Music (remaining portions); bks. 22 and 24 of the Iliad in another translation

Readying for a close reading paper, which is: Take two versions of the Iliad and a) show a characteristic difference between the two translators’ approaches (i.e. something that occurs much more than once); b) put forward a hypothesis as to what that difference means, why it’s there. We like to make students compare and contrast things; it’s one of the immortal hoops of the profession. More than that, I want students to realize how much every translation is also its own new poem, one that necessarily betrays some features of the source text in order to keep faith with others. I want them to see that if translation is a window, it’s one made of very thick glass with lots of scratches.

Fourth Week:
Peer review for the paper, and all that good stuff.

Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Weeks:
Walter Ong, “Writing Restructures Consciousness”; Gilgamesh; excerpts from Genesis (the first book of the Bible, not the prog band); Popol Vuh (the Latin American creation myth, not the prog band); Mary Midgley, excerpt from Myths We Live By

Several strands here. One, I want them to interact with Ong’s theories about the ways that writing-related habits of thought shape both consciousness and social structures. Even though Gilgamesh is older than the Iliad, it is arguable that it shows more of the effects of these restructurings than you find in Homer, because Homer composed in a society still recovering (four to five hundred years later) from the devastation of the collapse of the twelfth century BCE. His audience was less literate than Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s. Or maybe not. Genesis and Popol Vuh give us other places on the spoken-to-written continuum to compare against Gilgamesh. Midgley is there to keep their thinking about “myth” a little more supple and nuanced; i.e., “myth” is a project to which we’re all inescapably committed, not a word for dumb stories believed in by dumb people who didn’t know how to Science. 

There’s a paper. Compare two myths, whether any of these or one of these plus one of Midgley’s myths that we live by. 

For the rest of the semester: examinations of the Norton Anthology (Volume 1)’s sections on classical Indian, Chinese, and Japanese poetry, with a paper on governing metaphors/God-terms; then a consideration of Hamlet in light of Montaigne and Augustine, with a paper answering the question, “What is the most perverse thing Hamlet does, in your opinion?”


2 responses to “Orality, Literacy, and Literature: A First-Year Composition Syllabus

  1. Hi,
    Please check you “other” inbox on Facebook. I sent you a relatively urgent message on Christmas and I am assuming at this point that it was filtered out of your main inbox. I apologize for this rather public comment, but please, read the message.
    From, Leah

  2. Interesting. Glad to see you have high expectations of our youth. I’ve set my sights lower in the community college comp classes I’ve taught over the years, but maybe I shouldn’t have. I like your final question. Lets ghosts push him around, maybe?

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