The Dreaded Survey

People can’t think outside the box and suffer as a result.

Example. The dreaded survey course. Everybody starts the survey of Spanish literature with the jarchas (short medieval poems written in a mix of proto-Spanish and Arabic), then El Cid (the Spanish 13th-century Beowulf), then Celestina (the Spanish Romeo and Juliet but even more depressive and a pain to read).

We do it because “it’s always been done this way.” Language programs like to pretend that every graduate will do a PhD in literature. Even when not a single student wants to do that, we still keep teaching to these imaginary PhD seekers.

Students hate the survey course. Half of the readings are utterly incomprehensible to them, both linguistically and philosophically. Contrary to how a professor feels, “imagine, this was written a thousand years ago!” doesn’t excite them. It puts them to sleep.

When I was an undergrad, I loved the Cid, and Arcipreste de Hita, and Quevedo. The Celestina I always hated but whatever. But I was going to be a professor, so of course I did.

And it’s not just surveys. I ask somebody to prepare a syllabus on Mexican identity. She makes the syllabus and. . . it all ends with the Mexican Revolution! That happened a century ago! The syllabus is populated by movies from the 1950s. Has nothing happened in Mexico since then? Nothing at all? Can you imagine the existential tedium of a twenty-year-old asked to watch a Mexican movie about the 1920s filmed in 1952?

Or say a course on the Spanish Civil War novel. It always, always ends with Rodoreda’s Time of the Doves. It ended with Time of the Doves when I was an undergrad, twenty years ago. But you know what happened in those twenty years? The genre exploded into the stratosphere, then peaked. Do people stop reading upon graduation, or something?

I’m going to teach a survey of Latin American literature for the first time next Fall, and I will not be surveying historically. I will be surveying geographically. All of the readings will be from today. But from different places in Latin America.

I’m now Chair and I’m constantly fielding student complaints about the survey courses. These aren’t slackers. These are great students. But they aren’t mini-clones of the professors, that’s all.

So I came up with the geographically-oriented survey. That it will be mega-successful I know already. I’m seeing this in the course on the Latin American dictatorships where we are reading a novel published last year and talking about what’s happening right now.

“Students give bad evaluations because I’m a woman / an immigrant / have an accent.” Or maybe your syllabus sucks, have you considered that possibility?

5 thoughts on “The Dreaded Survey

  1. Eh. Yes and no. Am Lit survey was always the pits– but it was because they were always trying to cover too huge a timespan too quickly. The earlier stuff was far better IIRC, but then they felt the need to fill in the more recent years (like, the 60s) with “diversity” picks, which were mostly terrible. No, I was really not interested in what my parents thought was intense literature while they were smoking pot and dropping acid. But since people my parents’ age were writing the textbooks… sigh. Bet the textbook editors never stopped toking.


    1. I never even use those dumb textbooks. What a waste of time (and university money)! At least, nobody goes for diversity because we are Hispanic studies, we are “diverse” by definition. :-))


  2. I’ve never understood why a chronological survey has to start from the early stuff and move forward. When I’ve had to teach a span of time, I start with the latest material, the stuff that students usually connect to most easily (or at least recognize), and then work backwards. My own intellectual curiosity tends to work that way: reading one thing makes me want to explore the things that fed into it. Why should students be any different?


    1. Exactly! I did it this way last year. And it worked great. This way we don’t have to leave the stuff that’s the easiest to read for the end of the course and lead with the stuff that’s very hard to read.


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