What I Wouldn't Do For Enrollment

by Simon Richter

I like the ambiguity of this title because it captures both the plight and the fervent wish of many a small-department chair. It signals my openness to unconventional possibilities for winning the interest of undergraduate students for courses they might not otherwise consider. In that sense, the statement is incomplete. It should read: What I wouldn't do for enrollment in rigorous courses that involve significant literary, philosophical and cultural works, or demanding training in advanced language skills and cultural fluency. At the same time, it indicates that I do draw the line somewhere: there are some things I won't do for enrollment.

One place I do not draw the line is in the matter of giving courses appealing titles. A course that for many years was called "The Faust Legend in Literature" had exhausted its cachet. Renamed "The Devil's Pact in Literature, Film, and Music," it promptly struck a chord and enrollment jumped 500%. As a consequence, many more students had an opportunity to read key works of literature (parts of the Bible, Marlowe's and Goethe's versions of Faust, and Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, to name a few) while concurrently learning to recognize the same aesthetic and moral issues in an episode from the Simpsons, the blues of Robert Johnson, and Hollywood films such as The Devil's Advocate and Angel Heart. We sometimes forget that today's television and movie writers are frequently graduates of Penn or similar schools and that great works of literature often have their beginnings in popular culture--Faust, after all, started out as a puppet play.

I've learned not to underestimate the intellectual curiosity of students. The real challenge it seems to me is to construct a context that allows their urgent intellectual, ethical, and existential issues to intersect with those of the greatest works and ideas of our disciplines. An appeal to students' vanity, self-interest and ambition is not out of place here. Penn's undergrads expect the best and that applies to the literature we select as much as to anything else. Student vanity can also be put to work by giving students themselves opportunities to shine. I'm teaching a course on the German mass media, taught in German, and each student was responsible for a detailed "professional" oral presentation on a significant newspaper or magazine. To a person, each prepared a stunning PowerPoint presentation, replete with graphs and pie charts, facts and figures, scanned-in visual material, internet links, and critical analysis. We've come a long way from index cards. The extensive preparation itself involved students in more foreign language material than any other assignment I could imagine. Students drew confidence from the flashy PowerPoint display of their own material, and aspired to strike an equivalent tone in their oral presentation.

Another way to arouse student interest and to illustrate the connections between academe and the world at large is to bring local talent to the classroom, or alternatively to take the class out into the world. A freshmen seminar I'm currently teaching called "Food for Thought" is a pretext for introducing students to some Hegel, Freud, and Levi-Strauss, in addition to reading selected classics of literature and film. As we were discussing Knut Hamsun's Hunger, the original starving artist novel, students also worked in a local soup kitchen--the combined experience was transforming in ways that revealed to them the power of literature. In the same vein, I arranged a visit with the chef of the White Dog Cafe who not only spoke to the class about his relationship to food and cooking, but also generously served each member a three-course meal. These are intellectual experiences students will never forget. Inscribed in each experience is the intellectual principle or concept it was designed to teach. The other day, we were analyzing Babette's Feast. Our discussion focused on laying out the structural dynamics of the film; as one student listened to the increasingly productive conversation, he suddenly remarked, "Wow, that's like totally dialectical." Hegel hit home.

What won't I do for enrollment? Where do I draw the line? I guess the best way to put it is that I won't sacrifice my standards or my commitment to the great works and the great ideas in my discipline. Instead, I'll search for every means, however dialectical, to forge a connection between the lives of students and the world of the liberal arts and sciences.

Dr. Richter is Associate Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and chair of the department.

His essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series into its sixth year as the joint creation of he College of Arts and Sciencesand the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 12, November 16, 1999