Evolution of an English Course: The Syllabus

Father Sweeney, Box 64, Folder 11, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director's Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Father Sweeney, Box 64, Folder 11, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Studies in Poetry class at Boston College has been in existence for at least four decades, but a similar course was also once offered at Boston College within the English department. The class was called Craft of Poetry when it was taught by English Professor Father Francis Sweeney.  Both Studies and Craft classes focus specifically on different types of poetry.  They also both involve rigorous study throughout the semester, giving students a broad, but detailed perspective on the genre.  Today, aspects of different Studies in Poetry classes share many parallels with The Craft of Poetry and the teaching methods employed by Father Sweeney about 20 years ago.  For example, the Fall 2013 syllabi of Boston College Professors Andrew Sofer, Dayton Haskin, and Marjorie Howes and the Fall 2000 syllabus of Dayton Haskin can be easily compared to Father Sweeney’s Fall 1995 syllabus for The Craft of Poetry. While times have changed, poetry in undergraduate education has not been entirely altered.

In his course, Father Sweeney required students to study a wide variety of traditional poems that were organized according to the type (i.e. ballads, sonnets, odes).  Out of current BC professors, the courses most similar to Father Sweeney’s are Dayton Haskin’s from 2000 and Marjorie Howes’ from 2013.  In 2000, Haskin primarily focused on traditional poets with the course studying Romeo and Juliet towards the end of the class.  In like manner, Sweeney’s class read Antigone and All My Sons as the semester drew to a close.  However, while Sweeney organized his syllabus by type of poetry, the poems that Haskin chose do not seem to have any clear arrangement.  In contrast, Professor Marjorie Howes included a variety of mainly traditional poems organized by the construction or type of poem.  Conversely, in 2013 Sofer and Haskin both chose to focus on fewer poets in greater depth over a period of several weeks.  Sweeney tended to bounce around, only studying one poet either for one class meeting or for a week.  However, upon closer analysis, Sofer divided the poets into specific sections, each of which was used to study a very particular type of poetry, e.g. modernized Greek myth.  This is exactly the same method used by Father Sweeney, except for the fact that fewer poets were studied.  All of the Studies in Poetry professors had a feature of one of their syllabi that was very similar Father Sweeney’s approach to teaching this course.

Father Sweeney with Boston College students, circa 1950's, Box 24, Folder 19, Francis W. Sweeney Papers, MS.2002.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston college.

Father Sweeney with Boston College students, circa 1950’s, Box 24, Folder 19, Francis W. Sweeney Papers, MS.2002.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The requirements for the Studies in Poetry courses also share some commonalities and distinctions from The Craft of Poetry.  For the latter,  according to a Fall 1995 syllabus, students in Father Sweeney’s class were required to memorize 6 or 8 poems, write 3 papers, and take 4 quizzes and a final exam.  Only Haskin required the memorization of poems.  However, all of the Studies in Poetry professors require writing papers although their number varies.  For example, Howes requires 4 papers, while Haskin in 2013 requires 5 smaller papers and 1 major paper.  Only Sofer has the same number of papers as Sweeney, but his only other major written assignments are a final exam and a paper revision.  As for quizzes and exams, only Haskin had a quiz (at midterm), and  both Haskin and Sofer had a final exam.  Sweeney had 4 quizzes and a final exam, which is more than any of the professors. In addition, Father Sweeney required attendance for quizzes and implies that participation is necessary but he never states this outright.  All of the more recent Studies in Poetry professors required participation. In many cases, these professors made it an actual percentage of the overall grade for the class.  This requires students to actively participate in class and show the teacher on a regular basis that they are completing the required reading.  Having said this, a rubric with the percentages of what each assignment was worth would have been useful in Sweeney’s syllabus as well as his stance regarding participation.  Overall, of the Studies in Poetry classes, the only professor that I could find fully comparable as to the number of written assignments was Haskin.  Comparing requirements is interesting to see what features of language various professors favor, what assignments they want students to complete and how pedagogy changes over the years.

No matter what level one is teaching, having a plan for the course of the semester or the year is critical.  Content and its evaluation differ from teacher to teacher, but they remain a critical component throughout all courses, including The Craft of Poetry and Studies in Poetry.  Each teacher taught the course as they saw fit but there were commonalities between all of them, such as the study of Shakespeare and Keats. Many of the aspects of The Craft of Poetry have continued to the present day. Although 17 years may have passed, the way in which poetry is read and analyzed remains the same.  In a world of technology, text messages, and acronyms, the written word is still valued as tool that helps students hone their critical thinking skills.

Page from a Spring 1994 "Craft of Poetry" syllabus, Box 17, Folder 12, Francis w. Sweeney Papers, MS.2002.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Page from a Spring 1994 “Craft of Poetry” syllabus, Box 17, Folder 12, Francis W. Sweeney Papers, MS.2002.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Throughout the process of researching Father Sweeney and the current courses in the English Department, it was interesting to see how each professor encountered the same genre with differently.  Time does not seem to be much of an indicator of what is covered in a course, but rather who is teaching it.  Nevertheless, The Craft of Poetry required students to read and to think no less critically and no less prolifically than its modern counterparts.  Father Sweeney was a dedicated teacher, who expected no more from his students than what he thought they could handle.  He clearly had a love of poetry and wanted to share what he knew with his students.  As Father Joseph Appleyard said, “[Sweeney] was a gifted poet, a biographer, essayist, and editor – a man of letters in the old sense – but I think he was proudest of the many students he influenced […] Some of them became well-known writers, but most simply had their lives enriched by the way he taught them to read poetry and to enjoy literature” (Sullivan).  Father Sweeney died on April 25, 2002, four years after he retired from teaching.

For more information about the Francis W. Sweeney Papers,  visit the Burns Library Reading Room or contact us at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.  For information regarding University Archives, please visit the University Archives Research Guide.  Special thanks to Dr. Dayton Haskin, Dr. Andrew Sofer, and Dr. Marjorie Howes for allowing me access to their syllabi.  Lastly, a thank you must be given to Father Sweeney for preserving his letters, documents, photos, and memories and for leaving a great legacy at the university where he taught for 46 years.

  • Danica Ramsey-Brimberg, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Lynch Graduate School of Education, Class of 2014.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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