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Rachel Sagner Buurma ’99 Honored for Showcasing Everyday Teaching of Literature

Colalge of Rachel Buurma (left), cover of The Teaching Archive (middle), and Laura Heffernan (right)

Buurma (left) and Heffernan collaborated on The Teaching Archive, which delves into the history of teaching literature in the 20th century.

Rachel Sagner Buurma ’99, associate professor of English literature, and Laura Heffernan, professor of English at the University of North Florida, recently received the 2023 Teaching Literature Book Award for The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study.

This national prize for best book on teaching literature at the college level is bestowed biennially by graduate faculty in the Department of English and Philosophy at Idaho State University. Each nominated book is judged by a committee of external and internal reviewers.

Buurma’s and Heffernan’s book delves into the history of teaching literature in the 20th century. The co-authors examine the syllabi, course notes, lectures, and assignments from key literary critics and authors such as T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, Caroline Spurgeon, and Simon J. Ortiz.

“It’s especially meaningful to us because the prize — like our book itself — elevates and draws attention to the everyday teaching of literature,” says Buurma.

The seed for the book was planted when Buurma, in her first year teaching at Swarthmore, and Heffernan, then at the University of Pennsylvania, each taught an introductory course on literary study. 

“We were learning so much from our teaching and from our students, but we noticed that literary scholars rarely talk about how ideas take shape in the classroom,” says Buurma.

Buurma and Heffernan pondered whether the best-known literary critics of the 20th century, like Eliot and Richards, similarly learned from their teaching and their students. So they searched the critics’ archives for traces of their teaching, in the form of syllabi, handouts, and class notes.

“We realized that their teaching really directly shaped and tested some of their best-known ideas about literature, even though they rarely talked about it,” says Buurma. “The book then grew and expanded to include a wider range of literary scholars,” including J. Saunders Redding, Edith Rickert, and Josephine Miles. 

“In each case, we show how their teaching shaped their groundbreaking ideas about literature,” she adds.

The book, which also received the 2022 Book Prize from the Modernist Studies Association at Johns Hopkins University, also contradicts the notion that innovative scholarship starts with the published work from elite institutions and “trickles down” to the classroom, says Buurma.

“Our book shows that really often in literary studies, big new ideas about literature often start in classrooms at teaching-focused colleges and universities,” she adds.

Jessica Winston, professor of English at Idaho State and chair of the award committee said the book “offers important evidence to counter the academic commonplace that research and teaching are separate, or even in tension with each other.”

The recognition for the book affirms Buurma’s and Heffernan’s view that not enough is said about how much teaching draws on published scholarship.

“I spend so much time reading old and new scholarship in order to build my syllabi and class plans, and then what happens in my classrooms in turn informs my own scholarship,” Buurma says. “And we've heard from many other teachers, in colleges and universities as well as high schools, that the book really speaks to their own experience as well.”

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