Designed for Digital: English 101, 2021 Edition

Professor Pfau
Professor Pfau joins me for a virtual Zoom interview

Oftentimes, in my classes, you can hardly distinguish a current syllabus from one of years past. My teachers usually follow a fixed curriculum, a tried-and-true set of lesson plans, course readings, and homework assignments. 

But for Professor of English Thomas Pfau, PhD, that’s not the case at all. Even after thirty years at Duke, Pfau still searches for novel subjects to teach. “There are not many classes I repeat,” says Pfau. “I tend to always be prowling out for new materials and configuring new books.”

This semester, Pfau taught English 101, an introductory course required for all English majors. Among intro classes, English 101 is unique. While Chemistry 101, for example, always covers VSEPR Theory or heat capacity, English 101 varies drastically in topic. This semester alone, there are three separate English 101 sections, ranging from discussions of poetic form to close readings of Gothic fiction. 

In lieu of a specified area of knowledge, English 101 teaches a mindset of critical analysis. For this reason, Pfau argues that the utility of 101 isn’t limited to those seeking a degree in English. “The 101 class is certainly important for English majors, or for students toying with the idea of becoming a major,” Pfau says. “But it’s also critical as a kind of course to offer students who just want some focused exposure to literary interpretation, even if their field may take them in a different direction.”

English 101 is even more essential in an era of iPhones and movie streaming, suggests Pfau. While current students can more skillfully interpret images than ever before, Pfau has noticed a certain hesitancy with written work. “The course has a particular added value because students today have—alongside the rise of digital technologies—drifted away from being as intuitively comfortable with books and printed matter, and especially long forms.” 

Previously, Pfau taught an iteration of the intro course entitled “Poetry in a Secular World.” This semester, though, he took a different approach. Pfau decided to teach the art of the essay, a form he felt best suited the Zoom format. “My thinking was very much prompted by the peculiar constraints and challenges of the pandemic. During the spring term of what was already a difficult and unsettling year, I didn’t think it’d be a good idea to try and teach complex novels. When everything is digital, shorter textual forms are easier to bring to life than long forms.”

The tense sociopolitical environment also proved influential in Pfau’s choice of the essay. In context of the last year’s intense political upheaval, the essay seemed particularly relevant. “I thought that the essay as a form quite obviously features writers who are holding the country’s feet to a fire—asking the nation to look in upon itself, to take an account of who we really are and what we claim to be.”

Students in this English 101 delved into a diverse range of essayists, from Michel de Montaigne to George Orwell to Susan Sontag. Notably, these students did more than simply read and dissect the works of these authors. Instead, Pfau’s assignments asked students to apply the techniques they learned with precision—to cut through cliches and verbosity, and create illuminating, compelling essays. 

But while Pfau demands rigor, he is also mindful of the difficulties students face during the pandemic. He is particularly sympathetic to freshman, which make up a large component of 101 classes. "The toughest situation right now," he says, "is being a freshman, a first-year student showing up at Duke and essentially only taking classes on Zoom."