Major American Books
I organized the class into three units: race, trauma, and queerness. In each of these units, students engage with a text from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and a contemporary text as a way of seeing how different issues or themes are "worked through" narratively in different historical moments. My main objective in this course is to facilitate the construction of creative and insightful close readings of the texts. I have a number of ways in which I scaffold this: 1.) class discussion centered on a "jigsaw" format, in which small groups of students collaborate on particularly rich passages and then the entire class comes together and works chronologically through the text, and 2.) major projects encourage students to develop their own way of seeing the text and then commit an intense revision in which they put their way of seeing in conversation with appropriate literary criticism.
Table of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs)
Throughout this course, students will be moving between old books and new, questioning what the status of “literature” is for us now and what literature does for a sense of American-ness and a sense of self. The course is designed to challenge students to see the ways in which history hurts and how American literature compels us to deal with this hurt. Each unit pairs a text from the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century with a contemporary novel, in order to develop a trajectory of how literature registers our evolving relationship with race, trauma, and queerness through innovative aesthetic practices.
Project One: Close Reading Analysis
The first major project is broken up into two parts. In the first part, students are encouraged to develop an extended close reading of one of the first two novels we read: Benito Cereno by Herman Melville or The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. They also are encouraged to find inspiration from the classroom jigsaw exercises. For example, this semester many of my students discovered unique and interesting caveats through the classroom work done on The Bluest Eye. Below are the questions that I used to structure classroom discussion, notice the repetition across certain questions that create continuity as student-led groups begin teaching other student-led groups. I actively move throughout the class and sit-in with groups, providing assistance only when required:
How does gossip function in The Bluest Eye as a means towards “stranger relationality,” or a way of connecting with/ feeling connected to strangers? Remember…”quiet as its kept.” Here, you might pay attention or compare HOW Claudia conceives of her position as storyteller and HOW she sees the adults in her community use gossip. For example, Claudia listens to adult conversation: “the edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all the words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.”
How does "Dick and Jane" funciton as a structuring principle for the text? Look up the term "signifying." How does signifying work as it relates to this structuring principle.
Explore the position of the “whores” (Miss China, Miss Poland and Miss Marie) in the story. How are we both meant to feel compassionate grief for and see his implication in the “problem of the color line”? How do they function as "mentors" for Pecola?
Explore the story of Cholly Breedlove. How are we both meant to feel compassionate grief for and see his implication in the “problem of the color line”? Definitely pay attention to how “weird” the TELLING of the story becomes.Explore the story of Mrs. Breedlove. How are we both meant to feel compassionate grief for and see her implication in the problem of the color line? Also, pay attention to how “weird” the TELLING of the story becomes.
Explore the story of Soaphead Church. How are we both meant to feel compassionate grief for and see his implication in the problem of the color line? Last one, pay attention to how the story is told.
Students were then encouraged to follow their interests, find 1-2 rich passages and develop an interpretation that engages with the "strangeness" of language, structure, or narration, finding support for that interpretation in the rest of the text. As stated in my teaching philosophy, pre-writing is a major focus of my class. Over the course of their pre-writing and writing stages, I put the students in positions to talk through their ideas with knowledgeable peers. One way I do this is through what I call "speed dating." In this exercise, students engage in a dialogue with one student for two extremely cheesy 80's songs. The duration of each song signals the amount of time the pair converse over one student's ideas. The students then move and repeat the exercise with the next student in line. I have found that this exercise works tremendously to lower the stakes for students who are tentative to discuss their ideas with a large group and ultimately stimulate the development of more sophisticated arguments.
I also find it important to model the process of writing for students. During our work on the first text, I distributed a close-reading that I wrote based on one of the conversations we had been having already in the class. This conversation was about the possible queering of Captain Delano and his interest in "having" Babo intimately. The students were piqued by this possibility, and so I modelled how one might go through the process of explaining that interpretation and then supporting it with evidence from the text.
Project Two: Close Reading Revision + Integrating Research
The next project is an intense revision of this paper with the integration of outside research. I prefer this set-up because it allows students to develop their own way of seeing the text, but, in putting it in coversation with at least one other literary argument, often shore up its weaknesses and create more nuanced claims. Moreover, students must do the difficult work of paraphrasing an academic argument and making their engagement with it clear and concise for their readers. I scaffold this by having the entire class move slowly through a single academic argument together, picking up on those tendril-like references that they will need to look up in order to understand and explain the argument. During the research process, I have students "follow the footnotes" to discover other helpful sources that allowed this argument to take form, and also use "citation tools" like Google Scholar to discover how others have engaged with this same argument. I find this mapping exercise helpful so that students see themselves as entering a full conversation, needing to hold onto their ideas but differentiate them through nuanced writing. At this stage, however, I ask that they engage with only a single literary argument so that they can continue practicing clarity and conciseness.
Project Three: Comparative Literary Analysis
Students are currently working on their third project: a comparative analysis of The Fixer and Everything is Illuminated supported with research. In this project, all of the different elements of the semester coalesce, but students are more empowered to follow more individuated "rabbit holes." By the end of the semester, I embrace a "hands-off" approach, in the sense that class discussions are not directly centered on specifically encouraged student theses. Students must locate potential topics by examining their reading practices, excavating class lectures and discussions, and meeting with me in my office to discuss their ideas. I find that, with the proper scaffolding, students will meet high expectations when one allows them to explore their own curiosities. I offer the following assignment description as a minimalist guide.
In the second unit of this course, we have read two primary texts: Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (1966) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2006). Each text, in stark contrast, addresses the question of the responsibility of fiction when dealing with historical events that, in their violence and horror, are widely understood to be “unknowable” or “incomprehensible.” Compare and contrast the innovative “aesthetic practices” of The Fixer and Everything is Illuminated, followed by an argument about the ethical significance of the novels in their relationship to history and fidelity. Conduct research (historical, psychological, and/or literary), allowing your thinking of the text to evolve and grow.
Part of the challenge in teaching a literature and writing course is maintaining a balance between formative and summative assessments, developing projects that engage students critically but also allow the love, joy and life in literature to breathe creativity into them. At the later stages of the semester in particular, students can become worn down by the totality of their classes. For this project, I saw a nice opportunity to break up the molar segmentation, the regularity, of the class and challenge them creatively. I asked them to do this exercise:
Today, I want you to develop a graphic representation on this large piece of paper, one that will aid in your comparative thinking of The Fixer and Everything is Illuminated. This graphic representation can take many forms, but here are some ideas:
1. Find a scene that requires being worked through, whether because it is vague, ambivalent, emotionally wrought. Try to represent that scene graphically, offering a key quote on the top of the page in permanent marker.
2. Look at a scene in each novel that seems to deal with a similar theme or problem (dreams/delirium) and try to represent graphically how each of those descriptions/aesthetic practices work.
3. Develop a graphic organizer (conceptual map) that maps out different moments in each text that this “thing” of interest shows up, write down the quotes, show in your graphic organizer productive difference and similarity.
This exercise really challenged the students to read-into the text, dig in and attempt to represent what is so challenging and vague and visceral in a visual way. It also moved students away from what they typically do in the classroom, which allowed for new ideas and creativity. It also allowed students with varying learning styles to engage and be assessed in a way that they analytic writing does not allow. Finally, it really reminded students that literature is meant to engage and interest the mind, but also unfold unforeseen paths of life that need to be encouraged in the classroom. Below are two samples. Each of these students shared fairly astounding interpretations connecting the two texts to the class following this exercise (the latter giving an in-depth argument as to how The Fixer is filled with moments of stuttering who's very momentum leads only to stasis).
I have seen, over the course of this semester, that students have really embraced the leadership roles and developed strong relationships with one another through the process of the class. One student, for example, organized a group of students to go to a talk at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills that relates to the themes of the course. Another student is organizing a reading group for the summer that will center on Jewish-American writers engaging with the memory of the Shoah. To see students embrace and follow the class themes so heartily is really an inspiration to me and motivates me to continue finding sets of texts and discussions in new and exciting ways.