Saturday, December 16, 2017

December 16-17, 2017: Spring 2018 Previews

[As another semester comes to a close, I spent the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). Leading up to these first thoughts on Spring 2018 classes and work!]
On plans for three Spring courses and one big project.
1)      19th Century African American Literature: I’m very excited to have the chance to teach the first half of our two-part Af Am Lit survey for the first time. To some degree I see my job in such a course as just sharing as many wonderful and important writers and texts with the students as possible, from foundational figures like Wheatley (it’s a long 19th century, okay?!) and Douglass to under-read folks like David Walker and Harriet Jacobs, and right up through turn of the 20th century greats like Chesnutt and Pauline Hopkins. But I also want to use a culturally focused course like this to ask the students to consider such vital subjects as identity and heritage, place and language, and more, and to that end am especially excited to be connecting the course to my colleague Kisha Tracy’s ongoing Cultural Heritage Project. Should be a really wonderful and inspiring addition to my Spring all the way around!
2)      My Second Online Course: As I wrote as it was wrapping up, my first time teaching an all-online course went better than I had expected, although it was not without its distinct challenges to be sure. I expect both of those trends to continue when I teach my second such class this Spring, but with a couple important differences related to the specific course in question, American Literature II. For one thing, this is a class I’ve taught many many times before (I had never taught the Short Story course before the online version), and so it will be a matter of how to transfer it to the all-online setting most smoothly and successfully. For another thing, a survey class requires more historical information and context, and thus (as I’ve written about elsewhere) the need for more professorial lectures than I generally prefer; I have to admit being unsure about the best way to deliver such information to students in an online class. Any thoughts on that, as on all my topics here of course, would be very much appreciated!
3)      English Studies Senior Capstone: I’ve taught our departmental capstone course many times as well, and this version should be relatively similar to the last iteration (at least in terms of the syllabus and readings/materials; this is a very individualized course and so changes greatly with each community of students). But at the same time, and as this entire week’s series of posts has indicated, the nation and world feel drastically different than they did during that Spring 2016 prior Capstone class of mine. Some of our particular readings, especially Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013), might naturally lead us toward contemporary social and political topics and discussions. But on a broader level, what does it mean to prepare graduating students for their next steps and futures in the age of Trump? Another one of those teaching questions for which I don’t have any definite answers, but with which a class like this will most certainly have to grapple.
4)      The Book!: One place where I’ll unquestionably be doing such grappling this Spring is my continued work on my fifth book, Exclusion & Inclusion: The Battle to Define America. It’s possible that my agent Cecelia Cancellaro and I will have news about the book by then, and of course if we do you know I’ll find a way to pass it along in this space. But regardless of where the project stands, I’ll be continuing to plug away, to write about histories and stories of exclusion and inclusion and in so doing to try to do what I can to challenge the worst and contribute to the best of America in Spring 2018.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Spring plans or possibilities you’d share?

Friday, December 15, 2017

December 15, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: Intro to Speech

[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On not intervening in political discussions, and why perhaps I should have.
For most of the semester, my third time teaching an Intro to Speech class for Fitchburg State’s Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA) program went as smoothly and happily as the prior two sections had. I love the chance to work with fellow teachers, and the vocational educators in the MAVA program are a particularly fun and interesting group with whom to connect. Both their short persuasive speeches and long informative ones have taught me quite a bit about a wide range of professional, personal, and social topics, and in general I have found these classes to offer a refreshing change of pace from other aspects of my teaching and work. That was all true this semester too, but there was one two part-moment that felt less refreshing and more challenging and frustrating: one of the teachers gave a rather strident persuasive short speech on why all students should be required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in schools; and after that class many of her peers not only rousingly endorsed the sentiments, but assumed that I felt precisely the same.
Obviously (for any long-time readers of this blog, at least) I did not share those sentiments, as my older son has been kneeling during the Pledge for more than a year now and his brother has begun doing so as well this year. So part of my unhappy response to this moment was of course personal, as it felt like both my sons’ actions and my own perspective as their father were being wrongly categorized and criticized. I also took significant issue with many of the core assumptions behind the teacher’s persuasive speech, which consistently and unequivocally defined standing for the Pledge as patriotic and exemplary, and any other action in that setting as thoughtless and ignorant at best, unpatriotic at worst. That’s most definitely not how I see the boys’ protests, of course, and as I wrote in this post not at all how I’d frame either the origins, history, or contemporary meanings of the Pledge. At the very least, the teacher’s assumptions about the Pledge and Pledge protests, like her peers’ assumptions about my own perspective and agreement, needed it seemed to me a good deal of further thought and conversation.
I didn’t offer those thoughts to the class, though. I knew it would be wrong to do so on the spot (as that would overtly antagonize the speaker), and neither did I want to do so while giving overall feedback on the speeches in a subsequent class (as my response wouldn’t have been about the assignment’s expectations or my areas for feedback). I thought about sharing my take further down the road, but decided that doing so would be unnecessarily politicizing in a class not at all focused on such conversations or themes (and doing so in no small measure because of aggrieved feelings as a parent, which is never a good motivation for classroom choices). I think that probably was the right decision, and one that was supported by a significant majority of my teacher friends when I conducted an informal straw poll on the Book of the Face. But when I have second thoughts about my choice, they boil down to two questions: isn’t my goal of adding to our collective memories one that should hold true in any setting (the teacher’s speech included an absence of information about the Pledge’s actual, complex history and evolution)?; and similarly, if I’m working to reclaim the concept of patriotism from the most simplified or celebratory visions, wouldn’t this have been a perfect occasion to highlight the critical patriotism I’m advocating? Can’t say I have definite answers, but these are the kinds of questions that arise when we teach in the age of Trump.
Spring preview post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

December 14, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: Adult Learning Classes

[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On three benefits for life in Trump’s America from my semester’s three adult learning courses.
1)      Historical Knowledge: My first class for Assumption College’s Worcester Institute for Senior Education (WISE) program was at once the most historically focused and yet the most overtly connected to our own moment of the three courses I’m highlighting here. That is, I believe that the course’s central focus on Expanding Our Collective Memories, on presenting five particular histories that we need to better remember, had a lot to offer our 21st century conversations and narratives. To cite one example, for the first class I highlighted a series of forgotten Revolutionary era histories, from early feminist authors and activists to African American slave writers and figures to the period’s Moroccan Muslim American community in Charleston. These figures, texts, and histories are of course well worth remembering for their own sake, but they also and crucially shift our sense of the Revolution and America’s founding, reminding us that such cultures and communities have been integral and vital parts of our national identity and community since its origin points.
2)      Cultural Contexts: My first class for Brandeis University’s BOLLI program was much more literary in emphasis, focusing on creative works by pairs of American authors from shared or similar cultural backgrounds (one more historical and one current). But each and every one of those authors and pairs of course had something meaningful to offer for 21st century American conversations and culture, and I would highlight in particular the two novels on which our middle three weeks of discussion focused: Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981). I wrote in my preview post about my excitement at teaching that pairing (as well as Bradley’s novel at all) for the first time, and the class and conversations didn’t disappoint. We stayed closely focused on both of those wonderful novels for much of our time, of course, but we nonetheless also linked them to a wide and deep variety of contemporary issues, from police brutality and the anthem protests to the resurgence of white supremacy and debates over American identity (among many others). I’ve long believed that Chesnutt’s book should be required reading for all Americans, and after this experience I might just have to add Bradley’s into the mix as well.
3)      Communal Conversations: My I’ve-lost-track-of-what-number class for Fitchburg State’s ALFA program had no central theme or question; we just read and discussed ten great short stories from the Best American Short Stories 2016 anthology. As a result, while a few of the stories connected to one or another specific issue in Trump’s America, most did not do so in any particular way, and most of our conversations thus focused on the stories themselves as well as various contexts far beyond 2017. And yet I would nonetheless argue that these conversations offered a vital experience for living in and surviving the age of Trump: the chance to be part of and share thoughts and ideas with a community of interesting, engaged, intelligent, empathetic fellow Americans and humans. The horrors of our current moment can feel not only crushing but isolating, as of course can various features of our social media and technological worlds. So I’m not sure there’s anything we can do more consistently and crucially to combat those effects than to find and treasure such communities. Every adult learning class I’ve ever taught has offered one for me, which is why I keep coming back to these wonderful programs.
Last reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?